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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The future

Looking forwards, I asked Giles where he thought the industry was heading next. “The industry is equipping itself very well in the way it has operated throughout the pandemic. Companies have been extraordinarily agile, and still are, maintaining services, working with local authorities to agree what services to run and continuously seeking to match capacity to demand whilst limiting the bus’ capacity enabling social distancing. We’ve set ourselves up in great stead to face the future. It is going to be difficult as we come off funding and move back to a commercial model, but we are working closely with the Government and Local Authorities to work through how this will happen.”

“The clean air agenda is still with us and if anything more important now. Some cities have realised they don’t need to go for legal measures with CAZs or LEZs because they can now achieve the results without these but it does require them to tackle congestion. The opportunity for bus to play its part there is huge. The timings may have been pushed back by a year or two, but the long-term opportunity is there, and the Government is still massively supportive. In Scotland recently, the Minister announced the Bus Partnership Fund which cements £500m of funding for ambitious bus priorities to support the clean air agenda through stimulating investment in new vehicles.”

Faster journeys

There is no question that the biggest prize for everyone – customers, the environment and operators – is sustained faster journey speeds which come from clever highway solutions improving our productivity so we can achieve more miles per day from a bus and a driver, and which can lead to increased frequencies for only marginal increases in costs. That gives the customer a much better experience, makes the proposition much more attractive, and it gives local authorities the opportunity to tackle congestion. In England there is the Transforming Cities Funding which is largely focused on this objective.

“I think we’re in a good place. Manufacturers are beginning to deliver us the carbon-free vehicles we need. Their ambition is to recover from the dearth of orders currently, and they will only do that if their products are fit for purpose.

“I think the electric and hydrogen agenda will be good for bus, as travelling on an electric bus will appeal – however clean our diesel buses are, to some people they are still diesel. Electric and hydrogen will change the perception of the bus.

“One of the greatest things right now is that the bus worker, whatever their role, has risen so much in many people’s minds as we are now seen as key workers. Our colleagues – drivers, engineers, cleaners, everyone – they have kept the essential services going. They are now receiving the credit they deserve but have perhaps not received for very many years. The Government has seen what we can do, which can only play well. It has increased the confidence in the sector.”

Giles with Glasgow 2014 Chief Executive David Grevemberg. First provided transport during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. FIRST

Hindsight

I wondered if there was anything Giles wished he had done differently during his career: “There are always things and projects you think that with hindsight you could or should have done differently. In the early days with First, the agenda was huge. I reflect that I and colleagues did kick off too many projects simultaneously and maybe didn’t achieve things as quickly as we would have wished. With hindsight perhaps fewer would have been more effective.

“I’m really proud of what the team at First have delivered over the last 10 years and the business is undoubtedly in a very much stronger position now and has much greater confidence in itself than it did when I joined. This is great to see and I’m so proud of the team of professional, competent, committed people who work really well together and are absolutely determined to do a great job for our customers and support colleagues who work for them.”

Memorable events

In a long career which has seen many changes and events, were there any occasions which particularly stood out, I asked: “My most enjoyable but also most insightful week was back in August 1999,” Giles continued, “when I was persuaded to film for the BBC series Back to the Floor where a business leader would be put in a shop-floor situation. I was in rail at the time, though my experiences are pertinent to bus too. I did a week working on Cambridge station, doing every job from whistling trains off, to standing on the platform being berated by angry passengers, from selling and checking tickets to evicting drunks from trains, dealing with lost property, cleaning the toilets, everything. It was an extraordinary week. Most of the time I didn’t even notice the cameras filming. What struck me by the end of the week – I’d thought it before, but I was there in uniform doing it, so really felt it – was that those people who bear the brunt of the business and are always in the public eye are those who are at the lower end of the pay scale and the ones who feel they are most neglected by the business – for example there were many I worked with who had ambitions but therefore had no idea and no hope of whether they would ever be able to progress up the career ladder.

“That really struck me. It was at a time when trains were under the kosh. John Prescott had said at the party conference a year earlier that trains were a national disgrace. It was really tough times and the staff at the sharp end were taking the brunt. That experience has stayed with me. At the time we made changes in that business to create greater opportunities and improve staff communication and support. I encouraged my managers to start doing similar, but without the cameras! I’d always had high regard for those on the shop floor but it increased it to higher levels. It was a turning point for me, the experiences crossed bus and rail.”
Covid ethos

“Another stand-out is the way the whole business responded to Covid – the best example, the commitment of drivers from day one to continue to go out driving. Around April there was a lot of concern nationally about the handling of cash as it could be a source of transmission of Covid. Some shops and businesses reduced or stopped handling cash altogether, and there was some noise that we should so the same, or at least stop giving change.

“As a management team we didn’t want to go that way and I had a conversation – as I have done regularly – with our trade union leaders and before I could say anything they said to me ‘we’ve looked at this, we’ve talked with drivers and shop stewards around the country, and we want to continue to accept cash and we are prepared still to give change, because a number of people who use our buses have no choice but to use cash, and there’s nothing that we are going to do to make their lives harder right now.’ That spoke volumes about the nature and values and commitment of those who work in the business.

“To support them we’ve done lot to encourage more people to pay by card or mobile phone in advance and in the last six months we’ve increased card payments by 50%. In some networks now, only single-digit percentages of passengers are paying by cash.

“In terms of funny moments, there have been occasions when I’d be walking down the street and hear a shout of “Giles!” and look around to find a bus stopped with the doors open, holding up the traffic and our customers looking puzzled, to talk to me. It’s happened many times around the country since I’ve been at First. Amazing on each and every occasion!”

The modern face of bus travel in Sheffield is very different from when Giles started his career. JONATHAN WELCH

Youthful enthusiasm

I wondered how the wider industry has changed and matured over the last four and a half decades. Giles said that the transformation has been remarkable: “When I first joined in 1972, we were a declining industry. That was understood and accepted. The car was in the ascendency, there was some investment in local rail and light rail, but bus was seen as declining. I don’t think anyone thought it would disappear, but it was a ‘no-go’ sector. There was a lot of stigma around it but thankfully there were very many colleagues at the time who weren’t going to be beaten down. They believed in an industry that was seen by some as well past its sell-by date. We all stuck at it and enjoyed it – it really is exciting; every day is different with the challenges you face as a manager. We believed the bus had its place and would continue to do so. Deregulation in 1986 and the few years after, the speed that we managed to turn ourselves around and become much more customer-centric, was something you might have never believed could happen.”

As well as the people, technology played a vital part in the transformation too, especially in later years: “I’m not a natural IT person, I was probably slow to recognise the power of what was coming and how it could so quickly transform a moribund industry into something that now is absolutely up there in terms of tech. It has set the foundation for the sector’s future.”

Giles seen with Ray Stenning and Mark Reddy at the launch of First Solent’s new buses for The Star. FIRST

Advice for the next generation

As we neared the end of our very enjoyable chat, I asked Giles what advice he would give to someone looking to follow in his footsteps. “I’d say go for it. It is immensely rewarding,” he answered. “Buses do a great job. They are such an integral part of people’s lives and there’s so much more they can do. I would promise them that they will never ever be bored. You have the opportunity of specialising in a number of areas and you will work with amazing and dedicated people at all levels of the organisation. For someone wanting to hone their managerial or leadership skills, the bus industry provides a very ‘live,’ opportunity to do that. We have to react in real time, and that is very stimulating: so often we have to react now and what we decide will make a difference now or at the latest, tomorrow.

“When I worked in rail, then went back to bus I was often asked which I prefer and what the difference is between bus and rail. In rail, the complexities of contractual relationships and the numbers of parties involved in every decision were huge. When you wanted to do something, however straightforward, you would almost certainly have to involve a whole plethora of other parties, meetings held, committees formed, before investments were made.

Even the simplest of things could take 12 months to enact.

“In the bus industry, there isn’t much you can’t do within the service registration period limits, and so much you can effect overnight. Often, if a decision is taken on a Monday and by the following Monday it is not either in place or the plans are being laid out for it, there is something wrong. And of course, we have been doing that right through Covid, all credit to our drivers and operational staff who have been planning, implementing and accepting changes to services and duties at very short notice. We are blessed with hugely committed schedulers, planners and forward allocators in our businesses who have been working at times night and day for days on end.

“I am delighted that the First Bus is now held in greater respect and is set up so well to face the challenges ahead – and there will be challenges before we get to the new normal, no question – but the business is now agile enough and confident enough to find its way through whatever lies ahead.”

Giles’ career began in in the 1970s, when brown and cream buses such as this Park Royal-bodied Daimler Fleetline were a common sight on the city’s streets. IAN WINFIELDALE
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