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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

First Rail Support

Tuesday night and Wednesday I was at First Rail Support which is our rail replacement specialst business based in Simonstone in Lancashire.

FRS is the largest provider of rail replacement services nationally and I set it up some years ago to bid for, and then later run, the West Coast Mainline replacement bus services during a major shut down. Since then, under the expert leadership of MD Maurice Duckworth it now provides hundreds of buses and coaches for rail companies.

We have come a long way from our small fleet of dedicated single-deckers (photo above). Most of the coaches are hired in but some First vehicles are used if they are available in the area.

Buses are provided for many of the Train Operating Companies, not only our own. FRS has a team checking routes, devising instructions and hiring coaches plus station co-ordinators and supervisors for all of the affected lines.

FRS also provides a significant number of taxis for rail companies - for both routine staff and emergency passenger movements.

All pre-planned rail work for buses and taxis is let by competitive tender - usually on a 'call off' basis by the TOCs. In addition FRS responds immediately to emergencies - indeed yesterday they were arranging coaches to replace trains in Wick, Scotland, following an incident which closed the line for the rest of the day.

But that is not the end of FRS' activities. It is the central control point for the Greyhound operations - if you call our 09000 number that is where the call is answered. And in the event of a problem between Portsmouth, Southampton and London it is FRS which is dealing with it and providing a replacement coach if necessary.

And if you order a period bus ticket on-line from any of our company's websites those purchases come into FRS which then despatches the tickets.

FRS has organised some huge special movements of people. This summer several hundred young people enjoying a Youth Hostel Association initiative were moved by FRS on First GreatWestern trains and in coaches. They have also provided all the transport for several major concerts and of course the Farnborough Air Show.

The team was hard at work last night and today as usual with several rail replacement assignments coming up this weekend. The operation is open 24 hours a day ready and waiting to provide an instant response for any developing emergency.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

RTWs return to route 41

In my last message I briefly mentioned Saturday's celebration of the introduction of RTWs now some 60 years ago.

RTWs 75 and 467 reinacted the class' introduction to route 41 in 1949 in glorious sunshine to the huge enjoyment of all who were able to take part and those who came to see it.

The introduction of London's first eight-foot wide buses was initially restricted to the suburbs until a series of trials convinced the Metropolitan Police that they could be deployed to the busy central London routes where their extra room was to most benefit.

These two buses have shared the same space on several occasions before. One of my earliest memories of RTW75 is it running in convoy with 467 on one of the first Manchester-Harrogate runs circa 1971 although on that occasion it broke down on the M1 returning to London. RTW75 was carrying LOTS members and subsequent criticism of it by the London Bus Preservation Group for 'abandoning' it led to a chilly relationship between the two organistions for many years.

Ted Brakell owned RTW75 at the time and in those days it was often used on film and TV work. Indeed for some time its interior green rexine was painted maroon to resemble the interior of the Routemaster so as to make it a little more acceptable. You will see it in countless episodes of 1970s television series. Both it and 467 came together again in "Who Dares Wins" starring Lewis Collins which I worked on at the time. More details of how this was done is at Interestingly 467 was used for interior shots in this film - the Director not being interested in the colour scheme at all!

Thanks for all your comments - various emails are telling me you are enjoying these periodic notes so please tell your friends!

Friday, 25 September 2009

London Transport Museum

Some of you will know I am a Director and Trustee of the London Transport Museum and last night was our annual fund-raising dinner at the Royal Opera House.

Since its third reincarnation at Covent Garden in November 2007 visitor numbers have remained strongly ahead of where they were previously. This is undoubtedly because the Museum has a wide-ranging appeal both in terms of interests and age. Transport in the context of the history of London is fascinating and we have extraordinarily high levels of satisfaction from visitors who come from all over the world to see it.

Some people have mentioned to me that they preferred the larger collection of vehicles that were in evidence at Clapham, Syon Park, and indeed earlier iterations of Covent Garden. The truth is that the cost of running the museum is far more than the receipts from ticket sales. As a result it has to generate revenue from other activities, including the retail shop, on-line sales, corporate hire, and certain other services. Transport for London contributes a multi-million pound sum plus we have substantial contributions from the Friends, Corporate Friends, and other organisations.

To achieve all this the Museum has to be attractive to the widest possible audience of individuals and organisation and as a result it now covers all forms of transport in London, the history, the science, the people, and the future.

Which brings me to last night's hugely successful dinner. The Mayor, Boris Johnson, made a typically funny and at the same time hard-hitting speech covering the tremendous progress which has been made in London and the major projects it has to deliver over the next few years- the Olympics, Crossrail, East London Line extension, New Bus for London and so on.

Numerous corporations had paid a significant sum for a table at this prestigious event and many then took part in an auction to raise even more money. Organisations had donated hospitality packages, a hot air balloon ride, and so on but the top bid went to the ever-popular evening out by bus driven by Peter Hendy. This year the winning bid was £20,000!
Guests slipped away after 11pm having had a very good evening and having raised a significant sum for the Museum once again. Credit to those organisations and individuals for the generosity during these very tough economic times.

Whilst talking about old London buses there will be tomorrow (Saturday) a commemorative run of RTWs celebrating 60 years since they first entered service on route 41. We are hoping for a good day and a good turn out of RTWs. It is frightening to recall that their withdrawal started some 16 years later and of course the last one ever in service RTW467 last ran in service in May 1966. It went straight into preservation and I am privileged to be a co-owner of it - in fact it seems to have been around for my entire adult life! It now starts to be a contender for the bus which has been in private preservation with a single organisation for the longest time!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Smooth driving

It is always good to see our staff giving great customer service and I had a really nice trip on a bus in Bristol in the past day or so where the driver was really good. Very smooth, lots of signals, waited for the odd last-minute passenger and scrutinised passes well. When I talked to him afterwards to thank him for doing such a great job he cheerfully reminded me that whilst there are challenges from time to time the job is easier if it is done in a calm way.

By complete contrast I was going home on a bus in London (not one of ours!) where the driver made a tremendous job of getting it wrong. True he was busy but he spent lots of time talking with a female passenger, drove with one hand on the wheel and one on the cash tray, and when we were forced onto a diversion managed to make a really useless announcement without the iBus PA.

He said that we were on a diversion but didn’t know it. That caused several passengers to congregate at the front as they tried to work out whether their own destination was going to be served or not. We ended up in a convoy of three (it’s a 7½ minute frequency) with the drivers shouting to each other about who knew what about where to go.

His over-excitement spilled over into this driving and we had sharp turns, heavy braking and a generally rough ride.

We are introducing a device on our vehicles called DriveGreen – basically an accelerometer connected to a red, amber and green ‘traffic light’ box. When you drive smoothly it stays green – if you start to throw people about it shows amber or red. Each route is calibrated so that a smooth ‘green’ journey can be achieved.

I drove a coach in Cardiff with it on a couple of weeks ago (that's the photo above) and it rather does for you what your MPG read out does in your car. In the same way as you just try to get that extra 0.1mpg (we’ve all done it!) when you drive with DriveGreen you just try hard to keep that green light on. The benefits are smoother ride, better fuel consumption, and fewer collisions. The results so far are amazing but best of all you can see your own performance on your home PC or at the garage. Our drivers are trying to improve their scores without any intervention by their supervisors or managers.

Reaction has been generally positive although one or two people have tried to vandalise the system by breaking the LED light display – entirely pointless as the accelerometer and its memory are somewhere else entirely and continue to work!

Thanks for all your nice comments about this blog - people are tuning in, and my 'social media' mentor now tells me we must set up a "Follow me on Twitter" alert arrangement. I will let you know when this is working so you can know when there is a new story here.

In the meantime - go safely!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Kingsbridge Running Day

Saturday and I am on the road at 7.30am headed for Kingsbridge Devon for the 7' 6" running day organised by the West of England Historic Transport Trust.

This is old Western National territory and of course 2009 is the centenary of Great Western Railway's bus operations. Western National's retreat in this area really started in 1971 as ridership in rural areas fell and car use became more widespread.

We bought Western National as part of Badgerline and inherited the route network. Now of course quite a bit of the service is provided by smaller operators with smaller buses but First still has a major service through Kingsbridge operated with low-floor double-deckers.

First is pleased to support this event and I was under the direction for the day of Colin Billington who has personally organised and funded the restoration of a good many former west country vehicles.

I had last seen Colin in Aberdeen. He organised a commemorative run of the longest ever Royal Blue coach service- from Penzance to Aberdeen. We arranged for it to run via Taunton, Bristol, Stoke on Trent, Manchester, Glasgow and Aberdeen. You can see the cavalcade of vehicles leave Muller Road Bristol on YouTube. Search for "Royal Blue Aberdeen".

I beat them to Aberdeen by a few hours and we welcomed them into our King Street HQ site on the Friday afternoon in torrential rain.

So that was the last time I had seen Colin an now we were in Devon - he brought out for the first time his 1934 Bristol H, fresh for restoration and there were numerous other vintage vehicles in service. The local population was hugely supportive of the event and it brought back great memories of times gone by.

I drove a 1950s Bristol LWL - a 30' long and 8' wide manual gearbox rear entrance single-decker for a bit including a trip out to the former Regional Seat of Government at Soar. What a way to spend a fine autumn evening and the photo above shows it as the RAF station terminus.
People do hark back to these "good old days". I am not so sure they were quite so good - we had fog, smog, people living in asbestos prefabs, cigarettes were popular and life expectancy shorter than now. But people do miss the train and bus services of 50 years ago but that was an age when car ownership was low and people did not move about for business and leisure like they do today.
Sadly there are far too few people using the local bus services in some rural areas and someone has to pay, and it's either the user or the taxpayer. As we made our way around the villages of Devon on Saturday it was entirely clear that there is not much demand for the village bus any more and I have to say that we have been there until people stopped using it - not the other way around.
But also to say there are some outstanding places to visit across the length and breadth of Britain and with a little planning you can use public transport to enjoy it.

Sunday, 20 September 2009


Thursday and I am in Dublin.

Important meeting with the senior Government officials as there is new and continuing new legislation affecting the whole arrangements for transport provision in Ireland. Their licensing system dates back to 1932 and is undergoing a radical overhaul.

We are one of the very few major operators there in the private sector and the liberalisation agenda is important to us so today's meeting is of huge value.

Despite the real recession in Ireland Dublin city is still busy - lots of tourists and for the first time I appreciate just how big an impact our tri-axle Volvo B12B/Jonkheere coaches are now that all 20 are in service. There are very few tri-axle coaches in Ireland anyway. I took the Aircoach service of course and appreciated the legroom, wifi, and smooth ride. Fortunately so did quite a number of fare-paying passengers and my journeys were busy both ways.

Out team in Dublin is working really hard in the current climate - we are in side-by-side competition with Dublin Bus for passengers.

The day before I arrived there had been a dreadful collision between a Luas tram and a Dublin Bus vehicle. They were still clearing up the derailment as I came along O'Connell Street and the investigations are still proceeding as to what caused it all.

On this trip I was on Ryanair out of Bristol - a fine airport since we at First built it when we owned half of it in the late 1990s. That's why the seats are in our purple colour scheme and why there are some 'London' Dennis Darts in use as airside buses. As you may know Ryanair charges a premium for Priority boarding - not worth it at Bristol as although you go through first you are all put on the same bus and the last people on are nearest the doors and first on the plane! [One of my travel tips - keep a note!]

Ryanair has a pre-recorded fanfare and congratulations announcement for "another on-time arrival". I wonder if we should do that on our buses and trains?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

ftr Swansea

Wednesday and it's Swansea for the all-important launch of their ftrMetro.

These are the last of the batch to enter service and what great strides the City of Swansea has made. Long stretches of bus-only track, one through the city itself and a gated expressway away from a congested area.

One long sunny day our team had the launch venues all prepared early on and our guests were soon arriving. Senior officials from the City, Welsh Assembly Government and our other stakeholders assembled firstly to name one of the vehicles "City of Swansea" (the city is celebrating its 40th anniversary of being one) and then to formally launch the ftrMetro service.
[The photo shows left to right Sir Moir, me, the Lord Mayor, and others plus Tony McNiff, MD First Cymru far right].

Sir Moir Lockhead was on hand to carry out the ceremonies and present some fine models of the StreetCar vehicle to the representatives of the partner organisations. He also handed one to Keith Sheard, who has been the Chief Test Pilot since the inception of the ftr programme. He has worked with every operating company to bring the vehicles into service and it is him in the cab in nearly every official photograph!

One of the vehicles in Swansea is the original ftr prototype as shown to the world several years ago and which has just completed a major overhaul to bring it up to production standards. Despite this it still has a different front suspension arrangement but is otherwise indistinguisable from the rest of the batch.

All the vehicles at Swansea have leather seats and we are progressively converting the rest of them as the original moquette ones wear out. They are being one one vehicle at a time and some are already in evidence in York and Leeds.

The brings to an end the first group of ftr projects. StreetCars are now being produced by Wrights for Las Vegas and about 30 of the 50 ordered are now in stock there ready for entry into service in January 2010.

For the UK Bus Rapid Transit remains a big issue and potential projects are being developed. What is clear is that, like Las Vegas, the next vehicles are likely to be hybrid, and to that end we are still at quite an early stage of learning with the seed vehicles in London.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009



Some people have said I should have a blog. I'm not sure why this would be interesting but I have agreed to run a trial so here we are:

Monday was the launch of our new Greyhound coach service between Portsmouth, Southampton and London and I was down at Victoria early on Monday morning to receive the first one in.

There was huge media attention - TV, radio, and the press together with our first fare-paying passengers. Two girls - headed for Eurostar enjoyed their champagne were interviewed by the media and then sent, by us, over to St Pancras for the rest of their trip.

A jazz band played as the first arrivals and departures took place and two real greyhounds also starred in the proceedings.

I got to drive one coach - the driver was taking his statutory break as we needed to move the vehicle for the press, so I was very careful under the ever-watchful eyes of the media!

Huge press coverage followed - the Greyhound brand really does excite the press and ever since our on-line bookings system has been busy, as has the telephone hot line. Passengers really like the extra leg room, wifi, and power.
A great start to the week which is full of other interesting events of which more to follow.