Seachange at OTS

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Independent operator OTS of Falmouth became a subcontractor of Go Cornwall Bus in March this year. Richard Sharman spoke to the man behind the change

Office & Transport Services Ltd, which trades as OTS, is based in Penryn near Falmouth and was established in 1980. The last time CBW visited OTS was in June 2019, when the operation was at an equal split of one third local services, one third school contracts and one third private hire, but as Bus Service Manager Craig George explains, the company has seen big changes in 2020.

“Around three years ago, Cornwall Council invited all operators engaged in local bus services in Cornwall to join them at County Hall in Truro for a presentation of their ideas and aspirations for local bus services in Cornwall,” he said. “It was made clear that they wanted change, but also that they wanted to work with us collectively to shape that change.

“It was proposed that a steering group, formed of Cornwall Council, their consultants, bus operators and other stakeholders involved in local public transport such as Great Western and Bus Users UK be formed to guide the process.

“There was a desire to reduce the cost of this process for the SME (Small and Medium Enterprise) operators by electing a representative for all of us. Ben, one of the directors here, nominated me and I was honoured to be accepted by the other local independents.

“In the many meetings that followed, I was keen to defend the interests of SME operators and report back to them on the progress of the process. The excellent John Burch, Regional Director at the CPT also joined us on occasion and I am most grateful for his experienced advice.

“Thankfully, being involved with the steering group enabled us to demonstrate to our friends at both First and Go-Ahead that we were an ambitious operator with high standards and ideals along with growing local bus experience – as are other local independent operators – so the very day of the result publication, which was 19 December if I remember correctly, Richard Stevens at Go Cornwall Bus (GCB) called us to ask if we would like to be involved and if so to what degree.

Bus Service Manager Craig George. RICHARD SHARMAN

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“It could have been easy to see this as some kind of defeat. Our independent bid lost, and a corporate entity won the whole county – but the approach Go-Ahead have taken has actually been hugely empowering. By working with Cornwall Council and the GCB scheduling team – including the man who inspired me and raised me in this industry, Brian James – I was able to create some excellent timetables with further enhancements to improve the offer to the public and bolster reliability.

“We have been trusted to shape our part of the network, retain our community-focused values and create our own driver-friendly schedules. So, it still really feels like our baby if you like and that helps keep everyone at OTS motivated and proud I hope.”

Increasing the Peak Vehicle Requirement

“When I first joined OTS back in 2014, there were two local bus services, with a PVR of two. We had a remarkably rural once-a-day route between St Keverne and Helston plus the rather functionally-named ‘Falmouth Town Shuttle Bus,’ which ran at a 20-minute frequency around town but broke off once every two hours to operate an extended route around the seafront. It was a pain really, and ran as a compromise to fill a gap left when FalRiver Buses suddenly ceased,” said Craig.

“With local bus being my background, I suggested that we split the two routes and thankfully the excellent team at Falmouth Town Council used some of their devolved budget to support this proposal. So, at that point we were up to three services – the Falmouth routes were re-branded as Townlink and Shorelink and given numbers, which made them much more marketable.

“Once that had settled in, I wanted something for the Shorelink bus to do in the 20-minute layover it had every hour. I came up with a relatively short commercial service linking the town centre with two local-authority housing areas and Sainsbury’s. That grew remarkably quickly and our reputation did likewise – we never dropped a mile! Within months that short 18-minute loop was carrying more people per week than the 40-minute trip around the seafront that it interworked with!

“It was in September 2019 that we took on the fifth local bus service and that took us up to a PVR of four. That was the 442 route between Falmouth and Camborne. Williams of Camborne had decided to step back from local bus work and we re-worked the timetable to make it work better from the Falmouth end. I must say, Cornwall Council have always been very helpful and flexible with such things. We brought a small Solo SR in for that, which was overkill really. It was a very tidy bus, but it reinforced in our minds that Sprinters were the future.

“However, taking on the new and massively-improved Falmouth area services on top of that again was huge growth. We went from a PVR of four to 10 and with much more intensive operation – not huge numbers, but when you look at it as a percentage, it’s significant.

“We only ever had one fully commercial service – that was the short 363 which interworked with the 367 ‘Shorelink’ route. However, as two of our newly won services cover the same ground, we decided to withdraw that. As such, everything we operate now is under subcontract to GCB and we don’t run any other local bus work on top of that. It makes for a simpler working arrangement and avoids any internal conflict or risk of favouritism. We will continue to explore any commercial opportunities and would love to take on more, including private contract work once this current expansion settles down. We have to make sure we’ve got this consistently perfect and settled with permanent staff, but then I believe we have to challenge ourselves again – it doesn’t feel right to sit still because we will stagnate.

“We now can put our hand on our heart and say we are Falmouth’s local bus operator, running to all the surrounding villages on a minimum of hourly frequencies. It’s a real source of pride for us.”

One of the recent Mellor Stratas on the 65A service. RICHARD SHARMAN

Finding extra drivers

“Staffing has undoubtedly been our biggest challenge. We have always respected our friends and colleagues at First Kernow, who were the incumbent operator of most of the routes we took on. As they’ve won other work elsewhere, and evidently look after their staff, we’ve had only two drivers join us from there.

“We were set to go from five duties per day to 15. If I’m honest, we were facing a real crunch. Myself and all the directors were ready and willing to fulfil driving duties every day, along with some excellent former colleagues I knew who were keen to re-join the industry and be involved in this new project. We had also started to subcontract what was set to be our record-breaking year of private hire commitments to focus on the new TfC network.

“However, weeks before launch, the Covid pandemic started to bite and very quickly we realised that as private hire work started to nose-dive, our staff and also people from coach operators across the country were starting to be freed up.

“I was very unsure of using an agency for drivers. It feels like a loss of control – we have a very unique way here, where drivers become family and I didn’t want to dilute that. Plus, I’d rather the full investment in our drivers benefit them directly and that the cost-saving of avoiding agency staff can be reinvested in projects that can benefit all our staff.

“As such, we approached Pulhams Coaches in Oxfordshire. The directors here have a good relationship with them, having bought coaches from them in the past, plus I have worked with some of their drivers when I was driving for Stagecoach in Oxfordshire. They were remarkably helpful and so we were set to have five loan drivers and two loan vehicles from them. Unfortunately, just days before launch the severity of Covid-19 became clear and our network was slashed by 50%, meaning the assistance was no longer required. I still feel guilty about that now: it was going to be the perfect partnership, especially before the furlough scheme became clearer.

“We were able to fulfil the reduced Covid-19 network ourselves without assistance, but again we had a huge challenge ahead of the full network launch on 1 June. Thankfully, I was able to harness the power of social media and by placing an advert for temporary drivers on the popular ‘Coach Drivers North & South’ group, within 10 minutes I had sourced around eight excellent coach drivers – some freelance and some from the recently disbanded Shearings operation, along with a young apprentice from Hopleys Coaches locally.

“They were excellent for us, adapting to local bus work quickly. It was the perfect scenario: we got professional people with pride in what they do and with excellent customer service. Thankfully, many of them have decided to stay longer and are still with us now.

“Looking to the longer term, we have now put three drivers through PCV training and we have just committed to another two. We’ve been pleasantly pleased with the results – it’s proving significantly easier to find the right personalities and invest in the training for them than it is to find category D drivers.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has decimated our industry, and when I stop to survey the damage done to much-respected names and the lives of former colleagues, I feel a darkness inside, if that makes any sense. Yet, for us it was a blessing in disguise, as much as it pains me to say it in the face of what it has done to the rest of the industry. The pandemic enabled us to have a soft-start at the biggest challenge we’ve ever taken on and it’s gifted us some excellent staff.”

Loyalty to the three-pointed star

“Our network faces a trio of challenges. Firstly, we have to negotiate some intense urban estates that suffer more and more with on-street parking as well as exceptionally narrow sections of rural road. Secondly, we have numerous school flows with 25+ scholars on. Thirdly, we need reliability and familiarity. We needed a product that shares the same proven chassis with very narrow variants and also variants capable of carrying in the region of 30 passengers.

“OTS has been built by the Moore family over 40 years and in that time they’ve had Mercedes-Benz minibuses by the dozen: from the old T1 and T2 shape through to Sprinters of all generations and a succession of Varios.

“Once you have that relationship with your local dealers and you become familiar with the product, you can lose a lot by moving to something unknown. That’s why the Mellor Strata Ultra came along at exactly the right time for us. It’s taken the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis we know and love and taken it to a whole new level. It’s certainly not a small bus – it’s a smidgeon longer than an Optare Solo M850 we were running alongside them, but they drive well and the customers love them. They’ve reduced driver fatigue thanks to their light handling and quiet engine and they’re returning 16-17mpg on strenuous routes where a Mercedes-Benz-powered Solo was giving us 9mpg.

“The two brand-new EVM Citylines and a plethora of additional second-hand Sprinter City45 low-floors make up the rest of the fleet and they all perform really well. All but two of them work the same services as the Stratas, so don’t need to be quite so small. However, I allocate them to bus workings without scholar flows as it reduces the road risk and reduces stress on the driver, so they certainly have value in that respect.

“We still have the very first UK City45 low-floor Mercedes-Benz Sprinter – a 2010 build. That now has 250,000 miles and is still well-liked by the drivers, so we remain confident that for as long as we care for them correctly the Sprinters are the right tool for us,” said Craig enthusiastically.

“In terms of painting the existing fleet into the new livery, over the last few years, we have developed a superb relationship with Grant Firmin at Car to Coach Vehicle Refinishers in Plymouth. They’re 60 miles away, but they are excellent and we get an amazing finish. They were even able to match the exact shade of red by visiting Plymouth Citybus and scanning the paint on a freshly-painted ADL Enviro200 there. We were releasing a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter at a rate of one per week in the weeks before launch for them to turn red.”

The OTS name is carried on the Transport for Cornwall livery. RICHARD SHARMAN

Other operations and looking to the future

“We are now primarily a service bus operator, but we retain the values and standards of a local, family-owned local bus and coach operator. Undoubtedly the Covid pandemic has enabled us to focus 100% on this new challenge.

However, since then we have already seen some private hire work coming back, but we can afford to be much more selective over that as we’re not so reliant on it. We have also won a number of school contracts in our own right: three of those we cover with local bus duties, but the directors, yard staff and myself drive the other three. This allows us to take on work that fits between schools and anything else we can pass on to other local operators.

“The school contract and private hire fleet is now 100% Volvo B7R with Plaxton Profile body. They’ve proven to be good workhorses: they’re low in height, reducing damage from trees on our narrow roads and they have simple inswing doors. As time goes on, we’re learning how to look after them with a preventative mindset and as such we’re seeing reliability akin to the B10Ms that went before them.

“We have a commitment to a maximum vehicle age of 15 years by 2024, so we will continue with the Plaxton Profile-bodied Volvo B7R combination to achieve that and I imagine the Plaxton Leopard-bodied Volvo B8R after that.

“Even before the GCB subcontract arrangement was becoming clear that we were outgrowing our current site. It’s not laid out in the best possible way, although we have fine-tuned it as best as we can over the last six years.

“We are currently developing an adjacent field, which provides us with a completely blank canvas to build something perfect to accommodate the fleet, allow for growth and reduce risk.

“We are going to protect the agricultural vernacular of the area by building undercover accommodation for the whole fleet, which will be a real boon: frost-free vehicles on cold winter mornings, or indeed a dry walk-round check in the middle of a Cornish spring monsoon will be a real luxury. We also have the opportunity to improve our ancillary buildings: we will invest in a new office, greater parts storage capacity and better facilities for our drivers.

“The drivers have their breaks at a restroom in town but we have a very social workforce, so having somewhere nice for them to spend time before or after their duty with additional facilities will be useful. We also have a pair of very hard-working cleaners. They wash every single bus by hand daily, so having a nice working environment for them to take refuge in will be welcomed, I’m sure!” laughed Craig.

Plaxton Profiles are now the coach of choice for OTS. RICHARD SHARMAN

A career busman

Talking about his history in the bus industry and becoming the Bus Service Manager at OTS, Craig said: “I was only 12 back in 1999 when I realised that buses not only interested me but also could offer me a future career. I was a basic child – and I’m sure my wife would argue a basic adult too – I only had my eye on the prize of driving a big vehicle.

“I wrote to Western National asking what I needed to concentrate on to secure a career in the bus industry. Of course, I was too naïve at the time to realise that recruitment in our industry isn’t always based on academic achievement, but I was delighted when I received a letter from Brian James, the then Operations Director there. He invited me for a depot tour, which of course I accepted. I left with reams of duty sheets, bus graphs, fleet lists etcetera, and that was it: I was sold on the idea of a career on the buses.

“Not long after, I was offered a job helping with basic admin at Camborne and Truro on Saturdays. My parents were invited to see everything was above board and within an hour I was sat working away, left to my own devices!

“My adolescent frame was quite handy for helping load National Express dupes out of Newquay in the high summer, so I was put to use there. It wasn’t long before Brian moved on to pastures new and times were changing – I had grazed through before it became harder to justify employing people as young as I was then and the appetite for my assistance within First waned.

“Thankfully, Brian found me work as a cleaner at Truronian. My weekends and school holidays were taken up with keeping the service fleet tidy there and I started to spend time with the drivers, learning what the role of a driver would really entail. All the time I was learning what my colleagues saw as good, or bad about the job. Of course, now I look back and understand those were some very important first lessons in what was good and bad about the way they were managed.

“Brian moved on again to Western Greyhound after a couple of years, but it wasn’t until a chance encounter with director Mark Howarth that I moved there myself, Truronian having kept me on in the meantime. That’s where I really grew. Old enough by then to understand more and take more responsibility, I was assisting with and learning scheduling for example, again under the expert wing of Brian James. I worked in the public enquiries office, I would be used for route-learning and before I knew it, my college days were over and I could learn to drive a bus! I progressed from there to driver, to a controller and then Truro Park & Ride Manager for the launch of that exciting project – I was only 20 then.

“I eventually moved away to South Wales and back to First, where I worked in Port Talbot. Those were good times for me, especially leaving home and learning somewhere new – not just in the geographic sense but also seeing different working practices and fanning the flames of Anglo-Welsh relations of course! Me being me, I was keen to be involved there and I was delighted to help with anything from programming the Hanover displays to helping with the transfer of the Neath area services from Pontardawe depot to Port Talbot. I spent some weeks route learning the Port Talbot guys and girls on the routes in that area.

“I elected to stay as a floating driver when a permanent line became available on the local rota as this enabled me to work on any of the three rotas: the lovely long Porthcawl to Cardiff X2 route, local work around town and up the Valleys or the Neath area services. It also meant I was able to fill these little gaps, free from obligations elsewhere. I was asked to assist at the head office in Swansea, gathering seemingly endless data for a Competition Commission enquiry, which kept me busy for weeks and at the same time I was going to Bristol every weekend to assist with a driver shortage there – the variety was right up my street!

“However, a career change for my girlfriend at the time led us to beautiful Oxfordshire and I wanted to take the opportunity to change my career slightly again. I found RH Buses of Witney online and decided to apply for a job there, given their very recent tender win of local bus routes in the area. Funnily enough CBW’s very own Richard Sharman, then Senior Controller interviewed me.

“Thankfully, I got the job and another learning curve began. Back with an independent, I was able to work in a more relaxed environment where achievement and experience were more directly recognised. Also, for the first time in my career, I found one route that was so lovely I could have driven it forever: the X9 between Witney and Chipping Norton. This was important because I had never been the world’s best at customer service until then, but for the first time, I relaxed and made some good friends with the regular passengers on that route – friendships that took me around the world!

“However as the months went on, variety returned and a mixture of local bus work and coach work as well as admin and control tasks soon became a regular fixture. It was easy to feel at home there, so it was a sad day when the company fell upon hard times and went into administration and I was forced to look for other work nearby.

“Another learning curve: this time, permanent late shifts on the hugely popular S1 service between Carterton, Witney and Oxford. Although I had always been fond of late shifts, and a regular volunteer for such in previous jobs, this was slightly different in that it was regularly busy, and regularly full of exuberant drunks until 0400hrs. It suited my body clock though, and I enjoy the empty roads, so the job was enjoyable but did lack the variety and flexibility I had come to thrive on. Eventually, my reasons to stay in Oxfordshire slowly evaporated and as such, I found myself longing for home and a new challenge.

“That’s where my speculative application to OTS came from: in search of another new challenge and learning how a much smaller operator works. That was six years ago now, and I certainly don’t need to look elsewhere. I’ve now found somewhere where my career can grow alongside a business. The directors Steve, Ben and Sharon have allowed me to demonstrate and put into practice all I have learned from my range of previous employers.

“I blend the things that drivers love about the bigger firms (the rolling rota for example) with what I’ve learned from independents about caring for staff, being straight and honest with them and treating them as the individuals they are. I have all the resources I need and the directors share my personal goals of doing things correctly, treating our colleagues correctly, presenting and maintaining the fleet well, being compliant – or better – and most importantly of all: never letting our passengers down.”