20 March 2011

Where next?

Stagecoach announced last week that it is to join the ranks of the others in the bus industry's 'big five' by fitting equipment to the dashboard of each of its non-London buses, advice to drivers on how fuel-efficiently they're driving.

First, Go-Ahead and Arriva have already adopted similar technology on their buses and National Express is rolling the system out to its franchised coach network, too. Some even use the same Green Road system that Stagecoach is to fit as standard, following a successful trial at its Barrow-in-Furness depot last year.

In addition, Stagecoach has joined the likes of First in offering its workforce a financial sweetner for driving more efficiently, sharing a pot of up to £900,000 annually, with the potential for this to equate to £65 per driver as a Christmas bonus - provided s/he's been good all year! Clearly, with almost one million pounds in rewards, Stagecoach (like the others) see massive benefits to the environment, their bank balance and their drivers' morale by introducing such a scheme.

Setting aside the pros and cons, I've been pondering lately about what next bus and coach operators can do in order to save money. Once all their employees are driving as fuel-efficiently as it is possible to make them do, how else are they going to improve their profit? More fuel-efficient engines have been introduced (although they typically require more fuel to produce less CO2!); bus design has become more aerodynamic to reduce drag and increase fuel economy; advances in vehicle suspension have helped to ensure less damage is done to the road and fewer expensive repair bills to the vehicles themselves; and more examples of one-size-fits all for mechanical components ensures economies of scale when filling up the engineering stores.

Add to this the likely savings these multi-nationals believe they will make with the introduction of more eco-friendly driving by their workforce and I am struggling to come up with what the next 'revolutionary' method of saving money while being kinder to the environment (and their shareholders) will be. There's not a lot of meat left on the bone as it is, yet the City will demand its pound of flesh each and every year and these operators need to deliver.

I cringe a little when I hear talk of efficiency savings. The unfortunate by-product is that such a statement implies everything is inefficient now. To increase the number of trains along the ECML, Network Rail claims it scheduled more efficiently. Should it not have been doing this from the start? To imply computer software has improved it also misleading: there are only so many trains you can operate along a track at any one given time. Turnaround times at stations can be improved upon for sure, though this very often increases the likelihood of poor reliability when inbound delays occur.

Perhaps the bus industry will look here for greater savings? It's hard to see how when reduced running times and fewer minutes at each terminus will force drivers to be less fuel-efficient in order to maintain their timetables. Euro 6-rated engines are about to hit the streets, so perhaps greater savings can be made here? I suspect not. The engine compartments need to be larger to accommodate the new technological gubbins and in some body designs, will reduce the overall capacity of a double decker by up to 10 seats - hardly more efficient. The 'big five' have made no secret of the fact that they're all very suspicious of the supposed long-term benefits.

Will the next bout of savings to both the environment and operators' bank balances be a joint effort between a multitude of minor advances, culminating in one big financial saving? Or will they just limit the amount of money on the table at each and every pay negotiation over the next half-decade? It will be fascinating to see what each comes up with.

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