Sir Brian Souter brings in Polish pipers to herald new services, new destinations and new coaches

 

 

In the space just three short years, Sir Brian Souter’s PolskiBus.com has mushroomed from an initial launch fleet of 18 vehicles to a complement of 132.

The inspiration of the Stagecoach co-founder and chairman has been embraced by Poles. The Souter Investments subsidiary has now carried eight million passengers.

The latest expansion has seen a £6.6m investment in 20 new high capacity coaches, built in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, by Alexander Dennis subsidiary Plaxton (which is itself part-owned by Souter Investments). It has also seen the launch of four new services and higher service frequencies on some existing routes (including up to 33 journeys a day between the southern cities of Wroclaw and Krakow). PolskiBus now performs 314 journeys a day, reaching 22 Polish cities and five European capitals (Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Vilnius).

Having handed over the day to day running of Stagecoach last year, Souter has more time to focus on his portfolio of personal investments. Last month, he attended a Polskibus ribbon-cutting event in the Polish capital, Warsaw, to mark the launch for new buses and new services. According to those who attended, the Scottish entrepreneur displayed plenty of his characteristic showmanship – he was accompanied by Polish pipers in full highland dress, playing ‘Scotland the Brave’!

As with Stagecoach’s Megabus in the UK and North America, Souter’s formula for success at Polskibus has been to run high capacity vehicles with very few spare seats. This has been achieved through a combination of low fares, starting from one Zloty (about 19p) plus one Zloty booking fee, and a high quality travel experience. In a country where public transport can be very spartan, Polskibus offers reclining leather seats, air conditioning and free WiFi, with on-board staff serving light snacks on some routes.

Souter makes no apologies for providing this level of luxury. Asked by a Polish journalist whether Polskibus vehicles are over-specified vehicles and whether older, less comfortable vehicles might be introduced, Souter quipped: “Once you’ve eaten fillet steak, you don’t like going back to sausage.”

Can others match this luxury? Souter was asked whether he feared competition from Poland’s state-run railway, which is modernising and introducing faster services. “Certainly not,”
he replied. “In the UK, Stagecoach runs trains between London and Manchester and also frequent express coaches. They are two different markets. We have grown our business with both modes and have taken people out of their cars. They can work or relax on our trains and coaches.”

Research supports this claim, showing that almost a quarter (23%) of Polskibus passengers previously travelled by car.

With a proven formula for success, the question everyone wants to know is how quickly can it be expanded across Europe? In response, Souter said that Polskibus would not allow its ambitions to run ahead of its capacity to deliver a good service. “Planning a strategy is the easier part,” he said. “The real skill is getting the coaches out on time every day and delivering a top class service. Our team in Poland is superb at achieving that.”

Meanwhile, Souter was asked whether he might consider introducing Stagecoach’s Megabus sleeper coach concept, which was launched on overnight London-Scotland services last year (PT056), to its Berlin-Warsaw corridor, a journey of around 350 miles. “I had already asked the team here to investigate that, but the German authorities will not allow coaches with flat beds,” he revealed.

 

‘Breakthrough’ order for British bus builder

Until recently, the PolskiBus fleet consisting entirely of high capacity coaches built in Belgium by Van Hool. However, the company has now acquired a fleet of 20 British-built Plaxton Elite i coaches.

PolskiBus founder Sir Brian Souter says the new 75-seat vehicles will offer better ‘fuel burn per seat’ than any other vehicle operated, an important factor when fuel in Poland accounts for 35% of costs.

Colin Robertson, the chief executive of Plaxton parent Alexander Dennis said the £6.6m order “represents an important breakthrough, taking us into mainland Europe in a significant way.”

 

COMMENT: A winning formula that has won many fans

By Austin Birks

Two years ago I wrote a report for Passenger Transport on the first year of PolskiBus.com (PT019). Last month, I returned to Poland to see how things are today, and I was impressed with what I saw.

In essence, what PolskiBus has done was described to me very eloquently by one of the many passengers that I spoke to during my visit. Marta, 28, is a marketing manager and she believes that Polskibus has identified a huge gap in the Polish travel market. But they haven’t just filled it, they have exceeded everyone’s expectations by providing a truly quality package at a fraction of the expected cost.

That sums it up nicely. What surprised me if honest was the huge diversity of customers that I met, one of whom was a judge. Quite literally, he used to hold court in Gdansk, flying there from Warsaw. Not anymore. “I use Polskibus because it is an excellent service and I can work while I am travelling,” he told me. “The journey time competes with the airline and I pay very little compared to the air fare.”

Interestingly, the judge was one of several people who suggested that the value that Polskibus offered the passenger was actually too good! He said he would be willing to pay more. In my career I have never had any passenger say that to me, let alone several people.

In contrast, the railway network was universally criticised by all I spoke to. It is being modernised, but right now it has a reputation for poor reliability, old rolling stock and expensive fares.

Since it was launched in June 2011, Polskibus has created 730 jobs and the staff appear to love their jobs (staff turnover is only 3%). I asked a group of drivers if they had a message for Polskibus president Sir Brian Souter. After the inevitable “more money please!”, they said: “Tell him thank you. We get paid on time, the vehicles are the best in Poland and we are proud to wear the uniform.”

And what about the management? As you would expect of a Souter operation, the head office is lean, but they are well motivated. Since October 2012, they have been led by a CEO I known for 32 years, Barry Pybis. He is probably the best-qualified person to replace the courteous Roger Bowker, who set up PolskiBus from scratch. Having learnt his craft with Stagecoach, National Express and FirstGroup, Barry has had extensive experience from the bottom up across multiple countries and continents including Africa (Kenya) and  Australia, including
the Olympic games in 2000.

He is clearly a man who loves what he is doing and it is infectious. And it’s clear that PolskiBus has a winning formula that is also likely to have appeal in neighbouring nations.

“If I was a young manager I would truly love to be on this journey,” he told me. “It is just so exhilarating to be a part of this adventure.”

I have to agree with him.

 

FACTFILE: PolskiBus

Owner: Souter Investments
President: Sir Brian Souter
CEO: Barry Pybis
Initial launch: June 2011
Total passengers carried: eight million
Destinations: 22 Polish cities and five European capitals
Journeys per day: 314
Fleet size: 132 (including 20 new Plaxton Elite i coaches)
Employees: 730

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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