13 February 2010

Competitive Nottingham

It's not just YourBus who've started competing within Nottingham and its environs, Premiere Buses has been competing with Trent Barton along the Bingham-Radcliffe-Nottingham corridor since last year, and as we recently reported (via a Stop Press! item at the foot of our recent YourBus entry), the Dunn family plan on competing head-to-head with Nottingham City Transport (NCT) between the city centre and Chilwell.

This is precisely what the Office of Fair Trading insists is not happening throughout the bus industry, claiming the market has become stagnant by the large operators flexing their muscles to ensure that any new operator lasts but a moment. There are positives and negatives with the insurgence of hitherto unknowns, as the remainder of today's entry will demonstrate.

Why Nottingham?

None of the 'big five' has a foothold in the city. First is kept at bay to the south (Leicester), Stagecoach to the north (Mansfield) and Arriva to the west (Derby). The city council is the one operating the dominant bus company in the area - Nottingham City Transport. Wellglade's Trent Barton operates the more traditional rural and inter-urban services, typically to the south and west, with a joint-operation with Stagecoach to the north. The perceived might and dominance of First, Arriva, Stagecoach, Go-Ahead & National Express simply isn't visible in Nottingham. NCT, through its municipal ownership and operation, is seen as a laboriously slow-to-respond operator, who's 'got it wrong' numerous times in the past.

These are the base ingredients for smaller, often family-owned operators, to emerge. During the 1990s, Pathfinder brought competition to the east of the city, operating inter-urban services to Southwell and Newark, but eventually selling to NCT. A couple of years ago, Bellamy's Coaches introduced Routemasters to Nottingham to see what would happen. Family-owned Dunn Line sold to the much larger Veolia in 2007, who've not built on the family's success in the area, preferring to concentrate more on the coach side. YourBus emerged last year, backed by many individuals who appear on the board of Rotala, though managed and operated by the Dunn Family. Premiere Buses, perhaps having witnessed the Dunn resurgence, dipped its toe in the water in 2008, competing with Trent Barton between Bingham, Radcliffe and Nottingham.

On paper, the comings and goings of bus and coach operators in Nottingham is just what was prescribed when the deregulation and privatisation of the bus industry was floated in the 1980s. If things were so rosy, though, Pathfinder wouldn't have sold to NCT, who last year closed their Newark base; Bellamy's would still be operating RMs; Dunn Line would never have been sold and thus YourBus wouldn't have emerged. A decade ago, NCT revamped its entire network of services and got it wrong. Thousands of regular passengers were inconvenienced and many route and frequency alterations were made to put right the gaps in operation and some cross-city flows. I remember reading that industry observers believed the long-term effect on the council-owned operator could be massive and that smaller, fledgling operators could well gain in the long term. Perhaps this is a reason why smaller operators are competing?


Today, and YourBus - the city's newest bus operator - is approaching its first birthday. We stated that its first year's operation has been regarded as a success. The physical number of buses operating for that operator on the streets of Nottingham has remained constant. However, one of their two routes was withdrawn (Service 82: Nottingham-Bulwell-Phoenix Park) and the resource placed onto Service 81 (Nottingham-Bulwell-Hempshill Lane), to maintain a 10 minute headway throughout. Not everyone is so enamoured with YourBus' media machine claiming a successful first year though!

Since we last visited Nottingham, the start point for Service 81 in the city centre has completely altered. If you remember, last spring, the timetable for the route claimed buses departed from Friar Lane, when in actuality, they departed from a stop round the corner on Beastmarket Hill. Now, the service departs from Milton Street - twice. Two stops are served, T1 and T4, separated by three bus lengths. Why? NCT's Brown Line calls at T1 and Yellow Line at T4. Both operate different routes, but both serve Bulwell. YourBus appears to be attempting to attract all of NCT's Bulwell patronage. So much for claiming to be an alternative to the city's tram network!

A new operator naturally needs to find its feet. They will implement a fares policy that was analysed on paper. After a few months, tweaks may well be needed. This hadn't been the case for YourBus until last month, which saw their 'short hop' £1 fare withdrawn; their single reduce to £1.50 and their Day ticket increase to £2.50. Clearly, the Day ticket still represents excellent value for money, provided you do not need to travel on any other bus service for the day. As managing director Scott Dunn pointed out, it is cheaper than the equivalent offered by NCT, though theirs only permits travel on the now solitary YourBus route, as opposed to every NCT bus in the city limits for 50p more. YourBus single fares now match those of NCT.

Opposing the Quality Bus Partnership

It is a shame that the smaller operators tend to be against the introduction of Statutory Quality Bus Partnerships (SQBP) and YourBus is no different. In a press statement, Scott Dunn claimed the scheme as 'anti-competitive' and restrictive to further growth. Nottingham's SQBP will require operators to meet strict emission and frequency standards in return for their use of the city centre's bus stops. YourBus' fleet does not meet the emissions standard and so will potentially be forced to the 'outskirts'. By 'outskirts', they refer to either Victoria or Broadmarsh bus stations, which can hardly be considered peripheral to the city centre. YourBus claim that its regulars will thus have further to walk. Not as far as they have to walk on Sundays or during weekday evenings when YourBus do not operate!

YourBus also seem to be against reducing the number of times an operator can change its timetables. Rotala, for example, benefits from an agreement in the West Midlands enabling them to change timetables up to thirteen times a year, while Nottingham's SQBP would cap this at six. "That’s possibly four too many! A great barrier to attracting passengers to bus services is confusion over timetables, due to times being revised too often. Any operator that changes times 13 times in a year is treating passengers with contempt," said our well-placed source.

YourBus, bizarrely, claimed that they do not compete with any other service. Their initial publicity made direct reference to how they were far superior to the tram. They're also copying NCT's Service 36 - even down to the same city centre departure point - from the end of the month.

Said our insider: "The City has used taxpayers money to provide quality infrastructure – raised curbs at stops, well-maintained bus shelters, information screens (with real time on some routes), timetable information, gradual introduction of bus priority measures and so on. Surely the least to be expected is for the bus companies to offer equal benefits to the passenger in partnership with the City Council?"

Premiere Buses -v- Trent Barton

Nottingham-based Premiere has worked wonders in improving the passenger base of their Service X9 between Nottingham and Loughborough, following it passing to them from Arriva. Ensuring minimal competition with South Notts' Service 1, the route has seen excellent levels of growth. This has seen the company take on Trent Barton between Bingham-Radcliffe-Nottingham. Their competing service started last year and has recently been increased in frequency to every 15 minutes and branded Red1. We understand the new name pokes fun at Trent Barton's competing XPRSS service, which wears an two-tone green livery and is known locally as the 'green one'.

With Trent Barton's Radcliffe Line and XPRSS, along with Premiere's Red1 operating along the corridor, there are now 12 buses per hour between Radcliffe and Nottingham, which many think unsustainable. Nottingham-bound departures from Bingham see identical departure times on XPRSS and Red1. So many buses have flooded Bingham recently, that Premiere agreed to curtail its Red1 at the market place, rather than operate to Willow Road.

Unlike YourBus, Premiere do offer an evening and Sunday service on its competing route. The last bus from Nottingham is 2300 - connecting at Bingham for onward journeys to Cropwell Bishop/Butler and the Belvoir Villages.

Some vaccuuming?

Some argue that smaller operators - both new to the industry and existing ones - are merely 'hoovering up' the concessionary travellers, who thanks to the nature of their English National Concessionary (ENC) cards, have no need to remain 'brand loyal', as had been the case when they paid. It has been suggested that some of the smaller operators nationally, who spring up suddenly, mirroring what many believe to be busy bus corridors, already at passemger saturation point, simply want to cash-in on those who do not pay. This demographic simply board the first bus that comes along and if your smaller, fledgling company is that next bus, you'll legitimately receive the reimbursement over your larger, more established competitor. Likely? I think that's down to you to decide.

It is interesting to think that many operators claim they are financially worse-off as a result of the ENC scheme, yet counter-claims are made that this elusive revenue is what many competing services run by smaller operators are in business for.

Further Reading
Nottingham's SQBP - full details
YourBus website
Premiere Buses website
Trent Barton website
Nottingham City Transport website

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