Saturday 27th February 2021
The Government’s new-look-cautious irreversible-one-way-road approach to unlocking means the ‘stay-at-home’ message will be eased, subject to data, “data not dates”, in four weeks (at the earliest) on 29th March (which sounds like a date to me, as does 12th April, 17th May and 21st June, but I’m sure it’s all splendidly under control and the virus really does know it’s a one-way road we’re now all on). No surprise then that this week Grand Central announced its intention to revise its planned reintroduction of services until 27th March while Hull Trains are not quite so definitive, “carefully considering when we plan to resume services”, and will “share any news on return dates as soon as we are able”. National Express and Megabus are both advertising their return from hibernation from 29th March with Flixbus showing bookings available from 27th March while no news yet on the Oxford Tube website about its return.
While train timetables may not fully return to pre-pandemic levels (Sir Peter Hendy told this week’s National Rail Recovery Conference a small reduction from the ‘old normal’ makes sense to avoid previously notorious congestion hot spots – but mischievously taken as a ‘10% less trains’ headline by the BBC) bus companies are gearing up to return services to full timetables as instructed by a letter from Baroness Vere to all operators, sent on Monday, when schools return on 8th March “services may need to run at up to 100% of normal pre-Covid levels and in limited cases exceed this”.
Meanwhile some operators continue to tease us on social media with snippets of pre-publicity for exciting new initiatives to come this summer, not least First Bus down in the South West….
… as well as what’s planned in North and West Yorkshire ….
Also looking ahead, James Freeman. managing director at First West of England reported on Thursday he’s had to abandon plans for the usual summer operation of open tops on popular route 20 between Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-Super-Mare this year.
The local authority are abrogating their legal duty to maintain a clear height over the highway of 16’6″ and are “demanding a substantial fee to fund the cutting of the trees” on the route which caused “so much damage to the buses” last year. What a great shame and a lost opportunity – single deck buses just don’t offer the same travel experience on this lovely route, let alone social distancing. It must be very frustrating for James and the team as it’s a good route. Still, at least route 1 Weston-Super Mare to Sands Bay can still run, even though it’s an extensive tree lined route, as I found last time I rode it (thank goodness the trees haven’t grown too bushy)….
More positively for First comes a smart new Wessex branding for Dorset based operations launched on social media on Thursday….
It’s a new localised branding idea from the otherwise rather large sprawling First Hampshire/Dorset/Berkshire operation with a new image also in store for Berkshire operations too (see below) especially now Heathrow Airport have ceased funding the routes to the airport so less need to plaster Heathrow messages all over the buses. Together with the smart CityReds branding in Southampton, it’s good to see the company’s public image has come a long way from the days of the rather insipid and uninspiring First ‘Barbie’ branding. A most welcome development, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Marc Reddy and the team (with a little help from Ray at Best Impressions no doubt) have got planned for Portsmouth.
Staying with First Bus came news last weekend Alex Carter, managing director of First South West is retiring at the end of April after a distinguished career in the industry including a number of senior roles with both Go-Ahead and Stagecoach as well as latterly with First Bus. Simon Goff, Head of Operations at First Hampshire/Dorset/Berkshire will step up as interim managing director pending a recruitment process for a successor.
More managing director and corporate news came this week from Stagecoach. After last year’s tumultuous managing director merry-go-round in the Midlands, Yorkshire and the north within the Group comes a merger of the Stagecoach Oxford and Stagecoach West companies with a new managing director of the new combine to be based in Gloucester currently being advertised. Rupert Cox formerly managing director for West is the newly appointed Regional Director South for Stagecoach while Chris Coleman (managing director Oxford) has left the business.
And not to be left out on the reorganisation front comes news Arriva are also changing their bus company management structure … again … well, they haven’t had a reorganisation this year so far I suppose … this time the three Regional Managing Directors are all going (retirement beckons) at the end of next month resulting in a restructure to a ‘matrix organisation’ with seven areas headed up by the existing Area Managing Directors. Here’s a little suggestion for you Arriva … try and make this reorganisation the last one for some time (‘irreversible’, ‘one-way’ and all that) and let those managing directors have the necessary empowerment and autonomy to actually manage their business/es.
Guildford’s much respected family owned bus company, Safeguard, is also on the look out for new talent and is currently advertising for a Commercial Manager – any readers interested in applying can find details at the end of this blog. It sounds like a great opportunity for the right person.
Talking of company rebrands, following last week’s news that Hallmark is morphing into Diamond, comes a photo of a newly liveried bus in Upper Halliford courtesy of Mark Lyons. The smart two-tone blue certainly brightens up the Surrey countryside, even though I rather liked the Hallmark white, which always seemed to be kept nice and clean too.
Thanks to Peter Shelley for letting me know about a welcome development this week in Portsmouth where the City Council, working with bus operators, are now displaying an occupancy guide for upcoming bus departures on real time information screens at bus stops. The descriptors use friendly language such as ‘quiet’ together with a traffic light indicator and this compliments what operators are now doing on their apps. Good to see.
Peter also tipped me off Flixbus are making a return to Portsmouth but at the time of writing there’s no mention of it on their website. It would be a rather strange development remembering it was the first service to be withdrawn not long after its introduction last summer, but a sneak preview of the timetable seems to confirm it is indeed on its way.
Electric bus news on Monday from Banbury based new entrant manufacturer Arrival. The company’s getting excited about a new partnership with First Bus to trial the first four of its new single deck bus from the Autumn. The trial vehicles’ configurations will offer “new innovative features which will be activated throughout the trial and made possible by Arrival’s smart connected hardware and end-to-end fleet management solutions” which sounds incomprehensible to me but hopefully means something to First Bus. In even better news, Arrival’s news release boasted “the single-deck Arrival Bus features a single front door with a passenger seating capacity of 36 across the entire flat floor, allowing greater accessibility, as well as more usable standing space and ability for passengers to travel more comfortably”. Arrival reckon the bus will be “up to 40% lighter than other battery-electric buses in the market today”.
Meanwhile Janette Bell at First Bus, already settling into her new role, claims “as leaders in sustainable mobility, we’re excited to announce our partnership with Arrival, helping us bring some of the most innovative zero emission vehicles on the market onto the UK’s streets for our customers and partners ….. we’re looking forward to seeing how customers react to the new buses when they’re trialled later this year”. I’m looking forward to letting Janette and the Arrival team have some feedback later this year too but meanwhile I can think of one or two other bus companies who might question that rather bold “as leaders in sustainable mobility” claim.
News also from ADL this week that its “next generation hydrogen bus” – dubbed ‘H2.0’ (that must have been a fun brainstorming session) – will be an integral vehicle design “that perfectly balances weight and maximises saloon space”. It will deliver a “zero-emission range of up to 300 miles” and should be on the road before the end of the year.
Oddly you’d think from the news release accompanying image it will be powered by wind turbines rather than hydrogen.
Welcome news on Monday from Crossrail that Paddington station has now reached the “important milestone to commence the process of handing the station over to TfL”. That’s good to see and know it’s now moving to “extensive testing and commissioning of systems” ahead of the line opening in 202x. (where, hopefully, x is a small number).
There was a bit of a kerfuffle over in Suffolk on Tuesday when the County Council’s Cabinet met to discuss a controversial proposal arising from a company called Suffolk Norse, a “joint venture partnership” (20% owned by the County Council), giving a year’s notice last August to terminate all its contracts including 40 home-to-school routes (21 bus and 19 minibus), a school swimming service and 17 other bus contracts all to end from31st August this year. Suffolk Norse had already run into unsustainable financial difficulties before the pandemic. The joint venture had started back in 2013 and in the early years netted a profit of £152,000 in 2015/16 but by 2019/20 had turned into a loss of £425,000. Suffolk Norse proposed a five year financial rescue deal including a 40% price hike to the County Council for the year from April 2020 rising by inflation in future years. Not surprisingly the Council rejected the deal and the Company gave notice to pack up.
The controversy arises from the County Council deciding, rather than putting the 57 contracts out to tender, to instead award them all to its own in-house operator called Vertas. Vertas will be taking the bulk 40 bus contract on for £3.12 million (Norse had wanted £3.18 million) with staff TUPEing over and after a fleet inspection, the decent vehicles transferring over, and the three depot locations. Bus operators are naturally very unhappy at not being given the opportunity to bid for the work and three prominent companies in Suffolk wrote a joint letter of complaint copied to every County Councillor leading to a number of questions being asked in Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. The County justified its position stating “the ability to allocate work to a wholly owned company will enable the County Council to have more influence over the market, through competition and ability to step in when there is a failure of an individual operator” and it had concerns it may not receive interest in all the contracts. It batted away suggestions it had acted unlawfully by pointing out the Council has full control over Vertas and at least 80% of its work is for the Council – giving it legal exemption from tendering.
The operators are not happy. Their observation: “after the failings of Suffolk Norse and the damage done to the authority’s reputation in the passenger transport market, it is concerning that the County Council is prepared to countenance a further similar arrangement at considerable financial risk” seems to sum the situation up nicely.
News this week of consolidation in the Home Counties with Centrebus planning to close its Stevenage based operation in April with around half the 28 buses and services based there transferring to the company’s base in Luton with other routes passing to alternative bus operators including A2B Travel Group, Central Connect, Chiltern Automotive and Richmonds Coaches.
Up in Manchester, it’s been interesting to see the threatened “all out strike” by Unite members at Go North West hotting up to begin tomorrow (Sunday). Go North West have responded with a slimmed down network of reduced frequencies and a flat £1 fare. It’ll be interesting to see how long this situation continues, especially with schools returning on Monday week.
Up in the north east, news came that the long standing South Gorsforth Car Sheds are about to be demolished to make way for a super new replacement able to cater for the new fleet of trains on order for the Metro….
… while back down at Kings Cross work continues on the reinstatement of the eastern most bore of Gasworks Tunnels with two absolutely spectacular aerial photos released by the East Coast Upgrade Team this week showing the new track layout at the station’s ‘throat’ tacking shape….
This week’s not-to-be-missed Conference was the National Rail Recovery Conference … over three days. But the time flew by as the organisers (Rail magazine) had put together an engaging programme with some interesting presentations from eminent speakers, and was actually a morning only affair, so plenty of time for an afternoon nap and walk each day too. At some points during the Conference over 700 people were attending from around 1,800 delegate registrations.The Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris and Keith Williams both gave presentations on Thursday morning, but sadly we were no closer to knowing any more detail about the much delayed Williams Review (now expected to be a Williams/Shapps White Paper). However, the widespread speculation the much talked about new ‘guiding mind’ will be Network Rail in a “rebooted format” gained traction with Sir Peter Hendy (who also spoke and was interviewed on Thursday morning) saying, if so, he and CEO Andrew Haines (who was interviewed on Wednesday morning) would be up for it, but the organisation would need to be reformatted and with a new name …. which set me thinking …. how about …. ‘British Rail’?
It was interesting to hear Sir Peter’s thoughts that increased leisure travel at the weekends may necessitate a rethink of undertaking engineering works to other times. But presumably not Wednesdays, when he foresaw there’s a danger rail companies will face a mid week peak of ‘part-time’ flexi-commuters heading to the office that day.
I was horrified on Thursday to hear managing Director David Horne extol the virtues of mandatory seat reservations for using LNER trains as a permanent policy for the future citing “80% customer satisfaction” for the current restrictive arrangement – presumably because dissatisfied customers not able to get onboard weren’t surveyed. It might be a welcome policy while travel levels are generally way below the capacity available and gives everyone reassurance they’ll have a socially distanced seat, but once we all get back travelling again, it’s the last thing we should be doing. Talk about removing barriers to use public transport, mandating a seat reservation will be as big a turn-off as the much derided Cross Country policy of turfing high fare paying passengers out of their seats during a long distance journey because they’ve sold the seat to a last minute booking for a joining passenger at a rock bottom price. Yet Cross Country big cheeses reckon it’s a great policy. Good luck LNER at encouraging travel, especially for journeys such as Wakefield to Leeds, Grantham to Peterborough, Doncaster to York if you insist passengers must book a specific seat in advance. The turn up and go railway is about to turn up and be gone by the sound of it. I’ll get the car ready.
And while we’re on the rail sector’s blind spot to its negative approach to making travel easy and attractive ….. can you imagine Primark increasing their prices from 12th April when their stores reopen to welcome customers back? Or Tesco hiking up prices? But from next weekend, thanks to the Treasury and DfT, rail passengers will enjoy a 2.6% increase on fares. That’s because RPI was 1.6% in July 2020 whereas consumer prices only rose by 1%. And I bet Sunak leaves fuel duty paid by motorists frozen in Wednesday’s Budget …. “war on motorists” and all that rubbish …. and “helping hard pressed families” etc etc.
Another informative online presentation I enjoyed this past week was last Saturday afternoon by Group Commercial Director at TrentBarton, Tom Morgan, to the Omnibus Society Midlands Branch. Tom described how the much respected TrentBarton has dealt with the impact of the pandemic over the last twelve months as well as giving a fascinating insight into the commercial thinking of the last independently owned former National Bus Company subsidiary.
What always comes over impressively when you hear from anyone at TrentBarton is the Company’s absolute commitment to the commercial approach to providing bus services and their passion for customer service and attracting passengers. As Tom observed “we need to be brave and take the opportunity that’s starring us in the face”. It was a masterclass in positivity.
And finally for this week, a shout out to artist Nick Coupland who shared this amazing tribute to Charles Holden on his Twitter feed that he’d been commissioned to hand draw for a Holden fan. Absolutely amazing. Well worth checking out his other work on his website and Twitter.
Four weeks to go and counting down.