Tag: bus

It’s all in the name – or not

Two Thamesdown buses
Two recent variants of Thamesdown bus livery
Thamesdown Transport have asked for opinions on their company name. It’s claimed they are only asking because people keep on asking them what will happen to the brand name. But it is very unusual for companies to spend money asking their customers about changes they genuinely have no plans to make. ‘Go South Coast’ — the part of Go Ahead Group that recently bought Thamesdown Transport from Swindon Borough Council — in 2012 rebranded their “Wilts & Dorset” services to “Salisbury Reds” in Wiltshire and “More Bus” in Dorset. Another Go Ahead subsidiary operates buses in South Oxfordshire using “Thames Travel” branding with a very similar colour scheme to Thamesdown. So what’s in the name of a bus company, and does it matter?

The original Thamesdown Transport livery
The survey explains the origin of the Thamesdown name (it was the name used between 1974 and 1997 for the council formed when Highworth Rural District Council and the former Borough of Swindon merged), then asks “do you think the name of your local bus company should have more reference to Swindon?” So far, so innocuous. It then asks a question popular with those that create surveys about brands and the marketing of new products: is the name Thamesdown in “Old fashioned and represents the past” or “Current and relevant to Swindon” as though a name cannot be both at the same time.

If you’re standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus, with both a Thamesdown bus and a Stagecoach bus approaching, are you really thinking — even subconsciously — about whether the name on the bus feels old fashioned or ‘current and relevant’? Might not questions such as ‘Which bus will get me to town first?’ or ‘Will the driver give me change for a £5 note?’ or ‘Will I get a seat or will I have to stand?’ be more important? And if the approaching bus has some new name on it that you don’t yet recognise — and maybe is painted a different colour — will that help you answer those questions? As there are still a few people around who refer to Thamesdown buses as ‘Corporation buses’ — which they ceased to be in 1986 — if Go Ahead do choose to change the name of Thamesdown Transport to something else, it could be years before the new brand becomes familiar to passengers and potential passengers in Swindon and the surrounding area.

Brand awareness and brand loyalty are fragile things — companies play with them at their peril.

Municipal buses in Swindon, 1927-2017, RIP

A Thamesdown Transport bus in central Swindon
A Thamesdown bus passing through Emlyn Square
Swindon Borough Council has provided public transport services in Swindon since 22 September 1904. Initially these were tramways, but starting from 1927 bus services were introduced, replacing the trams between 6 May and 11 July 1929. Legislation to deregulate bus services in 1986 brought significant changes, with Thamesdown Transport incorporated as a limited company at “arm’s length” from Swindon Borough Council — though at times that arm was rather short. But Swindon was unusual, in that its municipal bus operator remained in public ownership. That has ended in 2017. Thamesdown Transport has been sold to Go South Coast — part of the Go Ahead Group which also owns Salisbury Reds and Oxford Bus Company, and part owns the infamous Govia Thameslink Railway.

Thamesdown Transport profit and cash flow
Profit and cash flow of Thamesdown Transport, 1994 to 2016, adjusted for inflation. Underlying figures exclude one-off payments for pension liabilities and depot sale and purchase.
Swindon council claims to have sold its bus company because the company is making unsustainable losses in “difficult trading conditions”. Thamesdown Transport has been unprofitable — losing almost £1.5M in the last five years — and has been propped up twice by the council in that period. In 2012 the council took on the company’s pension liabilities to the local council pension scheme, the bus company receiving £1.5M in return for paying an ongoing fee to the council. In 2014 the council bought and leased back the company’s Barnfield depot in 2014, injecting £2M into the company. But a review of the company’s published accounts suggests that it is cash flow rather than profitability that’s the problem. The sale and lease back of the Barnfield depot appears to have been in response to a lack of cash, rather than unprofitability, with the accounts showing the company had less than £10,000 in the bank at the end of March 2014. And expected results for this year — reportedly a loss £149,000 — show smaller losses than in some recent years.

Thamesdown Transport revenue
Revenue for Thamesdown Transport, 1994 to 2016, adjusted for inflation.
So what brought Swindon’s municipal bus company down? An ongoing theme in the chairman’s report to the annual accounts is the cost of servicing liabilities to the Local Government Pension Scheme, and this has remained even after the re-arrangement of the liability in 2012. Another theme in recent years has been a downturn in bus travel to-and-from Swindon town centre — always the most profitable part of the company’s bus services. The annual reports do not give reasons, but the stalled regeneration of the town centre and congestion in central Swindon caused by major roadworks are both well known to local residents for many of whom the town centre is now only a destination of necessity rather than one of choice. Not surprisingly the chairman — in recent years always a councillor or ex-councillor from the controlling group on the council — makes no mention of the impact that a reduction in car parking charges by the council may have had. The bus fleet has aged too: in 1996 the company chairman reported that ⅓ would be less than three years old; by 2017 only 4 out of 88 serviceable buses were less than three years old. Recent annual reports comment on the increased costs of maintaining that ageing fleet. Competition from Stagecoach is rarely mentioned, but cannot have helped, as that company has consistently held its suburban return fares at a lower level than Thamesdown and has actively competed on routes to west and south Swindon. Another contributing factor may have been the loss of developer contributions to buses serving new housing developments — hit by the severe downturn in house building since the 2008 credit crunch.

Thamesdown Transport and its depot have reportedly been sold to Go South Coast for close to their book value — almost £7M for the company and £4M for the depot. What we don’t know is whether the deal also frees the company of its remaining pension liabilities to Swindon Borough council for the Local Government Pension Scheme, or whether that will now be picked up by Swindon tax payers.

Full disclosure: the publisher of komadori’s green corner is a minor shareholder of both Go Ahead Group and Stagecoach Group.

The road still travelled… false alarm on the buses

Back in March, Stagecoach in Swindon and Thamesdown Transport started making noises about planned cuts in subsidy from Swindon Borough Council, bemoaning the dire effect it would have on evening and Sunday services. At the time I listed all the council subsidised bus services that might be effected, 11 in total. In April, both companies were still complaining. The council reinstated funding to just one service — the number 24 that runs through the resolutely blue-voting Lawns area.

The end result? Has there been a decimation of evening and Sunday services? No. In fact, not much change at all. The axe has been taken to evening bus services on the No. 11 and No. 19 and… that’s it. With Thamesdown Transport seemingly continuing to run all its other formerly subsidised services on a commercial basis, and Stagecoach now announcing it will do the same, there’s not much change at all. That’ll be no comfort to residents of East Wichel, Pinehurst and Greenmeadow who are now deprived of evening services on the No. 11, nor to those of Eastleaze, Shaw, Nine Elms, Peatmoor and Sparcells who have lost the evening services of the No. 19. But compared with how bad the bus companies were claiming it would be, the damage is very limited.

One could almost be forgiven for wondering whether the bus companies have been taking tax-payer subsidies for years for services that were actually profitable.

The road less travelled… from June

Sunday services… departing soon.In a generally downbeat service update from Stagecoach in Swindon, where service 7 gets an increase in frequency, but many others are either reduced or axed altogether (R.I.P. the No 54 bus, killed off less than a year after it was re-routed to avoid West Swindon), comes advanced warning of further cuts to come.

Sunday services in the Swindon urban area
We regret that as a result of the total withdrawal of Swindon Borough Council funding for evening and Sunday bus services in Swindon that further changes will have to be introduced from Sunday 5th June 2011 and full details will be given nearer the time.

That’s quite a lot of services that are going to get a rather short back and sides unless Thamesdown and Stagecoach decide they can run them without subsidy. Currently in the evenings services 6, 7, 11, 16, 19, 20, 24, 29 and 72 and on Sundays services 6, 7, 8, 11A, 16, 17 (partly), 19 and 29 are subsidised by Swindon Borough Council.

Now I appreciate that providing a bus as a publicly subsided late night taxi is not a good use of taxpayers’ money — and many of these subsidised bus services do run with none or just one passenger on board — but a few are quite busy. Keeping a bus service running just for the sake of the one service in the middle of the evening that loads well with people heading into town for a night out may not be a viable proposition. But the blanket cut of evening and Sunday services looks like a cut made in haste, rather than a cut done with consideration for where the money could most effectively be saved.

The 7 versus the 600

I could almost have some sympathy for longstanding residents of Okus. Once upon a time, a large part of Okus was occupied by the Princess Margaret Hospital. As a major — and indeed first — large general hospital built by the NHS, bus services to it were plentiful. Then, in 2002, the hospital closed, replaced by a new PFI upstart at Commonhead. Bus services were reduced to once every half hour, subsidised by Swindon Borough Council.

Now, with the council’s coffers empty, the service has been reduced to hourly. In response, a couple have started a petition. It already has 600 signatures… in support of a service that Thamesdown Transport claim carried on average 7 passengers each journey.

How many of those 600 might be passengers on the partially withdrawn service 23? The bus ran every half hour for eleven hours a day, six days a week. That’s a total of 22 return journeys each day, 132 a week. Even if every passenger only made one return journey per week, taking the Thamesdown average of 7 only gives a total of 792 people. Unless Ms Matthews has been extremely thorough in extracting signatures from former passengers, the likelihood is that most of the signatures on her petition are from people that did not use the service — maybe do not even use any bus services at all.

Even if one were cynical and thought that the bus company was underestimating the number of passengers, the figures are still very low, and in reality an average of 7 corresponds to a few buses in the rush hour carrying many more passengers, and most of the rest carrying far fewer. On the few occasions I’ve observed a number 23 bus in Okus, it never had more than three passengers — less than a taxi-full.

If people were as willing to use bus services as they are to sign petitions complaining of their demise, public transport in this country would be in a far better state.

Dial-a-cut

I’d not been aware that social and community transport is a hotbed of international competition, with companies from other EU countries queuing up for a piece of the action. Indeed, given the strength of the UK’s bus industry — Stagecoach, First Group and National Express are all international operations with the only strong overseas presence in the UK being French state owned Transdev and imminently German state owned Arriva — and community transport being almost by definition transport services that are highly unviable commercially, it would be amazing if that ever were to be the case. However, Swindon Borough Council seems to believe that European community bus operators will be queuing out the door if they put out to tender the service currently provided by Swindon Dial A Ride.

’Tis odd that Swindon Borough Council is happy to apply European competition law to a small non-commercial transport operation, yet elsewhere claims it’s irrelevant to giving almost £½M to a company launching a service in what’s already a highly competitive industry.

Update, 22:11 Thursday 27 May. Apparently, the EU regulation being used by the council is one specific to public transport rather than the general competition-related regulations originally thought. But it’s a regulation that specifically defines ‘public passenger transport’ to exclude services such as social dial-a-ride services.

Whose bus service is it anyway?

Others have already covered in some detail the buck-passing that has followed the re-routing of Stagecoach Route 54 away from Freshbrook. They’ve already noted that there’s been a certain amount of uninformed Braying going on. Quite why, given his political affiliation, Mr Bray is disappointing with the functioning of market forces puzzles me. But then, given how poor Mr Bray’s memory is, perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Over 400 members of the travelling public have signed a petition requesting the service be reinstated. They and I believe it will attract many more customers if it is properly advertised, unlike its arrival out of the blue in 2007.

Now there are many things that Stagecoach might reasonably be accused of, but being publicity-shy is not one of them. I’m not sure how much publicity it would need to get Mr Bray’s attention, but Routes 54 and 55 and the TransWilts Express all received extensive publicity — to accompany new buses and a more frequent service — when they were revamped in 2007 with the aid of a part-funded government scheme.

And just as in town planning, a petition is worthless. What matters is the number of passengers. If the majority of passengers are travelling from Wootton Bassett to central Swindon — as Stagecoach clearly believe — then a fifteen minute detour round the suburbs of west Swindon is no incentive to leave the car at home and take the bus instead.

Missing the bus

It’s difficult to understand how the management at the Great Western Hospital managed to get their plans for providing a staff bus service so wrong. Just three weeks ago, they were effusive about the likely level of usage.

The service will be up and running by January 4 and after speaking to staff about the plans, many have said it is a service they will be glad to use… staff would find it more convenient as many have to pass Honda to get here anyway.

Now the £30,000 scheme that was intended to free-up 200 parking spaces has been shelved for lack of interest. Now I’m sure that the hospital management know where their staff live, but if most of their staff pass the Honda site on the way to work that suggests that either the hospital is staffed almost exclusively by residents of Highworth or that staff from around Swindon like to take a tour of Stratton on the way to work.

For much of the twentieth century, many large employers ran staff buses. Surely it’s not that difficult to get right?

Listening to the buses

Lightning is now rather chatty. Photo © komadori.

The recent announcement by Thamesdown Transport (which was regurgitated almost verbatim by Swindonweb) seems to have missed the wider uses for on-bus announcements of the next stop. One of the passengers that they have used in the press release, Mr Trevennen, is rather more aware.

It’s not just the visually impaired who benefit but passengers who are new to the town or are visiting.

The system has been introduced on what the company calls ‘six key routes’: the 1 & 1A to West Swindon, 2 to Covingham, 13 & 14 to Eldene and Haydon Wick and 17 between Penhill and Park North. Except for the short hop between the railway station and the Outlet Centre these are probably not services used by many visitors to Swindon. Route 16 to the hospital might be a better choice, or some of the rural routes, such as the 47 to Lambourn with onward connection to Newbury, or the 48 & 48A to Marlborough. Or to benefit those new to the town, why not service 18 to Priory Vale or 11 to Wichelstowe?

Perhaps Thamesdown Transport should listen more to its passengers.

Penhill and Ride

Today brings that rarest of rare events: Mr Montaut making a sensible and understandable suggestion. Here’s his utterance from that rare lucid moment.

We can keep the car park open and redirect people on to existing public transport. This will cut the costs to the council taxpayers while preventing the traffic nightmare that will be caused by completely closing the site. It would also support Thamesdown Transport through these tough times while supporting the administration in delivering promise 43.

Promise 43, for those that have forgotten, is

We will work with bus companies to increase the frequency and hours of operation. We will also work with parish councils to develop good rural transport links and increase overall the number of bus journeys by 13% by 2006 and a further 20% in the following five years.

There’s only one slight flaw in Mr Montaut’s argument. Currently there are no Thamesdown Transport services that pass by the Groundwell Park & Ride car park. The number 17 service does pass very close though, as it loops round Penhill before heading directly into town along Cricklade Road. It seems this isn’t good enough for the campaigners.

As a commuter, normal buses take too long to get to work, particularly for users living in village areas. It would just add to journey times.

Even with a loop round Penhill, would taking a bus service that uses the bus lanes really take longer than driving a car and joining the traffic jam? Is it really the journey time that bothers Ms Spinks, or is it the thought of having to share a bus with residents of one of Swindon’s more maligned estates?