There are two types of businesses: ‘The quick and the dead’

Jane Cole: The wisdom of one supermarket’s growth could inform the future commercial success of the bus industry

There are generally two types of businesses: ‘The quick and the dead’.

I kept this wisdom in mind when I read what Steve Rowe, Chief executive of Marks and Spencer, said: That “by going further and faster in our transformation through the Never the Same Again programme, we moved beyond fixing the basics to forge a reshaped Marks and Spencer.” He also said that “we now have a clear line of sight on the path to make Marks and Spencer special again. The transformation has moved to the next phase.”

Bold words that, I hope, will produce commercial success in a sector that needs urgently to reshape itself. After reading the article, my thoughts were of the impetus coming to the bus industry from the government’s National Bus Strategy (NBS) for England.

The vision is not as easy to describe as having a “clear line of sight” but it does enthuse the Department for Transport’s officials to describe it as “ambitious” and “vital to our recovery from the pandemic”.

I commend their leadership and recognise that the negotiation process between operators and local transport authorities will be one that is in both parties’ best interest to succeed. My hope is that there will be sufficient ambition for there to be extensive changes that will trigger visible levels of modal shift towards bus travel.

During the pandemic, Blackpool Transport altered its business model in ways that we believe will attract back customers, so provided the NBS has funding for initiatives to persuade potential customers to try our product, we will convert them to being regular bus users. The NBS has some useful requirements for operators, which confirms the thinking behind the actions we have already taken:

  • Last year we increased eligibility for our young person season tickets up to 23 years of age
  • We adopted a simple two-zone system where 88% of customers pay a one-zone fare
  • In February, we launched contactless ticketing and later ‘tap and go’.

The evidence as to whether this will work is not going to be available for some time, but the early signs are encouraging.

Last week, Blackpool Transport carried 70% of its patronage in the same week of 2019/20 and it reached 80% on 26 May. While experience has taught me to be cautious, I believe that having innovations such as e-vouchers to discount season tickets will put us on target for 110% of 2019/20’s customer numbers in 2022/23.

These bold words come with a caveat that the NBS has to be well funded for there to be a minimum of a three-year improvement in bus frequencies. Then, I believe, the bus industry will all be able to “build a trajectory for future growth” just like Marks and Spencer.