Southdown Buses, based in West Sussex, is bucking the trend among smaller operators and seeing a return on its investment in vehicles, technology and improved depot facilities to deliver better services
Things aren’t easy if you’re a bus operator. Those at the smaller end of the scale lack the economies of scale that the big groups benefit from, but one in West Sussex is bucking that trend and enhancing its vehicles, its use of technology and its customer offering.
routeone last visited Copthorne-based Southdown Buses in 2013. Then, it had twin focuses: Running stage services, and selling vehicles through its dealership. The latter has since been disposed of, and attention is now devoted solely to the operational side.
There have also been changes in personnel since then. Steve Wallis stepped up to become Managing Director, and in charge of day-to-day affairs is Operations Manager Michael Miller.
Steve has been with Southdown for a long period and he has extensive knowledge of independent bus operation. Michael brings experience from a different part of the industry, having started his bus industry career in London. Both spheres of expertise have gelled well.
Investment since disposal of the dealership arm has been in three areas. The fleet has been significantly improved, a process that will continue long-term. Southdown already has its first Euro 6 double-deckers, for example.
A further change that customers will immediately recognise is the recent adoption of Ticketer revenue collection equipment, which has been well received. Less noticeable externally is work undertaken on the depot, but it now boasts a well-appointed boardroom.
Add to that a network that has become more commercially focused, with some services having been developed and others created from the amalgamation of existing routes, and things are looking good. A dash of rail replacement work adds a lucrative layer of icing to the cake.
Since 2013, Southdown’s PVR has actually decreased slightly. That’s down to two things: Buses are worked harder, and some peripheral services have been sacrificed. One aspect of the latter demonstrates why it’s important to keep a close eye on figures and to know when to retreat.
“We had a route in Haywards Heath that another, now-defunct operator challenged us on,” says Steve. “Our service was just about viable, but when the other company came in there was no point bothering anymore. We deregistered it.”
A small number of evening services have also been withdrawn. Concentrating on routes that are commercially strong has delivered one major benefit for most passengers. Southdown did not raise fares during 2017, all the more notable given the amount of money spent on its fleet and facilities.
Michael’s arrival at the business allowed Southdown to put more effort into securing rail replacement duties, something that Steve has always been keen to pursue.
“For an operation like ours, rail replacement in the evening or at weekends completes the picture. We have vehicles spare at those times. Michael has the same mindset as me; we are both very keen to take on profitable work when it is available.”
Although little rail replacement work occurs during daytime hours on weekdays, the well-publicised industrial dispute at Southern Railway did lead to calls at those times.
All of Southdown’s management team holds Category D driving licences, which is a boon on such occasions. A bank of casual drivers can also be called upon; the only stipulation there is that they must be on Southdown’s books. Self-employed status is not entertained.
A juggling act
Although the south-east is a more prosperous area than many other parts of the UK, its local authorities are under the same crushing financial pressures. Funding for buses has been reduced, which has placed the onus on operators to be innovative to maintain patronage.
“A lot of services have been retendered. Where that has been the case, we made suggestions for changes that would cut the local authority’s expenditure. We’re good at doing that; as an example, we combined two routes, which delivered a significant saving,” says Steve.
In most cases buses work a variety of services throughout the day, including school journeys, to squeeze every ounce of productivity from them.
One route that previously operated two journeys daily for college movements now runs all day for two reasons. Lessons no longer observe strict start and finish times, and the opportunity was also taken to incorporate demand from other users.
“An operator will only discover that new flows exist by speaking to passengers. The management team here is not made up of people who want to sit behind a desk all day. We will go out and drive, and talk to customers,” he adds.
“We listened to what they were saying and realised that if we changed things, there was extra patronage to be had. During the day the buses would be idle anyway, so we tried it and it has done well. Listening to customers’ needs and reacting to them is the only way to achieve that.”
A major development recently has been the adoption of Ticketer ETMs. They accept smartcards and contactless payments. They also utilise QR codes for the validation of existing tickets, a quantum leap in the prevention of fraudulent use.
“The Ticketer system costs has a cost attached to set up, but we are confident that the uplift in revenue will more than pay for it,” says Steve. Use of RFID technology and QR codes prevents the age-old trick of pupils passing their own pass back through an open window to one of their friends. The system also delivers detailed reports and a huge amount of data on passenger usage that was previously unavailable.
Contactless payments attract a small charge, but Southdown regards that as an acceptable trade-off against the increase in revenue the facility will generate. It also reduces cash collection costs.
“Contactless has quickly become an accepted part of the transport world, whether that is in a taxi in London or when parking a car. It’s something that all business are moving towards,” he adds. “The bus industry should be no different. If we didn’t move forwards, we would all still be employing conductors and using Setrights.”
The final element of Southdown’s investment in its business is the most obvious. A programme of fleet replacement is well underway that will see two or three new buses join each year going forward.
The process started in 2016, when three Euro 5 Scania N 250 UDs with Alexander Dennis Enviro400 bodies were purchased. Two more followed earlier in 2018, and that pair are Euro 6 models with MMC bodywork.
A batch of mid-life Volvo B7TLs has also been acquired to further improve the double-decker age profile; they are being prepared for service one by one and their integration into the fleet will take some time. Next year, attention is likely to turn to single-deckers.
“What we’ve spent on the Scanias represents a massive outlay for an operator of our size, but we have a number of considerations to bear in mind,” says Steve.
One relates to emissions. Southdown already ventures within the M25 and it has one eye on London’s ULEZ being extended out as the orbital motorway. Investment in new buses also serves as an indication that the operator also takes its environmental obligations seriously regardless of location.
“The other positive of buying new is that we can specify the vehicles to suit us, rather than making the best of what another operated chose,” he adds.
Fit for the future
Southdown’s day-to-day management team is young and upbeat, and it is committed to delivering services that its passengers need and will use. In the background, the operator has a handful of more experienced busmen who measure their service to the industry in decades. Although none are full time, they sit on Southdown’s board of directors.
Combined, that gives a practical approach to running buses. Southdown is not overly keen to be first in line to take up the latest industry developments; instead, it first observes how they work with other operators before deciding whether they would benefit its own business.
Where it does move quickly is in the development of services, and listening to users’ comments is something that it prides itself on. As already seen, that has delivered results and further plans are in the offing for the future.
All of that has come from focusing solely on running buses. “We’re a bus operator. That’s what we’re good at, and that’s all we are interested in doing,” says Steve.