Alex Warner took a ride with with Andrew Cleaves, ‘MD on the move’ at National Express Group’s coach business, and discovered a kindred spirit

VISITED: 19th September 2012

SERVICE: Formed in 1972, National Express operates the majority of long distance bus and coach services in Great Britain.
Most services are subcontracted to local bus and coach companies

FARES: The average fare between London and Bournemouth is £5.50

OWNER: National Express Group

WHO’S IN CHARGE?: Andrew Cleaves has been managing director, UK coach, since September 2010

WEBSITE: www.nationalexpress.com

Has ‘Travel Test’ been brought into disrepute? I’m paranoid, it hasn’t surely? Every time I mystery travel with the gaffer of the operator I’m sniffing around, it’s all too good. Am I just a sycophant, easily wooed in the company of transport big-knobs? First, the mightily impressive Alex Hornby at TrentBarton (PT036) and now Andrew Cleaves, managing director of National Express’ coach business, who I’m meeting for the first time on one of his services from London to Bournemouth.

In fairness, it was me who approached Cleaves about putting him to the test. I’d been following his regular “#MDonthemove” tours around the UK on Twitter and thought I’d see what all the malarkey was about.

We meet at London’s Victoria Coach Station and Cleaves, perhaps sensing trouble given my battle with National Express whilst launching Greyhound for First in 2009 (his predecessor sent me a letter threatening legal action), has brought his PR side-kick with him, as well as his lovely wife (“the whole family now travel regularly on our coaches”). We board the coach and Cleaves is sort of undercover, but so overly effusive to the driver, Alan, that it’s obvious he’s in caring boss, rather than mystery traveller mode (the driver later lets slip to us that he’d had a tip off that the governor was travelling).

There’s little traffic in London and we’re soon on the open road towards Dorset. The expansive windows make best use of the brilliant September sunshine and despite our chatter it’s a serene setting as we cruise down the motorway, gently but slickly and with immaculate driving standards. When it’s like this there are few more delightful ways to travel. If only people could taste a bit of what we’re enjoying, they’d never look back.

Apart from us hangers-on, there’s 12 converts on-board – quite respectable given this is a contra-peak flow, midweek, slightly out of season to the coast, though Cleaves begs to differ and seems disappointed by the turnout. “Our Bournemouth route is booming, particularly since Greyhound pulled out of the market. Southampton and Portsmouth too,” he says. This is a sore subject for me – Cleaves seems baffled by First’s retreat, I don’t get it either.

The average fare for this journey is around £5.50. Whilst they still have “Fun Fares”, National Express has moved away from wholesale bucket shop 99p prices. Cleaves explains that it’s moved towards “great value, everyday low fares”. So, the yield has increased and the loadings remain broadly similar, if not better – he’s a fan of yield management systems, but agrees strongly with me that they need constant intervention, “after all, they are ultimately a human process in any case and people often forget that”. I brag that I always had the one-over on National Express’ yield management – they wouldn’t have anyone at home watching Match of the Day on a Saturday night whilst furtively changing fares on a minute-by-minute basis.

Anyway, it’s all good stuff and I’m struggling to find fault with the service, apart from the décor being functional. I visit the toilet and there’s lime-cordial style urine left in the basin, a whiff of ham sandwiches and the interior looks as if its gone retro to celebrate this month’s 40th anniversary of National Express coaches. I can’t find the flush – there’s a round button on the floor by the cistern and I keep tapping it for several minutes, in a dance-like motion. I give up and triumphantly return to tell Cleaves of my unimpressive experience. He carries out his own inspection – “it’s okay, there’s soap, it’s clean, there’s a hand towel and I located the flush”. It must have just been my incompetence then.

We approach Fleet in animated conversation. The driver is excellent and Cleaves decides he’s going to be a recipient of the recognition scheme he has introduced whereby he emails a central point and automatically the driver receives a “thank you” and monetary reward. His driving skills are faultless and he is very personable, albeit I tut at the visible tattoos, although Cleaves, not a tattoo sort of bloke, you’d think, is more phlegmatic.

“It’s difficult in this age, when so many people have tattoos not to select a driver because of this,” he argues. He’s more concerned with the otherwise impressive and upbeat welcoming announcement earlier with the terminology “liquid consumption” in reference to it being prohibited”. I’m more sanguine which just goes to show that interpreting customer service can really be a personal thing.

Andrew changes the subject by extracting his party piece – the new Coach Tracker system on National Express’ website. “We hid it on the website initially whilst it was bedding down and rapidly it had enjoyed 8,000 hits!” Little wonder, it is so good – a GPRS system showing the location of each coach, not just on a map but via StreetView, as well as the estimated arrival time. It’s great for nerds and social outcasts like me that get kicks in our spare time of tracking anything that moves, but real
law-abiding customers benefit too – particularly those making plans to pick up a loved one off a coach.

As we approach Ringwood, I think I know Andrew well enough to get more personal. I lean over and in hushed tones I ask “look mate, you’ve got targets to meet and a tough-as-boots boss in Dean Finch, how does the company view you spending so much time doing the touchy-feely tweeting customer services stuff like #MDonthemove?”

He’s unflappable. “Well, yes, Dean is very focused indeed and he, like the rest of the organisation, is right behind me, recognising this is absolutely the right thing to do. I just firmly believe that this is the way it should be done and that the time spent experiencing our product, talking to customers and staff is time no better spent.

“Most people like the fact that I do it and it’s not as if the rest of my job stops – I’ve got the iPad and Blackberry to send emails and read things. I get around 13 customer emails a day and I enjoy responding to those most.”

He’s preaching to the converted, but even in this day and age many at big conglomerates take a dim view of head honchos spending more time on the patch than in the Ivory Tower – so, fair play Dean for getting it spot-on.

We arrive at Bournemouth Interchange, the battleground for my wars with National Express when at Greyhound. No sooner do we pull in and the lady from the Travel Shop (nicely renovated with lovely brand exterior) races out with a face like thunder. She whispers in Cleaves’ PR sidekick’s ear, something along the lines of “what’s he doing hanging round with that idiot?” Andrew introduces us and sensing that it was a tad acrimonious previously, he proffers that Greyhound helped National Express raise its standards and helped to grow the market. His diplomacy is infectious and I do something that would have repelled me two years ago – I apologise, admit defeat and with gritted teeth, shake her hand. They did win.

She breaks into a smile and I prance across the bus station. I’m feeling emotional. Chatting with Cleaves has made me realise how much I miss Greyhound and this coach lark, until I hear the triumphant female shrill “We are the Champions” echo across the bus station from my new best mate in the Travel Shop. Cleaves looks embarrassed, he’s too dignified to revel in victory. Just as well really, as he’s a kindred spirit and now we’ve met, we’re better off as mates, than enemies.

Verdict: Look, I’m not trying to convince myself, this was no match-fixing – the integrity of “Travel Test” has been preserved. This was genuinely a very good experience, with or without Cleaves.

 

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