All aboard for revolution on the buses in resort

Bob Mason
Bob Mason
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It’s a multi-million pound business, transporting thousands of people every day.

But Blackpool Transport is like few other firms in an industry dominated by just a few big names.

Before the rise of Stagecoach and First Group there used to be more than 60 municipal transport firms in the UK.

Now there are just 11 with only two – Edinburgh and Blackpool – tasked with running on both road and rail.

In the grand scheme they might be very little fish in a very big pond but behind the scenes at Rigby Road, bosses of the council-owned firm are quietly planning a 
revolution.

They want to transform Blackpool’s public transport into a true 21st century network, a job which is already half done thanks to the millions invested in the tramway.

Now it’s the roads where attention is required.

The majority of Blackpool’s bus fleet will be life expired by 2019.

And the team are all set to embark on a bold plan to replace virtually every vehicle in just three years.

The process is already underway, with 10 Mercedes Benz single-deckers operating premium branded services.

Next month they will be joined by the first of 10 double-deckers, a £2.2m investment, just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s down to finance and commercial director James Carney and Service Delivery Director Bob Mason, alongside managing director Jane Cole, to make the Cinderella-scale change possible.

“In just two and a half years time the bulk of the fleet will be time expired, will be at the end of it’s useful life,” said Mr Mason

“We can continue to operate them but it’s not ideal.

“Our mechanical costs would go up and we’d struggle with reliability.

“We set out last June with our first major investment.

“We wanted a premium product.

“Our specification is very high with wood effect floors, wifi, usb chargers, leather seats and audio-visual aids.”

Now the Blackpool Transport team is ready to dwarf that initial investment.

Shareholder Blackpool Council has agreed to help secure a loan of £7.74m to pay for a 35 new buses for the resort.

But even more are needed.

“We want to rebalance things,” said Mr Carney.

“We are planning to have the whole fleet replaced in the next four years.

“There’s funding agreed for 35 buses, that’s more than £7m.

“But we need another 50 and we will find ways to make that happen.”

The deliveries will not only change the experience for passengers but the way the company works.

“We know things are going to have to be different,” said Mr Carney.

“We have to make the model work.

“We’re going to be paying back the loan every month.

“But there’s also the depreciation on every new bus to cover.

“That’s several thousand per bus every month.

“There will be internal changes, in the way we do our maintenance, in all sorts of functions.

“There are savings to be made - the new vehicles will be far more fuel efficient, we will have a smaller fleet.

“But there’s no doubt there are going to be changes and we are going to work with our staff to ensure things work.”

One thing managers are confident about is the new buses driving up passenger figures.

Where the premium Palladium services - named not only after Blackpool’s theatre heritage but a rare precious metal - have already been rolled out the first has already enjoyed a boost.

Mr Mason said: “We have seen large growth in the number five over the last year.

“It’s one way we can fund what we want to do, being more attractive to customers.

“That’s already happening and we think we can keep growing the number of passengers by offering a better product.”

There are other plans afoot to attract new customers - with one particular group in mind.

“We think young adults is a particular growth area,” said Mr Mason

“These are people who might not necessarily have access to their own transport.

“They might not have the disposable incomes their predecessors did.

“The new buses have everything they look for, in particular the connectivity.

“But there’s other things, like 24-hour rather than day tickets.

“They are a massive success.

“In one year we’ve seen more than 100 per cent growth in take up.”

And Blackpool is ready to follow London’s example and end the scramble 
for change. Smartcards, already in use for Blackpool and The Fylde College and most recently Blackpool Sixth Form students, are all ready to be rolled out.

And bosses are hoping to be able to take debit card payments on board by early next year, all of it aimed at making the bus more attractive to commuters.

“We know a lot of the people who use the tramway are visitors,” said Mr Mason.

“But the buses, we know, are used mainly by local people.

“It’s a market that hasn’t had the investment in recent years.

“We can change that, we’re ready to give people what they want.”

The firm’s local focus is reflected in the boardroom with representatives of the council, the tourist industry and disabled users all represented.

And it’s not just passengers who are priorities.

“Our staff are very important,” said Mr Carney.

“600 people work for us, 700 in the season.

“We are one of the town’s biggest emploters.

“78 per cent envisage still being with us in 12 months and 63 per cent are proud to work for Blackpool Transport.

“Those are the kind of figures we want to see.”

Blackpool Transport last year returned a dividend of £1m to Blackpool Council.

It’s a far cry from the situation six-years-ago, when the firm was struggling to turn even a modest profit.

“We were in a loss making position,” said Mr Mason.

“All of a sudden we went from operating heritage trams to a modern fleet.

“That was a real catalyst.

“We focused on performance and the customer experience.

“The new managing director, Jane Cole, brought that from Virgin Trains.

“She has led a transformation, to the point we can make this kind of investment.

“The shareholder, Blackpool Council, can have confidence in us.”

The first of Blackpool Transport’s new double deckers - the result of that confidence - is already on the production line in Falkirk.

And Mr Mason believes passengers will be blown away.

He said: “This was a new bus ADL had built for London.

“It was being shown at the Excel centre down there.

“There was a buzz about it and we asked them, on the way to Scotland to call in here.

“We got the union involved, the staff, the board, and everybody loved it.

“They are British built, parts are British sourced.

“It’s the first time a bus like this wil have been used in a town outside London.”

“We think passengers are going to love it too.”