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Friday, 29 January 2010

Roy Smith

I was saddened to learn today of the death of Roy Smith, aged 87.

Roy was the first "senior" person at London Transport I ever knew. He was sufficiently forward in his thinking to embrace the benefits the private sector could deliver many years before tendering was invented. Under his term of office we at Obsolete Fleet ran part of the Round London Sightseeing Tour andinvented new pick-up points. We also ran Baker Street to The Zoo in place of supplementary 74s and generally provided buses which the organisation could not do itself.

But Roy's biggest challenge was as the architect of the Reshaping Plan - this delivered widespread single-person operation to London in a bold attempt to shorten routes, speed up boarding, and improve reliability.

Sadly he was let down - mostly by the hardware. The buses were hopelessly unreliable, the fare collection systems failed, and revenue was way below what was expected. In due course the major schemes morphed into simpler conversions to driver-only operation but the main thrust of shorter and simpler routes remained.

For some reason commuters used to standing on the Underground and suburban trains were less happy standing on buses, and illogically people were concerned at only 25-33 seats on a bus even though the average off-peak load on the old double-decker which had ben replaced was rather less than that. (Indeed if they had been carrying 25-33 passengers the economic pressure to single-manning would not have been so strong).

It was ahead of its time - today's two-door Dennis Darts equal the footprint of the Swifts and Merlins but manage to run for several days without disgracing themselves by the side of the road. Instead of unreliable on-bus fare collection we now have mostly off-bus ticketing.

Roy joined the LPTB in 1938 and was a bus traffic man mostly troughout his career, retiring as Development Director (Buses) in 1981. He had been President of the LT Old Comrades Assocation and Chairman of the Fifty Five Society.

I often tell newer staff that this business is "all about the people" not the buses. Roy was one of those people and I am sure history will record that he was very much ahead of his time.

MBS449 shown her on route M1 - representing the short, flat-fare routes being introduced in the suburbs as the plan Reshaping London's Buses was rolled out.


Industry get together

Last night was the annual Confederation of Passenger Transport dinner - the annual get-together for the bus, coach and light rail industry.

We welcomed our new President - Steve Whiteway, who is Commercial Director Epsom Coaches Group; we listened to Sadiq Khan, Minister of State for Transport and were entertained by BBC's John Humphrys.

On behalf of the industry Steve Whiteway reminded Government that our industry is a success story, contributing to the financial health of the nation and with excellent green credentials. Sadiq Khan congratulated the industry for its efforts but reaffirmed that the Government's proposals in respect of BSOG and powers in the Local Government Act yet to be tried were necessary.

We were missing three good friends in the industry - all of whom had died in January. Peter Hepworth, until his retirement Sales Director at Holdsworths, Bronson Fargo from ACIS who died suddenly on his way to a meeting recently, and David Cherry, who led Northern Counties in the 1970s and 80s. Good friends who will be sadly missed.

Sadiq Khan also made a clear reference to the great success of his Government's scheme to give free travel nationally to senior citizens and presented the Chief Executive of Go-Ahead Keith Ludeman a huge free bus pass given it was the occasion of his 60th birthday.

A year of uncertainty ahead - we are all hoping for an end to the recession leading to more ridership and the outcome of the general election. In particular we must pay close attention to the effects of the public sector cuts (their recession generally follows after the main economic one, with pay freezes and job cuts) and the state of the country's finances which will have to be tackled by the new Government.

One thing is certain - next year's CPT President is my PLC Director Nicola Shaw. This time next year we shall have had another great night and which we are already planning!


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Things that might have been

My recent thoughts have been about what makes people interested in transport and one are I thought I would touch on is "things which might have been".

I think there is something in the enthusast movement which is very powerful - a sort of desire to see "behind the scenes" which is not really very strong outside transport. Aviation, rail and road transport does lend itself to people wanting to know about what is going on backstage and I think looking back I was always keen to find about about things which were planned (so first with the news), and then, in due course, things which were planned but never happened.

There are many well-documented plans which were well developed but never made it into being. In London, for example, Trade Union troubles were preventing the widespread introduction of new single-decker flat-fare buses in the late 1960s and finally plans were drawn up for some of them to be introduced using crew-operated buses instead. The Red Arrow network was prepared for such treatment (the idea being that the associated route changes could take place and a simple opo conversion could take place later). The plans were well developed, and some physical material (destination blinds and publicity) produced. Today these are valuable collectors' items.

There are also those planned route changes which are abandoned before commencement perhaps due to stakeholder pressure.

This does rather pose the question about when does a plan become a plan? For example if I dream up a route change or an idea, tonight and which is promptly dispensed with tomorrow, did it exist as a plan so is it part of transport history?

OK - I accept we are getting a bit esoteric here.

Another side to this is the noting of something which does exist and making the wrong interpretation. I think we are all guilty of this - seeing something and assuming a change of policy. The former is fact, the latter is presumed.

I well recall giving a talk to the LOTS members one night very many years ago and one questioner from the floor congratulated us for having a "front line" and "second line" fleet. (We don't). When I asked how he knew, he said he had spotted that the "front line" fleet had little yellow squares on the destination blind glass.

(In fact the truth is that when we did our own glazing they were plain but when we asked Autoglass to do it they had a little sticker with their phone number on it.....!!)

Somewhere in transport history there will be a reference to our two-level fleet.

So I give you this time a photo, of which I think I have the only ones, of the day our Dennis Arrow/East Lancs 417 was displayed with the new First London low floor livery. These vehicles were not low floor but we tried out the livery before specifying it for our first Dennis Tridents. So if someone tries to tell you that this livery pre-dated Tridents - well now you know.....!


Saturday, 16 January 2010

Sightseeing and Supermarkets

Again I must thank you all for the considerable number of good wishes flowing in following my wife Alice's unexpected hospitalisation with leukaemia at Christmas. It is a long road with many ups and downs but we remain positive.

I've not been globetrotting as you will imagine so these notes may fall back on memories more often than they report ground-breaking news.

I've also been spending rather more time shopping that ever before and have also attempted internet shopping although I have to report the first attempt was promptly cancelled by Sainsbury's which was not a good start.

However I am a supporter of Messrs Sainsburys and many of you will know that in 1984 Dr David Quarmby was persuaded to leave the London Transport Executive board to join them.

Thanks to my own Board level friend at that firm I did spend a day a couple of years back in their Training School. I have often believed there are huge parallels for the transport industry with the major retailers. They serve the public at large with goods and compete in the marketplace. Their goods are as essential as ours. Yet they deliver fabulous customer service, great value for money and many community benefits and are generally warmly welcome in the community, give or take the odd planning application.

I wanted to know why their staff - who also work shifts, are recruited from ordinary people, are not particualrly well paid and facing the public every minute of their day manage to be so positive and helpful whereas the average busman, it must be said, doesn't do quite so well.

So I did a day in the Sainsbury Training School looking for the magic dust which they have and we don't. To my amazement I found things very similar. Average facilities, their DVD player also was a bit temperamental and our instructor wasn't Mary Poppins either. So during lunch I was puzzled why this machine turned out rather good shop floor staff whereas everyone was telling us ours did not.

An answer landed as we came back from lunch. We - the undisciplined rabble - returned from lunch talking together and walked out onto the supermarket floor. Suddenly we grew another 6in and in no time at all a customer asked us where to find carrots. One of my group - an average cynic - said "Come with me - I'll take you" ! Yes - on stage we were fine, respectful and helpful. We were not better paid or treated - it was just that when "on stage" we performed.

Of course on bus work the distinction between backstage and on stage is less clear. In a supermarket it is. Our staff transfer from "backstage" in the depot to a bus cab which is also "backstage". We don't go "on stage" so obviously and, I believe, we never "switch on" and "act the part" in the same way.

The cure is harder to find and we live in an imperfect world.

When you bus or train is late or cancelled passengers WILL write to the Secretary of State and demand change.

If Sainsbury's doesn't have any cabbages, does the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs get a call....????

And as a testimoney to the good old days I present RT1730 operating on the original Round London Sightseeing Tour in the good old days of the mid 1950s when good customer service was.......ordinary behaviour!


Saturday, 9 January 2010

First challenge of the New Year

Firstly thank you for all your good wishes - some through the comments section on this blog and the very many directly by email.

Now to business - we have the announcement that the Office of Fair Trading is referring the UK bus industry (though not London or Northern Ireland) to the Compettion Commission. The industry is making its comments known as is CPT. Of course we will co-operate fully and our team is already working on this.

In the media comment which has followed there has been some reckless use of the word "subsidy".

We only have two sources of money - most of it comes from the fare payers, and some comes from Local and Central Government. Some of the public money is where Local Government is buying in services (that is for all of London plus elsewhere which are not provided commercially). Quite a lot of Government money is payment for the carriage of of concessionary passengers (so is fares paid another way).

None of this is subsidy. It might be public money but it is being used to buy something. The MoD buys aeroplanes from Boeing and no one suggests that is subsidy. It is a customer/supplier arrangement and this is equally the case for concessionary fares and the procurement of bus services not provided commercially.

There is one other big dose of public money - BSOG (previously Fuel Duty Rebate) refunds most (but not all) of the excise duty on fuel which puts us in the same position as rail and aviation (who don't pay it in the first place of course).

The media manages to talk about "subsidy" when in fact my far and away most of the bus services outside London are provided commercially and the entire cost of all major investment in buses and depots is provided entirely by the private sector.

There are two particularly useful comments in the recent TAS Report into the Economics of the Bus Industry.

Frstly, since 1991 the industry has consistently invested more than it made in profit, and secondly, that a more regulated regime could easily lead to higher costs for the farepayers and/or taxpayers.

Your comments welcome!

I have not ignored the income generated by commercial advertising. It is hugely valuable, helps hold down fares, but is a small proportion of our income (Less than 1%). However I am glad to illustrate its value!