07 May 2010

In bad shape

All bus companies operate a Peak Vehicle Requirement (PVR), whether they refer to it as such or not. For the uninitiated, a bus fleet's PVR is the maximum number of vehicles required at any one time during a working day and is often referred to as a percentage of their overall fleet. What's left is classed as spare capacity and is usually between the 10-20% mark, though in effect vehicles are kept in for routine service, MOT testing and other titivation.

National Express Group's (NX) new Chief Executive, Dean Finch, revealed that his company's bus businesses sees around 30% of the fleet grounded at their depots for mechanical attention; this sees 70% out and about and we know for certain that virtually all NX's bus depots have a PVR way, way above 70%! The net result is lost mileage through journeys that do not operate simply because they have insufficient vehicles.

This practice is unacceptable and if persistent enough the Traffic Commissioner, in whose area the perceived drop in service takes place, can levy hefty fines which are sure to further add to NX's financial woes. Dean Finch signalled that he is to take personal control of National Express West Midlands, Coventry and Dundee in order to turn things around, bringing the percentage of the fleets' vehicles off the road at any one time for mechanical attention down to a more healthy 15%.

For far too long, NX West Midlands (NXWM) has been seen as a cumbersome beast which, despite being the largest bus fleet in the UK, cannot respond to encroachment on its territory as you'd expect. Hence operators like Black & Red Diamond who are thriving at NXWM's expense. We mused that Stagecoach would do the fleet's image and operation nothing but good, had they merged with the beleaguered group last year. If two transport editors in Lincolnshire can see what NXWM's failings are, you can be assured a Scottish millionaire in his castle will have picked up on it too and want to have a slice of the action.

It is commendable for the chief executive to take personal control of such a large fleet of buses and we're both sure matters will improve. We both also know, however, that efficiencies in engineering are not easy to achieve without first throwing more money at the problem - more parts need to be ordered more quickly; more overtime for fitters and a higher cleaning standard. This cannot be achieved while at the same time saving bucket-loads of money - the commodity NX is struggling for right now.

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