"Integrating Midland Metro into a global passenger transport business"
from the February 1999 edition of
Tramways & Urban Transit

written by David Leeder

David Leeder, the young and dynamic Chief Executive of the Urban Transport Division of National Express Group plc (and of Travel West Midlands), wowed those present at the LRTA’s Annual General Meeting in Birmingham, England recently with a fast moving presentation about his Group’s activities and ambitions for integrated public transport. So much so that we thought that readers of this magazine should have the opportunity to “hear” his views - could this be the shape of public transport in the New Millennium?

NEG plc - moving people is our business

National Express Group Plc (NEG) is a private company that exists to invest in and improve mass passenger transport systems. In 1992 the Group became the first British land passenger transport business to obtain a listing on the UK Stock Market. Today our employees hold around 20% of NEG's shares with the rest owned by small investors directly or held on their behalf by professional investment funds.

Although most people still associate National Express with our famous network of express coaches, our core business is in fact moving people, not running coaches. We believe that our key skills of safety management, operations, investment, planning and marketing can be applied to any passenger transport mode. In fact, rail operations are now our biggest business and since September we have also become one of the USA's major operators of yellow school buses. NEG is now one of the world's leading passenger transport businesses, operating through four Divisions covering Coaches, Buses, Airports and Trains with operations in the UK, mainland Europe and North America.

Travel West Midlands

Travel West Midlands - the NEG Company that will operate the Metro - has developed Britain's largest urban bus network, with over 2,000 buses running on around 500 routes throughout the conurbation. NEG is currently investing over £100m to up-date the TWM fleet with one of Europe's biggest fleets of low-floor, easy access buses. This investment is being backed up by improvements to routes, ticketing and customer information. Overall bus ridership is now growing, after many years of decline.

Quality Partnerships - showcasing the bus

Any plan to revolutionise public transport must address buses. The facts speak for themselves: every year TWM alone carries over 330 million bus trips. This compares with around 20m trips pa on the local rail network. Even a large-scale Metro network would only carry around 10% of this total and would take years to develop, even if sufficient funding was available. A vigorous bus network is not an alternative to light rail: it is an essential first step towards it.

Over the last few years, TWM has developed ever-closer partnerships with the West Midlands local authorities and Centro to improve the quality and quantity of transport services in the area.

Showcasing the bus

Traffic congestion is the enemy of reliable bus or tram operation. Congestion makes journeys slow and unreliable, and inflates operating costs and fares, thereby encouraging further car use. 'Showcase' is the West Midlands' formula for breaking-out of this vicious circle.

Starting with the now-famous Line 33 project, the West Midlands has pioneered the Quality Partnership concept with a series of pilot schemes that aim to showcase the best in bus travel:

There is no doubt that this formula works: the pilot Quality Partnership routes - such as the award-winning Line 33 - have shown that bus-based public transport can deliver substantial patronage increases. Passenger traffic on Line 33 has grown by over 30% in less than two years, with corridor growth of around 10%. Similar schemes have since been launched in Coventry and Walsall, with the added ingredient of multi-operator corridors that blend healthy competition with pragmatic co-operation.

The success of these pilots has led to plans for a regional 'showcase' network, involving large-scale private sector investment in bus infrastructure for the first time, including the possible development of guided busways. A Regional Quality Partnership embracing over 50 bus and rail operators, the seven district authorities and Centro, has recently been launched: NEG has earmarked £30m for investment in cost-effective information and infrastructure projects to supplement public sector funding sources.

Where do trams fit in?

NEG's forebears include a number of tram operators, including Dundee Corporation, Birmingham Corporation, BET and even parts of the Belgian Vicinal. The Group is keen to invest in tramways and light rail systems throughout the world, either through privatisation of existing operators or through the development of new schemes. There may also be scope to improve heavy rail services by the application of more flexible, Karlsruhe-style, technology and operating practices.

Midland Metro therefore has two roles within NEG:

to complement two of our core businesses: Travel West Midlands and sister-company Central Trains, operator of the Centro local rail network to provide NEG with a pilot project for worldwide light rail

Integrating Midland Metro with the rest of the network

NEG believes that the main competitor to public transport is the private car. High quality interchange between operators and modes enables public transport to provide a more car-like service. But NEG also understands that passenger transport is fundamentally a service activity, more akin to modern retailing than the traditional view of a public 'utility'. If we are to attract the proverbial man in the Nexus Viagra GTi we need to sell our services like any other private business.

Our philosophy is to develop convenient ticketing and information systems and opportunities for convenient interchanges and allow our customers to choose where and whether to interchange. This contrasts with the traditional 'planned' network as practised in Tyne & Wear before 1986 where passengers were forced off buses to meet artificial notions of an 'optimum network'. Our research has shown that many categories of passenger - elderly shoppers, for example - will prefer a slower, through journey by bus to interchanging with Metro, however convenient. Others will happily trade a change of mode for a faster, overall journey time. Parallel bus routes will therefore be retained, not least because they can provide the most comprehensive range of feeder services. Wherever possible we are up-grading Metro feeders with Easy Access buses to provide seamless interchange with the trams.

Improving Information

Information is the Achilles' Heel of complex public transport networks. It was the initial failure to address information problems that has done so much to damage the image of the UK's deregulated bus sector. TWM and partner operators have now begun to tackle this problem. The Company has established an Internet site, colour-coded 'branded' routes are being introduced and many buses now carry-'Underground' style maps. A network of 700 information points has been set-up that includes all local rail stations. A complete review has been carried out of our printed material from destination blinds to timetable leaflets. Professional graphic design expertise has been deployed to create a clear corporate identity, with specially designed graphics and letterface.

All this is backed-up by high-profile advertising, a travel card sales team and a dynamic PR group led by Phil Bateman (the grand-father of the Midland Metro). NEG is also working with the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) and Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) to establish a national public transport information service.

All of these principles apply equally to Midland Metro: like the buses, the trams will be 'route-branded', and Ray Stenning, the transport livery specialist, has created a dramatic system identity that blends the TWM and Centro house-styles into something uniquely 'Metro'.

A huge range of graphic material is now being prepared, including fares information, system maps and user guides.

Selling baked beans

TWM and Midland Metro receive no operating subsidies. Like a shop selling baked-beans, our success or failure will depend on selling tickets to willing customers and making sure that we provide the kind of value that will keep them coming back for more.

One way of helping people make the transition to public transport is to make it easy to buy tickets. Over the last few years a wide range of multi-journey tickets has been developed in the West Midlands, ranging from bus 'add-ons' to long-distance rail to specialist tickets targeted at specific market segments such as students and leisure travellers. Over three hundred Pass Agents have been created, including all the local rail stations. The wide range of one-day bus/rail tickets is also now available on bus, from over 2,000 buses of 50 operators, serving 12,000 individual bus stops. The public transport network in the West Midlands is now probably more 'integrated' than any similar city in Europe.

These concepts will be extended to Metro to facilitate multi-mode and multi-operator journeys. Metro Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) will sell a variety of one-day passes, in addition to single tickets, returns and special bus and rail add-ons. The scope for more ambitious joint ticketing with heavy rail is currently being evaluated.

Capturing the car user

Midland Metro is a massive investment by any standards: over £145m to upgrade just one public transport corridor. Around £130m of the capital sum has been provided from public sector sources and could equally well have been spend on health or education services. This is at least ten times the cost of providing an equivalent high-quality bus operation.

Metro is really just another Showcase corridor, albeit one that uses trams rather than buses as its basis. To justify this level of expenditure, Metro must not only deliver the goods in terms of passenger volumes; it must carry the 'right' passengers. Metro will have failed if we simply divert existing bus riders; we must attract new users and capture the 'generated' trips that might otherwise have been made by car. Park & Ride is only part of this equation. We really want the car user to park-at-home-and-ride, walking to the tram stop, or hopping on a bus. Formal Park & Ride already exists at The Hawthorns, and Midland Metro is working with Centro and other authorities to put together other P&R sites.

The future

After many years of planning, Midland Metro is now on its way. It is not just a light rail system, but an integral part of a dynamic, competitive public transport market, and part of a passenger transport business with global ambitions.

David Leeder, Chief Executive Travel West Midlands

Pocket biography: David Leeder joined Travel West Midlands from Exeter based Transit Holdings where he was right hand man to Chairman, Harry Blundred. Before that he was General Manager of both Docklands Transit and Portsmouth Transit and prior to that he worked for transport specialists, the MVA Consultancy, and also for British Rail where he began his working career in 1987 as a Senior Management Trainee. He studied Transport Operation and Planning at Aston University in Birmingham where he gained a First Class Degree.
David is 32. He was born and educated in Croydon, Surrey. He joined Travel West Midlands (then West Midlands Travel) in 1993 and became Marketing Director in 1995. He became Chief Executive in 1997.

For more about Midland Metro - click here
To return to the top of this page - click here
To return to the "Magazine" page - click here
To return to LRTA home page - click here