Mike Watson, MD of Stagecoach South West, answers questions from the Express & Echo and our readers covering issues ranging from ticket prices and punctuality to calls for pre-paid electronic cards and even on-board entertainment.
Mr Watson, who moved to Devon from Stagecoach North East in July this year, is responsible for about 1,000 staff and 350 buses based at depots in Exeter, Barnstaple and Torquay, as well as locations including Exmouth, Sidmouth, Honiton and Bude.
E&E: What changes have you made since you arrived in Exeter?
MW: We are always looking for new opportunities and new ways we can improve the existing product, and part of that is listening to employees, what the public, local businesses and the council have to say.
One thing we’ve introduced is a new Gold service from Torbay to Plymouth and Dartmouth and that’s been very well received. It’s a quality product with more legroom, leather seats and free wi-fi and it’s something I’d like to do more of in Devon.
This year we spent about £8m on new buses and I’m hoping we can make the case over the next couple of years to bring in more Gold buses.
E&E: What’s happening with the planned redevelopment of Exeter bus station?
MW: It’s a very exciting development and something that we support strongly. It will really just finish off Exeter quite nicely.
There will hopefully be enhancement of the evening economy offer, more retail and a new bus station facility and leisure offering. The way we see it is that development will bring more people into Exeter, and that’s what we want.
In terms of our home, we are working with the council to try and find a solution, so we are discussing options at the moment. We have a good, collaborative approach to make sure that a solution is found.
The timescale really depends on the successful identification of a suitable alternative site and the planning process associated with the current bus station site, but ultimately we are confident we will find something.
Ideally the bus station and bus depot would be on the same site but we accept that it’s not a great use of city centre space to have buses parked up when you could have revenue generating land use for Exeter’s economy.
If we move to the outskirts the operation becomes less efficient. We are working with the council to find a solution, which we are confident we will achieve.
E&E: What is your view on the recent debate about whether Exeter High Street should be made a pedestrian-only zone?
MW: Having worked around the country and seen different arrangements in different cities, the arrangements in Exeter city centre are what I would consider to represent best practice. The number of incidents is relatively low for such a high number of bus movements and pedestrians, and the number of serious incidents over the past 10 years is very few indeed.
We must make sure we are not complacent and continue to operate a strict code of conduct in the High Street and be as sympathetic to other users as possible. We are committed to making sure the High Street is as safe as it can be.
The attractiveness of the High Street is very close to our heart because we bring 35 per cent of shoppers to Exeter. If 10 per cent less people come to Exeter because they think the High Street is unattractive then we lose 10 per cent of our patronage to Exeter, so we are intrinsically linked to the attractiveness of Exeter’s High Street.
Keith Reed: What controls are in place to try and ensure the smooth and regular running of bus services in Exeter during the peak evening travel period? In particular I am concerned about the E service heading towards Exwick, which seems to be a regular casualty of timetable slippage such that it not uncommon to wait 20–30 minutes and then find three buses travelling within a few hundred metres of one another. The first might be full but the other two will be virtually empty. As this is an almost daily issue could drivers not be instructed to transfer passengers by monitoring staff who must surely be aware that buses are travelling so closely together?
MW: At peak times we build recovery times into the schedule, so that when the bus is not delayed it sits at the other end for 10 minutes but then when it runs a bit late it has recovery time so it starts the next journey on time.
There are other types of delay that you can’t plan schedules for. We do have service controllers who control the service. Sometimes in that scenario if you have two buses running together and you know there’s 10 minutes’ recovery time at the terminus, you let it run to the terminus and then pick up the next journey on time.
If you get into the game of transferring lots of passengers, some people do not like to be shifted and actually it’s not always the best solution. One thing we are doing is constantly reviewing our schedules to try to gradually improve.
Drew Aspinwall, on behalf of Cranbrook residents: Many residents in Cranbrook have been asking why the Dayrider ticket (£3.60) only takes you as far as Clyst Honiton but if you live in Cranbrook you have to buy a Dayrider Plus ticket at £5.50.
Residents think that as Cranbrook is a growing and new population, and the bus is subsidised, people should be encouraged to get into the habit of using the bus through competitive ticketing; especially as the Cranbrook train station will open end of next year. NB: the train from Whimple to Exeter is £4 day return, so presume that it will be that from Cranbrook.
Kelly Curran: Why is the cost of a ticket from Cranbrook to Exeter so expensive? It’s £2 cheaper a couple of stops down the road!
MW: Pricing is based upon a number of factors, one of which is obviously distance and time but the other is how well used the services are, which means that for a densely populated urban area like Exeter you’re going to get a better value offer, so a £3.60 day ticket is pretty good for unlimited travel (£13.50 for a week).
When faced with Cranbrook, which is obviously a bit out of Exeter and in an area of not particularly high bus usage we have to apply a fare that’s appropriate.
The price that was previously in place for that location was £7.50 for an Explorer ticket but we introduced a special ticket which partly catered for Cranbrook’s needs – the £5.50 Dayrider Plus, so instead of comparing this with the £3.60 ticket actually we would say you were faced with the £7.50 ticket, which is geared at longer-distance journeys in areas of lower bus usage where you have to charge a higher fare in order to make it economically viable.
Susannah Patrick: Please could we have a Sunday service from Cranbrook into Exeter as soon as possible? There are many people without cars here and the service would definitely be used.
MW: The current service provision is partly determined by the Section 106 agreement funding that was available at the time but as Cranbrook grows and more people use the service we see it as inevitable that a Sunday service will be introduced, so it’s something we will continue to monitor.
Keith Reed: A number of the bus information signs have been taken down and not replaced. Although the information provided is not always entirely accurate it does at least give passengers an indication of any buses that might be due so they can make the decision to walk or get an alternative bus if their service is obviously delayed. Is this a permanent move or will they be replaced?
Damien Mills: How is it that the times on the electronic displays in Exeter High Street bear no relationship to anything?
MW: The real time information system in Exeter has been around for a long time and is one of the first generation systems so it’s life-expired.
We are currently working with Devon County Council on a next generation system. We would hope to be able to give some positive news on this in the next few months.
Kim Bloxham: With bus fares as high as they are people will not vacate their cars – why is the pricing so high?
Meemee Overton: How is a £5.20 single to Exeter from the Exe Valley going to encourage people out of their cars?
MW: On pricing in general, we should recognise that £3.60 for all day travel across Exeter is not bad value really and £13.50 for a week’s travel compares pretty well against the car if you add up fuel, tax and insurance.
In terms of longer distance, sometimes the economics of running rural services aren’t particularly easy but the fares are capped at £7.50 for a day ticket. You could go anywhere in Devon in a day for £7.50.
We appreciate some of our single fares are a little bit high but that’s partly to encourage people on to our more popular products of day tickets and weekly tickets.
Broadly speaking, there’s a discount for a day ticket and further discounts for weekly and four-week tickets.
Damien Mills: Why is it no longer standard practice to display timetables at all bus stops?
MW: The county council have some responsibilities to put passenger information up at stops. Between us, they do some stops and we do some stops but unfortunately we can’t cover all the stops with the resource that we have.
If anyone would like to suggest any individual locations that are well used where we should have a timetable, please let us know by emailing email@example.com or phoning 01392 427711.
Emily Chamberlain: Why can’t you bring down the cost for children on the buses? A capped £1 fare would be great. If the prices were bought down then the buses would be full. In London children don’t pay until they’re 11 years old!
MW: It’s not easy but it’s something Stagecoach is looking at on a national level at the moment. The bus service has to be viable and if you discount something so much that you become over capacity, you then have to provide another bus on the road.
Charles Edmonds: We need to get the Smart cards set up so you can just top your balance up and use when you want. For anyone who doesn’t use the services daily (and therefore doesn’t need the long term tickets) we have no choice but to try and muster up the correct amount of cash each time, which is a thankless task. The Smart cards need to be just like the Oyster cards used in London.
Adrian Morgan: I agree. Why is Exeter so far behind?
Damien Mills: Is it unreasonable to expect a driver to be able to provide change if you’re paying with a £5 note?
MW: At the moment we have a StagecoachSmart card scheme in operation which means users can buy a weekly or monthly ticket. We ran a discount promotion in September to encourage more people to go onto the Smart card product and we may consider further promotions in the future.
The concept of an e-purse – which means you can just pay as you go on a Smart card – is not something we do at the moment but our Smart card offer will inevitably over time become more sophisticated.
Day tickets and weekly tickets are a good solution to the change problem because if you buy a weekly ticket you’re only fumbling for change once. You can buy a weekly ticket over the internet and get sent a Smart card, so they are quite popular. The number of products on Smart card will become more and more over time.
Damien Mills: When rerouting a service should it not be standard practice to place a notice at any stops affected?
MW: We try to do this where we can, yes.
Patrick Moore: Why don’t the ‘I’m not in service’ buses at least pick up passengers on the way back to the depot? Seems like a wasted journey.
MW: Sometimes there is a reason a bus is not in service and that’s because it’s going somewhere to start some work, it’s not going back to the depot, but there are some areas where we can look at what we call livening up dead mileage.
Kat Lawrence: I believe you should offer some ‘on route’ entertainment – be it a sing-along or maybe an on-board magician.
Steven Evans: Wow, you read my mind. In an attempt to brighten everybody’s day I once took my favourite board game: Twister. Sadly it did not go as well as I had hoped...
MW: I totally agree there’s things we can do. Back in August, an arts group called the Public Transport Appreciation Society, based in Exeter, spent a period of time riding around on our buses and getting passengers involved with sing-alongs and various other capers.
We’ve currently got Santa riding on our Gold buses giving out gold coins. We have a character called Gary the Rabbit, who is unfortunately too big to board the bus but he is seen at events from time to time.
Watch this space – we will have a think about what we can do. Anything that enhances the journey experience of the passenger I’d be in favour of. Twister could have some health and safety implications, though I can definitely see the novelty value there.
Thanks to all readers who submitted questions via email, Facebook and Twitter.