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Winning combination
Coach and Bus Week – 2 May 2007

A successful partnership between the council and operator has seen passenger numbers grow in a city where walking and cycling are real alternatives. Mark Smulian reports from Cambridge

It take some doing to increase bus use and profits in an affluent city with high car ownership that is also almost entirely flat, and compact enough for a fit person to walk to most places.

But that has happened in Cambridge, one of the examples often cited by transport ministers of a successful partnership between a bus operator and a council.

The draft transport bill is widely expected to include additional powers for councils to shape bus services, but Cambridge shows what can be done without enforcement.

Neither the main operator Stagecoach nor, perhaps more surprisingly, Cambridgeshire County Council, sees any need to disturb their voluntary collaboration.

Cambridge might be wealthy, flat and compact, but it is also steeped in history and noted for its fine college buildings.

And there lies a clue as to why buses have done well - the council has long sought to protect the historic centre from traffic and has progressively eased most cars out.

It is difficult to drive into Cambridge - drivers are obstructed by retractable bollards that retract only for buses and emergency vehicles - but easy to take one of three park and ride services that run every 10 minutes.

Stagecoach's 'Citi' network of high frequency routes run by low floor vehicles also makes the bus an attractive option from suburbs to a city centre where parking can cost £20 and is heavily restricted.

The company's managing director for Cambridgeshire is Andy Campbell, who says: "I think the secret of the success is that we and the county council actually talk to each other.

"We both realise we have the same goal of increasing public transport passenger use.

"It improves our profit margin, and helps them meet their targets and achieve further funding for continued improvement to the system, so why be at loggerheads when you are trying to achieve the same thing?"

Day to day management is down to Mr Campbell, though there is monthly telephone conference between him, Stagecoach chief executive Brian Souter, UK bus managing director Les Warneford and the company's finance team to check on progress.

Mr Campbell began his career as an apprentice mechanic with Leeds City Transport, which eventually became part of First, and worked his way up to become its managing director in Bradford before joining Stagecoach in 2004.

"We improved profit by 92% in my first year here, though I think you could say we took the low hanging fruit," he says.

"There is a budget given each year and touch wood we have never not hit it, and last year's operating profit was 15%."

Good relations with the council have undoubtedly helped this, and are based on regular informal contact.

The most formal collaboration is for the park and ride services, which are overseen by a business strategy group that comprises Stagecoach, the council, the university, John Lewis, the Grafton Centre and Addenbrookes Hospital.

Stagecoach runs the buses commercially and the council provides the sites, but the group discusses fare changes and promotions.

One group collaboration recently saw Stagecoach support a breast cancer awareness campaign, when a bus was painted pink to attract attention and £43,500 raised, £30,000 of which came from Stagecoach donating each Tuesday's park and ride takings for a month.

Stagecoach runs the Citi branded buses at least every 20 minutes during the day - 10 minutes on some routes - and every 30 or 60 minutes in the evenings.

Its other buses run less frequently, mostly to surrounding towns including Ely, Newmarket and Haverhill and receive some subsidy.

Since the Citi network began in 2001, its use has grown by 85% "we like to say we have twice the growth of London at a fraction of the cost," Mr Campbell says.

Stagecoach agreed in April to run the Citi network commercially on Sundays.

Mr Campbell explains: "A number of operators used to have tenders to operate subsidised Sunday services, but they were a bit complicated to understand because they were completely different routes to the weekday service although some had the same numbers."

Stagecoach held talks with retailer John Lewis, which represents city centre shops, and the Grafton shopping centre's management, and learned that they considered Sundays their second busiest trading day.

"We decided to take the commercial gamble and operate on Sunday and our initial view is this will be successful," he says.

Its fare structure is 90p for a short hop, £1.10 for most other urban journeys, and £1.60 for trips from outer suburbs.

Popular £2.80 day tickets give unlimited travel in the city, and £4.50 day tickets cover all of Cambridgeshire. There are weekly equivalents at £10 and £18 respectively, and some 70% of trips are now on multi-ride tickets. These fares are clearly competitive with the city centre car parking charges, particularly given the lack of parking space.

But the most noticeable means of transport in Cambridge is bikes - hundreds of them.

Students have traditionally used them, and the flat terrain makes them popular.

Stagecoach Cambridge has thus become one of few operators to attempt modal shift from bike to bus, with a 50p fare for students.

The results are rather mixed "it has grown numbers but not enough to cover the reduction, though things are going in right direction", Mr Campbell says.

Cambridge's historical layout and narrow streets helps buses against cars in the centre, but is not all good news.

The Drummer Street bus station is central but reached by only two heavily congested side streets, both of which can see nose-to-tail buses even outside peak times.

"It is major issue," Mr Campbell says. "It is basically a 19th century bus station not suitable for 21st century public transport, but trying to get it replaced is not easy."

Plans to demolish it, grass over the site and build a new station on greenfield land elsewhere "have not met with universal agreement," he says. Something has to be done because Cambridge is growing, and the area is earmarked for some 47,500 new homes under the government's growth areas policy.

The council has a policy of getting bus operators involved early with new housing developments, using planning gain payments from developers - known as section 106 deals - to pump prime bus services so that they can start running before developments are completed.

Mr Campbell says: "If you don't get in from day one, people will find alternatives."

With a local success story to tell, Mr Campbell is sceptical about re-regulation.

He says: "I can understand to some degree why certain authorities would want to regulate, but they need to look at themselves.

"If an authority cannot work with a bus operator, or vice versa, something is drastically wrong somewhere.

"Some people have more of a political issue about gaining control of bus services, but I don't see why anyone would want to run bus company, it is not easy by any stretch of the imagination!"

The Cambridge arrangement has attracted Mr Souter's attention.

Mr Campbell says his boss, "takes an interest in Cambridge because this is one of the areas that proves re-regulation is not necessarily the best way to go.

"By working with the council and others we've achieved massive growth". Cambridgeshire County Council's public transport manager is Paul Nelson, who echoes Mr Campbell and says, "we are all basically after same aim, to get as many people onto public transport and out of cars as possible.

"Doing that makes Andy's routes more profitable and helps us achieve our objectives. It might be a clichˇ, but it's a win-win situation."

Mr Nelson puts this success down to regular informal contact rather than detailed written agreements.

"If you have a situation where one side is always trying to put one over on the other, its not good," he says.

"With all our operators we ask what we can do to help them and we all bring different things to the table.

"The operators' expertise is in running buses, and we can do things for traffic priority like bus lanes, priority traffic lights and rising bollards." Car ownership is high, and the councils' restrictions have stopped rather than reversed the growth of car traffic.

"The number of cars entering the city centre is broadly same as it was eight years ago," Mr Nelson says.

Cambridgeshire promotes bus service to the public, and one innovation was its production of a 12-page leaflet about local buses for all 7,000 newly arrived students last autumn.

This came with a free CD of tracks by 18 unsigned local bands, sponsored by the music retailer Fopp.

"It meant a lot of time on the phone ringing people who might sponsor it, but it seemed to catch students' attention" he says.

Mr Nelson is sceptical about re-regulation. "I think we would need a bit more convincing about something like the London system," he says.

"There is no obvious gap it would fill. If the proportion of the network that we were subsidising were a lot higher, I would perhaps have a different view.

"At the moment we have good results with increased patronage and I'm worried that something too radical would upset something that works."

The Cambridge partnership has withstood changes of personnel on both sides and is driven by mutual interest.

Although the unusually tough local measures against cars have played a part in increased bus ridership, the basic imperatives of a bus operator wanting to make money and a council wanting to reduce car traffic must apply in most towns.

Guided bus

Cambridgeshire's largest bus project is the guided busway from Huntingdon to the city using a former railway line near to the notoriously congested A14.

It is due to open in 2009 and will also serve the 8,000-homes new town at Northstowe, a former RAF base.

Buses will run on guided track from Huntingdon to the Science Park north of Cambridge then on normal roads to the train station and then onto another guided stretch to Addenbrooke's Hospital.

Because the route is largely off public roads the council has been able to set minimum frequencies and vehicle quality standards for operators Stagecoach and Huntingdon & District and Whippet.

"It is all about setting minimum standards so we make it something attractive for people to use," Mr Nelson says.

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