Transport Focus; Surface Access To Airports And Coach Use

I was deeply indebted to David Sidebottom, Director of the excellent Transport Focus who kindly invited me to what was actually a really interesting and inspiring event that was hosted at Heathrow Airports training academy. An impressive guest list was gathered to hear the results of a really good piece of research that was jointly presented by members of both Transport Focus and Heathrow airport following intensive interviews with both coach users and non coach users.

The purpose of the exercise was to understand why non coach users did not consider the coach as a means of first choice when travelling to and from airports. The results were very interesting as they showed a really significant resistance to using the coach. In most cases these concerns were based on previous and negative stereotypes of why they thought coach travel was not for them. In stark contrast the feedback from actual coach user was significantly positive, and carried very strong endorsements for the significant benefits of using the coach to access Heathrow and airports in general.

The format of the day was very good, short, sharp, punchy, presentations. Initially quite rightly focusing on the key themes that emerged from the research. This was followed by an expert panel of the UKs top coach Companies. These included National Express, Megabus, Oxford Bus, and Snap. Drawing the key issues out from the research, it was abundantly clear that the non coach users had a very real and negative perception of the coach, compared to those who actually used the coach. Overall, coach was seen as a negative experience, due to a very high lack of any knowledge of actually using the coach. In short, it was young, the old, and students, the poor mans choice of last resort.

What was really interesting however was the huge disconnect between the non users and the users, who were extremely positive about the holistic coach experience, positives included, easy access pick up points, easy planning, direct and quick services, door to door collection and delivery, right to the terminal. Comfortable and private seats, excellent driver help and care, help with bags, and actually excellent value for money. Indeed what really struck me was just what a great potential there was for promoting the coach, which overall only enjoys a small percentage of the commuter market share. Private car and taxi account for 80% of journeys. Rail, bus and coach are still seen as the poor relation. In the case of coach because old fashioned perceptions have not been challenged by the reality of a really good quality product that offers great value for money.

This excellent event left me feeling really enthused about the massive untapped potential that the coach can presently offer todays airport commuter. The actual quality offered by all four coach operators was in fact really excellent. The problem is that right now it is the best kept secret, more needs to be done by both the airports themselves and dare I say it, the other co-sponsors the Department of Transport. Effort and energy need to be invested in educating airport users as to researching into the benefits of the coach, it enjoys exceptionally high positive reviews from across the range of users. The truth is that it has quietly undergone a revolution, coach use unlike bus, is on the surge of a justified expansion. The airline coach industry has transformed itself across the board. The challenge now is to educate those who automatically choose the car and the taxi, and right there lies the solution to changing modal shift for airline passengers.

r mans optionI was most fortunate to recently visit arguably the Uk’s Best Company, I talk of non other than Nottingham City Transport, or NCT as they are known. For the last few years they have won the accolade of best bus Company in the UK at the highly prestigious UK Bus Awards. The fact that this Company has been around for so long is testimony to the longevity and contribution to the community that they have served for generations.

I have been to visit NCT several times over the years and it is a great combination of old and new. The depot itself is very old school with original long since gone tram tracks still lying where they were laidback in 1928. Interestingly today Nottingham is a City with a new tram network, as well as an excellent bus network. But do not be deceived whilst it properly pays respects to its rich heritage it is also crammed full of cutting edge technology. The new control room and drivers despatch cerntre are as state of the art as they get, and what I really liked was that the staff who manage them were also part of the design and construction team.

However, what really struck me about the Company is the attention to detail, small things make  all the difference, the spotless floors, and the banter that bounces off the walls as you walk around. Everyone has a smile and  a nod both in the depot and out on the roads, NCT have embraced the best of all elements to make their Company a stand out business. It has achieved that balance of high professionalism with good employee engagement and people feeling part of the family, rather than just a Company.

Along one of the walls in the maze of its head office, is a really excellent tableaux showing the history of the Company. It covers all the key milestones from the very earliest days of Trolleybuses, electric trams, the first buses, and every iteration since over the decades with all the Companies key milestones including at one time the biggest fleet of electric tram trolley buses outside of London (106), in 1969 it operated the first park and ride site in the Uk. With deregulation in 1985 with the advent of the Transport Act it became a Municipal Bus Company with its distinctive green and cream livery and bright red wheels, a stand alone Company owned by the Local Authority. And keeping to its spirit of innovation it today operates the UK ‘s biggest fleet of gas fuelled buses.

Today it  has a fleet of 330 vehicles which operate over 50 routes,  they carry a million passengers every week, driving over 12 and a half million miles every year. The Company is owned by Nottingham City Council  who own 82% with French owned Transdev owning 18% and they operate out of 3 depots within Nottingham, with a workforce of 1070 so quite a large employer in it’s own right. The introduction of colour coded routes was started in early 2000’s and today the entire network is colour branded in what I have to say are very smart and distinctive brands.

The Companies performance is second to none with excellent scores for Passenger satisfaction at 94% as confirmed by Transport Focus the respected independent Industry watch dog, they also scored very highly with Punctuality 84%, Journey TIme 89%, and Value for money 73% However, the killer statistic is a staggering Overall Journey experience score of 91% clearly a lot of bus Companies would be proud of such a score. The secret is that the Company have mastered the art of operating an intense urban network of “ Turn up and go” services with low prices ( average at £1.00 ) with smart, state of the art buses and well trained and friendly drivers, as I found out when I caught the bus into and out of the City..

A vital part of the success of the Company is down to the culture of the business, all staff from CEO and DIrectors to cleaners were genuinely warm and friendly. Having known the key senior people this is no surprise, good Companies require good people values, being empowered and valued is key to this. NCT operate a really good staff reward scheme, where every quarter a staff member wins the accolade of best employee. Then at year end the grand champion is announced at the pantomime that NCT sponsor every year. Just walking around and talking to me, all those that I met from cleaners, to drivers, and Directors, they all appeared relaxed and happy.

So, all in all an excellent experience, NCT represent all that is good in today’s modern bus industry, they invest heavily in staff  training and encourage strong community engagement, which is quite simply in my view absolutely vital. This is born out by the clearly excellent scores that they repeatedly achieve, truly worthy winners of the best of the best.

Written by Austin Birks

March 4, 2019

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