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October 03 2018
By Tim Deakin

Tim is Editor of routeone and has worked in both the coach and bus and haulage industries.

Scottish affairs debated at 43rd CPT conference

The CPT Scottish Conference is the top annual event for coach and bus operators in the country to consider future challenges. Stagecoach co-founded Sir Brian Souter addressed the 140 delegates

The Trump Turnberry Hotel was the venue for this year’s conference

You could be forgiven for thinking that as far as the Scottish coach and bus industry is concerned it’s a case of having to brace yourself in the face of some very strong headwinds.

Certainly, there are some well-reported challenges that affect Scotland every bit as much as the do the rest of the United Kingdom.

But as Chairman of the Confederation of Passenger Transport’s Scottish Council Robert Andrew set the scene for the 43rd Scottish conference, it was clear that, among other things, there are potential threats in a new Transport Bill planned by the Scottish Government.

Reflecting on the volume of change affecting Scotland, Mr Andrew, who is Managing Director – Scotland of Stagecoach UK Bus, told the conference: “I’ve never experienced such a level of intervention.”

Good attendance

Held on Monday and Tuesday (1-2 October) amid the salubrious surroundings of the Trump Turnberry Hotel on the rain and windswept Ayrshire coast, the conference attracted 140 delegates who at least had the prospect of some worthwhile networking and a grand evening banquet to look forward to, not to mention a round of golf on the iconic course.

But urgent issues of franchising, BSOG payments and concessionary fare reimbursement were never far from the surface. All of that comes against a backdrop of declining patronage, the constant battle against congestion and the onset of low emission zones.

So when Stagecoach co-founder Sir Brian Souter took to the lectern, there was an air of expectation that the mood was about to be lifted. And he didn’t disappoint. In his own inimitable style, Sir Brian lifted the conference with a wake-up call that made a mockery of anyone who doubted that the bus industry has a positive future.

Commercial leader?

Given that Sir Brian is no stranger to the Scottish Conference, he had the clear advantage of speaking on home turf. He galvanised the audience by making a strong case for the commercial Scottish coach and bus sector as a leader in entrepreneurial drive and innovation.

In a concrete analysis of how Stagecoach rode the trends to its advantage, he concluded his crystal clear analysis by saying: “Historical trends continue unless something fundamental happens to change them.

“New trends started to emerge about three years ago and three things are coming together: Internet sales, home working and disruptions such as Uber.”

Sir Brian Souter sees ‘serious opportunities’ for interurban operations

He then asked a question: “What do we do next?”

However, Sir Brian wasn’t throwing the question out for debate. Instead, interspersed with a characteristic mix of anecdotes and analogies, he provided the tonic that delegates needed.

He also provided much food for thought as he warned against looking to excuses and, with Transport for Greater Manchester in mind, warned against ignoring the lessons of the past.

“It has to be something radical,” he says.

Interurban presents serious opportunities, according to Sir Brian, and he refers to small vehicles as “interesting.”

In what at first appeared to be tongue-in-cheek, he developed his concept of “interesting” by linking a string of trends – the gig economy, electric propulsion, none-PSV vehicles and franchising.

Forward thinking

Nevertheless, is soon emerged that he was taking a pragmatic, forward-thinking stance, believing that sooner or later something radical will emerge. However, he had one very important proviso. “You have to be the point of discovery for your bus passengers,” he warns.

In other words, the bus industry has to raise its game and seek alliances with retailers and planned to ensure that whatever developments emerge, they serve the bus industry rather than vice-versa.

Sir Brian lifted the industry’s spirits further by pointing to the current low state of the sector’s share prices, suggesting that they represent “incredible opportunities for those looking to expand.

“It won’t happen any time soon because of what’s going on in rail, but we need to get off our knees and demonstrate to investors that there is money to be made out of running buses.”

routeone comment

The CPT Scottish conference took place against a background of work continuing on the Transport Bill, the National Transport Strategy, Glasgow’s Low Emission Zone, Scottish City Deals and reviews of the shape and scope of the National Concessionary Travel Scheme, the Green Bus Fund and BSOG.

But let us not forget the social side, an important part of gatherings such as this one.The surroundings are convivial, and that leads to some open and friendly debate. And that’s not to mention the extremely valuable opportunity of meeting like-minded industry professionals.

No matter what sector you are engaged in, those who attend can be sure of a very warm welcome and two very worthwhile days.

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