Xploring Dundee: One city, many discoveries

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SK68 LZR is one of 43 new Emerald-standard buses delivered to Xplore Dundee in recent years. The latest batch has rear view cameras in place of traditional side mirrors. JONATHAN WELCH

Shortly before the coronavirus crisis, Jonathan Welch visited National Express-owned Xplore Dundee to learn about the Group’s only Scottish bus operation

Dundee is a city that maybe doesn’t receive the attention it deserves, especially from south of the border where anything north of Edinburgh is often seen as being in the back of beyond, a far-flung outpost. But for National Express Group nothing could be further from the truth, as evidenced by the strong working relationship it has with its most northerly bus operation, Xplore Dundee.

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Founded in the 11th Century AD, the city of Dundee sits on the north bank of the Firth of Tay in Scotland’s Central Lowlands and is somewhat linear in shape, covering an area of some 23 square miles. It is bisected by the A90, the main north-south route connecting the north-east of Scotland with the central belt, whilst to the south the Tay road and rail bridges strike out dramatically across the firth towards Fife. Scotland’s fourth largest city, a population of around 148,000 places it somewhere between the size of Oxford and Cambridge on a UK-wide level, yet it is home to two professional football clubs: Dundee FC and Dundee United FC.

With the decline of its traditional forms of industry, the city has made efforts to rejuvenate itself as a centre for culture, and is midway through an ongoing plan to transform the waterfront area. The centrepiece for this is the spectacular V&A Museum, alongside the research ship RRS Discovery, the Antarctic exploration vessel used by Robert Falcon Scott. Technology and education play a major part in Dundee’s economy too, it being home to many technology companies as well as both the University of Dundee and Abertay University.

Within the city, bus services are provided by National Express-owned Xplore Dundee, whilst longer-distance regional services are operated by Stagecoach Strathtay from the latter’s hub at Seagate bus station. Xplore Dundee has its origins in the horse-drawn operations of the Dundee & District Tramway Company of 1877. As the turn of the century approached, the horses had given way to steam power, and the last half of 1899 saw the company taken into municipal ownership, where it would remain until a management buy-out in 1991, by which time it had become Tayside Public Transport and an arms-length company in preparation for deregulation in 1986. National Express bought the company in 1997, renaming it first Travel Dundee in line with its West Midlands operations, and then National Express Dundee. The launch of the Xplore brand in late 2015 saw a return to the traditional green in place of the previous corporate red and white, though still applied in National Express corporate style reflecting the liveries used by the West Midlands and Coventry operations.

Driving change
To learn more about the Xplore Dundee operation, which has seen major change over recent years, CBW sat down with Managing Director Christine McGlasson to see how the city’s bus operations have developed since she took the reins. At the time of our interview, Christine had been in post for almost two years, having previously worked in the manufacturing sector, including with Alexander Dennis Ltd, where she held the role of Head of Commercial.

“This seemed like a good place to be, it was a good step up career-wise,” Christine started. “It doesn’t matter where the job is, it’s all about people and managing problems. It takes you aback at first, the amount of public interest there is in what we do. We’re very much in the public eye, the press, councillors, politicians. You can’t go to the shops without someone asking when you are going to put a bus down their street. When I arrived it needed fresh eyes and a culture change, so much has happened in a short space of time but there’s still a long way to go.

“Engagement and communication has been one of the main areas of culture change, as individuals and as a company we needed to change. Unless we found ways to do things differently, we weren’t going to thrive. We began the rollout of Master Driver in January to enable positive engagement with drivers and have made a good start. Too often, management only sees drivers when something is wrong. Its all about positive engagement. Master Driver is an investment in our drivers; we put them through the programme of improvement, they gain IAM qualifications and the benefits that go with it, and wear a different colour tie. It’s been really successful in the West Midlands already. There’s a big presentation ceremony for those who qualify as a Master Driver and it’s been extremely well received, even among those who were sceptical at first. We’re doing lots of other things too, such as our schedule committees and making sure we get driver input. We’re making lots of positive steps.”

The Master Driver scheme is currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Xplore Dundee hopes to revive it soon, and expects it to be a successful initiative.

Environmental issues

Xplore Dundee operates a mixed fleet. Newer buses are Alexander Dennis Enviro200 and 400s, older single- and double-deckers are predominantly Wrightbus products. JONATHAN WELCH

Dundee City Council is regarded as having a very positive stance towards the environment, and Xplore Dundee is keen to work with it to improve the city’s air quality. “It is clear that there is a climate and public health emergency,” continued Christine. “As an industry we have to do something and it has to be quicker than the normal investment cycles. There has been green bus funding but we hope for more help from the government. Despite that, we’ve gone from no low emission vehicles in 2016 to 46% of our fleet today. By 2021 we will be 75% compliant.

“There are 43 new low-emissions Emerald vehicles with extra comfort, they have been really successful. The first 14 went on to route 22, and we saw 8.4% growth over the first year. We hope that bodes well for the new ones we have introduced on the 9. I’m a firm believer that if the bus is nice, warm, comfortable, clean and turns up on time, people will use it. Recently confirmed BEAR 3 funding means we can retrofit another 21 vehicles to Euro VI standard, and this plus 12 hydrogen vehicles planned for 2021 will bring our fleet up to 75% low emission.”

The 12 hydrogen buses are part of the JIVE 2 project, which should see up to 152 hydrogen fuel cell buses take to the roads across 14 European cities by 2023, including 10 Wrightbus double-deckers for Aberdeen in addition to the 10 Van Hool A330H single-deckers already there. In Dundee there has been major investment in the regeneration of the site of the former Michelin tyre factory, which is where hydrogen refuelling facilities will be provided.

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, plans were in place to introduce a Low Emissions Zone in Dundee at the end of 2020 as part of its Air Quality Action Plan. In line with many other cities, this is now under review and expected to go ahead between February and May 2022.

Dundee City Council says that Covid-19 has had a major impact on travelling behaviour and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels, and that it is working closely with Transport Scotland to take forward the Low Emission Zone when the current crisis subsides. It adds that progress is being reviewed regularly, and it will continue to monitor air pollutant concentrations at locations across the city, both inside and outside the previously proposed LEZ boundary.

In a bid to capture some of the unexpected benefits of lockdown, namely traffic reduction and improved air quality, Xplore Dundee has recently presented its own report on the bus network and traffic planning to the city council. These notes have been used to form the basis of Dundee City Council’s bid for a share of Transport Scotland’s Bus Priority Rapid Deployment Fund. As a result, the city council will be installing bus priority measures in three separate hotspots for traffic congestion. There is hope for further successful bids with the council and bus operator working in partnership to secure faster and more reliable bus journeys and a reduction in pollution as a result of the reduced traffic on the roads.

“We showed what we would do if we had control of the city. It was well received. We are hoping our presentation will form the basis for a bid for funding, although other operators and the town planners may have different views on what is needed. It bodes well for putting a formal alliance in place. The council can’t do it on its own.”

Growing patronage
At the time of our interview, the landscape of the industry was very different to how it is now, and Christine’s comments about growing the business and increasing patronage become more acute as companies seek to recover from the devastating effects of coronavirus and reverse the perception that public transport is unsafe thereby forcing more people into private cars. However even when we spoke before the pandemic, encouraging more people out of their cars and onto the bus was a challenge for operators everywhere. “We have to look at look at how we can grow patronage,” she said. “Besides fleet investment, we need to solve congestion, improve journey times, and ensure punctuality. Our current punctuality is 96% at the point of origin.”

Some of Dundee’s routes are quite long, with one circular route taking almost two and a quarter hours, an example of how journey times have increased. “Keeping the Outer Circle on time is difficult. You can’t do it in less than 2hr 14min. It used to be 1hr 50min – just one example of how the city is changing and traffic is increasing. We’re constantly monitoring the changes in our city – new housing, schools, employer headquarters – these things move and evolve all the time and we have to adjust our services accordingly. We have to think about the communities we serve, but you can’t keep unsustainable services otherwise you can’t afford to invest. I get upset when people say that we’re just interested in profit. Our customers are at the centre of all that we do and it’s disappointing for us too when a route becomes unviable for whatever reason. We do our best to keep things going for as long as possible. Recently the city council had to remove services it was subsidising and we’ve tried to step in and help, re-routing some of our other services to cover areas that were going to be missed. It’s not always easy but it comes down to patronage – if people aren’t using a bus we simply can’t keep running it.”

At arms length
Besides the daily National Express coach services passing through on their way to Aberdeen, Xplore Dundee is a long way from the rest of the National Express corporate structure. How does this affect operations? “We have a lot of support from down south. There’s a good balance, we get support when we need it, but they know to let us do what we need to do and give us freedom. What works in Birmingham might not work well here. We’re good at doing our own thing but if we need help it’s there. We have learned a lot from looking at operations down south. In Birmingham, National Express West Midlands has an alliance with TfWM, we want that up here too.

“When we started the Edinburgh Airport service, they helped source the coaches and provided support. A few years ago, we provided a shuttle for the Open Golf Championship at Carnoustie. We borrowed buses and drivers, it was very successful. When I started, sometimes we were the last to benefit from new investments or developments – now we’re sometimes first. We’re more on the map, similar to [National Express] Coventry. Even in terms of vehicles. Dundee used to get vehicles cascaded from elsewhere. Now we’re getting new buses, and trialling new tech – such as cameras instead of side mirrors on our newest vehicles. We’ve even just swapped some of our older ones for newer buses from Birmingham. They needed the capacity, and it helped us with Euro VI.”

Modern fleet
The delivery of new buses has allowed the standard of service offered to be improved. Dundee’s latest deliveries of Euro VI ADL Enviro400 double-deckers have been to its ‘Emerald’ specification, which is equivalent to the Platinum specification employed by National Express West Midlands and Coventry. “The air coming out is cleaner than what goes in,” said Christine. “They have extra leg room, leather high-back seats and next stop announcements. For drivers, they have cameras in place of side mirrors. At night, the visibility is like during the day, there is no reflection and driver feedback has been good. From a safety point of view, they are amazing, it’s an excellent view. The latest delivery features blue branding for route 5 to Broughty Ferry, whilst earlier ones feature yellow upper fronts for route 22 to Ninewells. Newer vehicles in the fleet are all ADL products, whilst older ones are predominantly Wrightbus.

“We operate 14 main routes, with a PVR of 92. Most of our routes are high-frequency, running every seven, 10 or 15 minutes. We are trying to get the Circle back to a two-hour running time, but we might have to bite the bullet and put on an extra bus if it needs extra time. Around 90% of our buses run on time, but that still means that 10% of people are being delayed. In the last year, our passengers made around 12 million journeys. We’re constantly reviewing our network to make sure we get it right for as many people as possible.” Since lockdown restrictions have been relaxed, Xplore Dundee reports that 96% of buses are running to time.

Operating constraints
Xplore Dundee has a number of challenges within its operating area: maybe not unique ones, but ones that combine to make operations a challenge at times. The main road to the north, the A90 (also called the Kingsway), cuts right through the city whilst to the south traffic is funnelled onto the Tay Bridge, which reaches land very close to the city centre and which can be affected by bad weather. “At one time, the Kingsway was a bypass. Now it’s a busy through route. All our buses have to cross it to serve the housing schemes,” Christine explained. “There has been talk of a relief road to the north, but recent government programmes have been about reducing traffic not building more roads. When the Tay Bridge is closed, you can’t move, and that affects the Kingsway too. We also do school services in Fife [on the other side of the Tay], so it can be a problem if it’s closed and we have to go around.

“There’s been talk over the years of a Park & Ride, we’re in conversation but up to now, it’s never happened. There are lots of challenges but it’s generally an exciting time to be in the industry,” said Christine.

More to xplore

Xplore Dundee Managing Director Christine McGlasson is leading a culture change which is having a positive impact across the company. JONATHAN WELCH

Launched in late 2019 was Xplore Dundee’s new direct service to Edinburgh airport, using a fleet of Caetano Levante coaches as part of its XploreMore coaching brand. At the time of our interview, the service was growing well and building up a customer base, though with the massive drop in demand for leisure travel by air, its future may be very different as the country – and the world – emerges from lockdown. “It’s been a massive success,” Christine said at the time. “We were facing a decline in patronage and had to try to think what else we could offer. The idea was raised of an airport service. It has filled a gap in the market, passengers have been super positive about the service. We hope to keep building on it. We launched it as a six-month trial to see how it went.

“We launched the XploreMore brand doing things like travel to concerts, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Strictly Come Dancing, the Hydro, and the Enchanted Forest. We’d done it before but hiring in coaches. Now it’s all in-house, and we’re looking to expand that. We’re constantly looking and asking ‘what can we do differently.’ With the airport service, we considered Glasgow Airport, but far fewer people go there, so it isn’t viable. But we’re always looking for innovations and new strategies. There are opportunities for school contracts, we can also do weddings or rail replacement. If it’s successful, we might look at having a dedicated coaching unit.” The unfortunate rail accident at Carmont, between Aberdeen and Dundee, saw Xplore Dundee’s coaches amongst those deployed on rail replacement services between the two cities.

A lot of business for XploreMore’s trips and the airport services comes from the city centre Travel Centre, for which Christine said there was still a strong demand despite the growing availability of tickets online and via smartphones. This was borne out at the time of CBW’s visit, with a constant stream of passengers seeking information and booking travel to the airport.

“We’re moving to nicer premises which will combine the drivers’ mess and Travel Centre in one place. There is still a lot of demand for the Travel Centre, for booking tickets, taking feedback and general enquiries. The current drivers’ room has no daylight, the new facilities will be much better. It’s a small thing but will have a big impact in making our drivers feel valued. We’ve done a lot of work, done a lot of ‘human’ things following engagement and feedback.”

Although like every other operator Xplore Dundee has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, the operator went into it in a good position having invested in its fleet and positioned itself to face future challenges in a positive and forward-thinking manner. It may now take a while for those plans to come to fruition but in the meantime, residents of Dundee continue to be served by a largely modern fleet, operated by a team which is constantly looking to improve and innovate to drive the business forwards.