Saturday, 30 January 2016

Skylink Flying High

It's exciting enough that I get to spend a healthy chunk of my time doing network design and commercial planning for trentbarton.  But for an aviation geek like me, when it involves airports as well, the enjoyment level goes off the scale!

My interest in transport is wide ranging and covers pretty much any mode of travel you can think of, but anything to do with air travel comes a pretty close second to buses if we're placing them in order.

When I was a five year old living for a brief spell in South Wales in the late 1970s, my parents learned that a good way to amuse me for a few hours was to go and park next to the fence at Cardiff Airport.  No matter how long we had to wait, at an airport that was even quieter then than it is now, eventually an aeroplane would appear - invariably in the red, black and white colours of Dan-Air as I recall - and that was enough to keep me happy.

Years later, looking for a job in the transport industry to fill the gap between school and university, I was offered a position working on the catering trucks that load the food and drink on to the planes at Luton Airport.  The catering aspect didn't excite me at all but it was a job at an airport, surrounded by aeroplanes, and you have to start somewhere.

Except that I didn't.  The catering provider, Forte Group, was going through a tough time and imposed a recruitment freeze in between offering me the job and the start date.  So I had a very apologetic phone call from them withdrawing the offer and I ended up getting a job working for a bus company instead.  If the airport job had gone ahead as planned, who knows where my career might have taken me!

What might have been!  I could have forged a career working on these!

(Photo: Matti Blume (MB-one), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Even now, if I have a few hours to spare in a strange city, it's not at all unusual for me to wander off to the local airport to enjoy the sights and sounds.

East Midlands Airport is a wonderful location to see interesting planes, mostly because it's a major hub for parcel distribution.  But that's a business that functions mostly at night, as parcels collected from homes and business during the afternoon get transported to wherever they need to go during the hours of darkness, ready for distribution the following morning.

EMA's location right by the junction of the M1 and A50, in the middle of the country and away from densely populated areas, makes it ideal for 24 hour operations.  As a result, all the major parcel companies and various other airfreight shippers have depots there, notably DHL who have a vast warehouse to the west of the passenger terminal.

To the casual visitor passing by during the daytime, the airport appears relatively quiet.  A steady but unspectacular flow of scheduled and charter flights by household name airlines holds the interest for a while, but nothing much to get too excited about.

But by night it's a different story.  From early evening onwards, the airport plays host to an almost continuous flow of arriving and departing parcel and freight aircraft, connecting the East Midlands with cities all over Europe and North America, as well as a steady flow of passenger charter flights to and from holiday destinations.  Sit near the approach path just before midnight and you'll be rewarded with an unbroken stream of landing aircraft, on a par with some of the London airports during the daytime, but carrying a fascinating variety of unfamiliar brand names.


With apologies for the poor photo quality, these pictures give a feel for the variety of visiting freight carriers.  In case you're wondering why most are in daylight, it's because I took them on various days last summer during the light evenings.  This last photo is a particular treat - a rare Antonov AN-12 of Cavok Air, which I encountered by pure luck one evening.  An uncompromising design, you hear it before you see it!
All this is important not just because it gives me somewhere interesting to go and watch planes every so often, but because it provides a great centre of economic activity around which to build a successful local bus network.  The Airport itself claims to support six thousand jobs.  There are thousands more jobs in surrounding industrial parks around Castle Donington.  A proposed major rail freight interchange on the north side of the Airport could generate a further 7,000 jobs.
This area, collectively known as the East Midlands Enterprise Gateway (EMEG), has been identified by the Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership as a key growth area, resulting in regular and continuing discussions between transport operators, the Airport, other major employers in the area and our local authority partners to ensure that public transport provision keeps up with the pace of development and gives employers the confidence to continue investing in the area.
Of course, when it comes to making the right business decisions for trentbarton, Kinchbus and the sustainable travel network in the area generally, I have to push my personal interest in air travel to one side and ensure that I do not allow any sentimentality to cloud rational analysis.
But I can truthfully say that the work we are doing with our EMEG partners to develop the network in this area is among the most interesting and enjoyable projects that I have been involved with anywhere.
At the heart of it is an airport that is enthusiastic and committed to improving public transport.  Their support, both financially when appropriate as well as in terms of infrastructure and generally acting as cheerleaders for good bus provision, is quite fantastic and certainly a key ingredient in achieving the high level of bus service that currently exists.  And they are not afraid to challenge us and push us to do better when the need arises, which is healthy and helpful.
For our part, long before my involvement, the management team of trentbarton and Kinchbus have adopted a positive, proactive approach to developing this network, and the Wellglade Board has been ready to support the business with investment in vehicles.  The reward has been continuous growth over many years.
Bus services around the airport currently are branded as Skylink...
Skylink Derby is operated by Kinchbus from its depot at Loughborough and operates from Derby all the way through to Leicester, around a thirty mile journey.  The frequency is every 20 minutes during Monday to Saturday daytime, every 30 during Sunday daytime and running hourly throughout the night to provide service 24 hours a day, seven days per week.  In 2014 the route benefitted from eight brand new Mercedes Citaro single deckers, which are among the most refined of any single deck bus design I've encountered.  The balance of the eleven peak vehicle requirement is provided by three Scania single deckers, refurbished to a similar specification.
Photo:  Matt Burley
Skylink Nottingham is operated by trentbarton from its Nottingham depot, using Scania single deck buses.  Frequencies are identical to Skylink Derby between Nottingham and the airport, providing access 24/7 from the four main towns and cities in the airport's catchment area.
Photo:  Matt Burley
Daytime only, one journey on Skylink Nottingham extends to Loughborough via Sutton Bonington, providing a link to the University of Nottingham campus there.
The hub for both routes is a very impressive little bus interchange incorporated within the airport terminal building, directly adjacent to the arrivals hall.  This provides very comprehensive information and an indoor waiting area, with shop and toilet facilities immediately on hand.  Customers rarely have to wait long for their bus, but if they do, they do so in some style!
Another unimpressive photo by me, taken in low winter sunlight, showing two Skylink Derby buses at the Airport.
Over the last few years both routes have seen frequency increases and extended operating hours and have seen quite remarkable increases in customer numbers.  They are classic examples of a positive spiral of growth leading to service improvements, leading to further growth, and so on.
However, the work that we have been doing with our partners identified a number of gaps, where people's ability to access jobs in the area was hampered by poor bus services.  My job has therefore been to identify commercially sustainable ways of filling in these gaps, to try to maintain the positive momentum of growth of the Skylink network.
Most importantly, Coalville and Shepshed were both communities with significant populations for whom the Airport ought to be a key centre of employment.  Yet despite their close proximity there was no effective public transport link.  Although there is a tendered village bus route between Coalville and the Airport, the timetable is not geared to shift change times, and there was no link at all from Shepshed.
The partners identified this as being the number one priority to resolve.  Coalville and Shepshed were both outside the Wellglade operating area and we have no desire to interfere with the commercial services in and around those towns provided by Arriva.  Therefore, unlike the other parts of the Skylink network, where the success of the routes rely heavily on them performing as local bus services with multiple overlapping flows totally unrelated to the Airport, in this case it was vital that the business case could stand up purely on the basis of customer numbers travelling north of Shepshed.
With the help of the trentbarton commercial team, I modelled various options, and it seemed to me that we needed at least an hourly service to be sufficiently attractive for people to rely on it for travel to work, but we could not afford to commit more than one extra vehicle to the route, or the required revenue would have been unachievable.  The situation is complicated by the fact that it is imperative to provide journeys before 5am and after 11pm to meet key shift change times, so it wasn't possible to consider starting off with a limited daytime offer to test the market, because the market wouldn't have been there at all.  So whatever we provided had to be all or nothing from the start.
Likewise, we felt that there would not be sufficient revenue between Coalville and the Airport alone if we ran as a standalone service, and therefore we decided that the best commercial proposition would be to extend Skylink Nottingham, with one bus per hour continuing from the Airport to Coalville.  This opens up through travel possibilities from Coalville and Shepshed to Nottingham, and while this is never going to be a high volume market, the small number of people who do make the through journey provide valuable additional revenue that provide a key part of the business plan. 
For this to work meant getting from the Airport to Coalville and back in around one hour - a very high average speed for a local bus service well in excess of 20mph, but we conducted a series of timing tests and found that it could be done.
With support from the Airport, the extension of Skylink Nottingham to Coalville started in autumn 2015 and we have been very pleased with the initial results.
Meanwhile, the next emerging area of concern was Nottingham itself.  Clifton is seen as an important catchment area for the Airport for employment, but has had no direct transport link for some time.  Meanwhile, while Skylink Nottingham provides a very high frequency service, it's a comparatively slow journey for end to end customers via Long Eaton and Beeston taking around an hour.  There was a clear aspiration from Nottingham City Council among others, reflected by comments from many Skylink customers, to come up with a more direct link into the city that would be useful to air passengers who simply needed the fastest link to the city centre.
Moreover, Skylink Nottingham has seen so much patronage growth that even on a 20 minute frequency it suffers capacity problems at certain times.
Other operators have tried to provide such links on a commercial basis in the past, but without success, but a number of factors led us to believe it was worth having another look:
  • Significant improvements to the A453 link road, speeding up the journey and hopefully making for a more predictable journey time
  • Growth on Skylink Nottingham has grown the overall market for public transport to the Airport
  • Growth at the Airport itself and in the amount of employment available in the surrounding area
  • The presence of the tram in Clifton, providing opportunities for onward connections to other parts of the city
The result of all the above is Skylink Express, a half hourly express coach service which starts this weekend.  This uses three Scania Irizar i4 coaches released from Red Arrow last autumn, repainted in a modern two-tone grey colour scheme.

Some people have queried the use of coaches, but we feel this is a very important part of the product.
Whereas the other Skylinks carry on/off local traffic throughout their route, Skylink Express is very much aimed at providing links to and from the Airport, and the customer mix is likely to comprise largely air travellers and workers.
Therefore, while the coaches are fully PSVAR compliant, the need for buggy space is unlikely to be an issue.  Instead, the coaches will provide a very relaxed and refined ambience for a swift journey along the dual carriageway, which we feel will prove highly popular.  Moreover, the coaches have plenty of space in the luggage lockers to carry customers' baggage.  For visitors to Nottingham, Skylink Express provides a gateway to the city and it's important to make the best possible first impression, which the coaches should achieve in style.
One important consideration was whether to serve East Midlands Parkway station, given that we will be going right past on the A453.  However, after carefully weighing up the options my conclusion was that we shouldn't.  Although the station is immediately adjacent to the main road, the access is slow and meandering round a series of roundabouts.  I felt that the time penalty involved would be significant, enough to be an annoyance for customers wanting a quick journey, for minimal likely return in terms of additional patronage, and the journey in and out of the station round all the tight roundabouts would prove uncomfortable.  There is already a scheduled taxi service between Parkway and the Airport, and we have no wish to enter that market.
I am however very excited about the integration with the tram at Clifton South.  It frustrates me that the commercial bus industry often regards integration with other modes as being an unwanted distraction, whereas it seems to me that joining up with other services to assist customers making complex journeys often makes good commercial sense. 
In this case, the ability to transfer seamlessly to the tram at Clifton South opens up access to a great deal of the city without people having to cope with a transfer in the city centre, and in the other direction hopefully provides an important and attractive additional destination for the tram network.
Skylink Express won't initially run 24 hours a day.  The first journey leaves Nottingham at 04:30 and the last journey gets back into Nottingham at midnight.  This should still cater for the vast majority of demands, and Skylink Nottingham will continue to run hourly through the night to plug the gap.
For all this, we expect demand to build slowly.  It's a corridor where there hasn't been a service for some time, and particularly for commuters you always have to be patient because people have established travel patterns, and indeed the demand will grow slowly as and when people become aware that this link is available and they can perhaps contemplate taking a job that they may not previously have been able to consider.
We are deliberately approaching Skylink Express as a long term project and our agreement with the Airport reflects that.  They have been characteristically enthusiastic and supportive and I really look forward to seeing the route develop.
For me, the ability to plan bus services to a busy and successful airport is a dream assignment, and we haven't finished yet.  My cauldron of ideas is bubbling away behind the scenes and hopefully we will soon be in a position to announce yet further improvements to the Skylink network.
In the meantime, hopefully I'll be able to get behind the wheel for a driving shift on Skylink Express in the very near future.  I just have to remember that I'm not delivering meals to the planes!


  1. Thanks for this - it was a very insight into how new commercial services are developed and I found it really interesting. I hope the new Skylink Express does well. As you say, patronage might take time to build so I'm impressed with the commitment to the new service.

    In contrast, I remember from my days at Surrey County Council several years ago a sort of similar coach/bus commercial service being introduced between Brooklands and Heathrow Airport (I think, but I can't be sure, that it was numbered A3). It started up and lasted what seemed like a week before we got the notice of intention to withdraw the service. As a commercial proposition, and with the usual shortage of council funding, there was no chance of any support to keep it going until its likely long-term commerciality could be established, so that was that. In the meantime I'd had a bunch of "continuing your journey" maps for local railway stations produced which featured the new bus link, which all then had to be reprinted without it...

  2. My employer recently moved an office to East Midlands Airport, so I found this post even more interesting than normal!

    Freight does seem to be a large part of the airport's business, but it seems vastly underused for passenger flights. Perhaps the lack of a train station puts airlines / passengers off, but access by road is excellent...and ongoing public transport improvements can only help. I suppose having a base of "commuters" from the many businesses based at the airports helps with bus service provision, even if the commutes aren't at the standard times of day.

    Skylink Express seems ambitious at first, given previous experience of operators in this route - but the difference here is the new service complements Skylink rather than competing, using the recognised and respected brand, so I'd like it to be a success!

    I guess Network Planning is all about judging where to draw the line, and your thoughts on East Midlands Parkway were very interesting. I would also be interested to see if passengers from Castle Donington change their habits (ie Skylink to Airport to change on to Express into Nottingham, if such a market exists) as it's a rather tortuous journey from Castle Donington in to Nottingham, but perhaps not a market that would warrant an extension of Skylink express and the challenges that wouldcome with it (layover space, dilution of dedicated product, additional vehicle resource)

    But it's an exciting development and I'll be sure to take a peek and see what the loadings are like next time I see a Skylink Express whizzing past when I've nipped out for lunch!

  3. It is sad the East Mids Parkway was so poorly designed with regards to it's access road. Having done it enough on Megabus Plus I can agree it is a long drawn out and uncomfortable couple of minutes when it should be a straight road. this really is a white elephant of monumental proportions. Good luck with the new service.

  4. Maybe this is the reason why East Midlands airport parking discount is offered because of large transportation services are not that accessible to the airport.