Four time winners of the UK Bus Awards’ Operator of the Year award, Nottingham City Transport (NCT) operate a network of over 12 million miles and around 50 million passenger journeys annually. With a customer satisfaction score of over 91%*, NCT exemplify what it means to be a thriving bus operator in the UK. Features Editor Joe Wyatt spoke to Nicola Tidy, Marketing and Communications Director NCT, to discuss the importance of long-term strategy, their transition into biomethane buses, and what other operators can learn from their success.

What are the main factors of NCT’s success as a bus operator?
Our success comes down to long-term strategic planning. We are lucky that we are not driven to maximise profits every year and thus become restricted by short term policies. We are not part of a big group – we are an independent, municipally owned company and therefore we can adapt and stay flexible. Equally, our consistent customer focus means we do not do anything without consulting our customers through rider surveys and
research first.

What are your operating challenges?
With congestion always on the rise, the most difficult issue for us is reliability. Reliability is also the most important consideration for customers. In addition, getting the right drivers can be an issue. With quite high employment, not everybody wants to work shifts or weekends so sourcing quality drivers can
be difficult.

Are you partnered with any other organisations in Nottingham?
NCT operate approximately 67% of all public transport in Nottingham. We work in partnership with both the city and the county council, bus operator Trent-Barton, and Nottingham Express Transit tram service to promote excellent public transport for our city. Our view is we want to get people out of their cars and on to public transport – we’ll worry about who they are travelling with after that. We’ve got a joint, multi-operator ticketing system in place (similar to Oyster cards in London) called Robin Hood, as well as extensive real-time tracking where both the local authorities and operators have invested in real time equipment. In Nottingham, there are around 3000 stops with real-time information on the location of every bus in
the network.

NCT’s Gas Bus at a transport conference in Blackpool.

What is the story behind your new biomethane buses?
Nottingham is one of the five cities in the UK outside of London that is looking into creating clean air zones by 2020. For a long time, there have been concerns over diesel engines and their emissions. As a local authority-owned company, we are constantly developing ways to improve our environmental record, so we sought to move away from diesel.
Back in 2010, we felt that many diesel alternatives were not appropriate for NCT. Firstly, many operators with hybrid fleets have been forced to carry out widespread battery replacement to massive financial cost, or convert back to diesel power – this ruled
out hybrid as an option.

Secondly, while lots of electric buses are run by Nottingham City Council, they do not have the range of 250 miles per day that we require. And anyway, if we converted our entire fleet into electric buses alongside the City Council, Nottingham would run out of electricity! So, electric buses were not an option for us.
We did also trial ethanol buses at one stage but the Government were not of a mind to treat it in the same way as they treat diesel in terms of taxation, and thus ethanol became
too expensive of an option.

We knew that biomethane was a tried and tested technology for bus operators worldwide. The trouble for us was that we needed a double-deck fleet and gas buses have only ever been single-deck.

How have you accounted for that?
We have worked with Scania to develop a double-deck chassis and with Alexander Dennis to build a body. A lot of accommodations have had to be made for biomethane to work on double-decker buses – for example, the tanks cannot be stored on the roof as they are on single deck vehicles as the buses will then be too tall. Our final fleet have been seven years in the making but the first biomethane buses hit the roads of Nottingham in July. While the initial investment has been significant, we predict it will be cheaper in the long run for us to run biomethane buses over diesel. These super friendly bio-gas buses will also reduce CO2 emissions by 84%** compared to an equivalent diesel double deck bus.

Can you tell us about your recent award wins?
In November 2016, we won UK Bus Operator of the Year at the UK Bus Awards for the fourth time. This is more wins than any other UK operator. NCT was also crowned Large Operator of the Year at last year’s Route One Excellence Awards.
On top of a submission submitted by each nominee, judging panels make their decisions based on a lot of mystery travel – ostensibly ordinary travellers that are actually assessing customer experience, driver performance, punctuality etc. Each operator must demonstrate commercial success, innovation and a whole range of other qualities. We are very proud of our success.

NCT’s Gas Bus launch event in Nottingham’s Old Market Square.

How do you ensure high standards of customer care?
Firstly, all new drivers attend a seven to eight-week training course to uphold high standards of both driving and customer care. If there are any issues with a driver on the road, such as an accident or a complaint, we send our trainee school out to reassess their performance and provide remedial training. We also do random testing ourselves. We have also recently introduced telematics systems to review driver performance.

What does the future look like for NCT?
We are looking to remove cash payments by switching to a smart contactless payment system, as well as develop our mobile phone payment service to speed up boarding. We are always looking into cleaner buses in line with government emissions targets. We are not afraid to try new things; sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but you never know until you try. We are constantly looking at better ways to deliver for our customers and get them out of their cars.

For more information:
*Transport Focus 2016
**Based on well-to-wheel GHG saving compared to EuroV diesel equivalent – certified by Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership.

This interview with Nottingham City Transport originally appeared in FACTS issue 130. To read the magazine in full,