First UK Bus moves forward in the right direction

Posted: 6 May 2015 | Giles Fearnley, Managing Director of FirstGroup’s UK Bus division

Managing Director of FirstGroup’s UK Bus division, Giles Fearnley, tells Intelligent Transport how his plan to improve the business and increase passenger numbers is working…

First UK Bus moves forward in the right direction

I raised a few eyebrows in the industry when I joined First in 2011. Many had written First off, its reputation at rock bottom, starved of investment with a culture of cuts and price hikes. Actually the decision to join First was an easy one. Firstly, the potential of First Bus is almost limitless and I always suspected that eventually someone would lead a successful transformation. Secondly, I knew First had some terrific people. The commitment and talent of my colleagues at First is fantastic. Their dedication to the business and the lengths they will go to improve bus services for customers is extraordinarily remarkable and, for me as a prospective new employee at First back in 2011, completely compelling.

Over the course of the last four years we’ve looked at every single aspect of the organisation. Our investment programme, engineering, customer service, driver training, ticketing, stakeholder relations, our culture, and so on. We’re leaving no stone unturned. I’m very proud of the progress that we have made, but the job is far from complete, we have lots still to do and lots of goals to achieve.

Our overarching strategy is a simple one based on a very straightforward premise – improving bus services will attract greater volumes of customers. Underpinning the strategy was our ‘Better Journeys for Life’ customer promise. We recognised that we need to give customers greater incentives and better journeys in order to travel with us.

Our first task was to ensure we were doing the basics. Running to a published timetable is absolutely fundamental to the success of any public transport operator. Across all of our depots we’ve introduced various programmes all designed to ensure that the punctuality and reliability of our services improves. The results have been really pleasing – breakdowns, defects, lost mileage have all significantly rallied contributing to some dramatic performance improvements.

Investment in new vehicles is pivotal. We know that customers prefer to travel in modern, comfortable, fit for purpose buses. That’s why in just four years we’ve invested £310 million on more than 2,000 vehicles, replacing almost a third of our fleet. And as I write we are close to confirming another significant order for new vehicles for delivery in 2015/16. I’m particularly proud that with our partners, WrightGroup, we helped bring to market one of the world’s most fuel efficient buses, the micro-hybrid, which we are now successfully operating across the country.

Travelling on our buses is more comfortable and enjoyable. All our new vehicles are fitted with free on-board Wi-Fi, which enables customers to keep connected whilst on the move. It has been extremely popular and is a key tool in encouraging people to use the bus. All our new buses are also fitted with leather seats, extra grab rails and more space for wheelchair users and customers with buggies.

We recognise just how important it is that bus services are accessible for all customers – indeed we are leading the industry in improving bus travel for disabled customers. We are working with Disability Action Alliance, RNIB, the Alzheimer’s Society and other disability groups to understand how we can provide better services. In 2014 we became the first bus operator to sign the RNIB’s bus charter. Each of our 13,500 drivers is receiving training so that they better understand some of the obstacles people with sight issues overcome when using the bus.

We also work closely with the Alzheimer’s Society and have implemented a module to our driver training programme so that our front-line staff can provide assistance, if needed, to customers who have dementia. And, we’ve worked with Disability Action Alliance and Age UK and introduced ‘Safe Journey Cards’, which discreetly allow customers to let drivers know if they need extra help or assistance on their journeys. The cards indicate, for example, that a customer may need extra time to find a seat, is hard of hearing, or may need help in identifying their correct stop. Such has been their success that Safe Journey Cards have been adopted by the bus industry in general.

Technology too has a huge role to play in making services more accessible. I’m very excited about a trial that’s ongoing with our partners CPT and Arriva which could revolutionise bus travel for blind and visually impaired passengers. The ‘BUSFORUS’ app is being trialled in West Yorkshire and provides users with real-time audio and visual alert notifications, direct to the handset. It means passengers know exactly where they are on a journey and at which stop to get off. We have very high hopes for it.

One of the most important strands to our improvement strategy is ticketing. Whilst I think there will always be a place for cash transactions, there can be no escaping our customer’s enthusiasm for alternatives. The introduction of m-Ticketing across all our businesses has been a huge success. It allows customers to pay for bus travel via their mobile phone via the First Bus Mobile Ticket app. Customers simply need to show the driver their ticket displayed on their mobile phone screens. It’s been tremendously popular as customers recognise the benefits of not having to provide the correct change, worry about losing their tickets and ensure they buy the ticket that best suits their travel patterns. For us, the benefits are also huge – it’s helping attract new customers, is speeding up boarding times and is changing the relationship between ourselves and the customer. A passenger paying cash will remain largely anonymous to us, but m-Ticketing allows interaction and two way communication. Roll out of m-Ticketing was completed in November 2014 and already we are selling around 45,000 m-Tickets a month.

Meanwhile, we’ve launched smartcard ticketing schemes with partners in Bristol, West Yorkshire and in the Solent. In addition, in partnership with other bus operators we are working hard behind the scenes to introduce smart ticketing across England’s largest regions.

We’ve also recognised the fundamental role that our front line colleagues have in improving our business. A warm smile, a ‘how are you’ or a ‘take care’ – in essence a welcoming friendly driver will lead to better journeys, improved customer satisfaction and ultimately more passengers. I’ve lost count of the number of times a customer has told me that their driver made their day, simply by being friendly. We’ve invested in a new driver training programme, which has been awarded the highly prestigious City and Guilds accreditation, and roll out across our businesses begins in the next few weeks. Of course its emphasis remains on safety, however, there is a far greater focus placed on a driver’s customer service skills. Indeed across many of our businesses our recruitment ads are not looking for candidates with PCV licences, we are looking for customer service agents! That customer service focus reflects our entire organisation, including our back office support. Absolutely every decision is taken with the customer at the forefront.

Pricing too is crucial to attracting customers. Many of our local businesses have reduced fares contributing massively to increases in passenger volumes. In Bristol for instance we launched our ‘fairer fares’ consultation which gave customers and the general public an opportunity to tell us what they thought. We listened, made some changes and as a result, one year later passenger volumes are up by more than 17%.

We’ve also recognised just how critical good partnerships are to our businesses. The secret in unlocking the full potential of the bus is through powerful partnerships. I believe through the work of operators, CPT, Greener Journeys and others its only now that local authorities and politicians are becoming aware just how fundamental buses are to successful local economies. Sixty per cent of all public transport journeys are undertaken by bus, more than three times the number of rail passenger journeys. And 29% of all city centre spending is by bus users with an average spend of £54 per trip. We’re forging ever closer relationships with key stakeholders, in particular local authority partners, across our networks. Perhaps the most successful and high profile UK partnership is in Sheffield. First and Stagecoach together with South Yorkshire’s Integrated Transport Authority, its Passenger Transport Executive and Sheffield City Council joined forces in 2012 and in partnership delivered a single, stable network with co-ordinated timetables, backed by significant investment in vehicles, bus stops, routes and traffic management. As a result fare paying passengers increased by almost 10% in the first 18 months and car traffic has reduced by 2%.

We’ve plenty still to achieve across all aspects of our business. However, the plan is working. In our trading statement issued to the stock market on 1 April 2015, we announced passenger volumes are likely to increase by 1.1% this year. That’s a fantastic achievement especially when you consider that many of our businesses operate in areas yet to really experience economic recoveries.

The recent ‘Bus Passenger Survey’ results, the industry’s passenger satisfaction barometer, gave me added confidence that our plan is working; 86% of First Bus passengers said they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly satisfied’, equalling our record. We also recorded a 17% increase over two years for satisfaction for value for money. Our own passenger satisfaction monitoring points to a similarly improved performance.

Four years after starting my career at First, I’m hugely proud of the progress we’ve made. Our achievements reflect the incredible commitment and talent of my colleagues – they have driven the changes and implemented the improvements required to turn our organisation around. We’ve much to accomplish and there will inevitably be pitfalls ahead, there always are, but I’m satisfied that First Bus is not just on the right road, our foot is now firmly on the accelerator.


In 1991 Giles Fearnley led the management buy-out of Blazefield Holdings which operated bus networks principally across Yorkshire and Lancashire, UK. He remained as Chief Executive for two years following the Group’s sale to Transdev plc in 2006. In the mid-90s, Giles took a ‘sabbatical’ into the rail industry and was one of the founders of Prism Rail PLC, which came to operate four passenger rail franchises in the UK. He was appointed its Chief Executive in 1997 and led the Group prior to its sale in 2000 to National Express. Most recently he served as Chairman of Grand Central, the open access rail operator prior to its sale to DB in 2011. Until January 2011 Giles was Chairman of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, having also been a past President of the organisation. He is also past Chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies. He formerly chaired Journey Solutions, the bus and rail industry initiative to promote integration and also chairs Greener Journeys, the UK bus and coach industry’s campaign to promote modal shift from cars to buses and coaches. Giles joined FirstGroup in February 2011 as its Managing Director responsible for their UK Bus division.

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