This blog post was produced for inclusion in the Birmingham Economic Review for 2020.
The annual Birmingham Economic Review is produced by the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, with contributions from the West Midlands Growth Company. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and a high-quality resource for informing research, policy and investment decisions.
This post is featured in Chapter 4 of the Birmingham Economic Review for 2020, on Connecting Communities: What Next for the Region’s Infrastructure?
Click here to read the Review.
All through lockdown, National Express West Midlands carried hundreds of thousands of key workers safely to where they needed to be. 75% of bus users cannot do their job from home. So in July, we were transporting ¾ million people every week.
Since March, we have changed our entire bus route network eight times - the biggest rescheduling exercise ever in the privatised British bus industry. In just three weeks, we took the service down to under 50% as customers stopped travelling. As more people are now catching the bus, we’ve built it back up to 100% so they can practise safe social distancing.
This took a colossal amount of work from all our employees - we’re grateful for their hard work and so impressed by their resilience.
Our current passenger numbers are the best in the country and much better than the national average.
We’ve become even more obsessed with safety. And communicating that to our customers to reassure them has been vital, especially as the government was telling people for a while not to use public transport unless absolutely necessary.
Working with the Chamber was also crucial. They have provided information and best practice, contacts and introductions, political intelligence and a forum to brief key stakeholders on how we were keeping the city moving.
At National Express, we believe there are opportunities to come out of this horrible pandemic. We have the chance to adapt and build inclusive and ecologically sustainable growth into the region’s economic recovery.
The population of the West Midlands will grow by half a million people in the next decade - that’s the population of Sheffield. There are no new roads being built and they will need to get about.
National Express West Midlands promised in February that we will never buy another diesel bus, and that our entire bus fleet will be zero-emission by 2030. We already have 19 fully electric double deckers in service on the 6 from Birmingham to Solihull. All our buses will be EuroVI standard (the lowest possible with a combustion engine) by mid-2021 - the first city region to be so.
The Clean Air Zone is coming in 2021. The quickest and easiest way to tackle climate change and clean up our air is to get more people onto buses.
Before the pandemic, central government announced £3 billion of funding for buses across the country. Birmingham City Council has pledged support in its recent Bus Statement. By working together with councils and Transport for West Midlands in the Bus Alliance, we are accelerating £260m of highways investment - targeting 1mph improvement in average bus speeds. That doesn’t sound a lot, but for every 1% that bus journey times improve, we get an extra 1% of passengers on board.
The other key driver to attract and keep customers is innovation - to sell them bus travel in ever-easier ways.
September is our busiest time, with schools, colleges and universities returning. We're making it easier than ever before for students to attend classes by providing them with that all-important bus pass.
All college passes are now issued through a special website, making it easier for college staff to administer. For universities, we're attending virtual events with great content and offers and using social media to reach and reassure nervous new starters. My sales team have been working closely with all our schools to sell tickets and reassure parents that we'll have enough space for all the children.
Back to work
Our corporate travel scheme has always given the region’s big employers the best rates on staff travel. We have given our biggest client, Birmingham City Council, a 24/7 web portal so employees can sign up online for whatever travelcard suits them best. This is less hassle for the passengers and the council, and a great way for us to incentivise people to stay loyal to public transport. Three more councils are switching to digital.
National Express West Midlands is building on our work with Job Centres to remove barriers to work. We are giving advisors a bespoke website for seamlessly issuing jobseekers with a ticket to get them to interviews.
We're also working with TfWM to relaunch Workwise, which gives unemployed people free and discounted travel for their first month back in work. Three quarters of those who use it stay in work, and keep on using public transport. We're making it simpler and extending it to apprentices and trainees.
We're also working on new 3-day and 7-day capped tickets for autumn, targeting customers who might be working from home more often post-covid, as well as flexible “bundles” of tickets.
At National Express West Midlands, we know there is a lot of work to do, but we believe the future is in our hands - and working with our partners in the city, we have the experience, the innovation and the employees to seize it.
Sales Director, UK Bus