Group has worked with local authorities to deliver an enhanced Portsmouth-Waterlooville service

After five years of decline, patronage growth has finally returned to FirstGroup’s UK bus division. Although the group continues to face major challenges, green shoots of recovery are emerging across the group, and one of these is the busy Portsmouth-Waterlooville corridor.

Thanks to a partnership with Portsmouth City Council and Hampshire County Council, First now carries around 2.7 million passengers a year on this corridor, with year-on-year patronage growth of 9.6%.

This level of growth has been achieved following a £35m investment in bus priority measures and roadside infrastructure on the 16km route by the local authorities in 2008.

Meanwhile, First has introduced new fleets of vehicles on the route in 2004 and 2009 – and will now do so again in 2013, with 26 Wrightbus StreetLite Max vehicles entering service on the route next week.

But this refresh will go a lot further than introducing a fleet of new buses. Marc Reddy, the newly-installed managing director of First Hampshire, Dorset & Berkshire, has worked with his colleagues to create ‘The Star’ – a new brand that will set the operation apart from other bus services in the conurbation. And he hopes that this will deliver a further 4-5% uplift in patronage on the A3 corridor, on top of the current 9.6%.

Portsmouth is the second most densely-populated city in the UK outside of London and there are only three roads in and out. While the resulting congestion presents a challenge for bus operation, it also presents a big opportunity – if the product is right.

Route branding is the sort of thing that used to be forbidden by the FirstGroup hierarchy. They required a single, one-size-fits-all brand, although they did allow service 8 on the Portsmouth-Waterloo corridor to have a ‘Zip’ overlay on the group’s standard issue ‘Barbie’ livery. But things are different at FirstGroup these days, and Reddy has been given the freedom to create an eye-catching brand that he hopes will strike a chord with the local community. It looks more like something from free-thinking TrentBarton than FirstGroup.

“If the conditions are right to do it, and the market’s right, then this absolutely has to be a good thing,” Reddy explains. “We want to make this a bit different.”

The Star is the creation of Swindon-based design agency MHD and it’s no accident that it echoes the star in Portsmouth City Council’s logo. It’s a nod to the city’s maritime heritage – sailors once used the stars to guide them and Reddy is hoping that ‘The Star’ will become a beacon for bus users. Building on this maritime connection, each bus is dedicated to a ship – some are historic, like the Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior, which can all be viewed at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, as well as modern day naval vessels based in the city. This provides a “top trumps” element to The Star, with details of the vessels displayed both inside and outside of the vehicle, along with examples of naval slang that have entered our language – chock-a-block, money for old rope and let the cat out of the bag.

Money for old rope this is not, Reddy assures – it’s much more than a new coat of paint and some vinyls. The new brand will be applied to two services, the 7 and the Zip-branded 8, providing a combined service frequency of 10 buses per hour on the A3 corridor. The vehicles have leather seats, free-WiFi, infotainment and next stop information, and they will be operated by a dedicated team of hand-picked drivers, with their own uniform. Meanwhile, Portsmouth and Hampshire are refreshing all roadside infrastructure to accommodate the new brand, and they are paying to equip the vehicles with real time information.

“One of the things I am very, very keen on is the next stop announcements because I think that’s a real driver to get people to use the bus,” says Reddy. “If I go to a town or city and I don’t know my way around, I will look up and do my homework on where to get on the bus and how much it’s going to cost me – the hard bit is where do I actually get off the bus.

“Next stop information enables you to relax more on your journey because you know that you are going to be reminded of where to get off – even if you are a regular traveller.”

This is not the first time that Reddy has created a formula for a high specification service. In his previous role as commercial and business growth director for First in the South West and Wales, he oversaw the introduction of First’s new premium ‘Eclipse’ service on the Fareham-Gosport busway last year. Our in-house mystery traveller, Alex Warner, hailed it as a “flagship service to be proud of” when he tested it in June (PT061). “My best Travel Test ever,” he concluded.

The Star is designed to look like a sister service to Eclipse, but the decision to create a new brand, rather than roll out Eclipse, was a deliberate one. “People have said ‘why don’t you just call this Eclipse as well’, but Eclipse is part of having a dedicated busway,” Reddy explains. “This is bus priority with a high degree of bus lanes it’s not a dedicated way. That’s the key difference.”

Reddy has a vision for a web of branded high quality services around the Solent. “Each one will have its own characteristics,” says Reddy. “If it’s the same characteristics, we can use the same brand.”

Reddy says that the main lesson from Eclipse has been that staff have taken ownership of the brand.

“There’s a real ownership on Eclipse,” he says. “Eclipse is run by our Fareham depot and The Star is going to be run by our Portsmoth depot. People in Portsmouth have seen what happens at Fareham – they just own it, Fareham, it’s their’s … And that’s not just the drivers – it’s the supervisors, the engineers too. The engineers are really excited about the vehicles, but they also take pride in making sure that the branding is right.”

To make this task easier, First and MHD will produce a manual for the engineers to show them exactly where each part of the branding goes, and how to get hold of part of it.

“It is about pride,” says Reddy. “The guys on Eclipse are so proud about what they do. We hope the same filters through for The Star.”

As with Eclipse, a major marketing push is planned to promote The Star to the travelling public. Billboard posters and direct mailers will be supported by an innovative new idea – advertising at cashpoints. To encourage people to try the service, ATMs will display a marketing message on-screen and there will be a free travel voucher on the back of receipts. Meanwhile, Rick Jackson, a bus enthusiast and DJ with local radio station Wave 105, will drive one of the vehicles on the launch day, further helping to raise the profile of the service.

Reddy is keen to pay tribute to his local authority partners. “We can’t do it on our own,” he says. His new role as MD for Hampshire, Dorset & Berkshire makes it easier to build close relationships, and it gives the local authorities an empowered individual who they can do business with.

While the majority of the investment for the latest overhaul has come from First, he acknowledges that the councils put in a big front-ended investment five years ago.

“That’s the great thing about this partnership – it works even though we are investing at different times,” he says. “Some partnerships say that if I put ‘X’ on the table will you put ‘Y’? Well yes, that’s fine, but we’ve got a partnership here that recognises that we invest at different times and we both deliver.”

“There’s been various different milestones for the corridor but we see this as really taking it to another level in terms of the quality of the product.”

 

Enhanced service for Eclipse

FirstGroup increased the frequency of its award-winning Eclipse Bus Rapid Transit services on October 6, as passenger numbers continue to grow. The company has invested £542,000 in three more new high-specification Volvo/Wrights Eclipse vehicles for its E1 and E2 services in Fareham and Gosport, which are now providing a bus service every six minutes during the day, Monday to Saturday.

Marc Reddy, managing director of First Hampshire, Dorset & Berkshire, said:  “Customer response to our Eclipse E1 and E2 services has been hugely encouraging.  These buses now carry 64% more passengers than the services they directly replaced.

“Not only are more people using the Eclipse services, but more people are using buses on the Gosport peninsula in general, which could be ascribed to the ‘Eclipse effect’.”

 

This article (and many, many more) appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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