Fighting for London

London’s infrastructure problems have had a detrimental effect on coach passengers, and caused major headaches for operators. But Clarkes of London will not give up its fight for the capital, and the business is ready for the challenges of the coming season. Jessamy Chapman reports

New i8 from Irizar UK has just been delivered

They say that London is a ‘bubble’, and what has been happening there economically in the last five years is certainly a different story to the rest of the UK.

But while London work has been buoyant for a lot of the London operators, the logistics of moving people around the city have become so difficult that it’s no wonder some are close to despair. The coming season certainly looks as if it will be a challenging one, for a number of reasons.

However, at Clarkes of London, Managing Director Debbie Newman is looking forward to the summer and all the challenges it will bring.

Ready for the season

From the moment you pass through the gates, Clarkes stands out as an accomplished operator. The depot is well organised, every coach has its own bay (and its own assigned driver), and they’re all sparklingly clean. Every member of the office staff seems polite and friendly, and Debbie has heartfelt praise for them all.

The professionalism of the business is due to the skill and commitment of the entire team, she says; the driving force, the support staff and the management team. It’s this experience and knowledge that allows the company to successfully undertake the diverse range of work within its portfolio.

When routeONE visited earlier in the spring, Clarkes was already a hive of activity. Driver CPC training was underway, the recruitment process was in full swing, vehicles were being deep-cleaned to the highest standards, the computer system was being upgraded, the website re-vamped, and management meetings had been planned far ahead. Now that the season is kicking in, everything is in place and running like clockwork.

Fleet is made up of vehicles from two manufacturers, Irizar and Mercedes-Benz

“I feel extremely lucky that the people we have within our organisation are second to none – especially the driving force, who I believe are the best in the business,” says Debbie. “This is also true of our management team.

“The previous generations just got on and did the job, but these days there is so much red tape that it is imperative you dot all the ‘i’s and cross all the ‘t’s. The industry cannot afford to be stuck in the ‘old ways of the old days’ – it needs to progress, because if you’re not moving forward, you’re certainly going to get left behind.

“Getting younger people into the industry is imperative; it needs a breath of fresh air. It’s all about raising the bar.”

Investing in people

“At the end of last summer we identified the need for a higher standard of Driver CPC training,” says Debbie. The entire programme has now been brought in-house, delivered by Clarkes’ HR and training staff in their well-equipped and refurbished training room. The programme has been developed to suit Clarkes’ requirements, and customer service features prominently – Clarkes has an enviable reputation in this area, which it intends to maintain and refine.

A hot topic and important subject for CPC training is Safe Urban Driving and Cycle Awareness. With much of London’s road network being dug up for Cycle Superhighways, it’s a major concern for Clarkes and its fellow London operators. “It’s no good just complaining about it; it’s not going to go away, so you have to put yourself in a position to see things from the cyclist’s perspective.” As a result, all Clarkes’ drivers have undertaken cycle awareness training as part of their DCPC.

Debbie Newman: ‘Being unable to set-down and pick-up on red routes is an issue that needs resolving’

Clarkes is committed to its people, and has invested in extra training for many drivers to RoSPA Advanced Driver ‘Gold’ status. It has also had three staff certified as Driving Assessors. “We operate in the most challenging of driving conditions, and we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to maintain and improve safety standards,” says Debbie.

When it comes to training and development, the support staff are not neglected either. Members of the office team have recently gained qualifications or attended courses in health and safety, accountancy, interviewing skills and people management, while the engineering team have also attended manufacturer training to maintain and enhance their skills, and to ensure that they keep abreast of the ever-changing technological developments.

It is common knowledge that the industry is suffering from a shortage of drivers, and Clarkes has had to become more innovative in order to attract driving talent from various backgrounds, creating an induction programme that will allow new staff to develop into competent and professional coach drivers.

A lack of accountability

Returning to the subject of Cycle Superhighways, London’s road network, and the lack of coach parking in London, Debbie has plenty to say. These are factors that make it a real headache operating large vehicles in central London.

We are sympathetic to the cyclists’ plight, but it seems that at the moment the cyclists have won the battle and it is to the detriment of all other road users

She says: “We are sympathetic to the cyclists’ plight, but it seems that at the moment the cyclists have won the battle and it is to the detriment of all other road users.

“Cyclists are often responsible for accidents, for instance when they jump red lights. We have CCTV on all of our vehicles – it’s a necessity. We have footage of cyclists hanging on to our vehicles and letting the coach pull them along.

“But when an accident occurs, they have no insurance, just as they have no MoT or vehicle tax. They are not even obliged to register their contact details, or to wear helmets or hi-vis.

“In these days of health and safety, surely they must be accountable for their actions and take some form of responsibility.”

She continues: “Bus and coach operators, taxis and the general car-driving public are paying the price for the Cycle Superhighway, and once it is implemented there is nothing to compel cyclists to use it. Where’s the sense in that?

Executive minis from Mercedes-Benz are among the high-quality fleet 

“Continually we see lines of buses in London with very few people on them. It seems that most of the time it is quicker to walk. It’s pushing everybody onto other modes of transport.

“The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Each borough council has different views, and it’s not going to get any better until solutions to these problems are found – but I won’t hold my breath.”

Fighting for better

After countless CPT meetings at senior management level that produced limited results, Clarkes declined to renew its CPT membership in 2016, believing it was proving to be ineffective in promoting the industry and fighting for the facilities that coach operators need.

Clarkes has now joined the Freight Transport Association (FTA), which has established a division specifically for coach operators, and Debbie feels that this organisation is more mindful of the industry’s issues. “The FTA has done more for us as a company in the last few months than the CPT has done in many years. When we’ve approached them with an issue, they’ve turned it around with a satisfactory conclusion. They appear to be more proactive, including resolving some parking fines that have finally been quashed.

“While we continue to fight for improvements to the road network and facilities for coaches in London, our drivers constantly suffer from the lack of facilities for taking their legal breaks or even answering the call of nature.

“In some instances they have been electing to park illegally and run the risk of a parking ticket, rather than exceed their legal driving hours limits. In some situations we have to tell them to take the parking ticket, and we will pay it.

“They would not choose to do so if they had any other option. However, the more serious possibility of being taken to task by enforcement officers of DVSA for drivers’ hours infringements, and then reported to the Traffic Commissioner with the potential for their vocational licence to be revoked, is too serious to contemplate.”

Passenger perceptions

The congestion problems in the capital have the capacity to damage Clarkes’ reputation, as well as its competitors’ reputations, as clients do not necessarily appreciate how these factors affect an operator.

They do not understand that journey times are becoming harder and harder to achieve or predict, nor do they understand why a coach cannot stop on a red route outside their five-star hotel. This is not conducive to creating a good image for the customer service industry in one of the world’s major capital cities, says Debbie.

Due to these factors, Clarkes’ commuter coaches are significantly delayed on a regular basis, and passenger numbers have fallen since the Cycle Superhighway works started in 2014.

Fleet is reputably ‘the most beautiful in London’

She says: “We are also aware that most other operators have suffered the same fate with their commuter services. There are only so many times you can say to your boss ‘sorry I’m late, the coach was delayed again’.

“It used to take three hours for a sightseeing tour; now it is well in excess of that. Everyone wants tourists to spend money during their visit, but getting them to the restaurants and attractions is becoming more and more difficult because of the London gridlock and fewer and fewer places to park.

“Over the last 12 months the delays have increased exponentially, and no one seems to care, which is soul-destroying. Being unable to set-down and pick-up on red routes is an issue that needs resolving as a matter of priority.”

Meanwhile, other events are having an effect too. Like the London bombings in 2005 and the Paris attacks in November 2015, the recent terror attacks in Belgium have had an immediate effect on the number of people travelling from abroad. “People naturally think ‘where next?’

“But I have to say that London is very resolute; not because we are complacent, but because we’re made of strong stuff and we will carry on with business as usual.”

Clarkes always has an eye on outside factors which could affect the business. “We pride ourselves on being dynamic and able to adapt to different commercial situations. I am forever watching market trends to see what might happen in London financially.”

Strength of character

Clarkes is a well-respected operator with a beautifully-presented fleet, widely considered ‘the best-looking vehicles in London’. It runs coaches from two manufacturers. “If we just have one manufacturer they know they will get your business every year, and they will become complacent,” explains Debbie. “We buy Mercedes-Benz and Irizar vehicles, and we are extremely happy with both products.” It’s just taken delivery of a new i8 coach from Irizar UK, one of the first in the country and a fitting flagship, and has also accelerated its fleet replacement programme to make sure it’s ready for the early implementation of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone in 2020 (routeONE, News, 4 May).

“I believe we’re well-respected in the industry, because what you see is what you get,” she continues. “We may be business rivals, but we also share information with our peers, and we’re friendly with most other operators. If an operator has an issue while in London, and we can help, we will. As an industry we’re very resilient.”

Debbie is positive about changes in the industry – she comments that she has noticed many more women at industry meetings and dinners in the last five years. Similarly there are more young people, which she believes is essential in order to keep breathing new life into the industry. “We at Clarkes have made a conscious decision to encourage younger people into our company over recent years, and this has brought some excellent new recruits into our team.

“You have to have a good head for business these days. Due to so much legislation, you’ve got no choice. It’s not just about running the company day-to-day – it’s about looking ahead at all the obstacles we have to face, and setting out our plans for the next five years. One must try to ascertain what’s going to happen and try to predict the outside effects on the business.

“I’m a firm believer in knowing your sell-by date. The business world is forever changing, and you’re good for a moment in time.

“You also need strength of character. When you’re faced with a brick wall, there should always be a way around it. When the day comes that I am unable to find a solution to the problem – that will be the day when I finally hang up my heels.”