Building Bournemouth

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Two of the workshop bays at Southcote Road are equipped with hydraulic ram lifts. ANDY IZATT

Go South Coast opened a new custom-made depot in Bournemouth last November. Managing Director, Andrew Wickham talks to Andy Izatt about why the investment was so important in what is an ever more challenging market

Go-Ahead Group Chief Executive Officer, David Brown and Leader of BCP Council, Cllr Vikki Slade joined Go South Coast Managing Director, Andrew Wickham last November for the official opening of a new depot at the Central Business Park, Southcote Road, Bournemouth. A site that had previously been home to coach operator Excelsior for many years, the new custom-made facility includes a workshop, staff facilities and offices representing a total investment of £2.5m.

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“Since acquiring Excelsior in October 2016, we have been keen to develop our site here in Southcote Road so that it provides excellent facilities, not only for our buses and coaches, but also for our team,” Andrew said at the launch. “Now we have fully-equipped rest quarters for our drivers and operations staff including a large restroom with catering facilities and new showers for those working shifts.”

David added: “The investment in the rebuilt depot represents our commitment to the local community, and to our colleagues as they work to provide customers with clean, frequent, reliable and comfortable journeys. The new low emission vehicles (that are based at the depot) support the environment while giving people more reason to choose the bus.”

Established tenure

The new Christ Magnum bus wash can accommodate double-deckers. ANDY IZATT

Go South Coast’s morebus operation, which uses the new Southcote Road facility, encompasses around 120 vehicles primarily based at Poole, but also Lymington and Ringwood as well as Bournemouth. A couple of buses operate from Go South Coast subsidiary Damory’s Pimperne base for the X8 (Poole-Blandford Forum) and there’s also the Swanage-based Purbeck Breezer.

“We first came to Southcote Road in the mid 2000s when we expanded our morebus m1 (Poole-Bournemouth-Castlepoint) and m2 (Poole-Bournemouth-Southbourne) services,” Andrew told CBW. “Initially it was only three or four buses because we’d outgrown our depot in Poole. The m1 serves Bournemouth station just across the road so passed the gate of the Excelsior depot. Now all 20 buses on the route run from there. Service 13 (Bournemouth-Wimborne) followed. It also serves Bournemouth station and doesn’t go anywhere near any of our other facilities. There are five buses on that and we’ve just introduced new ADL (Alexander Dennis Ltd) Enviro400s.

“Initially we were sub-letting from Excelsior. However, the first sign that relationship was going to change took place in autumn 2015 when we took over its National Express diagrams on the 205 and 206 from Poole to Heathrow and Gatwick Airports. It made sense to move the 13 Caetano Levante Volvo B9Rs we inherited to Poole so that’s when the buses on the Bournemouth University U1 contract moved to Southcote Road. That’s now 12 Enviro400s and their route starts from just outside the depot gate. It takes the current bus allocation to 37.

“A year after taking over the National Express work, Excelsior’s owner Ken Robins approached us to see if we would be interested in buying the remainder of the business. The site was then owned by previous owner, Vernon Maitland who had retired to Florida. (When Vernon died in 2018, aged 92, it passed to the beneficiaries of his estate). As a subtenant, we didn’t feel we had very good security of tenure, and with no industrial history in Bournemouth, there weren’t many alternative sites we could move to. We also thought that Excelsior would fit well with our Damory coach business based at Pimperne. It had nice work and taking it over would give us the site security we were looking for, so that’s what we did. Around 15 coaches were included in the deal.

“During due diligence we identified that the depot building structure was in poor condition. What’s more, while there was a bus wash that could only accommodate single-deck vehicles and a workshop, access to both was at a lower level than the yard behind, so only from Southcote Road. A poorly constructed single storey building dating from the 1950s housed the traffic office, managers’ office and driver restroom. With a corrugated tin ceiling, it was quite squalid and the lavatories were disgusting. There was also a collection of portable buildings that had been used for various purposes. Ken had an office in one while another was a sales office.

“We quickly concluded that what was there was not good enough. It would be better to knock it all down and build something new that would give us state-of-the-art facilities and more parking space.

“Work started late summer 2018. Obviously we weren’t able to maintain vehicles on site during the demolition and build. Also part of the yard was closed off so we had reduced parking capacity. The morebus and Excelsior operations had been kept separate so the coaches and their drivers temporarily moved to Pimperne. We didn’t want to disrupt the Excelsior operation, but it was easier to have a coach based somewhere else than a bus. It was disruptive for the drivers as well, but we made sure they were properly looked after. They were very understanding and stayed with us.

“The morebus team continued to be based on site occupying the portable buildings they’d previously used. Buses on the m1 route had been maintained at Poole anyway so it was just the route 13 and university vehicles that we needed to build in additional workshop time for. It was tight but we managed to continue to operate all 37 buses from Southcote Road. We took the finished site over in October last year and the formal opening was on 15 November.”

Comprehensive facilities

Andrew Wickham: ‘What was really important to us was the location.’ ANDY IZATT

“The new building has a five-bay workshop fully accessible from the yard and includes two sets of hydraulic ram lifts that are impressively efficient and safe,” Andrew continued. “Our policy is not to have new pits unless it’s essential because of the safety aspects and the hydraulic lifts are much better than conventional ones because they’re drive on and off and there’s wheel free access. The vehicle that is being lifted can be at any height reflecting what suits the different engineers that are working on it and the tasks that need to be completed. There’s also a MOT inspection pit that we have yet to use as such. Specifying it was about future proofing the site as far as possible. Additionally there’s a parts store and facilities for the engineers.

“On the operations side we’ve also tried to future proof where we can. Downstairs is the traffic office where the supervisors and managers work. Driver-side, there’s a paying in area, toilets and showers. On the first floor is a locker room, driver rest area and three offices – little and big meeting rooms where we hope to undertake Driver CPC training in the future, and a small interview room. There are toilets as well. None of it is luxury, but it’s all fit for purpose, and having a little bit of accommodation like this in the middle of Bournemouth is valuable. It means we can meet councillors on-site or anyone else we need to.

“Outside in the yard, we’ve installed a new Christ Magnum bus wash that can accommodate double-deckers. The fuel islands are also new and we’ve relocated the fuel tank. I think we would be able to accommodate 60 vehicles comfortably in the yard now – maybe up to 70 with London-style parking.

“The site we took over was and is an awkward shape, but an advantage is having the railway line on one side and there’s largely industrial use along the other although there’s some residential property overlooking the bus wash. We’re conscious of making noise and work closely with our neighbours on that, but there are no planning restrictions. As I said, what was really important to us was the location. A depot in the wrong place will crucify an operation financially because of the cost of dead mileage.

“Building work always takes a long time, but I think we had the best of both worlds in being able to design a solution locally that worked for us while at the same time benefiting from being part of the Go-Ahead Group when it came to project management. Securing a 25-year lease gave us the tenure we were looking for and made the investment work, but perhaps what’s most important is we have some decent accommodation for our employees now. Gone are the restroom sofas with springs sticking out and the outside toilets.

“There are 101 drivers based at Southcote Road. Michael Bracker is Excelsior Supervisor while Colin Garnett-Brown and Ben Ridgway are respectively morebus Supervisor and Relief Supervisor. Colin was one of the on-site pioneers when morebus started running from Bournemouth. Assistant Operations Manager is Paul Weller who has run the Bournemouth-based morebus operation for a decade and reports to Poole-based Operations Manager Richard Wade.

“Three skilled engineers and five cleaners at Southcote Road report to Kenny McDonald who is our Area Engineering Manager. Two of the engineers who came with the Excelsior business didn’t stay. Ours is a different more structured business, but we’ve recruited two really good guys as replacements. They all seem to be happy. They’re working in a new workshop on a fairly new fleet – we bought 38 Enviro200s for the m1 and m2 in 2018 – and we don’t skimp on maintenance.

“Some of our people work really hard for us. Their commitment is outstanding and we try and treat them right. We have 1,800 employees all together and the vast majority are in tune with what we want.”

Stable business

Colin Garnett-Brown (left) and Ben Ridgway are respectively morebus Supervisor and Relief Supervisor. ANDY IZATT

“Go South Coast is a pretty stable operation at the moment, which is good,” said Andrew. “We’re seeing decent passenger growth across our area. It’s very good in the two large urban areas (Poole, Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Southampton).

“We welcome competition in Bournemouth and Poole from an operation like Yellow Buses because I think it has transformed the bus market for the better. Both operators have upped their game significantly and there has been huge passenger growth which broadly continues, especially at the Bournemouth end. It has been the right sort of competition. We’ve invested in quality, technology and marketing.

“We’re involved in three TCF (Transforming Cities Fund) bids. One covers Poole and Bournemouth while there’s another in Southampton, but we’re also involved in Portsmouth’s submission by virtue of it extending to the Isle of Wight where our Southern Vectis business operates and where Ryde bus station needs updating. The local authorities for each area each put in more than one bid for different levels of funding and we will work very closely with them whatever the outcome. We’ve promised some match funding in terms of vehicle investment, which we will do as required.

“The fleet is 820 strong so we aim to have around 50 new vehicles a year. I like getting around the same number annually, but when we win a big contract like University of Southampton in 2018, we have to satisfy what’s required. As a result of tender wins in previous years, there have been fewer new vehicles of recent. In addition to the five Enviro400s for the 13 I’ve mentioned, there’s eight 11.8m Enviro200s that have gone to our Bluestar operation in Southampton for new service 19 between the city centre and Thornhill, and for some fleet replacement. Five of those vehicles are being fitted with roof-mounted air filters complementing the existing filter bus we launched in September 2018. Go-Ahead is mounting filters on buses in some other parts of the country as well. We also added an extra Enviro400 for the Bournemouth University contract in September.

“We’re expecting five Optare Solos for Salisbury Reds where the three BYD ADL Enviro200EV all-electrics entered service at the beginning of February. We like and need Solo type vehicles, not least because they’re narrower and have more forward facing seats that can be seat-belted. Wilts & Dorset helped develop the Solo and there are still two early X-registration examples based at Salisbury. Their interiors are pretty much original and it would be nice to see one of them preserved.

“We donated Southern Vectis’ first low-floor Dennis Dart to the Isle of Wight Bus Museum and a DAF SB120 Wrightbus Cadet has gone to a group of Bluestar drivers. If it’s employees or friends, we’re happy to give them the vehicle.

“There are six 11.8m Enviro200s due for delivery in March for Swindon’s Bus Company, which will be used to upgrade routes 13/A and 14/A serving Eldene and Liden. The research we undertook on their predecessors specified with social seating at the rear gave mixed results. People in groups seemed to really like it, but those on their own were less keen. The local Swindon management team wanted fully seated interiors for the latest buses and they know their market.

“There’s also a long-wheelbase Enviro400 with a coach specification on order for Damory/Excelsior.”

Bus focus
Talking about the Honda car factory closing in Swindon, Andrew pointed out that job losses were never good news. “However, the people who work there don’t all live in Swindon,” he observed. “Yes it will have an impact on the local economy, but the town does not have high unemployment and the LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) and others are working very hard to get the site repurposed. It’s an issue and we’re watching it, but a higher priority for us at the moment is the state of the town centre and what’s going to be done about it.

“What’s important for us in Swindon and everywhere we operate is the lack of bus priority. The m1, for example, is now 20 buses. It used to be 19, but we put in another in spring 2019 to cope with punctuality issues. The same has applied in Southampton and Swindon where we’ve looked at restructuring routes for reliability. It’s our number one short term issue.

“Our number one long term issue is the woeful land use planning system that does not adequately factor in transport. It needs to be overhauled. There should only be development on existing decent transport corridors or where it’s going to be big enough to justify a commercial transport offer without subsidy.

“As soon as 20 houses are built on a green field site in the middle of nowhere, there are at least 20 more cars on the road adding to congestion and undermining sustainable transport modes. It’s not about forcing people to use public transport. It’s about giving them a choice. If they buy a house in the middle of nowhere they have to use a car because there’s no bus. There can’t be one unless endless public money is spent on providing it, which isn’t right. That’s money that could be better spent on something like health care.

“Bus has a great future. It doesn’t need subsidy or regulation. It just needs a sensible operating environment. I think the whole push on climate change and air quality will help, but first we need to stop developments that require car use.

“Introducing vehicles like the filter buses and BYD ADL electrics gives us the authority to have a discussion about air quality. Then within that discussion we can talk about town planning, public transport and the importance of providing bus priority. It’s really matters.”