It’s been a big year for First’s West of England bus business and managing director Paul Matthews

 

 

The fortunes of First’s bus operation in Bristol, and the wider West of England region, have largely mirrored that of its parent company’s UK bus division as a whole and have suffered in recent years from constant restructuring and changes in key personnel. Now, just like the group’s UK bus operation under the leadership of Giles Fearnley, the company seems to be re-energised.

Meeting managing director Paul Matthews in his office that overlooks First West of England’s Lawrence Hill depot just outside Bristol’s city centre, we speak just several hours after the results of the Scottish referendum and David Cameron’s speech where he made a commitment to devolve power in England. With a directly-elected – and politically independent – mayor in the shape of George Ferguson, hasn’t First West of England experienced some of what that new regional political map may look like in the future?

“I think possibly, we have,” admits Matthews. “The mayoral election led to an autonomous, independent mayor and, some time after that, autonomous local management here. That restructuring has become something of a template for the rest of the group’s UK bus business and it has had a positive effect.

“Justin Davies, my predecessor, had a huge area to cover; he wasn’t just Bristol and West of England, he was Wales, he was Devon, he was Cornwall, he was Hampshire, he was Dorset. He was even in charge of First’s operation in Ireland! That’s a huge area for just one person to cover and in hindsight, which is a wonderful thing, I think it was just too much and it was stretching things too thinly. I expect a lot of people would agree with that, so putting in place an MD role specifically for the West of England business was about trying to open doors and build strong relationships with the mayor and other stakeholders in the region.”

Matthews has had a long and diverse career in the industry. After leaving RATP Dev, where he helped to create the French group’s growing UK presence, he joined First’s UK bus division in May 2012 leading the programme to dispose of the some of the group’s more superfluous bus operations. With that project largely completed, he moved to Bristol in April 2013 as service delivery director, moving up to the top job a few months later after Davies moved on to head the group’s bus business in Wales. He found a business that was in the midst of great change.

“Transport is a key part of the mayor’s vision for the city,” notes Matthews. “Bristol is probably the most congested city in Britain and he recognises that transport is key to economic growth. He’s really switched on to that and that has really helped me and it has helped the new structure too.”

This engagement with stakeholders has had a wide effect in changing the somewhat negative perception of First in the city. While Matthews admits that there’s still work to do, the business has become deeply involved in the community. This has seen it become intrinsically linked to a number of initiatives, including sponsorship of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, which aims to promote low carbon objectives in the city, and the Bristol Pound, an alternative currency that aims to support local businesses and traders by keeping money within the local community.

However, the one initiative that has gone a long way in changing the perceptions of First in the region has been a reevaluation of its fares structures in both Bristol and the wider West of England region. Although this process began under the leadership of Davies, Matthews took it forward to its conclusion.

“The value for money scores from the Passenger Focus bus satisfaction survey for Bristol were in truth appalling,” admits Matthews. “Some of it was down to the fact that, although the day tickets were pretty good value, single fares were just too high. We had got the fare structure wrong and much of that was down to history, but perceptions played a part too. The consultation was worthwhile as we wanted to demonstrate that we were willing to change and it’s something we have replicated in other parts of the West of England business.”

In Bristol the changes have seen two fare zones created with a bigger and more uniformly-shaped ‘inner zone’ and a new ‘outer zone’. Historical quirks have been ironed out with fares now reflecting the distance actually travelled. First estimates that 90% of bus users in the city have ended up paying an average of 27% less for single fares. Meanwhile, this year has seen m-ticketing and a smartcard product launched in the area.

Matthews admits that the external reputation effect from these changes has been immense and it has received support from both the mayor and the political establishment in the city. The Passenger Focus bus satisfaction scores for value for money have also improved – from 33% in 2012 to 43% in 2013 and these are likely to improve further as much of the survey work took place at the time of the change. The real results are on the buses of Bristol where First is seeing growth in fare-paying passengers of around 15%.

“It was a big leap of faith for us to be as radical as we have been,” says Matthews. “We have taken a hit on revenue and that’s going to take time to recover, but it’s a long term strategy and it took maybe five or six months to get to the point of being revenue neutral. That’s a landmark for the business though as even just a few years ago it’s an approach that First would not have even contemplated. It’s about believing in the business for the long term and believing that we can build organic growth from fare-paying passengers. That’s a good thing for us to do.”

However, Matthews’ 14 months at the helm of the Bristol business is about to draw to the close. He’s moving to First’s business in West Yorkshire, a change that will also see the group’s recruitment of locally-accountable MDs completed. His replacement at the West of England business will be James Freeman, the respected chief executive of council-owned bus operator Reading Transport, who takes over at First West of England next month.

“We’ve a pretty stable business now and we can be cautiously optimistic about its future,” says Matthews. “There’s a momentum of growth, but you can’t rest on your laurels – there’s still plenty to do.” But going back to the chronic congestion issues faced by the city, he admits that reliability isn’t where it should be. At the moment First is countering rising traffic congestion by adding in further resources in the shape of extra vehicles and driving staff to ensure that buses maintain schedules. That’s something that Matthews feels isn’t sustainable in the long term. “There are priority measures in place, largely thanks to the Greater Bristol Bus Network which was completed a couple of years ago, but that’s still not enough,” he adds. “The mayor is looking at parking restraint for now, but who knows what it will take in the future? Just yesterday a traffic light issue brought 5% of our network to a halt. Something needs to give.”

However, elsewhere, things look brighter for First West of England and Matthews feels that the group’s wider restructuring has played a big part in that. “The group are pleased with the progress that’s been made,” he says. “The seeds have been sown for the future, but change would not have happened without the changes that have taken place at the top. There’s a lot more freedom to innovate, there’s been serious investment in the fleet and of course the changes to fares. It’s a long journey but we’re getting there.”

 

First support for Metrobus plans

FirstGroup is very supportive of the West of England’s Metrobus-branded bus rapid transit proposals on three corridors, but admits concerns that the network could abstract revenue from its Bristol  operation.

“We obviously have a strong interest in Metrobus and we’re obviously keen to get involved in operating it,” admits Paul Matthews, the managing director of First West of England. “It’s likely that it will be operated as part of a quality partnership, so the network will be open. Our position is that we’re keen to work with the proposals, but the Metrobus network will be overlaid on top of our commercial network.”

Matthews admits that there are positive aspects, namely that the scheme will raise the quality bar for buses in Bristol and it will also lead to more bus priority. “That has to be a good thing for the city,” he adds.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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