Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Britain’s Newest Bus Brand

It was over 15 years ago that First began moving towards a single UK transport brand. Moir Lockhead wanted to build what was effectively a single business and this he had largely achieved by 2000. It replaced the two dozen disparate companies that at the time constituted what at First was Britain’s biggest bus operator. Back then, First ran 9,500 buses in the UK and Lockhead’s vision was in “transforming travel” by learning from the best in transport, the best within the group and the best in retail.

In a very few words, the Comment in next month’s Buses magazine paints a different picture:

“Not to put too fine a point on things, the reputation behind First’s brand in many quarters was shot. Toxic, to use a media cliché”


This was a good teaser but it did not appear on many buses

The area around Bridgwater and Taunton perhaps reflected this reversal in fortunes more than in most places. Its local management would privately admit that First’s reputation was poor. Whereas independent Webberbus might be expected to measure itself against the transport giant, the reality appeared reversed: Webberbus was operating better vehicles, often in better condition and it was First that was lagging.


And so began a brave experiment to try to do something about things. In spite of a few new Barbie Pastel repaints with “West of England” and “First Taunton”  branding, First has begun sweeping aside its corporate identity altogether. The Buses of Somerset banish the words “First” to the legal lettering in green-on-green tucked well out of view behind the rear axle. Otherwise, First has been expunged altogether. This, of course, is largely thanks to Best Impressions, whose branding, livery and publicity is more Go Ahead than Go South Coast itself. Indeed, the impressive printed timetable imitates Southern Vectis’. No index within, though.

What’s resulted is something remarkable, incredible actually.

But what do people think? Diverting via the M5, I spoke with just a few passengers at  First’s The Buses of Somerset’s  Taunton bus station terminus. They were cautiously optimistic. You never expect superlatives within the bus industry, of course you don’t. So, “at frequent interval” timetables, for example, are always “quite good”, never “excellent”. So it was in Taunton: everyone to whom I spoke tempered their comments with phrases like “we’ll see” but everyone did recognise that the new branding had given the buses something of a lift and they welcomed something much more local. Thumbs up so far but, translating, the message was that management needed to follow through (presumably to which the answer was, why otherwise expend time and effort? Sitting on hands is not Alex Carter’s style).

The only negative comment I received was from a woman who found the number of colours on Taunton’s buses confusing. She wasn’t really sure whose buses were whose and First’s buses going green didn’t help her. The fact that Webberbus was operating a couple of vehicles in dealer stock white, to a point resembling First, perhaps didn’t help, but there were certainly other operators adjacent to the bus station. Perhaps when all First buses are green this might be less of a problem.



Bus station makeover in new Buses of Somerset colours... with matching driver uniform? : )

It’s always difficult speaking to drivers but I did manage to get the views of a couple of staff without being too intrusive. They seemed to appreciate and welcome the change and one recognised that First’s reputation was poor. Old First had always pushed the idea of the importance of staff, staff engagement and training. Now was a real opportunity to see this through.

Things may not be perfect and another blogger has focused a little on the negatives but here at Omnibuses we wish to look at the positives. The package seems sound and the reaction (albeit from a limited sample) was good. Now watch the revenue increase. Everyone who lives in a First area will have an interest in seeing whether this experiment succeeds. Who knows where it may lead. Is this the ultimate Transforming of Travel?

Pictures by a Blog Supporter

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

It will certainly be very interesting to watch developments in Somerset and I'm sure all of us wish it, and First Group in general, all our best wishes.

There's been some evidence of First 'turning the corner' with, notably, management changes and long overdue de-centralisation. Hopefully, this will start to bear fruit in the months (years) to come.

Anonymous said...

And look at the "significant" growth of passenger numbers in some of their key areas (Manchester, Sheffield) - perhaps more than just "turned the corner"?

Anonymous said...

I hear First Taunton will be ditching some of its older buses and refurbishing about 6 others? That should help the interiors that also need a change?

Anonymous said...

"Old First had always pushed the idea of the importance of staff, staff engagement and training."

They said it but they never really did it.

Anonymous said...

They haven't fully extinguished the First name, though - all the drivers still wear First uniforms with f logos and the depot in Taunton still carries First branding. I hope the tickets aren't showing First's name (I don't know, I didn't travel when I visited).

Green buses in Bridgwater seem rather few and far between.

I know it all takes time, but you can't help but compare this to how Stagecoach would have tackled the makeover. More completely, I'd wager!

But negatives aside, good luck to First, this really needs to succeed and I hope it does.

Neil said...

"They haven't fully extinguished the First name, though - all the drivers still wear First uniforms with f logos and the depot in Taunton still carries First branding. I hope the tickets aren't showing First's name (I don't know, I didn't travel when I visited)."

I imagine the feeling it'll give is "Taunton Council buses, operated under contract by First". As it happens that isn't the case, but giving the feeling of it might actually increase local feeling for the service.

Neil

Anonymous said...

Just realised that the two tone green with cream relief is rather reminiscent of traditional Aldershot & District livery. For those old enough to remember it!

Anonymous said...

Rather fittingly, the advert (something about butterflies, IIRC) on the "Going Green... Soon" picture (advert not visible in your shot) has the wording "Going, Going Gone".

Ray Stenning said...

So, anonymous at 16:33, did I really get my inspiration from the old Aldershot & District, or was it perhaps Southdown, or could it have been a lifetime's accumulation of influences?

Who can really know what goes on in the depths of my creative mind, eh, and how it all works?

And, by the way, the journey of the buses of Somerset is only just beginning - watch this space!

SEV 777 said...

A friend (not employed by First) met Moir Lockhead a couple of times and he banged on about quality both times. Sadly, the reality was different. The real question is, will there be enough in the budget to straighten out and repaint the damaged panel when the bus has had to take to the verge in the countryside? Previous management seems to have taken the view that there was no need to carry out cosmetic repairs. While this increases profits in the short term, it does nothing for staff morale nor for passenger perceptions of the operator.

Swansea 3 Cardiff 0 said...

"Previous management seems to have taken the view that there was no need to carry out cosmetic repairs. While this increases profits in the short term, it does nothing for staff morale nor for passenger perceptions of the operator. "

One of our buses at First Swansea has two long pieces of duct tape holding together a front offside panel. At least it's on the offside out of view of most passengers but it's a disgrace.

Neil said...

"Previous management seems to have taken the view that there was no need to carry out cosmetic repairs. While this increases profits in the short term, it does nothing for staff morale nor for passenger perceptions of the operator."

In Slough on Tuesday, I noticed an old ex-London Dennis Dart being used as a driver training vehicle. It had faded paintwork, odd leaves in different colours on the rear doors, "Not in service" on a piece of paper stuck where the blind would go, car-type sticky backed L-plates stuck randomly all over it etc.

What it also had was First(f) proudly left on over the door.

What on earth impression does that give? How hard would it have been to paint it, even if in overall white?

It was "don't give a stuff" personified.

Neil

Bob said...

Full marks to First in trying something new so I do wish them well. I hope that they allow it a decent time to see if results are positive and its not a flash in the pan idea.

Anonymous said...

In reference to Swansea and Slough - You will never get everything changed overnight. Be real. Applause for the changes so far I say !

Anonymous said...

@Anon 08:00

Re the "significant growth" you speak of in key areas (Manchester, Sheffield) - the other obvious point to make is that the economy is now slowly on the up.

However even if that is a cause, then it doesn't mean bus companies shouldn't up their game - some potential passengers at least do have a choice when it comes to how they get around.

The Buses of Somerset project looks good. Hopefully First follows through and acts good too!

Neil said...

"Re the "significant growth" you speak of in key areas (Manchester, Sheffield) - the other obvious point to make is that the economy is now slowly on the up."

And also the price of motoring, give or take a temporary blip reducing fuel prices slightly, is constantly on the up.

Neil

David said...

And also the price of motoring, give or take a temporary blip reducing fuel prices slightly, is constantly on the up.

Ah, but is it on the up more than the cost of bus travel?

And if people are earning more, do they still want to go by bus, or will they get a car?

I wish First well.

Steven said...

Compare this with First Scotland East - the Lothians depots are simply managing decline and the future of Livingston depot must now surely be under scrutiny with the recent announcement that First are withdrawing their service beween Edinburgh city centre and South Queensferry, ending a presence on that corridor going back more more than a century, after Stagecoach announced that it was starting up a rival service. The amount of shabby, shoddily-repaired buses plying their trade between West Lothian and Edinburgh seems to imply that First simply don't care about that area.

I can recall a quote given by First to Buses magazine some years back where "they would aim for 100 per cent every day - anything less like that at Heathrow would result in two crash landings a day" Yet within a few years these crash landings were very much the norm throughout the whole of First as they took their eye off the ball. It is going to take more than a repaint and and a name change to restore confidence in the Somerset operations.

As for the Lothians operations, they appear to be very much a lost cause.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't help to put a bus in the new livery in the ditch either!

Anonymous said...

I do hope they do something similar in Cornwall because at the moment the state of their vehicles inside and outside is appalling.

Anonymous said...

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-26373967

that's the ditch!

Anonymous said...

Doesn't help to put a bus in the new livery in the ditch either!

27 February, 2014 17:32

The usual press exaggeration in other news media - bus crashes and topples onto its side!!!

The bus is back in Bridgwater with a couple of scratches. Hardly an impediment to the roll out of Buses of Somerset is it?

Anonymous said...

" Hardly an impediment to the roll out of Buses of Somerset is it?"

Roll out or role out? LOL

Anonymous said...

Role?

Anonymous said...

A senior person within, who I totally respect, said to me when I joined just over a year ago that "Quality will win through".

It'll be a long journey and a bit of a culture change I think to persuade longer serving staff that 'attention to detail' really does matter, but it must, right across the company. The only way is up!

Anonymous said...

Quite agree that 'quality will win', you only have to look at who the most respected operators are - Brighton, Trent, Nottingham, Lothian etc. These are all good quality but, most importantly, also well managed and profitable.

First Group seems to be getting there in certain locations but could probably benefit from severing those areas which come over as rather obvious lost causes.

Anonymous said...

areThe orsdyiernandor sailits ietemamThe only reason for "Buses of Somerset" is the competition from Webberbus, who provide much newer and more comfortable vehicles as well as cheaper.
Painting vehicles green or bringing in some 11 year old Tridents will not change anything.

freddy said...

Alas unless you get the "front-end" right you can forget all the rest. A few weeks ago I visited brighton and made a two-way journey on Service 26.

The outward journey, the bus interior was distinctly tatty, the seats worn almost to extinction, the backs dirty... and the driver, to put no finer point on it, was a total dirtbag...so sullen I'd be ashamed to employ him as a toilet cleaner...

The return leg was better, mainly because the driver was cheerful and communicative...the seats were still pretty worn but the backs were clean.

Overall his is an unfortunate image to be coming away with...

Even if you're among the country's top operators and get it right with frequency, price and marketing, you can still so easily get it totally wrong/lose it if the front end's a disaster!

Anonymous said...

Webberbus are nothing to write home about. Drivers constantly riding up front, phones out, making their own routes up.
Buses that don't turn up, unrealistic running times.
Yes the buses are leased but filthy outside.
Total lack of roadside info or timetables.
No supervision.
Passengers left on buses when drivers handover with no replacement driver.
If First BOS sort themselves out they'll sort Webberbus out

Anonymous said...

The 26/46 is probably B&H's worst route from a vehicle quality point of view; it's had the oldest and scruffiest vehicles for years and really lets the side down, which is a shame, although some might say that you're only as good as your worst service.

B&H get most things right but when they're poor, it really shows. That said, overall presentation in 2014 isn't what it was five or ten years ago... and they're even taking some paid advertising now.

Anonymous said...

Anon 13:28 - if Webberbus is as bad as you make out, why is First spending so much money, time and effort to try to beat them? Your claim suggests that any demise would be down to the operator themselves, perhaps with a little help if VOSA were to poke their nose in.

Presumably Webberbus themselves see a positive future, what with half a dozen new B7RLE buses (okay, probably leased but still not cheap) now on the road.

Anonymous said...

First's longer serving BoS staff are, ironically the people with the most to gain from a revitalised locally focused operation.

The longer serving staff may date back to NBC days, and may of the older staff will have joined a privatised Southern National. Their pensions and long service will keep them there when younger people will leave the job and go elsewhere. But their years of experience can be capitalised upon with a new image and way of thinking - and with it the battle becomes Webberbus' to lose.

I think the bigger question is why Webberbus cannot attract staff in a recession, with a modern fleet to drive.

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Anonymous said...

http://www.somersetcountygazette.co.uk/news/11155638.Taunton_park_and_ride_operator_sacked_following_complaints/?ref=var_0

Difficult to see how Webberbus can manage the loss of a 7 vehicle contract on top of last year's losses.

They are left with some school contracts and a 1 bus tender, following the commercial introduction of 2/3 other SCC tenders.

All of which makes WB vulnerable in cash flow terms. Is the end imminent or will it find a backer to support it?