Stagecoach on the seashore

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Following the nomination of its route 35 for two awards at the 2020 Scottish Transport Awards, Jonathan Welch visited Stagecoach Bluebird’s Macduff depot which operates the service

Situated on the north coast of Aberdeenshire, the small Stagecoach depot at Macduff is one of many smaller depots across the country which goes about its day to day business with little fuss. The coastal depot has seen its profile raised with the announcement of nominations for this year’s Scottish Transport Awards; Macduff is responsible for the buses used on Stagecoach Bluebird’s route 35, which received nominations for Best Bus Route and Contribution to Sustainable Transport thanks to the investment made in a fleet of new double-deckers. What’s more, the depot has some of the best GreenRoad driver scores in the country thanks to the efforts of its drivers and especially GreenRoad Champion Fiona Pattinson.

It seemed an appropriate time therefore to venture north to the small town of Macduff, around 75 miles east of Inverness and 45 miles north of Aberdeen on the Buchan coast. It sits on the east side of the mouth of the River Deveron, which is spanned by a seven-arched bridge leading to Banff on the far bank. The river gives its name to another local operator, Deveron Coaches, whose depot is just a few yards east of Stagecoach’s premises. It is no exaggeration to say that both depots sit on the very edge of the sea, the rear wall of the depot being effectively the sea wall, with little but water beyond.

Stagecoach Bluebird has been making steady progress on repainting and refreshing its fleet, as evidenced by Macduff’s 36068. JONATHAN WELCH

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The town of Macduff itself is small and traditional, with many narrow streets running off the main road along the harbour. Maybe unsurprisingly given that its main reason for being is its harbour and the sea, the town is home to a maritime heritage centre and an aquarium, as well as to the clifftop Royal Tarlair golf course. Also reflecting its maritime status, the town has an RNLI lifeboat station, which is notable as being the only one where the lifeboat – a small Atlantic 85 inshore craft – is launched from a flatbed lorry by way of an on-board crane, a feature which allows it to be deployed from other suitable locations along the Buchan coastline when needed.

Thankfully, although the depot and fleet are occasionally battered by the waves crashing over the high depot wall, the lifeboat has not yet been needed there!

I was joined at Macduff by Stagecoach Bluebird Managing Director Peter Knight, Chief Engineer Sam McWalter and GreenRoad Champion Fiona Pattinson. Peter explained more about the important role the depot plays in the local community and connecting it to destinations further afield: “In Macduff we have an extremely unique location on the sea wall here in north-east Scotland,” he said. “The mainstay is service 35 which runs from Aberdeen to Elgin via the coastal communities. It is a long route but does lots of little journeys for the rural communities and provides a lifeline service for many. We don’t see many end to end passengers as we have service 10 which is quicker and more direct. There is lots of passenger churn on the 35 between coastal towns.

“The new fleet for the 35 is based here, and we have a driver base and maintenance facilities. We have 50 staff based here. The fleet for the 35 was replaced in March 2019, and were some of the last to benefit from the Green Bus Fund. Our new Alexander Dennis (ADL) Enviro 400 MMC micro-hybrids replaced an ageing coach fleet. The conversion to low-floor double-deckers has brought a number of benefits. Access is easier, people can sit upstairs to enjoy the views, and the new vehicles have USB ports and WiFi as well as comfortable seating.” The 15 new buses were delivered in 2019 as a result of a £3.5m investment by the company, and make up a large proportion of the fleet at Macduff, which has a total allocation of 26 buses.

The top deck of a double-decker gives a good view over the wall, highlighting just how close the depot is to the sea. JONATHAN WELCH

Peter explained that the change to double-deckers had been a considered one and seemed to be paying off. “It is about appreciating that the 35 is in effect a series of short journeys joined up. We have had lots of positive feedback. We did on-bus surveys before the new buses arrived and a follow-up three months after. People said they preferred the new vehicle type after we changed, and we found we had acquired new customers because of the visual impact of the route-branded double-deckers. That was a big influence in the Scottish Transport Awards nomination.

Stagecoach North Scotland Managing Director Peter Knight (left) and Chief Engineer Sam McWalter with one of the new buses which has transformed route 35. JONATHAN WELCH

“There were a few concerns about using double-deckers, mainly around going up and down the stairs. The route has quite a distinct concession market, and we have found that quite a lot of them go upstairs for the view. On the whole the new vehicles have been well received. It has repositioned the service as a little bit more accessible. They stand out, and the branding highlights the comfort, USB charging ports and WIFi. Coaches have their place but can sometimes appear daunting,” he said.

Besides the steps that passengers have to negotiate on entry, a coach can sometimes give the appearance of a longer distance type of service, which can put off potential passengers who may not flag it down at a stop, or assume that it needs to be booked in advance or will be more expensive. The service, in its previous guise as the 305, was operated for many years mainly by Plaxton Profile-bodied Volvo coaches with wheelchair lifts in the entrance.

“The new buses have marked a step change in reliability and reputation,” continued Peter. “The team here at Macduff is really tight-knit and takes ownership. They just get on with it and deliver great customer service. It can be challenging, especially in winter. That sense of pride also ties in with the eco driver results. For the last four years running Macduff depot has won the Chris Bell Trophy for best eco driver performance across all UK depots.”

Fleet Elite

In common with a number of other operators across the UK, Stagecoach uses GreenRoad’s DriveGreen system to monitor driver performance across a range of different areas such as acceleration, braking, cornering, anticipation and fuel economy to provide feedback in real time and retrospectively in the form of detailed driver, vehicle and fleet ‘dashboards.’ The best drivers across the country are awarded the status of ‘Fleet Elite’ if their scores are consistently good across the year.

“I think because it’s such a close knit depot, the drivers have really embraced the eco driving system. It is a small depot and they are very proud of the achievement. There’s been a lot of interest and engagement,” said Peter.

Some might think that drivers at a relatively rural depot would have a better chance of good scores than those in busy, hectic urban environments. However, Peter pointed out that there are a variety of other circumstances that come into play which affect how drivers drive, and in turn their eco scores. Those can vary from driving quickly but safely on twisty coastal routes to meeting oncoming wide farm vehicles on fast-flowing but sometimes relatively narrow main roads.

Differing challenges

On a regional level, the Stagecoach North Scotland operation is split into two geographical areas: Stagecoach Bluebird operates services mainly in Aberdeenshire, Moray and surrounding areas, whilst Inverness northwards is the responsibility of the Highlands division. Reflecting the different geographical and economic landscapes of their respective areas, Bluebird’s operations are more commercial, whereas Highland sees a lot more tendered work.

Operations in the Moray area are looked after by an Operations Manager based in Elgin, some 40 miles to the west and northern terminus of route 35, who oversees Macduff depot. Macduff itself has its own dedicated control team, meaning that drivers have daily contact with them.

Although there are many towns dotted along the coast and inland across Aberdeenshire, most of the region’s main road network focuses on Aberdeen to the south, and to a lesser extent Inverness to the west, reflecting the former’s important position economically as a centre for the oil industry, though the city is now reinventing itself as a centre for renewable energy sources. “I came into the post as Managing Director on 1 December last year,” explained Peter, “and I saw a lot of opportunity for good quality long distance coach and bus services. My absolute focus is on performance, I want to deliver a service that passengers want to be seen on. Buses have to be on time, passengers have to be able to rely on the service.”

The Enviro400 MMCs used on route 35 feature interior cove panels highlighting the route and features of the buses such as WiFi. JONATHAN WELCH

Engagement and cooperation

“I’ve been very keen to focus on engagement with the teams to make them feel part of the success and give them the confidence that they have the support of management,” Peter continued. “There are challenges, I identified a number of engineering and operational challenges when I started. I had only been in the post for three months when Covid hit, things became very fast-paced and challenging. We have a loyal and dedicated team here, the drivers, engineers, controllers and head office worked together and pulled out all the stops. We continued a skeleton service throughout, running around 30% of the mileage. Lots of our services, including the 10 and 35, serve Aberdeen Royal Infirmary on their way into the city so it was vital for key workers.”

In line with elsewhere, services from Macduff have now returned to a timetable which is broadly the same as prior to Covid. Peter was cautiously optimistic about where things would go next. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride, we don’t know whether Covid is under control yet. I’m not sure things will ever recover 100%, but we have to remain agile and reactive, and consider all opportunities when they come.

“Covid has slowed the pace of change but has also been a good thing in that it has brought out all our strengths and weaknesses. We have been much more focused. It has been difficult for us all not to have human contact. We’ve followed the advice to work from home where possible but it is nice to see everybody and show that we are still here. Some driving staff were apprehensive about coming back from furlough but at the same time excited to be back. We reassured them that we had measures in place, and a framework to support people.

“When drivers returned, we took them all out for a confidence drive to make sure they were good to go, and made sure they knew about things like where to find sanitiser stations, maximum room capacities and the need to stay apart.”

Not only is the team close knit at Macduff, but morale and staff retention is good too. “We haven’t recruited at this depot for years,” said Peter. “The sense of community is very good, and we have a good split of shifts which suit or drivers.”

Route 35 serves a number of coastal communities, providing links to Elgin and Aberdeen. GRANT ANDERSON

Targeted marketing

Although such activities have taken a back seat for now, when the new buses were placed in service in 2019, Stagecoach focused its marketing efforts on young people. “We had always blanketed areas, this time we took a more focused approach,” explained Peter. “The impact was phenomenal, and of course we were blessed with the good weather too. It is important to note that Aberdeen city and shire are relatively affluent areas with high car access rates, which means we have to be good to make the bus a credible alternative. Live tracking (introduced in 2018) has been a game-changer for us, and the app now has a busy bus indicator which has been well received. Covid has really shown us in a positive light. It has accelerated technological developments that might have taken longer. In terms of cleaning too, our vehicles were never dirty but now they are immaculate. In an era of winning hearts and minds our team has done a good job of rising to the challenge.

“It all goes to show just how many people rely on us. Our front line colleagues have done Bluebird, Stagecoach and the industry proud. There have been a lot of heartening comments. One of our trimmers in Elgin turned his hand to making scrubs for Elgin’s Dr Gray’s Hospital, and a coachbuilder in Aberdeen was recognised for his work fabricating new cab doors. As well as those who have been formally recognised, we think the entire workforce deserves recognition.”


Peter said that it was important that the depot was in the middle of route 35, which brings benefits from a crewing point of view as well as reflecting the general traffic patterns which in the early mornings are outwards towards the endpoints at Aberdeen and Elgin. Nonetheless, the depot’s location provides a number of challenges. Chief Engineer Sam McWalter has been in the post at Bluebird for almost a year, having worked with buses since he was 14 when he started as a cleaner at Strathtay. “The sea wall can make life difficult,” he said. “When there’s a big swell sea water can come over the wall. The salt in the sea air, and the large amounts of salt on the roads in winter causes a lot of corrosion.

“We’re making improvements to the depot here but we’re hamstrung by the location and geography. In winter, it can cause some problems with parts supply. It is easy to get things to Aberdeen but harder to get them up here. The difference in reliability since we introduced the new buses has been like night and day. We have good aftermarket support too; there is an ADL engineer based in Aberdeenshire which helps minimise downtime.

“Covid has given us lots of focus points but the newer vehicles are easier to clean, especially having leather seats which are easy to wipe down. We’ve had to modify a lot of our older fleet and coaches, which has all been authorised by the DVSA. We’ve made sure to use authorised materials. We haven’t just thrown something together, and drivers appreciate that. We’ve had good feedback on the quality of the work. They appreciate that it has been thought out and done properly. We made sure to get the union involved in every depot, and took the union rep out for a drive.

“We’ve had a massive focus on presentation, we’ve been repainting buses at a rate of three every two weeks. Here in Macduff we carry out preventative maintenance and 28-day inspections. We do everything except major work, which is done at Elgin or Aberdeen.”

The buses which are being repainted receive more than just a quick lick of paint: “We’re giving them a revamp. Besides the paint they receive a retrim, new wiper arms, new mirrors, we make sure all the panels are straight and we de-clutter the windows and fit new school boards. We have a checklist before they go back into service. They receive new steering wheels, which feels better and are easier to clean. We’re trying to make sure they are all exactly the same. It is going to take time but we want everyone to know that is the standard we want from now on.”

Chief Engineer Sam McWalter explained that buses were being refreshed as well as repainted, with new mirrors and school boards being fitted. JONATHAN WELCH

Eco champions

It is no small feat for such a small depot to be consistently the best performing team in the company’s eco driving league tables. Fiona Pattinson is the depot’s GreenRoad go-to, acting as mentor and monitor for the depot, helping drivers improve their driving as well as resolve any issues they may encounter with the system, which will be familiar to many who have driven service buses.

“The 35 is a big service but has a small bus feel,” Fiona said. “The team is very close and friendly, some of the drivers really go above and beyond. That’s one of the things I like about Macduff. I know everybody here, my other half has been a bus driver for 40 years. I started in 2000 at Buckie where I was the only woman driver. Back in the day there was a lot of sexism but a driver is a driver. It’s a good job to get into. We have quite a high percentage of female drivers now – there are more based at Macduff than Aberdeen!”

After a spell working in Dumfries, Fiona came back to the north-east and eventually to Stagecoach at Macduff, which she says has always been a popular depot and so not easy to get a job at. “The guys in the office are very good,” she added, “they do their best to help those who have children or other needs to get shifts which work for them.”

Fiona took up the role of eco champion in 2013. “Lots of drivers weren’t interested,” she said. “For GreenRoad to be a success you need people who know the drivers. Everyone was nervous as we had a new manager, and I said I’d take it on in the interests of the drivers. From there, it went from strength to strength. It’s about getting people to plug in, to engage. If they are not interested they won’t do well. In the first year, we had eight drivers who gained Fleet Elite status. In the second it was 12. Year three was 18 and by year four there were 20, it just kept getting better and better.

“We struggled a bit when the new double-deckers arrived. Compared with some other routes like the 10 it feels like we’re stopping and starting at every farm track, but drivers are doing well to drive city buses on a long rural route. It is more difficult to achieve ‘Fleet Elite’ with the double-deckers than a coach but it’s a support thing. Sometimes the system can be wrong and it needs someone there to investigate it if something is not right and to check whether it’s the vehicle or driver. You also have to take into account that the characteristics of a bus can change if the brakes or suspension have been replaced.

A view which highlights the small size and coastal location of Macduff depot, as well as the varied nature of the fleet garaged there. JONATHAN WELCH

“Our top scoring driver at the minute is a woman, who has had just one driving ‘event’ logged by the system this year. Last year her total was three. Everyone likes to be told they are a good driver, and some saw the system as an insult. As more and more gained Fleet Elite status, more were saying it is a good system.”

Fiona also praised the live tracking feature available on the GreenRoad app. “On a day when the weather here is bad, it is good to see where your bus is so you can hide from the weather if it is running late. I also use it to see how drivers are doing when I go out and do a ride-along, plus it helps me see where buses are for going back.

“I’m very enthusiastic about training. The guys have responded to guidance and advice. Where people were having problems or getting lots of ‘events’ on the system, we’d assess it and put up a notice advising how to handle it – things like making sure not to exceed a certain speed at a particular location.

“As drivers came back from furlough the company was very supportive with confidence drives and facilities in place. It was made clear it wasn’t a slur on the driver’s abilities, just giving them a chance to settle in without 30 people sitting behind them. We’re still doing very well although it looks like we might not make it to the top again this year. It’s been very satisfying for me to see guys make it, to get the badge and certificate.”

The winners of the Scottish Transport Awards will be announced online on Wednesday 28 October.

Next week, Jonathan heads back to Aberdeen and takes a trip along route 35 to Elgin, enjoying the scenery in the safe hands of two of Fiona’s Fleet Elite colleagues.