Revitalising South Yorkshire

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First’s operations in South Yorkshire are being reinvigorated, with the help of a new locally-derived image. Jonathan Welch speaks to Managing Director Nigel Eggleton to find out more

CBW reported a few weeks ago that First South Yorkshire has introduced a new livery for its buses in Sheffield, based on the city’s traditional colours and featuring icons of Sheffield. Having closed its once-major facility in Rotherham, First currently has two depots in the county, one at Olive Grove in Sheffield, and the other in the smaller town of Doncaster, where its own version of the new identity was revealed on 1 December. The new Doncaster brand features a two-tone version of the town’s traditional red with purple stripe, in the same layout as the Sheffield colours.

We spoke to Nigel Eggleton, Managing Director of First’s South Yorkshire and Midlands businesses, and who has already led a successful mission to turn the Midlands operations around, to learn more about the changes which are taking place in South Yorkshire.

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For Nigel, the role in First is his second stint in the Leicester area, having joined Midland Fox as a planning assistant in 1985, after a similar role with United Automobile Services in Northumberland. He subsequently joined British Bus-owned Luton & District in 1993, taking on the role of Commerical Director of the Shires in Luton with Cowie after its take over of British Bus.

Cowie ultimately became Arriva, where he stayed until 2001 before joining Oxford Bus Company in a similar role. Staying within the Go-Ahead Group, Nigel moved on to a role as Operations Director for Go West Midlands until 2008 when he joined Transdev Blazefield in Yorkshire as Sales and Marketing Director.

First South Yorkshire Managing Director Nigel Eggleton. FIRST

“I suppose its timely in a way because I’m coming up to seven years with First,” began Nigel, recounting how he came to take on the role. “I started on December 13 2013. I was delighted back in May to be asked to take on responsibility for the South Yorkshire business. It’s interesting from a personal point of view – living in Nottingham my wife and I used to quite frequently come up to Sheffield or Doncaster for some retail therapy for Mrs Eggleton, and I would often say I fancied a go at running the South Yorkshire business.

“Sometimes in life you have to be careful what you wish for, and here we are. I’m six months in now, and colleagues at both our depots have given myself and my senior team a very warm welcome. We’ve been made most welcome by everyone throughout the organisation, which is very helpful. We’re in the midst of establishing some very strong working relationships with our team, with our trade union colleagues and with our local authority partnerships, particularly so with South Yorkshire PTE.”

Keeping in touch

A good working relationship is important, but Nigel also wanted to make sure he retained his strong links with the Midlands side of the operation: “I want to stress that I was willing to take on board South Yorkshire only on the proviso that it didn’t result in any harm being done to the Midlands business, where we’d worked hard over the last six years since I joined, and that the management team in the Midlands was maintained. And indeed it has been, the management team there has looked after things extremely well and we appointed a new Operations Manager into Worcester depot to assist. Other than that, the team in the Midlands has been quite stable and they have done a cracking job in some difficult circumstances while the senior team has had to pay more attention to the South Yorkshire business.”

Although there is much enthusiasm from the team in South Yorkshire, changes will take time, explained Nigel. “I’m thoroughly enjoying it. There are all sorts of things to be done. I do perhaps worry sometimes that the expectations of the South Yorkshire team for the timeframe are maybe a little unrealistic, that we have a magic wand to bring the business into a position where we can all be very proud of it very quickly. Realistically that won’t happen, it will take time, especially in the current circumstances. It’s a frustration to take on the responsibility for the South Yorkshire business not in normal times.

“Had things been normal, there are things you might want to do with the network – to frequencies or to the overall shape of the network, which is quite wrong at the moment – which would be inappropriate, and we will deal with that when we understand a little bit more about how the business is performing post-Covid.”

Bus Review

Earlier this year, the South Yorkshire Bus Review found that services in the region were suffering from insufficient funding, lack of leadership and a lack of accountability, which it said were the three root causes in the decline in bus passenger numbers in the region. The Review was carried out by the Independent Bus Commission, chaired by Clive Betts MP, and commissioned by the Sheffield City Region last year.

Concluded before the coronavirus pandemic, it took into consideration the experiences and feedback from 5,900 members of the public, bus users, community groups, businesses and interest groups, of the impact of what it called ‘poor and unreliable’ bus services have had on their lives. The evidence, along with that from bus operators, local authorities, SYPTE and others, led to a number of recommendations aimed at providing passengers with a bus service that meets their needs.

The interiors will feature icons to match the exterior: in this case, snooker, representing the world-famous championships held at the city’s Crucible theatre. FIRST

The report found that the fall in funding for South Yorkshire was in line with the rest of England: Evidence from the Campaign for Better Transport estimated that funding for bus services in England fell by more than £162m, or 43%, since 2009/10, and figures are similar in South Yorkshire, where SYPTE’s budget has declined by 40% in the last 10 years.

It also cited a lack of leadership by bus operators, SYPTE, local authorities and the Sheffield City Region Executive team and found that there were too many layers of leadership without the leverage and power to be able to deliver real change.

The review further found that having an arms-length organisation, such as SYPTE, has not allowed local authorities the opportunity to make decisions about bus services and recommended that a simpler ticketing system and the exploration of innovative fare structures as well as highlighting concerns about SYPTE’s leadership of the bus partnership and its approach to holding operators to account.

Good relations

With this in mind, I asked about the relationship with South Yorkshire PTE. “I think we have a good working relationship,” said Nigel. “I believe the relationship between First and the PTE has always been positive. I think we bring a different pair of eyes to it now. I think that in the Midlands we have looked after the relationship with the four local authorities we work with with some vigour and we get the benefit from that. We all understand the benefits of partnerships and it is useful to be able to re-establish those relationships in South Yorkshire and build on them. We will watch with interest any proposed changes to the structure of the local authorities here in South Yorkshire following the recommendations of the South Yorkshire Bus Review, which to an extent said there was merit in amalgamating the PTE with Sheffield City Region.

“But equally important in my view is to have a strong working relationship with the local council, and we spoke quite a bit to politicians and local MPs from Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster, to ensure that they are up to date with what is going on and the difficult situation we find ourselves in.

“The Buses for Sheffield partnership is coming up for 5 years old now, and is a partnership with Stagecoach and the local authority. It introduced integrated services and frequencies and common timetables and fares. The South Yorkshire Bus Review recommends that that is reviewed and we look forward to being able to progress those discussions as soon as we can when we’re in a better position to do so.”

A fresh look

“I looked at the fleet and I don’t think anybody would be surprised if I said it is looking tired, for all sorts of reasons. A smart, tidy and presentable fleet is one of the ways of instilling confidence in customers that we are a professional and smart operator. There is merit in bringing back some local identity and ownership to the two depots.” Those two depots are home to around 250 buses in Sheffield, and a smaller fleet of around 130 in Doncaster.

“That is what we’re doing at the moment. The Sheffield brand has a hint of its heritage, with reference to steel and the cream and dark blue of the former Sheffield City Transport. Each batch of different vehicles will have a different local entity – the first two have snooker balls and the first single decker has come out with some artwork relating to the cover of an Arctic Monkeys album, a famous Sheffield group.

“Over in Doncaster, again the brand hints back to the pre-PTE livery, which was red with a purple stripe. We’ve been experimenting in Doncaster. We have two single-deckers with a bright red front on the standard livery, and were a little underwhelmed by that, so the Doncaster livery will replicate what we have done in Sheffield, albeit in red. For the moment, there will just be one version of the Doncaster livery – unless we think of another good idea,” joked Nigel.

“These things are always subjective but the liveries have been remarkably well received by the local teams, particularly the drivers. We have had a lot of positive feedback so far and we aim to achieve as much as we can when we are able to do so as far as the rebrand is concerned.”

Beyond branding

“Looking at the post-covid situation, we are looking at what we might do to the network as we learn how passenger numbers will restore to previous levels. It may well be that we will have some difficult decisions to take about the size, penetration and frequency of the network but we’ll jump that hurdle when we come to it. We’re already giving some thought to possible outcomes and what we might do.

“We can see some merit in restoring an operational site in Rotherham,” continued Nigel. First closed its large depot and central works facility in the town in 2017. “We have identified a site where we could base 20-25 buses, and those would be dedicated to the local services in Rotherham, and possibly the X78, the main interurban route between Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster. Looking to the future, it may be that we look at some form of branding for that route, given that we think it has potential for growth post-Covid.”

Doncaster’s 36227 (BD12 TBU) was the first vehicle to receive the new colours, going in to service at the beginning of December. FIRST

Clever buses

Another recent marketing initiative has been the introduction of the ‘Doncaster’s Clever Buses’ branding. Nigel explained that this came about as the result of fortuitous timing: “As part of the fleet cascade that has been happening over the last 12 months, some former Leicester single-deckers were transferred to Doncaster. The majority of the fleet in Leicester has a fuschia front, and this presented the opportunity for a quick win. We had some vehicles that had been relatively recently repainted and Doncaster had relatively recently introduced Tap & Cap ticketing technology. Here was an opportunity to shout about Doncaster’s Clever Buses, so we have eight single-deckers with the Clever Buses brand. They won’t stay forever, in due course they will receive the new livery, but in the meantime it was a good opportunity to shout about this new ticketing technology which was going down well with our customer base in Doncaster.

“We are very pleased that within the combined area we have Transforming Cities funding in Leicester and in South Yorkshire, and we are just awaiting news from the DFT of the bid by Stoke City Council in the Potteries. If that is successful, we will be able to introduce Tap & Cap in Leicester and the Potteries, and may be able to extend it in South Yorkshire into Rotherham and Sheffield as well.” A few days after we spoke to Nigel, it was announced that the bid for Stoke had been successful; full details of what that means for the city are on our news pages.

Separate entities

The two businesses in South Yorkshire are run separately from each other, and both have very different characteristics, Nigel explained. “Each has its own management team, and have different requirements in terms of scale. In Sheffield, our vehicle requirement is currently 210, and in Doncaster 106, so Doncaster is about half the size of Sheffield but still a big operation. In Doncaster we are the dominant operator, whereas in Sheffield, Stagecoach have a sizeable presence, in addition to notable independents such as TM Travel and Powells.

Drawing on his experiences in the Midlands and looking at other parts of the country, Nigel commented that the company has had considerable success in growing passenger numbers through vehicle refurbishment. “We’ll see how the funding works out in South Yorkshire but it is something I would very much like to bring to this business as well. Some high-quality vehicle refurbishment would deliver the features our customers demand these days such as USB points and real-time announcements. I would be delighted if we could find a way of introducing that to the South Yorkshire market.”

The first repainted bus was named after outgoing First Bus Managing Director Giles Fearnley, who has connections with the city’s buses. FIRST

Clean air

Looking at the issue of air quality, Nigel agreed with the national sentiment from the industry that we must look to lock in the air quality improvement that has been seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that bus will play a major part of that. In terms of Low Emissions Zones in Sheffield and Doncaster, he explained: “There are discussions underway in both areas. In Sheffield, the LEZ has been paused but it is something that we are alive to and in due course we will need to ensure our fleet is suitably equipped. About two-thirds of the Sheffield fleet is already at Euro VI standard. It’s something we will be very conscious of in the next 12 to 24 months.”

Speaking to Nigel showed that he has a genuine passion for and interest in the buses he is in charge of, and his wealth of industry experience and track record in the Midlands should mean that South Yorkshire is on a sure footing to face the needs of the region in post-Covid world.

 

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