14 March 2006 | UK | Issue 125
Making connections in Lincs
When the Lincolnshire Road Car company came up for sale in the National Bus Company privatisation there were observers who saw no great future for the business.
It was serving rural Lincolnshire where there seemed to be few opportunities for growth and when Yorkshire Traction bought the business in 1988 there were those that suggested the sale was driven by sentiment - Frank Carter, who led the bid, had been chief engineer at the company - rather than the bottom line. But the company survived and to the obvious delight of Paul Hill, its managing director, it makes a healthy profit.
RoadCar passed into the Stagecoach group with the sale of Traction Group at the end of last year, and with retirement on the horizon for Hill, it was a good chance to find how the company had survived and prospered against all the odds.
The secret, Hill had told me, was partnership, and he had invited along Tony Cross, head of transport services at Lincolnshire county council, to prove the point. "It's all about people and continuity," says Hill. "I've been in the job 21 years and Tony has been at the county for 18 years, so we know the area pretty well. Our objectives at RoadCar have been to grow the market and of course the revenue, while Tony is addressing the problems of social exclusion. It seemed that the best way to achieve these objectives was by working together. We have certainly gained much more by working collectively rather than individually and what we have achieved has been to our mutual benefit."
The result of the partnership is the ground-breaking network of services that covers much of the county with interurban services that operate at least hourly linking at interchange points with the county's CallConnect minibus services.
Cross produces a map of the InterConnect network, with main road services that link Lincoln with Grantham (InterConnect 1), Grimsby (3), Boston (5), and Skegness (6), and two coastal services from Skegness, to Boston (7) and Mablethorpe (9). There is also InterConnect 505 between Spalding and Kings Lynn. RoadCar operate all of the InterConnect services apart from the 5 (Brylaine) and the 505 (Cavalier and Norfolk Green); Brylaine also operates some journeys on the 7. The basic InterConnect specification calls for an hourly service with evening and Sunday services as required, which are supported by the county. On the Lincoln-Grantham route buses run half-hourly during the day on weekdays.
InterConnect network links Lincoln with Skegness on route 6.
What is perhaps surprising is that the core InterConnect services are largely commercial, with county support for evening and Sunday services.
"If you travel around Lincolnshire there are long distances with no houses," says Cross, "and it's a credit to RoadCar that they have been prepared to support our initiative by investing in new buses for the network. What is commercial has been clearly identified by RoadCar and we can concentrate on the feeder services and providing support. We produce publicity for the whole of an InterConnect corridor including timetables of the interurban and feeder services and RoadCar covers its services with a reference to CallConnect.
"There are two types of CallConnect services," Cross explains. "CallConnect are semi-flexible services that divert off the fixed route in response to passenger requests, where passengers can board the bus without booking at fixed stops, or can phone to pre-book travel from and to other villages in the area. Then there's CallConnect Plus which is a demand-responsive service covering smaller villages over a wide area. In each case the minibuses feed into interchange points to connect with the interurban buses. And of course passengers can buy through tickets between any two points on the specific network."
"The important thing is that passengers have confidence in the connections," Paul Hill adds. "They know they can travel into, say, Lincoln for the day and there will be a bus that will get them back home."
The interchange facilities are vitally important in the success of the network. Four purpose-built architect-designed interchange hubs have been built, at Horncastle, Spilsby, Holbeach and Long Sutton, and more are planned. These are designed to suit the locality and include real-time information where appropriate, touch-screen information on all bus and rail services in the county, CCTV, a printed timetable and seating. In addition the county has constructed more than 200 raised kerbs and erected 500 timetable displays across the InterConnect network.
CallConnect services use eight-seat Renault minibuses with
The eight-seat purple Renault minibuses have been specified to be as bus-like as possible, so they feature destination displays, luggage racks, bellpushes and they are accessible. Lincolnshire county council obtains them and leases them out to the operators holding the contracts. These are often local smaller operators, but RoadCar operates services in the Caistor and Market Rasen areas that link into its Lincoln-Grimsby InterConnect 3.
There are 15 demand-responsive CallConnect routes, including 10 that are fully flexible. Cross reports that passengers have built up a good rapport with the drivers, who are notified by text of the pick-ups they are required to make. "We are in communication with the drivers at all times," he says, "and we undertake to get people home."
The county went in a big way for funding through the Rural Bus Challenge, and following its successes is keen to maintain this momentum. It also secured funding from the Countryside Agency and the European Union. There is also an incentive to operators to invest in quality low-floor buses as the county contributes one-third of the cost of the new buses used on the InterConnect routes.
"The first InterConnect route was Lincoln-Skegness," Hill explains. "It went from six buses a day to an hourly service in 1999. RoadCar won the contract and use of the service has more than doubled since it was introduced, the equivalent of an additional 165,000 passengers a year." Dramatic ridership increases have been experienced on all of the InterConnect services.
Cross adds: "Although it was heavily subsidised at first, the core part of service 6 between 07:00 and 19:00 is commercial, and evening and Sunday services are maintained at a cost of around £40,000 a year. RoadCar's commitment is demonstrated by the six double-deckers bought for the route, with six new buses due this year."
It was important for the county that the Lincoln-Skegness route was not just a one-off and Cross recalls the planning work that went into the whole concept of interurban and connecting services. "We had to find a way through the regulations to operate the fully-flexible services, but we had superb cooperation from the Traffic Commissioner and we were able to register the feeders as local bus services. It was important to us that these were seen as bus services, and we found that taxi operators were not really interested in these because of the commitment to scheduled times. We take the view that the bus operators will understand the business of running on the main roads."
Brian Souter of Stagecoach had visited Lincoln the previous day to discuss detailed points with Paul Hill, and was enthusiastic about the whole InterConnect concept, agreeing that the injection of new buses will help. Six new Volvo B7TL/Wright Eclipse Geminis are expected and Hill pulled out drawings of the livery that will be applied to these buses. The existing double-deckers on InterConnect 6 will be cascaded to other routes where passenger numbers have outgrown single-deckers.
An MVA report on InterConnect, commissioned by the county, found that bus usage had grown considerably, not just on the trunk routes but among people living in the outlying areas. The main bus users, it found, are people aged between 16 and 20, women and residents with a long-term illness or disability. The car is still the main mode of transport, but this is higher in the outlying areas than in the area served by the trunk route, and use of car as the main mode has decreased by six per cent along the trunk route. Although fewer residents appear to be using buses for their journey to work, perhaps reflecting the nature of the InterConnect network, shopping, visiting local health facilities, banking, education and training, and leisure trips are popular.
The report also found that awareness of and satisfaction with the InterConnect services has grown, particularly in the outlying areas.
These findings are obviously good news for both Cross and Hill. The InterConnect and CallConnect networks are an object-lesson in what can be done in more rural counties and their success bodes well for the bus user in Lincolnshire. Both men obviously enjoy their jobs, describing what they have achieved as 'fun'. Cross recalls that when he took up his present post he saw the job as managing decline, but with access to funding he has been able to turn the situation round. "Partnership has been fundamental to all of this," he says, "and RoadCar has been a strong supporter. With the investment by the operators and the pump-priming by the county we have developed a brand that is widely recognised locally, and is a symbol of quality."
Hill agrees that his years in Lincolnshire have been fun. "When I came here in 1983 the company was regarded as a bit of a basket-case. But we have been able to turn it round and I think we have delivered RoadCar into Stagecoach hands in a healthy state, as the new owners have readily acknowledged.
"Relationships with the county back at the start were not good, and we could see things going into a rapid downward spiral. Then with the Rural Bus Challenge and Rural Bus Grant we realised what could be done. Initially on the Lincoln-Skegness 6 route we infilled our existing frequency to make it hourly, and of course we had the advantage of being there already. We put new Scania single-deckers into the network alongside Olympian double-deckers, but soon the Scanias were bursting at the seams so we bought new double-deckers to replace them. The 6 needed massive revenue support to get it going, but when we realised how much extra traffic was being generated we were happy to invest in new buses, particularly after Cross hit on a plan to fund one-third of the capital costs and that has applied to the subsequent schemes."
The partnership has been recognised in various industry awards, and they were runners-up in the Successful Partnership category in the 2005 UK Bus Awards.
Now Hill is on the verge of retiring from the industry, and can look back with some satisfaction on his career, particularly his 23 years in Lincolnshire. An Oxford languages graduate, he joined the industry in 1970 as an NBC trainee, spending time at Ribble, Bristol and Crosville, before moving to Lincolnshire Road Car in 1983 as commercial manager, succeeding Chris Moyes who was moving to Northern General. In 1985 Hill became managing director at RoadCar and continued in this role after Yorkshire Traction bought the company. In 1993 RoadCar absorbed the Lincoln City Transport business to consolidate its position in the city.
"I was determined to make this work right from the start," Hill says. "It started to come right after we bought Lincoln City Transport and we have had to make some big decisions like withdrawing from Grantham and from coaching. We have been lucky that Traction supported us with investment in new buses and the last three years have been exceptionally profitable ones. Last year RoadCar made an operating profit of £1million - not bad for a basket-case! "For me that is a successful culmination of my career in transport. It is an amicable agreement with Stagecoach, who understand that it's appropriate that I go at this stage. I'll still be living on the RoadCar patch, so I'll be watching and travelling by bus. My colleagues are threatening to change the customer care number without telling me!"
At 57, Hill is looking forward to indulging his many interests, including music and travel, and he can look back with some satisfaction on the transformation of the county's bus network. He pays generous tribute to the county and his close working relationship with Cross, another demonstration of the values of sensible partnership. But his own determination that he was not going to simply sit back and manage decline has played an important part in the success story.