Second time around for former Konectbus team
Coastal Red Ltd, trading as Lynx is a new bus company that began operating in King’s Lynn last month. The team behind it is Steve Challis, Andy Warnes and Julian Patterson though Julian only became involved at a late stage of planning for contractual reasons linked to his previous role as MD of Go Ahead’s East Anglian operations. You may be encountering a degree of déjà vu about that management line up because Andy, Steve and Julian were the team that in 1999 set up the highly successful Konectbus operation, latterly based in Dereham, though originally located at the former Norfolk Green depot in Saham Toney. Norfolk Green is now owned by Stagecoach but that link is perhaps slightly ironic because the first stage carriage service Lynx has introduced is on the corridor between Hunstanton and King’s Lynn, though the nature of the service is somewhat different to those the silver and green buses provide.
Andy, Steve and Julian all worked for First Eastern Counties, Andy on a modern engineering apprenticeship (that he completed at Konectbus), Steve ultimately as Operations Director and Julian as Operations Manager at the King’s Lynn depot. There is something of a pattern behind the director’s motivation for starting Lynx and the original impetus to get Konectbus off the ground – they were disillusioned with life working for a big group. Back in 1999 they felt that First was taking its eye of the ball and was only interested in volume. They wanted to place the emphasis on quality and attention to detail and also wanted to be in charge of their own destinies. As Julian recalls, ‘You were clerks when they wanted you to be and only managers when something was going wrong.’
Just as Lynx is, Konectbus started in a small way with five vehicles. From that, and a couple of depots later, the fleet stood at 45 when in 2009 they were approached by the Go Ahead group with a good offer. It wanted to build an East Anglian operation, and after completing the Konectbus purchase in March 2010 went on to purchase notable independents Anglian, Hedingham & District and Chambers of Bures. At the time Steve and Julian were happy to sell because they thought the time and price were right, although Andy didn’t really want to.
The sale deal included two year ‘golden handcuff’ agreements for the trio, at the end of which Andy decided to leave and take a near complete break, spending the time with his two young children. ‘For me the timing was perfect,’ he commented, ‘you wouldn’t normally get that opportunity. Apart from some building work I didn’t do anything for 18 months.’
Steve Challis stayed until March 2013 when he decided he couldn’t take plc life any longer. Julian observed that ‘Go Ahead in 2010 was very different to Go Ahead today.’ With Steve’s departure Julian was made MD and shortly after that Andrew Pursey resigned from Anglian leading to Julian gaining responsibility for that too. ‘It was loss making so we had to do a transformation to turn it round,’ he recalled. Then, in September 2013, George Mutch who had been running Hedingham and Chambers left and responsibility for this also passed to Julian. Andy was persuaded to come out of retirement for a while to help get the fleet up to the condition it needed to be. Julian said of him, ‘I can spot or smell a defect at 200 yards and Andy can fix it. He’s the best bus engineer I’ve ever worked with.’
In September 2013 Andy and Steve registered a limited company; Coastal Red Ltd. At that stage, Andy told me, it could have been any type of business, with consideration given to property and engineering, although the possibility of a new bus company was always there. Julian was not involved at this stage and was not a director. Despite having said he would never run buses again, Andy realised that while his head said no, his heart said that running buses was the only thing he could do, though preferably for himself rather than someone else.
As thoughts began to crystallise, the focus fell on King’s Lynn and West Norfolk partly because they both lived in the area. Norfolk Green, the main operator in the area, was on the market at the time, and was sold to Stagecoach in the December of that year.
Talking about his competitor Julian said, ‘Ben Colson had built it and the network up over a period of years and it had done very well. Bus services in West Norfolk wouldn’t be what they are if it wasn’t for Ben and his team at Norfolk Green. Unlike the rest of Norfolk there wasn’t really a lot of competition; most key routes in Norfolk have two operators on them.’ It was against this background that Andy and Steve thought there might be an opportunity coming up, and in the spring of 2014 they decided to go for it.
Locating suitable premises proved a challenge because although there are many industrial estates in the King’s Lynn area, most of them are full of office buildings. What they needed was something much more flexible with a workshop capable of taking a double decker. After some time looking a base on Acer Road was spotted. This rented facility is at the rear of a secure haulage yard and includes a modern two bay workshop and a wash bay facility as well as parking. A couple of portable buildings were later brought in to provide office, mess and stores facilities.
Andy explained that the process of getting a licence proved rather more drawn out than anticipated but one for six vehicles was finally obtained in September.
In May 2014, the two Coastal Red directors had bought an Optare Tempo they saw advertised. Acquired from Pygalls of Peterlee, it was a 12m example with a 55-plate that had been new for the Welsh Government funded Traws Cambria operation and had served with both First and Arriva on that network. In the August, a second Tempo was purchased, this time a 10.6m single door bus purchased direct from Optare. It had been a development bus, had chassis number two and was one of two Tempos that were unveiled at the launch of the Tempo model.
Tempos were in many ways the obvious buses for the company, indeed Norfolk is something of a stronghold for the model. Konectbus had built up a fleet of 14 new and two secondhand examples while Norfolk Green has a considerable number too. Konectbus had always found them economical to operate (returning up to 9mpg depending on route) and both drivers and passengers liked them.
Once the premises had been located a further two ex Traws Cambria buses were acquired from Marchants at Cheltenham during September. Although at this stage the plans to operate were still somewhat speculative, the directors were confident that with DDA fast approaching the buses they had acquired could easily have been moved on again if necessary.
Julian handed in his notice in the spring at Go Ahead and continued working for them until it expired in mid November, rejoining his old colleagues a few days later. He has since become a director. The fact that King’s Lynn is a considerable distance from his former employer’s main operations ensured he would not be treading on their toes. ‘There’s plenty of opportunities round here,’ he said.
Looking back at his time running Go Ahead’s combined operations, Julian noted, ‘The money was good in plc life but some of the frustrations made it increasingly difficult to do the day job, as not everyone at Group level really understood what they had and the issues we faced with different locations and traditions. It also covered a vast area. I haven’t got a problem with being told what to do; it’s whether you believe what you are being told is the right thing to do!’
He noted that, ‘Groups tend to put their own structures in, which add significantly to the cost base of former independents.’ Despite this he feels, ‘There was still a way to go when I left but we made a difference.’
Andy commented, ‘With Julian on board, it gave us chance to firm up some plans and we initially registered an hourly service between Hunstanton and King’s Lynn.’
The route runs from King’s Lynn via South Wootton, Dersingham, Ingoldisthorpe, Snettisham and Heacham to Hunstanton. Departures from King’s Lynn start at 06.25 and are hourly thereafter until 15.25 whereafter there are departures at 16.10, 17.10 and 18.10, the final one arriving in Hunstanton at 19.00 and returning at 19.10 to arrive back in King’s Lynn at 20.00. Impressively, provision is seven days a week, with only the first and last journeys of each day dropped.
Norfolk Green’s 10 and 11 services run every 20 minutes on the corridor and there are also half hourly Coasthopper services. Julian continued, ‘The corridor is fairly well bussed already by Norfolk Green but we are offering something different in the form of a faster service from the villages into King’s Lynn following the route you’d take in a car, without going via the hospital and Gaywood which are notorious for traffic hold ups.’
Numbered the 35, this is a bit of tradition being resurrected as the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company’s Hunstanton to King’s Lynn service was numbered the 35 from the 1920s to 1974. Smart red easy-to-read leaflets have been produced that include fares details. An aspect I liked was the printing of times in red rather than black on a few departures on which traffic conditions are most likely to be congested. A prominent footnote reads, ‘Times in red may be up to five minutes later Monday to Friday.’
Ticket options (with prices shown for King’s Lynn – Hunstanton) are single (£3.40), return (£5.50), ten-trip (£30.50), weekly (£25.00) and monthly (£98.00). Julian found it reassuring that one customer was confident enough in the new business to buy a monthly ticket on the first day of operations and several bought weekly or ten-trip tickets in the first week. He explained that the day return price with Norfolk Green had been increased to £6.70 last year, which the Lynx team felt was high, hence the £5.50 price. He explained, ‘We have tried to pitch the prices so that they are more attractive for the length of route, so it costs the same as car fuel and parking. We want to attract fare payers; to try and get people out of their cars by choice. We have set the normal fares at a level where they will be attractive to people who abandoned buses years ago or have never used them. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit to be had.’
There are discounts for young people in the 5-15 and 16-19 age brackets and for those who have concessionary passes but want to travel before the 09.30 start time on weekdays, showing the pass will earn them a one third discount on a single fare. Further flexibility comes in the return portion of a day return ticket being valid for a month.
Reiterating the operating philosophy, which is the same as that of Konectbus in the past, he said, ‘Our aim is to be on time, every time, with clean buses, friendly drivers, good value fares and a range of tickets.’ Andy added, ‘Every time we do something we want to make it better. We’ve probably gone a little over the top this time.’
As for taking on Norfolk Green, which, as Konectbus had been in 2007, was voted the Independent Operator of the Year in 2013, Julian said, ‘It’s good to have competition. It keeps operators on their toes. I’m sure it will grow the market. There are a lot of houses on the route and more are always being built. Having two good operators on the route will help to counter the damage done in the early 2000s when First used old Olympians and there was no competition.’
Although registered as Coastal Red, the likelihood is that the company will operate services that are not coastal at some stage, so a different trading name was sought. A lot of ideas came up before they settled on Lynx which combines the Lynn of King’s Lynn with the suggestion of providing links, and a fast feline. It might also suggest an attractive aroma but hopefully won’t drive women wild. The red colours were chosen because nobody else in the area uses them. Andy likes Volkswagen cars so VW ‘Mars Red’ was chosen as the shade; any similarity to the ‘Poppy Red’ of National Bus Company days, as worn by some of Julian’s preserved buses, is of course entirely coincidental.
In addition to the owners who include Julian’s partner Jenny who also worked at Konectbus, five driving staff have been taken on, among them Dave Sherwood who was one of the original founders of Norfolk Green and Graham Smith, formerly Commercial Manager at Go Ahead East Anglia. A lot is expected of staff and Julian sees keeping them motivated as highly important. ‘You need to know and support staff so that they feel valued, part of the team and not just a number,’ said Julian. Uniforms are black blazers, white shirts, black coats and ties sporting the distinctive Lynx emblem in red. Feedback on it has been positive.
Bus operations began on Monday 26 January and one of the first passengers waiting was none other than Ben Colson, checking out the new competition to the business he built up.
Although the PVR for the service is two buses, at present there are some temporary traffic light problems in King’s Lynn and three buses are being used to aid reliability, something that shouldn’t be necessary after the end of the month. ‘Then we’ll have two spares and look to develop the route or seek other opportunities,’ said Julian. Marchants’ remaining two Tempos are also due. Another challenge is the redevelopment of King’s Lynn Bus Station which will take until the end of June.
Conceived as a bus company, Lynx also has a coach, although as Julian points out, ‘it is a very bussy coach’. A Volvo B10M MkIV Plaxton Interurban with full destination equipment and provision for eight standees new to First Eastern Counties in 1997 for use on the X94 Norwich to Peterborough service, it had been with Rambler of Hastings. Its purchase, while perhaps slightly sentimental, was prompted by the potential for using it on rail replacement work, though Julian lamented that in this respect West Norfolk seems to have the most reliable trains in the country. Rail replacement work might not be plentiful but shortly after it was purchased an emergency school tender came up between Southery and Downham Market Academy. This was won for two and a half years. Andy worked over Christmas to prepare the coach for the contract which started on 6 January.
‘Sometimes you make your own luck,’ said Julian. ‘If we hadn’t bought it for rail replacement we couldn’t have taken on the school contract at such short notice. I wouldn’t rule out getting other coaches if other school contracts came up, though we won’t be buying any more speculatively. We’re not in the private hire and tour market.’ With a Commercial Vehicle training business located in the same yard, an occasional extra source of revenue for it is for PSV training duties as it is equipped with ABS.
No self respecting bus company can ignore social media and the global information highway to which end there is enthusiastic adoption of both. The website is www.lynxbus.co.uk which contains times, fares, Facebook and twitter accounts, and a section for enthusiasts. Julian thinks it is quite a good site. ‘A local firm did it for us; we like local,’ he said. ‘It is evolving and we’re adding more as we go along.’
The Facebook and twitter elements are, ‘a must these days to keep in touch with the younger generation.’ Julian says of social media, ‘It’s your best friend when everything is going well, but it can be your worst enemy when (often for reasons outside your control) things go wrong. The way you handle unexpected events is key to people’s perception of you. We’ve not had an event here yet but at Konectbus the challenge was, “how can you resolve a problem and keep everyone on the move without them noticing it.”’
Asked about the difference between launching Konectbus and launching Lynx he said, ‘When we started off before we had no vehicles but some work. This time it was the opposite. This time everything is sprayed in fleet livery from the start because we wanted to get the brand and image over immediately. This time we are in competition. On service work customers have to be reassured that you are a reputable, quality operation and that’s the message we want to get across.’
‘At Konectbus we did everything ourselves. We weren’t going to but we have done the same here. There are two of us here at 06.00 for the start of the day and one here until late cleaning the buses. We do get a strange satisfaction from seeing all of the buses clean, even though we know that they’ll sometimes be dirty by 08.00 the following morning. People can tell the difference between surface dirt and a bus that is rarely washed.’
Presentation is seen as really important. ‘We always make sure the wheels are clean,’ said Julian who finds it useful to clean buses regularly himself. Though there is a bus wash at the depot, it is rarely used. ‘Bus washes are OK if you need to do a lot of buses but they don’t clean as well as you’d do it yourself. We only use the wash base and a pressure wash. If you get up close and personal with the buses every night you tend to spot any issues. We are at a size where we can do it and be on the ball.’
As part of DfT/Norfolk County Council smart ticketing pilot scheme they were supplied with Ticketer ticket machines. They did not have to pay for them but forfeit the 8% BSOG uplift that they would otherwise be entitled to. There is an option to opt out of the scheme after 12 or 24 months and receive BSOG is they feel they are losing out. Julian was very positive about them on the limited basis of less than two weeks’ experience. ‘We’ve used various machine suppliers over the years and these are the best we’ve had. All the information is instant. It is Cloud based and you can sit and watch every ticket being issued. You can see it on your mobile too. It includes GPS so you can sit at the side of the road and see what is going on. The machines themselves might look a bit unconventional but it’s all good. It is also a reliable way of messaging drivers that eliminates the temptation for them to text. So far it has done everything it says on the tin which couldn’t always be said of previous machines. The back up is excellent. I don’t often recommend things but I would recommend Ticketer,’ said Julian.
Inevitably, because it is coastal and a nice place to live, there will be a lot of concessionary fare passengers. An early concern was that MCL, who administer the fixed pot scheme for Norfolk, said that Lynx would not receive any reimbursement until 25 June. After discussion that has now changed and the wait has been reduced to three months, which as Julian noted, ‘is still a long time. If we hadn’t had money to start with it might have been a difficult thing to start up. It would put new entrants off having to wait nearly half a year for the first penny of what should be coming through the farebox from day one.’
He continued, ‘I have always thought that the free bus pass principle is good as it enables those who would otherwise not get out to do so, but it’s a shame Central Government doesn’t appreciate that County Councils need to have the appropriate funding to support it. Imagine telling bakers that they’d got to give pensioners free bread and they’d give them the money back three months later based on 40-pence in the pound on the average price of a loaf. It’s also a bit discriminatory in that if a pensioner lives in a village like Docking which is 6-7 miles from a bus route they might have to get a taxi once a week, whereas someone in Hunstanton can travel free every day.’
It was only the second week of operation when I visited but passenger numbers were already where the projections put them at the end of the first month. Julian admitted, ‘It’s not the best time of year to start a service to the coast, but we’re pleased with how things have gone so far. We’re confident that when it stops raining and snowing it will tip over into profitability, especially when we know what we are getting for concessionary fares. As it is a fixed pot it’s a bit difficult for a new operator to tell.’
There has been a reaction from Norfolk Green/Stagecoach who reduced their fares to levels similar to those of Lynx the week after the fares table was published on the website. ‘We won’t get into a fares war, we’ll compete on quality of service,’ said Julian. ‘The key thing for us is how to target people who aren’t on the bus who could be and get them on board. It’s something we’re working on.’
The 35 isn’t a huge route and is obviously only the first stage in what Lynx would like to develop into. ‘It is very early days but we are looking at other places where we could run commercial routes, where there is nothing at the moment or hasn’t been for several years,’ said Julian. ‘When we started Konectbus we said we’d stop at 12, when we got to 20 we said 25 and we went beyond that. We’re saying 20 here but you’re not always in control. Sometimes the market dictates your fleet size. We’d prefer to stay under 20 because after that you have to employ people to do things you’d like to do yourself.’
He concluded, ‘I enjoy running buses, not sitting at a desk. I want to be at the coalface where you are involved in making it all happen.’