Understanding Buses; A Master text

One of the eternal mysteries of life that I have often contemplated is simply this. Why, oh why in an industry that employees hundreads of thousands of employees, and that supplies the oxygen of mobility to the local communities that it serves along the length and breadth of this great nation. Has until now for some reason had virtually no point of reference for anyone actually wishing to join it. And until now nothing to explain how the industry works, or indeed what you really need to know.

Let me elaborate if I may, I rather like wondering around book shops, not just to potter about seeking knowledge, entertainment and indeed escapism, but I always have a little look at the bus and coach section. Inevitably it is full of glorious histories, fleet lists, etc. Truth be told I dont think that I can actually recall ever seeing a book about the industry itself. Rare exceptions to the rule include “Push Once”, by Peter Nash. This is a clever and highly entertaining recollection of career experiences from some of the great and the good of the bus industry.

Until, this very week there was not what I call a master text about well as the title says ‘Understanding Buses’, which and I quote “Aims to offer a jargon -free explanation of how the bus industry works”. Hallelujah after 35 plus years in this industry, at last a definitive text. Written by a man uniquely placed to deliver. Chris Cheek I have known for many years. He is a good man, who has played a pivotal role in the UK bus Industry. One of the founder members of the UK Bus Awards. Chris has, in his long career walked the walk as it were by managing bus depots and delivering bus operations ( he partly learned his trade back in the seventies at the mighty Midland Red). But, as a highly respected analyst and consultant working across bus Companies great and small, he is classically placed to deliver upon this master text.

Chris has been monitoring and tracking the Industry for years through the Bus Industry Monitor, a concept that was created between Chris, and the late and great Peter Huntley, a man whose legacy continues to resonate, well after his premature passing. Chris has captured the essentials such as the constant need for reliability and punctuality which are as true today as they ever were. However, he also reflects upon the massive changes to the Industry that have risen over the past ten years. Real and dangerous challenges including congestion, savage cuts in bus services by cash strapped Local Authorities. And of course let us not forget that we neeed to add to the mix the significant changes in societies life style choices, the impact of the smartphone, social media, and the interenet, and dare I say it the “B” word, and you clearly have a lively climate in which to operate attractive and successful bus networks.

The book seeks to present the realities of operation about what actually drives costs including the key drivers of speed and predictability. It also examines the realities of revenue generation, allowing operators to not only cover their costs, meet their financial operations, and equally crucial invest in the future. To be fair I could draw up a long list of the essential subject matter. However, I would instead suggest that you buy this book. If you have any aspirations to having a career in the bus industry, or you are simply interested in buses it is well worth a look.

In conclusion I would like to say that Chris Cheek is ideally placed to write this book. I have known him for years as did my father. He is a man of principal and integrity. He is firm of purpose and opinion, and a first class advocate of the bus industry. Which he has committed himself to and made a valuable and worthy contribution, this book is the master text, I strongly urge you my dear reader friend to get a copy. It is available as a paperback or an e-book . It is available directly from the Passenger Transport Monitor website, wwwpasstrans.co.uk, or via Amazon and other booksellers.

I 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

February 25, 2019

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