In passing, I thoroughly enjoyed the article about how bus services are provided in Stockholm - of particular interest because I was in Sweden briefly earlier this summer, albeit in the very south of the country around Malmö and Helsingborg, and it's always fascinating to compare different approaches to service provision. I might even write about that trip at some point.
However the best bit of the magazine was the 'Inside Track' article by Roger French. Some people might know that I have the privilege of writing that column myself every three months, but in Roger and Julian Peddle I am flanked by two much more knowledgeable, experienced and lucid fellow columnists and I always go straight to their columns.
Roger's article this month is of particular interest because he talks about the important role of the double decker in fulfilling the potential of tourist routes. I share Roger's view that the value of the tourist market is underestimated by the UK bus industry and there is huge potential if we could collectively find ways to spend more time promoting bus travel as a good way of experiencing some of the best scenery this country has to offer.
I was therefore particularly delighted to see Roger list two TM Travel routes in his 'top ten' of scenic British bus routes - Peak Line 218 and our 65 Sheffield - Buxton.
I've written about the 218 recently, but Roger's article is quite timely because it appears on the very weekend that the 65 enters a new phase of its life.
Until today, this service has been financially supported by Derbyshire County Council. But their budget is of course under pressure, and while the swingeing cuts that were being threatened around a year ago have been averted - at least for the time being - they are very open for operators to take a more commercial view of supported services where there is the opportunity to do so, as it lessens their long term funding burden.
From our point of view, we recognise that they face difficult choices and we are always keen on commercial risk where we feel there is a good chance of developing something that is sustainable for the long term and we feel that a route like 65 has potential that we can nurture without relying on subsidy. It must be said that there remains a small payment for a couple of journeys that we would otherwise have chosen not to provide, but to coincide with the expiry of contracts and a much wider retendering exercise, the vast bulk of the 65 is commercial from this weekend.
To achieve this, we have had to make some timetable changes, as clearly a service does not go from needing a significant five figure subsidy to almost no support at all without anything changing. But you can compare the timetables here, from which it is apparent that the overall level of service remains broadly the same.
The changes are to allow the weekday resources to be interworked with school and college movements to a higher degree, thereby reducing the peak vehicle cost. This gives the route the best chance of being successful in the short term - not least because we are embarking on commercial operation at the worst time of year for a tourist service.
This means there will be some operational compromises. For example two journeys in each direction will be operated by a single decker in University of Derby Unibus livery - as one of the biggest steps in managing the cost base comes from interworking the off-peak operation with our route 4. This route is a contract linking Chesterfield with the University's Buxton campus, and at the moment this bus either sits in Buxton for seven hours or has a very long dead journey back to base in between the peaks.
However, there are also customer benefits. One of the biggest sources of complaint - and indeed something which seriously damages the usefulness of the 65 as a tourist product - is the gap in departures from Buxton to Sheffield between 1300 and 1900, meaning there are no buses at the times that most people are looking to return home. On our new timetable the 1730 departure from Buxton will now go to Sheffield which is a bit better, although still not ideal - that's something we'll have to look at again in time I'm sure.
It's worth also mentioning that we've decided to retain a commercial Sunday service as well. If one subscribes to the view of the bus as a tourist product, one must also recognise that it must run on days when tourists are out and about - and inevitably that means the weekend.
But I can't stress enough that this is a first step. The level of risk associated with jumping straight from the previous heavily supported timetable to the perfect branded commercial tourist product would just be too much and we could never make such a business case stack up - especially starting at the end of October.
So the strategy is to take the route quietly into the commercial domain at this stage, manage the costs as effectively as we keen while preserving as much of the revenue as we possibly can without looking for stratospheric growth.
However, there are much more exciting plans swirling around behind the scenes for possible changes both to the route and to ticket products that should hopefully transform the profile of the route in due course. The important thing is to get it off to a sound, solid start so that it is fit and healthy and ready to take advantage of the wider opportunities at the appropriate time.
So while this is certainly not the most high profile change in the TM network over the coming two weekends and indeed many people will struggle to notice much difference, it is a very significant weekend indeed in the life of the 65 and very much the dawn of a new era.
But of course there was much more to Roger's article than simply listing his favourite routes (but what a mouth-watering selection it is) and I want to dwell on his reference to the importance of double deckers in maximising the potential of tourist products.
Put simply, where the scenery is the main attraction, the added value of the view from the top deck cannot be underestimated. Compared to any other form of land-based transport, the ability to see into the far distance unobstructed by hedges and roadside infrastructure is a major factor in attracting people who may never use buses at any other times.
Of course - as with many of the best things in life - it is difficult to quantify the value on the bottom line and that has undoubtedly been a problem in some areas, but the power of a well branded double decker on a route with great scenery really ought to be intuitive.
My views are influenced by my apprenticeship on the Isle of Wight, where I was introduced at a very early stage in my career to the importance of the double decker bus as a tourist product in its own right. Indeed, so vital were they in meeting customers' expectations that a special note was applied in the timetable to warn customers about journeys scheduled to operate with single deckers.
(As an aside, open top journeys were also marked, but the symbol used was an umbrella which always struck me as something of an own goal!)
Indeed, what I learnt very quickly was that the real value of the double decker was in allowing entire routes to be treated as a tourist product - almost a fairground ride - rather than simply a number in a network. Such an approach immediately unleashes much higher profile marketing and publicity.
An obvious example was provided by Island Explorer, a route that made a complete circuit of the Island, achieved entirely by knitting together conventional bus routes that would have existed in some form anyway. As a young Commercial Manager the 1998 relaunch of Island Explorer using a fleet of brand new Volvo Olympians was one of my first and most exciting projects in the industry, and we certainly made them distinctive:
|Photo borrowed from Showbus gallery - I hope they don't mind...|
There are of course many examples of successful tourist brands that thrive in the hands of double deckers in the current UK bus industry, but there are also many opportunities that are lost because operators won't spot the potential that is there.
Indeed, the investment in Peak Line 218 has been impressive and welcome and I've set out above the reasons why the 65 is where it is. But in the ideal world both would be candidates for double deck operation to maximise the tourism potential and I very much hope that both routes find themselves in a position sooner rather than later where investment in such vehicles is a realistic option.
There is a popular misconception that Wellglade won't buy double deckers based on some deeply held mystical belief that they are the product of evil spirits or some such rubbish, which rather ignores the fact that both Notts & Derby and TM happily run double deckers and trentbarton has had two double deck demonstrators to help evaluate different projects in recent years. What Wellglade very definitely does do is make sound business decisions based on evidence, logic and research rather than emotional whims.
It just so happens that for a long time now the combination of financial analysis and research findings has always gone against the double deck option for new vehicle projects. But one of the beauties of the organisation is that there are no sacred cows and if you argue passionately for something you believe and the evidence and logic supports you, you will probably win. So I am confident that if the right opportunity presents itself at the right time to take the 65 and/or 218 into the realm of double deck operation, there is every likelihood that this will happen.
But for now, it's all aboard the single deck 65 as it enters the brave world of commercial bus operation, and more power to Roger's elbow as he argues for the importance of tourism as a growth market for bus travel. A message that I hope more of the industry will heed and take on board.