Carla Stockton-Jones: ‘Innovation will be key to recovery’

Carla Stockton-Jones, Stagecoach UK MD

Carla Stockton-Jones stepped up to become Stagecoach UK Managing Director in October 2020. Since then, the group has continued to face the challenge of COVID-19. But it is doing a lot more besides. Not least is work to align with the likely expectations of its post pandemic customer base.

Carla joined Stagecoach in February 2020 as Regional Director South of England. Before that she held senior roles with Sky. The media environment in which Sky operates is competitive, and a great onus is placed on customer satisfaction. It could seem that a career move to buses was a jump into the unknown. In some ways it was, Carla says. But there are also many common denominators.

Among her responsibilities at Sky was a van electrification project. “It was there that I started to realise the huge opportunity that comes by reducing carbon footprints,” she says, drawing a parallel with Stagecoach’s work on electrification, including 32 BYD ADL Enviro400EV double-deckers in Manchester as an example.

The transition towards zero-emission is clear, and it is one that will capture every part of the bus industry in time. But Carla believes that the pandemic will bring other changes to the sector. She also places great emphasis on Stagecoach continuing its workforce diversity efforts.

Innovation more important than ever, says Carla Stockton-Jones

Innovation is a precursor to passenger growth. Both are central to the bus industry’s future, Carla believes. While growth may seem a long way away, the importance of continuing to develop products and ideas is clear, she says. As a relative newcomer to buses, she has already observed that innovation is one of the sector’s strong points.

Carla Stockton-Jones, Stagecoach UK MD
Carla Stockton-Jones joined Stagecoach from a sector that was heavily influenced by innovation

“I have been surprised by how much of it goes on, and by how many times it is possible to reimagine what bus travel looks like. The more we invest in innovation, the more customers we will attract.”

The ‘break’ in many people’s lives that the pandemic represents will eventually present an opportunity to use change and innovation in the bus industry as a lever to attract new travellers, she continues.

As an example, Stagecoach’s Busy Bus app is a “game changer.” The group has more technology-based products in the pipeline.

“Customers that are not used to travelling by bus will find that they are able to check times and how many seats are available via app. They are the things that attract new users.”

For Stagecoach, building buses back better has two ultimate objectives. One is reclaiming its base of regular users. The other is attracting newcomers.

But besides innovative steps, more basic work will also be necessary, Carla adds. As protective screens were added to vehicles that did not already have them, interaction between drivers and passengers waned. “We have to get that back,” she says. “Our customer service principles are set in stone. There is work to do on how we get back on track with that focus.”

Government input to recovery process is also imperative

Transport Minister Baroness Vere recently confirmed that a large campaign promoting public transport use will be mounted when the government believes the time is right. That is something Stagecoach welcomes. But it will be just one part of the collaboration between the industry and the public sector that Carla believes is necessary to secure a rosy future for buses.

The level of engagement between operators, local authorities (LAs) and national governments during the pandemic has drawn widespread positive comment. Some of it was mandated by the Traffic Commissioners’ approach to short-notice service registration changes. Some was not.

Carla Stockton-Jones, Stagecoach UK MD
Carla Stockton-Jones observes that the industry must recognise how its relationship with politicians local and national has improved in 2020

“It is important that we acknowledge how the relationship between the industry, LAs and government has improved during COVID-19,” says Carla. “Each party has played its part in making sure that buses have run throughout the pandemic.

“We now need to use that work as a catalyst for how we improve services moving forward. Without an extension of that level of partnership and collaborative working, that will be very difficult to achieve. It’s a tripartite agreement that we must put in place and stick to.”

‘We need to see promises delivered by politicians’

Collaboration will also be key to the release, allocation and delivery of further public money that has been promised to the industry. That includes funding for zero-emission buses, and additionally in Scotland, for priority measures.

While the Scottish Government is moving ahead with its plans, that level of progress is not so obviously the case elsewhere, although Carla acknowledges work on the All Electric Bus Town scheme. Stagecoach operates in both areas – Coventry and Oxford – that it is set to benefit.

Other than that, “we need to see government commitments delivered,” she says. “We have heard the talk and we have seen the plans and some of the initial thinking. Further details on policies and actions are now needed.”

Increased provision of zero-emission buses and infrastructure improvement measures are among the many things that will be key to a successful recovery for the industry. The pandemic has given the wider opportunity to look at how people travel.

Stagecoach South battery-electric bus in Guildford
Zero-emission buses are increasingly coming to the fore; Stagecoach has already placed them into service in a number of locations in the UK

Sustainability, clean air and reduced congestion are all among wider societal aspirations. Stagecoach is already progressing ideas internally that major on those considerations. Some LAs are working ‘on the ground’ to inform policy.

“It is great that we are clear on what the investment is. Now we need to understand more of the detail of what it looks like.”

Diversity is also a key for Stagecoach’s development

While operational challenges posed by the pandemic and work towards recovery occupy a lot of the industry’s managerial resource, Carla is keen that Stagecoach does not forget its commitments in other areas. Diversity of the workforce is one of those.

“If we want to connect with our customers and offer a service that meets their needs, we have got to understand them. We can only do that by being reflective of them in our workforce,” she says.

Ensuring that women and minorities are well represented across the business is one of Stagecoach’s key aims. Its operations board is already equally split between female and male representatives. There is more to do to level the playing field, but “fantastic inroads” have been made already.

Some roles may be more difficult to attract women to, but previous experience has taught Carla that with the correct approach, results can still be delivered.

“At Sky I oversaw the engineering team function. When I took on that role, 2% of engineers were female. In 2018 we set a target: The number would be 20% by 2020. We hit that before I left. Since then, the target has been pushed to 30%. I have no doubt it will be achieved. But a business has to be relentless when pursuing those numbers.”

Carla describes herself as “really passionate” about setting such targets. But they do not come good without major effort on the employer’s side.

“You have to change job adverts. You have to get people into your business and show them around. You have to create training programmes that help individuals who may not have considered your sector as a career choice.

“Then you need to find your organisation’s female role models and have them tell their stories.” Shining a light on the opportunities for women in the coach and bus industry starts at school and college level, she continues. Women at that age should be told that their further studies and apprenticeships can be in subjects such as engineering.

Long-term positivity despite current difficult situation

Despite a uniquely challenging set of circumstances presently, Stagecoach remains confident in the future of the industry.

Carla Stockton-Jones, Stagecoach UK MD
Carla Stockton-Jones says it is a matter of regret to Stagecoach that the UK government has not supported colleagues in the coach sector

Its aspirations for the post-COVID-19 landscape involve a mixture of short- and long-term measures. Carla believes that with the right approach from all involved, there will soon be a prime opportunity for the bus to reassert itself.

She also hopes to see the same for the coach sector despite its current troubles.

“We are hugely disappointed at the lack of government support for coaches, both for ourselves and for our colleagues in the wider sector. Coaches play a vital role in providing essential travel for many people.”

That aside, under the leadership of Carla Stockton-Jones, Stagecoach stands ready to work with its partners and peers to spread the good word of coach and bus. “If we can collectively turn things around and make an impact on decarbonisation by changing people’s behaviours, that would be a huge measure of our success as an industry.”