Tuesday 24 March 2015

'Ops' and Sods

Another 4 months has flown past in what has been an extremely exciting time to be working at Plymouth Citybus! I'm sure all of you will be well aware of the massive expansion in operating territory that has been undertaken, firstly with the take over of the Liskeard operations of Western Greyhound in December (but doesn't it feel like so much longer ago!?), and more recently, the 75 now stretching deep into North Cornwall after the final bow out of the remaining part of the WGL business.

Now as things begin to settle down with reliability nice and high, and passenger loadings on the up, the next big shake up is about to begin, with a major uplift in service for Callington and Liskeard, and all sorts of new journey opportunities re-establishing some long lost links for local communities in Cornwall. Of course this hasn't come at the detriment to the core Plymouth operations, with many changes also planned to once again bolster and widen the Plymouth network, including most notably, the new 4/A into Oreston, Hooe and out to Mount Batten, covering about the last part of the city left without a red bus! Yellow Flash is of course also on the horizon, and Saltash will receive a much improved network from April thanks to the Go Cornwall services passing through, and beginning to be integrated more fully into the network. 

So to my experiences over the last few months. Well to come right back to when I last wrote in December, I was with the engineers. I must admit that the guys weren't massively optimistic as the Solos started to flood in, having had some questionable experiences with the type in years gone by; but they've been working wonders behind the scenes to really bring them up to scratch, and are now performing very reliably indeed.
This has of course come at a price, and having also spent a couple of weeks in the engineering stores, I've now discovered first hand how much it costs to keep these vehicles in top working order, and 'by 'eck is it a substantial sum! Working in the stores was actually incredibly eye opening in this respect, seeing the sheer quantity of parts and materials passing through, with the money disappearing out exponentially. I can assure you that no expense ever seems to be spared in keeping the fleet on the road, which was fantastic to see. A good storesman is evidently key to the efficient working of the whole company though, and Nigel Britton, aided capably by Darren Preston do an absolutely first class job. They're having to juggle a lot of tasks at once, but by keeping the systems efficient and flowing, as well as having a wealth of knowledge themselves to aid the engineers when they're having problems with their task, and guiding them to the parts they will then require, was quite brilliant to admire.
The working relationship between them makes it even more of a successful partnership, with the storemen acting almost as a mentor, passing on the experiences they've had back when they were on the shop floor. Things like this can so easily be overlooked, and in all honesty, I had scarcely ever even thought about these types of functions existing, but I do now have a great insight into the way it all works. The working atmosphere down with the engineers is brilliant, the banter is top class, and whilst they'll often be scathed when things go wrong, as they're the people often easiest to blame, they really do work wonders! 

Another division of the company which is also so easy to forget is the job of the cleaning staff. I only spent a few days working with them, but to this day the impression they left with me is still well imprinted. The motivation and pride that the guys and girls have in this sector of the business is an absolute delight to experience, they really genuinely care wholeheartedly about their work, and work immeasurably hard every single night of the week to produce and clean sparkling fleet ready for service the next morning. It is a herculean task to sweep, mop out, remove litter from, and put through the wash all 150+ vehicles each night, on top of deep cleaning every single member of the fleet at least once a month (taking around 4 hours per vehicle!), but yet somehow, they manage it, and do an amazing job each and every day.
Quite frankly some vehicles get left in an absolutely atrocious state each evening, but you'd never know it boarding the vehicle the next morning. It's an understatement to say I was humbled by the team, they genuinely have to be some of the hardest working people in the depot, very self motivated, and extremely content in their work. Like in all sectors of PCB, the work ethic and relationships between the staff is second to none; I was absolutely shattered by the time I'd finished each evening, having been completely unable to keep pace with the experienced staff, yet they were still energetic and willing to do even more. Utterly brilliant, and possibly the most eye opening experience I've had at PCB so far. 

Before moving on to my main role over the last few months, I shall come back again briefly to the core business; driving! In this respect, being at driver at PCB is getting better and better, with a wide variety of opportunities. I have been lucky enough to drive a couple of Go Cornwall Bus duties, and I've enjoyed them no end! It's such a different type of driving to what I've been used to, working in the city moving vast numbers of people with lots of traffic to contend with, to the completely opposite end of the scale, driving small buses around providing lifelines to outlying communities, and dealing more with hedges and wildlife than cars! Obviously this isn't where the money is, but this is where it always feels like the bus is providing its core function to the most noticeable degree. The passengers are brilliant, and genuinely appreciate you simply 'turning up'! But from a purely selfish point of view the driving is oh so much more pleasurable, winding and twisting through leafy lanes and single track roads, squeezing between narrow walls and performing the impossible. This, is where you learn to drive! It's been great getting to know the people from WGL, who have been on a steep learning curve since the change of ownership, but again, they're all great people who obviously have a lot of pride in what they do, and provide sterling service to their regulars!

We of course did take the 'Chatterbus' out on it's first outing for a while back in January, to get to know our new customers in Cornwall.

Another really eye opening experience, seeing first hand how we can communicate, learn from, and advise the people that we're there to serve. Events like this seem to do wonders for public perception of the company, and it turned out to be a really positive day with many happy satisfied customers, along with new ideas for us to take back to Milehouse and work on. A great tool which I'm surprised more companies haven't also adopted! 

So, on to the world of Operations! This for me is where it really started to get exciting, there had of course been many many interesting activities since I'd started, but the Operations Suite is where it really starts to get serious for me. The guys in operations really encompass a myriad of different roles, and certainly have a hard act to manage to juggle so many vital positions all into one. They're staff managers, agony aunts, accident investigators, discipline givers, network planners, safety officers, problem solvers, sickness managers, and a whole host of things in between.  They're also not afraid to muck in when the need is there, and you will regularly see them either out driving or down in the control room when extra manpower is needed. Brian, Martyn and John have quite honestly been utterly superb at integrating me into the team, and passing down their vast amounts of knowledge to me as the upstart. I've never had the attitude of a 'know it all' straight out of University who's done all the theory and thinks he's capable of it all, but quite honestly I never realised how much I didn't know about what really goes on behind the scenes, and how to be an effective and respected manager. The trio of men have been brilliant role models to me over the last few months, and I cannot thank them enough for the trust they've shown in me, and for the tremendous quantities of advise they've expelled. These words of wisdom really will stay with me forever, when I hopefully one day will fill similar shoes to theirs. I thought I was pretty well educated on the goings on at a bus company, but until you get behind the scenes and see what really goes on, you are in truth seeing but a tiny part of what builds up to create a functioning company. There are so many cogs turning to deliver a great service to the public day in, day out, and in particular, operations is where a lot of these things you'd never even consider, go on. People management is really the key in this department to conclude in a cohesive and effective end result, and without the first rate work these guys do, none of it would happen. They've got huge pressure on their shoulders, but yet again, the division contains a group of highly skilled, motivated, and experienced individuals who have great character and create a really enjoyable working atmosphere. 

There have of course been many other adventures not yet mentioned, but no doubt I will get round to writing about these another time, I won't give you too much of an overload right now! Life continues apace, into what is now amazingly my 9th month at the company already, with many more exciting things still to come, and I'm loving every second of it. It's been a hugely rich experience so far, and this looks set to continue as we delve even deeper into the Milehouse offices.