Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Thursday Miscellany

When I received this notification in my inbox, on Tuesday, I was tempted to think it was a delayed April fool. But it wasn’t. Arriva’s announcement of new buses may pale in comparison to First’s and Stagecoach’s but it does include a significant number of ADL Enviro200s that are said to use an innovative approach to reduce fuel consumption. This is what is termed a “revolutionary new automated manual transmission” and it is this that could be an April fool.

Automated manual? A contradiction in terms? Regular readers will have gathered that I’m no engineer but I am told an automated manual transmission is basically an update of the clutchless semi-automatic boxes introduced in the 1960s on the likes of the Leyland Leopard, Atlantean, Daimler FleetlineBristol VR and the famed Bristol RE. Will drivers therefore have to go back to a stick shift? I doubt it, not in the old sense. I bet this new technology comes with paddles but will drivers have to re-learn the art of the gear change? Perhaps this will lead to a smoother ride for passengers as well as a 13 per cent saving on fuel.

We’re in the season of Lent at the moment. These days, few bother but I often used to wonder whether the most usual foodstuffs given up for Lent—chocolate, chocolate biscuits and cake—actually dented manufacturers’ or supermarkets’ profits. Nowadays, probably not. In terms of chocolate, the food processing industry certainly makes up for things 40 days after, on Easter Day (or Easter Sunday, as is now the vogue). Break out the Easter eggs.

But there are more eggs consumed at one other time of the year. Real eggs, that is. The egg trade really has to gear up for a peak demand during the run-up to Shrove Tuesday (marketed these days as Pancake Day), the start of Lent. Basically, at all other times of the year, hens are over-producing by 20 per cent just to ensure that the Shrove Tuesday demand is met. This is because hens cannot work overtime and their output cannot be stored long-term. But at the start of Lent, Shrove Tuesday, every egg possible goes on sale, for pancakes.

It rather reminded me of parallels within the bus and express coach industry in our own daily and seasonal peak demand.

There’s an alternative to giving up things for Lent and that’s the participation in Christian Aid’s “Count Your Blessings”, when participants are encouraged to think about certain issues and then make a modest donation. On March 17th, Christian Aid told us that 115 million children are involved in hazardous labour. Participants were then asked to give 50p for every job where they felt safe.

This got me thinking. Looking back at the start of my career and there were no PPE & de rigueur hi-vis jackets, no warning sings, no yellow depot floor markings to segregate pedestrians from moving vehicles, no physical barriers, no separate entrances, no flashing beacons. In fact, the phrases “risk assessment” and “safe systems of work” were never uttered. The Health and Safety Act was introduced in 1974 but it was 20 years later that we realised its existence.

Yet, I’ve felt safe in every job I’ve done. Physically safe from harm, that is. However, where I haven’t always felt safe was sometimes in terms of other more ethereal hazards, such as restructures, regime changes and the like. I can remember some jobs that came with large slices of corporate paranoia, uncertainty or insecurity.

Manufacturer ADL has fallen foul of the Health & Safety Executive recently after a worker fell from a gantry while working on a double deck bus. The gantry was inadequately guarded and ADL had to pay over £30,000 in fines & costs. Said the HSE, “Work at height is inherently fraught with risk and falls remain the single biggest cause of deaths and serious injury.”

On the road, there are those sharply angled, straight steps to tumble down, should the driver need to brake sharply. No more slightly curved stair wells that used to prevent the worst excesses of a tumble. Arriva’s order is for 40 ADL E200s with the revolutionary automatic manual boxes; nearly 100 Wrightbus Streetlite Micro Hydrids, delivering similar fuel savings; five Optare Versas… and 94 ADL E400 deckers.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Careful with those Straplines

Those who know me will also know of my interest in the development of marketing, brand management and associated strap- or tag-lines. For much of the industry’s existence, it simply was deemed inappropriate to bother with such things. Not that marketing was necessary, not during the early years or the golden years 1948-1953. Even till the mid-1960s and the associated slow downward spiral in ridership there was enough trade to ensure a living. If only we’d marketing ability during the early and mid-1970s…

All that changed in the early 1980s and was to be accelerated at deregulation. The 1980s brought with them a growing realisation of the importance of basic brand identity. So it was that in 1979 BMMO first introduced local identities or sub-brands, against the backdrop of its continued Midland Red brand. Other National Bus Company subsidiaries followed but all came with mixed results. They were all designed to imprint upon locals’ minds the idea that the local bus service was theirs and not operated by some failing, centralised, corporate monolith. NBC regions and subsidiaries botched some basic marketing concepts but, hey, there were few people about who understood such things and their importance, anyway. Even Midland Red acknowledged problems when it introduced each of its 16 sub-brands: it would say “But [sub-brand name] is not a tale of gloom and despondency…” which, translated, meant that the post Viable Network Project/Market Analysis Project cuts of its time were just that.

One unlikely success, though, was municipal Bournemouth Transport whose 1982 “Catch a Yellow” campaign certainly caught on.

A modern timetable for its time, if a little grey. A reminder, too, that we used to charge for basic information such as this. Putting people first?

When from 1983 NBC relaxed its corporate approach, we began to see some minor excitement. Take this Southern National timetable of July 1983. This was immediately post Western National’s split into four. A rejuvenated Sothern National decided that henceforward it would be “Putting People First”. There was something strangely prophetic about this statement as, 16 years later, it would be in the hands of First.

The strapline “Putting People First” was rather wholesome, rather fluffy, even self-righteous. So vague was it that it could equally apply to just about any organisation, from banks to trade unions and even to churches. But it was a start in modern market thinking and in establishing a brand value. The trouble was that the brand itself adopted various forms: from Western to Southern National in 1983; a brown and white local coach scheme from 1983; minibuses in a yellow based livery and publicity colour from 1986; a lighter green livery for its buses soon followed; privatisation in 1988; and First Group in 1999. The whole cycle began again from the end of January 2014 with the adoption of the Buses of Somerset experiment as the antidote to the deterioration of the First brand. Here was an example of where brands, if not properly managed, could result in poor perceptions and the opposite of the desired effect.

First has quietly consigned its “Transforming Travel” strapline to the bin. Had they waited till 2013 onwards it might’ve been a useful one to have, because not only are many First subsidiaries seeing growing ridership (with growing profit soon to follow?), they are also witnessing improved satisfaction ratings. If this isn’t transformational, what is?

First has no strapline at the present. This seems like the safest way and probably a wise move. Straplines and transport do not always go together so well. They can sound hollow. “We’re getting there” was once a British Rail slogan. It had the expected double meaning: of movement and improvement. But at every cancellation, delay or missed connection it was easy to malign it. Post 1983 Hampshire Bus took on a similar catchphrase “We’re here to get you there”. A pun indeed but, during the inevitable economies, one that could easily be used against the company. Arriva has adopted a similar version “Here to take you there” and this subtle change leverages the phrase above all other “here to get you there” copycats.

Better off, then, is the business without a strapline, because finding one that works and doesn’t actually backfire is nigh impossible. Back to Yellow Buses, for example, and “The Brighter Bus Company” exemplifies the staggering changes having taken place from 2006. But someone might disagree with something. Then, it’s all too easy to say “whose bright idea was that?”

One strapline I really like is Trent Barton’s “The really good bus company”. Sure, it could result in derision but it uses a simple adjective (“good”) rather than a comparative (“better”) or superlative (“best”). As long as it lives up to its brand promise, this tells me that the operator is better than “not bad” or “satisfactory” (synonyms for good) but that it isn’t making exaggerated or wild claims above its bus station—even though it might actually be in a position to do so. A clever one, that.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Adaptable National in New Life Sensation

A contributor considers the implications of a very profound Chinese decision

As a school boy in the early seventies in a county town near London, the stable diet of the local buses was Bristols. Compared to the exotic AECs of London Transport only twenty miles away, the Bristols seemed old fashioned, slow and poorly designed. And yet there was still a fascination there. Nonetheless, the local bus scene appeared mundane, with the only interest testing the maximum tilt on the FLF, as it rounded a well known bend at speed.

But that changed one morning when, standing at the railway station bus stop for a connection, a bus came round the corner like nothing I had seen before. It had a modern looking front, a big sweeping windscreen and seemed to have tremendous presence, looming large over all of the other buses around it. It made a noise like no other bus of its time. The windows were recessed and big, the sides dotted with rivets. The rear end had a huge window, with an engine fan clearly on display. And above all of this at the business end, was a roof mounted pod. The overall effect was American, totally startling—I had seen my first Leyland National.

Now I know now that these early models had some challenging mechanicals but they were nothing short of revolutionary to us passengers. More school boy pleasure was had from experiencing the very soft suspension leaning hard over on roundabouts. But the model stopped production and bus companies replaced them. That was effectively the end of the National story.

Chinese social media on the National story

Or so I thought. A colleague in Bejing has pointed me to a story on the Chinese social network, Weibo, that the National is to be brought back into production for the Chinese market. Apparently, the Chinese company that bought the MG car business found on site a lot of the production line equipment used in the former Workington National factory. The Chinese, never one to miss an opportunity, have shipped it out to China, “just in case” they could be used.

And a use has been found. China is unencumbered by accessible low floor regulations. So the “flat enough” layout of the National will seemingly do fine. Apparently, the National offers considerable benefots to the Chinese:

  • The robust & solid nature of the vehicle construction & suitable suspension deemed fit for some of the rougher roads found on the edges of China’s fast growing cities

  • The ability to build in considerable quantity through production capacity & methods suited to Chinese vehicle manufacturing

  • A high seating capacity per metre lenth of bus

  • Ease of panel replacement important owing to the volumes of general traffic in Chinese urban regions

  • Above all, a ready made, vlaue for money & available production design.

Sunwin already has eight MG bus models from which to choose

Shanghai City Bus alone is hinting of ordering over 400 units a year for the next five years, from licensed manufacturer Shanghai Sunwin Bus Corporation (which already has a range of Chinese MG buses and is a partnership involving MG Motor’s parent SAIC). These orders are to help meet the ever expanding city and its increasing transport needs, where value for money remains a prime consideration. Most of these will be two door 11.6m examples but, apparently, a 15m, tri-axle and three-door version is also planned, using the modular architecture of the National.

The first prototypes should be in Shanghai before the summer is out, using locally sourced engines and transmissions. They will be branded as the Lìlán Guójiā (or 利蘭國家) SWB6116L11/1R-MG.

With a recession-proof Chinese economy that’s expanding rapidly, with an ever increasing transport demand to go with it, the Guójiā could very well be successful and around for many years to come. And as the National has such a strong enthusiastic following in the UK, I can foresee many organised enthusiast trips to Shanghai to see the Guójiā in action. And who knows, may be even Hong Kong will also take some.

This is a new and totally unexpected chapter in the National story. Sadly, no examples will ever come to Europe but it’s amazing to think that 40 years after my own experience, schoolboys in Shanghai will soon have the opportunity to see a bus like they have never seen before.

Monday, 31 March 2014

First and Last and Always?

Our Edinburgh Correspondent brings things up to date

It was nearly two years ago that the drama associated with First’s retrenchment in East and Mid Lothian, Scotland, unfolded. If you recall, First closed its Dalkeith depot to the south of Edinburgh (losing several routes in the process) and cut back to the east, with Lothian and several independents stepping into the breach.

It’s time to bring everything up to date. As they say in football, it really is a game of three halves.

Let’s start in the east, where the First network has been relatively stable. There has even been a boost with the restatement of all journeys running the full length of the trunk route from North Berwick into the City (124). From a totally random street sample, I would say the vehicle presentation has improved with many ex-London double decks drafted in, all sporting the latest livery.

Yet, recently Musselburgh garage (just outside the eastern edge of Edinburgh and a long-standing feature) was put up for sale. First made no official announcement of what was to happen. Naturally, rumours began circulating that they are either moving to a new site nearby or pulling out all together—my money’s on the former. As an extra twist, the for sale signs came down the other day. No doubt all will be revealed. Oh and there is still no network map for the East Lothian network, some two years after the revisions were made, on the First website.

Lothian, you may recall, started a new offshoot to pick up the abandoned 113 to Pencaitland. At first white double decks from the reserve fleet were used with the intention of replacing them with new single decks, painted in a green and cream version of the Lothian livery (harking back to Eastern Scottish). The double decks were then to be used elsewhere Some indeed were redeployed but passenger numbers were such that some were retained for peak use. And then the weekday frequency was upped from hourly to every 40 minutes, requiring permanent double deck use, some of which have made it into green and cream. The timetable has also been strengthened in the evenings and the conclusion must be that Lothian is making a success of it. Other Lothian routes started at the same time have continued without major change and it appears their magic touch has not failed them.

To the south of Edinburgh, the First Borders operation does seem to be going well. To be fair, it has always had a good reputation and has always taken pride in vehicle presentation. New vehicles have been brought in and frequency improvements made. Indeed, the trunk route from Galashiels via Peebles into Edinburgh (62) is about to be increased in frequency from every 30 to 20 minutes. First Borders mounted a recruitment campaign at the new year to get the staff for this and other network improvements. Giles Fearnley will no doubt be pleased about this bit of his empire and things (on the face of it) seem to be going well.

So a reasonable story to the east and good to the south. But how about the west?

Sadly, things here have not really improved. From what I read, the First operation out of Livingston continues to struggle, with indifferent vehicle presentation. A major event recently was that Stagecoach decided to compete on the South Queensferry to Edinburgh corridor (40), a traditional First route (43) that is operated some 15 miles from the Livingstone base. First had issues here with poor time timekeeping and a matching reputation. As soon as Stagecoach announced the competition, First simply cancelled their operation without a fight. One could conclude that First had so many problems, that they decided they would lose too much money against Stagecoach.

And in the first week of Stagecoach operation, it seemed that Stagecoach’s buses had good loads in the middle of day. Oh and Lothian have decided to up the competition with Stagecoach on this corridor within the City boundary, with a new parallel route (43) starting shortly. An interesting situation is developing on the Queensferry Road.

So there remains a question mark over the West Lothian First operation. They seem somehow unable to get it right, with the network of town routes in Livingston lacking sparkle or a sense of doing something different to grow the market.

Finally, what of Lothian itself? It recently announced that passenger numbers are at an all-time high, with 115 million passengers carried last year. Vehicle presentation and its reputation are as good as ever. It is now a subsidiary company to Transport for Edinburgh, with a sister company Edinburgh Trams. After a painful construction phase, trams are now on regular test in the city and the start date is (provisionally) May. There will be full ticket inter-availability and, uniquely outside London in the UK, there will be modal integration. Alongside the trams’ introduction, Lothian will be revamping its network. It will be interesting to see what they do and I can only suppose that the overall mood will be an expansionist one.

The next chapter in Edinburgh’s transport history is nearly here. It will be a fascinating ride.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

All for £2

This man is grumbling because he had to pay £2 in order to extricate his lost wallet from the lost property department of his local bus operator, First Hampshire. He isn’t happy. Mind you, he’d be even less happy had the wallet gone missing or perhaps even fallen into the hands of someone who was unscrupulous.

Said Mr Paddon, “There is no getting away from it, First is profiting from my misfortune. It doesn’t cost it anything to have my wallet”

Profiting? No cost? Ah, but it there is.

It’s simply arcane that there should be a maximum permissive charge of £2 for the redemption of lost property. Some waive it, others do not. That sum was set when Adam enjoyed a child concession. By law, operators need to record all lost property in a register and whether it was subsequently claimed, sold, destroyed or whatever. Those records must be available for inspection by VOSA or the police. Records need to be kept for a minimum of six months. An operator must keep non-perishable lost property for a minimum of one month at its premises and the operator has a duty to return official documents such as driving licences or passports to the respective government department or agency (not their owner) at the operator’s expense.

All this loads cost. Someone has to sift, record, store, send and contact various people. It’s not as if this happens once in a blue moon. In a busy urban garage, this sort of thing happens frequently. How many industries work under such regulations? Not forgetting the duty on drivers to search their vehicle after every journey.

You’d think Mr Paddon’d be grateful. Now, though, a local MP has decided to write to the government to see if they can make changes or restrict operators. Perhaps the DfT might review the £2 cost in a direction that reasonably reimburses the operator for its troubles. £2 isn’t even equivalent to half a day’s travel.

The simplest way to avoid a £2 charge is to check your seat as you leave. Much cheaper.

And talking of slightly odd things, totally unrelated, here is the front of Centrebus' Leicester timetable. It continues the trend set by First towards operating LHD buses. At least the timetable’s comprehensive.