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A peerless partnership
Coach and Bus Week – 16 August 2006

As rumours of re-regulation grow in strength, the industry can point to GoAhead's Brighton & Hove Buses an as example of a partnership between a bus company and a council that works a treat. Mark Smulian investigates

Spot the connection - 1960s pop singer Adam Faith, cricketer CB Fry and Russian anarchist theorist Kropotkin.

You can see all their names emblazoned on the front of buses in Brighton & Hove, in one of the unusual marketing ploys that has helped Go-Ahead's Brighton & Hove Buses into a position where its partnership with the city council is often held up as a model for others.

There has been much speculation that the government will give councils formal powers over buses, and the former transport secretary Alistair Darling said last year that the quality bus partnership system "patently is not working at the moment".

Those in the industry who want to keep voluntary partnerships, and fend off the increasingly loud calls from councils for regulation, need some ammunition in the shape of successful partnerships. Brighton & Hove is one.

The operator and the council have managed to deliver an average 5% year-on-year growth in ridership on a system that carries 38m passengers annually.

No formal signed deal underpins this, let alone a complex contract written by costly consultants. The whole thing is based on a three-page council committee report written in 1997, and the rest is down to trust and the two parties having the same objectives.

A growing, profitable network, satisfied customers, a happy council, and no local demand for regulation - could it be reproduced elsewhere?

Brighton & Hove's success turns on several factors coming together - a politically pro-bus council, an operator whose owner encourages local autonomy, enthusiasm for marketing, a history of little on-road competition, and a peculiar geography that is helpful to bus travel.

Even so, BHB chief executive Roger French says nothing he does is "rocket science" and adds, "it is about a bus operator delivering simple, value-for money fares, consistent investment in new buses and a passion for marketing and customer service excellence, while the local authority delivers bus priority, parking enforcement and accessible stops".

He believes this "could be replicated in any urban area in excess of about 150,000 people."

Before deregulation, the city was served by Southdown and Brighton Hove and District, which were in effect one company, and by the council-owned Brighton Bus Company.

A complex series of changes after 1986 saw Southdown become part of Stagecoach, and the other two, both after periods as management buy-outs, bought by Go-Ahead and united as Brighton & Hove Buses. BHB now has a local monopoly, apart from a handful of long-distance Stagecoach routes.

Mr French arrived at Southdown in 1982, after a career that started as a student holiday bus conductor in north London in 1970 and then as a graduate trainee with London Transport followed by a spell with the West Riding Bus Company.

He compares the city's bus partnership to baking a cake.

"You can't get the cake to bake if you don't put all ingredients in, and if the 'cake' is more people travelling by bus, then just as you cannot leave margarine out of a cake, so you cannot leave out anything that either partner contributes."

Mr French is an opponent of re-regulation, but can see how breakdowns in relations elsewhere might fuel calls for this.

"Both the industry and the local authorities in certain areas are not delivering as the other partner expects, so you get blame culture and negativity," he says.

"You get bus companies blaming local authorities over lack of bus priority, and councils blaming operators over failing to deliver on services, but partnership is achievable if both concentrate on what they are good at doing instead of sniping at other partner."

He believes that council control "would be the death knell of bus use, because memories are short, and before deregulation we had declining patronage and a negative spiral of service reductions leading to heavier dependence on subsidy.

"For local authorities to go back to that scenario is a joke as way to solve problems; deregulation brought about innovation and creativity and a discipline of market forces.

"I say that both to bus companies that are failing and local authorities that are failing, it is not the system that is at fault."

Strong words, but perhaps surprisingly the council's public transport manager Paul Crowther agrees, and does not think that more formal powers over buses would give him a better deal.

He explains: "What differentiates a company and a local authority is they take risks and speculate while I am the custodian of public money and must be risk averse.

"If this was a franchise, why should anyone take risks to improve bus use? They would be paid the same amount anyway.

"Roger understands that local authority budgets are limited and I know that he faces rising costs. We each understand where the other is coming from."

Nor does Mr Crowther think that a more detailed contract would add anything to the partnership.

"It is all down to trust," he says. "There are no targets, no controls and it is all based on best endeavours."

Both sides believe their partnership works because they want the same things, if for different reasons.

Mr Crowther explains: "The local authority wants to promote bus patronage to achieve its objectives on air quality, social exclusion and reduced congestion. The bus is key to that, but we do not run them.

"Bus operators want patronage, and they need priority measures, quality waiting areas and real-time information, but they are not the highway authority."

So what has the partnership delivered?

One distinguishing feature of Brighton & Hove is its odd shape and layout.

It is squeezed between the English Channel and the South Downs and is hilly, with suburbs a short distance apart separated by steep ranges.

The main railway line bisects the city on an embankment north-south and few roads useable by buses go beneath it.

A concentration of historic buildings spared it from road widening and redevelopment.

All this means that car driving and parking is difficult, that lots of people use buses to avoid the hills and that almost every route is funnelled into the city centre, where some 3,000 buses a day use the main shopping street.

This gives buses an advantage, but geography alone would not attract such high patronage were it not for the company's marketing.

Unusually, the vehicles carry no external advertising except for the buses themselves.

Lost advertising revenue has been more than made up by increased patronage as pedestrians and motorists see constant pro-bus slogans in the streets.

These range from 'Keep Going, Stop Paying', which promotes the 2.80 one-day pass, to the even more direct '6 all day car parking, 2.80 all day bus travel'.

Others are messages addressed to specific groups such as 'In a Class of its Own', about services to the two universities, and even 'We're Going to the Dogs', which promotes routes to the local greyhound stadium.

Naming buses after local celebrities - hence Adam Faith, CB Fry and Kropotkin - is one of several ways in which Mr French seeks to make his company part of the community, strongly identified with the city it serves.

Members of the public are invited to suggest people suitable to have a bus named after them. "We share best practice in Go-Ahead, but we are lucky to have a team of creative people here always coming up with ideas to make buses more attractive," he says.

Company representatives are involved with local business groups and speak regularly to residents' associations.

The council has installed bus priority on main roads and has set traffic lights to give priority to late running buses.

This is done through an adaptation of the real-time information system, which shows the company where its buses are at any given moment and whether they are running early or late.

The council took over parking enforcement from the police in 2001, and its contractor's 72 wardens are under instructions to give priority to bus routes and to ticket vehicles that obstruct them, Mr Crowther says.

Mr French's fares policy is a vital part of his commercial armoury. It changed from a conventional structure to a flat fare, initially 1, in 2000. Tickets are now 1.50 for a single journey or 2.80 to go anywhere all day.

This simple structure makes bus use attractive because everyone in the locality knows the fares. One example of the council's influence arose when the flat fare was introduced.

The council supported the principle, but feared the effects on residents who live on deprived estates, many of which were built in remote valleys on the urban periphery with minimal local amenities.

"We proposed a 50p fare for these areas, but Roger did not want to move away from the 1 concept," Mr Crowther explains.

"So instead we have about 20 short sections where the full fare buys you a 'there and back' ticket, which are not subsidised by the council but are something the company offers for short hops between estates and shops."

Young travellers are a particular target market as Mr French believes that those who get into the habit of using buses as children will be his customers of tomorrow.

The company's Bus ID card offers passengers aged under 17 outside school hours a 10p fare anywhere if with an adult, and 40p on the their own, rising to 75p for schooltime journeys.

Mr French explains: "The disposable income of a teenager is not huge and we have for years realised that you need to keep people in the bus travel habit because 17 is the critical year as they can drive a car then.

"Most bus companies charge full fare at that age, which is a crazy pricing and marketing policy."

At the end of the August after each cardholder's sixteenth birthday they get a mailshot that offers them these same discounts for a further two years for a 20 flat fee.

At 18, another letter offers them a 125 three-month saver ticket for 80. The price rises in quarterly stages "so we ease them into adult fares".

There is an 85% retention rate, Mr French says, which means that people old enough to drive are still happy to use buses.

But passengers need to know where and when the buses run. Real-time information covers about 120 stops, in a joint project by the company and the council, who shared the installation costs.

The signs are on poles, rather than in shelters, to give them higher visibility to actual and potential passengers "it is great marketing to motorists and pedestrians, and we also have a website where you can see every bus stop, and where buses are", Mr French says.

Some 90,000 printed timetables are distributed free each year and it is usual to see them next to phone directories in residents' homes.

This marketing effort would not work unless the buses offered a pleasant way to travel.

The fleet is relatively new (see box) and 'green' with an average age of five years and 80% of vehicles accessible to disabled people.

Factors favourable to buses mean that 97% of the network runs commercially.

Mr Crowther's 750,000 bus subsidy budget is used to run three somewhat convoluted routes that mop up gaps in services, and to provide extra evening and Sunday services.

However good the service is, does it make money?

Go-Ahead expects Mr French to meet financial targets but gives him a free rein as to how.

He says: "I don't think it is an industry secret that Go-Ahead has a different philosophy from other groups, with local autonomy and branding.

"The question is why are not the other groups seeing the successes that Go-Ahead is achieving with its philosophy and using that as best practice?"

Eyebrows may have been raised at Go-Ahead over the 2004/05 results, which saw profits dip by around 1m to 3.9m.

"Profit decreased due to cost pressures but we are in good position to build back as we get growth," Mr French says.

The company employs 1,050 people, of whom 780 are drivers who receive 9.05 an hour.

Pay will be increased to match length of service from next February but Mr French admits recruitment is a challenge in a booming city with house prices that approach London levels.

One other challenge is a problem of success - managing public expectations.

Mr Crowther says: "We then get complaints from people who have a 20 minutes service that they should have a 10 minutes one, whereas anywhere else people who think a 20 minute service was good," he says.

Intending passengers need only look at the website.In a sign of its marketing nous, the company bought a highly memorable address in the early days of the internet: www.buses.co.uk

Five key ingredients from operator:

Five key ingredients from the council

The Brighton & Hove Fleet

Double deck

Single deck

Coaches

Vintage vehicle

On order



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