Paul McGowan: On the bus from perception to reality

First Scotland East operates 300 buses carrying more than 20 million passengers a year. Picture: Michael Gillen

First Scotland East operates 300 buses carrying more than 20 million passengers a year. Picture: Michael Gillen

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Buses carry more passengers than all other forms of public transport combined in the UK and help to generate billions of pounds annually for our local economies.

Despite this, the bus has perhaps not fired the public imagination and attracted the levels of positive coverage more common to other modes of transport, like high speed rail, for example.

Paul McGowan admits First Scotland East has had its challenges but says its turnaround 'continues apace'. Picture: Lenny Warren

Paul McGowan admits First Scotland East has had its challenges but says its turnaround 'continues apace'. Picture: Lenny Warren

It is against this backdrop that First Bus and my company, First Scotland East, have sought to challenge perception and communicate the reality.

When I became managing director of First Scotland East in December 2013, I reorganised the team, launched a programme of rebranding for local services, sought more investment and set out our operational priorities. This was alongside our focus on engaging with colleagues, communities, customers and stakeholders.

Through innovation and investment in our fleet and workforce we have sought to deliver an improved travel experience for our customers.

With a turnover of £35 million per annum, we operate an average annual mileage that could take you round the world 600 times, with 18 million customer journeys a year, operating 260 vehicles every day. A third of this fleet has been replaced in the past three years.

We operate an average annual mileage that could take you round the world 600 times

Paul McGowan

Yes, First Scotland East is owned by FirstGroup, a multinational transport provider, but look further and you will find First companies, including First Scotland East, who are part of the very fabric of local communities, with strong and historic connections.

Within First Scotland East there are three subsidiary companies – First Midland Bluebird, First West Lothian and First Borders – all employing a total of more than 800 local people and maintaining a proud heritage of service to millions of passengers every year.

We are forward thinking. Our investment in real-time passenger information and mobile ticketing are just some of the ways we are working to make things simple, seamless and smart for the customer.

We are committed to working with the Scottish Government and other operators and stakeholders on smartcard technology and are trialling real-time mapping, so that our controllers and our customers know where a bus is at any given time.

Tradition and traditional values underpin everything we do and listening to our customers means we have got to keep working to meet their expectations.

We have rebranded to reflect that local tradition. For example, First Midland Bluebird dates back to 1923 and a company run by Walter Alexander, which ultimately became the famous Falkirk-based bus manufacturer.

Vehicles in central Scotland carry iconic local imagery, including the Kelpies. We have equally strong branding for our Borders vehicles, with the Ridings colours featured prominently and our blue and white Royal Route from central Scotland to Edinburgh gives us a strong and relevant presence there.

Congestion is a massive challenge for bus operators but we are adopting new technology and analysis to improve journey times.

Tackling congestion also requires team work and lobbying for change at central and local government. Through our quality partnership with West Lothian Council, for instance, we have established a working relationship which promotes bus as an essential and valued form of transport and we are seeking to develop this partnership approach in other areas.

We are particularly committed to challenging perceptions in the capital that there is only one quality operator and we recently demonstrated that commitment through considerable investment. Transport Minister Humza Yousaf MSP attended the launch of 19 state-of-the art buses on the high frequency route between Bathgate, Livingston and Edinburgh.

These buses, which were built by Alexander Dennis, feature free Wi-fi, USB ports, smart air conditioning, leather seats and CCTV for customer and driver safety. Our approach is to provide a service which serves the needs of all customers – from commuters to casual shoppers.

The continuing demand of delivering bus services across such a large and diverse network means our employees have to be trained to the highest standard and our efforts were recently recognised when First West Lothian won the West Lothian Chamber of Commerce Excellence in Staff Learning and Development award. This added to an Outstanding Achievement Award at the Falkirk Business Awards in late 2015.

We have had our challenges in these past three years. We were operating with a business making a loss and a programme of depot transformation was required.

This led to some pain, which ultimately led to the transfer of some depots to Lothian Buses and the opening of the Borders Railway saw us lose a third of passengers in that area virtually overnight. However, we are now driving volume growth and the turnaround continues apace.

This has only been possible through our commitment to customers and colleagues. Our reality is that we have great local companies, using the latest technology to provide excellent customer service and we are supporting our employees and stakeholders.

• Paul McGowan is managing director of First Scotland East

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