Saturday, 12 December 2015

Star gazing

Photo:  Ray Stenning
One of the landmark moments of my career was the creation of the Bluestar brand in 2004.

Eleven years on, the brand has gone from strength to strength.  Many of the original routes have seen repeated investment in new vehicles and marketing, frequencies have grown and the network has expanded.  Within the last year, an outbreak of intense competition in the Southampton bus network has resulted in the creation of a number of new routes within the city area.  Most recently, a fleet of brand new Enviro 200MMCs - among the first in the country - has been entering service on the busy cross-city Bluestar 18.

Taking advantage of a rare midweek trip back to the south coast, I decided it was time to go for a ride and see how they are protecting my legacy!

Firstly, some history.

Arriving as Managing Director of Southern Vectis plc's mainland subsidiary Solent Blue Line in April 2004, I was sad to find that the company was going through difficult times.

I had always been an admirer of Solent Blue Line since its inception following deregulation, believing as a young, thoughtful bus enthusiast that the colour and flair it brought to the Hampshire bus scene was important in modernising and enhancing the image of the bus.

As a Management Trainee at Southern Vectis in the late nineties, my training programme was firmly focussed on the Island operations.  But I remember on several occasions being captivated by the wisdom of then SBL Operations Director Peter Shelley as he shared his progressive, forward thinking views about how to make bus travel attractive and exciting.

Sadly, by 2004 things had gone badly wrong.  The business was losing money at an alarming rate, engineering and operational standards were poor and in some cases decidedly non-compliant and the company had gained an unwelcome reputation for unreliability.

It was not all bad.  With the assistance of Marc Morgan Huws, drafted over from the Island, the company had taken steps towards rebranding - albeit retaining the Solent Blue Line name.  A new fleet of Mini Pointer Darts had entered service on a revamped Eastleigh town network the year before and the business had developed a profitable sideline doing rail replacement and special event work.

However, these developments didn't tackle the underlying problems and I quickly came to the view that we needed to draw a line under the past and start from scratch with a new identity, associated with a simple, bold new service proposition around which I hoped staff could unite and which would provide a focal point for our efforts to rejuvenate the business.

One of the biggest dilemmas of any rebranding exercise is timing.  Conventional wisdom might suggest that you sort things out behind the scenes, get the standards where you want them and then launch a new brand that reflects the changes you've made.

However, there is sometimes a strong argument for establishing the new brand at the start of the process, to make a clear statement about where you see the future and to give the staff something to aim for and the customers a sign that things are changing.  This was the approach I felt was needed in this case.

(In later years I began to convince myself that I'd been wrong and we should have done more behind the scenes first, but now I find myself back where I started and with the benefit of lots of hindsight I feel I was right all along!)

One of the first jobs I did was some very extensive analysis of patronage data.  The Solent Blue Line name was applied with equal prominence from high density services around the city of Southampton to rural routes ambling around Bishop's Waltham.  However, the data made it clear that the overwhelming core of our business was the five main road corridors into the city centre from Totton, Romsey, Chandler's Ford, Eastleigh and Hedge End.

Looking at the demographic nature of those corridors, they all had in common that most of the areas they served were relatively well-heeled, with customers who had high expectations of service that we weren't meeting.  In order to achieve the growth that we would need to move the business back towards profitability, we had to focus closely on these communities, understand their needs and aspirations and meet these as closely as we could.

In particular, it seemed to me that there were three key requirements that we needed to meet.  Services needed to be...

  • Frequent:  The kind of people that we wanted to attract would be unwilling to plan their day around our timetables.  We needed to work around them.  That meant we needed to run as frequently as possible - at a minimum every 30 minutes, but better wherever possible.
  • Simple:  The customers we coveted were not the kind of people with the time or willingness to do lots of research.  The proposition needed to be as obvious and as simple for them to use as humanly possible.  That meant a zero-tolerance approach to route variations, and it also meant that frequencies needed to be consistent.  If the daytime frequency was (say) every 15 minutes and the evening frequency (say) every 30 minutes, then those frequencies needed to apply without exception between given time bands, avoiding the complicated tapering up and down of frequencies at the start and end of the day so beloved of schedulers that turn a simple timetable into a bewildering mass of numbers.
  • Reliable:  The customers had to know that - as far as humanly possible - the bus would come when we said it would.
The starting point had to be a bold new identity around which we could hang all these attributes.

There were a few things the brand didn't represent.  We deliberately didn't make any promises around price, because we felt that our target market would be willing to pay for a good quality product.  We also had to avoid making any promises about the vehicles, because the financial position meant there was no prospect of any new buses any time soon.

As things developed, the one misconception that grew and that we could never shake was that this was a premium brand.  It was never meant to be a premium brand or presented as such.  It was simply my view of what the normal standard of bus service should be in the markets we were trying to serve.  We had to be realistic after all, when the best we had to offer in many cases was refurbished H-reg Leyland Olympians!  But sadly the cynics convinced themselves that this was our attempt at a premium brand and as is all too often the case, would not be persuaded otherwise.  

I came up with the Bluestar name.  I wanted to keep the reference to 'blue' to provide some continuity and the star represented not only the simplicity of the network, but is also a positive, aspirational term that would make it clear we were aiming high and looking to achieve good things.

I also wanted to avoid any geographical reference because at that time, simplicity in particular was a concept that large parts of the bus industry struggled with, and I felt that if we could establish Bluestar as a successful template in Southampton, there was no reason why it could not be applied elsewhere.  In support of this was the fact that the Southern Vectis group knew an awful lot about franchising bus services - in the true meaning of the word, not the mangled misrepresentation now used when we're actually talking about contracting in a regulated environment - and so we knew we wouldn't have to run the buses ourselves.

Therefore if history had turned out differently, it is was very much the plan that there would have been Bluestar networks in towns and cities all across the south of England.

But back to the plot, and for all the creative work to take the name and bring it to life and develop the brand and associated publicity, where else could I possibly turn other than the inspirational Ray Stenning and his Best Impressions team?

Of course they did the business and we soon had a modern, striking logo and a portfolio of highly attractive publicity, backed up by a clean, well designed website (featuring an interactive map, no less!) at a time when some companies still didn't have websites and those that did were often clunky and unappealing.

We knew that the new image would only work if the route numbers made it clear they were part of a family.  The existing routes were numbered 2, 10, 11, 12, 15, 26, 27, 38, 39, 45 and 47.  Useless!  We toyed with Blue1, Blue 2 etc or Bluestar 100, 200, 300 but that was just a mouthful, so in the end we settled for Bluestar 1, Bluestar 2 etc.

A highly controversial move was renumbering the 47 (and part of the 45) to Bluestar 1.  47 had been the number for Southampton - Winchester for eighty years, or something like that.  But while renumbering routes is not to be taken lightly and requires great care, it can be justified when it marks a step change in service provision, and this was the case here with a combined 15 minute headway tapering to a 30 half way along the route, being replaced with a simple 15 minute frequency route with enhanced evening and Sunday frequencies.

We launched Bluestar 1 (Southampton - Winchester) and Bluestar 2 (Southampton - Eastleigh - Fair Oak) in September 2004, just five months after my arrival.  We resolved to add other routes as sufficient repainted and refurbished vehicles became available and Bluestar 3 (Hedge End ) and Bluestar 4 (Romsey) were born in spring 2005.

Meanwhile, work was continuing apace to sort out the chaotic engineering and apathetic operational arrangements.  The low point was going through an unsorted pile of maintenance records and discovering one bus hadn't been inspected for seven months.  We drastically reduced lost mileage and while the fitters waged a nightly battle against years of unresolved defects on the buses, we almost always fielded a full service.  Erstwhile Southern Vectis engineering supremo Chris Squibb was making regular visits to the mainland and the Engineering Department was enjoying an influx of systems, procedures and calm, ordered management that it had not enjoyed for some years.

We thought we were really motoring, and the numbers were starting to reflect the improvements.  Figures that I can still recall today were a 93% and 89% growth in evening patronage on Bluestar 1 and 2 respectively in their first year.

Then something came out of left field that turned everything upside down.

In June 2005 I received a call to say that Southern Vectis plc and most of its constituent parts had been sold to the Go-Ahead Group.  Privately I had sensed for a while that the previous owners would not be around forever, so I knew we would change hands eventually, and I didn't mind that at all.  After all, they were among that group of National Bus Company management teams that put their houses and livelihoods on the line to take their companies private and grow them into hugely successful businesses.  I didn't begrudge them for one moment the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of their hard work.  But for some reason I thought it would happen a year or two later, so I was taken by surprise.

History will show that Go-Ahead ownership has brought no end of benefits to Bluestar, indeed has been the making of it under the stewardship of Andrew Wickham, and at the time I was certainly enthusiastic.  But in the short term, it was very disruptive.  I fought hard to retain Bluestar as a separate identity within the group and avoid it becoming just another Wilts & Dorset depot, and luckily for me I had a first class Regional Managing Director in Alex Carter, who was willing to believe in what we were trying to achieve.

However, I lost the battle to keep control of engineering and it became a sub-depot of Salisbury - a decision that was absolutely disastrous, and for all my huge admiration for Alex and Andrew, that is one thing I am still convinced they got seriously wrong.  I offer no personal criticism of Salisbury engineers, but they had their own issues to contend with and Bluestar was not their priority.

But for all the improvements we'd made, it was still a fragile department in need of lots of tender loving care, so the removal of management focus had serious consequences.  Unroadworthy vehicles started piling up, lost mileage became commonplace again - two or three short of PVR was not at all unusual, with inevitable effects on our reputation with customers - and we ended up borrowing life-expired Metroriders in full Wilts & Dorset livery just to keep the show on the road.  The costs absolutely spiralled - at the point when my involvement with Bluestar finished, the adverse variance on engineering costs was the key factor keeping the business in the red.

The engineering issues only came under control with the eventual appointment of Steve Prewett as a dedicated Engineering Manager for Bluestar, just at the time I was leaving, and he has done a fantastic job.

But there were lots of other things to get excited about under the new owners.

The two highlights were the acquisition of Marchwood Motorways and new fleet investment in the form of a fleet of brand new Mercedes Citaros for the Waterside routes to Hythe and Fawley.

Marchwood Motorways had a mixed fleet of around forty buses and coaches.  It was a coach business at heart but the bus business had grown largely on the back of operating Solent Blue Line routes under a franchise agreement - the most high profile being the cross-city route 18 in Southampton.  The franchise arrangement was very profitable for Marchwood (although Peter Osborne the proprietor would waste no opportunity to plead poverty, albeit with tongue slightly in cheek) and although the buses and coaches contributed similar turnover, the buses made all the profit.

Given the emphasis we were placing on service standards, I felt strongly that not having operational control of key parts of our network right in our heartland was unacceptable, and quite frankly the profit should have been coming into our group - SBL itself was making next to nothing out of some of its busiest routes.

The negotiations were tough and protracted and took a year to conclude, but eventually we got there and Marchwood became part of the Go South Coast empire.  I remember at a management conference in Brighton, Group Chief Executive Keith Ludeman spotted me from a distance across a crowded hotel restaurant, marched all the way across to the table where I was having breakfast, leaned across to me and said "you f***ing wanted it, now you'd better make it f***ing work".  In the event I wasn't around long enough to carry out his instructions, but others after me did a great job with it and I'm sure they would consider it was a good buy!

In early 2006 we were given permission to buy new buses for the first time since I'd been at the business.  We wanted high quality single deckers to replace a fleet of Leyland Olympians at our ramshackle Gang Warily outstation (that's down near Fawley on the west side of Southampton Water) and allow us to bring the Hythe routes under the Bluestar umbrella.  The Olympians - approaching twenty years of age - were in good condition mechanically and popular with the drivers, but the passenger accommodation was woeful and there was no way it was worth the money to patch them up.

The order ended up as a two horse race between Volvo B7RLE with Wright bodies and Mercedes Citaro.   Wilts & Dorset had good experience with the Volvo in particular, and with Volvo double deckers already present in the Bluestar fleet they were in the driving seat.  But Wrights were busy building a million buses for First Group and treated us with obvious arrogance and offered delivery in 14 months whereas Mercedes could do it in four, so they got the order.  Bluestar 8 and 9 were born.

The network continued to develop with Marchwood routes 10, 11 and 12 - which had operated as part of the Solent Blue Line brand under the franchise agreement - becoming Bluestar 10, 11 and 12, and when I left the company I had just finished writing the business case for what eventually became an order for brand new double deckers for Bluestar 1.

Of course there were many other exciting adventures during my time at Blue Line.  Bluestar itself gained night buses, Boxing Day buses and a Get on Together employer bulk sales project.  Other projects included Red Rocket, Solent Shuttle, the 'Do the Docks' Tour, New Forest Tour and Trafalgar 200, as well as entertaining sidelines such as the Isle of Wight Festival and Glastonbury.  But the dominant story ten years later has been the growth and success of the Bluestar brand.

One big personal achievement during this time was the recruitment of a bright young Operations Manager called Alex Hornby.

To help lick the operational side of the business into some kind of order, I had initially recruited Bob Dorr, my erstwhile Operations Director colleague from Stagecoach West.  But Bob was capable of playing on a much bigger stage and after making significant progress left to pursue a new opportunity, leaving me with a problem.

By this time my own role had expanded to embrace Southern Vectis on the Isle of Wight so my time was becoming more stretched, but I knew we needed to keep the momentum up on sorting out the deep-seated operational issues that Bluestar still faced.  It was a role that needed enthusiasm and persistence.  I had got to know Alex while he was a Management Trainee in Stagecoach and felt that he would be the ideal person.  The Go South Coast senior management team authorised me to fly up to Manchester where he was living to sound him out, and to my delight he accepted the role.

And that's what brings us screeching along almost to the present day.  I left the Go-Ahead Group not long after that and then of course briefly found myself on the opposite side of a so-called 'bus war', but even when the competition was at its fiercest I still retained a soft spot for Bluestar, and indeed still do to this day.

I am proud of my role in rescuing the business from the parlous state in which it found itself in 2004 and propelling it towards a bright new future with the creation of the Bluestar brand, but there is no doubt that it is Alex who deserves the greatest credit for taking it by the scruff of the neck and really making the most of its potential - culminating in a well deserved Bus Operator of the Year award.  I wonder where Alex is now?!

One thing that makes me particularly proud is the fact that the Bluestar network of today is still very much the same as the one I created, albeit with extra bits added on.  Bluestars 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 are all very recognisably the same routes that I left behind, with identical or comparable frequencies.  Bluestar 3 to Hedge End was the hardest to get right when I was there and has seen some surgery since but even that performs basically the same role that it did in my time.

From Bluestar website

The most high profile addition to the network under Alex's stewardship was Bluestar 18, the high frequency cross city route connecting Millbrook and Thornhill via the City Centre.  I never intended that the 18 should become part of the Bluestar network because it didn't fulfil the same role as the other routes in providing high value, high quality commuter routes from well heeled dormitory towns.  I felt it deserved a brand of its own, and had gone some way towards selling the City Council on the idea of orange bendy buses (rather a lot further than I'd got selling the idea to my own colleagues if I'm honest)!  Even now, acknowledging the success it has achieved, I wouldn't have it as a Bluestar route, but that's all a bit academic really - it has clearly done very well for itself.

But the more recent expansion of the network has come due to an outbreak of intense competition with First.  I enjoyed four very happy months working for First in summer 2007 and have huge respect for the management teams of both companies, so I'm going to sit firmly on the fence here in terms of who laid the first punch, and who I think is doing the better job now.

But First have now focussed very firmly on the core routes within the city with their attractive, well presented City Reds brand, leaving minimal presence on a small number of non-core routes.  Meanwhile Bluestar have filled a number of gaps that First have left behind, to the point where Bluestar (especially if you include Uni-Link) now has a denser network within the city than the traditional municipal operator - surely an outcome that few could have predicted just a few years ago.

Head-to-head competition is particularly fierce on routes from the City Centre to the populous suburbs of Millbrook and Thornhill, with First and Bluestar both providing 7-8 minute frequencies and both - at the time of writing - selling weekly tickets for just £5.  Bluestar are in the process of introducing a fleet of brand new Enviro 200MMCs to Bluestar 18 (such as the one pictured at the top of this article), replacing Citaros which are cascading elsewhere within the network, and the E200 MMC is one type that I am particularly keen to understand more about so it seemed like an ideal opportunity to try both brands and see how the competitive situation is unfolding.

But I was also keen to see the new routes that Bluestar had registered to fill the gaps left by First in their most recent round of changes, and my journey started at the foot of the Itchen Bridge on a Bluestar 7 to Sholing.

Dead on the expected time of 1115, a Mini Pointer Dart appeared at the stop and the driver acknowleged my mobile ticket with a friendly welcome aboard.  Indeed, her manner with all the customers was first class - friendly with lots of laughter, a real credit to the company.  The MPD was one of the batch that was new to Solent Blue Line for that 2003 Eastleigh network relaunch, and these buses had got quite shabby in recent years.  But this one had been refurbished and was immaculate internally.

I have never been a fan of the Mini Pointer Dart.  For a low floor bus it has a remarkably unfriendly interior layout with just four fixed seats in the low floor section.  But I guess you have to run what you have, and Bluestar have done a really good job to make it as inviting as possible.  If I were to nit-pick I thought the application of the cove panel advertising was quite odd, with a small number of vinyls grouped right above the one place in the bus where no-one would easily be able to read them, but given that I'm no fan of third party cove panel advertising I won't be shedding too many tears! 

More gratifying was the fact that we had a double figure load all the time I was on the bus, with people getting on at most stops around the Sholing loop, so hopefully this is a sign that the public are responding to this new link.

I bailed out at Orpen Road in Sholing and wandered through the Hightown part of Thornhill to the terminus of Bluestar 18.  Indicative of the level of provision on this corridor was the fact that in the last two minutes of my walk, I was passed by a departing City Red 10 and a Bluestar 18 - both empty - and the next Bluestar 18 was pulling up to the stop just as I got there, where I boarded alone.

This was one of the new Enviro 200MMCs.  On the day of my visit - Wednesday this week - around two thirds of workings appeared to be in the hands of the new buses, with the rest still Citaros, although that's just a rough estimate - I didn't take a scientific count.

The first thing that strikes a dedicated Enviro-hater such as me is the vast improvement in the passenger accommodation over the 'traditional' Enviro 200.  The interior now feels open and spacious and well laid out, and noticeably quieter.  Although I discovered that it still suffers a few rattles and the gear change jerks noticeably going down through the box - so it's far from perfect yet.  Indeed, the driver knew me from the olden days so when I got off the bus I asked him what he thought of it and his response - "not too bad" - was perhaps not the ringing endorsement I had hoped for.  But still a vast improvement nevertheless, and makes the Enviro 200MMC a credible option for an urban bus application - assisted I suspect by good fuel consumption figures.

Bluestar have gone for an interior that is designed to look upmarket, offering a calm, relaxing ambience.  For the seats they have used a mixture of leather and flat cloth - the latter especially interesting because it is the only application I have seen of this material in the bus sector apart from trentbarton's Red Arrow coaches.  It offers a much more upmarket look and feel, but reportedly doesn't wear as well as moquette so it will be interesting to see how it stands up to the intense turnover of customers that Bluestar 18 experiences.

I did feel that the interior looked a little plain, and I hope they are going to use the cove panels to liven things up a bit (and promoting their own product rather than random NHS services).

I travelled as far as Bitterne Shops, with a load that disappointingly never exceeded four - and indeed when I got off there were only two left on board for the City Centre.  And I have to say that was not a particularly unusual load for the Bluestar 18s and City Red 2s and 10s that I observed during the day.

The next stage of my trip was to sample a Bluestar 16 on its way from Townhill Park into the City.  Bluestar 16 used to enter the City via the busier Portswood corridor, but was up against a 7 minute City Red frequency so when First pulled off their Townhill Park - Bitterne link, Bluestar plugged the gap by rerouting the 16.

The bus appeared - again - dead on time and this time was a Citaro, still fully branded for Bluestar 18, which I would have hoped was something they would have been able to avoid.  Indeed, positively unhelpful for anyone getting their expectations raised by the poster advertising a £5 weekly ticket which was not available on the route we were on.

In my view, the Citaro offers unparalleled comfort and smoothness so I thoroughly enjoyed a pleasant ride into the City Centre.  Again, I shared the bus with a double figure load - not bad for midday - but most had got on at Bitterne Shops, and certainly the number on board when the bus arrived from Townhill Park would not have got the Finance Director particularly excited.

Much more exciting was the load on the Bluestar 17 that I rode all the way from the City Centre to the terminus at Lower Brownhill Road.  Another Citaro - this time unbranded - I would say that easily two thirds of seats were occupied on leaving the centre, and the load replenished itself at Shirley Precinct so easily 30-40 passengers across the journey.  And the other Bluestar 17s that I observed at various times were also busy, so Bluestar definitely appear to be on to something here.

The traffic up Shirley High Street was being tedious, so an on-time departure from the city became a 12 minute late departure from Shirley, but through the rest of the route the driver drove purposefully but very safely and dropped me off at the terminus only 4-5 minutes down and with a fighting chance of getting most of that back on the way into town.

I was particularly impressed with the fact that we took six people to Lower Brownhill Road.  When Bluestar unveiled the 17, the armchair network designer in me decried the short extension from Lord's Hill Centre as being utterly pointless, but for such a short journey the six people we carried easily covered the wages and fuel, and there were two waiting at the terminus to go back.

Meanwhile I walked through Millbrook estate to Windermere Avenue - the main arterial road that is the epicentre of the competition on this side of the city.  In the ten minutes that I stood at Millbrook Towers watching proceedings, two Bluestar 18s and two City Red 2s passed me.

A compelling feature of the South Hampshire bus scene that I haven't seen replicated anywhere else to anything like the same extent is that despite fierce competition which has, in fits and starts, lasted the best part of thirty years in both Southampton and Portsmouth, the operators and local authorities enjoy very good relations behind the scenes and with the energetic support of a visionary team at Southampton City Council very much in the foreground, this has led to numerous industry-wide initiatives including joint ticketing, network-wide free wifi, USB points and next stop audio-visual displays being commonplace.

All the main players seem to understand that the first priority is to make the overall public transport offer as attractive as possible, and then they compete hard for the growing market that this creates - which must in turn generate further growth and hopefully perpetuate a virtuous circle of growth feeding growth.  Of course it doesn't always work perfectly and there are occasional setbacks but generally speaking there is a sense of purpose and a mutual willingness to see the bigger picture that is all too often lacking elsewhere.

This compelling juxtaposition of partnership and competition was in evidence even in the bus shelter at the Millbrook Towers stop, where the two operators advertise their cut price fare deals through the medium of a shared poster frame!  (Although Bluestar appear to have snaffled a centimetre or two more than a true 50/50 split might suggest - someone call the OFT!)

Having downloaded my First mobile ticket from their app (which was remarkably similar to the Bluestar app, even to the point where the First app accepted my Bluestar login details - is that supposed to happen?), I boarded my first First of the day - a City Red 12.

This was a Streetlite - a type that is commonplace around the country in First Group fleets now - and gave a pleasant enough ride to Shirley.  I'm not a fan of the Streetlite - it has the same poor riding qualities of the Enviro 200, notably the jerky gearchange, and they always seem a bit too small - but overall it is a perfectly acceptable bus and certainly First have made extensive use of the vast cove space to create a warm, welcoming ambience.

I must admit to being a big Volvo fan, and the Volvo B7RLE is a firm favourite bus design, especially with the Wright body.  The seats at the back end are a bit high up, but apart from that they are smooth and comfortable and the fact that all the seats in the main part of the bus face forward is a huge asset.  And after a day driving The Mickleover in Derby last Saturday I can confirm they are glorious to drive too.

First have a particularly nice batch on City Red 3, being 2009 examples that have been fully refurbished as part of a recent LSTF project, so at Shirley I abandoned the Streetlite in favour of one of these for the trip back into the City Centre.

There I paid a visit to the recently opened Bluestar Travel Shop in Bargate.  Both Bluestar and First maintain travel shops in the city, although First's is more of a cupboard under the stairs really. Bluestar used to have a tiny portable cabin awkwardly perched against the city walls, but have recently invested in a proper shop with staff accommodation above, and this is the pride and joy of Jeff, their well known Customer Assistant.

Jeff is passionate about looking after his customers, and over a number of years the Bluestar marketing effort team have done a great job in establishing Jeff as a known point of contact for customers, through repeated references in social media and other publicity - a great way of creating a personal bond between the customers and the company.

I know Jeff well from times past so we had a long chat during which he demonstrated yet again what a great ambassador he is for the company, with his obvious pride in the its many recent positive developments.  Our discussion was occasionally interrupted by customers, all of whom received Jeff's warm and undivided attention.

The shop itself is very well appointed, with great use of the wall space to promote the route network and various offers (although the maps are out of date, just in case anyone's really paying attention!). I was going to take some more photos, including one of Jeff and his assistant Phil, but then the police arrived - nothing to worry about, you'll be pleased to hear - and it didn't seem quite appropriate any more.

I am delighted to see such good travel shop provision.  Too many in the bus industry see travel shops just as an unwelcome overhead cost.  If you analyse their value purely on the basis of ticket sales then in most cases they won't pay their way.  But even though the half dozen people who came through the door during my half hour in the Bluestar shop didn't buy anything, they all left with information that would make it far more likely that they would go and ride on a bus.  The industry abandons such human contact at its peril.

Finally, being lazy, I caught another City Red Streetlite for the short ride back to my starting point near the Itchen Bridge, bringing my tally to seven bus rides in total - four on Bluestar and three with First.

All were immaculately presented vehicles.  The low frequency ones were on time, the high frequency ones came with barely a minute or two wait.  Both ticketing apps worked faultlessly and were readily accepted by all the drivers, so having to find change to pay the driver is no longer an issue.  Roadside information was generally good and all the ingredients are there to make Southampton a very easy and attractive place for people to use buses.

My only beef was with the next stop audio visual equipment.  Fitted to all buses I used apart from (oddly) the brand new Enviro 200, it only actually worked faultlessly on two.  The rest all either didn't work at all or froze somewhere along the route and only caught up much later.  Apart from the obvious benefit to those with sight impairments, next stop displays and announcements an incredibly important tool in my view to attract infrequent users to the bus, as they took away one of the key anxieties of such customers, being the fear of not knowing where to alight.  But obviously that's only true if it works, and a little more work appears to be needed here.

As for the drivers, most were fine without being outstanding.  None were bad and two were excellent.

Overall, this was probably the first time I've really approached the Southampton bus system as an outsider and I have to say it is an extremely impressive system, with the magic combination of competition and partnership leading to a dense network of high quality provision.

Southampton is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country outside London, so it does lend itself to a high level of service provision, and has all the right ingredients for competition, so perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise to find it so much in evidence.  But the nice thing is that it's high quality competition, with high frequency routes and impressive vehicles.

Competition is always a controversial topic and you don't have to search the internet for long to find commentators who seek to discredit the state of affairs in Southampton, presumably believing that the public have it far too good and should have fewer buses and learn to like it.  And how sustainable it really is given the commercial implications of 3.5 minute combined frequencies and £5 weekly tickets is a whole other interesting question. 

But if that competition wasn't there and all the routes were in the hands of a monopoly operator, it's difficult to believe that the vehicles and frequencies would have evolved in the way that they have.

So for now at least the bus users of Southampton - and importantly the potential bus users - appear to be very well served by two high quality operators.  I was very impressed with both, and I hope they both get the rewards in terms of driving up patronage in a city that is very close to my heart.


  1. An excellent article Phil and made me feel more than a little homesick having left Salisbury just over a year after the Go Ahead takeover when things were starting to get interesting.

    Regarding Alex Hornby, isn't he now Chief Exec of Transdev Blazefield?

  2. Brilliant article. Very good reading. And dont worry John still i think is same for the time being :)

  3. Sad to see that the old Velvet 'A' dies next year with the X11 (the successor to Velvet 'A') no longer running to Hedge End.

    That said, Xelabus have improved their PR since their days fighting with Velvet which is a welcome improvement!

  4. Interesting view on the times at SBL. Your views of the W&D takeover of the workshop is honest, bus does downplay the impact a certain large bearded man had on the staff and morale of the Engineering staff. I felt that with the Go Ahead takeover the company lost its friendly feel and became a completely different place to work. Glad I got out, when I visit people don't seem to be enjoying their time!