The bus champion

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Oxford has long been a challenging place to run buses, never more so than today, but as Oxford Bus Company Managing Director Phil Southall explained to Andy Izatt, while the political debate can sometimes be distracting, there are real opportunities to explore

Oxford Bus Company invested in 20 high specification Wrightbus StreetDecks for its Park & Ride operation in late 2016-early 2017. ANDY IZATT

As Managing Director of Oxford Bus Company (OBC), Phil Southall wears many different hats as he navigates a difficult path for his business in what is an increasingly complicated political and social environment. Whether it’s responding to the immediate challenges of ever worsening congestion, how to effectively serve newly-established satellite business parks or ensuring buses in Oxford remain at the centre of the long-term transport debate, he has plenty to contend with. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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“I’ve been with Go-Ahead Group since 2007,” Phil explained. “My career started nine years earlier after graduating from Aston University in Transport Management when I joined Southern Vectis as a management trainee. I was supposed to be there for 12 months, but it was extended for another six so the company could develop an electronic version of The Great Britain Bus Timetable-Xephos.

“After that I joined First PMT initially as Depot Manager at Newcastle-under-Lyme and then Hanley before becoming Area Manager North Staffs and Crewe with responsibility for six garages. Three of those, I was to have to close.

“I joined the TAS Partnership in Preston in September 2004 working with a number of operators including Cardiff Bus on a fares review and First Edinburgh, which was undertaking a strategic review.

“TAS Chairman Peter Huntley had been made Managing Director of Go North East in March 2006 and he seconded me the following October to help with the many projects he was instigating. After two months I was offered the fulltime job of Business Development Manager assisting the commercial team to deliver Peter’s strategy to reinvigorate the business. It wasn’t just about buses.

It was about how we were going to engage drivers in a new way of thinking.

“When Go North East was restructured into north and south units, I became Divisional Manager for the South, which encompassed depots in Washington, Sunderland, Chester-le-Street and later Stanley. I also opened outstations in Peterlee, and Crook. That’s what I did from the beginning of 2008 to July 2012 when I came to OBC as Operations Director working for Managing Director Philip Kirk.

“OBC had taken over Thames Travel of Wallingford in 2011 and High Wycombe-based Carousel Buses early the following year and I took more of a commercial role helping to integrate those businesses. When Philip announced he was stepping down, I took over as Managing Director in November 2014.

Phil Southall: ‘I need to ask the difficult questions, but at the same time, have solutions’. ANDY IZATT

“Working for First gave me a good grounding despite what I had to do while I was there being a bit painful. The commercial exposure at TAS was important because of working with such a wide range of people with different points of view and building on that experience at Go North East to help deliver in a very high pace environment was really good as well. I had to learn, work and deliver quickly, but it showed me what was possible.

“I’m not saying that running buses in Oxford hasn’t always been challenging because it has, but the viewpoint I was given when I arrived was the job might be a little slack because the business was smaller compared to some other Go-Ahead companies. When I got into it though, I found I could actually be permanently engaged in stakeholder activities so it was really important to pick and choose what I was involved in.

“Oxford is a prosperous city with a very well educated and articulate population. The colleges own 50% of the land so they have a say in virtually anything that goes on. Even though the city and county councils have very proactive public transport policies the retailers don’t always agree with that because they see expensive car parking as a barrier to people coming to the city. I soon learnt that engagement with a very broad range of stakeholders was going to be vital to doing the job.”

Giving bus a voice

“The groups and organisations I sit on now have quite far reaching influence,” said Phil. “People tell me I must be the most networked person in Oxford as I’m seen everywhere.

“First of all, I’m Chair of the London and South East region of the CPT (Confederation of Passenger Transport), but I’m also a non-executive board director of the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and chair the LEP Transport Sub Group, which is the only forum we have in the county that brings together all the different modes. Network Rail, Chiltern Railways, Great Western Railway, cycling groups, Highways England, the county council and various business parks and retailers are all represented. My involvement with the LEP gives me a voice in a number of other arenas.

Originally used on the Oxford Brookes University contract, this 2014 ADL Enviro400 MMC now carries blue livery for city 2 to Kidlington. ANDY IZATT

“Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire are the only three counties that are net GVA (Gross Value Added) contributors to the UK Exchequer so for them, having a voice at all levels of government is very important. England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance was created in 2013 as a result and is a partnership of transport authorities and LEPs covering the Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford corridor. It’s one of several emerging sub-national transport bodies.

“In the early days, England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance set up a strategic transport forum and each of the main bus operators sent a representative. However, with the growing house building agenda and the creation of Growth Boards to oversee more local economic development and strategic planning, transport was integrated more with that. As the number of partners invited to attend the meeting grew, it was no longer possible for every bus operator to have a seat on the strategic transport forum which focused on larger, cross border projects. There was one seat for all bus operators and one for Oxfordshire LEP which I was given because of my long-term involvement as a LEP representative.

“To give bus operators a voice, I worked with CPT to form the England’s Heartland Bus Operators Association. Because Stagecoach is the major operator across the area, Stagecoach Partnership Director Robin Knight is the Chair and Simon Finnie who is Arriva Area Managing Director is the Vice-Chair. Because of their size, Go-Ahead, Stagecoach and Arriva each have two seats in the Association and Centrebus, Grant Palmer and Uno each have one.

“Then there’s the Transport Knowledge Hub chaired by Claire Haigh from Greener Journeys which aims to bring LEPs and local authorities together to try and work better. Government bodies such as the Department for Transport and Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government are represented and I’m there for Oxfordshire LEP. Andrew Wickham (Go South Coast) does the same for Dorset LEP while Ian Morgan (Wellglade) represents D2N2 LEP (Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire). We’re there because of the LEP, but it is bus companies influencing national policy in whatever way we can.

One of nine 2015 Wrightbus StreetDecks that carry dedicated livery for city 5 between Oxford railway station and Blackbird Leys. ANDY IZATT

“I’m involved in B4 (Building Bridges Between Businesses) which gives businesses in Oxfordshire a voice and through the steering group, have helped form Business Voice, an organisation of around 100 firms that want to express their views on developments in the county.

“Through B4 there is an annual event called Business in Oxford which is sponsored each year. Again it’s an opportunity to showcase what OBC is doing, how we’re part of the community and how we add value to the city – the economic importance of buses. It’s an annual opportunity to pitch what we can offer to businesses as well.

“I’m also President of the Oxfordshire Chamber of Commerce, which again gives me another voice. Oxford Chamber of Commerce is one of six arms of the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce, itself one of 53 accredited Chambers to the British Chamber of Commerce. Thames Valley has its own business manifesto with local priorities that I was able to contribute to.

“Something else I’m involved in is the City Centre Task Force which is the latest reincarnation of an organisation that has been going for years. It’s trying to identify what are the priorities of retailers in Oxford city centre and we’re working towards setting up a Business Improvement District that would be funded through a levy on business rates. It might lead to increased street cleaning or introducing measures to reduce the number of homeless people on the streets but also better promotion and support for transport matters such as Park & Ride, city centre access and demand management measures. It might be that business owners need to clean the windows of their premises more often. I need to be involved not least to make sure there are no silly priorities introduced because they went unchallenged.

“I should also mention that we as a business do a lot of work with local community groups. We sponsor football teams and we have a bus liveried for both Oxford Pride and the Oxfordshire Prostate Cancer Support Group.

“Go-Ahead Group CEO, David Brown keeps using the same phrase – ‘keep telling our story and all the good things we’re doing. It’s about reminding the key people.’ If people are saying derogatory things about the bus, I’m there to speak up, but I have to ensure I invest my time wisely.”

Community engagement is taken very seriously at Oxford Bus Company and includes this Pride-liveried Wrightbus Volvo B5LH hybrid. ANDY IZATT

Challenging preconceptions

“Influencing the broader agenda is one thing,” said Phil. “The direct challenges facing Oxford are numerous, not least the problem of congestion. When I joined OBC in 2012 our busiest service to Blackbird Leys took 72 minutes to make a round trip from Oxford railway station. Now it is 88 minutes, which illustrates the scale of the problem in what is a proactive public transport city. Go-Ahead Group is calling for a national bus strategy to deal with issues like congestion and it’s quoting Oxford as one of the worst cases.

“This city is seen as a centre for innovation. There are several enterprise zones where science ‘growth poles’ have been growing up – big business parks where certain technologies that all specialise in the same area have co-located.

Harwell, for example, is where the European Space Agency is based. Culham is where firms specialising in autonomous vehicles are located while Oxford University is growing its ‘science pole’ in Begbroke north of the city. Several science parks have or are growing up around the edge of Oxford and these places are not easily served by the traditional bus network, which presents challenges for us.

“Because we’re working in an innovative, dynamic environment, people are constantly talking about new technologies being in operation tomorrow. It’s not uncommon for someone to say to me that my business will be dead in 10 years time. I have to try and explain to them, the future is evolution, not revolution.

PickMeUp started in June with a fleet of six factory-converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinters. KRIS LAKE

“If, for example, in 10 years time we’re all going to be using autonomous pods that are going to be triggering smart traffic lights, why aren’t we thinking about having smart traffic lights across Oxfordshire now that the buses can trigger? That sort of thinking gets missed because it’s not sexy enough. It’s a huge challenge trying to persuade opinion formers that the bus still has a fundamental role in mass transit for the foreseeable future. It’s why I have to be involved in all these organisations I’ve talked about to remind people of that.

“Actually, many people want to know what’s going to be done in the next five years to improve connectivity. They want to know how their lives are going to be improved. Congestion is a national issue that we need to address now.

“So how is the problem being tackled in Oxford? There is a train of thought within Oxfordshire County Council, which is the transport authority that more demand management is the way forward.

There are three lines of approach that are currently being examined with a view to presenting them individually or in combination to the full council early next year. Congestion charging is one.

Then there’s having a workplace parking levy and thirdly, introducing more bus gates.

“The last is particularly controversial because it would likely cut off one of the few remaining through routes – the one between St Giles and the railway station. Whatever is proposed is obviously going to be politically hot, but there’s an acceptance that something needs to be done.

“A recently-published city centre movement and public realm strategy report, commissioned by the county and city councils, used some very unfortunate language suggesting almost an active policy to get people off buses. There’s a huge agenda within Oxford to promote cycling. That’s led some people in the city council to believe that a good strategy is to move people off buses and on to bikes because the city centre is still perceived as being over crowded with buses. We have to remind everyone that’s not an effective solution, not least because people have to travel in and out of the city. There is more to be gained by giving cycles and buses priority and removing more cars from the city centre and key access routes.

The City Sightseeing fleet is being reinvigorated with Euro VI compliant buses and electrics for the 2019 season. ANDY IZATT

“Oxford has had a Euro V Low Emission Zone (LEZ) since 2014 and both Stagecoach and OBC have invested heavily in new vehicles as a result. We bought 14 Alexander Dennis Enviro400 MMCs for the BROOKESbus network in 2014. There were 11 Wrightbus StreetDecks for city route 5 in 2015, 20 high-specification StreetDeck for our Park & Ride services in late 2016-early 2017 and then another 10 StreetDecks for city 8, 9 and 3. Six Wrightbus StreetDeck HEV 96s went into service on BROOKESbus this year and there have been three Wrightbus Gemini 3-bodied Volvo B5TLs for Thames Travel Connector services as well. We have also introduced 12 Volvo B11R Plaxton Elitei inter-decks on the X90 to London.

“Money has been secured from the Clean Vehicle Technology Fund to upgrade 61 vehicles from Euro V to Euro VI which will predominantly be spent on our hybrid buses, but the good news is every street that is bus only in Oxford already has pollution levels lower than the legal limit for NOx.

“The air quality debate in Oxford is raging now like never before so educating people so it’s informed has never been more important. Working with Oxford University and a company called Combustion, we put some monitoring equipment on a Euro V bus and Euro VI bus. As they go along, it’s possible to have a picture in real-time of what the respective NOx emissions are. If the vehicle has a clear run, levels are low, but there’re kicks in them when they’re caught in stop, start traffic. We have shown stakeholders that data because it’s important they understand what causes the fluctuation in emissions and we can demonstrate that the bus isn’t the problem.

“A zero emission zone is being proposed to start in 2020, but we’re having quite an adult conversation about that. Demonstrating a Yutong E12 electric bus was about explaining to politicians that we’re not against the technology, but while the ambition is admirable, we think they’re trying to move to zero emission vehicles too early. With our Euro VI upgrades and everything else we’ve invested in, we think we should be moving to zero at a more appropriate time and take a partnership approach.

Thames Travel has ADL Enviro400-bodied Scania N230UDs that have been liveried and branded for River Rapids services on the Oxford to Reading corridor. ANDY IZATT

“We may then have to accelerate our investment inline with a bus visioning project and a deeper partnership with the city council and county council we haven’t got yet. There has never been a need for a formal partnership in Oxford, but we’re now about to enter a phase where we have to focus on how we’re going to move the situation forward to make the bus more prominent in terms of emissions control and in terms of their economic value to the city.”

Exciting times

“These are exciting times,” said Phil. “I’m really proud to be the Managing Director of OBC and the devolved approach that Go-Ahead Group takes empowers me to do the right things locally. I think we have a really good team too – I receive tremendous support from Luke Marion our Finance and Commercial Director and Ray Woodhouse our Engineering Director and I have one of the best senior management teams in the business. OBC employs around 480 drivers – 550 when you add on the engineers, admin staff and everyone else. At Thames Travel it’s around 90, about 60 at Carousel Buses and 25 at City Sightseeing.

“OBC operates 170 vehicles, Thames Travel 50, Carousel Buses 40 and City Sightseeing 10. We’re perceived as a small operator, but our turnover is £51m. There’s a lot going on because of all the different brands we have and markets we’re in. As I’ve said, the political environment is extremely challenging as well.

“Oxfordshire has to deliver 85,000 jobs and 100,000 new homes between 2011 and 2031. Some 40,000 homes have already been built of which Great Western Park and developments in Bicester are part.

“I’ve employed a Strategic Development Manager, Laura Higgins which is quite innovative for a bus company. She’s a qualified town planner who worked at Oxford City Council and has been a great help with stakeholder work. We’re now much better positioned to respond to consultations and make sure the bus is front of mind when new developments are happening. As I’ve said, I don’t believe we’ll be dead in 10 years time, but we have to evolve with changing technology and customer requirements. That’s why we’re involved in so many different things.

“Another example would be our ‘mobility as a service’ project with Whim, which we’re trying to introduce early in 2019. It’s like a subscription service where users pay a fixed sum to access lots of different modes. We are looking to just offer our tickets to Maas Global which undertook the Whim project in the West Midlands, but the Go-Ahead Group may choose greater involvement in this type of initiative elsewhere.

“Do we want to be a provider of services or do we want to occupy a brokerage position? It’s a really big challenge we face as an industry. I’m told that as people’s lives evolve, they don’t want to own things, but they want the same access. Where we own all the buses or have ownership of assets, as we move to a more fluid position about who owns what, how do we make money? We need to be at the forefront of that debate to make sure that the bus stays at the centre of it.

“One of my next challenges is to persuade people why mass transit is the bus. That’s not to say it might be a slightly different bus or a bus that’s propelled in a slightly different way, but mass transit is where we want to stay. It’s demonstrating the balance between evolving to new technologies, but at the same time keeping an eye on the commerciality of it all. If we take our eye off that, that’s when we go out of business. I need to ask the difficult questions, but at the same time, have solutions.”