Ian Jeffrey at the meeting.
© John Yellowlees, 2013
"Rail replacement bus" have been hailed by humorists as the worst words in the English language. However such services have always been needed to protect journey opportunities during planned periods of engineering investment and renewals, also in times of disruption, and traditionally were tendered out to local bus operators.
With the advent of privatisation things became more complex with several train operators often sharing one route, and Maurice Duckworth in 1998 saw an opportunity to take pressure off rail managers by managing on their behalf rail replacement operations, pooling services so as to beat off inflated prices.
Thus was born Fraser Eagle, which developed a network of customer/supplier relationships, charging train operators the correct market price and establishing a 24/7 customer contact centre which helped secure in the midlands and north the bulk of a market then estimated by ATOC at £100M. However despite their introduction of modern management methods Fraser Eagle had little railway experience and adopted too high a profile, with big cars in the office car-park.
National Express and FirstGroup set up their own in-house organisations with rail replacement specialists, and with Fraser Eagle's only value resting in the contracts with train operators their diversification into furniture, interior design and open-access operator Grand Central resulted in a poor cashflow which left them unable to pay suppliers and led to their liquidation in 2009.
Maurice Duckworth had joined First Rail Support in 2004, and found the market now benefiting from Network Rail's better possession management - with West Coast Route Modernisation at last coming to fruition - and from the growth of expertise within his customers who now comprised the First TOCs and also Northern and Virgin.
Today First Rail Support has a database of 5000 operators on whom to draw for 4000 coach and the same number of taxi movements per month. 400 staff include coordinators, customer service people, contracts and revenue protection specialists operating a simple business model which provides TOCs with the back office reports that they need while recognising the importance of paying suppliers quickly.
The timeline sees Network Rail confirm planned work 26 weeks in advance, with a bus plan agreed at 22 weeks so that with 18 to go the train operator may make an informed traveller bid and Network Rail respond with their offer two weeks prior to the arrangements entering the public domain.
At First Rail Support the bus plan has to recognise calling patterns - having regard to the sometimes quite different geography of road and rail - and the ferry connections that require to be kept. With 15 weeks to go, FRS must have worked out bus diagrams, procured vehicles, developed a staff resource plan, conducted a route risk assessment (eg for low bridges!) and consulted Councils on the traffic implications. By the final 6 weeks the focus has moved to briefing the suppliers, obtaining banners and designation signs and deploying staff where required to assist on the ground.
During possessions extending into weekdays and unplanned disruption, account must be taken of other calls on operators' resources, especially during peak periods. FRS must check suppliers' maintenance records, the appearance and liveries of vehicles and the proposed routes to ensure that they offer sufficient clearances.
Future areas of improvement could include new technology for tracking vehicles, improved engagement with suppliers, a review of supplier rates for emergencies, a staff bonus package and provision of free audits for compliance. Upcoming opportunities in Scotland for offering rail-related bus and taxi expertise include the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup and planned investments in rail infrastructure such as the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme.
Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.
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