Grayline’s new depot
Set up for the next 60 years
After 35 years in their Bicester depot, family run operator, Grayline Coaches, has moved. As it enters its 60th year of operation, the company now inhabits a former farm just a couple of miles outside of Bicester, which has been extensively converted to create a facility made to measure for them. It was a major investment and was a stressful time for Operations Manager, Paul Gray, but one he thought was very much worthwhile. Chris Peat visited the new site recently to see how the company is getting on in its new base.
From railway to farm
Although Paul now considers the move a very positive step, it was not initially Grayline’s decision. The company’s old site was originally part of Bicester’s railway station, which was decommissioned in the 70s. Grayline moved in there in 1980. Before that, the operation had been based elsewhere in the town, then owned by the parents of Alan Gray (Paul’s uncle and current Director of the company). In 1976, Alan ‘resurrected’ the business after its operations began to downsize. It was around this time that Alan’s brother, Brian, joined the family firm. Brian had run his own fleet in Gosforth and combined this operation into Grayline’s business. It remains a family run operation, with Paul’s brother, Stuart, working as Traffic Manager.
The most recent relocation became necessary when Network Rail compulsory purchased the previous site as part of its development plans for the town’s rail network. ‘We found out about this in June 2010,’ said Paul. ‘So it’s something that was hanging over our heads for nearly five years before it was actually put in place. We received all the legal paperwork in February 2014.’
Originally, Grayline had until November 2014 to up sticks from the Bicester site but a deal was done with Network Rail that allowed them to lease it until February 2015, giving them a little extra time to find a replacement depot. It wasn’t an easy process though, Paul said, ‘It got to the point where we thought we were going to have to shut up and go home.’
In the end, the building Grayline ended up moving into seems to have been meant to be. Whilst on a school run, Paul drove by the old farm site as the estate agents were nailing up a ‘For Sale’ sign. He consulted Alan Gray, his uncle and Director and the rest of his family, then viewed the site the same day. The following day an offer was made and accepted.
It became Grayline’s on 1 December 2014 and the development process began. As the conversion of the new site into a depot progressed, the fleet gradually moved in, with half still at the former building and half at the new one. The maintenance side remained at the Bicester workshop until the new base was fully complete. Grayline finally said goodbye to the old depot on 27 February when it took full residence in the new facility.
Commenting on the new site, Paul said, ‘Size wise, it is fantastic compared to the old place. We’ve gone from 0.66 of an acre to 19 acres, we really have gone from one extreme to the other.’
Grayline now has an eight bay workshop, as well as a dedicated ATF lane, which it not only uses for its own fleet but has opened it up to third parties too. Its first day of testing was only a couple of days prior to my visit.
One of the few grumbles Paul had with the move was from drivers, who were understandably upset as they had to ‘work on a building site’, with the parking area essentially a field to begin with. Paul said, ‘You know what drivers are like, they’re all proud of their vehicles, so they weren’t very happy with the amount of mud there was in the early stages of building. With about 15 contractors on the job at the time, the place was like a quagmire. It got to the point where I went to Homebase and I bought every pair of wellies they had for the drivers.’
Space to grow
Despite the mud and hustle and bustle of a building site, the conversion process went relatively smoothly, if taking slightly longer than planned. The investment in the site saw a Premier Pit installed in the ATF lane and two in the workshop, with Maha testing and maintenance equipment fitted in both. Referring to the ATF lane, which is housed in a separate building from the workshop, Paul said, ‘With the test station at Bicester closed, we felt we had justification to spend an additional £110,000 on it. There’s no real ATF testing station around here now.’
As well as improved maintenance and repair facilities, the new site also gives Grayline more parking room. In the old depot, vehicles had to be parked four wide by three deep. Paul said, ‘If you ever needed a vehicle, you knew it was going to be the one at the back where you have to move two or three coaches just to get it out.’ That is not the case in the new site, with all vehicles easily accessible due to the extra room.
The office space is still the same size, but Paul described it as ‘better’. Drivers’ facilities have been enhanced too, with a shower and tea room in place, as well as separate facilities for the engineers. The depot has been ‘modernised and brought into the 21st century’. With the new site now fully occupied, Grayline is looking to hire new staff (see vacancies on our Careers page).
Commenting on the location of the site, Paul said he does miss being near the conveniences of Bicester town centre. He said, ‘It was good if you needed the doctors, dentist or just wanted to nip out for a bite to eat.’ However, space is the biggest gain, with one benefit of the new site being that the company now has better staff parking facilities. It also has a newly installed fuel tank and pump from Tokheim, as well as a waste oil burner to warm the workshop.
There is space to grow too, with only a proportion of the land acquired being used. There are large expanses of fields to the sides and rear of the building. A wire fence has been erected around the parking area, with a section between the fence and the rearmost part of the paving left bare to facilitate any further growth. Paul looks upon it as ‘future proofing’.
There is even a farmhouse on the land, which Paul said he is trying to tempt his wife and family to move into, suggesting to his partner she resign from her current role and start working for the family business.
Operationally speaking, even though there are now a couple of dead miles when running into Bicester, the location just off the A41 is an advantage for the firm. It runs stage carriage work, a shuttle service for staff and customers of Bicester Village designer outlet, as well as a park and ride service to the site. The latter has been operated since 2007 and runs every weekend or seven days a week during the run up to Christmas.
Coach work consists of local private hire, as well as school contracts, with several private home to school routes run on behalf of and funded by parents. A UK and continental tour programme is operated, going as far as Norway, the Czech Republic and Italy amongst other destinations. Paul said, ‘We do everything from a 23 day trip to Europe to a half hour run down the road.’
Grayline has differing specification standards for its coaches, with a standard class available, including 53 seats, a PA system and CD player. The touring class has a higher specification, including fridges and DVD players.
Coaches often run into London, with work in the capital including providing services for a number of language schools. Coach parking is a ‘major, major issue’ here, according to Paul. He said the Traffic Wardens are ‘almost commission based’ and he related a number of stories of them being somewhat trigger happy with their tickets. One interesting suggestion he had was for the authorities to concrete over half of Hyde Park and create a central point for coaches. This could be linked to the city’s existing transport network for ongoing journeys for passengers and in addition, driver’s facilities could be provided. Similar schemes have worked for other big European cities, he says, with a number of them not allowing coaches into the city centre. ‘All of our fleet are London LEZ compliant,’ he said. ‘It’s just something you have to accept. You comply with it or you get out of the city.’
With the move representing a significant investment in funds and time, fleet renewal has been put into the backburner for the time being. Grayline currently has 22 vehicles, five of which are service buses, including two Optare Solos and three Wrightbus StreetLites. The latter are used exclusively on the Bicester Village contract. They are the company’s second batch of StreetLites, having originally taken a batch in 2010, which were the 9.5m wheel forward version. The following batch and currently the newest in Paul’s fleet are 10.6m door forward models.
Commenting on the StreetLites, Paul said, ‘Generally, they have been very good. We’ve had a couple of minor issues like you get with every manufacturer’s vehicles, but Wrights on the whole have been very good. They have always got back to us with support within 48 hours.’
In terms of coaches, Grayline runs a mixed fleet. It has a number of Beulas bodied Ivecos, a couple of MANs, two Mercedes-Benzes and a couple of Volvos. ‘It’s about the right deal on the day. We have no allegiance to a particular brand,’ said Paul.
According to Paul, the company likes to buy its buses and coaches, it doesn’t lease. Despite not having the time or funds to purchase new vehicles at the moment, there are plans in the future to add to the fleet. Grayline is currently in the process of procuring new buses for a future contract with a new ‘Ecotown’ being built nearby, which requires low emission buses. Paul is looking at either a Solo or an Enviro200 for the route.
With this new contract, he has looked into green powered buses, including electrics and hybrids. Electrics he is not too sure about and will not be going down this route as of yet because he believes the range of their batteries will not be sufficient for the demanding service the buses will be used on. He commented, ‘The technology is not there for it at the moment, but it will come.’
Outside of green technologies, Paul’s main concern, like many up and down the country, is the lack of ‘good, honest staff’. He said, ‘Ask yourself, do you want to be driving £300,000 worth of equipment and have the lives of passengers in your hands? Why would you want to do that for £10 or £11 per hour?’
He finds there are very few youngsters entering the industry. ‘We used to take two youngsters on with a licence, perhaps from a local bus operator. We would train them up and put them on private hire work. Then progress them onto two driver jobs to France, for battlefield tours. Over a three to five year process, you would have a driver that can handle all the different work you have to do, knowing all the rules and regulations and how to deal with passengers.’
He went on to mention the unsociable hours. ‘Being away for days on end, away from your partner and children, that’s got to put a strain on your relationship. Even with service bus work, you might be starting at three in the morning or finishing late at night.’
There is a lot of stigma attached to the job as well, he claimed. He remembers back to the 70s and 80s when PSV drivers were regarded as professionals, where now he claims they are seen as ‘just a driver’.
He says there is more legislation these days, but generally this is ‘not an issue’. He describes the Driver CPC as both ‘good and bad’, saying, ‘CPC training is good, it helps refresh your knowledge, but it’s when you have a jumped up young guy at the front of the class teaching. He might have all the letters at the end of his name, but he hasn’t seen it through the drivers’ perspective.’
Oxfordshire County Council has ‘taken it to the next level’ recently, he said, having made it so all drivers in the county have to take a course on keeping vulnerable passengers safe. This has to be completed by all his drivers by January 2016. Paul described it as ‘unnecessary and unwarranted’. He said, ‘I believe it’s a tick box exercise. If you’re driving with so many lives in your hands, do you want to be keeping your eyes on the road or do you want to be looking back at the passengers, making sure no one vulnerable is being abused? Yes, if the driver notices a passenger is being abused, then report it, but when driving keep your eyes on the road.’
It’s an exciting time for Grayline, with a new depot complete with room to expand into if needed. It is a big step to take and represents a new chapter in the company’s history, which seems appropriate as it coincides with its 60th year of operation.