Ensignbus’ dealership gives encouraging performance, while its bus operations battle on
Like many operators up and down the country, Ensignbus has had its share of staff absences due to ‘pings’ on the NHS Covid app. Over the period of the pandemic, the Purfleet-based operator and dealer has had a bitter-sweet experience. Surprisingly, its dealership side has been busy, according to its Chairman, Peter Newman. However, he reports the bus operation side of the business has had its challenges like others across the country.
“The Government has helped with one hand and destroyed with the other,” Peter said. “They have been helping financially, but on the other hand they have been telling all and sundry public transport is not safe. I wish they would rescind that and say: ‘Public transport is safe, so use the bus and train.’ But there is silence from them on this. There are still a lot of people very worried and concerned, they have been scared witless.”
Peter said commuter passenger numbers into London have fallen 60%. “On whether they will come back, it depends who you listen to.”
Peter is sceptical about the rise in working from home brought on due to the pandemic: “If you have someone on £50,000 a year and it’s proven they can do the work they do from home, then perhaps you could pay someone somewhere else, perhaps from another country, to do it for less and perhaps without the UK’s requirement for holidays or NHI payments. I don’t think that has been fully exploited yet, but I think it will come.
“There will be less camaraderie. It won’t be good for the youngsters, who will lose the possibility of being able to climb the ladder; it closes that down.”
He also observes that any expected increase in movement of people after the reopening of society on 19 July has not occurred. “Probably the reverse has happened; the number of journeys has decreased.
“Whether I’m in a different position than others, I don’t know. I may well be.”
One good thing to emerge over recent months is the changing of its main commuter service between Grays train station and Lakeside Shopping Centre, via Chafford Hundred Station. Peter said: “When C2C reduced services, we had to do the same and the service was reduced to every 30 minutes instead of the original 12-minute headway.
“C2C have now reinstated the missing trains but we have not increased frequency as the demand is not there. However, we did de-register the section Chafford Hundred Station to Lakeside, as this meant that previously the buses did not connect with the trains arriving from London, and now they do.
“Passengers wanting to go from Chafford can either use the walkway which connects directly to the shopping centre, or change onto the X80, which starts from Chafford Hundred Station and goes to Lakeside.”
Another change in patronage Peter has noted is there are more early-morning travellers on his services, from 4am onwards. The operator has combined its 22 and 73 routes during late evenings and the wee hours, which Peter reports has gone down well. Its routes that serve Amazon have been very busy in recent months. Although they are public services, they are operated in line with the online retailer’s times. Being public services means Ensign can advertise them. It also means it can put the times on its app, allowing Amazon employees to track their bus. The Ensignbus Gateway app is unusual in that it was developed in-house by the operator, albeit with the help of an app designer.
Government message needed
On how Peter expects the bus industry to change over the near future, he said: “From an operator’s point of view, the necessity for peak-hour operation will go, therefore the PVR will decrease. The requirement for split duties will probably go down. I’m not saying that side of things will die, but there will not be so many. It will create a few anomalies.
“But it does all depend on the Government; not from a financial point of view, but the fact they are not putting a positive public transport message across. They are starting to with railways, but there is silence about buses. I really think there should be a campaign to encourage the elderly and people’s offspring on them again.”
He notes the other problem is the damage the pandemic has had on retail outlets, like the Lakeside Shopping Centre Ensignbus serves.
He said: “Some of the big shops have gone at Lakeside. We have lost Debenhams, Top Shop and a whole host of smaller entities. A lot of staff used to come in by bus.
“There has to be a message from the Government. And I don’t mean a little department. It has to come from the Prime Minister, someone with real authority. They need to avoid the roads clogging up with cars.”
A build-up of traffic has already occurred since the country has crept out of lockdown, Peter has observed. “Congestion is getting worse. Particularly around schools it’s getting worse. The traffic has got to the levels it was at before, if not worse.”
Despite the difficult situation the industry is in currently, Peter reports no changes are imminent at Ensignbus’ operation. He said: “This is not the time to try to be clever. We have to sit on the fence and see what happens. It might be that we put in additional times if requested; but will there be a complete reorganisation? No. It’s about doing small things constantly.”
He acknowledges the local region is a thriving area, with new factories and other manufacturing emerging regularly. As such, he believes bus services will manage in the locale. Peter quotes figures proving Ensignbus revenue increased every year until 2019, as did its patronage. In a country where bus use is declining, how has he achieved that? “There is no real secret,” Peter admits. “Buses just have to turn up on time, be clean and tidy and the driver has to be civil. They’re the main things. It is irrelevant how old the bus is. Whether it’s two years old or 20 years old, it’s got to turn up.
“We have never, ever said a service will not operate because of a no bus available (NBA) or no driver available (NDA) situation. We have cancelled services when there is severe congestion. But that is not just us being delayed, it is everybody, even car drivers. Even when the Dartford Crossing is congested, and that can be a disaster sometimes, you can guarantee our last bus on every service will always run.”
Communication is important too, Peter notes. He said: “We update our Twitter feed almost 24 hours a day. We respond to questions any time.” Ensignbus still maintains an offline information source too, with full-colour timetables still being printed and distributed. A lot of effort goes into designing them, with colour-coded routes and clear diagrams.
Peter added: “Phones are answered 24/7; there is no answering machine.” Achieving all of this, there is rarely any need for marketing the bus services, he claims. “If you think about it, your marketing is your bus itself. The fact it turns up on time and is clean and tidy, that’s your marketing. You can spend as much money as you want on fancy liveries, but if it doesn’t run then what’s the point?”
Changing buying habits
Moving onto the dealer side of Ensignbus, there may be some surprise that demand for used buses has been strong over the past 18 months. Peter said: “We expected to be fairly quiet, but it hasn’t been. There have been several reasons for this. One of them is PSVAR; people were not expecting another derogation for this, which is totally unnecessary in my mind. A lot of operators, large and small, have taken the time to upgrade vehicles. A lot of vehicles have had seatbelts fitted. So we have been very busy.”
He reports double-deckers in particular have sold well lately. Ensignbus has recently taken on a batch of around 30 Volvo B7RLEs from Lothian Buses, of which only five were remaining on Bus and Coach Buyer’s visit. It followed a cluster of Volvo B9TLs from the same operator, which have all sold. The dealer is due to receive some large batches of buses coming out of London. These take more work to prepare for sale than others, due to the need to convert them to single-door vehicles. This work, Peter says, is harder nowadays. The introduction of more electrical components in buses as their technology has advanced means more work to deal with the cables and to ensure the CANbus does not still register a centre door being present. Peter said: “It’s been very busy and I think it will continue to be until the end of the year.
“A lot of people are sitting on the fence with regards to new buses.”
Peter has noticed a shift in buying habits, with operators going for later used examples. He said: “They are going away from 2001-plates and going for 2007. 2012 and 2013-plates are now coming out of London.
“More people are looking for package deals now. The days when someone would come in and pay with cash and drive away with one have gone. Now people come in and factor in new Hanover destination displays, a repaint and seatbelts adding. Now people want a lot more.”
PSVAR – easier with a bus?
Of course, PSVAR has had a bearing on Ensignbus’ sales. Concerning the accessibility requirements, Peter said: “I think people have really got to understand that coaches with wheelchair lifts are not the vehicles for schools. It can be demeaning from the point of view of the child. There are lots of stops where it is just not feasible to use it. It’s ridiculous, we’re going down the wrong road. It would be much easier to use a bus.
“A lot of operators have woken up to the fact they can buy a service bus for £25,000 rather than a coach for £250,000 and then not have to worry about finance or working it through the weekend. A lot of operators have looked into that and found it’s a good way of doing it. It will be a change of lifestyle for them, but it’s probably for the better.”
He added: “It is not just kids that have to use a wheelchair that PSVAR is for. We have to get that out of our minds. It can be for children with poor eyesight, children who have difficulty walking properly.
“Nobody is talking enough about this. There is no cohesion. Where there is cohesion, it’s against PSVAR.
“They are going down the wrong road when they say all coaches should have it. That’s not necessary. I think tour operators should only have a certain percentage, there is no need to have them all.
“The latest derogation will allow that only destination displays and handrails are put in place on a 30-year-old coach; that’s good, is it? It’s a slap in the face of operators who have spent thousands on a wheelchair lift to comply.”
Regardless of whether more buses are bought to meet PSVAR, Peter believes there will be no let-up in sales any time soon at Ensignbus. He said: “There are a lot of operators, not just little ones, who haven’t upgraded for all sorts of reasons. What is happening is that as requirements decreased, they have scrapped older vehicles. But nothing has replaced them. Now things are starting to move, they are now looking for mid-life vehicles. Independents are getting rid of 2001 and 2002 buses and are upgrading to 2010s.”
On the subject of buying vehicles, Peter mentioned the Government’s £3 billion ‘Build Back Better’ fund which will have a fundamental impact on what services run and what is reduced. He believes operators must come to a mutual understanding with local authorities over what can be done to make buses run on time. He anticipates that large regions will tend to go for big capital infrastructure projects such as electric or hydrogen buses, and that will eat up considerable swathes of the £3bn, with smaller places losing out. With the Covid funding ending for operators in April, it could see a lot of services being deregistered, Peter warns.
“But my perception could be wrong,” Peter admits. “The Government might look more kindly on smaller areas. And we will have to keep an eye on revenue on a daily basis.”
One good thing to come out of the changes in recent months, according to Peter, is the ability to change a route quickly. He said: “You can’t cancel a service easily, but you can change it without going through the usual 70-day process. It’s working really well and it leads to the question whether we should go back.”
Peter will be taking his own fleet to 90% Euro VI by the end of the year. Over 75% will have visual and audio announcements for passengers, while 75% will have phone charging. None of them will have wifi for passengers, something he believes passengers simply do not need onboard local bus services. The fleet is completely able to take contactless payments, thanks to the use of Ticketer electronic ticketing machines (ETMs).
Peter said of these devices: “They are very good, very reliable. One of the reasons we chose them was that the older machines had buttons, which tend to suffer when they had tea or cola slopped on them. We wanted something with touchscreens.”
Ensignbus is in a strong position as the nation attempts to pull its way out of the pandemic. For instance, it has not suffered a shortage of drivers that other operators have reported. Peter said: “We pay virtually London rates. And we pay differently. Most London operators and those around here pay for driving time only, whereas we pay right the way through their day. We also have a four-day working week, which we find is very popular.
“Our turnover in driving staff is very low. We have staff with 20, 25 and even 30 years’ service. We have fathers and sons working here. We have not lost any leaving to work as delivery drivers.”
Peter shows every concern for the industry as he helps steer Ensignbus into the future, but the busy sales department and encouraging pre-pandemic passenger figures must be reassuring for him and all who work in the company.