Robert Jack reflects on the 40-year career of Peter Huntley, a free thinker who brought real passion to passenger transport.

Peter Huntley was full of plans and optimism for the future when died on Sunday, February 19, aged 55, after falling from High Street Fell in the Lake District. We’ll never know what his next move was going to be, but we knew that he always had the capacity to surprise us. Huntley was a true free thinker who never limited himself to one corner of the sector. His career took him though local government, bus operation, consultancy and journalism. Whatever the challenge, he met it with courage and boundless enthusiasm, and he left a lasting influence on those around him.

Huntley was a free agent again after ending a five-year spell as managing director of Gateshead-based bus company Go North East on December 31, 2011, but he wasn’t putting his feet up. He died while training for a trek to the North Pole in April, for which he intended to raise £10,000 for Transaid, the transport industry’s charity. To achieve this, Huntley would have to haul everything he needed for the 16-day journey on a sled, a tough test for anyone, not least a man in his mid-fifties who was recovering from a broken arm.

To prepare for this challenge, Huntley had been dragging tyres behind him in Gateshead. “I am convinced some of my drivers are selling tickets on X66 on a ‘spot the loony tour’ as they never fail to point me out struggling along the riverside with my tyre close behind,” he had remarked in December.

It was unconventional behaviour from an unconventional man – but this characteristic is what made his 40-year career so fascinating to observe. Huntley entered the transport sector aged 15 as a traffic clerk with his hometown operator, Hartlepool Corporation Transport, before moving to Scotland to work for local authorities. He later joined Lancashire County Council, where he worked as public transport manager.

In 1989, still in his early thirties, his career changed direction, and headed down two different paths at the same time – consultancy and journalism. This was the year that Huntley founded The TAS Partnership, the specialist public transport consultancy, and co-founded Local Transport Today magazine.

Huntley had been considering launching his own transport magazine but entered into a joint venture with publisher Peter Stonham to create Local Transport Today, a broad-based magazine which catered for those with an interest in the planning and co-ordination of transport. Huntley was the launch editor.

He left the title to focus on his consultancy work with TAS and he was joined by directors Chris Cheek and John Taylor in 1994. However, in 2001 he returned to the world of journalism with a monthly column in Transit that came to be regarded as essential reading over its five-year duration.

Huntley’s personal career experience, and the wide range of projects he had worked on for TAS, enabled him to understand the differing perspectives of all of those involved in planning and delivering passenger transport services. He combined this experience with a genuine passion for the subject and a willingness to say what he felt needed to be said, even if it was not going to make him popular. In 2005, he wrote a column which asked whether the job of leading a nationwide UK bus business was too difficult in its current format. One major bus group responded by instructing its staff not to employ the consultancy services of Huntley and his TAS colleagues. Uncowed, Huntley responded with a further column titled ‘Shooting the messenger won’t fix the problem’.

In 2006, Huntley surprised everyone when he decided to take his career in a completely new direction. He relinquished his day-to-day involvement with TAS to take charge of Go North East. Chris Moyes, who was then chief executive of the company’s parent group, Go Ahead Group, had offered him the chance to reverse the decline of the 750-vehicle operation, and he couldn’t resist. He pledged to resign if he failed to stem passenger losses and improve customer service.

Asked why he had given up the comforts of running his own consultancy business to stick his neck out in this way, Huntley admitted that he felt he had something to prove. “I used to hand over my ideas to my operator clients, and in several cases watched them make an absolute dog’s breakfast of it,” he said.

“I’ve got things wrong in the past, who hasn’t, but I am egotistical enough to think I could have implemented some of these schemes better. Those companies can look forward to having their worst fears about me confirmed if Go North East is a basket case in two or three years time. On the other hand, if it works, I would say to those past clients, if you had followed my advice, this is the kind of business you could have had.”

In this new role, Huntley did cede to some conventions. His resistance to wearing a tie ended because the company required its 2,000 drivers to wear a full uniform and he felt that he had to set an example. There was no shortage of ties for him to choose from. After hearing that Huntley didn’t actually own a tie, former operator clients clubbed together and each sent him one of their own, Preston Bus, Dublin Bus and Arriva included!

But Huntley still clung to his beloved sandals, complete with a pair of sturdy socks, and his footwear caused mirth among Go North East’s drivers. “They say there are only two people who wear sandals – Jesus Christ and that ****er Huntley,” he revealed.

Huntley quickly won the respect of drivers when in his first few weeks he volunteered to meet them face-to-face and alone in canteens at Go North East’s depots (to the horror of his colleagues). He worked tirelessly to transform the business and made sure that he visited each business unit on a regular basis, going so far as spending one morning a week helping on the morning run out. He based his working day on the hours that the average Go North East driver would work. “It’s personally important to me as it makes me appreciate what life is like for the staff at the coal face,” he explained.

His five-year tenure at Go North East ended under a cloud when the Competition Commission accused the company of having become too close to its local rival, Arriva North East, under Huntley’s watch. “Bruised but not bowed” by the episode, Huntley made his views clear in an article in Passenger Transport in January. He said he was confused by what the government actually wants from the bus industry and, prior to his death, he had hoped to get the opportunity to voice his concerns directly to transport minister Norman Baker.

Huntley’s industry colleagues applaud his achievements at Go North East, and bus users also appear to agree, with the company attaining a customer satisfaction rating of 92% in his final year. Roger French, managing director of sister company Brighton & Hove, this week paid tribute to Huntley’s legacy.

“There’s no doubting that one of the many outstanding legacies Peter has left the bus industry he felt so passionately about, is the complete transformation he achieved during the time he spent at Go North East,” he said.

“He literally took that company with its long history of declining passenger numbers by the scruff of its neck and changed everything for the better. And he did it in a way that enthused and motivated his whole team. From bus drivers, cleaners and fitters through to colleague directors.”

While Huntley’s rebranding of Go North East’s services caught the eye with its visual impact on streets around the north east, French believes that a hugely important part of his former colleague’s legacy was putting the customer at the heart of the business, working hard to research and understand their needs.

“Peter wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and he was also happy to adopt a high profile and be accessible. He was a keen listener. He was thoughtful. He was rightly proud of his team and their achievements,” French continued.

“In turn we are all proud of his achievements and I am confident his success at growing the market for bus travel in the north east through his personal unstinting commitment for almost six years, will continue, and be a lasting legacy appreciated by everyone who lives, works and travels around that region.”

French’s comments were echoed by TAS director Chris Cheek, who said this week: “In the 22 years I have known and worked with Peter, he has maintained his total belief in the future of high quality public transport in the UK. Whether writing in the trade press, advising clients or running a bus business at the sharp end, his commitment was total, and he never wavered from his passionate commitment to serving the customer.”

Help Peter Huntley achieve his £10,000 target – www.justgiving.com/Peter-Huntley