Connecting communities in the Holme Valley

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Ford Transits form the backbone of the SPCT fleet, as seen here passing Marsden railway station. JONATHAN WELCH

South Pennine Community Transport plays a vital role, filling public transport gaps across the Holme Valley and beyond. Jonathan Welch paid a visit to find out more about the relatively young operator

There are many small and little-known operators across the country who rarely find themselves in the limelight and just go about their day to day business of getting people where they need to go. From its base near Holmfirth, South Pennine Community Transport (SPCT) does just that, six days a week, across a wide area of the Holme Valley, with vital services reaching as far afield as Keighley, Halifax and Barnsley. Some of them run one day a week, others daily (except Sundays), but all of them provide a vital and carefully considered link for the communities and districts they serve.

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CBW called in at the operator’s modest but friendly premises, tucked away at the back of an unassuming industrial estate, for a chat over a brew and chocolate biscuits (a choice of two, no less!) with Director Kevin, Co-director Helen and driver Steve. It is always pleasing to arrive at an operator’s premises and see buses being washed and cleaned, especially by people who look like they genuinely care; it gives a very positive impression, and that was certainly the case as I arrived, with the last of the day’s buses being prepared to leave for a day out among the rolling hills, soot-blackened sandstone buildings and narrow roads of the Pennines. Equally pleasing were the number of transport-related signs attached to the walls inside the garage, from a Yorkshire Traction depot sign, via old bus stop signs, to local railway station nameboards from a previous era. It’s usually a ‘sign’ that those who work there have an interest in what they do, sometimes even a passion for it, and again that proved to be true.

One bus
“We started in 2015 with just one minibus,” Kevin recounted. “Now we have nine in the fleet, we put seven out every day, and have one spare Transit and one spare low-floor. Everyone gets involved in all aspects of the business. We have a great team, we couldn’t do it without them. We have a team of paid drivers, but we have volunteers who help provide the service too; they distribute timetable leaflets or help on the bus. The Transits are slam-door, and volunteers will help with that, although the driver will do it themselves if there is no volunteer available. It’s good for our drivers and customers to have that face to face interaction, customers love that aspect. Most of our customers know the drivers by their names.

“The Transits are at the core of what we do, they allow us to sustain bus routes that the big operators can’t. The low running cost is a key point for us. On some specific routes, low-floor is a requirement. We have an Enviro200 27-seater. We didn’t plan on owning one so big, we trialled it and it worked really well, so we went with it. It’s a different thing altogether though. It has a different inspection cycle, we have to get different people in to look after it, inspections are done in a different place. It lends itself well to the route it is on, and has proved its worth for what it does, but we couldn’t run a fleet of them, we couldn’t sustain the costs.

“We have it because there’s a specific need, but I don’t think we’ll have another. Simplicity is key, that’s what the Transits give us. Our oldest Transit is an 18-plate. It is still covered by a warranty, so we know we’re not going to be hit with any heavy costs. The low-floor Enviro200 is 10 years old, so there are a lot more unknowns with it. We do have a second low-floor bus, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which can cover for the Enviro or one of the Transits. It has been a positive learning curve.

Costs and confidence

A larger bus was required for one service, which took the form of this Enviro200, but SPCT has no plans for more big buses at present. JONATHAN WELCH

When it comes to costs, it is not just about the vehicles. SPCT’s premises on an industrial estate in Honley are equally modest and unassuming. “Keeping costs as low as possible is vital,” continued Kevin. “Our little premises are not particularly special. The output is the most important thing. We take a lot of pride in the appearance of the fleet. We’re fortunate in that we get a lot of compliments about or fleet. It’s all about confidence.”

With someone as passionate about what they do as Kevin at the helm, confidence should not be hard to come by. A member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, he has been in public transport in one way or another since the days of deregulation, having started off in his early 20s as a driver for Yorkshire Traction, and then worked for K-Line, undertaking a relief supervisor’s role, and eventually ending up as a Commercial Projects Manager for Yorkshire Tiger. “I always wanted to do something more,” he continued, “so I started South Pennine. This is a rural area, in need of public transport. We wanted a different model, we could see the problem, so we went out and spoke to people. It is community led, we built it from the ground up. We could see a problem with cross-boundary services, but needed more info, so we did a consultation and held meetings. Within their respective areas, the services in West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester are pretty good. Our first service was the 352 from Holmfirth to Uppermill, which we launched in 2015 on the back of a lot of information gathering. We always harness the information, listen to what people need. We don’t just want to replicate what’s out there already or be a patch-up for other buses.”

“Our next service in Penistone came about as a need to replace what had been there before, which wasn’t performing. Our low cost model allows us to take on such things that the big companies can’t. We’re somewhere in the middle, we’re not a bus operator, and we’re not a traditional community transport operator. We’d like to think our own distinctive model will have its own place in an integrated transport network.”

SPCT is based in the Holme Valley area where it started, but has expanded gradually and now covers a wide area. “We go as far north as Keighley, we run a service from there to Halifax, and as far south as Glossop in the Peak District. Our Holme Valley services go out to all different places on different days of the week. We run to Barnsley from Holmfirth three times a day. We connect communities where there is no alternative – it is not always just for shopping and leisure. We connect families to vital services. Lots of the public transport around here is all geared towards Huddersfield. In West Yorkshire public transport isn’t bad, its the same in South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, but across the boundary in some places it might as well be a brick wall. We’re trying to break that down.

“We are aspiring to develop a peak time connection with the train at Greenfield and the tram at Ashton to get people out of their cars. The demographic is changing and people in the Holme Valley are more economically dependant on Greater Manchester. We also produce our own timetables. In West Yorkshire, WY Metro produces timetables but they’re not eye-catching, we produce our own that are more visually appealing. We see it as marketing.”

Early starts

Representing the three main vehicle types used is this line-up outside the SPCT’s premises. SPCT

“Steve is usually the first to arrive around 0530hrs. He will get the buses ready, make sure they’re clean and fuel them at the local filling station. We get here just after 0600hrs, though not always both of us, there’s lots of admin to do, meetings and such like. I tend to go to the meetings, Helen usually deals with the phone calls, and leads on the cleaning side, supported by Steve. We also have an afternoon cleaner too, Anita, who is supported by one of our drivers, Wayne.

“I’m also on the policy committee for the CTA. We also have a partnership with HCT Group through their Future Journeys programme. That gives us lots of support, it’s a good sounding board and Martin Clarke is brilliant. We were the first partner in the Programme, which we are proud of. At the end of October we launched our five-year plan for going forward, called Driving Communities Forward.”

Involvement with stakeholders, partners and the community is important to SPCT. “We’re also members of the Barnsley Bus Partnership and have a healthy relationship with neighbouring operators. We’re here to compliment them, not compete. For example, our Saturday X22 is the only bus between Halifax and Keighley. It does touch a commercial corridor so we made it limited stop on that section. We have been asked to make it a full stopping service but have said ‘no, use the local bus service to reach our stop.’

“We will be a part of the West Yorkshire Bus Partnership, and have worked with parish councils and local councillors. We will talk to anybody. We were recently invited to another new bus users’ group in Kirklees, and want to take a positive role in that. We’ve been fortunate that about 90% of what we have tried has worked. Some have not, maybe because the service wasn’t as frequent as we would have liked, but we have to manage our resources and risks. We put real effort into promoting our services, we have a strong web presence and use local Facebook groups, Twitter, Instagram, as well as printed timetables.”

“The number 25, the Penistone local link, has been our biggest success and is one that we see as something that could be replicated. We worked with the local council, we knocked on doors. We delivered a different service to what it was, but one that provided everything. We’ve over doubled the number of passengers in two and a half years, and reduced the funding that is needed. We’re on the way to not needing any. It featured on the BBC’s Look North.

“Our main Holme Valley services are well established too. The Transits have been an important part of that too, the passengers love them. They are ‘mini-coaches’ – they are comfortable and they represent a sustainable method of growth for us.”

The team

SPCT’s routes serve the dramatic and spectacular scenery of the Peak District and South Pennines. SPCT

At the time of CBW’s visit, one member of the SPCT team was maybe a bit more well known than most, thanks to his YouTube channel: The Flat Cap Bus Driver. Otherwise known as Shaun, he has been posting regular videos about the day to day life of a bus driver since 2018. Shaun has since moved on to bigger buses again, and whilst he was a well-known member of the team thanks to his online presence, Kevin was keen to stress that no one person is more important than any other, and everyone has a vital role to play in keeping the wheels turning.

“Shaun gave people a valuable insight into what we do, but we have an exceptional and dynamic team. They are flexible and have brought a lot of experience. We have an IT graduate who came to drive for us, who also helps with the website. A former estate agent, a former RAF officer, and bus drivers from elsewhere. We have a real mix of backgrounds and talents.”

Drivers are a mix of full time and part time, working anything from one to six days a week, assisted by four regular volunteers. “We have a very family-friendly culture, as we only operate Monday to Saturday daytimes. We take a flexible approach with staff, and we get that in return. When one driver was off sick for a couple of weeks, others rallied round to help and cover shifts.”

Part of the community
“We have a lot of staff involvement. One driver, Wayne, had the idea of a mini mobile library. The idea has been very popular, and so he has been the figurehead, the face of the idea, and carried it out. We don’t just see ourselves as providing transport. We provide services to rural areas. For example, lots of towns have suffered from closing facilities such as banks. So we are set up to take contactless payments using the ‘sum up device,’ which means people don’t have to worry about carrying cash. We don’t sell groceries though! We use Ticketer handheld machines, which operate the same as the static ones. They’re very easy to use, from drivers’ and management points of view. Between 7 and 10% of transactions are contactless, which is more than we expected. Around 2/3 of our passengers have a concession pass, though we do run services used by a lot of younger people too, and attract a lot of walkers in the season.

“We know most of our passengers, and they know our drivers by name. If one is ill, we can nip around and see if they are OK. One regular passenger was ill for a while, so we offered to collect his shopping and drop it off so he didn’t have to leave the house.”

A wider picture
Kevin’s previous experiences in the industry, and the contacts he made, have given him the knowledge and confidence to drive SPCT forward, and he speaks highly of Go North East’s Martijn Gilbert, among others. “We need to be talking about growing bus. It’s great to see buses back on the government’s agenda. We’ve come a long way in a few years.” A big part of that has been partnerships, with suppliers and the industry as well as communities: “We’ve worked closely with HCT Group, and with Dawsongroup. The good thing about partnerships is there’s always someone to help you out, and you can help others. One thing we’d like to do going forwards is help other similar operators in the same position as we were. I describe what we do as a patchwork quilt: lots of little squares that all come together to make something useful. We must be doing something right, as we were shortlisted for the CT Awards CT Provider of the Year category, which isn’t bad going for five years. We’re in a good position now I can’t see us getting much bigger, we don’t want to lose the community spirit or dilute the quality of what we do. If it grows too big, you lose that. It’s all about people.”