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Sunday, 31 October 2010

VERY nostalgic day

Cobham Bus Museum's Open Days have had their fair share of extreme weather events. I think it was 1977 when it was so wet we had no power. In 2008 it snowed even though it was April, and today, at the "Farewell Redhill Road" event, it rained reasonably steadily all day.

Nevertheless several hundred people came to see the inside (and outside!) of this famous building for the last time and patiently queued for vintage bus rides to Stoke D”Abernon (where a further display was provided) and to Weybridge Station.

The first Open Days weren’t quite like this – the bus service was run on an ‘ad hoc’ basis with vehicles and drivers pressed into service as demand required. I can well recall running between the Museum and Weybridge Station not knowing for how long it would be for.
In due course the services became more prolific and were scheduled in great detail. If visitors queued whilst numerous buses and crews were in evidence waiting for their booked times then they were indeed experiencing London Transport of the 1960s.

The Museum is closing and moving to brand new premises inside the Brooklands site where it will be alongside numerous other exhibits including Concorde.

There are mixed feelings about the move. The Redhill Road site has been occupied by buses since 1972 thanks to the pioneering efforts of the bus preservation pioneers of the time and especially due to the personal contribution and sacrifices of Don and the late Alan Allmey.

The building was one of three hastily constructed during World War II and was a ‘temporary structure’. It has its own place in history as part of the Vickers Works’ efforts during the war. Not surprisingly, the building is now time-expired and the site itself sits in the middle of a very affluent Weybridge suburb.

It was a place where bus owners could come and get help, enjoyment and secure facilities. There are those who regret its passing as the new Museum will be much more visitor orientated as it will, for the first time, now be open every day and not just on a few. 

However, sitting inside what is already a popular venue, it will reach a much wider audience which is of course that is what we are doing this for - to make it possible for people to see these wonderfully-preserved items from our past. By amazing luck it is only a short distance from its old home, so hopefully it will still be a magnet for volunteer members.

I have already had a visit to the site of the new Museum where construction is shortly to commence. I must admit to having my back to the wilderness which is to become the new Museum as my attention was completely taken by the splendid Vickers Vanguard which is parked alongside – one of those I saw whenever I stood on the Spectator Area platform on the Queen’s Building at London Airport……

As I imagined again the unmistakable smell of propeller aircraft aviation fuel from that very terrace I remember drifting across to the small bookshop and found a small paperback book by Ian Allan on London Transport buses – the first I’d ever seen.

That’s interesting I thought…..little did I know where THAT would lead!

T792 was a resident at Cobham for all of the years I was involved and has now been restored to an extremely high standard and lives elsewhere. However it came back for today's event.

And the Vanguard which will be the Museum's nearest neighbour.


Friday, 29 October 2010

Last week of October

A long week this week and so much news!

Firstly on Monday we learn of Keith Ludeman's retirement as Chief Executive of Go Ahead; we've had business announcements from Arriva and Go Ahead (our own interim results are next week), and then today Friday we recognised the last day of Sir Moir Lockhead as Chief Executive of FirstGroup plc.

In a surprise event in Aberdeen our new Corporate HQ was named "The Sir Moir Lockhead Building" in his honour. Opened earlier this year by HRH Princess Anne our new building is now able to house all our Aberdeen staff including those previously in offices elsewhere in the city.

Besides being in Aberdeen I have been in Germany this week in glorious sunshine. We have just taken in some more Citaros from Berlin (see photo) and imminently some brand new vehicles for our contract in Bad Vilbel near Frankfurt.
I couldn't be there myself but we have had one of our existing Citaros based in Slough on the site of the new Slough Bus Station. The old 1970s building is being demolished and in its space a new swish bus station is under construction. A rare photo here shows Citaro ES64038 on site testing clearances.

And next week? Well on Sunday I am sure I will see you at the closure event of Cobham Bus Museum. I have been associated with this since its inception in the early 1970s and indeed was a Director for a while. The current team has secured a new site and a new building at nearby Brooklands where it will be one of several attractions and open daily. It will be sad to see the old place go but the new one will be beyond the wildest dreams of the original founders.

And then of course it is Euro Bus Expo, our major trade show at NEC Birmingham for three days Tuesday to Thursday where we will see the latest offerings from the manufacturers. This is not just whole vehicles but also everything that goes with it in terms of technology, components and systems.

So you'll get a couple of updates early in November for sure!


Friday, 22 October 2010

Success in the east of London

The news that London bus routes 26 and 30 are following route 25 from East London to First marks a change in direction for bus route contracts over the past couple of years.

Route 26 (Hackney Wick - Waterloo) is the direct descendant of the eastern end of route 6 - the creation of the 1992 scheme to sever cross-London trunk routes for reliability reasons and to concentrate them in areas from which they could be more easily be tendered. Until then these routes were often run by two or three garages on opposite sides of London.

Route 30 (Hackney Wick - Marble Arch) has a very much longer lineage and has grown shorter - its western terminus retreating from Roehampton, Putney, West Brompton, Trafalgar Square and to Marble Arch over the past 30 years.

There has been considerable competition in east London for bus route contracts over the past few years and after considerable incursions by Ensignbus, Capital Citybus and subsequently First London East in the period from 1986 quite a bit of that market share has been lost as a result of the arrival of Go-Ahead in this area and the aggressive contract bidding policies of the former owners of East London Bus Group (who of course made the bids for which the results have just been announced).

Good news for the taxpayers of London, of course, holding contract prices down.

Now, the tide has turned just a little and as capacity has become available in depots opportunities to make competitive bids has enabled First to win three key trunk services in Central London and all now scheduled for commencement in June 2011.

The London contracting system has grown from being employed for isolated routes with poor cost recovery performance, to the entire bus network. The basic formula has delivered against a requirement for no subsidy and the availability of significant sums. It was weathered net and gross cost contracting regimes, incentivisation, several economic cycles and control by central and local Government. Not a bad record for the mechanism originally created inside the London Transport of the mid 1980s.

In 1986 Jim Blake captured RML890 on route 30. Passengers on this bus were all listening to Capital Radio being broadcast to both saloons. It was advertised on bus sides, on the destination blind, and of course passed their HQ and studios at Euston towers.


Sunday, 17 October 2010

A pair of fives on the nines

Firstly what an amazing flood of visitors to this blog since Friday's news about East London - several records broken and lots of discussions about the future of the company stimulated. And I know the readership is growing - however one of my good correspondents (and respected industry journalist) wonders if there will be anything new left for my book!!

A different sort of day - one to blow away the stresses of the working week. Today, in a long planned event, RM5 and 1005 came together to work on route 9 between Royal Albert Hall and Aldwych. They both 'signed on' at Westbourne Park and ran in service during the day apart from a break for lunch.

Some invited guests were welcomed aboard and as the day (and the news) unfolded several of our other friends came along and joined in as well.

Peter Hendy and I had RM1005 whilst Arriva Directors Mark Yexley and Peter Batty were paired with Phil Swallow who conducted and indeed whose wife owns RM5 (so it is all thanks to her!). Later we would swap over which certainly reminded us all of the many differences between an original AEC Routemaster and a modern Cummins/Marshall one!

There are numerous photographs but here is RM5 overtaking RM1005 at Hyde Park Corner on a carefully orchestrated short working to make this possible.

So I've been driving and conducting, delivering first-class customer service of course, and enjoying a really busy sunny Sunday in Central London. It seemed like everyone was out enjoying some of the last sunshine of 2010. A sign of the times - we took hardly any cash at all all day. Everyone had an Oyster card, a Freedom Pass, or a one-day Travelcard. You know what that means? Those hand-held electronic ticket machines may be the last ones ever able to issue printed tickets!

Very soon route 9's heritage operation shifts westwards a bit and serves Kensington High Street for the first time so a new opportunity. Now I seem to remember about 5 years ago, some people said these Heritage routes were just designed to draw the fire from the end of ordinary Routemaster operation and when things had quietened down, they would be quietly dropped. Ah well, their second 5-year contracts start imminently!


Friday, 15 October 2010

East London

The announcement of the sale of East London Bus Group back to Stagecoach today is remarkable for the industry.

Stagecoach successfully targeted the strong East London at privatisation, taking the weaker Selkent business in the same process. MacQuarie Bank acquired this business from Stagecoach in 2006 for £263m. At the time it was the high-watermark for the value of bus businesses in London catching the segment, and the market, at its peak. Today it bought it back for £59m.

Brian Souter correctly judged that he had extracted the most from his London bus operations and the expansionist phase of the Livingstone-era was over. With his exit he banked funds which would make his Group relatively cash-rich and well equipped to invest in other parts of its business empire.

The new owners were determined to preserve their company's market share despite the increased activity in the area brought about by Go-Ahead's acquisition of Blue Triangle and bidding was fierce. To the benefit of taxpayers the cost of bus contracts in the area was kept down as the companies in the area did their best to win contracts as they were offered.

However, the London bus business requires close attention to detail whilst retaining a continuous competitive advantage and of late it seemed all was not well at East London. This was confirmed when the business parted company with its hugely-respected Chief Executive Nigel Barrett who had continued to try and balance the expectations of the owners with the requirements of TfL, which, it has to be said, is only achieved by the performance of the staff.

In due course the intentions of the owners to sell the business became clear and whilst many would-be entrants into the London market might have been interested, Stagecoach nevertheless did the deal.

In the same way that its exit appeared to draw a line under their interest in contracted operations, its return sends a different signal and one which must have industry pundits scratching their heads. Is this an opportune acquisition? The industry respects Brian Souter's business judgement, but in addition to the consideration paid, the financial performance of the business will be constrained by prevailing contract prices and market conditions in a time of tight financial limits. What brings Brian Souter back to London at this time?

One of the services on their area which Capital Citybus won in the early 1990s and so never was operated by East London was the 236 - a real favourite of mine as it meandered its way across North London and represented here by an MRL of the period.


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Lessons from our past

Well this week we've had an Underground strike so here is a story from nearly 20 years ago with a moral. I would welcome your comments.

In 1984 when I started London Pride Sightseeing we used to employ a crew of two - a driver and a guide.

London Transport's Sightseeing Tour had been completely unguided but you did get a helpful map. Cityrama ran in opposition with multilingual commentaries fed into headphones.

When the competition heated up LT also offered a guide on some, and then eventually all departures.

Our guides were sourced from ordinary people - we advertised, interviewed them, and trained them to tell a story about London as we made our way around town. It was live and the guides were in amongst the passengers interacting with and entertaining them. And it was broadcast through the vehicle speakers so everyone heard it together.

As a public body London Transport used 'Blue Badge' qualified guides who were already working on the more traditional coach tours in and around London.

We didn't - firstly they were extraordinarily expensive, and secondly all the best Blue Badge guides were working on full day London tours, going inside the major attractions, or going out to Windsor, Oxford and so on. We went around exactly the same streets three or four times a day and the view, and the story, was largely the same. The Blue Badge guides we heard on repetitive London circuits were awfully dull.

And lastly, at the time, a good many Blue Badge guides spoke in plum voices and gave, it appeared to us, a rather condescending and snooty commentary.

Our people were more ordinary - in several cases guiding was new to them but they were enthusiastic, cheerful, funny and generally gave good value. (The tour was £2.50 in those days). We had high standards, checked the quality regularly and we were generally pleased with what they did, even though they didn't have the coveted Blue Badge.

We made a start in getting at least a couple of them qualified but before we got very far something else happened.

One day the Guild of Guides and Lecturers turned up and picketed the boarding point. They handed out leaflets in which they warned potential passengers that their 'safety was at risk' as a result of not using a Blue Badge Guide. They were referring, of course, to driver guiding, where drivers were themselves speaking. We didn't do that. However the safety card was being played in what was really a protest against the use of non-qualified guides. (Does this remind you of anything?)

As a result our operation was more or less shut down for most of the day as potential passengers went elsewhere. We retired to a nearby cafe to discuss tactics.

One idea came forward quite strongly and soon we had made a tape of the tour and fitted a bus with a machine where the driver could stop and start it with a footswitch. It clearly wasn't as personal as the real live guide but it was consistent, it never made mistakes, and we could add some features that the live guide couldn't deliver. Thus Big Ben always chimed when you went around Parliament Square, there was always a concert to be heard at the Royal Albert Hall, and other famous sounds were always to be heard.

We got the script checked by a qualified guide (who wished, it has to be said, to remain anonymous).

So over time the buses were fitted with tape machines and before long the guides were let go.

Later technology allowed us to move from tapes to new technology and the direct descendent of our sightseeing business uses the latest today.

We ran more tours, the tape machines never got tired, grumpy or cross. The tapes cost us just a few pence in in due course there were numerous versions - daytime, nighttime, diversions etc. Best of all they were consistent. Everyone heard the same story, delivered in the same way, every time.

Not one Blue Badge Guide got a job with us, but sadly a good number of perfectly decent boys and girls were replaced by the new technology.

Surely not the intended consequence of the action taken against us that day and perhaps a lesson which has relevance today. We hadn't started out needing to replace the employees but by the end there was a very attractive alternative.

Having long since stepped away from this business I have no idea now of the policies and people involved in Blue Badge guiding. I hope that things have changed. If they or any member of that community would like to tell us I would be happy to include it here in the interests of fairness.

And DMS816 here in Coventry Street in 1984 in its all-over advertising for Beefeater Gin. We know the date as it is still awaiting destination blinds and our proper bus stop post is not yet in the ground!


Saturday, 2 October 2010

A new look

I had 5 minutes so decided to give the blog a facelift. Hope you like it!