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Profile: Peter Huntley - Change management

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Car ownership and car use is growing faster in the north east of England than anywhere else in Britain. "I don’t want to sound defeatist," says Go North East managing director Peter Huntley, "but it’s like a tidal wave. You can’t stop it."

Huntley has been at Go North East for 12 months, and has been quick to make his mark.

From the outside, the most obvious change has been the widespread adoption of route branding, which Huntley freely admits has been inspired by the work done by Trent Barton.

"Customer research showed that apart from historic links with ‘the Northern’, Go North East had little value as a fleetname," he explains. "People associated with particular services or groups of services." ‘The Northern’ refers to the company’s predecessor, the Northern General Transport Company, out of which today’s Go-Ahead group has grown.

Peter Huntley, Go North East managing director.

So the outcome has been the adoption of branding for the company’s main routes, normally using strong individual colours although some branding is carried on versions of the standard Go North East red-based livery.

Huntley has no concerns about diluting the network effect which a strong single livery can create, pointing out that in most of the areas his company serves – apart from Gateshead – it is not a network operator. "A critical thing for me is that very little of our territory is our home patch. Newcastle and Sunderland are Stagecoach territory, and you don’t have to go far before you’re in Arriva heartland." He reckons over 80 per cent of Go North East’s services run alongside those of other operators.

Consequently for the bulk of the company’s operations Huntley argues that being seen to be a network operator is not an issue. And he points out that the adoption of route branding is not adding cost. "We have a three-year repaint programme in place," he says. The standard fleet livery uses three colours, which take time to apply, where with branded vehicles there’s a single base colour and vinyls. The cost of painting is reduced, and that balances the cost of applying the vinyls.

Striking individual colours have been adopted for Go North
East's route branding.

There are themes in the branding, such as Clipper for services to employment areas, and Swift for fast limited-stop services. The company is also adopting a yellow livery for older double-deckers used on school services, a move designed to protect the integrity of the branding used on mainstream services run by modern buses. The main fleet will be 100 per cent low-floor from this month.

Has the branding brought new custom? "Our loadings per bus mile are up significantly," Huntley says, "but we’ve introduced branding on the routes we think have potential."

He adds a rhetorical question: "So is growth because of the potential or because of the branding?"

There has been no consistent pattern to growth where it occurs. "And," adds Huntley, "I have to put my hand on my heart and say that growth has been led by OAP free travel." Although that isn’t always the case. A restructuring of fares on the Saltwell Park circular service which runs across the Tyne between Gateshead and Newcastle has seen an 18 per cent rise in fare-paying passengers.

Go North East's mainstream fleet will be 100 per cent low
floor from this month.

Before the changes, the fare to be paid for a similar journey could vary with the direction of the bus – clockwise or anti-clockwise. This was addressed last year by adopting a two-tier fare structure, 70p for any journey on either side of the river, and £1 for any cross-river journey. "It is the lowest flat fare in England," says Huntley, "and it has been hugely successful in stimulating demand."

The route serves some deprived areas and the revised fares are part of a social inclusion experiment being conducted in conjunction with Nexus, the Tyne & Wear PTE, which is sharing the cost of the market research. "We effectively reduced the fares," explains Huntley, "and it’s a gamble that paid off." Now he would like to understand why.

While many bus users are sensitive to variations in fares, Huntley has identified one group which is not. On the night service between Newcastle and Chester-le-Street the flat fare was £2, which was little more than the £1.80 day-time fare. That was increased to £3, with no impact on passenger numbers. The yardstick for comparison is, of course, the taxi fare - £22, which is still expensive even if a group shares the cost.

And Huntley points out that the night services do attract shift workers, and not just inebriates staggering home from late-night drinking sessions. A night service has just started in Sunderland, initially running three nights a week, and has performed well in its first few weeks.

Behind the scenes there have been changes, with Huntley devolving power from the company’s head office. When he arrived there was a traditional bus company management structure with different disciplines – operations, commercial, finance, engineering – controlling everything from the centre. "Sometimes internal tensions undermined our achievements," says Huntley, pinpointing a weakness which affects many large organisations.

Scania OmniCity in operation: Huntley is keen on the
chassis, but not the body.

Now in a move which creates greater accountability closer to the day-to-day management of the company’s services, for each group of routes there is a service delivery manager. "It is a cultural change, with a far higher level of delegation to divisional managers and depot managers," explains Huntley. "Before they had no notion of the commercial objectives for the services they were running."

As part of this change, there is no longer any sharing of routes between different depots, a mode of operation long used in the bus industry but one which Huntley reckons does nothing to foster pride in the operation, or to encourage team spirit. In an extreme case a service which required five buses was shared between four depots. The result was that no one depot felt responsible for its operation. Huntley also suggests that drivers from different depots who do not know each other – "they never see each other in the canteen" – are less likely to co-operate if there’s a problem in the service.

Reallocating routes so that only one depot was involved in any given service is less efficient operationally – there was a loss of 1.5 per cent in scheduling efficiency, Huntley says – but he sees other benefits. "There has been a marginal efficiency loss, but I’m confident this is outweighed by the benefits of drivers getting to know their customers."

They’ve also been getting to know their new boss too. Soon after taking on the job, Huntley made sure he got out and about – sitting in canteens listening to criticism, and responding quickly, too. "I’ve spent many hours in canteens," he says. "Everything was thrown at me, from the state of the toilets to the 1992 strike."

Huntley – who hails from the north east – has a simple policy in working with Go North East’s 2,000-plus employees: "Do what you say; say what you do."

Artics may feature in Huntley's future buying plans.

Recent fleet additions have all been single-deckers – mainly Scania OmniCitys, a model where Huntley praises the chassis but not the body – along with a small number of Mercedes-Benz Citaros which are just entering service. Double-deckers do not feature in future buying plans, although artics might.

Go North East currently runs four Scania artics with Wrightbus bodies on a non-stop service between Gateshead Interchange and the MetroCentre shopping and leisure complex, and last month evaluated a Wrightbus StreetCar on the route. Feedback from users is still being evaluated, but areas which attracted comment were the seating layout, the interior headroom and the enclosed driver’s compartment. Because the driver cannot collect fares the company used pavement conductors which cut loading times. But it did not reduce them to the point where the service could be run with one less vehicle, which could have helped to offset the extra cost of buying StreetCars rather than standard artics for the operation.

Smaller vehicles are playing less of a role in Go North East’s fleet. "We’re reducing the number all the time," says Huntley. "It’s one of the secret costs of OAP free travel. We haven’t had to do much to increase frequencies, but we are having to increase vehicle sizes."

A peak-hour commercially-operated park-and-ride service was launched in the spring for a six-month trial, with parking at the MetroCentre and a non-stop bus ride to Newcastle. "It has been slow to build up. Every week it carries a few more, but it’s not growing fast enough," says Huntley. People who are using the service rate it very positively, but its future will be reviewed next month.

Even if it does not continue, Huntley is satisfied that it will at least have created an awareness at Nexus that bus-based park-and-ride is a worthwhile option for a region where until now the park-and-ride focus has been on the Metro light rail service.

Before joining Go North East, Peter Huntley had been the driving force of the TAS consultancy, which he set up in 1989, and prior to that had a long association with the passenger transport industry, having worked for local authorities in Scotland and then at Lancashire county council. Indeed his career started at Hartlepool Corporation Transport.

His move from consultancy to industry management raised a few eyebrows – but 12 months down the line Huntley has demonstrated that consultants can not only survive in the hard world of commercial reality, but that they can change it.

The revitalised Go North East is a team effort. But any successful team depends on good leadership.

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