Step aboard

Keeping the wheels turning on bus services across East Anglia is Steve Wickers, Managing Director of First Eastern Counties.

In this issue, Steve provides an insight into their business and reveals the reasons behind the continued growth in bus travel across the region.

A Norwich lad born and bred and a loyal canaries fan, Steve joined the bus industry over 30 years ago and has dedicated most of his career to working in the bus industry in the East of England.

Steve began as a sales ledger clerk spending 20 years in various Finance roles ending up as Finance and Commercial Director. He then became Commercial and Operations Director for the Eastern Counties and Essex businesses before being promoted to Regional Commercial Director incorporating the Midlands businesses as well. After a successful term as Managing Director in Eastern Counties, his current role has been extended to cover the Essex businesses within First Bus.

Around 25 million passenger journeys are made on their services in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire annually. Bus services which connect many major centres in the region including Norwich, Ipswich, Peterborough, the market towns of Kings Lynn and Wisbech, plus the east coast resorts of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.

“Over the last couple of years, the general UK trend has been of a decline in bus use,” explains Steve, “but year on year figures for 2018/19 for travel on Eastern Counties services have shown encouraging levels of growth in contrast to the national trend. Bus services in Norwich have benefitted from population growth and good levels of increasing employment in the wider city area. It is pleasing to see more and more people choosing to use the bus as their preferred method of travel around the county”.

“One of our most popular routes is our excel service that runs between Norwich, Dereham, Swaffham, Kings Lynn, Wisbech and Peterborough, which is great for commuting, heading to school or college or simply to enjoy a day out exploring the region.

“We have popular services that link Norwich with the coast, operating up to 8 times an hour all year round, and during the summer we run additional services in and around Great Yarmouth, as well as open top services along the seafront accommodating the increase in demand of holidaymakers and visitors to the town.

“We have invested greatly in improving our fleet and customer offering with the introduction of newer vehicles and state of the art ticketing systems, which have allowed us to be the first bus operator in the area capable of accepting contactless payments on board the bus. People can also buy their tickets on our mobile mTicket phone app.

“We have strong relationships with our stakeholders and engage regularly with local communities who help to promote the advantages of using public transport.

“You simply can’t underestimate how important bus services are within local communities, enabling people to get out and about in a safe, reliable and environmentally-friendly way. We are a company providing services to our local community – and what we deliver is very much led by our local workforce.

“Recently, for example, we’ve expanded our services in and around Norwich, together with launching new services between Norwich and Bungay, and Norwich and Fakenham – both of which have proven to be really popular.

“Our fleet in Norfolk and Suffolk consists of 260 vehicles, Norwich is the largest of our bus depots to which we have around 120 vehicles based.

“We have recently expanded the site installing better facilities and processes, which now provides us with the infrastructure necessary to serve our customers better and in a more efficient way.

“We’ve invested in better, more environmentally-friendly vehicles and continued to develop the simple, ‘colour coding recognition concept’ for our routes in Norwich to make bus travel easier to use. We have a clear focus on the importance of providing high quality marketing and information about our services both in print and digital formats, aimed at both established and new customers or unfamiliar travellers.

“Our newest buses have Euro 6 engines fitted, which are helping tackle air pollution in the city with near zero particulate emissions being emitted thereby meeting the highest Euro emissions standards.

“Buses represent the best mode of road transport and road space to reduce congestion and air pollution in urban areas.

“To improve the journey experience for our customers we train our drivers in ‘green driving techniques’ which has software that monitors driving standards covering events including; braking and idling, steering and acceleration, all with the intention of providing a smooth journey experience.

“To help improve unnecessary emission output into the atmosphere, all of our vehicles switch off automatically when they’ve been stationary for 3-4 minutes.

“Simplifying the fares structure and offering discounts to loyal customers has also been a contributing factor in the growth we’ve seen. Weekly, monthly and annual tickets offer discounts for regular travellers, whilst our 10-trip ticket provides discounts for those who travel less often, but who still want to make savings.

“We offer explorer tickets, providing unlimited access to all First Eastern Counties buses across Norfolk and North Suffolk, as well as High5 tickets for groups of up to five people travelling together, amongst other discounts. We also work with industry partners on making multi-operator tickets available in Norwich too.

“Providing customers with more options on ‘how to buy their travel’ is another step forward and has been very well received. Customers no longer have to worry about finding change for a bus journey, they can buy their travel online, via their mobile phone or by making a contactless payment on-board the bus.

“Communication and information provision is key in helping people plan their journey. With the technological advances in software and digital displays, we can now communicate using real-time journey information for customers, via a mobile app or electronic display boards.

“Traveling by public transport can be extremely cost-effective and takes away the stresses and strains of driving (and parking) in a city or town centre. If a person hasn’t travelled by bus for a while, they will probably be very surprised at how bus travel has evolved with much improved comfortable seating, CCTV and free Wi-Fi, as just a few examples of the facilities on board.

“Through working closely with partners across the region, some great work is being done to make bus travel more attractive and seamless for people. By improving the road infrastructure with clear, faster bus corridors into city centres, results show that improved reliability of bus services and quicker journey times can be achieved. It’s not necessarily just about creating bus lanes, but implementing schemes like creating better passing places, roundabout improvements, and traffic light phasing can assist the flow of traffic enormously.

“Together with Norfolk County Council and Norwich City Council and other key partners, we are developing the Norwich bid for a share of the Government’s £1.2bn Transforming Cities Fund as strong as possible, as it aims to boost local economies through investment in public and sustainable transport.

“In reality, we’re only at the very beginning of our journey; this is not job done. We’ll continue to invest in our services, listen to our customers and react to demand, increasing the frequency of services and expanding into new areas. We’re striving to make public transport the first choice for travel.”

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