It’s getting harder to attract bus passengers, thanks to congestion. For operators who already use Wi-Fi, on-bus charging and comfy seats, what else can you do to get growth? Transdev Blazefield is using sat-nav on its trail-blazing Cityzap express route
There are a couple of ways to get to Leeds city centre from York. One is to stand up on a shaking, crowded train for 20 minutes, followed by a 10-minute walk. The other is by bus.
Until recently, the bus from York to Leeds and vice versa took well over an hour, with a 20-minute frequency. What's more, it wasn't very clear to the people of each city what it was; it was branded as Coastliner, so non-bus users could be forgiven for thinking it went directly to Yorkshire's seaside towns.
Operator Transdev Blazefield changed things earlier this year by introducing Cityzap: A new brand directly between York and Leeds, an express route that misses the towns and villages served by Coastliner. Cityzap runs every 30 minutes, and now so does Coastliner, creating a 15-minute frequency between the two. But Cityzap is up to 25 minutes faster; the journey takes 45 minutes, non-stop between York and Leeds, creating a much more desirable alternative to the train – and at half the price. “If it was only a few minutes faster, it would be more difficult to see the point of it,” says Transdev Blazefield CEO Alex Hornby. “But 20-25 minutes along fast roads makes a real difference.”
Getting there faster
Cityzap is about achieving growth – a big problem industry-wide, as passengers require more and more to tempt them onto buses, especially with current levels of congestion. “Simply buying new buses doesn’t automatically get the 10% growth that it used to,” says Alex. “You’ve got to do something different on vehicles to get growth.
“Wi-Fi, USB charging and comfy seats are almost the standard now. People expect them, so what else can you do?”
For Cityzap, sat-nav is that something else; it makes the service more reliable and punctual. “It’s not just practical, it’s such a brilliant gimmick,” says Alex. “It turns people’s heads.” As something that most car drivers use, it sends a message to people that using the bus isn’t so different to using their own car. Similarly, Cityzap uses the motorway – which is sufficiently unusual in a bus service to attract local attention.
There’s also the benefit of empowering drivers.
Called ‘ZapNav’, it works by allowing the driver, who has an in-cab Garmin sat-nav monitor, to select either the regular A64 route, or one of three alternatives between Leeds and York – whichever will be fastest according to traffic levels.
The route is registered with three alternatives, which the Traffic Commissioner’s Office has accepted. Each route was devised by the local operations team working with drivers.
Cityzap uses buses new in 2003 with personalised ZAP plates, cascaded from the luxury 36 Leeds-Harrogate brand. They were refurbished for the 36 in 2010 with leather seats, USB points and Wi-Fi, and were taken off the route this year to be replaced by brand new Volvo Wrightbus Gemini 3s (routeONE, News, 27 January).
Transdev considered putting coaches on the route, instead of double-deckers – it worked well with the luxury Red Arrows brand at Trent Barton, where Alex was formerly Commercial Director. But the company wasn’t sure they would communicate the same thing.
“There is hardly any use of coaches on normal service work in these parts,” says Alex. “We were very nervous that our key selling point of ease of use, and turning up and going, would not be communicated as obviously with coaches, especially with it being a new product.”
The buses have been given their own flash red-and-silver livery, complemented by drivers’ red-and-silver waistcoats.
The waistcoats were a 36 idea too. Transdev wanted to differentiate the drivers, but if the whole uniform was 36-branded, what if a 36 driver had to drive a different route? The solution was red-and-black waistcoats with a plain shirt, and the idea works well across the firm’s brands.
Hitting leisure market
Two months from launch, Cityzap is doing even better than predicted. Its most popular days are Friday and Saturday, which is indicative of its popularity with shopping and leisure travellers, particularly as a new John Lewis has recently opened in Leeds – a stone’s throw from the bus station, another benefit over the train.
“The leisure market is easier to reach than the commuter market,” says Alex. “It will take longer to attract commuters – they’re often committed to a routine, perhaps have rail season tickets or long-term city centre parking spaces, so we knew it will take more effort and time to get them. But we’re more than happy with how it’s going so far.”
Cityzap is poised to become part of a bigger picture for Transdev. “Interurban bus travel has major potential for growth,” says Alex. “It’s competitive in terms of comfort and service, and has the ability to compete with on-demand app solutions such as Uber. It also justifies higher fares and higher standards of service, which we see as more of our speciality going forward.
“Attitudes are changing in the way people live and the distance they travel for work or leisure. Interurban routes are generally growing, while local routes are slowing down.
“We don't think this will be the last Cityzap.”
However, it needs the right conditions. Alex remembers his experience at Go South Coast, when the team couldn't quite make its Southampton-Portsmouth express route work; the two cities were too similar and the local populations simply weren’t attracted to either city by bus or coach.
Cityzap works because York and Leeds are very different cities. They each offer different attractions for residents of the other.
‘Amazing’ bus company
Cityzap is part of a wider vision for Transdev. Since Alex joined in February 2015, the company has adopted a vision of being ‘the amazing bus company’, with three aims: To serve people who are proud to be customers, to employ people who are genuinely happy to work for the company, and to be a successful and innovative company. “You can be successful by managing decline,” Alex points out. “We want to be innovative too, to promote bus use, make bus travel better and get more people on board.”
The mission statement itself is short, snappy and non-corporate, but the most important thing is that it’s believable – and staff can see that it’s working.
When we met Alex at the bus stop outside York railway station, he was eagerly eavesdropping on one of his customers informing another what time ‘Cityzap’ would be there. He likes hearing customers saying the name; it’s an indication that the brand is working. The name was chosen because it’s memorable; it appeals to young people while not offending older people; and it accurately conveys what it does.
Route-branding is something Transdev Blazefield is very keen on, but not just in the sense of making the destinations clearer. It’s about creating a product, and a desirable one, and the time for listing special features on the side of the bus – Wi-Fi, USB charging, leather seats – is passed.
“If you think about the brands we buy every day, it's not about listing the ingredients on the side of the packaging,” says Alex. “People feel an affinity with certain brands – they swear by Cadbury's, or Apple, or Head & Shoulders, and buying those brands is part of their whole lifestyle.
“The 36 is a high-quality product. You wouldn't see a list of products sold outside an Apple store. The way it looks and feels communicates a lot more; how it's presented tells you what it does.”
The name 'Cityzap' was chosen to convey what it does – fast travel between cities – but when the company looked at renaming 36, they found it was already a strong brand in itself. “People in Harrogate and Leeds already know it's the aspirational bus,” says Alex. “After all, O2 is just a letter and a number – but, like the 36, it’s a brand and it means more than that.”
Across the Transdev Blazefield business, there will soon be 12 high-profile routes, including 36, Cityzap and the Witch Way. They have certain standards, like Wi-Fi, USB power, dedicated teams and additional customer service training for the drivers.
But what about the rest of the routes?
Transdev Blazefield already trades locally as six subsidiaries, which will be branded as 'the Keighley Bus Company', 'the Harrogate Bus Company', 'the Burnley Bus Company', etc. – the process is already underway, with the Keighley network being overhauled at the moment.
The base routes will still have highly-trained drivers and modern buses, but without some of the frills of the flagship services, partly because they'll typically be serving 10-minute journeys, or perhaps have less scope for growth, where research has identified that the frills aren't seen as important to users.
But the base routes will still have their own brand and character, using local emblems – such as the Yorkshire and Lancashire Roses – and local phrases, including 'stay connected for nowt', 'champion', and 'ey up and away'.
“Buses should be very local,” says Alex. “That's a no-brainer to me.
“Despite being a worldwide mobility provider, Transdev gives us the freedom to be local.”
He adds that the company is aligned with his own beliefs of what a bus company should be – one of the elements that attracted him to the company in February 2015.
The relationship between the global company and its Lancashire and Yorkshire business is one of mutual respect and support, says Alex, and the parent has already benefited from the subsidiary’s ideas.
Blazefield’s staff app was launched last year, designed in conjunction with employees to discern exactly what they wanted and needed from it. It puts the company magazine ‘Red and White Express’ onto their smartphones, along with policies, holidays, staff surveys, vacancies, news and other employee information – and it has already been adopted by the other Transdev companies around the world.
Says Alex: “For the first week I was here, I left my car in depot and went everywhere by bus, introducing myself. Drivers were asking 'what will you do for us, then?' and that summed it up for me: They expect something from me.”
One of the first big projects was the refurbishment of the 36. “Internal communications are really important. We don’t want staff seeing expensive new buses turning up and wondering how we can afford it,” says Alex.
The company has done a lot of work on staff engagement, including getting whole depot teams of drivers, engineers, operations staff and cleaners off the road and out of the garage for the day, at the same time, for a team talk (with cover from other staff).
It’s about asking those people what the company can do to move the business forward and best serve customers, and who better to ask than the people on the ground? It helps to promote their ownership of the business.
“It gets results in terms of growth,” says Alex. “There’s more engagement, more ownership, and more respect for the business.”
There are other results, such as less staff absence, because people are more involved and unwilling to let other staff down. It sees results from cleaner, better-driven buses, to drivers feeling proud to wear a route-branded waistcoat and a name badge.
Alex says: “We don't want people to do something because we tell them to do it. We want them to want to do it, and believe in it.”