Blackpool on track

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The 20 Enviro400 Citys currently used on rail replacement will enter service on Blackpool Transport’s own network once the blockade is over. GARETH EVANS

The electrification upgrade of the railway between Blackpool and Preston means the line is currently closed for 19 weeks. As senior managers at Blackpool Transport explain to Andy Izatt, they have seen the consequential bus replacement service as an opportunity to not just extend the council-owned company’s own brand values, but to underline the message that the seaside resort it serves remains firmly open for business

“A year ago, Northern (Arriva Rail North) advised us about what would be a 19-week blockade of the railway line between Blackpool and Preston starting on November 11, 2017 while it was upgraded and electrified,” James Carney, Blackpool Transport’s Finance & Commercial Director, explained. “We’ve built a good working relationship with Northern and could see the commercial impact the closure would have on the town and us, particularly our tram operation, through a reduction in visitors to Blackpool. It would also affect the ability of people living here to get to work and travel to points beyond Preston.

“Our premise is that Blackpool is on the verge of a significant economic revival. Electrification of the railway is essential to the town’s longer term future, but we felt that we had a responsibility to ensure that travellers going to and from had the best possible service while the blockade was in place. It should not just be another rail replacement, but a means of demonstrating that Blackpool is still open. We wanted to be involved because it is an opportunity to show the public how much we care.

“Because we have a strategy in place for buying new buses on an ongoing basis, it was a relatively easy decision to bring the next batch of buses forward six months. Our shareholder needed to give consent to the change in the loan profiles, but that was given unhesitatingly. Naturally we would incur higher depreciation costs, but the gain would be that we would have a fleet of new vehicles available, and by using them we would require fewer buses because they would be very reliable vehicles.

“UIC (Universal Improvement Company) has helped the team at Blackpool Transport with project management and it was that capability that enabled us to plan ahead, be flexible and responsive to what was required. When we started talking to Northern about this project, we could lay out our plans and at each subsequent meeting tick off what had been achieved.

“Northern asked us how many departures we wanted to cover. We chose 17 diagrams although in the event using 18 buses because that made more efficient use of drivers’ labour. It was approximately half of what was available and it fitted with the number of new vehicles we had on order – 20 Enviro400 Citys. We could have taken on more work, but wanted to make sure that what we did, we did well.

“While Northern is the end client, it appointed Arriva UK Trains Road Transport Section to coordinate the rail replacement and we’re a subcontractor. We knew that taking on the extra commitment was going to be very demanding. As well as increasing our PVR (Peak Vehicle Requirement) by more than 20%, our manning levels would go up by a similar percentage. Jo Pitcher is the Project Manager for Northern and she understood from the start what we were trying to do. She has been very efficient sorting out any issues and because of her personal commitment, it has been possible for us to deploy the resources we wanted. Both sides have really wanted the project to succeed.”

“As James has said, we think Blackpool is on the verge of a revival, which is very exciting,” said Head of Stakeholders at Blackpool Transport, Karen Cooper. “There’s a poor perception of the resort in some parts of the country and even in some parts of the Fylde coast. There’s also a poor perception of public transport generally in many quarters and that particularly resonates with car drivers. We wanted to challenge all of that.[wlm_nonmember][…]

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Express journeys take 50 minutes while it’s 60 minutes for the all-stops workings – six stations in all, Layton, Poulton-le-Fylde as seen here, Kirkham and Salwick being the intermediary points. ANDY IZATT

“We had been given varying figures that perhaps there would be up to 50% less footfall through the stations into Blackpool while the blockade was on. (There are two stations. Blackpool North which is the main entry point and Blackpool South at the end of a branch line). That would impact on hoteliers as well as attractions and retailers. Christmas would fall right in the middle and we normally have an amazing festive offer across the Fylde coast so we needed to think carefully how it might affect the welcome for visitors. Equally there was the impact on people travelling from Blackpool to events like the Manchester Christmas Markets.

“Blackpool Transport is an important part of the infrastructure of the town and, while it wasn’t our responsibility, we wanted to find a way strategically of getting other stakeholders involved in what was happening prior to the line closure starting – to get the message across that the resort was still firmly open for business.

“A lot of trust has been built up with stakeholders in the two years that I’ve been here. My background isn’t bus. It’s customer service and there’s a whole coastline that extends beyond this company. We’ve compiled a stakeholder register of around 50 organisations so we knew who we needed to talk to.

“Some of the main players included VisitBlackpool, the Winter Gardens, Sandcastle Waterpark and Merlin Entertainments which owns the Tower. VisitBlackpool is the tourist and marketing arm of Blackpool Council and provides a conduit for a lot of the hoteliers
and attractions.

“We targeted organisations with a far-reaching audience because they’re best able to channel the message. Talking first-hand was important and that included engagement with numerous community groups as well. News spreads fast when you start engaging like that.

“As part of the strategy, we’ve worked really hard to be more inclusive with our own marketing offering. For example, instead of just selling our tickets to hoteliers, we’ve built a relationship by asking them where their customers wanted to visit. Do they have any questions we could help with? Did they need timetables? It’s an ongoing process, but it’s all those little steps that helped prepare the ground for the railway closure.”

Added James: “Since we introduced our travel app in April 2017, it’s been downloaded more than 39,000 times and has an app rating of 4.8. The new version from Passenger Technology Group we’re introducing shortly will mean that if hotels and guest houses recommend it, every download made through the recommendation will earn them commission. It potentially gives us hundreds of agents and a recommendation is a lot more effective than hard sell.”

Blackpool ambassadors

Karen continued: “We knew that if we didn’t extend our engagement from day one of the rail replacement, people would be turning up at the stations and thinking, what’s going on? Why am I being inconvenienced? A priority was seeing how we could directly manage the customer experience.

“Since 2016, when there has been a major event or disruption in the town because of roadworks, we’ve deployed Blackpool Transport Ambassadors from our Customer Experience Team who have been able to help with ‘way finding’ and reassurance on the ground. They’re there not just to reflect the brand qualities of the company, but also to use their own personal skills because they’re people who love talking to others. They will actively approach those who they can see need help.

“Because we wanted to work effectively with Northern, we asked in 2016 if we could have an ambassador presence at Blackpool North station. For those getting off a train, all they see first is a row of black cabs and no way finding. The station manger embraced the idea immediately. So did other station staff because they have travellers coming up to them every day asking questions like where can they catch a tram or where was their hotel? Quite often they didn’t know the answer.

“We’ve had six ambassadors working on the rail replacement since it started – three at Blackpool North and also three at Preston station. Recruited especially, we gave them a week’s training which might sound a bit excessive, but we wanted them to completely understand our brand, the network and also get to know our rail replacement drivers and Northern employees. We provided them with excellent customer engagement training and an iPad so they can check details on anything they can’t immediately answer themselves.

“The ambassadors work seven days a week from 0700 to 1800hrs and in the first three weeks of the blockade, they helped around 4,500 people. We’ve even received commendations which we’re thrilled about. To make them stand out from groups of people in hi-viz, we’ve given them a tabard with simply ‘Here to help’ on the back. They’re dealing with queries that aren’t just Blackpool Transport related and we’re not the only contractor so we wanted to make the message generic.

The latest batch of Enviro400 MMCs follow on from 35 similar buses that have entered service since 2016. ANDY IZATT

“We’re not being paid for the ambassadors for the whole of the 19 weeks, but we chose to do it as part of our quality assurance. The people involved have good prospects for further employment with us after the rail replacement is over. They were drawn from the pool of seasonal conductors we take on every summer and will be given priority when we recruit this year.”

Said James: “Before we started reaching out with our ambassadors, we were very operationally focused as a business. One of the reasons why we’ve been able to build a good relationship with Northern is that we have been prepared to do more than would normally be expected of a contractor. In the past Karen and colleagues like Wayne Smith, our in-house project manager, have brought to its attention changes that local authorities have made to the road network which it didn’t know about and with the current rail replacement, we did much of the routing for it on a consultancy basis.

“We needed 54 additional drivers to cover the diagrams we’d taken on and to cover for holidays and sickness. The winter season demands fewer staff than the summer so that would release some and we asked for volunteers, but we still needed to recruit around another 20 people.

rdinarily we don’t normally take category D licence holders because we prefer to train our own, but we did in this instance. We contacted any driver who’d left us in the past two years to ask what they were doing now and it was many of those that we took on. If someone joined, but said, ‘no thank you. I’d rather just drive in the town,’ we accommodated that.”

“We wanted to extend the ambassadorial role to the rail replacement drivers because we knew they could also contribute to changing perceptions,” said Karen. “They might potentially be dealing with people who had never been on a bus before or who were just expecting to have a bad experience because they knew there were no trains running.

“We have six trainers, who are mainly involved in mandatory tuition, but one was seconded to Customer Experience and together we developed a bespoke course for rail replacement drivers, which we made as personal and relaxed as possible. The two days tuition we came up with was outside our normal Driver CPC.

“Day one was classroom-based and explored what the drivers thought a good customer experience was. We really got them thinking and it worked really well. The message we wanted to get across was, just because there will be people they deal with who present themselves in a certain way, they shouldn’t make assumptions or let prejudices cloud their judgment. On day two the focus was on route learning and First Aid.

“Each driver received a workbook in our Palladium brand colours. It clearly outlined what everyone’s role during the rail replacement was and as well as contact numbers, there was space to write personal notes. Our new uniform for all our employees, supplied by First Corporate, was rolled out at the same time.

“We have drivers who quite openly say, ‘I’m only a bus driver,’ but we want them to feel 10 feet high because they’re the lifeblood of the company. Because of that, we’re generally trying to change the way we communicate with them. For example, all the sentences in our uniform policy document seemed to start with a negative. In the workbook we show how best to wear the uniform and provide advice on washing and looking after it so that it has a longer life. It’s all about softening the message and getting their buy-in.

“The additional drivers we recruited will have jobs when the blockade is over,” James said. “To dispense with them would be contra to our trust ethic and values as a business. We actually have plans to introduce a one-year apprenticeship for new starters. Currently we have to recruit now to replace people we hired eight months ago, such is the turnover. It would be so much better if they were locked into a learning process for a year.

“The rail replacement drivers are actually on rosters that have enhanced terms and conditions because they’ve accepted greater responsibility and flexibility. That will end when the blockade finishes, but we’re in negotiation with Unite to introduce them for everybody from April.

“Amongst the changes, they’re required to clear litter from their vehicles when they reach terminus points. Also, if there’s sickness absence, they must report 15 minutes before their duty starts when they return for a welfare interview. We’ve reorganised our internal structure to change how we treat our customers. The empathy we’re striving to extend to them, we want to radiate inside our business as well.

“When the rail replacement finishes, we are wary there will be a ‘cliff edge’ to negotiate. With drivers reverting to old pay and conditions, there will also be a sense of what happens next, but Karen has scheduled Driver CPC training to start in April. We’ll need extra staff to cover for that and I’ve also altered the pay structure so when the pay reduction does take place, it won’t be as steep as it might otherwise have been.”

To meet the rail replacement requirement the order for 20 Enviro400 Citys was moved forward six months. ADL

Maintaining the headway

“The 20 Enviro400 Citys used on the rail replacement have the latest version of our Palladium-branded saloon specification that we’ve been developing,” James continued. “Rather than have USB ports on table tops in the upper deck, there’s one by every seat. Instead of poles in the upper saloon, each seat has a handgrip to create an airier environment plus litterbins are on each deck. What are also new are two TFT infotainment screens. We spoke to the attractions in Blackpool and they have produced professional high quality advertisements promoting what they and the town have to offer which we’re using as much of the content. Stop buttons have been incorporated into seat backs, as have device holders and users of the on-board free WiFi provided are able to even stream content.

“The first bus leaves our Rigby Road depot at 0525hrs, Monday to Saturday, heading for Preston. First buses in service depart Blackpool North and Preston stations at 0630hrs while the last does the same at 2400hrs. The final vehicle arrives back at the depot at around 0130hrs. There are also a couple of special departures on Friday and Saturday nights while the Sunday service is slightly reduced.”

Head of Operations at Blackpool Transport, Mandy Davies, said: “Eighteen buses leave in the morning to start either at Blackpool North or Preston stations. We’re scheduled to do five express and 12 all-stops workings a day – slightly less on a Sunday due to a later start. Express journeys take 50 minutes while its 60 minutes for the all-stops workings – six stations in all, Layton, Poulton-le-Fylde, Kirkham and Salwick being the intermediary points. Journey times on the bus are pretty much double what they would be on the train.

“There are both six and five-day rosters with drivers tending to stay on one or the other and rotating. The six-day roster is a 53-hour week while it’s between 42 and 45 hours for the five-day one. Everyone who wanted to do rail replacement is working on that with those that volunteered from our existing driver complement having first choice on which one they were allocated.

“Rosters are compiled 10 days in advance using our Omnibus system. It’s the responsibility of one of my three Operations Managers, Chris Sage to ensure that by Wednesday, the following week’s work is covered. Any anomalies after that are dealt with by the depot office controllers because they have a list of who’s available.

“Chris was a Senior Depot Controller who has just been promoted. He doesn’t just deal with rail replacement. He ensures we have enough cover for all our service requirements. Of our other Operations Managers, Paul Judd deals with any issues that arise such as accidents, incidents and complaints while Steve Cullen is out supporting staff on the road.

“Wayne Smith is Project Manager for the rail replacement contract, dealing with Northern and Arriva. Previously he was a station manager with Northern Rail and joined my operations team as tramway manager in 2015. He then became an operations manager on the bus side and is currently working on rail replacement as a full-time project manager.”

“Wayne provides the operational knowhow needed to make all we do link up and work,” said James. “It’s important to have that mix of customer and operational knowledge and the relationship we have with Northern is certainly one that we want to develop.

“Because they’re currently additional vehicles to our normal requirement, the rail replacement buses aren’t equipped with ticket machines. As our Nimbus GPS bus location system is tied into that, we have used mobile phones fixed to the buses instead. Preston would have been out of range anyway. If we need to contact a driver, we’ll send a text message rather than use audio because it’s less likely to be misunderstood.”

“After the first week, the method of working was reviewed,” said Mandy. “Car parking had continued at Blackpool North station, but it had become evident that it had to go to enable a bus lane to be created that has improved access.

“In Preston the short stay car park down one side of the station in Butler Street has been commandeered. Buses reverse into bays, Northern providing banksmen from an agency to facilitate that, before being called forward when required. Originally we had offloaded on Fishergate at what was a registered bus stop by the station entrance and then had to make a loop round past County Hall, but now our drivers can turn directly into Butler Street. In making that loop, they were being caught up in a lot of congestion and that was taking up to 20 minutes, compromising breaks as a result.

“Other parts of the route have also been revised to mitigate the impact of congestion. How we exit Poulton-le-Fylde was one, as was the use of Mains Lane in Singleton. We were getting particularly snarled up in peak time traffic in Preston so we asked Northern and Arriva to approach Lancashire County Council to see if it would allow us to use the bus lane along Fishergate. We started using that the day after access was granted.

“After the first couple of weeks we were able to ease back our overall supervision because supervisors, ambassadors and drivers were sorting out minor operational issues themselves, the excellent relationship built up with Northern and Arriva staff helps enormously.

“If I want to put myself in a good mood I go and talk to a rail replacement driver. Ask them how it’s going and they’re always so positive. They wish they could do it all year round which is great feedback.”

The introduction of the latest vehicles further extends Blackpool Transport’s Palladium brand across the fleet. ADL

Customer satisfaction

“When the rail replacement started, there were eight operators involved, so we were concerned how we would be able to control the overall perception of quality, especially when we had put such a strong emphasis on what our brand stood for,” said Karen. “Having worked hard on refining our own complaints process over the last couple of years, I was keen to work with Northern on this. What’s good is all feedback goes through one channel which is Northern’s contact centre. We’ve had little cards made with the contact details on so that our drivers and ambassadors can distribute to customers so that people can be confident where to take their concerns.”

Said James: “The sort of comments we’re getting is that ‘the journey is taking a long time’ or ‘I didn’t make the connection that I wanted to make.’ We’ll never stop that when it’s a rail replacement. The ones we feared were being told our staff have been rude or they gave an incorrect answer, but nothing like that has come through. In fact we have received commendations about individual team members.

“Between November 14 and 27 we undertook a survey to find out what people thought of the service we were providing. Anyone who wanted to use the free on-board WiFi had it pushed to them and the opportunity to choose the response they thought was most appropriate. There were four questions including asking how frequently they travelled and were they a regular Blackpool Transport customer. 90% of recipients said they were fairly or very satisfied with the rail replacement service while 94% were fairly or very satisfied with the bus and its features.

“Despite the emphasis we’ve placed on quality and the extra cost that has entailed, we’re still making a good return. It’s true we had a particular motivation to approach this project in a certain way, but there must be opportunities for the transport industry to do something similar elsewhere and think about innovative ways to meet and exceed customers’ expectations.”[/wlm_ismember]