Will Boris master?

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Boris Johnson, seen here with Co-Chairman of the Hinduja Group which owns Optare parent Ashok Leyland, Gopichand Parmanand Hinduja

Our industry insider makes a welcome return at a time when threats to the bus industry have arguably never been more real

It has been a while since I have written my column, as I have awaited developments in politics and people, which along with the stem of the word ‘practical’ form the main thrust of what I have to say.

Literally, as I write, it has just been announced that Boris Johnson will be the country’s 77th Prime Minister.

Unusually, he does know a bit more about buses than your average politician, be it in the form of the model he gave the impetus to have designed for London or his cardboard cut-outs of buses with happy passengers made from redundant wine boxes, a personal pastime revealed more recently. Unfortunately, although he may be more supportive of buses and the mode than most MPs, his only direct experience of bus operation is with the failing Transport for London (TfL) model of franchising.

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Even then, his predilection for cycling and the vast sums spent on its infrastructure to the usual disbenefit of bus operations both in the constructional phases and afterwards, have not been a good legacy. Successor Khan’s reality-defying fares freeze, Hopper Ticket and their deleterious effect on TfL’s finances have only made things worse, coupled with the (partly justifiable) funding cut to an organisation which is decidedly not lean by today’s standards – although it is more bereft of bus expertise as a result.

As I hinted, it is the ‘three p’s’ of politicians, people and practicalities in their widest senses which I also hear exercising the minds of many loyal and longer standing employees at grass roots level in the industry today.

In just the same way that nobody would willingly employ any of the recent political leadership hopefuls, cabinet members and senior politicians in any of our political parties to do any practical job in a commercial organisation that requires the application of logic, reason and merit, sadly so too do I hear many industry staff berating the lack of experience of newest managerial appointments and the rationale of many of their policies.

Lest readers feel that this is a curiously UK phenomenon, I will briefly allow myself to digress on the subject of related political ineptitude in Wellington, New Zealand in a country almost as pro-British and civilised as you can get.

Just over a year ago, a new bus network, designed by consultants for politicians as opposed to by operators for customers, was introduced hard on the heels of the unpopular abandonment of the city’s trolleybuses.

Such has been the disastrous effect of the network, with its interchange principles at the expense of some direct journeys without the supporting infrastructure, that the resounding resultant public dissatisfaction has seen people baying loudly for the blood of the politicians in a way that sadly the British public only does when the railways do not get it right.

Even one of the few respected outgoing politicians there is on record saying that the council is going to have to work very hard to regain public trust after the council leaders have unsuccessfully tried to hide behind the excuse of the perfect storm of a new network, new operators (who gained the contracts based on lower wages) and a national shortage of bus drivers.

With just 61% bus passenger satisfaction levels there compared to staggering levels in the 80% to 90% range in the UK, is this not just a further clear justifiable kick in the teeth for the laughable Corbyn philosophy of municipal and state control of buses?

The Wellington Scoop newspaper has also recently been carrying an advert for the Greater Wellington Regional Council which is seeking “new members to deal with the ‘big issues’ and make a ‘positive difference.’ At the forefront of change are key subjects such as “delivering public transport,” it tells us.

Wellington’s trolleybuses in their last year when only c10 years old in 2017. This view is a peak hour shot at the Railway Station terminus, showing how the scheduling pre the service changes was anything but tight! MERLIN

None of this is surprising with average bus speeds through the Central Business District of just 10 kph, 16-minute peak journey time variations on short routes and a statistic circulating locally that about half of Wellington’s bus trips are at least twice as slow as driving.

However, in an ironic twist, the Regional Council and City Council (remember my pet hate of two tier local government?) have now finally dusted down a 2007 (that new!) report this year which suggests bus priority measures and ripping up central car parks amongst other things and jointly signed up for it in principle, though without total conviction, so Wellingtonians may yet still have some hope for their buses.

Although influencing our own poor calibre politicians is not a straightforward task, at company level, we do have control over who we appoint and how we train and develop our staff, and it is inexcusable that we have pretty well exhausted many available pools of industry talent just as the late Peter Huntley first predicted some 25 years or so ago.

I always found training young managers to be one of the perks of the job when successful. The development and mastering of key practical skills across departments is vital to being a future strong manager, as it really commands the respect of subordinates when they observe this. There is nothing like letting a burgeoning middle manager run a key major event to see if they have absorbed all their training material properly.

Now all I seem to hear is criticism which suggests that more and more new and younger managers are hiding away in their offices, delegating the detail they do not wish to command themselves, leading to depots being increasingly run by leading drivers – all too often paid only coppers more than a driver for a lot of hassle and blame when things go wrong.

It is sad that much of the brunt of this criticism is seemingly labelled at ‘graduates’ in general as if they, like our politicians, are perceived to have never done a real job in life. But if young and new managers at all levels do not know how to juggle bus workings, break up driving shifts to cover routine shortages and handle on road problems at source, it only takes a badly unforeseen driver or mechanic shortage to place a company at serious reputational risk with both the public and regulatory authorities.

The big groups seem to be the most guilty in leading their staff in this direction, with a new wave of management by spreadsheets and of more powerful personnel functions allowing a view to develop that potential leadership skills on paper and the ability to pass psychometric tests are more important than knowledge and attention to detail in an industry which relies for its success on getting things right on the ground.

I cannot fathom why in an industry that is not renowned for its good pay (unlike the railways at all levels) that any entity would seek to discourage the employment of those with a genuine interest and passion for what they do who almost certainly will invest more hours and effort in a job compared to those for whom it is just a job. Unfortunately that is what seems to be happening in some organisations.

I conclude, however, with a return to my hopes as to what CPT, an organisation of which I have been critical here in the past, can do to inject new life and hope into the industry and tame or remove the political ineptitude which remains the greatest barrier to unlocking the success the bus could have in playing its full role in the commercial and social life of the nation, most particularly in respect of the scourge of increased congestion.

My most recent understanding now is that the impetus for recent change came from one of the industry’s short distance management passengers (who is no longer with us) seeking a more coordinated connection of some of the CPT’s activities with those of the other organisations with similar missions like Greener Journeys, but that the final result ended up partially being an economy exercise for CPT after delayed engagement from some of the other groups.

Much has been written elsewhere about the number of CPT’s new senior entrants who have no past experience of the industry at all and the simultaneous exodus of a number of its experienced technical officers and how this will impact on its ability to provide both member services and effect the urgent political education and understanding for the bus with all its social and environmental benefits. Much of the spade work for this has already been done at the technical level and there are many good reports which have been written, if anybody in the political world at local and national level would sit up, take notice and implement their recommendations.

However, the industry now has a big ‘for sale’ tag over an uncomfortably large part of it just now, and there are rumours of brave management buyouts being considered in some areas, both of which could be major distractions.

Passengers are not exactly booming just now either, with the changing retail scenario and crippling congestion. The Burnhams of the world in particular, and some others, could be potentially about to wreak havoc on a model that has served the nation reasonably well for over 30 years, purely in the pursuit of municipal and state ownership ideology and dogma and with no independent consultant’s report even telling them that would be the way to go. I have already shown similar politically headstrong models to be a disaster as in Wellington.

Not only are CPT’s industry outsiders going to need to get a very detailed knowledge of the bus industry very quickly indeed but their didactic, persuasive and lobbying skills are going to have to be top notch to get anywhere with the low calibre of the politicians I began here by describing.
Remember even Norman Baker, who represented our greatest political oasis, did not survive very long in the industry after he had served his political purpose for The Big Lemon. Things seem all too quiet for me just now in this task, even if the nation is still going to be distracted with European politics for some time to come.

I wish those whose role it is to turn round the political Titanic for the bus industry all the best with the task but make no mistake, time is running out and fast…

As a postscript, I cannot fail but to make mention of Boris’s perspicacious comment during his visit to Manchester, as he quickly moved to throw a whole tranche of money at the north of England (for trains of course), that it is not the people or the communities which are to blame for any poor communications links which beset them but the failure of the politicians who serve them. Got it in one!

Perhaps he would like to reflect on and also pronounce vocally in the public domain that many of the UK bus industry’s most intractable problems are exactly as a result of political inertia, be it as a result of public ownership debate dogma as in Manchester where it is seen to be acceptable to local politicians to spend a real fortune on cycling and trains but not on buses which are heinously privately owned, or on the other hand and more widely, the total unwillingness to upset car drivers with bus priorities for fear of upsetting their popularity ratings and election chances.

Unfortunately, it has emerged that instead of doing so, he made some more unexpected comments about the potential to transfer more coordinating powers to local authorities where they want them, albeit suggesting in doing so that the private sector would be continuing to operate the buses. Has he never heard of all the enhanced partnership possibilities with the most recent legislation that are not being taken up by the LAs in the provinces which could be put to much greater effect now at substantially less cost? If he hasn’t, here is the cue for CPT’s new management and lobby machine to sweep into action.