Busing back better from the pandemic

Opportunities and challenges 

These are strange times. Whilst the global pandemic may have decimated demand (temporarily at least), public transport is enjoying a funding renaissance, being presented as the saviour of net zero. That should make me really excited about the future; I certainly want to be! But in all the euphoria, I'm increasingly nervous. On one hand, I've never seen such an understanding by politicians (both locally and nationally) of the opportunities of bus. On the other hand, the industry is facing unprecedented uncertainty, and for all the great ideas and aspirations contained in BSIPs, many are yet to be funded. It's tough out there and there may be further pain before we achieve a set of sustainable bus networks, especially if funding falls short. Yet at the same time, the bus has a huge role to play in cleaning up our cities and uncapped fares increases are not a viable alternative to external funding if we are to encourage people out of their cars. The other dark cloud is the driver shortage. Although somewhat masked over the past couple of years by the pandemic, this is certainly impacting service reliability and cancellations. That's not a route to success when trying to attract more passengers, but nor, too, is the alternative, if higher prices are needed to enable greater investment in staff recruitment and retention. Indeed, if we are to deliver government objectives and encourage ongoing public investment, the industry needs to find innovative ways to cut costs and generate sustainable passenger growth. Whilst our sector has a track record of reacting quickly to challenges, we will have to work very hard to come out the right way up.

Realising our potential

It's important for us to realise the full potential of the sector by taking a realistic and sustainable approach: there's no place for short term dreams with no long-term financial benefits. Since starting at Tracsis, I've been able to work with the industry and local authorities to help devise strategies that ensure we emerge from the pandemic in a better shape. We've pulled together a team of senior colleagues, indeed household names in the sector, to shape our consultancy proposition to help the industry on some of its strategic challenges. I want to see ambition and realism. That means sharing risks appropriately, but also a commitment to delivering plans, so that innovation and boldness can thrive within the funding framework, not blown apart within weeks. But that also means taking a medium to long term view of success, especially where infrastructure improvements are part of the strategy. Customer focus (copy medium and bold) I joined the bus industry 14 years before deregulation and have seen first-hand how a reliance on funding can shift the focus away from the customer. Back then, the local authorities effectively determined the network and timetables, which meant the key priority for local bus companies was to ensure the funding they received covered the cost of running the service. There was no incentive to generate additional custom which meant subsidies increased as passenger numbers fell. Deregulation – for all its faults - marked the end of guaranteed funding, which meant your survival relied on meeting customer needs As we head into a new era for the sector, it's important to learn lessons from the past. We mustn't allow the promise of funding to make us complacent; it must be used as a catalyst for enhancing customer experience further. The retail, technology and leisure industries continue to raise the bar in this area, and customer expectations along with it. And while the bus sector has made a lot of progress in recent years, there's never been a more important time to shine.

Meeting customer expectations

It's certainly one of the areas I've been working on with clients as we emerge from the pandemic, as it offers some real 'quick wins'. Many of the niggles that customers rightly had about their bus experience are quickly becoming areas we can control far more effectively through advances in technology and open data. That includes tools to address punctuality and reliability through reduced boarding times, crowding data and dependable real time information. One of the products that I've been excited about and which I used at First, was Tracsis' root and branch Customer Experience Health Assessments, led by Alex Warner, and our customer service commentators. These are the most microscopic 'deep dives' of the end-to-end customer proposition, examining the quality of delivery at each touchpoint and the inputs back at the ranch, in terms of internal governance of customer service, employee engagement, culture and much more, that drive the end experience. Alex and the team also undertake customer and non-user research, which combined with the Health Assessments, helps them work with companies to create their Customer Service Strategy and then with local management teams to develop action plans. These 'deep dives' are an excellent metric to measure ongoing performance of the customer proposition. Indeed, in parts of the country, the outputs have been used to create brand new brands and service propositions, of which we have played a key role in their implementation.

Identifying, recognising, and developing talent

Celebrating the industry and its people is something I very much support and was honoured to act as a judge for Passenger Transport's Rising Stars, which was sponsored by Tracsis. Recognising outstanding individuals and teams plays a vital part in the future success of the industry, not only by keeping people engaged, but by highlighting their achievements to a wider audience, which can only help to develop careers and the sector as a whole. It's not so long ago that buses were the poor relation in transport terms, and attracting new talent was an uphill struggle against the glamour of rail and air. However, as we're now seeing in our Executive Search and Selection business, the increased profile of buses at both a national and local government level, together with greater focus on the journey to net zero, is helping to reposition the sector as an attractive, interesting, and forward-thinking career option, not only aiding recruitment, but bringing much-needed diversity to the industry as well. There, of course, are challenges in recruitment and not just in terms of retaining and attracting drivers. Key specialisms such as engineering, network planning and scheduling continue to be difficult to recruit and new ones such as digital marketing aren't easy too, whilst bidding – something we've been heavily involved in – is just around the corner with all the focus now about enhanced partnerships and franchising. We have, though, made breakthroughs, one such being the Scheduling division that Tracsis has set up to support bus operators, drawing on our long-standing expertise in this area in rail. No longer does finding an experienced, commercially driven, customer-centric scheduler seem like a holy grail.

Developing customer-centric teams 

The industry can do so much more to identify, nurture, and develop talent. At Tracsis, not only do we recruit specialists and senior managers, but we also provide training, coaching and development. In everything we do, we are constantly looking to ensure that the industry is developing customer-centric teams. We've created and delivered, for instance, 'managing customer service' training for bus company boards and their senior executives, so that they have the right approach and arrangements in place to shift the dial and move their company from being customer-focused, to customer driven and ultimately customer centric. So too, we're training for depot allocators, supervisors, engineers, and HQ folk aimed at helping them in the quest to create such a customer-centric organisation and of course, we have our renowned 'Delight the Customer' training for drivers and hosts. The challenge for the sector is to re-define itself in many ways, to break down traditional ways of doing things, moving recruitment, training, development, and performance management from being operationally focused to one that is head-on embracing the need to constantly 'add value' for customers, generating trip frequency and advocacy.

A new dawn? 

You wait ages and then three turn up at once, as the old adage goes. With so much going on in the industry right now, it does feel like we are suddenly awash with opportunities. The potential to create something great is within our grasp, but that ambition and innovation needs to be realistic and pragmatic. We need clear road space, we need assured funding for BSIPs and we need enhanced partnerships where all parties are wholly committed to the common purpose of delivering for the passenger and, through their actions, delivering sustained volume growth. I may be nervous about the journey ahead, but I am confident that – with the right support and vision – we'll see every urban area support a thriving bus network, moving large volumes of people on frequent services, efficiently and at competitive fares. And I look forward to playing my own small part in making it happen.

Giles Fearnley has 50 years of experience in the transport sector and led the management buy-out of Blazefield Holdings and as Executive Chairman was instrumental in transforming it into one of the UK's most customer-centric and successful bus companies, operating throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire. Giles has had two spells in Rail - firstly as Chief Executive of Prism Rail plc, operating 4 franchises, until its sale to National Express in 2000. Subsequently he was Executive Chairman of Grand Central until its sale to Arriva Group in 2011, and in that year he was appointed as Managing Director of First Group's UK & Ireland Bus Division, a role he undertook until November 2020. He has also been Chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies and the Confederation of Passenger Transport and is currently the non-executive Chair of Dillistone, a leading software provider for recruitment businesses.