Taming the beast

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Seen in more pleasant conditions is this Jonckheere-bodied Volvo B11R, owned by partner operator Shiel Buses of Acharacle. ROBERT DAVIDSON

Peter Knight, Scottish Citylink’s Operations Director, tells Angela Youngman how the operator’s control centre team performed impressively during the stormy weather of February 2018, leading to UK Coach Awards success

Keeping 170 Scottish Citylink and megabus.com coaches operating nationwide to a tight daily schedule is no mean feat – but doing it while under the immense pressure resulting from extreme weather conditions creates a serious challenge for any team.

It was precisely that situation Scottish Citylink was faced with just over a year ago, when the ‘Beast from the East’ hit the UK. It was an emergency situation of epic proportions. The resulting teamwork between controllers and drivers went beyond anything that Operations Director, Peter Knight, could ever have expected. The judges at the 2019 UK Coach Awards were equally impressed and had no hesitation in awarding them a Gold Award for their superb work. The team were nothing short of heroic in their attempts to get customers to their destinations with the minimum of inconvenience. So, what made this control centre team stand out beyond all others?

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Extreme weather
The Beast from the East has gone down in history as being the most extreme winter weather experienced in the UK for many years. There was no part of the country which was not affected, from the north of Scotland to the South Coast of England, from Wales to the East Anglian coastline.

It was in late February, early March 2018, when intensely cold, wintry low pressure weather conditions spread from the continent to affect the eastern and southern parts of the UK. It was then joined by equally intense wintry weather caused by Storm Emma coming from the Atlantic and spreading across the country. Temperatures plunged well below freezing and snow began to fall, creating deep snowdrifts, making many roads impassible.

There were red weather alerts in force across much of the country, indicating that widespread damage, travel and power disruption and risk to life was likely. The situation was made worse by gusts of wind exceeding 60mph causing snow to mount even higher on roads, freezing rain which froze on impact building up thick layers of ice and excessively high tides making coastal roads even more hazardous.

All flights were cancelled, and almost all train operators cancelled services. There was chaos on the roads. People were advised to stay at home wherever possible. Snow clearance teams were unable to keep up with the volume of snow and were hampered by the fact that many drivers simply abandoned their vehicles on the carriageways when they found their way blocked. According to the AA there were over 8,200 collisions during a three-day period, and that didn’t include the countless number of cars that simply broke down and were unable to continue.

Against the odds

The control centre is home to 10 members of staff, who work shifts to keep tabs on the network all day, every day

Despite all of this, Scottish Citylink succeeded in continuing to run a coach service, getting passengers safely to their destinations throughout the entire period of the Beast from the East and Storm Emma. The control team is responsible for coaches en route between coach stations. They have total responsibility for the coaches from the moment they leave a depot to the moment they arrive at their destination.

As soon as the Scottish Citylink control centre realised there was a major crisis underway, the team simply went into overdrive. It normally has 10 people working on a 24-hour basis, 365 days a year working shifts around the clock, with two Duty Controllers on shift at any one time.

“For 36 hours, the entire team worked non-stop,” Peter recalled. “They were working through the night, providing extra coverage and trying to deal with problems as they arose, or anticipate problems that might be arising. At one point of that period, we were the only show in town, keeping the service going even though all rail and air links between London and Scotland had been cancelled.

“With safety our number one priority, our aim was to operate every journey as far as possible, given the prevailing weather conditions. Clearly this was very challenging given the delays on the road network generally. At the same time, we had to monitor the drivers’ hours to ensure compliance. We needed to ensure that they had the legally required rest periods, so had to be able to advise where and when they could stop safely. The drivers and our team were in regular contact throughout, working together to calculate what areas were safe and clear to continue journeys. We used feedback from the drivers to identify where problems existed. The control team were collating the information on a regular basis, passing on information to drivers as to what drivers further up the road were encountering.

“The team was advising drivers and making contingency plans constantly,” he continued. “We had to take care of the passengers as well. If a driver had to leave a motorway, the team were advising as to the location of the best route, which roads were passable or finding somewhere for the driver to take the passengers for a rest stop, for overnight accommodation or until they could get moving again. If there was a blockage, we could sometimes get passengers onto a train if the train was running, so as to reach a station where a coach could pick them up. As long as it was deemed safe and legal, we would do whatever was necessary.

“There were two spots where the team had to arrange accommodation as the roads were totally blocked. They arranged with a pub landlord on the A1 between Edinburgh and Newcastle upon Tyne to give the passengers a hot drink and let them sleep overnight on the floor. On the M62, they found the driver a safe place to park the coach overnight, and he left the heating on overnight so that they could be warm, even though they had to stay in the coach all the time.”

Four of the staff couldn’t get home at the end of their official shifts, so Scottish Citylink found them overnight hotel accommodation in Glasgow city centre so that they could get a few hours’ sleep. The staff chose to immediately go back on duty afterwards, because they knew they were needed and could help their colleagues.

Returning to normality

The control team after receiving their award

Even after the immediate weather problems eased, the control team was still faced with major difficulties getting the coach system operative again. None of the coaches were where they were supposed to be within the vehicle cycles, and a lot of route planning had to be done to get the coaches and drivers back into the correct place.

Peter himself joined his team on duty in the control room, lending a hand wherever it was needed including answering phones and collating information. “It was really impressive the way the drivers and the control team were continually talking, sharing information and bouncing ideas off each other in order to try and solve the problems. It was a really pleasing team effort,” he commented.

Their efforts did not go unnoticed by the public. “We got so many positive tweets that we collected them and put them up in the office so that everyone could see them,” said Peter. “It was heartening that people recognised that we were making an optimal effort and were trying to help people complete their journeys and not leave them stranded. The work of the control centre behind the scenes is not often recognised, and it was very hard for the drivers during this time, but the co-operation between everyone made it work.”

There can be little doubt that the emergency caused by Beast from the East and Storm Emma tested Scottish Citylink’s emergency response planning to the utmost. So extreme was the challenge, that it has now been turned into a case study for use in training other personnel. It clearly identifies just how a risk management situation can be dealt with through teamwork, using co-operation between the drivers on the ground and the control centre, balancing information coming from a wide range of sources including drivers, police, weather and road.

“Once things had returned to normal, there was a sense of total relief all round,” said Peter. “Everyone was extremely pleased that they had succeeded and kept the coaches moving as much as possible. We immediately took the team out for a meal in recognition of their efforts.”

He was convinced that the team’s efforts deserved wider recognition because it had been such a significant achievement: “As Operations Director I was absolutely chuffed that I have such a dedicated team and can trust them 100% to do anything,” he said.

Having missed the cut off point for the 2018 awards, he had to wait for the 2019 Coach Awards. The control team was totally unaware of his plans. “They didn’t see themselves as doing anything out of the ordinary. They were just doing their jobs. We just told them they had been nominated and had been shortlisted. We gave everyone on the team the opportunity to come to the awards ceremony, and I was pleased that four of the team were able to go to Blackpool to celebrate their success. They were really chuffed to be given the award, and the recognition that came with it.

“The entire business is very proud they won this award. I think it is very important we recognise our people in this industry, and to see a team of people like this at the awards raises the profile of Citylink and megabus and the control team. The judges were impressed by how many people were involved, how the drivers and control centre worked together and the end result that was achieved. This was a very proactive aspect of the award, as they were positively impressed by the way the team went the extra mile to keep the coaches running and see the customers through to the end of their journey. I am very proud of all the team.”