Transdev Blazefield’s flagship bus route is the textbook study for those looking to see the benefits of investing in customer service

The launch event epitomised the sense of positivity and community engagement that is the bedrock of the 36’s success

I’m spending almost every waking hour these days on buses, doing customer experience reviews across the country, and have done so for a good few years now. More recently, weighing up the totality of the customer service I received, I’ve started pontificating on what constitutes the perfect bus route. I’ll spare you the consultant’s classic ‘customer journey mapping’ exercise, and I’m not giving away my repertoire to you a lot for nothing (I have a model railway extension in the attic to fund). But, in summary, every customer touch point needs to be delivered consistently and true to the brand and marketing promise across the end-to-end journey experience in a way that differentiates between customer types. Fun, energy, a sense of momentum, a guiding customer-centric mind in leadership, and a desire to constantly review and refresh the proposition is also essential.

Unfortunately, when I think I’ve found that perfect route, there’s always a touch point that lets it down and prevents me from eulogising to others about it, constituting best practice. The onboard experience, including the driver, will be great, but the marketing will be insipid, the person who answers the customer calls will be a bit bossy, and the operator will not maintain the bus stops. They will also need more sense of brand identity. 

Some routes come very close to being the best – Stagecoach’s scenic services in the Lake District, much of Trentbarton and certainly Nottingham City Transport. Lothian Buses tend to hit the sweet spot for me, too. Go Ahead-owned East Yorkshire’s scenic collection and those operated by Go South Coast are always of the highest quality. My love affair with Stagecoach South’s 700 between Portsmouth and Brighton always make me purr, too.

However, there’s one route, though, that, like a scratched record, I’ve been imploring folk, across bus and rail, to visit and see how it is done. It’s Transdev Blazefield’s 36, which runs between Leeds, Harrogate, and Ripon – a route that sets the benchmark and is the nearest to perfection. 

If you travel on the 36, the drivers are dressed so immaculately that they look like they’re going to a posh wedding, and the vehicles are so stylish that they surpass customer expectations

If you travel on the 36, the drivers are dressed so immaculately that they look like they’re going to a posh wedding, and the vehicles are so stylish that they surpass customer expectations. Fancy leather seats, some in the round like those in your lounge, a library onboard and a totally branded experience with a sense of local identity. Earlier this year, I persuaded a wealthy mate living in North Leeds to travel on this route, which is a few yards from his house. He’s a bus heathen, but the difference between what he was expecting and the service received was jaw-dropping.

The marketing has always been progressive, and successive CEOs, including the incumbent, the impressive Henri Rohard, have made it a personal obsession to continuously seek to refresh and build on the product so it never gets stale. In Paul Turner, the Transdev Blazefield commercial director, they have one of the brightest brains in the bus sector and someone who is fixated on customer service, so too is his side-kick, the energetic breath of fresh air of an operations director, Vitto Pizzuti. I caught up with him last month, and he is all over the details regarding customer service metrics and is intolerant of the slightest aberration that might taint this perfect product.

Pizzuti’s eulogising about the pizzazz of the event last week as part of the launch of 19 electric Enviro 400EV vehicles, which enter service in September – the third generation of double-deckers.

He’s proud of the new vehicles, rattling off their virtues. “Two-plus-one seating upstairs, double glazing, glass roof, pantograph so we can charge up in Harrogate bus station, Harrogate-themed floor parquet, information screens showing live bus and rail times and a low-level custom forward-facing equivalent for the two wheelchair bay.” Vitto catches his breath just in time to beam excitedly, “but it’s not just infrastructure, Alex, we’ve got great drivers, dedicated rosters, specialist training that immerses them in the heritage of this route and makes them realise the responsibility entrusted on them to continue this success story, and we have an intensive mystery shopping programme, as well as onboard customer satisfaction surveys to meticulously help drivers realise what they are doing so well and identify areas for improvement!” 

The launch event, which Vitto was so excited about, epitomised the positivity and community engagement that are the bedrock of 36’s success.

In addition to unveiling the new fleet, Transdev turned it into a family fun day involving dancers, face painting, music, ice cream, balloon modelling, circus acts, magicians and gifts bestowed on visitors!

As Turner explained to me, it’s very much about ‘feeling special’. Harry Gration, the local BBC newsreader, was engaged to record the onboard announcements, and there’s a real sense of occasion when you hear these. Sadly, he passed away in 2022, but his voice is being replaced by another Harry – a local icon who runs a free walking tour

Focusing on customer needs and constantly engaging with customers has been key – the leather seats, which have been used since 2003, have been developed further by extensive discussions with customers – they were unsure how to take account of ethical and environmental concerns, so asked those who travel for their views. The regular customer surveys help pinpoint issues, and there’s a detailed Customer Improvement Plan for the route, which has helped ensure that satisfaction levels have been as high as 97%.

This route has had continuous focus and investment. It is a case study in renewing, refreshing and creating a narrative of regular initiatives and interventions – helping drive customer engagement and keeping staff and management teams motivated to do better. As far back as 2003, single-decker vehicles gave way to double deckers, then they were refurbished seven years later, in tandem with an increase in frequency from 20 minutes to 15 minutes. In 2016, 14 new low-emission, high-spec double deckers were introduced, and the frequency was increased to every 10 minutes between Harrogate and Leeds. Of course, the new vehicles arrived in two months to keep the momentum going even further.

Patronage growth on the 36 has been the textbook study for those looking to see the benefits of investing in customer service. It grew from 1,232,557 customers in 2005 to 2,019,296 in 2023, only 41,527 less than the 2019 pre-Covid peak

Patronage growth on the 36 has been the textbook study for those looking to see the benefits of investing in customer service. It grew from 1,232,557 customers in 2005 to 2,019,296 in 2023, only 41,527 less than the 2019 pre-Covid peak. This was achieved despite Northern Railway increasing its own frequency that year from two to three an hour on the Leeds to Harrogate corridor. 

The competition with rail is fascinating. I consistently save myself £8 by travelling on the 36 instead of on the train and find the service far more reliable, comfortable, and less crowded.  Even though I’m arriving in Leeds by rail, I’ll happily walk to the bus station to continue my journey rather than change platforms. I’ll admit that there aren’t too many bus routes across the UK where the competition by bus is better than rail, in terms of comfort, reliability and customer service, combined with journey time not far out of range, but this feels like one of them. Chesterfield to Sheffield (Stagecoach), York to Scarborough, Manchester to Burnley/Accrington (Transdev again!), Truro to Newquay (First), Coventry to Leicester and Rhyl to Llandudno (both Arriva), Oxford to London (Stagecoach) are those that mainly float my boat. There are a few others that are particularly compelling (that’s another article for the near future, I promise!).

There will be dissidents among you claiming that market and political forces have contrived a framework for the 36 to prosper. The road network is good and direct, whilst the local politicians tend to have been bus fans – including the MP for Harrogate, being previously the buses minister and, earlier this year, Rishi Sunak supped tea in Transdev’s Harrogate depot with drivers and engineers. Harrogate is a prosperous location, whilst Leeds has been rejuvenated – both are trendy and have decent day and nocturnal economies – and there are many nearby tourist attractions, including the fantastic Ripley Castle and Harewood House.

A report from Systra in 2019 showed that half of customers use the 36 for leisure and a quarter for commuting, with workflows in both ways – into and out of Leeds and workers from North Leeds into the care sector in southern Harrogate. It’s a strong corridor with a lot going for it. Furthermore, the route’s demographics have meant that it hasn’t suffered anti-social behaviour or issues eroding the proposition that others might have done.

With all of the above elements working in its favour, cynics may suggest that it would be hard not to make a success of it. However, a quality bus proposition doesn’t just happen automatically – which is what Transdev have done with the 36. Furthermore, there are countless examples of other bus routes in the UK with similarly favourable factors, where patronage and customer satisfaction have slumped (again, an article for another day!). It would also be reasonable to argue that given the 36 doesn’t run through ‘classic, fertile bus territory’ in terms of its market, stimulating growth and modal shift is even more challenging. Take my very well-to-do mate from North Leeds, who wouldn’t have previously been seen dead on a bus had I not been in his ear relentlessly to break the habit of a lifetime. How many other neighbours of his are missing out because they haven’t been subjected to one of my brainwashing exercises? This population is the ultimate test of Paul Turner’s talents in many respects.

Sustained energy and investment have made the 36 the ‘go-to’ bus route in the UK and far beyond these shores

Sustained energy and investment have made the 36 the ‘go-to’ bus route in the UK and far beyond these shores. It’s also a great example of an overseas-owned group building on the achievements of its predecessors and continuing with a locally focused management structure and an approach that realises it’s all about living and breathing the market and being immersed in the community. In many respects, last week’s launch event felt like the culmination of decades of consistent customer-centricity. Still, it also represented another landmark on a journey of continuous progression where momentum continues unabated.

As we embark on a new world where franchising is set to be very much part of the landscape, the 36 is an excellent example of an operator and owning group in Transdev, setting and delivering the strategy and standard itself with unassailable aplomb. This is the perfect bus route.

A success story with deep roots

Success for Blazefield and its flagship 36 didn’t just come in the past two decades. I chatted with my business partner, Giles Fearnley (pictured on a 36 bus in his Blazefield days), who, together with Stuart Wilde, following a management buyout of Blazefield in 1991, went on to transform the 36 before selling the business to French group Transdev in 2006.

“The train service was unreliable and did not cope with increasing demand, and we knew there had to be the potential for the 36 to play a bigger role. However, we knew that almost all of those who were not already using the bus on this corridor, saw us as a last resort for the journey. So we had to come up with something that turned heads and made people think differently about the 36.  A striking livery was launched in 2003, but this was not enough. The interior had to make our customers feel good about travelling with us, and we needed to deliver high levels of customer service if we really were taking on the competition! The decision to go with leather, coach-style, seats, ample legroom, and an internal identity that matched the external was so right – despite the massive scepticism that this drew from many across the industry!”

It was our fantastic team of drivers, supervisors, engineers and cleaners that were the key to making this new product work

Fearnley’s fascinating, and I’m hanging on every word, not for the first time, about the legacy his team created and which has been continued so successfully. He continues: “We obviously knew that the service operated through quite magnificent Yorkshire countryside, so moving to double deck operation would give our customers the opportunity to really enjoy their journey too – and it does every time they travel! But it was our fantastic team of drivers, supervisors, engineers and cleaners that were the key to making this new product work. And they did – they all rose to the opportunity and from Day One, ensured that we gave a fantastic customer experience, exceeding the expectations of all who travelled on the 36!”

“Growth was spectacular from the very first week and has just continued through Transdev Blazefield’s continued investment in all aspects including frequency, fleet investment, and much more.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 30 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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