Alex Warner meets up with former colleague Marc Reddy to take a ride on First’s flagship Eclipse service on the 3.4km Fareham-Gosport busway

He’s an old chum of mine is First’s new managing director for Hants, Dorset & Berkshire, but today Marc Reddy’s giving me unnecessary respect as a journo. There’s none of his unprintable nicknames of old towards me, his face is all pontificating and he’s reflecting and pausing before he speaks, deep intakes of breath and all that – toeing the company line, giving me a delicately prepared press pack, copious facts and stats and in serious mode. He’s even wearing a “Part of the First team since 2001” name-badge and given the annual re-orgs and managerial culls at First, he probably qualifies for an “I’m the longest surviving manager round here” badge.

We’re off on Eclipse, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service between Fareham and Gosport, and as Reddy and I walk underneath the lovely branded subway at Fareham station, I try and lighten the mood by singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – but Reddy cuts across my “turn around, bright eyes, every now and then I fall apart” and looks straight-faced at me and says: “We considered at length whether to get Bonnie Tyler to do the opening ceremony but thought it would be rather too cheesy.” No more so, though than the cheesy grins of his happy customers boarding our bus or “The dream has become a real lifetime reality” slogans all over Eclipse.

Delivered in a partnership with Hampshire County Council, the Eclipse busway is a 3.4km car-free stretch of road running parallel to the A32, enabling buses to bypass awful traffic congestion and deliver perfect reliability. It’s halcyon stuff, particularly when you’re being transported at speed down the ultimate bus priority street on what is like a wide alleyway with no one else in sight bar your bus and cyclists with pristine garden fence. “The road’s so smooth it’s like Axminster carpet,” quips Reddy.

It’s surreal, like one of those dreamy presentations that graphic designers are called upon to create. I’m struggling to work out whether the footage in the DVD that Reddy has given me is from an original mock-up or the real thing.

There’s something for everyone on Eclipse and as we glide between Tichborne Way and Redlands Lane, I’ve seen the future for everywhere. There’s modern, affordable housing, complete with solar panels either side of the pristine acoustic fencing, designed as noise barriers, entrances from bus stops that lead right onto the doorsteps of houses, so the bus is still penetrating communities, even if it now resembles a railway line.

For the environmental do-gooders, the lights at stops have energy-efficient lanterns that control the light distribution and restrict the emission at angles near the horizontal to reduce light pollution and sky glow.

There are also concessions to conservationists to keep bat protection lobbyists happy, secure cycle lockers for pro-bike bandits and the anti-Chav brigade are delighted that special level crossing barriers come down at night to keep the hoodies out.

Finally, a Customer Charter has been written and at 20 pages long, it eclipses anything ever seen elsewhere in the UK bus industry.

The buses themselves are stylish with snazzy under-floor circular nightclub dance floor lights – I’m inspired to get them for our kitchen. The leather seats are very comfy – “look out for the lovely ‘Eclipse’ embroidered into them too,” remarks Reddy, showing an uncharacteristically effeminate side to him. There’s no air freshener on-board, but this bus doesn’t need it – the clientele are a right up-market bunch and though it’s attracting a cross-section of the community, Reddy’s foaming at the mouth as he repeatedly tells me of a 14% modal shift that’s been achieved and more than 1.3 million customers in Year One. Every bus that passes us in the opposite direction is full and as we approach Gosport, every seat on ours is taken.

Reddy is a dab hand when it comes to rescue operations, having salvaged First’s Irish business, Aircoach and then First Devon & Cornwall by delivering improved performance in the businesses and now in his spare time, as a coastguard rescue officer. He’s obsessed about the dangers of ill-preparedness and meticulously plans for any eventuality. He’s planned assiduously for today – the notes he’s prepared, the media pack, complete with DVD and an ‘I love Eclipse’ badge for the tin lids to soften me up. This is typical of someone who used to astound me at First with his attention to detail, pre-match analysis and I’m keen to catch him out, particularly with my curveball question about why Bus Passenger Satisfaction Survey scores for the new route weren’t as impressive as he might have liked (only 30% of those surveyed by Passenger Focus were satisfied with value for money).

“Yes, we were disappointed, but the sample size was small and just 89 were asked the question about value for money,” he responds. “The prices remained the same when the enhanced service was launched – there’s no premium fare. We also introduced a new FirstWeek Eclipse ticket, which includes travel on the Gosport Ferry, and have been promoting tickets for the area through O2 Priority Moments – available, ahem, through our free on-board Wi-Fi, of course, Alex.”

He’s got a point and in any case, overall satisfaction was 89%. My own take on the fares issue is that customers look at the swanky buses, the bus priority measures, sexy stops and lavish information systems and just begrudgingly think it is synonymous with expense, big bucks and high fares that must exist to pay back all the investment- it’s a perception thing.

So, if I feel sympathetic to Reddy’s fares predicament, at least I can catch him out with regards to the drivers. “They’re hand-picked and have received specialist training” he explains, except our bloke – earring, tattoos and stern expression, isn’t exactly “crème de la crème”. He doesn’t look very happy when I board, less so when he sees the gaffer behind him and he clearly wasn’t ready for Reddy. 1-0 to Warner, except when we disembark at Gosport, Marc’s supervisor, Mandy Mitchell, spots us suited suspects in animated conversation and asks politely if we mind her interrupting as she’s curious as to what we’re up to. It’s spontaneous stuff from the master of preparedness. Mandy spends several minutes describing how Eclipse has “put us on the map”. She speaks with incredible pride about how the service has totally transformed customer perceptions of bus travel. Several minutes earlier, Reddy had described the success of Eclipse as down to one thing – “passion” from all the parties involved and now I was hearing it in spades from someone who makes it happen on a day-to-day basis. “People want the Purple Bus, they absolutely love BRT,” she explains.

Even if Gosport Bus Station frankly looks like a dump, despite First’s half-decent efforts at house-keeping, I think I’ve swallowed the pill, particularly as we hop on our return bus and the driver makes eye contact, grins cheerfully at us and thanks every customer as they board and disembark.

We go our separate ways and I am so overcome with excitement, and plans for a BRT scheme for my model railway, that I hastily tweet that I have seen perfection on Elcipse (sic), even if I couldn’t spell it. It’s true though. Eclipse really sets the benchmark across the industry and is a tantalising glimpse of what really can be achieved with inspiration, innovation, partnership and pristine planning.

VERDICT: Downtrodden and criticised for so long, First now has a flagship service to be proud of. It has totally eclipsed anything I’ve seen from my old employers, or anyone else. My best Travel Test so far.

 

VISITED: 27th June 2013

SERVICE: Eclipse is Hampshire’s priority bus network. It currently consists of two services (E1 and E2) linking Fareham and Gosport with a frequency of up to seven minutes

FARES: A FirstWeek Eclipse is £19

OWNER FirstGroup operates Eclipse, but the busway is owned by Hampshire County Council

WHO’S IN CHARGE?: Marc Reddy was appointed MD of First in Hants, Dorset and Berkshire last month

WEBSITE: www3.hants.gov.uk/eclipse

 

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