Wednesday 10 September 2014

The Big Interview: Malcolm Robson Ipswich Buses

25 years ago I was driving for Boro'line - formally Maidston Corporation - out of their Crayford depot operating services in South East London - Bexleyheath/Woolwich/Eltham areas. When I started we had, in true Maidstone Corporation style, a truly eclectic mix of vehicles - Leyland Olympians, Nationals, Volvo Ailsas, Scania 113 deckers, and a fleet of Leyland Atlanteans on loan from Ipswich Buses. I loved them, the bucket style drivers seats could have been moulded on my portly shape, and it was real driving. The best day;s overtime you could get would be to take one up to Ipswich to be swapped over as Ipswich still maintained all of them. Happy days, and it was the memories of that which inspired me to move up to Ipswich when I was lookng to relocate some 8 years ago now.

Ipswich 85 Leyland Atlantean WRV 85L at Bexleyheath Station while on loan to Boro'line  Pic by Andrew Ha's reproduced under CCL
And so I thought it was about time I went back to Constantine Rd to see if it jogged any memories. I wrote to Malcom Robson, Managing Director of Ipswich buses and asked if he could spare time for an interview and look round the depot. The response couldn't have been more enthusiastic and positive, and so today I arrived pretty excited.

It turns out that Malcolm Robson joined Ipswich Buses around the same time I was driving them in London so he is approaching 25 years in the job now. Malcom is a Yorkshireman, who cut his bus teeth in Hull, and as I like the dry Yorkshire sense of humour I recognised an almost mischievous twinkle in his eye when he was talking about certain things. I felt at ease immediately.

I have long been a fan of Ipswich Buses - their vehicles are always immaculately turned out and have a fresh smell to them I have never encountered elsewhere. Not a single bus in their fleet has hard seats - even the Scania Omnidekkas have soft seating - which makes them unique in that respect. I liked the new livery straightaway and Malcolm told me a couple of interesting things about the livery. I knew the purple and green were the colours of Suffolk County Council from my library card, but they are also not just the colours of Wimbledon, but the colours of the Women's Suffragette Movement! He did confess though that he prefers the hybrid livery used by the reserve P&R buses, so just for him here is one of the them - an aforementioned Scania Omnidekka

One of the hybrid liveried Scania Omnidekkas with sky blue replacing the purple
Now the bad news. If you are waiting for me to start shouting things like "exclusive" and "big news" then you are going to be disappointed. There are no plans for any new vehicles in the foreseeable future, no new routes, although the Felixstowe Sunday trips will return next year, and everything is ticking over very nicely thanks. The E200's were offered at such a decent price he could hardly say no, which was history repeating itself as the East Lancs Darts were bought at a bargain price too, the only reason they are there. So what did we talk about if there are no new routes or vehicles coming?

Well I like my facts and figures, and I'm happy to say I came away with plenty of them. As a Concessionary Pass holder myself I have long said I would be happy to pay say £25 a year for mine as long as the money was ringfenced to provide more buses during evenings and on Sundays. That would create jobs and get people going out spending money in the general economy, something that was pointed out only today by - that for every one pound spent on funding bus passes it creates £2.87 spent in the general economy. However it's not that simple. Malcolm told me that in 2008 IB received £1.20 for every Concessionary journey taken. 6 years later that has fallen to 93p. It has been calculated that to get back to the 2008 level the 19,000 pass holders in Ipswich would have to pay £50 a year, and that's before extra money is generated for new services, which obviously those paying would want to see.

IB41 Volvo Olympian M41 EPV. Happily at least one of these Olympians is going to be bought privately for preservation
Now for some more stats. Only 22% of journeys in Ipswich are made by fare paying passengers, which seems a little unfair as they bear the brunt of any rises, and can't vault from bus to bus like Concessionary pass holders. I repeat my appeal to Suffolk County Council to get everyone round the table and launch an integrated ticket - which Malcolm told me is number two on the list of wishes of passengers behind punctuality. 40% of journeys are made by children/students and 38% are passes. Quite interesting but surely the target must to be to get that 22% higher. Over to the strategists for that one but if you don't speculate you don't stand a chance of accumilating, so trial and error on new routes must be considered to take the bus network not just back to past areas but new ones too.

Ipswich buses did just that when they launched the X3 to John Lewis in Ravenswood, an area that is still being developed. After an initial rise in passenger numbers of around 74% in the first few months after the route was launched it is still rising at a rate of 17%. That is qute an achievement, and backs up what this blog has said since its conception, that new routes are preferable to passenger poaching off existing routes. The passengers are out there, it just needs the right services going to the right places at the right times and the right prices. Not an easy nut to crack all the time but it seems IB have done it with the X3.

To mechanical stuff now, and I was told that the P&R Optare Versas have been fitted with a cooling system that claimed to have a dramatic saving on fuel consumption. I got the impression that claim was met with a little distrust, but it has proved to be successful. A fuel efficiency saving of 10.3% successful to be precise. Apparently the same systen can be fitted to Scania Omnicity's, which are notoriously thirsty, so three of them at Ipswich are being done.

Scania Omnicity YN56 NVC being fitted with a fuel saving cooling system
The good thing about guided tours is that you find out things that no one ever has mentioned before. This is my favourite fact of the day. Optare Spectra 60 P442 SWX is named "Delight". It's not unusual for an IB bus to be named, but the reason behind this name is really sweet (pun intended). This Optare started life in Turkey as a Left Hand Drive vehicle, and was converted back to RHD when brought back to these shores. So IB decided to name her "Delight" to reflect her Turkish past. Told you it was sweet and they have a dry wit in Yorkshire.

IB 60 "Turkish" optare Spectra P442 SWX in the bus wash at Constantine Rd
And that's really about it. Ipswich Buses is a company that is happy with its lot at the moment. They aren't under pressure to poach passengers, or start loads of new routes, or find new ways of increasing revenue. They are under the control of a knowledgeable, shrewd and welcoming man who knows how to look after his brass but isn't afriad to try new things - the use of the open topper in normal service earlier in the Summer was a masterstroke in my book, and was the sort of spontaneity that is truly lacking elsewhere. I felt extremely welcome at Constantine Rd this afternoon, and have been invited to contact them at anytime. not that I'll need to as things are on a very even keel there.

My thanks to Malcolm Robson and his staff for such an enjoyable chat and tour, and look forward to more chats in the future. I liked Ipswich Buses 25 years ago and absolutely nothing has done anything to change my mind now.


  1. IB not looking to bid for scc tenders and bring back suffolkbus? seems along while ago now since they ran on 118/9. falcons,lances,B21s, metroriders,deltas etc. we had them all.

    1. As far as I know Galloway have got it for another 5 years, At least now during term time it won't be a diet of pure Solo's as the MCV Evolution is needed due to passenger numbers going to Otley College. Good to sse the service so well used. I guess IB will go for any tender they feel like, I think Malcolm was talking more of commercial routes or extending bus wars.

  2. Yup, with the right boss SMEs are best! Bureaucracy (and politics, a by-word for capriciousness) are the killers. I heartily agree with the "do what they should (makes sense), not just because they can" philosophy.

  3. Malcolm Robson is leaving in November so we may see a change in policy strange they let the BT contract go as it's a big winner for First Ipswich picking up more passengers, the 66 also is way up on percentage wise perhaps why IB extending the 4 to Martlesham.

    1. Sorry Clive I have just asked the man himself and Malcolm has confirmed he is leaving, but not until the end of May next year, so whoever told you November was a tad premature.

  4. Um, the old chestnut about ticketing. The areas I travel in do have multi-operator ticketing, except when you try to use it, since increasing numbers of operators now opt-out, formally or informally. Can't say I blame them with the competitiveness in the industry - it benefits the larger operators with their bigger customer base (and do they need any more help?). As far as I'm aware the customers don't want it either, I've hardly ever seen any of my fellow travellers using it. No except the exception is on a few, mostly urban, parallel routes (where it probably defeats the intention anyway). And there's no shortage of publicity, but as the last smaller operator put it to me "it's wrong". Of course the demand is always greater from those who don't have it (funny thing, that) - but in my, no doubt unusual experience, people don't always do what they say; one could say, hardly ever. It's like networks, and network tickets: great in theory provided someone else is paying for it. And to put it bluntly, how many infirm and vulnerable people is it worth suffering for it??? The great thing today is that services will be provided if there is actual demand, and if there isn't then no amount of noise will make up for it. Great though to see local operators recognising the commercial value of entertainment. Our lives are drab enough.

    1. Yes, I mean the Travelcard has been such a failure hasn't it! Bring all services in house like TfL do, tender ALL routes like TfL do and then all tickets valid on all services. Job done.

      Incidentally my mother used to take us out using a multi-operator ticket in the south east which still exists under a different name over 40 years ago. It's not a new or radical idea.