30 years of delivering a quality local network

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Ross Prentice (right) with his father Don and son Stuart at the 2017 UK Bus Awards. PRENTICE OF HADDINGTON

The silver, black and blue buses of award-winning Prentice of Haddington have been a familiar sight throughout East Lothian for 30 years. Managing Director Ross Prentice explains to Richard Walter how the company has earned great customer loyalty through its investment in modern vehicles and by providing a network of routes that meet the requirements of the local community

Ross Prentice started as an apprentice mechanic with Scottish Bus Group (SBG) company Eastern Scottish in the mid-Eighties, eventually working in Musselburgh Depot. He explained: “My father, Don, started driving buses with Ian Glass in Haddington just after he was born and by 1982 had become Manager. Ian sold his business to Lowland Scottish in early 1991. My father lasted four weeks before deciding it wasn’t for him. He had many contacts so took the plunge by starting on his own in June 1991. I joined in April 1992 after we gained a school contract and added a second coach.”

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The business originally had parking space and access to workshops with local haulage contractor Finlay Guy before moving to the current larger premises at Hospital Road, Haddington. Ross pointed out that the business grew and developed quite rapidly over the first 10 years, helped when after about five years Lowland Scottish closed the old Ian Glass depot. He said: “Our reputation grew both locally and nationally and we gradually expanded to around 20 vehicles. The last 10 years or so have seen enormous change in both the industry in general and in our business. 10 years ago we lost our last supported bus service after a major operator vastly undercut our price. 15 months later they handed all supported bus service contracts back to East Lothian Council. We gained two routes and the bus side of business grew from there to now being the largest part of our business.”

The company has subsequently gone from strength to strength and has won a number of awards including the prestigious UK Bus Awards gold award for Top Independent Operator in 2016. It also won the silver award in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Prentice of Haddington’s depot and workshops in Haddington are conveniently placed with good access to all parts of Lothian. Ross however believes that whilst the garage is in a great location, it is far too small for their needs and has been for some time. “Our drivers struggle to park on the increasingly busy Hospital Road,” said Ross, “and we don’t have space to allow them to park in our yard. Also I would like to install an automated bus wash but space simply doesn’t allow for this. Despite actively looking for larger premises for nearly a decade, we continually come up against the same issue that no one wants to either sell land or premises to a bus and coach operator. I believe the perception is that we wouldn’t be good neighbours, but we have never had an issue with any of our current neighbours and have housing within 100m on two sides of our premises.” On the positive side however, Ross pointed out that the company owns the premises so has no landlord issues.

Prentice of Haddington currently employs just under 30 staff, all of whom with one exception live in East Lothian. “We aim to show our staff loyalty and I believe that is rewarded by our employees taking great pride in what they do and showing loyalty to us,” said Ross. “One or two have moved to Haddington after living in other parts of the county since working for us.”

Routes and fleet
Prentice of Haddington operates a network of interconnecting bus routes in East Lothian. 101 – Town Service, 108 – Haddington to Fort Kinnaird, 109 – Humbie/Elphinstone to Haddington, 110 – Elphinstone to Prestonpans, 111 – Haddington to Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, 118 – Seton Sands to Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh via Fort Kinnaird and 122 – Gullane Circle.

Over the years, the operator has provided high quality vehicles to encourage passengers on board. I wondered if there was a policy for vehicle replacement. “We don’t really have a policy as such,” explained Ross, “but aim to add one or two new vehicles per year to ensure our fleet profile is as young as is practical. In the past we almost always bought from Plaxton due in part to great relationships with several salesmen and also as the vehicles suited our needs best. Since re-entering bus services in 2012, we have found the ADL Enviro200 to suit our needs best. The variety of sizes has been crucial as some of our rural routes are not suitable for large buses. We have also found the Mellor Strata to be a great vehicle for our rural supported routes as they are suited to smaller loadings and narrower roads.”

I asked if vehicles had been delivered ‘as they come’ or if the company specified particular alterations and additions from the manufacturers. Ross said: “We tend to take standard vehicles and then add any additional equipment we need – WiFi and USB charging points for example.” Very noticeable has been the introduction of blue screen digital displays on the three newly delivered Enviro200s. I asked if there was a reason behind going for the blue rather than traditional white look. “The blue screens are to make us stand out from the crowd,” stressed Ross. “Over the last few years as Lothian Buses and their subsidiary East Coast Buses have moved to white LEDs, our buses have stood out by having orange LED screens. The larger towns we serve have quite long straight High Streets and our buses were easy to identify from a distance where it was hard to see the route number, and I wanted to keep this feature but modernise at the same time. The blue screens have certainly caught people’s eye so it seems to have worked.”

I wondered what Ross considered to be as the key features passengers and drivers were looking for in the specification of new vehicles. “We believe in running modern low-emission vehicles and maintaining them regardless of cost, which I believe pays dividends both for the business as a whole but also in driver and passenger comfort,” he said. “I believe that easy access and comfortable seating to be the most important aspect for our customers along with creature comforts like WiFi and USB charging.”

Prentice of Haddington’s vehicles wear a very smart, modern and distinctive livery which makes the fleet instantly recognisable. I was curious if there were any plans to alter it.

Ross said: “I did consider a change as the current version of our livery was introduced in late 2013, but any change would have been to curves or straight lines and we have done that and I think it would be a backward step, so have stuck with what we have as it’s pretty distinctive.” Ross mentioned how the buses kept such a fresh look. “Over the last three years we have wrapped our buses with vinyl rather than paint them. There are many advantages. The materials are far cheaper and there are clear health and safety benefits as there is no need for a spray booth or extraction equipment, only a bit of skill and a heat gun. Any repairs can be carried out quickly and the vehicle can go back into service immediately rather than waiting for paint to cure. The vinyl wrap can also be removed easily by applying heat, leaving the original paintwork damage free.

Future orders
Over the years Prentice of Haddington has trialled a variety of demonstrator buses and coaches. I asked Ross if there were any new products on the market that he might be interested in considering. “I have been looking seriously at electric vehicles,” he said, “but I don’t think they are suitable for our needs yet. The infrastructure is improving and there may be charging points suitable for buses being installed at a ‘Journey Hub’ in East Lothian in the not too distant future. I do believe that Euro VI buses are part of the solution, certainly for the foreseeable future. Every Euro VI bus we have also meets ‘Low Emission Bus’ status and that is likely to be our standard for the next few years.”

Private hire and contracts
Like so many coach operators up and down the country, the business has taken a blow over the last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and coach hires are currently suspended. I asked Ross how he envisaged things picking up as the country hopefully moved into more normality in the coming months. Ross appreciated that there were still difficult times ahead. “The short answer is that I don’t see the type of coach hire we carry out recovering at all this year and possibly not even by next year. People’s habits have changed over the last year and as long as social distancing is in place, private hire will be challenging and consequently we are reducing the number of coaches in our fleet.”

Social Media
Prentice of Haddington recognises how important social media and apps have become in keeping passengers up-to-date what is happening and getting important messages to them quickly. “Social media has revolutionised the way we communicate compared to a decade ago,” said Ross. “It allows us to reach our customers quickly and easily and certainly encourages feedback. Being able to quickly post updates, particularly in bad weather, vastly reduces the amount of calls we get which allows us to concentrate on diversions etc. We have provided live tracking of our bus routes since 2013 with a separate page for each route available on our website and original app. Our myTrip app takes this a step further as it uses information from our Ticketer ETMs all of which helps with customer confidence as they can see that their bus is coming on a wet morning or if it’s been held up due to congestion. The other big advantage of myTrip is the mobile ticketing feature which has replaced our smartcard just as support for that system was ending.”

Future bus infrastructure
There are always going to be developments that might require changes in public transport provision. Ross explained: “We work closely with East Lothian Council and, along with other bus operators in the area, are working on various plans to improve bus infrastructure and plans. All local authorities will be under severe financial pressure once the pandemic is under control and that will no doubt bring more challenges that we will work together to overcome.

“In the autumn we extended our 118 route from Fort Kinnaird Retail Park to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh to offer an alternative to, and aid social distancing on our 111 service which has served the hospital for almost six years. We do need housing developers to ‘play by the rules’ and honour planning conditions to contribute to road improvements and help kick start bus services, particularly within the new town at Blindwells but all too often, once permission has been granted, developers renege on these promises.”

Tourist attractions
In previous years buses within the fleet promoted attractions along their routes such as the Seabird Centre and National Museum of Flight and operated a Midlothian Explorer service. I asked when tourism opened up again if the company would consider starting up similar links. “Yes,” replied Ross. “Depending on when the lockdown eases, we expect increased local tourism this year and we are currently looking at any improvements we can make to our services to offer better links within East Lothian.”

In terms of other challenges apart from Coronavirus, Ross mentioned Low Emission Zones. “They will have an impact but we are well on the way to our bus fleet being entirely Euro VI through both new vehicles and retrofitting our Euro V models.”

I asked Ross when not concentrating hard on running the business, if he had time for any interests and hobbies. “At the moment there is not much to do other than explore East Lothian with our Black Labrador but once restrictions ease, hopefully we can get back to travelling, particularly to European cities. We are Hearts season ticket holders, and occasional sponsors, and ‘enjoy’ attending games at Tynecastle and some away games.”