A Sustainable Future for Bus Travel
Held at the De Vere Carden Park Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa, near Chester under the auspices of Network Warrington last week, the annual ALBUM Conference took as its title ‘A Sustainable Future for Bus Travel’, and a good line-up of speakers addressed this squarely.
ALBUM (the Association of Local Bus Company Managers) represents the bus operations of operators outside the big five and though in terms of the combined number of buses operated by members it does not match the major groups, it is increasingly well respected and consulted. With James Freeman’s move to head up First based in Bristol, Ben Colson has become its Chairman.
Welcoming delegates to a conference that has become widely regarded as one of the best of the year, was Damian Graham, MD of Network Warrington and his greeting was echoed by Maureen Banner, Chair of the organisation.
A welcome fixture at ALBUM is BBC Northwest Tonight’s Chief Reporter, Dave Guest, with his roving microphone, ably carrying out the MC role.
Gordon McDonald, DVSA
First to speak was Gordon McDonald, whose latest title (he’s had four in the last six months) is Product Manager- Enforcement for the DVSA. He felt the title of the conference aligned with current DVSA thinking and also government thinking on transport; trying to drive the economy and break down the traditional barriers that have existed with regard to regulation in the past. In his presentation he looked at the merger of VOSA and the DSA, at the reasons for it, what it has achieved, provided details of some initiatives and also showed delegates some PSV enforcement statistics.
The merger followed a strategy consultation in 2012, that proposed that the roles and numbers of agencies be rationalised to provide improved and more efficient delivery of services to customers across all agencies. Announced in June 2013, the new single agency brought together the testing and standard services provided by VOSA with the Driving Standards Agency. The services were provided by two agencies under a single chief executive and a transitional board from July 2013. Since that time numerous integration steps have been taken and there have been many changes within the combined organisation.
The benefits of the merger were intended to be that: the customer was to be at the heart of the organisation’s services; there was to be a more coherent approach to service delivery; testing and inspecting was to be made more flexible and convenient for operators; the organisation was to continue to keep pace with customer needs; services were to be delivered both conveniently and cost effectively; and an organisation was to be established that would help improve standards and compliance.
Among a number of DVSA achievements mentioned were the issue of over 390,000 DQC cards for PSV and HGV drivers as part of the continued Driver CPC implementation; the keeping of 99.7% of over 2,000,000 theory tests despite the relocation of many test centres, conducting a successful Next Generation Testing pilot in South Wales before rolling it out further, continuing to develop the Remote Enforcement office concept after a successful pilot, and introducing and implementing Road User Levy checks into routine operational enforcement. Also mentioned was the ‘rationalisation of our estate by consolidating driving tests and lorry, bus and coach vehicle testing at 20 sites whilst minimising customer impact,’ though the complaints I hear about waiting times for tests, the distances that now have to be travelled and the additional costs involved all call into question how much of an achievement this is. I’ve yet to meet a smaller operator who welcomes the closing of the local centres.
He thought that Next Generation Testing (NGT) would take testing closer to the customer with flexibly deployed staff able to offer a 24/7 service to the customer, while there would also be a new culture and values with rigorous selection for key roles.
Alongside it, Next Generation Enforcement (NGE) would ensure that non compliance was no longer a cost-effective option and compliance would equate to good business value. It would introduce a wider range of enforcement interventions taking a proportionate and graduated approach, with sanctions (including the remote enforcement office) designed to change behaviour. Transport industry technology would be exploited through remote access to compliance records. ANPR technology would be among the means used to target the non compliant, while industry stakeholders would be actively involved in the design of the ‘Earned Recognition’ scheme.
Looking at PSV enforcement statistics, Gordon revealed that over 9,000 enforcement checks were carried out last year and over 1,900 prohibitions issued. The top five defects causing prohibitions were: indicator light faults, oil leaks from the engine, exhaust system deterioration, door warning devices and seatbelt defects. Running through the PSVAR regulations, regarding which only 41 issues had been identified, he said that DVSA would carry out PSVAR checks on all ‘in scope’ vehicles during roadside checks, operator visits and fleet compliance checks. He reminded delegates that the general rule was: ‘if fitted, features must work and not present a danger to any person.’
It is convention that the manufacturers who sponsor the event provide an update on vehicle and technology matters and this year four high ranking speakers explained their companies’ philosophies with regard to the conference theme. All of these have been covered at different times within the pages of B&CB so I won’t go into detail here.
Mark Nodder, Chairman & CEO of Wrightbus, pointed out that ‘a week really is a long time in politics’ saying that, ‘the voice of the industry needs to be heard and not taken for granted,’ before considering the technology path the Wright Group has adopted for reasons of fuel efficiency, environmental impact and cost. He thought EV double deckers were likely to be too heavy and have too short a range but that opportunity charging was the way ahead to give range to electric buses, being particularly suitable for double deck. Looking at the sustainability roadmap and the costs involved, he asked where all the electricity was coming from and how it would be provided to the point of use? After saying there was a need to look at a standard open access interface for charging he concluded by saying that if we lived in a world that was used to relying on electric, we’d think the arrival of Euro6 diesel was something special.
Phil Fletcher, Fleet Sales Manager for Volvo Bus, outlined Volvo’s electromobility sustainable transport solutions, pointing out that the UK was Europe’s biggest hybrid market. Volvo’s manufacturing plant at Poznan in Poland now only built hybrid city buses. Volvo’s electric hybrids offered bigger battery capacity than a diesel hybrid and beyod that there was the full electric battery bus. The time scale would see single deck electric hybrids available from the first quarter of 2016 with the double deck following in the third quarter of 2017, by which time the fully electric single deck would already be available, with the double deck full electric following in the second quarter of 2020.
Jonas Stromberg is Scania’s Director of Sustainable Solutions. He said Scania concentrated on commercially viable solutions including bioethanol, biodiesel, biogas and natural gas. There was no single silver bullet solution to the problem of air quality and it was important to save energy in whichever way it could be done. Scania had what he claimed was the first gas engine competing with a diesel in terms of efficiency, with no need for aftertreatment to achieve Euro6. He urged operators to look at the gas bus calculator on the Scania stand and said operators were welcome to try out the so called Poo-bus running on biomethane generated from waste, that was exhibited among the demonstrators outside the hotel.
Ken Scott, ADL’s Group Engineering Director, took a different tack, saying that there were two fundamentals for ADL: Firstly, know and understand the wants and needs of your customers and, secondly, believe in the power of partnerships as the key to success. After running through some recent successful product developments, Ken said that 250 low cost GKN hybrids would be delivered in the next 18 months; the new virtual electric models ran in zero emission mode for 80% of the time they were on the road; and promised, ‘in the next 18 months we will take another quantum step forward.’
Ben Colson, Album Chairman
In a short presentation Ben first commended the pages of the Reverend Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine books for their useful management advice, 70 years to the day since the first one was published, before welcoming to the stage the former Chairman, James Freeman, who though no longer eligible to be a member, praised the organisation for the role it can and does play, saying it is often able to say important things that nobody else can say.
Sir Brian Souter, Chairman of Stagecoach Group
Making a return visit to ALBUM, opening the business sessions on the second day, Sir Brian Souter is always worth listening to. To begin with I had a feeling of déjà vu as the words and jokes were the same as I’d heard before but then he was off at his thought provoking best, asking the audience as many questions as he answered.
He began by recalling his experiences when he first entered the business in 1980 and his suggestions were constantly answered with the claim that he didn’t understand because buses were different. ‘Buses are not different’, he said, pointing out that you needed to answer telephones and engage with the public and that marketing was not a waste of money, because with the right products and people you could grow markets.
In 2003 he had returned to the Chief Executive role with the belief that there was an opportunity to reinvent the express coach market, something his predecessor had not wanted to do. He had first talked to Stelios about using the ‘easy’ brand but he had wanted too much money for it. £16,000 was spent on a website and the Megabus brand was launched. Two 96-seat Olympians, the fastest of which would do 55mph, (no wonder drivers referred to them as Snail and Slug) were used to prove the concept worked. It had grown and developed and the latest incarnation of the concept was Polskibus.com.
Now he believed the industry had reached a hiatus point. He didn’t know whether the industry was facing a threat or an opportunity, and by threat he did not mean that of re-regulation, the likelihood of which had temporarily abated.
At Polskibus.com which relied on IT to work, the website kept grinding to a halt because aggregators were constantly scraping the site and in the process were wrecking the servers. They had tried the same at both National Express and Megabus and had been thwarted by constant vigilance. If they succeeded they could become the entry point for all of your customers. He told delegates, ‘Blessed are the geeks. We don’t have enough geeks in our companies.’
In Germany the express market had been deregulated but the model was different. The big players were not operators and they didn’t have engineers on their boards, they didn’t need them, they just had commercial people and geeks on their teams. They were just selling and developing apps. Sir Brian still wanted to have an engineer on his team. Pointing out that a ‘Super geek’ earned a salary of £500,000 a year, he said, ‘the world is changing.’
Describing running taxis as ‘a really smelly business’ he said that Uber had found a way to make it work. By yield management, using part time drivers and relentlessly squeezing suppliers it had grown the San Francisco taxi market from $325m annually when it started to $700m today with all the money being made by Uber as the technology supplier. He said the final wake up call had come five weeks ago when they announced that they thought they were in the market for a $5 dollar fare in San Francisco. ‘We could have a very big problem or a very big opportunity coming down the tube,’ he said.
Looking at the provision of local bus services and the ability to link it in with other apps of businesses on routes to provide enhanced packages for customers, he asked, ‘Is there something happening that we are missing out on,’ suggesting ‘We need to get on,’ and warning, ‘If we don’t do it, someone else will and we’ll be in big trouble.’
Using a slide showing people’s need to use a product and the frequency with which they needed to use it, he demonstrated the difference between ordinary companies with websites, web stock companies and tech stock companies and showed how their value in EBITDA differed massively, also pointing out that those with no tech would be inevitably squeezed by those who controlled the technology.
He believed the illustration showed two must nots. Firstly, the industry must not say that we are different to all other businesses. ‘That’s what they said 30 years ago and they were wrong. I don’t want to be the NBC of 2015,’ he said. Secondly, ‘We mustn’t wait to be picked off one at a time. Local bus services may be like utilities but express services are definitely vulnerable. If you only end up being a supplier you will be squeezed.’
He had a number of recommendations, among them that we needed to revisit where cabs fitted in. Could they offer an alternative. Would it be cheaper to put cabs in rather than increasing PVR on some routes. Sir Brian suggested, ‘We need to share information. We can either partner a tech stock or create our own.’
‘The dream solution for me would be to create our own tech stock. We would all work together to create a tech stock not responsible for delivering anything. We would immunise ourselves against a geek coming in.’
He concluded, ‘Have I overestimated the threat or underestimated the opportunity. We’ve got to make our minds up soon.’
In the following question session he was asked where small companies would fit in. He had good and bad news, saying, ‘It needs to be comprehensive so it would need you in’ but he also warned, ‘it is very expensive to do so you won’t have the funds and could be squeezed.’
Asked whether his suggestion wasn’t also the answer everything in the re-regulation debate, he agreed, ‘it would be almost impossible to re-regulate.’
He thought, ‘we may need to get better at marketing because it may be the only thing we have to do.’
One difficulty was that companies would need to standardise IT but he believed, ‘we are sat on an enormous opportunity. We’ve got to monetise it, utilise it and please it before someone else does.’
Ian Jones, Backhouse Jones
There is always a strong element of theatre in an Ian Jones presentation. This time he was accompanied on stage by two skeletal skulls representing the male and female brains. Ian alleged that while the male brain consisted of a series of entirely independent boxes of which the default box was ‘the nothing box’, the female brain was a mass of interconnected wiring, governed by emotion, in which everything affected everything else. Nothing drove a woman more crazy than watching a man doing nothing which, he advised, had to be borne in mind when you were talking to Senior Traffic Commissioner, Mrs Beverley Bell!
This set the scene for a discourse on compliance, in which the importance of a company’s directors knowing what was going on with every aspect of compliance was stressed. It was not possible to deal with compliance in isolation and ignorance was no excuse. ‘I know nothing won’t wash,’ he said, advising, ‘Compliance must run through the entirety of your business. Focus on compliance; make it an important part of your every day’.
He recalled the advice of Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou of easyjet, ‘If you think Health and Safety is expensive; try an accident.’
‘When you are dealing with compliance, the most important thing is to have an excellent Transport Manager,’ said Ian. The Transport Manager has responsibility for compliance and if he does not achieve this because you’re not giving him the right resources, he must resign. He will probably have a claim for constructive dismissal and will usually become a whistle blower and you’ll find yourself at a Public Inquiry. ‘So it’s very important you have a good relationship with your Transport Manager,’ said Ian Jones, also pointing out that there isn’t one answer to compliance and it isn’t a perfect world we are living in.
His ideal Transport Manager was Fulton Mackay in the television comedy ‘Porridge’; impervious to criticism, not bothered that drivers don’t like him but with his ear to the ground.
Your drivers are the most important part of your business, so make sure your Transport Manager stays in touch with them. Driver defect sheets are vitally important. Your TM needs to have constant suspicion of driver’s defect sheets and remember that if someone uses an obscenity to describe a vehicle on one, it doesn’t sound good if that is one day read out in court.
To complete his presentation, Ian Jones changed tack slightly, saying that it was very important for your business that on occasions you say nothing. He recommended that, ‘When you are dealing with DVSA, take legal advice,’ pointing out that our legal system is not that you have to say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but that if you do say anything, it must be the truth. At all cost avoid going to court, he said, ‘the courts are for the mad, the bad, the rich and the destitute,’ concluding by recommending the Backhouse Jones Back-Up product which provides access to personnel and compliance lawyers on a 24/7 basis for 26p per vehicle per day.
Cy Chambers, Exterion Media
Exterion Media Franchise Manager, Cy Chambers, spoke about engaging audiences and understanding some of the products and research his company uses. Exterion is a sales and marketing company with a major backroom research department. It uses around 40 key points of reference for its key insight tools. Two products described in some detail were the Mosaic audience profile identification tool and the Work.Shop.Play stand alone product which has been under development for three years. Work.Shop.Play is an online urban community of over 10,000 people, and that completes a 5-6 minute survey once a week, to find out participants’ opinions on various topics, which range from fashion to films, and coffee to travel.
He also told delegates of a six-month Apple i-beacons trial undertaken in Norwich, involving equipment on 110 First buses, which will be followed up by a nine-month London trial of 500 beacon buses starting in July. Under the system apps react to signals from beacons to give location based offers.
John Miles, Arup
John is an expert in electric buses and has been heavily involved in the electric bus project in Milton Keynes. He began by explaining why electric buses were a good idea. There had been a population explosion since 1800 and if things continued as they were, humans would run out of things to consume. There was concern over greenhouse gases, CO2 and air quality. Unfortunately, the reduction of CO2 and other noxious gases had fought against each other with the result that Euro4-6 had been introduced which had increased rather than decreased diesel consumption, which in turn increased CO2 emissions while reducing other harmful emissions.
A problem he saw was that for bus emissions to even equal those of a passenger car there needed to be 20 people onboard, and often this wasn’t the case off peak. ‘The horrible reality is that buses aren’t very green, though they would be if they were full all the time,’ he said.
He thought the electric bus offered a solution because they were as flexible as a diesel, more flexible than a trolleybus and offered zero emissions at tailpipe level, though there were still power station emissions, this was more efficient than a diesel. The problem with running an electric bus as a diesel bus did was the cost, weight and consequent capacity restriction of the batteries required, which was answered by opportunity charging. There were various types of charging available with opportunity charging the most promising. In financial terms there was a significant capital cost disadvantage to electric buses because though the electric motor was cheaper, the need for the batteries and the opportunity charging equipment meant that an electric bus might be £192,000 compared with £122,000 for a diesel. Set against that were a reduced maintenance requirement and much lower fuel costs which meant that the payback period was around 4.5 years, less for a double decker, although £90-£100,000 more expensive, because the fuel saving was greater.
To prove the theory in real life, the 15mile (each way) 7 route in Milton Keynes was converted to all electric bus operation using eight electric StreetLites operated by Arriva, using wireless opportunity charging. Arup and Matsui jointly funded an enabling company set up to get the scheme off the ground. It started in January 2014 and buses on it have covered 500,000miles to date. There have been teething problems but it is currently achieving 90% reliability and in emissions terms they break even compared with the car with only four people onboard.
Although no Q&A session was listed for this presentation the audience insisted and it turned into one of the liveliest of the event with John Miles asked some searching questions and providing well argued answers to them. He admitted that a longer layover requirement had required additional ongoing driver costs, increasing the PVR by one vehicle which in turn had increased the payback period to between five and six years.
Beverley Bell, Senior Traffic Commissioner/CILT President-Elect
Referring to Statutory Guidance Document (SGD) 14, she said it had been a long time coming and in some respects the world had not changed since it had arrived. It was still OK to be up to a minute early and up to five minutes late, unless there were exceptional circumstances or you had a reasonable excuse. Doing SGD14 had made her realise that however hard you tried you couldn’t please all of the people all of the time. ‘The people who are happy are the passengers because that is who we are here to serve,’ she said.
‘I can be a little bit of a control freak,’ she said, because she had wanted to put in the guidance a lot about what operators must do, but she had received a call from the Department for Transport, telling her to put it in a separate annexe because ‘we can’t be too prescriptive about what operators have to do.’
‘How are we going to be measuring your success and your compliance?’ she asked, answering, ‘in two ways.’ Firstly a series of workshops is being set up with Transport (formerly Passenger) Focus addressing issues covered in SGD14, among them: setting timetables, monitoring punctuality in real time and retrospectively, the window of tolerance and the targets around that, what does corrective action look like and how long will it take you to implement it, and, finally, the publication of performance data.’ She urged people to look at the Transport Focus website, see where the workshops were and participate in them.
On window of tolerance targets she said that there was a recognition by Traffic Commissioners that 95% was a target and sometimes you would achieve it and sometimes you won’t reach it, ‘we understand that, that’s the real world, all we want to know is what are you doing to move towards that target?’
The other way the impact of SGD14 was being looked at was by rewriting and revising the DVSA guide to the good operation of punctual and reliable services which is to become an Office of the Traffic Commissioner Guide.
Finally, DVSA will be reviewing how its compliance officers are working on the ground. There had been some pilots and there was going to be a meeting in June or July to look at how they had worked, how to make sure the right people and organisations were being enforced, and how the right operators were being left alone. That sat with the TC’s strategic objective of just targeting the serial and seriously non-compliant and leaving the compliant to get on with business.
Mrs Bell was now working on SGD6, the Statutory Guidance Document on driver conduct. ‘You know you are only as good as your drivers and there are some fantastic bus and coach drivers out there … but there are also some pretty awful ones, so what we’re doing with SGD6 is looking at what are the starting points for action. We are already engaged in an initial consultation that has gone out to the key players in the industry.’
She asked the audience what the biggest issue was for them with regard to driver conduct. The answers were: making them take responsibility for their hours, criminality, inefficient and irresponsible driving and customer service. Nobody mentioned the use of technology for texting and phoning until they were prompted.
She had recently spoken at an RHA lunch and she thought that the three topics she had addressed would also be at the top of the agenda for bus operators. They were the driver shortage, the skills shortage and the industry’s poor public image.
In conclusion, changing to her CILT President’s hat, she spoke of the organisation’s new Busmark benchmarking scheme, of which she said, ‘The advantage of it is that it encourages us and you to share best practice in an open environment.’
In a late addition to the proceedings that did not appear in the programme, Austin Birks, of CILT explained how he had revamped the organisation in the last few years and more about the launch of Busmark, which he described as a new benchmarking club for operators. He was joined on stage by Martijn Gilbert of Reading Buses, Alex Perry of Arriva Midlands, Adrian deCourcey of DeCourcey Travel and Chris Darby of Busmark’s main sponsor, Marsh Insurance, who all added their weight to the need for such a scheme.
As a special offer at ALBUM, with the help of the sponsorship attracted, membership was being offered for £250, a very significant saving on the official price of £895 plus VAT.
You can’t stage a top class conference of this nature without hefty sponsorship from somewhere and ALBUM received considerable support from its main sponsors: Alexander Dennis, Wrightbus, Optare, Scania, Volvo, Allison Transmission and Lucid and sponsors; Omnibus, McKenna Brothers, Parkeon, Timespace Technology, INIT, Forest Asset Finance, Bus & Coach World, Mix Telematics and Michelin Solutions.
The major manufacturers chose to display examples of their products which included the latest Enviro200 MMC in the colours of National Express West Midlands; a Wrightbus Streetdeck Daimler powered double decker, the new MCV EvoSeti double deck body on the Volvo B5TL chassis; a Mercedes-Benz Citaro for Blackpool Transport; a 2009 Scania OmniCity refurbished by bus and Coach World for Halton Transport; a Scania ADL Enviro300 biogas powered bus (or Poo-Bus); an Optare Solo SR for Perrymans; a Wright Streetlite Door Forward demonstrator; a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Travel 45 minibus; an Optare MetroCity; a Warrington Wrightbus bodied DAF SB120 that had been repainted by Read Commercials; an ADL Enviro200 and, performing on a shuttle run to overspill hotels, a Solo SR.
There is always a compromise between the selection of pleasant hotels with top class sporting facilities for guests and hotels with exhibition facilities and on this occasion the trade stands were somewhat spread out in three separate buildings and on two floors. Nevertheless trade representation was very healthy. I won’t go into the products shown within this article but we will be covering a number of them in future publications. Exhibitors included: Autosound/Sound Technologies; Scan Coin; Rescroft; Politecnica SRL/Abacus; McKenna Brothers; Bus Electrical; Groeneveld UK; Ticketer; Cummins UK; Fuelink Systems; Invertec Interiors; Icomera; Q-Straint; TEK Seating; Hants & Dorset Trim; Read Motor Body Commercials; The Road Operator Safety Council; Centrad; First Corporate Clothing; Voland Commercials; the UK Bus Awards; The Transport Benevolent Fund; FCL; Hanover Displays; Lloyds Morgan Group; CILT; Lazzerini; INIT; Lucid Networks; Omnibus; Backhouse Jones; Camira Fabrics; Voith Turbo; Altro Transflor; E P Morris; Mix Telematics; Parkeon Transit; PSV Glass; Optimum Oils; Timespace Technology and Bus & Coach World.
As ever, it was a well organised, informative and enjoyable event that provided excellent networking opportunities for trade and operating delegates alike.
Next year’s event will be under the auspices of Ian Longworth on the Isle of Man, so I’d better get my act together earlier than I did this year to ensure my booking is in for that one.