A lifetime in transport

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Jonathan Welch speaks to Stagecoach Regional Director Robert Andrew, who was given a special lifetime contribution award at the 2020 Scottish Transport Awards for his long service to the industry and to Stagecoach

At the Scottish Transport Awards, held online and presented virtually this year, Robert Andrew was presented with a special award to acknowledge his lifetime contribution to transport in Scotland during his 35-year-long career. In-keeping with the online nature of the Awards, CBW joined Robert via Microsoft Teams for a chat about his extensive career, his role as Stagecoach’s longest-serving regional director, and his plans for his not-quite-retirement.

I started off by asking Robert how he got into the transport industry. “I got interested in transport way back when I was young. I was brought up on the West Coast in Fort William, and my father was a parish Minister. He became involved in the local council, and, long before deregulation abolished road service licensing, tried to organise a service to Glasgow with the local Scottish Bus Group subsidiary, going south in the morning and returning in the evening. He had quite a battle with SPT to get a licence to operate it.”

Early start

“As a student, I worked for what was then Midland Scottish during the summer in its head office. I worked in the schedules department while I was at university, then after I graduated I applied to the fledgeling Kelvin Scottish. I joined in 1985, appointed by another well-known name, John Elliott. I was with Kelvin for three years, working mainly at the head office but also at the depots. After that, I moved on to Western Scottish, where I took on the role of Area Manager, which was similar to what we would call an Operations Manager today, initially at Stranraer then at Dumfries.”

His progression through the ranks at the nationalised Scottish Bus Group placed Robert in good stead when it came to moving over to the new, more dynamic private sector. “In 1992, I saw an advertisement for a role at Stagecoach in Inverness, which brought me back to the Highlands. At the time, Stagecoach was still a relatively young company which had bought a number of businesses. In Inverness, they bought Inverness Traction and taken a lot of work on from Highland Scottish Omnibuses, and were trying to merge the two cultures. They were two different extremes. There had been a very militant trade union at Inverness with Highland, and a vast array of people from Traction.

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“Even so, I really enjoyed my time there. I was promoted to Operations Director of Bluebird in 1995, which was based in Aberdeen but covered the area including Perth, Inverness, Aberdeenshire and Moray. In 1998, I took on a similar role at Fife. I became Managing Director of Fife, and then of both Fife and Bluebird businesses in 2000. I became the Regional Director after the acquisition of Strathtay.”

Strathtay became a part of Stagecoach following its purchase of the Yorkshire-based Traction Group in 2005. The purchase meant that Stagecoach had grown to effectively cover the whole of eastern and northern Scotland, being a significant (if not the only) operator in most areas along the east coast north of Edinburgh right up to the north and west Highlands. Today, besides its local networks, the operator runs a large number of regional and express services across its area, including the Stagecoach Express services into Edinburgh, the Coastliner route between Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen, and its 10 and X99, the former between Aberdeen and Inverness, the latter starting at Inverness and reaching the very north of the country, connecting with ferries to Orkney.

Emigration to England

“I was asked to do something similar in England in 2008, and spent periods working in northern England and then in the south before returning to Scotland in April 2016 to take up a similar role.” From 2017 until 2019, Robert jointly led Stagecoach’s UK bus division, before taking on an enhanced Regional Director position early that year which also encompassed megabus services and Stagecoach’s Welsh operations.

“Last year,” Robert continued, “I took the decision to bow out of full-time employment and thought 2020 would be a good year to do it, as I’d been in the industry for 35 years, and it would allow me time with my family and to pursue local interests, including my support of Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The company asked me if I’d carry on on a part-time basis looking after the Citylink joint venture.”

Speaking about the Award and Robert’s decision to stay on part time, Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach Chief Executive, said that Robert has made a vast contribution to Scottish transport in his lifetime, and become a very popular and well-loved member of the Stagecoach team. Martin said he is a highly respected transport professional, and that while Stagecoach was pleased Robert is taking some time to spend with his family, it was very happy to still have the benefit of his valuable expertise in the Citylink business.

Looking back over his different roles, Robert said there were quite a few things that stood out from his years in the industry. “My experience south of the border was good, it gave me an exposure to the different politics in England. Things are very different there. Transport Scotland is a great organisation to work with, they have lots of ambition. In England, pre-pandemic, things moved a lot slower. Scotland has benefited from having a smaller number of operators. With the various ministers we’ve had, and now that transport has been elevated to Cabinet Secretary level, we get very good exposure. Access to the government minister helps immensely to keep transport on the radar. Northern England was a steep learning curve, but southern England was more akin to Scotland with the local authority relationships.”

Robert is stepping down from his wider role with Stagecoach, but staying on part time to oversee the Citylink operation. RICHARD WALTER

Never a dull moment

With his eye on such large areas, there was always something new or interesting happening across Robert’s patch wherever he was based. “I enjoyed working with Oxford Tube and Falcon, which were led by MDs and supported by myself,” he said. “Falcon took off from a standing start which was really good. We had also acquired the Plymouth operations from FirstGroup, which was still a work in progress when I returned to Scotland. It always takes time for things to bed in. Equally, it’s important to bring people on board, and to try and coach less experienced MDs.”

Robert’s forecast that 2020 would be a good year to retire did not anticipate the massive change and upheaval that was just around the corner. “The last few months have been very much involved with the pandemic. Things have been moving very quickly,” he said. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and looking back, there will no doubt be reviews and reflections on how the industry and the wider world coped with the pandemic, but as Robert said: “We had to react. Every decision we made was probably the right one at the time.”

Learning by doing

There have been lots of initiatives which have taken place over the years, and Robert has seen many of them come, and some of them go. “We launched the Yellow Taxibus in 2003, taking people from Fife into Edinburgh. Looking back it was years ahead of its time. It didn’t perform financially. Were we to do it today, we would have the benefit of technology and would have used it to feed to Ferrytoll Park & Ride. It was a good learning curve for the company.

“I can’t take the credit for doing it though. We just decided to go ahead and try instead of theorising. It was Sir Brian Souter’s idea.” Launched on 18 August 2003, the Yellow Taxibus service used a fleet of Mercedes-Benz Vito eight-seat people carriers, and operated between Dunfermline, where it offered taxi-style service to Edinburgh on a fixed route south of the Forth Road Bridge, with single journeys of £5 and returns priced £8. According to Stagecoach, it was the first commercially-funded service of its type operating with no public funding, and vehicles operated up to every 15 minutes at peak times, up to 21 hours per day.

“I’ve seen the pilots a number of other operators have done since, and I’m not surprised they weren’t successful. It’s always going to be a struggle to make a small vehicle pay. I can see them working better as feeders into other services. The key is the interchange. It needs to work – for example being able to get to the P&R site without needing to use the car, to feed into Edinburgh services. There are organisations looking at the scope and how it can be better implemented. I think that kind of model has a future rather than in urban areas where it would need support from the government.

“At around the same time we were launching megabus. It was great to be involved in the Scottish end of that process. Ultimately in 2006 we merged the Scottish operation with Citylink to give the business that it is today. It’s great to be part of things where you could demonstrate initiative.”

Robert said the majority of services on the Citylink/megabus network in Scotland will soon be double-deck. Recently-delivered Citylink Gold coaches are being used on standard services during the pandemic, until Gold services resume. RICHARD WALTER

Technology and progress

I asked Robert about the changes he has seen over his 35 years. “We are on the cusp of major technological changes,” he said. “We have mobile and smart ticketing, the next steps are account-based ticketing, potentially multi-modal and incorporating other facilities. There is a lot of new technology, and lots of it is there now, but the challenge is public acceptance. Obviously Stagecoach East Scotland is involved in the autonomous vehicle trial between Ferrytoll and Edinburgh Park. It will be fascinating to see how it develops.

“We don’t know where we will be post-pandemic, how people will live or work. We will need to make adjustments and hopefully demand will grow back stronger.

“The government has seen the benefits that reduction in car use brings. We need to ensure sensible use of road space, and the Bus Partnership fund will be a tremendous opportunity for Scotland to showcase itself. We did a lot of work to showcase the success of the Park & Ride sites at Ferrytoll and Halbeath and highlight the benefits. We need to create a virtuous circle, so that more services mean more people. We would like to see similar schemes for Ayrshire for passengers travelling into Glasgow, such as along the M77 corridor.

“I remember when Ferrytoll opened, we were running five journeys a day before 0900hrs to Edinburgh. Now we’re running every five minutes with additional journeys in the peaks. We could apply that model elsewhere, such as using the motorways around Glasgow. It will take time but Transport Scotland is looking at it positively. We need to take the Halbeath and Ferrytoll experience and show Glasgow what can be done.

Robert said he enjoyed being involved as Stagecoach sought to enter the Glasgow market. “We planned to launch services around 1994, but instead bought 20% of Strathclyde Buses, although subsequently we were required to sell it by the then MMC. We launched again in 1997, and many of the services remain to this day, particularly in Cumbernauld and Easterhouse. The industry wasn’t as mature then as it is today.

“I hope that the political support in Scotland continues and we don’t get distracted by the sideshows of regulation and ownership. The industry is most effective in the private sector, working in partnership with the public sector.”

During Covid, buses have replaced coaches on some services. Robert says that the P&R services into Edinburgh have been a major success for Stagecoach, and one it would like to repeat elsewhere. RICHARD WALTER

It’s about the people

It is often said that the industry is as much about the people as the buses, and Robert agrees wholeheartedly. “One of the things I’ve been very fortunate with is the people I’ve worked with. Sir Brian Souter has been an inspiration to many, and being based in Scotland meant I was able to be part of lots of things – Yellow Taxibus, Megabus, the Scottish Express network. Martin Griffiths has been great to work with, and I really admired former Stagecoach UK Bus MD Les Warneford, who had an uncanny knack of knowing every bit of the network and could spot when things were wrong. It was his attention to detail.

“I was also fortunate to be involved in training through our graduate and internal development programme. I got to see some progress to leadership roles in their own right, such as Mark Whitelocks and Peter Knight, who are now Managing Directors, and others who will move on and be the leaders of the future.”

Stagecoach’s team at Macduff depot recently featured in CBW thanks to their eco-driving scores on the GreenRoad system. “I was privileged to lead the operational elements of the roll out and management of the system. To see the passion from the champions is great, it brought home how important it is for the company and the drivers. The whole project has been managed very well from inception, and we got the union on board at an early stage.” Robert said that besides the aspect of pride and teamwork, and reduction in fuel, there have undoubtedly been accident cost benefits, although these are hard to quantify, and that it is another example of technology which has been introduced to make the industry a better and safer place.

CPT chair

“I was fortunate to be chair of CPT Scotland twice in 2004 and 2018. In 2018 there was a lot going on, such as the Transport Scotland Act. The CPT is a great organisation, and has really come into its own during the pandemic.

In Scotland, we are fortunate that all the major players work collaboratively, despite being in competition, for the greater good of the industry and our customers. I was delighted to have had the opportunity.

“Covid is the here and now and has slowed things down. It’s about reassuring people that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Public transport will continue to evolve. There will be efficiencies coming in, and we have to do more to win over the hearts and minds of both the public and the decision makers.

“We need to see public transport as part of the solution to emissions not part of the problem. We need to give it more priority, so coaches and buses are not sat at traffic lights or stuck in traffic, and make more efficient and intelligent use of road space. We have to avoid the dogma of how it should be regulated. The sector is a mature one and wants to work in partnership, and stay away from distractions. We have to give people the opportunity to make an informed decision on how they travel.”

Robert is looking forward to his semi-retirement, but will still be overseeing Citylink and megabus in Scotland, as well as being involved with a number of other organisations such as Hitrans and Bus Users. RICHARD WALTER

Competition

Robert’s focus now, in his semi-retirement, is on the Citylink operation. “We have no problem with competition,” he said, referring to new operators like Ember and Flixbus. “Our business model is based around high capacity and intensive diagramming, so the current electric coach options wouldn’t be suitable, but that will change as the technology develops.

“With the transfer of double-deckers from Oxford Tube, the majority of services on the Citylink/megabus network in Scotland will be double-deck and Euro VI, although some journeys will still retain single-deck coaches, particularly those on the west coast and within the Highlands.”

Speaking about the wider business, Robert added: “Citylink itself is a very good business with great people. I see it as Scotland’s strategic coach service, the equivalent of our rail network. We try to keep it simple and make it easily accessible. We have just introduced the new Gold coaches for Saltire Cross services, and although we have suspended the Gold catering provision at the minute we still want to emphasise the quality. We carried on when

National Express ceased – our routes within Scotland are largely registered and qualify for BSOG, and we operated a skeleton service during lockdown. Patronage is variable with the ongoing restrictions, but we are seeing encouraging signs again.”

Easing into retirement

“28 years at Stagecoach has been a great experience. I’m very happy to be able to carry on with Citylink, and have a better balance between home and work. It means I’m not going to be away from home all week. I’ve also been involved with the Hitrans Regional Transport Partnership as a Board Member since 2019, and Bus Users Scotland approached me to be a part of their review panel in June. I have just agreed to Chair the Bus Alliance for the Nestrans RTP in the North East of Scotland, following George Mair retiring, which includes Nestrans, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils, First Aberdeen, Stagecoach Bluebird, small operators and Bus Users,” Robert explained – so while he might have stepped down from his Director role, he will still be an active and familiar face in the industry for some time yet.

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