Thursday 21st October 2021
Eighty-five enthusiastic and energised young managers from across the bus industry gathered in the Royal Beach Hotel on Southsea’s sunny seafront for around 24 hours last week and among a packed programme of speakers and site visits found time to draw up a comprehensive Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) which local authorities and the DfT could well take note of.
Covid had postponed the bi-annual Young Bus Managers Conference from April 2020 to last Wednesday and Thursday and together with my good friend James Freeman it was such a delight to once again return to our privileged roles as co-Patrons of the Network to host the ever popular event.
It’s a unique event. There can’t be many industries where young managers gather to network, share best practice and learn from experienced senior directors in the industry in a relaxed, friendly, non competitive setting. I can’t think food retail would hold a conference for young managers working for Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco as well as Aldi, Lidl and small independent corner shops to discuss how to make shopping a better experience for customers.
It reflects well on the bus industry this has become a recognised way of working; to learn from each other and improve the service customers receive.
Our Southsea programme began with a fascinating afternoon site visit to First Portsmouth’s bus garage in Hoeford, located between Fareham and Gosport, coupled with a ride along the extensive and impressive A3 bus priority corridor between Portsmouth, Waterlooville and Horndean as well as the soon to be extended exclusive bus and cycle busway between Fareham and Gosport on which First operate Eclipse branded buses.
Hoeford depot has a fascinating history being built in 1904 to accommodate the electric trams and provide power to the new tram network running to Gosport and in later years housing the bus fleet of the Provincial bus company. Today it houses many of First’s extensive fleet serving the Portsmouth, Fareham and Gosport areas as well as hosting the company’s central control centre where buses across a wide area from Slough to Axminster including Portsmouth and Southampton are controlled using the latest monitoring technology.
Hampshire County Council’s investment in bus lanes and the busway gives a very welcome boost to the status of buses in this part of the county. The unique geography of Portsea island and the Gosport peninsular means it’s essential buses give a realistic alternative to using the car on the congested intensively used road network.
Both the bus lanes and busway have been incredibly successful and it was good to hear plans are in hand to upgrade the bus shelters along the corridor so they match the smart new buses First are now using on the Star branded service.
Meanwhile the £11 million southern extension of the Busway is due to open in the next few weeks which will be a great help allowing buses to bypass more of the traffic choked A32 on the peninsula and will hopefully encourage more motorists to switch to bus travel. First have also got brand new buses in build for delivery in the new year which will ensure the highest standards are maintained.
Conference delegates were very impressed with what they saw and I overheard many comparing these priority measures with their home areas. Visits of this kind are a logistical nightmare to organise involving around 80 people attending and our grateful thanks to managing director Marc Reddy and all his team for laying on a superbly organised event which went like clockwork.
It included a trip back from Gosport to Portsmouth on the ferry.
Our after dinner speaker on Wednesday evening was the BBC’s long standing transport correspondent in the South region, Paul Clifton. He gave a no holes barred talk based on his many years experience covering stories from across the transport spectrum. Paul was very forceful in his view that with notable exceptions, bus companies don’t do enough to be transparent about what they’re doing or the problems they face. He urged the industry to change and become more responsive.
Thursday’s conference programme included six speakers and a workshop session. The six speakers were Janette Bell, First Bus managing director, Aled Williams and Laura Dixon, two young bus managers, Chris Cheek managing director Passenger Transport Information Services, Martijn Gilbert, managing director Go North East and Keith Greenfield, Chief Executive Officer, Wightlink Ferries.
Janette Bell gave a very personable presentation highlighting the lessons she’d learned from her varied career including key roles at Tesco, Hammerson, British Gas and P&O Ferries before joining First Bus last October replacing the retiring Giles Fearnley as managing director. Janette highlighted common threads of people management, asset management and customer service all being close to her heart. I reckon First Bus is safe in Janette’s hands and look forward to seeing her make an impact in the challenging years ahead. I was particularly impressed with her description of ‘The service profit chain’ beginning with employee satisfaction leading to customer satisfaction and loyalty, leading to revenue growth and profits feeding back to enhance employee satisfaction.
Up next was the slot when two Young Bus Managers tell us about their career experiences to date and tips they can share with others. Aled Williams has had experience working with First Bus and Go-Ahead in Ireland before recently taking a new role as Senior Regional Operations Manager South with Bus Eireann.
He was followed by Laura Dixon who is Engineering Charge Lead at First Cymru following a spell at First West of England and prior to this working as a qualified childminder in a nursery school. Laura noted her career change had brought her from a sector with minimal male employees to now one with minimal females.
Both presentations were fascinating insights into career development of members of the Network.
Chris Cheek gave his regular fascinating update on the state of the industry which is always appreciated by delegates.
Obviously this time round Chris highlighted the impact of Covid as well as his take on the Bus Back Better strategy not least the inevitable paucity of the three year £3 billion funding once already committed expenditure is taken into account and then divided by the number of Local Transport Authorities (LTA) – it works out at a piddling £7.6million per LTA per year. That’s not going to be enough to fund a ‘transformational’ Bus Service Improvement Plan, that’s for sure.
More positively Chris reminded us if modal shift of 1% of car demand switched to bus demand, this represents an increase of 23%. A 17% switch represents an increase of 384%. But, as Chris observed “where do we get the drivers?”.
Martijn Gilbert was speaking at the conference partly wearing his President hat of the Omnibus Society for the second year this year (due to Covid), and being a Board Member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport to highlight the benefits from positive encouragement to and engagement with those with a passion for our industry. Even better to have that passion yourself.
As Ray Stenning’s promotion for the Omnibus Society reassures: ‘It’s OK to love the industry you work in’. Hear hear to that.
James Freeman took the opportunity to promote a series of lunchtime masterclass sessions beginning today and continuing over the next six weeks as part of a project he’s spearheading on behalf of BRT-uk, which he also chairs. They look fascinating and well worth a viewing as they’re broadcast over Microsoft Teams live.
Our sixth and final speaker ending the conference was Keith Greenfield who gave us a very interesting exposition of how Wightlink operates in the important travel market between the mainland and the Isle of Wight with many parallels as well as differences to bus operation.
From late morning, over lunch and into the afternoon, delegates split up into eight groups to tackle the very topical subject of Bus Service Improvement Plans – Local Transport Authorities have until the end of next week to submit their plans to the Department for Transport.
Alex Hornby joined the conference to explain each group would be tasked to concentrate on one of eight topics which could come together to form an overall plan.
A team of four expert ‘Dragons’ would hear and critique each group feeding back their thoughts in a ‘Dragons Den’ format.
Our ‘Dragons’ were Martijn Gilbert, managing director, Go North East; Louise Collins, Senior Stakeholder Manager, Transport Focus; Peter Shelley, Rapid Transit Development Manager, Portsmouth City Council; and Alex Hornby, chief executive officer of Transdev Blazefield.
The young managers then beavered away for the next hour and over lunch getting their ideas into a presentation format to feedback to the Dragons.
Here’s a summary of the ideas put forward:
1 Carbon Reduction: Policy to include car restraint allied to LEZ and congestion charge; Infrastructure to include bus gates, traffic signals and bus priority, transport hubs bringing modes together, use of technology (eg Apps) to show emission savings for public transport over cars for the same journey; Travel habits including flexibility of times people choose to travel and understand their needs and use tickets and pricing to meet customer requirements and to be cost effective compared to car use. Eduction should include teaching from a young age – use newer buses on school routes – need to change perception from a young age.
2 Punctuality Improvements: more and better bus priority including bus friendly traffic lights and busways; making sure Low Traffic Neighbourhoods don’t impact bus services; Tap-&-Go and simpler fares to shorten dwell times; use data systems to improve timetable construction to reflect traffic conditions; consider a bonus for being punctual for drivers; introduce more Park and Ride schemes. There were also some very amusing but effective measures suggested too, including a giant sized mobile Bus Claw to patrol bus lanes in search of errant motorists which brought many smiles.
3 Fares and Ticketing: target business to business market, target students and the young market with attractive deals; a car scrap scheme offering a bus pass; a national bus staff scheme offering family reductions; a loyalty scheme. Objectives to include simplicity of fares – a minimum fare, a national season ticket, tap on-tap off, free or reduced travel in evenings/weekends, loyalty schemes, multi-operator apps, combined tickets with venues.
4 Customer Experience and Information: have easier travel apps including through fare information and purchase of through tickets plus collaborative advertisement of restaurants and leisure activities with discounts plus live traffic updates and real time departures, diversion and roadworks updates plus ability to record travel experiences and driver customer service feedback. Have QR codes at bus stops and use social media to promote app. On board vehicles have more space for wheelchairs and buggies and ease of phone charging/wi-fi and ability to report vandalism/soiled buses etc. At bus stops display capacity information of buses and more comfortable seats with good lighting.
5 Safety: for passenger improve bus stop infrastructure – lighting, real time, ticket machines, have tighter app integration with Uber style information and a rate your driver function. For driver standards have regular and pro-active training with much better facilities and one-to-one sessions. For vehicle safety have car style safety aids as standard on buses and look for more automation.
6 Innovation: continue investigation potential for autonomous vehicles with drivers becoming customer ambassadors; coordination and communications to include communication hubs for passengers with a collaborative approach between operators and local authorities using shared data; install interactive displays at bus stops with live timetable updates, tracking of vehicles on a map. Innovate with more smarter ticketing including multi operator.
7 Marketing and Communications: make travelling easy and simple; jump on social media trends and use medium for targeted adverts as well as using influencers; ensure buses are marketed as a local product – use digital signage on buses to facilitate this and keep flexibility; passenger loyalty to be rewarded; target specific markets by taking a bus to them – universities, hospitals, town centres; seek out new opportunities with destination partners; install real time information at all bus stops as well as stations, shopping centres; involve front line teams in marketing; involve the community including behind the scenes visits; refund delayed journeys automatically as some rail companies do.
8 Accessibility and Inclusivity: improvements of roadside infrastructure including lighting and bus stop locations; improvements on board including ability to take larger wheelchairs with next stop audio/visual announcements as standard; in depots to ensure all staff feel included and catered for; profiling the customer base in regards account based travel perhaps requiring personal assistance etc; educating how to use the bus, paying, stopping the bus; have more community outreach to tackle any age and language issues; being upfront about conditions of work, pay, shift patterns etc; feedback and involvement by senior managers with workforce including ‘talkshops’ with management and drivers.
Our Dragons gave both positive and constructive feedback on these ideas as well as a dose of realism when needed, but from eight groups all acting independently it was interesting to see so many common themes coming through which would make for a good Bus Service Improvement Plan for a Local Transport Authority to take note of if they’re still rushing to finalise their submissions.
As you can sense it was a packed intensive twenty-four hours, but with also time to network and relax and once again I came away from our Young Bus Managers Conference confident the bus industry is blessed with a keen enthusiastic team of young people positively embracing future opportunities.
For more information about Young Bus Managers Network please visit its website.