Blazing ahead

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In the second of a two-part interview, Giles Fearnley, who retires as First Bus Managing Director this month, continues his conversation with Jonathan Welch about his life and times in the bus industry

In the first part of this feature, we spoke about Giles’ career and his progression both through the industry and around the country. Changing tack slightly now and looking at the wider industry as a whole, I asked Giles about what the biggest changes and developments are that he has seen during his career.

“I think if I had to pick one out, it is the ability for real-time data, for the customer,” he said, “real time information takes away the huge uncertainly and sometimes excuse for not using the bus when you don’t know if its coming.

The other side of real time is that it has given us, as operators, control of the network, sorting out problems, helping drivers and keeping the service and network flowing. And we now have valuable data to plan our networks and timetables. That is probably the one stand out.

“The second one is ticketing. The industry was so traditional. For a long, long time we lagged behind developments in the wider economy in terms of IT and the need for cash transactions continued long after the wider retail world had changed. Giving change can be cumbersome, some of our businesses don’t give change. We went big at First with mobile ticketing 5 or 6 years ago. My colleague Dave Lynch, CIO at First Group, absolutely led the charge very early on and we soon had networks where over half our passengers were pre-paying by mobile. That was really good, we were beginning to move ticketing to a place where people would no longer see it as a barrier to using the bus. And then we were the first national operator to introduce contactless across our entire network in 2018.

“These solved the two the big obstacles which had been stopping the industry from retaining passengers and attracting new ones: ‘When’s the bus coming,’ ‘I remember last time I used one 10 years ago it didn’t turn up so I won’t use it now,’ and ‘how do I pay, do I need exact fare,’ ‘what do I ask for,’ ‘will I get the best value?’ Those used to be the continuous cries of our customers.”

Public transport has come a long way in Sheffield since Giles started his career there. JONATHAN WELCH
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