CPT Scotland welcomed delegates from operating companies, suppliers, manufacturers and local transport authorities to the shores of Loch Lomond for its 2014 Conference, with the focus very much on the future of coach and bus travel.
There are neither border controls, nor worries about the need for currency exchange. Welcome to post-referendum Scotland where, on the face of things, there’s nothing different in the wake of the ‘No’ vote.
But, as the political fall-out continues, the pressure for change simply won’t go away, raising a level of uncertainty that forced CPT Scotland to delay its annual conference until after the vote.
Meanwhile the organisers opted for a change of venue, moving the conference held on 6-7 October to the Cameron House Hotel on Loch Lomond. They also crafted an agenda that better equips the delegates as they gaze into the crystal ball for clues as to what the future holds for the coach and bus industry north of the border.
It was appropriate, therefore, that the opening speaker was Keith Brown MSP who, having thrown his hat into the ring as potential SNP deputy leader, is probably fast approaching the end of his four-year reign as Minister for Transport and Veterans.
Mr Brown is no stranger to the CPT Scottish Conference, though he reflected on what has been a momentous year not only politically but in terms of events, and he wasted no time in congratulating the industry on its success in providing transport for the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup.
In response to a plea for partnerships to be â€œat the front and centre of all discussionsâ€ by CPT Scotland Chair and Lothian Buses’ Head of Operations Sarah Boyd, Mr Brown moved to quell any lingering fears that the prospect of franchising would gain any traction.
When introducing the minister, Ms Boyd had branded last year’s proposals by East Lothian MSP Iain Gray for a Private Members Bill on the subject as â€œunwanted and unworkable.â€
However, with the referendum vote still fresh in his memory, the outcomes of negotiations with the UK Government on the shape of the devolution package were clearly of greater concern to Mr Brown. He said: â€œIt would be surprising if transport wasn’t part of it.â€
Representing one of Scotland’s most significant operators, Ian Craig, Chief Executive of Transport for Edinburgh [pictured], followed the minister.
Mr Craig branded 2014 as a â€œdefining year in the development of public transport in Edinburghâ€ and explained that Transport for Edinburgh was not an authority but a vehicle for integrating bus, tour buses and tram services.
However, he put getting to know the local authority-owned company’s customers as the central theme of his keynote address.
With a 96% satisfaction level recorded in the recent Passenger Focus survey, Mr Craig pointed to mobile ticketing, a journey planner app and engagement with the community as significant drivers.
Nevertheless he warned that in connection with the use of smart media, consumer habits are changing, â€œand changing fast.â€
Turning to the fundamental requirements that enable operators to run punctual and reliable services, Mr Craig repeated the ‘four Ps’ advocated by Brian Souter at a previous Scottish Conference â€“ i.e. priority, parking, park-and-ride and planning. â€œThese are just as important,â€ he said.
And, in a plea to local government, he said: â€œThey must consider what influence their plans are having on the development of bus services.â€
Speaking of the momentum behind the industry’s improved environmental performance, he appealed for the Green Bus Fund and the Bus Investment Fund to be maintained, adding that â€œthe prospect of full-electric is too tempting a prospect not to go after.â€
Demonstrating that the Scottish industry is keen to learn the lessons from elsewhere, the second half of the first day of the conference was devoted to a panel session entitled ‘Patronage growth through partnership’.
Ably and enthusiastically chaired by Alex Warner of Flash Forward Consulting, the panel consisted of Paul Lynch (Managing Director, Stagecoach Yorkshire), Phil Southall (Managing Director, Oxford Bus) and David Sidebottom (Passenger Team Director, Passenger Plus).
Messrs Lynch and Southall described the difficult backgrounds that had to be overcome before two different partnership schemes could be implemented.
In South Yorkshire a voluntary agreement covers the Sheffield network, discouraging the local authority proposals for a Quality Contract, while the Oxford scheme came about because the county council threatened to ban buses from the city centre. Both rely on the continuing commitment of the relevant personalities, but success in terms of increased passenger numbers point to successful outcomes that are in the best interests of the travelling public.
Although in both Sheffield and Oxford the road to reaching agreement was far from easy, the results are impressive â€“ 22m for infrastructure, 160 new buses and 4% modal shift in Sheffield; 98% satisfaction and 28% more passenger journeys in Oxford where smart ticketing is established.
The contactless revolution is the next challenge for the Sheffield partnership, though changing attitudes could easily result in m-ticketing becoming the preferred option.
David Sidebottom effectively pulled the Lothian, Sheffield and Oxford presentations together when he explained how the Bus Passenger Surveys conducted by Passenger Focus worked and how the data obtained provided benchmarks to measure the success of individual operators, schemes or specific initiatives.
It was the turn of a second minister to tee-off the business sessions on day two: Fergus Ewing, Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism.
Mr Ewing spoke of the importance to the Scottish economy of tourism by coach, while a strong emphasis on coaches characterised the content of a presentation by CPT President and Managing Director of Alpine Travel Chris Owen.
Alex Warner returned to the platform as one of three speakers who brought the conference to a close.
His theme was customer service and he was followed by Andrew Anderson, TfL’s Business Design Manager, who spoke about the successful launch of contactless payments on all TfL services.
The final speaker was Dr Paul Redmond of Manchester University.
Dr Redmond provided an insight into the changing needs and aspirations of the graduate labour market.
Concluding the proceedings, CPT Scotland Vice Chairman Andrew Jarvis put the conference in context saying: â€œScottish people are passionate about building a better tomorrow. We are keen to learn the lessons from elsewhere.â€