Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Access all areas

Despite my best efforts to think of myself as a young, up-and-coming manager, still in the early stages of what will one day prove to be a long and distinguished career, I can't ignore the mounting evidence that I'm getting older.

2016 will mark the twenty fifth anniversary of my arrival in the industry.  I work with people who weren't even born when I first graced the offices of Buffalo Travel in that long hot summer of 1991.  (I have no idea whether it was actually long and hot but I was eighteen and the world was my oyster so that's how I choose to think of it).

The latest damning evidence of my ascension to middle age will arrive at the stroke of midnight tomorrow.

From 1st January 2016, all full size single deck buses used on local bus services will have to comply with the PSV Accessibility Regulations 2000.  And if they don't comply, they can't be used.  (No doubt there will be a friendly neighbourhood pedant somewhere around to remind us that there are certain limited exemptions, but we needn't bother ourselves with those here).

When I set out on my journey through the industry, the idea of fully accessible buses, with flat floors on to which one could roll a wheelchair or unfolded buggy, was barely a twinkle in a designer's eye, and certainly not something that would be seen on the streets for a few years to come.

So to have seen them develop from introduction, through gradual acceptance and eventually becoming standard, and now to have reached the point where the earliest ones are being outlawed for not being accessible enough, marks both impressive progress for the industry and the realisation that I've been doing this rather a long time now!

Like many in the industry, it took me a long time to be convinced by the low floor revolution.  If I remember correctly, the first accessible buses arrived at about the same time in 1993/94 in London and Merseyside.  In London they were Wright bodied Scanias while MTL in Merseyside had some very charismatic Neoplans.

Merseyside was a bit far out, so I headed to London for the day and soon enough found one of these to ride on, albeit somewhere in West London rather than on the route shown here.

Photo:  Graham Richardson from Plymouth, England [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
The interior struck me as very cluttered, with random poles all over the place and, the combination of the high wheel arches (relative to the height of the floor) and centre door meant that there were very few places for people to sit in the low-floor section.  They were quite nice buses, but I wasn't convinced they would catch on - like many of my colleagues I felt that they appealed to a very niche market and that everyday users would rebel against the loss of seats near the front.  Generations of people had managed to board and alight using steps, so this innovation was simply unnecessary.

Of course, I had failed to spot not only the unrelenting tide of progress, but also the fact that they offered far more benefits than simple wheelchair access.  Over time it became clear that those with limited mobility found them much easier to board or alight than a step-entrance bus, and that in turn reduced stop dwell times.  Whether they be wheelchair bound or simply unable to negotiate steps, a huge section of society could now access buses who simply had been unable to travel before - a powerful social development in itself.

And of course the huge benefit of the flat floor was that buggies could be driven on and off without having to be folded up - a very time consuming and disruptive exercise for all involved, especially the parent!

It took a while for the industry to embrace all these benefits however.  Much of the technology - especially the ramps - was new to mainstream bus operation, so there were teething problems to be resolved.  So it was a couple of years before they started to appear in any numbers in provincial bus fleets, and it was really the evolution of a low-floor version of the market-leading Dennis Dart that allowed that to happen, with the Dart SLF gaining widespread adoption.

Even then, there were sceptics.  By the late nineties I was on the Isle of Wight with Southern Vectis.  When it came to time to decide on our new vehicle order for 1998, I timidly suggested that we might like to take account of the revolution that was sweeping the North Island, and consider the benefits of low floor technology.  From the response, you'd have thought I'd suggested we should all dunk our heads in a vat of boiling water!

At the time, the view among many engineers was that the resolutely step-entrance Volvo Olympian was an unsurpassable high point of bus engineering and any attempt to progress beyond that was to be resisted at all costs.  So the discussion resulted in an order for eight Northern Counties bodied Olympians which became the blue Island Explorer fleet.  Very nice buses, but not what you'd call easy access.

Not a low floor bus!  (Photo: Leon Wellman)
Of course accessible buses did become the norm, and I really became convinced of their benefits when I joined Stagecoach in 1999 as Traffic Manager at Cheltenham & Gloucester.  Cheltenham in particular was benefitting from the Group's generosity with almost all the town services being converted to ALX 200-bodied Dart SLFs during 1999 and 2000.  In the face of severe staff shortages, I was driving most Saturdays so had plenty of opportunity to see how well the public reacted to them.

Indeed, we soon had the opposite problem - which can still persist to this day - that the mothers were so grateful of the opportunity to wheel their buggies aboard that they would no longer consider folding them up, even if it meant waiting for the next bus.  It was not unusual to find two or three buggies fighting for space on a busy journey.  My personal best was on a Saturday afternoon journey on route A, on Cheltenham Carnival day, when I was driving one of only two buses actually operating the route (out of a scheduled six) and managed to get six buggies aboard, as well as a full standing load of other passengers!

Even to the present day though, the design of most low-floor buses still frustrates me.  While we've made life much easier for our mobility impaired customers getting on and off, they now have to make their way half way along the bus before they find a forward-facing seat.  My least favourite design of all is the Mini Pointer Dart - perpetuated in the form of the short Enviro 200 - where there are only four fixed forward facing seats in the low floor section, and it is not uncommon on a busy bus to see less agile customers having to negotiate their way unsteadily up the steps to reach seats nearer the back of the saloon.

That's why I'm such a huge fan of the Optare Solo.  As an industry, we have to continually remind ourselves that we're here for our customers, and if we're not providing an attractive product to those who pay our wages, we're failing in the most basic part of our mission.  It's difficult to justify some of the obstacle courses that pass as bus interiors when there is a bus available in the market that provides a plentiful supply of forward-facing seats as soon as you get through the door.

One of the most enthusiastic early adopters of the Optare Solo was Wilts & Dorset, who reportedly advised Optare on the design and converted huge portions of their Salisbury and Poole networks as soon as production Solos became available in around 1998. 

One of the first Optare Solos.  (Photo: Anthony Poulton)
I remember going to Poole to sample them when they were first introduced.  What a revelation!  So easy for customers to board and alight, with the first available seats being directly inside the door.

It's a good job I like them - I've got around thirty of them at TM Travel.  But having operated them, driven them, maintained them and cleaned them, I have yet to come across another small bus that even comes close to offering the same standard of customer experience.

While the first generation of low-floor buses was a great leap forward from the levels of accessibility previously offered, there were inconsistencies.  Some were better designed than others.  Some were easy to manoeuvre wheelchairs in and out, whereas others were fiendishly difficult.  Some didn't even offer wheelchair space at all, simply fitting in as many seats as possible.

The PSV Accessibility Regulations 2000 were an attempt to bring some form of consistency.  The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 allowed the government to regulate to make all forms of public transport accessible to those with disabilities, and the 2000 Regulations were the result.  They defined new standards in a whole host of areas relating to wheelchair accessibility, step design and markings, hand rail spacing and design, bells and destination displays among other things.

New buses registered on or after 31st December 2000 had to comply with the new regulations.  For registration geeks this was half way through 'X', so in simple terms anything up to and including 'W' reg wouldn't comply with the regulations.  Anything 'Y' and onwards would automatically comply, along with anything on an 'X' plate registered after 31st December.

Given that buses are generally designed with an expected life of twenty years or more, it would be impractical and hugely costly to have insisted on early compliance for vehicles that predated the regulations.  Instead the industry was given sixteen years to get its single deck fleet in order, and seventeen years to ensure that all double deckers comply (so that landmark will arrive a year from now).

There are other deadlines.  Coaches used on local services don't have to comply until 2020, whereas lightweight vehicles below 7.5 tons had to comply a year ago.  But for the majority of mainstream operators, it's the single- and double deck deadlines that have been occupying our thoughts for the last few years.

For the big fleets operating mostly stable commercial networks, the deadlines shouldn't have been too taxing.  In my view it's difficult for the industry to argue that sixteen years is an unreasonable amount of time to comply with such legislation - especially as many vehicles that precede the 2000 cut-off point could be converted without too much cost or effort.   Most such operators routinely plan to replace a proportion of their fleet each year, and while there are good years and bad years, spreading the necessary investment across sixteen of them seems quite a reasonable expectation.  Indeed, many big operators have been fully PSVAR compliant for a year or two now, well ahead of the deadlines.

For smaller independent operators, it has been a more difficult game.  As a sweeping generalisation, such operators often run tendered routes, that may only be contracted for a few years at a time, or marginal commercial routes whose stability can't be guaranteed over such a long period of time.  Very often, such routes and contracts don't merit investment in new vehicles, so these operators survive with fleets of second hand vehicles that in many cases are precisely the kind of vehicles that these regulations are designed to eliminate.  These operators struggle to know what their fleet composition will be like two or three years hence, never mind sixteen.

None of this is meant to suggest that such operators should not be required to comply with the same regulations as everyone else.  Far from it in fact - the customers should expect the same standard of service regardless of the route or the operator.  Having been one myself, one of my pet hates is the bleating of a minority of small operators who choose to take advantage of the freedoms offered by a deregulated market, but then somehow think they should not have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

It simply means that smaller operators generally haven't had the luxury of sixteen years to plan for the new rules, and have had to 'duck and dive' as the deadline approaches to ensure that their fleets comply.

TM Travel is the classic example of such an operator.  Although part of a bigger group in the form of Wellglade, the vast majority of TM's network is provided under contract to Derbyshire County Council or South Yorkshire PTE, with only a minority of commercial routes, some of which are pretty marginal at best.

For TM, serious planning for the PSVAR deadlines started in 2013.  By the spring of that year, the company had around 56 single deckers of which around 20 were non-compliant.  Accessible, but just not compliant with PSVAR.  The company therefore had a fair bit to do, but not unreasonably so with three years to play with.  Adding to the mix is the fact that the company is a member of Sheffield  and Rotherham Bus Partnerships, both of which impose more stringent vehicle requirements but spread over a longer period of time.

One obvious option was to convert non-PSVAR Solos that didn't quite comply with the regulations, so that they would comply.  Three such conversions took place, with only a modest cost, and as a result V405 JTO, W418 YAL and W425 RTO now have Accessibility Certificates - proof that they comply with the regulations and can therefore continue in service ad nauseam.

However, this process was aborted after three vehicles.  Firstly, a fair chunk of the remaining pre-PSVAR Solos were not designed for wheelchair access and therefore the costs of converting those would be much much higher.

Secondly, perhaps more importantly, but also invisible to the naked eye, Optare changed their construction method for the Solos to coincide with the implementation of PSVAR.  Prior to the new regulations, Solos were constructed using mild steel but they started using stainless steel when they reworked the designs to comply with PSVAR.  Mild steel corrodes much more readily than stainless steel, and therefore as well as not complying with PSVAR early Solos are in a much worse structural condition after fifteen years of sterling service.

The practical effect of this is that after looking at the structural condition of the mild steel Solos in the TM fleet that were converted to comply with PSVAR, there was real doubt about whether the other 'V'- and 'W'-reg Solos would even make it to the end of 2015 before their framework corroded to the point that they couldn't be maintained to the standard needed to pass MOT and remain safe and roadworthy. This of course would mean that any investment on PSVAR compliance would be wasted.

Interestingly, this all means that of the four X-reg Solos operated by TM, two are PSVAR compliant and stainless steel, are in good condition and could in theory run for many years to come, whereas two are non-compliant and are in a condition that they would struggle to pass another MOT and stay on the road even for another year.  Yet if you lined up all four X-reg Solos side by side, there would be almost no way for the uninitiated observer to tell them apart.

These two outwardly identical Solos hit the road barely six months apart.  But one can run for many years to come, the other will have to be removed from service tomorrow night.  Spot the difference! 
Having abandoned the idea of further conversions, thoughts moved to ensuring that the fleet could be updated at a rate that would ensure we hit the deadlines.

The loss of a small amount of work around the Retford area in mid-2014 helped, reducing the size of the target (as well as making life much easier operationally).

In addition, the Group invested in new Optare Versas in early 2014 for Sheffield's Line 30, and extensively refurbished a batch of ex-trentbarton Scanias for Peak Line 218 in early 2015.

An opportune move was to inspect a VDL Centro single decker - 796 - that had been withdrawn from service some time ago following an electrical fire.  Detailed examination suggested that the damage was not all that severe, and certainly for a bus less than ten years old was way more cost effective to repair than to write off.  So this was sent to an outside contractor, fully repaired, refurbished and repainted, and has joined a sister vehicle within the fleet to relaunch Spira, an hourly route linking Chesterfield with Sutton-in-Ashfield.

This ensured that the company's core commercial routes became PSVAR compliant well ahead of the deadline.

Acquisition of a batch of three 51-reg Optare Solos withdrawn by trentbarton helped further by allowing the withdrawal of some of the oldest Solos that were in the worst condition structurally.

In the early part of 2015, the Wellglade Board approved the purchase of three new Solos that would maintain the pace of fleet replacement, allow continued inroads into the oldest Solos and ensure we could maintain our obligations to Sheffield Bus Partnership.  These are painted purple and dedicated to Sheffield's Line 6, a part-commercial, part-contracted route.

However, no sooner had these been ordered than we were awarded at short notice a contract for ex-Tates route 72, linking Chapeltown with Manvers through the Dearne Valley, with a requirement for two Solos.  So in the event, the effect of the new vehicles was really to allow the fleet to expand to cope with the new work.

A further nice surprise, but which caused more head-scratching with the PSVAR deadline looming, was the short notice award of another ex-Tates route, the 203 linking Barnsley with Doncaster, with a further requirement for two vehicles, albeit only for a year's contract.

There was no practical way we could accommodate this from within our existing fleet, so we have hired two Enviro 200s from a rental company on a long-term hire agreement.

This all meant that we approached the autumn with six remaining non-compliant single deckers.  However, here we had a conundrum.  Ten vehicles' worth of work was operated under contract to Derbyshire County Council, with contracts finishing in October 2015.  Clearly it doesn't make sense to invest in vehicles for work that we may not even still have when the deadline arrived, so we just had to submit our tender, wait and see!

Happily, we retained all the DCC work and ended up with more work from the Sheffield Bus Partnership network review than we had anticipated, so this meant we had to replace all six vehicles with comparatively little time to think about it!

The trump card proved to be three MAN/Centro single deckers that had been languishing at Langley Mill for some time, actually for sale, after withdrawal by Notts & Derby.  MAN seem to build great coaches but have a more mixed track record with buses, but we have an Engineering Manager who has operated MAN buses elsewhere and knows how to make them work.  Unloved by the rest of the group, we have provided a home to these three vehicles, along with a repaint and a refurbishment, and they really do look as good as new.  Eight years old, they should serve us well for many years to come.

Finally, the withdrawal of Ruddington Connection by trentbarton allowed the withdrawal of three Solos, and this in turn means that at the eleventh hour we are joined by 432, 436 and 451 from the trentbarton/Kinchbus fleet - albeit 436 needs MOT before it joins us and will therefore arrive in early January.

All of this means that the single deck fleet is fully PSVAR compliant as we approach the deadline, but hopefully serves to help illustrate the extent of planning required in a fleet which can't plan years ahead, but depends so much on short term contract decisions.  Such preparations have been in place for months or years in small and independent operators the length and breadth of the country, and ensure that from midnight on New Year's Eve the nation's bus users can be confident that at the very least the single deck bus fleet reaches an acceptable standard of accessibility.

Attention now turns to our double deck fleet, where positive moves are afoot behind the scenes that should allow compliance well in advance of the 1st January 2017 deadline.  But more of that next year!

Happy Accessible New Year to all who take the trouble to read my ramblings, it makes it all worthwhile!


  1. Interesting to read your perspective, and how your views changed over time. For me, driving in South East London helped to change my view of low-floor - some of the older passengers would struggle to clamber on board a Lynx or an Olympian, but would board an Optare Excel or Dart SLF with much greater ease.

    Low floor buses have been around longer than you may think, albeit not in the UK. Neoplan unveiled a prototype low-floor bus as early as 1976; I have a feeling I took my first photo of a low floor bus in 1990, in Mönchengladbach.

    If you will excuse a point of pedantry, London's first low-floor vehicles were a mix of Scania N113s (in north and east London) and Dennis Lance SLFs (in the west and north west of the capital), although all carried Wright Pathfinder bodies.

  2. Thanks for the correction. Now that you mention it yes I do remember that it was a Lance SLF that I went looking for in West London.

    I hadn't paid much attention to the earlier emergence of low-floor buses elsewhere - I'll do some research when I get a couple of hours spare one rainy day!