Blackpool Transport pushes on with five-year plan

Blackpool Transport is in the midst of overhauling what it delivers via its bus network. A total fleet replacement is a key part of that, with 15 more additions now in service as part of a five-year plan

Partnership working’s importance has been underlined by Blackpool Transport. On Monday 24 June, the number of new buses that Alexander Dennis (ADL) has supplied to the operator since 2016 was taken to 88, and they form part of a plan to benefit the Fylde community at large.

The most recent additions are 15 more Enviro200s. They complement 17 already in service and run alongside 55 Enviro400 City double-deckers. All are to a high specification, and they carry the operator’s discrete Palladium livery.

They form part of a commitment to operating no buses that are more than five years old, which will become reality in 2020. The operator is already formulating a plan to sell the first Enviro400 Citys. That may sound odd, but it’s part of a wider social picture, says MD Jane Cole.

Social needs

Mrs Cole came into post in 2014, joining from the rail industry. “I didn’t realise the enormity of the task at the time, but with Blackpool Council’s help we have been able to meet a societal need for transport,” she says.

Coming from a customer service background, the first thing that Mrs Cole did was to examine whether Blackpool Transport was serving its users as well as it could have been. No, was the answer. The product was stale and a diverse fleet was problematical.

The project to enforce a maximum fleet age was born almost immediately. By approaching it aggressively, the operator has improved what it delivers to passengers. The new buses bring various amenities, with the intention that each batch should be slightly better than its predecessors.

To that end, the 15 newest Enviro200s have Lazzerini seats with a console that includes a phone holder and both USB and wireless charging. Potential exists to relocate stop request buttons to the same unit, allowing the removal of stanchions and a tidying of the saloon.

Audio-visual next stop announcements are fitted to all 88 Enviros. The new buses have a screen that is easily visible by a wheelchair user; a more minor fitting is a bank-style ‘talk through’ slot in the anti-assault screen to enhance communication between the driver and passengers.

Why ADL?

When she arrived in Blackpool, one of Mrs Cole’s aspirations was to see a New Routemaster equivalent in the town. The Enviro400 City was designed to fulfil a similar brief in terms of appearance, but it is not just the product’s aesthetics that drove its purchase. Instead, the overall partnership approach that ADL majors on ticked Blackpool Transport’s boxes. There is no multi-year framework in place; each deal is done separately, and Mrs Cole says that ADL is not guaranteed next year’s order.

However, the positives of sourcing many buses that are mechanically very similar are clear. The requirement to hold a huge parts stock has disappeared, and Blackpool Transport is fully engaged with the AD Connect fleet management platform.

As used in Blackpool, it delivers telematics and a host of other good things. Additionally, the operator pays ADL a monthly fee per bus for parts, and the manufacturer deals with the rest from its Skelmersdale premises.

Delivering results

Particularly during the summer, parts availability is an important consideration for Blackpool Transport. Fylde sees a huge influx of seasonal visitors. Users are divided into two metrics: Those that live locally and those who are visiting.

Challenges such as a long-term rail closure and poor weather make drawing a like-for-like comparison of visiting passenger numbers difficult. Doing the same for those who live locally is easier, and the operator has seen a noticeable rise in their levels of usage.

In the longer term, visitor numbers to Blackpool are likely to increase. The town is on the cusp of major regeneration. To service that, it must have a public transport system that is fit for purpose, and a partnership approach that involves numerous stakeholders is already delivering.

Insistence on a vehicle age cap is also part of the operator’s longer-term planning. Zero-emission is the endgame, but Mrs Cole acknowledges that while the BYD ADL product is an attractive one, it cannot currently deliver the range required by the operator.

The move to a five-year maximum fleet age is merely an initial part of what Blackpool Transport sees as the future of public transport on the Fylde coast. By engaging – with both its customers and its key vehicle supplier – it is well on the way to delivering a step change in the area’s bus network.

routeone comment

Gone are the days when bus companies were operationally led. Now, a focus on the customer’s needs is the only way to deliver a business that can flourish when faced with all the challenges that are an integral part of today’s industry.

Doing that is one part of the ongoing transformation at Blackpool Transport. It has realigned to focus on the passenger, as shown by its vehicle procurement policy: Buy them, run them for five years, get rid. Rinse and repeat, taking advantage of advancements in technology in the meantime.

Turning a fleet over in five years is not a model that will export to many other places. But the overall approach is transferable.

Could it be the salvation of bus operators in other parts of the country? Possibly. But it will only be delivered by a commitment to partnership working – from the operator and the local authority alike.