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Growing with McGill’s

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Earlier this year Ralph Roberts faced a dilemma. He had offers of work in Oman, Nice and Greenock. His choice, inevitably, was Greenock where he is now established as managing director of McGill’s Bus Service. He had previously run Arriva Scotland West, so he knew McGill’s as a fast-growing operator in the Greenock area and a competitor for Arriva in Renfrewshire. And he was also aware of the rumour mill that suggested that McGill’s operated against a background of gangsterism and money-laundering – dramatically rebutted by Scottish traffic commissioner Joan Aitken at a recent public inquiry into service irregularities, when she attacked “the festering presence of gossiping innuendo”. Roberts had done his homework before he joined McGill’s and makes it clear that he would not have joined the company if there had been any basis in the rumours.

The McGill’s bus operation started in 2001 in Greenock following Arriva’s decision to withdraw from the Inverclyde area and concentrate its network in Renfrewshire/East Renfrewshire. In 2009 McGill’s expanded into Renfrewshire. There are presently around 100 buses in the Greenock operation and a further 30 in Renfrewshire. At the public inquiry McGill’s asked for an increase in its vehicle allowance to 190 buses, but was allowed 150. Roberts says that his target is to build the company up to a 350-bus operation.

In the years following deregulation, Greenock was a byword for the worst excesses of barely legal competition between bus operators, but as operators fell by the wayside the bus service network was rationalised and McGill’s has emerged as by far the biggest operator in the Inverclyde area, covering Gourock, Greenock and Port Glasgow on the south bank of the Clyde. Today McGill’s operates some 18 local routes in the area with a smart fleet of buses, many low-floor, uniformed drivers and attractive timetable booklets.

McGill’s believes strongly in involvement in the local community, and supports many local charities, is proud of the award from the local Chamber of Commerce Bees Knees Award for Innovation and is committed to taking on engineering apprentices – currently there are four.

Also running through Inverclyde are longer-distance routes – two from the Firth of Clyde resort of Largs, running through to Glasgow, and one from Dunoon, on the Cowal Peninsula, involving a ferry trip on its way to Glasgow. These routes are popular with leisure-time travellers, including many concession card holders, although Roberts is stopping another part of the McGill’s operation, the so-called SmoothieCruisers that were aimed directly at concession card holders and offered what amounted to day trips to Callander and Stirling. Many felt that these abused the concession scheme and Roberts recognises that this criticism could be justified.

The newer Barrhead-based operation is ironically run from premises previously used by the original McGill’s Bus Service, which was a family-owned firm that was bought by Arriva. There are four routes from Barrhead – one a local service within Barrhead, one linking Barrhead and Paisley, one linking Neilston and Paisley and one linking Neilston and Barrhead with the large Silverburn shopping complex.

There are still a number of operators serving the Paisley area, including Arriva Scotland West and First Glasgow. Roberts obviously knows the Paisley area from his Arriva days, but he has avoided too much direct competition and has sought new opportunities. One area where McGill’s is competing with Arriva is the corridor from Erskine and Renfrew into Glasgow city centre, where the limited stop X23 operated by McGill’s runs four or five times an hour during the day, Mondays-Sundays.

Roberts is a well-regarded busman who trained as an engineer and has, he says, “buses in my blood”. His father was district traffic superintendent at the Eastern Scottish Baillieston depot in Glasgow and his mother was a clippie. His own career started with Eastern Scottish in Edinburgh on a graduate training scheme, moving to Cotters Tours in Glasgow then Central Scottish before joining the Freight Transport Association and working in the haulage industry as a fleet engineer. He returned to buses in 2001 when he joined Arriva Scotland West as engineering director and worked with the management team to reduce the fleet from 400 to 195 buses by dropping unprofitable routes and improving cost control.

After some time with Arriva in Yorkshire he wanted to return to his native Scotland but after a brief stop at First Glasgow went to Arriva with a brief that covered engineering in the UK and Europe. He got involved in Arriva’s rail operations, first with the then new Arriva Trains Wales franchise, and he tells how he procured second-hand rolling stock from Denmark at a bargain price for Arriva’s Polish rail operation.

But long working weeks and long days started to take their toll and Roberts wanted to get back to Scotland. Late in 2007 he started as director and general manager of Arriva Scotland West. “I’m a home boy at heart,” he says, “and while I really liked Arriva, all the travelling was becoming a problem.”

Two years after his return to Scotland he was given the opportunity to join McGill’s as managing director. “I had heard the rumours about McGill’s and I wanted absolute transparency, so I spoke to a lot of people to make sure I wasn’t making a big mistake. Their responses reassured me, and here I am.”

McGill’s is part of the Arranglen Group, a multi-million pound business run by the Easdale family. The group has 13 main business interests and 4,000 employees, and running buses and taxis is only a small part of it. Arranglen is involved in areas like recycling, properties, glass-making, management services, computer cables and industrial cleaning. It’s a wide-ranging portfolio and it’s an international one with businesses in the United States, the Czech Republic and China as well as in the UK.

“Sandy and James Easdale are not busmen; they’re businessmen – so when I agreed to come here I wanted as much autonomy as possible to run McGill’s my way. I largely have that and it’s a refreshing atmosphere to work in. I don’t have the owners looking over my shoulder all the time, and when they do get involved they come up with some really good ideas, perhaps because they’re not as close to buses as I am. It took me time to get my head round this way of working. They are prepared to invest in McGill’s and getting approval for capital expenditure is a straightforward and quick process.”

Roberts places great store in customer service. “Our attitude is that a passenger paying a £1.50 or £2 bus fare is every bit as important as someone booking a £60 hotel room and should receive the same standard of attention and service. For our passengers that £1.50 probably represents a higher proportion of their income than the businessman booking into the hotel – and remember that passengers may pay that £1.50 several times a day, several times a week all year round. The businessman is only visiting that hotel once or twice a year.

“We are carrying that attitude through to our recruiting, where we’re looking for people who are good with people, who can articulate and listen.”

McGill’s depot in Greenock – on an industrial estate owned largely by Arranglen – is an ideal location. All 100 buses stationed there are housed under cover and there are excellent workshop, bodyshop and painting facilities. The company has a largely single-deck fleet but experience with two Alexander Dennis Enviro400 demonstrators convinced Roberts that double-deckers had a place in the fleet. Two former Transdev London United Volvo B7TL/Plaxton Presidents were at the depot in the course of preparation for service. The first had lost its centre door, had gained extra seats to bring its capacity up to 75, and was partly painted in the fleet’s blue/white livery. These will be used on the X7 route, which links Greenock and Glasgow via Braehead by a route that takes in the residential towns of Kilmacolm, Bridge of Weir and Houston, and where extra capacity is required.

The single-deck fleet is 87 per cent low-floor, with an average age of 6.4 years. The fleet of Mercedes-Benz minibuses is reducing and the main buses for local services are Dennis SLF Darts and VDL SB120s. For the longer-distance routes McGill’s has Mercedes-Benz Citaros, Alexander Dennis Enviro300s, Volvo B7Ls and B7RLEs, and Roberts is about to place an order for more Enviro300s or VDL SB200s. “These are much lighter than our other full-size buses and give us capacity at a much lower weight and this will allow us to cut our fuel bill.”

Ralph Roberts is a charming man with a clear determination about where he and McGill’s are going. “I would like to retire at 55 – that gives me seven years to get McGill’s fully established as a significant operator in the west of Scotland. We have already achieved a great deal and I am enjoying the challenge of growing the McGill’s business.”

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