A series of improvements to Arriva’s Leicester network have now been completed. It aims to provide a firm basis for the future

 

Arriva_LeicesterSimon Mathieson (fifth from left) with Arriva’s Leicester team

 

Arriva’s Midlands bus business has been working hard over the last year to revamp and relaunch its product in the city of Leicester. The impetus for the move started as a result increasing traffic congestion that area managing director Simon Mathieson admits was starting to create some real headaches for the bus operator.

“I joined Arriva in the Midlands in October 2013 and I saw a business that, overall, was effectively pretty stable, particularly in Leicester,” he says. “However, once I had my feet under the table, I saw that there were some significant opportunities for us, particularly in improving the performance of the business.”

Leicester has two major bus operators. Arriva’s business historically formed part of the erstwhile Midland Red operation, with FirstGroup holding the former municipal bus undertaking. The two operations are very different, FirstGroup’s, on the whole, being very much focussed on the city itself with Arriva providing interurban links to the towns and villages that surround Leicester, plus in-filling those areas in the city not served by First. There is competition, of course, but as Mathieson notes, there’s only really one corridor where there is, what might be termed, head-to-head competition.

He describes how Arriva in Leicester was suffering from the problems associated with ever growing traffic congestion. “The first thing we did was think about how we could improve punctuality,” Mathieson continues. “Congestion has just been growing and growing in recent years, particularly over the last two, and we wanted to do something about that. From my point of view, solving those issues was the bedrock of how we could take things forward.”

He notes that when it came to looking at how this issue could be tackled, the local authority was particularly supportive. Both sides sat down and worked together to look at a list of congestion hotspots and how the issues at each one could be tackled. Mathieson continues: “We do have some bus priority measures, but the growth of congestion was such that it was inevitable that some increase in resource would be required.”

Of course adding buses into the cycle on any given route comes with a financial implication but Mathieson felt that it was the only way to provide that firm foundation for the future. “We focussed things on the main routes, doing a bit of work with the schedules, putting some resource in, and technology also offered some solutions to our conundrum too,” he adds.

The rollout of Arriva’s smartphone app, which includes real time service information, was of particular benefit for Mathieson and his team. It means that each bus is now equipped with GPS positioning equipment, so service controllers now have real time data that provides them with accurate locations of each vehicle in the fleet and how punctual a service they are operating. “That back office equipment has provided us with a real boost,” he adds. “We know where the buses are and their performance in real time. It really solves a lot of problems as we can react and plan ahead. We’re not in the dark and can tackle the issues as and when they occur.”

Then in April, fares across the Midlands business were revised as a result of feedback from both customers and stakeholders. “There were some historic quirks and anomalies,” explains Mathieson. “It was complex and, on the face of it, hard to understand. Bus travel should be about consistency and we wanted to provide that consistency. It also had the spin -off that a lot of our customers ended up paying less for their travel.”

It saw the introduction of a new, simplified two-zone fares structure in Leicestershire. One zone covers the city of Leicester itself with the second covering the remainder of the county. As a result there are now just two fare zones for group, day, weekly, four-weekly, annual and carnet-style 10- trip fare products. Meanwhile, a new ZonePlus ticket bridges travel across the two zones for all of these products.

“It means that although we’ve moved away from dedicated products for smaller towns in Leicestershire such as Coalville and Loughborough, it has simplified things overall,” explains Mathieson. “For some customers, the only period product suitable for their journey was a Midlands-wide ticket. That was crazy. With the new zones we can offer a product that is not only tailored to their needs, but cheaper too.”

With these nuts and bolts issues largely solved through a mixture of additional resource, partnership working, revised fares and new technology, it was time for some serious investment. This commenced with
the decision to spend a not inconsiderable sum on relaunching the network. This included refurbishment work to some of the fleet including the installation of free customer Wi-Fi.

The environmental credentials of 32 of the oldest vehicles that went through this process were also enhanced thanks to a successful joint project undertaken in conjunction with Leicester City Council. This saw the partners awarded almost £600,000 from the government to install emissions abatement equipment on these buses. The project means that the tailpipe emissions from these older buses are now as clean as the latest vehicles fresh off a manufacturer’s production line.

Meanwhile, further investment has been made by the operator with the introduction of 35 new double deck vehicles. “Last year we decided to try and bid internally for new buses,” says Mathieson. “We were successful in that competition and it was the icing on the cake, really. After all that work behind the scenes, with the introduction of the new double deckers, the first in Leicester for some years, we had a real package of improvements that we could go out and market to the customer.”

Those vehicles arrived in July and were launched into service to coincide with the national Catch the Bus Week campaign, designed to stimulate modal shift by highlighting the advantages of bus travel. These vehicles aim to provide a premium level of comfort with E-Leather seating and USB charging points.

“These vehicles really do challenge the perceptions about bus travel,” believes Mathieson. “They have replaced vehicles that were around 14 years old and for the customer it’s a real step change. Their introduction has also coincided with the opening of Leicester’s new bus station.”

He adds that this new facility is worlds away from the old one that it replaced. “The old bus station was very much of its time, but things move on,” Mathieson adds. “It’s another element of that package of improvements. We can really demonstrate to the customer and stakeholders that we are serious about taking Arriva in Leicester to the next level.”

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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