As driver and engineering employment issues continue to affect the industry, one Yorkshire-based bus company has sought to mitigate the effects with a refreshing approach
Cameron Cliff is a PCV Technician working for Bradford-based TLC Travel. He’s also the son of Barry Cliff, General Manager of TLC Travel.
Callum Scott is a Workshop Assistant and Engineering Apprentice with TLC Travel. He’s Barry Cliff’s nephew.
Wendy Cliff carries out all TLC Travel’s training as well as ensuring the company’s compliance. She’s Barry’s wife, and Cameron’s mum.
And then there’s Sophie Lambert. She is TLC Travel’s Commercial Manager. But she’s not related to the Cliff family at all. She’s the daughter of Trish Lambert, TLC’s Managing Director.
And then there are several spouses and other relatives of the company’s drivers and engineers who also form part of the team.
Barry, a straight-talking Yorkshireman, smiles when he comes to the end of who’s related to whom in the business.
“I suppose you could say we’ve always looked at different ways to attract staff,” he says. “Trish has always been employee orientated. I might describe how we look after our people as mollycoddling them. If anyone has an issue, especially drivers, we try and sort it. Trish has been like that from the first time I met her, back in 2000.”
AccessBus sows the seed
Trish, who had worked for Yorkshire Rider, set up Trish Lambert Coaches (TLC) in 2000. She knew how the local authority tendering processes worked and wanted to win the next round of tenders for the AccessBus network in Bradford. She was successful. The network was and is operated by Metro, then West Yorkshire PTE, now the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA).
But with the AccessBus network came Barry Cliff, then a supervisor. Trish could see Barry’s potential, and the rest, as Barry notes, is history.
“The AccessBus network maintains people’s mobility,” explains Barry. “It’s social and friendly, two aspects that relate to why Trish got involved in the first place. This business has been built on that ethos. Our core value today is customer service. As an organisation we build good relationships with suppliers. The WYCA awards the AccessBus contracts based on added value and service, as well as price. That focus has brought us continued success and, in addition to Bradford, we now operate AccessBus services in Leeds, Wakefield, Kirklees and Calderdale.
The family link
But it doesn’t fully explain why so many of Barry’s family are in the business.
“We’re a smallish business, operating a daily PVR of 30 on AccessBus and 26 on service work,” explains Barry. “Most of our operations are the AccessBus services, but we also operate around 20 buses on contracted service work in Huddersfield, Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Bradford. The non-AccessBus fleet carries a blue and cream livery, a throwback to the days of the erstwhile Bradford City Transport, an idea that came from Trish. We have around 120 people. We know everyone, so it feels like a family from the off. But when we found ourselves wondering how to fill gaps, either in the driving or engineering teams, we realised we might have the answers close to home.”
Barry explains that his son, Cameron, who’s now 27, started working for the company in 2016 as a cleaner.
“It started off simply being extra money for him, but he soon expressed an interest in engineering. In 2019 he started a three-year heavy diesel apprenticeship which I’m delighted to say he passed with distinction. He’s now an integral member of the team, working alongside our experienced workshop technicians and demonstrating an enthusiasm for fleet management.”
The newest member of the workshop team is Callum Scott, Barry’s nephew.
“Callum joined us in 2022 as a workshop assistant,” says Barry. “He has embraced the workshop environment with professionalism and an enthusiasm to learn and is now looking forward to starting an apprenticeship.”
But although it was the family connections that prompted Barry to get in touch with routeone in the first place, there are other members of the team who, having joined as youngsters, look set to bring benefits to the business in the years to come.
Jonathan Starley is a stage carriage driver with TLC, the use of the term stage carriage being deliberate to differentiate the role from driving on AccessBus routes.
“Jonathan started out as a bus enthusiast,” says Barry. “Five years ago, aged 16, he approached us to do some work experience. He completed a two-week stint in the office assisting with administrative duties and getting a feel for life at a small bus operator. In 2022, while studying at college, he came back to us as a paid member of the cleaning team. He’d recognised that a desk job wasn’t his cup of team so then became a workshop assistant. Earlier this year we put him through his PCV training and now he’s a valuable and confident member of the driver team working across all our operations.”
Responding to a question about why he likes working for TLC Travel, Jonathan says: “This is a nice community of people to work with. I’m happy what I’m doing and I love the job, helping people out.”
Waiting list and flexibility
Trish Lambert, who wasn’t able to be with Barry on the day of the routeone visit, says: “We understand the importance of attracting young people to the bus industry, not just as passengers, but as employees too. A career in the industry can be challenging but fulfilling. By facilitating young people to join and then encourage them to follow a path that suits their interests we can create a loyal and skilled workforce that will benefit the industry as a whole.”
Barry explains that the way the company looks after it’s people means there’s always been a waiting list for drivers.
“The word gets round that we’re a company that values its staff,” he says. “We offer flexibility and quick decision-making. We don’t aim to compete with other operators, instead focusing on contracted services. Our wage rates are at a level that the contracts stack up to. But it’s not just about the pay, it’s the flexibility we offer too.”
The training element of the business, managed as mentioned above by Barry’s wife, Wendy, remains extremely important.
“Our AccessBus training highlights the importance of drivers getting out of their cab to assist passengers, especially those with disabilities,” continues Barry. “We use that training across the board. We’re a smaller company so we have time to do this.”
Looking for a small EV
TLC Travel has no full-size single-deck buses or any double-deck buses. The AccessBus fleet, owned by Metro and operated by TLC, is all Optare Solos. Making up the remainder of the fleet are ADL Enviro200s, a Mellor Strata/Sprinter and three EVM Sprinters rented from Dawsongroup Bus and Coach. The introduction of the Bradford Clean Air Zone in the spring of 2022 saw all the AccessBus fleet retrofitted to comply with Euro VI by Eminox.
Looking ahead, what are Barry’s views on electric vehicles?
“We’re open minded and we’ve had a look to see what introducing EVs would mean for our main Bradford depot. There’s talk of a hydrogen supply in the city. Might that work for us? At the moment it’s vehicle availability and range that’s an issue for us. Our ideal vehicle, to cope with the rural roads and villages, is a short, narrow bus with good range, a 7’ 2” EV Solo perhaps! We’re watching the new Sigma with interest.”
As for the business in general, Barry says he doesn’t want to grow massively.
“After 20 years, stability is important. We just get on with it, investing where we need to. We’re working towards DVSA Earned Recognition.”
So how is the whole family vibe? Is it working?
“It’s working very well,” says Barry, smiling. “Mind you, when it comes to holiday time and spouses and relatives all want time of together, well, that can be a challenge. I also look back and wonder if I should have given Cameron placements with other operators to gain experience. But you know what, I’m pleased we’re able to give people a good start on their careers. We’ve always looked at different ways to attract staff. That’s not going to change.”