Buses in the blood

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
One of 17 2008 Enviro400s in generic Stagecoach livery based at Hyde Road. PETER JACKSON

Having started his career in the city – and studied there – Commercial Director Ben Jarvis jumped at the chance to return to Manchester in 2015 to join Stagecoach. Peter Jackson spoke to him about his career and where the industry is going

“I think it was non-optional really,” joked Commercial Director Ben Jarvis, as he recalled how he got involved in the industry. Unlike many higher-ups in the business, Ben has lived and breathed buses from a young age. “When I was growing up, my dad worked for Wallace Arnold when we lived in Yorkshire, before moving to Shearings,” he reflected. “He worked there for a number of years until he was made redundant in ’91, when there was a change of ownership. He and a colleague, who was also made redundant, decided to set up a bus company of their own: Blue Bus and Coach Services.

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for 4 issues/weeks from only £2.99
Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!
[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember]

“I was 12 or 13 at the time, so I can remember it very well. Since then, during school holidays and on Saturdays I was always around the depot doing bits and pieces. As soon as I could, I started working part-time cleaning and doing odd jobs, and later started working in the office. I got my PCV licence as soon as I could too, at 18, and everything progressed from there.”

Since then, he’s risen through the ranks in a number of different organisations. After leaving university in 2001, he left Blue Bus’ Horwich depot to work for Go-Ahead-owned Metrobus in Orpington, taking on the role of Administration Officer. Two years later he returned to the family business as Assistant Operations Manager, remaining there until it was sold to Arriva in 2005.

The sale led to Ben joining Arriva himself, progressing to an Operations Manager position at Arriva North West’s Bolton depot. Subsequently he was promoted to General Manager, working in that position at the company’s Wythenshawe and Bootle depots, pausing in between to take on a special projects role for two years at the Manchester garage. In 2015 he decided it was time for a change, moving to his current role at Stagecoach Manchester.

“There’s not a lot I haven’t done over the years,” he continued, “from vehicle painting and helping the mechanics to cleaning. I’ve done pretty much everything at some stage!” Although far-removed from his current role, performing tasks like these from a young age gave Ben a well-rounded perspective of the industry. “I’m perhaps a little bit further away than I’d like to be from those early days, as technology – and a lot of the ‘grass roots’ processes – have moved on since,” he said. “But certainly, I’ve got an appreciation for what everyone at Stagecoach does, which I think is useful to have.

“I always had an interest in cars and the automotive sector, but that was more of a hobby whereas buses were what I knew most about and saw myself doing work-wise.

“When I started my career there was a ‘gap’ of managers coming through. There were all the National Bus Company’s programmes, but as we moved through to privatisation there was a bit of a gap as all of the private operators’ schemes caught up and started to get some traction. I was always aware that there was likely to be a bit of a gap around my age range, so I thought there was a bit of an opportunity there.

“My brother, Andrew, is four years older than me, so was always one step ahead in the industry. His enthusiasm for the industry is infectious, which definitely rubbed off on me. We can’t share too much nowadays, as we’re of course working for rival companies! Although for a while we both worked for Arriva, and later both for Stagecoach before he joined First. Our relationship is good though; we still discuss things but we know what we can and can’t share.”

Range of responsibilities

Magic Bus-liveried Enviro400 MX57LCA on route 143. HOWARD WILDE

The day-to-day remit of a Stagecoach Commercial Director is pretty vast, as Ben told me: “There’s quite a bit involved. Mainly, it’s looking after the marketing function, the network planning and scheduling function and overseeing the budget process.

“A lot of what I do as well is analysis of routes, and trying to work out what we should be doing with our services. This includes coming up with a fare strategy, which means understanding what’s going on in Manchester and trying to position ourselves correctly. Based on this analysis, I advise Elisabeth on what I think we should be doing to move the business forward.

“The underlying priority of course is always to carry more people. If you’re seeing patronage growth, then everything else tends to fall into place. However, you can achieve patronage growth at the expense of profit quite easily, so you always have to keep your eye on profitability and make sure whatever you’re doing is sustainable in the long-term.

“We obviously have political distractions at the moment,” he added, referring to the rather large and imposing cloud hovering over Manchester that is franchising. “The core principles, though, are that we need to carry more people and have successful routes, which means nurturing and developing them. We’re in a constantly changing landscape, so it’s busy job looking after all the routes we have.”

As you’d expect, the Commercial Director position involves communicating with staff in various departments across Manchester. “I’ve got direct reports in the office, though in small numbers, but as a director we do things like garage reviews,” Ben explained. “This means having one-to-one dialogue with all of the Operations Managers and Engineering Managers, along with the other directors on a periodic basis. We also have global management meetings, where all the managers come in.

“There’s plenty of discussion I have with people across the business over email, and I do try and get out there as much as I can. In terms of people I’m directly responsible for, it’s not that many, but in terms of influence all directors have quite a bit – there are around 2,300 people in Stagecoach Manchester, so it’s a reasonable size.”

Rapid advancement
Regular readers of CBW will be well aware of just how quickly the industry is advancing at the moment in terms of its use of technology. I was keen to ask Ben just how much of an impact the latest tech has had on his daily duties: “Certainly we’ve moved along since we went live with Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) – now we monitor everything 100% of the time,” he said.

“We do an awful lot on scheduling and timetables, and we’re constantly changing them. We have five agreed change dates each year with Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), and at pretty much every one of those we’ll be changing 50-60 routes and all the timing points.

“We know it’s very seasonal; September to Christmas is very busy, and it slackens off a little bit after Christmas, then again after Easter because a lot of the student activity starts to slow down. Again, when we get to the summer holidays, it’s particularly slack for those six weeks. Because of that, we have variable schedules which we’re constantly adapting and variable running times throughout the day – it’s a never-ending process.

“It is a little bit more difficult now because we have to give 10 weeks’ notice of changes instead of eight. Up until last year it was eight weeks, so we had longer to work on things and were able to gather more data from the previous change. Now though, we’ve got two weeks less to do that. After we give notice about a change, it has to go to the local authority for four weeks before we can actually register it. So then we lose two weeks on the other end when we should be compiling all the schedules and rosters and things for the drivers. We’ve effectively lost four weeks through the entire process, which has made it a more intensive task to do.

“We’ve got a department who handles that though, including our Network Manager Adam Clark who does a very good job. We’re constantly looking at things, which bears itself out in the KPIs: we’re well into the 90s when it comes to start point punctuality now. That’s increased year-on-year; we’re currently 1% up on last year, which was an increase on the previous year. It doesn’t sound a lot, but when you’re doing that every year over three or four years, I think it shows that we have some really robust timetables in place – which is what we need for Manchester and all the traffic and congestion issues it has.

“I think some people are amazed at how much time and effort we put into the schedules to try and get them right. Buses will often sit at the terminus after running a route for 20 minutes on an average day, but if there’s rain or an accident on the motorway that time will be eaten up. It at least means, though, that we’re able to provide a reliable service in the other direction too.

“If we could do something to help with that variability of running times then we could probably operate more services with the resources we have.”

Traffic trouble

Operating on the X50 is SN16OWX, an ADL Enviro400 MMC. JULIAN DOLMAN

Uttering the word ‘congestion’ is surely enough to make bus schedulers worldwide shudder – and it’s a particular issue in Manchester. “We’ve seen a direct correlation between bus patronage numbers and journey times,” revealed Ben. “Since Stagecoach Manchester bought GM Buses South in the mid ‘90s, the average speed of buses here has gone from 11.5 to 9.5 mph – almost a 20% reduction. Do people want to pay 20% more, though, for a longer journey? Because it’s taking that much more in resource – in terms of drivers, buses and so on – to run services than it did 25 years ago.

“Trying to balance all those factors and still offer good value for money is pretty tricky, but I think it’s a challenge the whole industry faces worldwide. As urbanisation happens, it is taking longer to get from A to B, which is making the journey less attractive to passengers.

“The technology is at least there now to make sure passengers don’t get too impatient and frustrated about delays. We’re really trying to push the app now, and I know we’ve got some developments with that coming. If the customer’s informed, it makes a big difference; we’ve got a lot of people in customer services who man the Twitter account, so we’re constantly speaking to customers that way to help them with their frustrations.

“That strategy has come out in some of the customer surveys we’ve done in the last couple of years. We’ve done pretty well there, so we’re quite happy with how that side of things is working. It proves the importance of keeping the customer informed.”

Keep it simple, Stagecoach
Speaking of the customer, one of Ben’s main responsibilities is overseeing the marketing side of the business – as he touched on earlier. “We’ve changed our approach in this area a bit recently,” he said. “The language we used in the past on our buses, promotional material and so on was very industry-orientated, which a lot of people didn’t understand. Gillian Woodford, our Marketing Manager, is very in tune with people who aren’t ‘bus people’ – a lot of the messages are written in layman’s terms now.

“On the 192 service our buses have a message saying, ‘up to 18 buses per hour.’ That doesn’t mean a lot to most people, so we’re changing that to something more like ‘buses every few minutes.’ We’re conscious that we need to try and adapt to people’s expectations nowadays.

“All of the Manchester-specific marketing plans are developed by Gillian and then are checked over by me, and we have some initiatives which come from Stagecoach Group as a whole. We have regular meetings where we come up with concepts and decide what we want to try and sell, and how we want to put the message across. It’s certainly a team effort.

“We’ve done some successful things quite recently, one of which was simplifying the fares and tickets around 18 months ago. For example, in the evening we limit it to £2 as a single fare; this has gone down really well. We were seeing decline in the evenings – potentially due to things like Uber – but that’s levelled out now, and people seem happy to use their contactless cards and just tap on for £2. We’ve rolled that out further now; from January, we revised the night fares as well, so from 0000 to 0400hrs we’ve limited fares to £2.50 whereas before we had a couple of different fares. It’s all about making it easy to understand and giving customers confidence – that’s what we want to achieve through our marketing.”

A big part of marketing is of course selling the bus as a simple and convenient travel option, something which the rise of contactless has played a significant role in: “Contactless is just a way of paying for a ticket for us – we’ve not yet gone to the model where it is the ticket as well, but that will come,” said Ben. “The proportion of people using contactless now is quite high – up to 45% in student areas. Further afield, in places like Wigan, it drops to around 20%. But that was at 0% two years ago, so from what we’ve seen it’s going to keep increasing in popularity.

“App tickets are coming in as well. They’ve been going for a similar amount of time, and a lot of people like the convenience of the app – they can buy their ticket before they get on the bus. It reduces dwell time too, which is obviously good for us. At the moment, we have a range of options for customers to choose from payment-wise.”

Investing in the future

An overview of some of the vehicles at the Hyde Road depot. PETER JACKSON

With Stagecoach nationwide regularly investing in new vehicles and tech, I asked Ben about future plans for Manchester and what was in the pipeline in the coming years. “In Manchester historically, we’ve had some fantastic investment levels,” he said. “It gives us a bit of a problem in a few years’ time when a lot of our buses get to a certain age, but there are new things on the cards coming through at the moment.

“We have 18 new ADL Enviro400 MMCs due in August (we have nearly 150 Euro VI vehicles at the moment), and then when we get through to the end of the year we have the electric bus project beginning at Sharston – meaning 32 electric double-deckers.

“Obviously that’s a massive investment, not just in the vehicles but in the infrastructure as well. Peter Sumner is leading on that project as the Engineering Director, but I’m also involved. It’s exciting – it’s a big investment, and we’re all looking forward to seeing how it goes.

“Going back to the subject of schedules, the arrival of the electric buses will mean re-writing all of the schedules for those routes, which has been fun! From an operator point of view, we effectively want them to be like diesels; they’re full in the morning, we can run them all day, and when they come back in the evening we charge them up. So we’ve got big batteries, which should allow them to run for at least 12 hours.

“The service we’re mainly going to use them on, the 43, has 24-hour operation however, so we’ve had to revise all the schedules to make sure the buses come back for suitable charging breaks at the depot. We also plan to run them on the 111 route. Opportunity charging can work in some circumstances, but you’ve got to have a facility somewhere outside of your depot which can be a bit of an issue. So, we’ll see how it goes. We’ve got 32 to play with, but I’m sure they won’t be the last ones we get.

“We’ve got the biggest hybrid fleet here outside London – 145 vehicles in total. There are some Euro VI, some Euro V and a single Euro VI. We’ve learned a lot with those; they have traction motors and a generator effectively, so it’s not augmenting a conventional driveline as such. We’ve built up a lot of experience with those. In terms of other fuels, here in Manchester it’s just been hybrids and diesels so far.”

Stagecoach Manchester recently began trialling an autonomous ADL Enviro200EV at its Sharston depot, too, as covered in CBW1386. “We had a trial with that and it did what it did,” said Ben. “But I think it’s a bit of a leap to then have them driving around Piccadilly with people everywhere – how are they going to cope with things like that? I think that kind of thing is a bit further off, but part of the attraction to the technology is developing safety systems that augment what the driver’s doing. Anyway, even if the driver is no longer needed to make the vehicle move, we still need someone to interact with customers, whether it be selling tickets or just generally providing that customer experience they do currently.

“In my personal opinion, it’ll be some time before we see fully autonomous buses that aren’t on specifically-designed, short, backwards and forwards shuttle services. It’s interesting stuff – and it will come – but I think it’s a little bit further behind than the likes of electric buses.”

The investment doesn’t stop at new vehicles, however: “We’re always investing in routes, which means looking at passenger loadings right down to trip level,” continued Ben. “Sometimes it can be a little frustrating if we get pulled up and asked, ‘why have you changed this service’ or ‘why have you removed this service,’ but we know there are always good reasons for that.

“For example, this year we pulled off the long-established 168 service which went back years and years. We effectively replaced it with three other ones though; one was extended, one was supplemented with additional journeys, and one was a new service which largely replaced the 168 but carried on to the Trafford Centre. On those three services we’ve seen passenger growth compared to the old 168, so it was definitely a worthwhile exercise.

“Of course though, there’s always a cost to that investment. In July we’re extending a service to the airport, and we know that it’s not going to carry the number of passengers it needs to to be sustainable straight away – it will take 12 to 18 months before we get there.

“It’s always a balance. We’re judged on our financial performance each year, like any business, so we have to keep one eye on the future and make sure we have developments in mind to give us growth. It’s really exciting to see that growth after you planned it a couple of years ago; you think ‘that’s worked really well’ and appreciate the difference it’s made.

“I’ve been at Stagecoach nearly four years now, so a lot of the things that were coming to fruition when I started have now been implemented, and we’ve seen the growth which is really good. It also informs what we do going forward, so hopefully we can make more of those good decisions to keep things moving in the right direction.”

Job satisfaction
With all of his daily responsibilities in mind, I asked Ben what he enjoyed most about the job. “Seeing the results,” he replied, without hesitation. “I’m always aware of the effort that the team is putting in – the operational team and engineers do a fantastic job here – so it’s great to see the end result of that hard work. We do a lot of strategic planning, and seeing that come through and benefit the customer and the service we provide on a daily basis is really rewarding. And then after that of course, we see the results in terms of revenue and patronage, and look at all the KPIs. When we get year-on-year improvements in performance in pretty much every metric, that’s pretty satisfying.”

Reflecting on his career, he added: “I’ve been involved in operations as well as engineering to a lesser extent, but the commercial aspect has always been what’s excited me really. So for me personally, Commercial Director is a dream job. I grew up in the North West and was a student in Manchester – and I used to come here a lot when I was younger too – so I’ve always had an interest in the city, which makes it even more of an ideal job. I’m quite happy to stay here for a good while longer hopefully.”