Last week’s Great Transport Debate in Manchester brought together all modes of transport, and more. But what did we learn?

A quirky venue (underneath a Concorde aircraft) and a quirky host (yours truly)

I’m not going to lie but I make it my place to avoid corporate and social events. I am actually socially awkward and find them a drag. In previous years, if I had to go I’d feign a phone call to dip out halfway through, and when I was in the logistics sector, where some of the events were mind-numbing beyond belief and I knew no one, I’d sit in a toilet cubicle during breaks to avoid making small talk or standing like a loser in the corner on my own. So, you can imagine how I recoiled when CMAC Group asked me to help organise and be the compere at last week’s Great Transport Debate, of which they were the lead sponsor and mastermind.

The remit from CMAC was that this was to be the opposite of normal events – no self-congratulatory corporate nonsense, dull speakers, but ‘tell it how it is’ charisma, instead

There’s one reason why, though, I soon started looking forward to the event. That’s because the remit from CMAC was that this was to be the opposite of normal events – no self-congratulatory corporate nonsense, dull speakers, but ‘tell it how it is’ charisma, instead. I am going to focus on the vibe in this article because I was so focussed on trying to get my cues right and avoiding booby traps that might cause me to be ‘cancelled’ more times than a TransPennine Express train to Manchester Airport, our host venue, that I confess to not actually remembering much from the debate.

This was an extravaganza that had quirks aplenty alongside the customary fads of modern-day events. It took place at the Concorde Hangar parallel to the runway at Manchester Airport and the stage was underneath a Concorde aircraft. There were post-match tours of the aircraft, a gizmo called ‘Slido’ where folk could ask questions in real time for speakers to answer on the spot as well as trendy street food, free bottled beers and champagne for those who promoted the event the most on social media. An incentive wasn’t even needed as we had the Premier League of selfie posers in the crowd in any case, with snaps being taken on arrival and on the ‘party bus’ shuttle back to the airport terminal.

The day previously, fellow compere, Neil Micklethwaite took a nice right armed snap for LinkedIn of him all serious professor looking, with a rare appearance of his thick rimmed intellectual glasses on, whilst rehearsing his lines at home. ‘Mickey’ had a fastidious mix of cue cards and a nice notepad with highlighter pen insertions and a fetching clipboard, far better than my scrunched-up sheets of A4 with a broken staple that I read for the first time in the bath in my one-star hotel on the morning of the event.

Onto the event, and after some ice-breaking frolics, Transport Focus chair Nigel Stevens played a gravitas-exuding blinder, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy with his stern but passionate, posh tone of voice as he made it clear, headmaster-style, that enough was enough, and the current poor customer service is simply not acceptable anymore. Highlighting, in particular, feedback relating to Avanti, among others, no one dared disagree. However, rebel as ever, I mustered up a modicum of bravery to tell this former Royal Airforce big-wig that I couldn’t actually remember the last time I had a bad experience on Avanti. Stevens had set the scene for hard hitting honest debate.

Impressive CAVU Group CEO Martin Evans soon followed, and he talked sense. CAVU’s portfolio includes Manchester Airport, and he concluded that airports needed to become more digitally enabled and this was well received, despite some mutterings from dissidents seated on the tables towards the back; below Concorde’s landing gears, about the inflated prices for beers and burgers inside his terminal. Then Clive Wratten from the Business Travel Association (BTA) took to the stage. He extolled the virtues of working on the move – a great presentation but the ensuing debate focused mainly on rail, and it continually dumbfounds me how little the sector makes use of organisations such as BTA, and also the fact that nothing ever seems to be done to design products and promotions across bus and coach that target those travelling for business. Am I the only one who uses National Express or an inter-urban bus to get to and from meetings and to work en route? Why also doesn’t transport fight back more rigorously and extol the virtues of face-to-face meetings?

The beauty of this event was that it was almost a genuine multi-modal fest

The beauty of this event was that it was almost a genuine multi-modal fest. Bus, rail, coach, walking, taxi, aviation – every mode bar e-scooters (next time definitely…). Shame on the transport operators for caring about multi-modal ‘when it suits’, in terms of self-awarding rail replacement contracts within their owning groups but not being bothered enough on a day-to-day basis about integration, such that their MDs in the rail division don’t even know the names of their counterparts in bus on the same geographical patch and vice versa – within the same owning group! We were reminded though during the event that taxi doesn’t only exist as a last resort ‘add-on’ to rail or competitor to bus, but it is a key part of the overall solution!

Anyway, we had slight controversy when Claudette Anderson from leading walking app provider Go Jauntly took Peter O’Broin from IATA to task over air travel’s negative impact on the environment. She was on fire and although renowned event organisers BA Events were waving frantically at the back for me to curb the discussion as we were overrunning, I was having so much fun, Claudette just had to continue, though Peter held his own.

I was pleased by the high jinks on Claudette’s panel. On it also was Chiltern’s well-respected Natasha Grice and the most decent and saintly man in the history of UK transport, Martin Dean. I tried to lead Deano into a minefield by encouraging him to berate rival transport owning groups for not following the Go-Ahead model of local markets served by local businesses. He doubles up as CPT top dog, Edinburgh Trams chair and Go Ahead regional bus MD – you don’t get that portfolio without being a diplomatic, intelligent operator and Martin was having none of it, providing a response that was the ultimate in balance.

Alex Hickman, a special advisor to Number 10 during Covid and currently now employed by consultancy Teneo, lifted the lid on the chaos within government, their obsession with managing tomorrow’s headlines and being too heavily influenced by the prime minister’s personality. He spoke of a possible role for transport policy in current government thinking going forward. The audience lapped it up, but I wanted to know whether Alex had attended any of the infamous Downing Street lockdown parties. He said he had not.

Before and after lunch, I enjoyed giving a big shout out to the exhibitors, particularly as they were a right eclectic bunch with such a variety of wares, be it the Transport Benevolent Fund, or the compensation tool Swippr. A word or two for CheckedSafe, a fascinating company I stumbled across nosing around their stand under Concorde’s nose near the free bottles of booze. They have an app that enables bus, coach and van drivers to do their legislative first use vehicle check slickly, generating defect reports so they can be activated pronto by the relevant department. What’s more, they love my idea of expanding the checks to include customer service issues, such as faulty chargers, broken poster frames and grubby floors!


Rachel Farrington from Visit Britain was particularly interesting, but her presence made me realise that in 30 years I genuinely can’t recall a tourism expert previously presenting at a transport event. How negligent is that from our sector given that we should be utterly fixated with creating reasons to travel, and understanding the purveyors of these, such as leisure attractions and tourism authorities? The canny folk were at the Great Transport Debate, including the top brass at a company called You Smart Thing, animatedly asking questions during the tourism talk. You Smart Thing, we learnt, is a clever management platform for destinations, venue and live events and includes a map-based travel assistant to improve the visitor experience, increasing revenue and guiding customers and hosting organisations on how to reduce the carbon footprint created by travel.

The next smart things to appear on stage were the ‘entrepreneurs panel’, even if it was noticeable how they were all dressed-down dudes, americanos, blue jeans or chinos, and all that. I was gagging for some proper controversy. Surely it could be guaranteed amongst creative thinking, but temperamental entrepreneurs, answerable to no one? The problem was that I laid bare my soul too soon by castigating the way the corporate world turns its nose up at suppliers. This was a panel I was most in awe of, awash with genuine success stories borne of self-starting, risk taking and true entrepreneurialism including Steve Turner, the customer-obsessed creator of CMAC Group and straight talking Scot, John McArthur, the founder of AIM-listed Tracsis who now plies his trade at new disrupter company Lost Group, which he co-founded with yours truly, which aims to be ‘the antithesis of traditional recruitment’. The panel didn’t disagree with my frustrations with the aloofness of some in traditional organisations, but they were more diplomatic and set out the importance of entrepreneurs being embraced rather than treated with suspicion.

Nigel Stevens closed proceedings in the same rousing way that he had started, but super salesman Micklethwaite, who’d had his best performance of the season, couldn’t be denied the last word and rightly so as he professed that this would be unlike any conference before and that there would be a follow up and we’d solicit volunteers to join an Action Group that might put together a ‘white paper’ and try and arrange a hearing with the transport minister or other pivotal policy-makers.

People genuinely looked delighted to meet old colleagues and be connected with folk they wouldn’t ordinarily stumble across in their field of work

Despite being a socially awkward recluse, I enjoyed the networking nonsense afterwards, though it may be because the crowd consisted of my mates – there were no scallywags present. People genuinely looked delighted to meet old colleagues and be connected with folk they wouldn’t ordinarily stumble across in their field of work. Folk were milling around long after the cabin doors were finally shut on Concorde and pics were doing the rounds of dancing with drag artists in Canal Street way into the night.

For me, my exit from this fun-packed event was to commit a cardinal crime, that was also a salutary reminder of the ‘needs must’ nature of life. Whilst waiting for the bus back to the Airport to commence my journey home by rail to Surrey, the affable owner of a taxi company at the event, offered me a lift all the way home. We had spent the day talking about how we convince folk to realise the environmental benefits of public transport for long distance travel and shun the car. Cobblers to that – I needed to be home pronto and in the most hassle-free manner too. We had a great journey back – it’s been years since I have been on a motorway for longer than two junctions, and it was a surreal door-to-door experience in wonderful company. Whilst I won’t be trying to pass my driving test at the sixth attempt, I would accept a lift again, given the chance. However, highfalutin and impressive this whopping big debate, no amount of impactful chuntering will solve this kind of scenario and ultimately that’s the Holy Grail challenge that public transport will always have. See you next year, if I’ve not been cancelled!

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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