Weston fit for the future

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
Chris Hanson, Staff Operations Manager, Miles Dolphin, Buddy Driver, and Gary Deaklin, Engineering Manager. GARETH EVANS

Returning Weston to its former glory while dealing with a host of challenges is no mean feat, as Chris Hanson explains to Dominic Ward

It’s fair to say that Weston-super-Mare’s (WsM) depot has faced its fair share of challenges over the years, including competitors and congestion. One man determined to make a difference to the running at WsM is Staff Operations Manager, Chris Hanson. Along with his team – supported by Operations Director, Andrew Sherrington – WsM depot has seen shoots of growth.

Chris brings with him a passion for transport, as well as great knowledge of the area.

Meet the man

“Transport has interested me ever since I was a kid,” Chris enthused. “I come from just outside Portsmouth originally, and I always had a real fascination with different buses even when I was a kid – I wanted to get on the Red Admiral, not the blue one, because I never knew where the red one went.”

Chris moved to Portishead when he was a teenager, when the local service was still Badgerline branded, although at that time coming under the moniker of First Badgerline. His main interest lay with the media: “It’s where I thought my career was going to take me.”[wlm_nonmember][…]

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for 4 issues/weeks from only £2.99
Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!

Delaying university for a few years after moving out of home, Chris was looking for a new challenge: “I saw this advert on the side of the bus for a driver and I thought I quite fancy that actually, let’s give that a go. It was a real spur of the moment thing – I used to run pubs, restaurants, and I was a manager for Costa Coffee.”

Starting at Bristol’s now closed Muller Road depot in 2009, Chris also worked at Hengrove, Marlborough Street, and Lawrence Hill, before going to university in 2012, though stayed with First on a part-time basis. He then went to work for an independent operator in Nailsea – North Somerset Coaches: “When I was there we did lots of routes around Nailsea, and I didn’t do much of the coach stuff because I didn’t have a manual licence, which at the time was a problem. I predominantly drove school runs and the 191 as it was then, which did Bath to Weston.

“I liked working at North Somerset Coaches, but due to university commitments in my last year I needed to spend a lot more time doing my dissertation.”

Leaving university with a degree in Journalism, Chris worked briefly for the BBC, and took a stint as being a freelancer, before coming back to the industry: “Weirdly, I missed the bug that is working in the bus industry – I never thought I would, but I did. I came back as a driver at Hengrove in 2014 while I was trying to find some more permanent work. I didn’t have any problems getting back at all – I knew all the staff managers still, and my interview was a cup of tea and a catch-up more than anything else.

“About a month later, I saw the PR Manager role come up at First as maternity cover. That was a bit of a punt for me, as it was my first job in PR. I remember James Freeman interviewed me, and he was still relatively new at the time, but he saw something in me that he liked!”

After 18 months in the role, James offered Chris a secondment into operational management at WsM, assisting the manager at the time whilst the sister depot in Wells went through an expansion project. “He needed to focus a lot more on that, so I took on a lot of the Weston activities,” Chris recalled.

It was there Chris noticed the first of the challenges Weston faced.

Challenging times

“We were facing stiff competition from other operators,” Chris explained. “There have been various competitors over the years, and patronage was in a decline. It had consistently shrunk in size.

“The drivers felt a bit wary of their future position. They’re well aware of the place WsM was sitting in, where it hasn’t been particularly profitable, and they knew that. They didn’t feel that the company believed in them. They know people like James and Andrew did, but since we started the expansion I think it’s showed them that work’s coming in and not going anywhere. These are our routes now, we take ownership of them, and we do it the Weston way. I think that’s the biggest challenge that we’ve overcome really – getting the team to feel more engaged, to believe in the product that we’re offering and to help shape that product.

“The drivers know the routes better than anybody does – we take the lead from them. There are two real services I use as examples to that, of which we have designed the timetable based on the drivers’ feedback. If you get the network right, the rest of it will fall into place, and the drivers actually know that far better than anyone else.

The branding is in fact that new, one of the Enviro400s was being covered in vinyl as CBW arrived at the depot, and was out and glistening in the late afternoon sun later that day. DOMINIC WARD

“Route 20 – the Coaster service, operated by a part open-top Alexander ALX400-bodied Dennis Volvo B7TL – is a prime example of that, linking WsM, Brean and Burnham-on-Sea. The service last year didn’t run as well as we would have liked it to because we underestimated how busy it would be. The 20 is a bit of an learning curve – we’ve only run it for two years. It’s only very busy in the summer; it’s quiet in the winter. So it is difficult to know how to get that right. We took the lead off the drivers with that service, and designed the timetable based on a five-bus working rather than a four, with the drivers and a scheduler. The proposals were presented to Andrew and the commercial team and we said: ‘this is what we want to do.’ And they said, ‘Actually we might not necessarily agree, but if this is what you want, this is what we’ll do.’ They did it, and it was phenomenally successful. Reliability was massively up and the feedback from passengers was great.

“We changed the rota around too, and put a group of drivers on it that volunteered to do it. They do it all day, every day. They become route experts, so they know where the holiday camps are. It just makes a whole lot more sense. Even though it has been reported that the holiday parks have actually seen a slight downturn in their numbers, we’ve seen a passenger increase thanks to, I believe, the timetable designed by the drivers.”

Another challenge faced by WsM depot was taking on the rest of the work from North Somerset. Chris explained that historically, North Somerset services were provided partly by Weston and partly by Bristol. Chris went on to further explain that now it’s one local authority and one depot. “I think it’s become a real success,” said Chris.

Chris continued: “We were successful in the bid for the tender for the Airport Flyer service, which was a very good thing for Weston. At the same time as that, our main competitor in Weston town reduced the services that it was operating, which left some gaps for us to fill. We probably could have done without all those things happening at once, in reality, but that’s the industry that we’re in.”

To address this, Chris and the team have been recruiting additional drivers, which is historically a big challenge in the area. That said, good progress has been made, with 35 drivers currently recruited.

Another issue faced by WsM depot is congestion on the major roads in the area. Chris said that traffic levels on the trunk roads around North Somerset – principally the M5, the A370 and the A369 – are “unprecedented” and “astronomically bad.”

“We’ve seen a major closure on one of the region’s trunk roads every week for the last three months, and that used to happen once a month,” explained Chris. “We had one day, where buses were taking six and a half hours to get from Weston to Worle – a journey of only about three miles. Under those conditions, we cannot run a bus service efficiently.

“However, what we can do is build resilience into our timetables, and with the X5 for example, we’ve given it a 20-minute layover at each end of the route, it’s recovery time. It allows the service to have a fighting chance of actually getting back on time. We’ve had to add additional resources to the other services – to Portishead particularly, as it’s suffered from poor congestion.

“We haven’t increased the service provision to those areas, but what we have done is run what we do more reliably, which of course will follow through with revenue.”

At the time of CBW’s visit in early November, Ticketer’s ticketing systems had only just been installed across the WsM fleet, and it’s evident that Chris is a massive supporter of them: “Weston does not have a radio system, so no way of communicating at times of disruption.

One of the newly branded Excel Enviro400s leaves Bristol Malborough Street bus station bound for Weston-super-Mare. ANDY IZATT

“Ticketer has revolutionised the way in which we can communicate with our vehicles because we can message them. It will give us a much better tool to be able to improve the service delivery that we’re offering, which is what our supervisors really want to do.

“The drivers really like it so far as well. On the inaugural day of Ticketer going live, Wells had a major road closure on the A37. The diversion was managed to the point where there was no mileage lost. I believe that if Ticketer had not been there, we’d have had buses heading into the congestion and just sitting there for hours and hours.

“I think Ticketer is a wonderful system, and the benefit that we’ve already seen is quite astounding. I can only imagine the longer-term benefits once everybody is used to it.”


The new drivers taken on will go through their training programme, gaining their licenses, whilst being supported by buddy drivers such as Miles Dolphin.

“My role focuses on buddying and trying to get those drivers to the standard the company wants, giving them an insight into every aspect of this job and the company,” explained Miles.

He ensures the drivers are comfortable with anything thrown their way, from an incident on the road to helping with ticket sales queries or giving advice.

Miles’ value to the team is something Chris was keen to point out, adding: “When they come to Miles, he moulds them from a person who can drive a bus to being a bus driver.

“Miles can be a point of contact for little questions that drivers don’t necessarily want to go and see a supervisor about, and therefore Miles – and the other buddies – are a useful gauge for me to know of any issues that are going on.”

Chris is full of praise for the camaraderie at WsM, which is amply demonstrated when both Chris and Miles are talking to each other. Miles too sang Chris’ praise: “I think that everyone respects Chris, because he’s got time to talk to people. Somebody did say to me the other week he walked up to him and said: ‘Chris, I need to speak to you – two minutes.’ Apparently Chris said: ‘I don’t have two minutes, but I do have one.’ I think it’s nice, he always take everything on-board.

“I think there’s a good rapport now with a lot of these new drivers and the management team we have in place. I think Weston’s in the best place it’s been in a very, very long time.”

Chris and his team are particularly impressed with the branding of the Excel, which has been designed by Ray Stenning, Design Director at Best Impressions

Current affairs

Chris and the team have also made changes to other services operated by WsM. For example, they have also recently rebranded the former ‘Xpress Yourself’-liveried vehicles. These have become ‘Excel’ – a vibrant orange brand, which was designed by Ray Stenning, Design Director at London-based agency Best Impressions, who have also been responsible for branding such as Virgin Trains East Coast and Cityzap. Chris explained this has all been Kickstart funded by North Somerset Council. The branding follows on from what the team in Wells did with the Mendip Xplorer brand, which encompasses all the routes operated out of that depot.

However, Chris said it’s not just about making the buses look pretty – some routes are benefitting from additional patronge: “We put brand new Wrightbus StreetDecks on service 376, which links Street, Glastonbury, Wells and Bristol. The 376 has seen around 30% passenger growth, which we can attribute partly to the double-deckers, and partly to branding. That’s the kind of success that we’re looking to replicate on Excel. The Excel network remains in its infancy, and there’s still a big push to be done on it, which we’re going to wait until most of them are branded.

“A real success story is route 3, a dwindling service that wasn’t really carrying an awful lot. It used to be operated by an ADL Enviro200 and coped quite well on a half-hourly frequency. We put that up to every 15 minutes. It’s now using Dennis Drt SLFs, which are slightly larger vehicles but customers prefer them because they’re nice buses. We changed the route slightly and reduced fares to make it sustainable. Service 3 has seen over 100% rise in passenger numbers in recent times and that is phenomenal.

“The Portishead service was a route that was crying out for double-deckers, yet for one reason or another, we were hesitant to do it. We’ve taken the plunge and double-decked the Portishead corridor. When I came in, it was operated using Wrightbus StreetLites. Good vehicles, but they were too small for that route. We’ve got ADL Enviro400s on there now.”

Chris continued by saying thatincreasingly the Weston network is utilising double-deckers.

The future

After so many changes and expansion, it’s now time for a period of consolidation: “We’ve expanded a lot and that means we’ve had to recruit a whole load of new drivers. We’re not done with that process yet. We’ve still got new drivers to get through the system. We really need those guys and girls to come in and settle in, because new drivers take a bit of time to get to grips with everything.”

Chris also wants the team to continue with the good work they’ve been putting in to build up the North Somerset network. A lot of that, he said, is down to customer and staff engagement. “Even just going on the bus with some croissants – those types of things are positive interactions.

“I think the biggest thing we have to do is get the service delivery right under challenging conditions. With congestion the way it is, we have to keep finding ways of being more creative with ensuring the service delivery is retained when the road network goes barmy, which unfortunately is a reality of the operation we live in.”

The depot remains in friendly rivalry with the teams at other depots in First West of England and they compete on a variety of issues. “It works well, and Chris says there’s a message of unity in there.”

Reflecting on the wealth of changes that have taken place at WsM in such a short time, Operations Director, Andrew Sherrington, commented: “If I’ve learnt one thing about that whole process, it is do not underestimate how long it was going to take us to get to the right number in terms of staff. If I was asked if I wanted to do it again, I’d say no, and I’m not scared of saying that. There are learning curves in all of that.”[/wlm_ismember]