Best practice on the Reading Buses

The “social seating” at the rear of one of Reading Buses’ Claret Spritzer buses, which normally operate routes 21/21a past Reading University, and also provided a handy venue for part of our meeting today

The “social seating” at the rear of one of Reading Buses’ Claret Spritzer buses, which normally operate routes 21/21a past Reading University, and also provided a handy venue for part of our meeting today

We were kindly invited to go and meet the lovely people at Reading Buses today, which was both interesting and informative. Their hospitality extended to providing us with complimentary bus passes so that we could explore their network before meeting them, and this allowed us to experience first-hand the exceptional quality of service that they offer to their passengers.

Despite our tickets being on smartcards, meaning no driver interaction was strictly necessary, we were greeted verbally by polite, friendly, smartly turned out drivers on every bus that we used. Vehicles were comfortable and well loaded, with passenger information screens showing upcoming bus stops as standard. They are also very on-message when it comes to integrated transport, with the majority of buses stopping directly outside one or other (or both!) sides of Reading railway station. Not only this, but as you approach the station the information screen displays upcoming train departures, with live running information.

Little things, but they make a big difference when you have a tight connection and you know which platform you are aiming for before you reach the station. We also enjoyed a journey on a Claret Spritzer-branded Scania OmniDekka, which contains a wealth of exciting interior features. These include free WiFi, USB charging sockets and tables, alongside more exciting additions such as a jukebox, lego and a social lounge area at the rear of the upper deck.

After our journeys across the network, and a quick visit to their Bus Shop in central Reading, we headed over to the depot for our meeting. This included a tour of the depot and a ride on one of the company’s newly acquired gas-powered Optare Solos – which deliver a very smooth ride. What was clear from our visit is that the Reading Buses operation really is of the highest standard – and they continue to innovate.

Young Transport Managers' Network

Operators large and small need to ensure that their operations are compliant, and a focus on maintenance standards is a key part of this. This depot is one of Nottingham City Transport’s three maintenance facilities, where they work hard to ensure that they continue to deliver safe and compliant transport to the people of Nottingham and the surrounding area.

Operators large and small need to ensure that their operations are compliant, and a focus on maintenance standards is a key part of this. This depot is one of Nottingham City Transport’s three maintenance facilities, where they work hard to ensure that they continue to deliver safe and compliant transport to the people of Nottingham and the surrounding area.

I had an enjoyable day today at a Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) event intended for young Transport Managers. It was aimed at Transport Managers in the legal sense of the word (that is, somebody certified as professionally competent and thus able to run buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles), and I felt that it would be useful for me to attend seeing as I am currently working towards qualifying as a Transport Manager myself.

After an engaging introduction from the CEO of Reading Buses, Martijn Gilbert, who is the Chair of the CILT's Young Professionals Forum, the day's programme got fully underway. Beverley Bell, Senior Traffic Commissioner for Great Britain, was the keynote speaker, and she gave an excellent presentation on what exactly being a Transport Manager entails. She was keen to stress that it was more than just holding a certificate and signing an application for an operator licence; good transport managers work closely with frontline staff (principally drivers and engineers) to ensure compliance. Their management, auditing and review work is essential for safe and legal operation of large vehicles, but they should also seek to delegate responsibility where feasible, seeking to instil a culture of compliance across the entire organisation.

Beverley was an engaging and at time humorous speaker, in contrast with the no-nonsense approach that she typically employees when facing operators at Public Inquiries, but the message she gave was clear; be compliant, and we can all be friends, but woe betide any operator who seeks to cut corners or flout the law.

Despite his principal business being that of defending the non-compliant, Jonathon Backhouse of Backhouse Jones Solicitors further emphasised this point. He drew upon his wealth of experience to highlight areas where operators and Transport Managers often fall down, citing speeding and vehicle inspections as two areas where improvements could often be made.

Many delegates were surprised to learn that every operator of large vehicles undertook to act against speeding when they applied for their operators licence, and some were also unaware that if a defect found during an inspection had been rectified poorly by an external contractor it was still the operator of the vehicle (and thus the Transport Manager) who was responsible in the event of a roadside check. To guard against the latter issue he recommended sending a newly-inspected vehicle to an alternative inspection centre on a periodic basis, the idea being that any defects highlighted during the second inspection would be indicative of poor quality workmanship during the first.

Paul Wilkes, the Business Services Manager of the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS) continued the theme of high quality maintenance and compliance. Providing voluntary accreditation to operators of fleets of large vehicles, compliance with the various FORS standards (Bronze, Silver and Gold) ensures that operators are performing at the top of their game. The accreditation can also be useful for demonstrating an operator's commitment to compliance to their clients, with certain contracts now specifying a minimum FORS standard as a pre-requisite. The presentation was a useful introduction to a scheme which has only recently been extended to include bus and coach operators, but if it achieves similar improvements in quality as have been seen in the heavy goods vehicle sector then it can only be a good thing.

The day overall was an excellent opportunity to network with other transport managers, and deepen my understanding of the role. I was also pleased to pick up some pointers on how to (and not to) do things from industry experts, which will undoubtedly come in handy in the future.

Catch the Bus Week

School buses are traditionally old, dirty and lacking in amenities - but this doesn’t have to be the case, as this very high specification Stagecoach Gold bus seen in Keswick, Cumbria proves

School buses are traditionally old, dirty and lacking in amenities - but this doesn’t have to be the case, as this very high specification Stagecoach Gold bus seen in Keswick, Cumbria proves

Today marks the end of this year's Catch the Bus Week, overseen by Greener Journeys. The aim of the week is fairly self-explanatory - it is an opportunity for the bus industry to showcase itself and highlight the social, economic and environmental benefits of an increase in bus travel. We have been participating at the grassroots level, supporting the campaign on social media and trying to use our cars as little as possible, opting for the bus (or train) wherever possible.

It is excellent to see such an effort being made to engage schoolchildren with the Catch the Bus Week concept. Our philosophy is that those of school-age are not just the passengers of today, they are the potential passengers of tomorrow, and if they perceive bus travel to be safe, comfortable and good value for money, they are much more likely to choose to travel by bus in later life - when they will have complete control over the mode that they use.

This is why I am always disappointed when I see local authorities, schools and bus operators treating schoolchildren as the lowest class of bus passenger. A typical school bus is 15 to 20 years old (at least), smelling musty and epitomising everything that the commercial bus sector has been trying to escape for the past decade. This is not the way to instil positive travel habits in the next generation - their perception of bus travel in the future will be based chiefly upon their experiences of bus travel in the past.

Instead, some fresh thinking is required. Modern, comfortable vehicles will help children to enjoy bus travel, and demonstrate to parents that as an industry we take the safety of their children seriously. Service reliability is also key - when a bus only runs once per day, poor punctuality and cancellations both cause significant problems. Finally, we need to make it easy for parents to find out about school bus services. Many parents will not themselves have used a bus for many years, so they will not be au fait with the system. At Vectare, our VecTive software offering solves this problem, providing parents with instant travel advice that is bespoke to them. If you want to improve the quality of your school bus services, please get in touch.

Logistics on the ground

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As part of the Directors’ commitment to actively engage with their team, we have been on the ground today co-ordinating logistics for a regular client’s Speech Day. Arranging the smooth arrival and departure of VIP guests, attendees and employees, we managed a team of the client’s own personnel alongside our staff.

I relish opportunities to actually do the work that we ask our employees to do, because I believe that it deepens my understanding of the nature of our work. We obviously understand what we are committing to do as a company when we quote for and plan work, but there is a considerable amount of work that goes on behind the scenes that would completely pass us by as Directors if we never saw it first-hand.

Today is a prime example; there were numerous minor issues that we were called upon to solve, often at very short notice. Heavy rain last night made ground conditions challenging to say the least, and we had an operational vehicle on standby in case of any spinning wheels, but what we were not expecting was the ingress of a quantity of water into the event venue itself. We were called upon to devise an effective solution in very short order, but it was imperative that we implemented the solution with minimum disruption, given that the event was underway at this point. We removed all the standing water from the places where leaks were occurring, and then stationed people at each point, assigned with the task of removing as much water as they could, as quietly as possible!

Our aim was to ensure that members of the public still enjoyed the high standard of service that they were expecting, and the pre-event planning we had completed ensured that this was still possible. By applying transport industry logistics to the event management sector, we were able to respond effectively to a short-notice challenge, whilst also ensuring that tiny details like every guest receiving a bottle of chilled water were still attended to.

Young Bus Managers Network Conference

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I returned yesterday from my first trip to the biannual Young Bus Managers Network Conference, held on this occasion in the Birmingham Jury’s Inn. The conference, as the name suggests, gives Young Bus Managers the chance to network, and it was fantastic to meet so many up and coming managers in the industry, alongside hearing from experienced busmen and women.

We started on Wednesday evening with a very civilised conference dinner with Dean Finch, Group Chief Executive of National Express, who spoke in his company’s home city of the excellent partnerships which they have enjoyed with local authorities and bus and coach operators, focusing on their local bus operations and express coach services respectively. After dinner drinks provided the perfect setting for networking with other young managers, discussing the challenges of revenue generation, scheduling and the ever-present challenge of driver recruitment and retention.

A potential solution to this problem was offered the following day by a National Express bus driver named Darren Dunbar. One of many National Express West Midlands drivers to have undergone an IAM-approved advanced driver training course, Darren is now proud to call himself a “Master Driver”. He spoke enthusiastically of the pride that he and his colleagues take in their work, and explained that the additional training and smart uniform that he received for completing it enhance the job by making him feel like a valued professional.

The importance of engaging with staff was further espoused by “bus industry legend” Bob Dunn, founder of Nottingham-based Dunn Line (previously sold to Veolia Transport). Bob is now a Director at Rotala, who have bus operations throughout the West Midlands and also in Preston, and he discussed many of the challenges that he had faced during his many years in the industry. His final piece of advice to us was to consider very carefully what we wanted from our career in public transport; many of us, he said, would have a fulfilling and enjoyable career working at management level in established companies. But he then went on to say that there would be a few of us who would thrive best setting up shop on our own, and to these select few his advice was to do it from day one.

Of course, there are substantial benefits to being an established operator, not least the ability to summon additional resources from other group companies. This was highlighted by Stagecoach Midlands Operations Director Jim Mortimore, who told of the challenges of coordinating the bus and coach services at the Silverstone Formula 1 event every year. He emphasised that forward planning and excellent teamwork are both essential ingredients of a high quality output, and also pointed out that mistakes offer a valuable learning experience. After the event his team meet with Silverstone for a concluding meeting where they analyse what worked and what didn’t, enabling lessons to be learnt for future events.

I was also delighted to be given the opportunity to showcase Vectare and explain exactly what it is we do, presenting our VecTive School Bus Service Management software to the delegates. Many were very interested, recognising the significant potential it has to improve the travelling experience for parents and pupils whilst also reducing administrative costs substantially.

The challenge of rural public transport

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We have been out on the road today, testing new sections of route for a local college. They are pro-actively responding to parental requests by introducing additional stops on their home to school transport network and, understanding the difference that high quality transport makes to parents and pupils, they commissioned us to devise service revisions and oversee their implementation.

One particular alteration concerned a request from a number of parents who wanted a route extending from its current suburban terminus, out into the rural hinterland beyond. This particular location, in common with much of rural England, has very few bus services; a subsidised bus trundles through three times a day, providing a link to a local supermarket. The first bus does not arrive until after 09:30, and the last bus of the day finishes its journey before 15:30. As a school child living in this area, your only realistic option for getting to and from school is that of the parental taxi.

We recognised that for our client this did not have to be the case. After some analysis of the local road network, and consideration of four different stopping locations, we identified an alternative route which the bus could take from the depot. This enabled it to incorporate the rural stops with a minimal time penalty, and additional revenue was generated by placing the stops in a higher priced charging zone (in recognition of the increased distance that passengers will be travelling).

The college, which previously would have been out of reach for any pupils whose parents were unable to drive them there, now benefits from a wider catchment area and a larger pool of potential pupils who might consider studying with them. This shows the benefit of a well-designed and efficient school bus network throughout rural as well as urban areas; mainstream rural public transport is typically not good enough for schoolchildren. As such, it is down to the education and transport sectors to work in partnership and improve the accessibility of schools and colleges.

Welcome to the Director’s Blog

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Vectare is a fast-moving, dynamic transport consultancy, delivering creative mobility solutions to the education, retail and entertainment sectors, and local authorities. We work closely with bus and coach operators, schools and colleges and other relevant stakeholders, utilising our considerable experience within the transport industry to devise innovative, cost-effective solutions that enhance the passenger experience.

We thought that an insight into running a company like Vectare might be quite interesting to the outside world, so that’s why we decided to start up our Directors’ Blog. Written first-hand by company directors Dominic and Peter, the blog will incorporate anecdotes and illustrations from the world of transport consultancy, alongside commentary on relevant news stories and the occasional trip report from one of Peter’s public transport adventures.

Indeed, a recent bus journey I made across Cumbria is an example of all three of these things. In early December 2015, Storm Desmond caused significant damage to transport infrastructure across much of northern England. In Cumbria, one of many roads to be affected was the A591 between Grasmere and Keswick – entire sections had been washed away by the floods.

This road link is extremely strategically important both for local education and commercial traffic and for tourists making journeys through the Lakes. Its blockage made for a significant economic crisis, and a rapid response was required. An initial solution was devised by Cumbria County Council to transport schoolchildren from Grasmere to Keswick and vice versa, involving minibus shuttles, but this required children to walk over the closed road between vehicles.

A more permanent solution involved the upgrading of a forestry track running parallel to the closed road to make it capable of withstanding bus traffic, with Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire introducing a shuttle bus between Grasmere and Keswick over this new section of temporary road.

The first journey along the upgraded track operated this morning, with myself and three other passengers on board. Departing Grasmere at 06:15 we soon arrived at the entrance to the temporary road, where we were met by hi-viz clad security officers. They escorted us along the forestry track, certainly one of the narrowest roads that I have travelled along in a bus, and stuck with us until we were past the road closure and back on the normal highway network.

Only buses are permitted to use the road at the moment and, despite it being the first day of operation, loadings picked up during the main part of the day. Stagecoach offering its North West Explorer ticket for £5 (usual price £10.80) on the shuttle buses will undoubtedly have helped with this. What the project shows is that if buses are priced affordably, run reliably and offer a competitive journey time against the car, people are willing to switch away from the car.