Friday, 7 August 2020

Fearnley Forcibly Foretells First's Future

A Bit Of A Heavy Read ... But ...

There have been two key interviews between First Bus and the trade press; Route One and Passenger Transport. Here fbb has attempted to distill the main points from both periodicals, basing his "digest" on the direct quotes from the big cheeses.

It might therefore seem like an odd time to start talking about the future, and the role that the bus should play within it, but that’s what First Bus is now doing.

“Why now? … Never a better time,” explains Giles Fearnley ...
... who has been managing director of First Bus for the past nine years. “We are cautiously optimistic for the future of bus despite what we’ve been through, and loadings are beginning to come back nicely now.”

“The recovery is green … The demand to the clean air is even greater than it was before lockdown. And we wanted to get out there right now so we can talk to the public about it and make sure that all our key stakeholders, local authorities right across the country, understand our ambition and have confidence that we will be delivering for them in the clean air space as they are bringing forward their plans.”

“They are under ever more pressure to introduce restrictions and requirements, so we really want to play our part, as we always try to in First, with our stakeholders in saying to them, ‘you can have absolute confidence that we will deliver’ … We can support them to be more ambitious and that will be a great result.”

Also Zooming was John Dowie ...
... a former civil servant who joined First Bus as director, local strategies, in 2016. "Several signs are good for the future of buses," was the core of Dowie's message to the press, "People are returning to buses."

As a division, across the whole of England, Scotland and Wales, patronage is currently at 40-41% of pre-Covid levels. Here are similar figures from West of England showing patronage week by week from the start of the crisis.
The national picture is despite Wales, which accounts for 6% of the division, continuing to run a reduced timetable because there is still no deal with the Welsh assembly on recovery funding.

The Space Checker is one of the new technologies.

“The Space Checker is taking us into a whole new world, where we are using real data and feeding that into predictive models effectively, and therefore showing through heatmaps, through all the hours of the day, and the days of the week, what our experience and knowledge,” he explains. “And the predictions will also be picking up what’s happening in the economy, so assuming forward not just looking back, as to which are the busier buses and which are the quieter buses.”

Fearnley sees this type of information as continuing after the recovery.

“Yes, we are planning permanent stuff here,” he says. “Absolutely.”

First Bus has meanwhile begun a trial in the West of England for the first ever system for booking spaces on scheduled buses across the country, ‘Book my bus ride’.

Book my bus ride is an innovation from First for when you absolutely, definitely have to get on that bus. Whether you are returning to work, have an important interview, a hospital appointment or need to connect to a train, sometimes you just need to know you’ll be on a specific bus journey to get there. Wouldn’t it be great if you could guarantee a space? Now you can with Book my bus ride!
Initially we’ll be trialling this on three routes. Just under half of the available seats can be booked.

Decarbonising transport

In the foreword to a government paper on decarbonisation ...
... transport secretary Grant Shapps ...
... wrote: “We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

Dowie  sees a mixture of good news and potential concerns.

“The really big, big positive is that they were clearly, explicitly talking the language of modal shift and talking the language of a hierarchy of transport users, with car lower down the hierarchy,” he says. “That is a tremendously important strategic signal, so I attach a lot of importance to that.”

However, Dowie and his colleagues want to see these words turned into action.

“Bus is still not getting a lot of attention in these strategies explicitly, and that runs back through previous carbon strategies and statements,” he explains. “Bus is a bit of a footnote when we think bus should be centre stage, that we as a sector are up for this. We think on the basis of Boris’ 4,000 buses that central government is up for this, so why are we not getting on with it rather than appearing as a sort of afterthought footnote.”

Decarbonising First Bus

First Bus recently announced that it will purchase no more diesel buses after 2022, and will move to zero-emissions by 2035.
The group this week launched the roll out of the UK’s biggest zero emission park and ride fleet. The first of 21 new all-electric double-deckers entered service on the York Park & Ride network, as reported in this blog.

New Yutong electrics for Leeds were spotted recently en route from the docks.
The group is open minded about which low carbon technology solution to employ. Jo Bamford, the owner of Northern Ireland-based Wrightbus, has piled pressure on the government to back his hydrogen bus vision ...
... but Dowie can see merits in both electric and hydrogen.

“I can readily imagine that in 10-15 years’ time one of them might emerge as the clear winner, but at the moment they have got different strengths and weaknesses,” he says.

“Electric has had the benefits of huge international investment, batteries, energy intensity is improving, the single decker is a serious mainstream product. Double-decker not quite so. But they’re still banging up against range limitations.

“By contrast hydrogen, much much better offer in terms of range, refuelling in five minutes, that’s great, that’s closer to being a diesel substitute, but they cost a lot more.”

He continues: “I think we have to see which wins out. At the moment we keep our options open because actually electric is better for an urban sort of distance market, hydrogen potentially has a role for longer distance, interurban markets. So we’ll ride both horses now.”

Extended government support

Dowie continues: “Clearly continued government funding of day to day operations is essential because although patronage is coming back, social distancing at 45-50% does mean that we can’t run a commercial bus service with that degree of social distancing, so we do need government support to be ready for school return in September. Government gets that.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

“We are cautiously optimistic,” echoes Fearnley. “The pandemic did get in the way of all the good we were doing, but through this pandemic we’ve seen the chatter about clean air, emissions zones and all that goes with it rise up the agenda. Boris is very clear, this is going to be a green recovery, and we know all our local authorities are under ever more pressure to deliver clean air in their areas. So bus is absolutely there to do it.

"We are very, very well placed

“Bus has to be the solution in every urban centre to achieve what public, let alone the politicians and indeed the legislation, is going to require. So we are very, very well placed.”

He continues: “I think the industry has shown in the last four or five months now, just how adept it is, how agile it is, and we talked about some of these initiatives earlier, how customer-focused we are.

“I think we are in a very good position, I’m very confident to move forward and grasp this agenda very quickly. And what Boris says about 4,000 buses again, and all the mood music, reassures us as well that we are up there. We really are an essential service and we can deliver, and we’re demonstrating that we can and will deliver.”

While acknowledging that the next few months will be “a rough ride”, Fearnley remains upbeat. “We have some great markets,” he says. “We had great markets pre-Covid. We will have great markets post-Covid. No question, and we will play our full part.”

Let's hope he is right; predictions of jam tomorrow have often been wildly optimistic.

On A Simpler Note ...
Nigel's Clever Plan For Clever Buses.
A few days ago, fbb reported a near secret bus launch at Doncaster Racecourse. It was of branded buses for route 66.
Locals seemed to have missed the great news and fbb wondered whether it had actually happened. But it was reported in some of the trade rags.
So here is our Nigel Egginton, standing in front of a fuchsia wedge outside the main stand of Doncaster Racecourse.
The bus is branded "Doncaster's Clever Buses" ...
... which refers to the App Cap, whereby you will never pay more than £4.70 on any day if you Tap with the App. This is not new, but clearly the bosses at Doncaster/Leicester/Potteries/Worcester thought it was worth another shout and a pot or two of fuchsia paint.

Except it was not quite what it seemed.

The bus pictured, KX05 WHY, began its life in Barbie clothes in Leicester.
It then went to the Potteries to be part of the "Fruit Route" branding for the Cherry Line where it gained a red wedge.
The fruits went rotten very quickly and the bus returned to Leicester where its wedge became generic fuchsia as is "standard" in that City.
And so to Doncaster where bus watchers will have spotted other Leicester fronts, some with rather crude de-branding.
Glue on some vinyls for Donny and you have a bright new look (on a sad old bus) as part of the bright new management team. But bus users will see it is "something different", unless they are cognisant of the mysteries of registration numerology. Percy Clump of Potteric Carr isn't, so won't.

Bus spotters may be aghast at this cruel deception, but Doncastrians won't be upset. AT LAST something positive is happening to encourage bus use in a bright and obvious manner.

Well done Nige, for a very opportune and useful cunning plan.

 Saturday Variety blog : Saturday 8th August 


  1. Who else has noticed the coordinated tie being worn by Nigel

  2. Important correction - the Doncaster price cap works with contactless cards, not just an App. Thus far it is the only such example in First.

  3. Does it work with contavtless credit cards or only debit cards please?

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