As councils, employers and employees strive to be more environmentally-friendly, is there potential for a commuter route near you? We ask operators about the secrets of their success
Commuter services can be a fantastic way to diversify your basket of work, bringing in an extra revenue stream, and an extra route to potential customers, too.
Theoretically, they could work well for any operator, anywhere – but they require time, thought, partnership working, and varying degrees of investment.
We talk to some of the operators who run them.
The corporate contractor
Reading-based Stewarts Coaches has been running corporate contracts, in which a business pays for a coach or bus service for its employees to use, for nearly 15 years.
Andy Cotton, Managing Director, explains: “We started doing them as we recognised the significant commercial advantages of operating services on a 252-day basis, where we could fully employ our people and assets, full-time.”
He contrasts this to carrying out home-to-school contracts, which take up only 190 days a year (or 160 days for private schools).
“I believe that it is very difficult for a business to sustain itself in the long term, where employees need and seek full-time employment, simply relying on home-to-school services.”
He adds that the rates for commuter services are higher than home-to-school services, which has enabled Stewarts to invest more into its business, people and resources.
“It was this type of work that gave us the springboard and confidence to grow,” says Andy.
“There has been a steady growth of passengers using our commuter services as an alternative to car travel – car parking provision and environmental concerns are a major contributor here.”
Stewarts has also thought outside the box to grow one of its corporate contracts, held for six years, into a more general service. “We worked with both the customer and the local authority to extend the use of this particular service to other businesses in the area,” says Andy.
“What started off as a daily coaching commuting service for one customer has now developed into a significant commuter bussing provision for numerous other major corporations and members of the public in Slough – with the possibility to further extend the service directly into Heathrow.”
The rail competitor
Leighton Buzzard-based Marshalls Coaches runs commuter services into London aimed at the general public, a cornerstone of its business since the 1980s.
The timing of its four services dovetails nicely with school hires Marshalls carries out during the day in the London area, which makes them lucrative.
Running from Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable into central London, with drop-off points including Finchley Road, Finsbury Park, Oxford Street and Whitehall, the services are marketed as the cheaper – and slower, but more luxurious – alternative to rail travel.
“One of the main reasons people travel with us is the price,” says Dean Marshall, Partner. “It’s over £2,500 a year cheaper than the train from Leighton Buzzard. Car parking charges are another cost – and you often don’t get a seat on train.”
While the journey time is roughly double that on the train, passengers can usually be dropped a lot closer to their workplace than Euston Station, and often their house is close enough to the route that they can walk from their home.
Moreover, they are guaranteed comfort on the journey. Marshalls puts its frontline coaches on the commute, with free wi-fi, comfy seats and a toilet on board. Along with alerts via text or email if the service is delayed or diverted, they make a very attractive proposition for commuters.
Marshalls is looking to grow passenger numbers on its services. It carries out a survey of its passengers each year, the feedback from which usually leads to improvements: Timetable changes, free wi-fi on board and tickets available through the website have all come through passengers’ suggestions.
The service innovator
Commuter services don’t necessarily require massive investment in vehicles.
Transdev Blazefield is this month introducing its new Commuter Club, which will use technology to get more commuters onto existing bus services.
The operator has partnered with large businesses to offer their employees discounts of at least 10%. Fairfield Hospital NHS Trust in Greater Manchester, and Harrogate & District NHS Trust, are the first two major launch partners.
Alex Hornby, CEO of Transdev, says: “Seeking partners of a size and stature to be able to influence other businesses to follow suit is a key part of the strategy to ensure Commuter Club leads to new customers and growth in numbers, rather than discounting current customers, and should enable greater modal shift.”
The Transdev Go app has a new verification feature so Commuter Club member employees can prove their employment. They only need to do it once; they can then get the discount for as long as they work there, without having to re-apply. They can also use the Transdev Go app to plan journeys and track their bus.
Once a member of Commuter Club, the employer gets a tailored marketing pack to help make employees aware of the nearby bus services, and the tickets that are right for them.
Alex says: “They’ll also have a regular visit from one of our team to promote local buses to their employees in person, with taster tickets for people who’ve never used the bus before.
“We believe this will help to break down some of the perceived barriers people face and lead to changing habits and an increase in new passengers.”
The car parking-saver
Lucketts is also starting new commuter services. Branded Whiteley Connect, they comprise three routes to Whiteley Business Park from Portsmouth and Fareham [routeone/News/2 October].
They are inspired by existing routes the operator runs to the business park, as MD Tony Lawman explains: “Whiteley Business Park can be very congested and it suffers from a huge lack of parking. We already run private commuter services on behalf of individual businesses within Whiteley Business Park, but knew there was much more demand out there amongst the smaller businesses and individuals.”
Lucketts has also found they fit well with existing work. “Due to the time of day, we’re able to operate Whiteley Connect with existing vehicles from the fleet,” says Tony, adding that these vehicles have leather seats, wi-fi, USB charging points, contactless ticketing and a toilet on board.
“As it’s a brand new service, there was some investment to get the message out there, but we mitigated this by getting the businesses on board with the ways that the service could help them attract and retain staff, as well as help the environment and ease congestion,” he adds. “The businesses were eager to then spread the word among their employees for us.”
Lucketts ran the service for free for the first week, which “helped us show people first-hand just how comfortable and easy it is,” says Tony. “We’re absolutely delighted with how well it’s been utilised at this early stage so it’s future growth is very promising. We’ve also had requests for additional routes, which is something to explore in the future.”
The two-way commuter
Arriva’s Green Line service 757 from Luton, with its 90-year history, has three customer bases: Commuter, leisure, and airport travellers.
“It’s an advantage having Luton Airport on the route, in terms of profit and revenue,” says Linsey Frostick, General Manager at Arriva Midlands. “If we were just running it as a commuter service it would probably be a different beast.”
There’s no question in this case that the service is far more convenient than taking the train. For a passenger travelling from Luton Airport to Victoria, the one coach journey is easier than the bus to Luton Railway Station, then train to St Pancras, then Tube to Victoria. “It’s an easy sell for convenience,” Linsey says.
And for commuters, coach stops in Brent Cross, Finchley Road, Baker Street and Hyde Park Corner among others make it a five-minute stroll into the office for many.
While London has a reputation for congestion and traffic problems, the 757 service boasts 90% on-time arrivals. Arriva always plans for delays and disruptions ahead of time, and alerts customers via social media and the website if there will be issues.
And far from traffic problems driving people back to the railways, Linsey often sees the opposite happening. “When there are problems with the trains, people turn to us,” she says.
As well as the 757, Arriva Midlands runs the 758 from Hemel Hempstead into London.
Major employers based in Hemel Hempstead, combined with a 20-minute bus ride from the nearest train station, make this a very popular, comparatively rare two-way commuter coach service. “It’s by far the easiest way of getting there,” says Linsey.
It’s one of the secrets to successful commuter coach services: The location of an employment area versus the existing railway or car parking network.
Another is successfully marketing the environmental benefits, convenience and price to potential passengers – and ensuring that the service is easy to use.
And then there’s partnering with businesses to make commuter services work for three parties: Employer, employees, and you the operator.
It’s effort that pays off.