UK Bus Industry At The Crossroads; The Good Bit-Giles Fearnley

This blog is the second part of a key question which investigates the biggest challenge facing the UK Bus industry in 2019. However, ironically it also presents the biggest opportunity that the Industry has ever had certainly in my life time. The first blog focused on the bad bits, Passenger decline, increased congestion, Clean Air Zones, changing travel, shopping and working practices that have resulted in fewer passengers, plummeting bus mileage, and fewer journeys.

Anyone who has ever met Giles Fearnley will tell you that he is one of life’s optimists, it exudes from within and is actually infectious. I talked to someone who attended a lecture that Giles gave in London to members of the Charted Institute of Logistics and Transport recently. He said that it was, to quote his words a masterclass. There were no high tech gadgets or slide shows, just a man with a microphone who talked with passion and eloquence, on a subject that he knows better than many. Namely the unique opportunity that todays bus industry now faces and how we need to grab this once in a lifetime chance and put the bus right back at the heart of public transport. In short, the solution and not the problem.

Giles started off by recognising that clean air is now an unstoppable force, politically (and some might say morally), this is well overdue. The UK has been well behind agreed EU targets for too long and now the Government has decreed that Local Authorities need to sort this mess out. And at last as Giles said ‘Buses are being acknowledged as the solution”. Arguably the biggest change on the back of this agenda is the fact that operators now have access to the Chief Executives and decision makers.They have the autonomy and more importantly money to work with bus Companies to improve bus priorities, and improve air quality at a cheap price.

Another huge advantage that the bus offers is agility. Compared to any rail or tram improvements that take up huge capital costs and take years to implement, the bus is nimble and easy to implement. Giles quoted the Vantage services in Manchester that have increased passenger numbers by a staggering 29,000 a week and now carry 69,000 passengers week in, week out. The secret to growth has been quick and simple informal partnerships with local authorities to make bus journey times quicker and reliable.

Another significant enabler has been the DFT’s Transforming Cities Initiative that has granted cities and elected mayors access to a 1.2 billion pound fund that includes modal shift as part of the bidding process. Leeds is an excellent example where First are investing in 400 Euro V Diesel engine buses. Leeds have acquired 173 million to spend on transport initiatives. It is anticipated that the bus enhancement measures will improve journey times by a staggering 15%. First are committed to generating better routes and frequencies across the region on the back of increased passenger growth, with an ambitious target of doubling passenger numbers by 2025.

Glasgow is undergoing a similar positive process again driven by the implementation of a Clean Air Zone in 2018. It is a city struggling with ever increasing congestion and the City fathers have realised where the solution lies. The investment by First however is not only in capital expenditure, it is also investing heavily in technology and infrastructure to improve the bus performance and the passenger experience. New technology is providing the tools to actually show the real effects of congestion. For the first time they can show exactly and for how long journeys can be delayed, and accurate loading data can show how many people are being delayed. As Giles said ‘That was undreamt of until recently”.

Giles also made the point that actually the bus product itself has improved in recent times dramatically, especially against modern public perceptions, which are in many cases outdated. It is he says a “transformed product” Today’s buses are comfortable, the ride quality has improved, they have WiFi and USB, in short they have caught up in terms of quality and image.

Today’s passenger has quite rightly high expectations in terms of modern communications and payment methods, and First have been quietly championing the cause. A significant shift has taken place in contactless payments with 50% of payments now being done with either phones or contactless payment methods. Today over 600,000 contactless payments are made each week, with the entire fleet now equipped to handle all payment options. In addition todays passenger Apps allow for mobile ticketing, real time info, and journey planning. Giles makes a very valid point, “It is important to get people onto public transport , not just onto a particular bus”

Giles concluded by saying that for urban services ‘The best is yet to come. The bus can show its potential in cities, especially with high frequencies and good speeds; we can make the best use of road space and have a positive impact on pollution”. That for me says it all really, all the threats and challenges facing the industry that put its at the crossroads are all addressed and cured in that one sentence. It is now up to us, as an industry to collectively lobby and engage, we have a unique chance that we must take. Failure is not an option, but with industry leaders of the calibre of Giles leading the charge we are poised and ready to take that chance and make the bus the answer, and not the issue.

Written by Austin Birks

February 1, 2019

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