In an exclusive interview, First UK Bus MD Giles Fearnley sets out the next steps for the Cornwall, as he announces major investment in 30 new double-deckers for the county. But it’s more than new buses; there’s also a new purpose and a firm commitment to improvement and growth, he reveals. Mel Holley reportsOnce on the list of operations to be sold, and historically loss-making, First’s operation in Cornwall once characterised much that was wrong with the ‘old’ First. Now, it is being revitalised and heralds a new way of working with Cornwall Council.A first tangible step of this came in October 2015 when First launched its new-look concept bus at the Cornwall Transport Expo, in a hanger at Newquay Airport, setting out the group’s aspirations for the region. With a new livery and brand, busKernow, it kicked-off a consultation with passengers, partners and stakeholders, ahead of introducing it across Cornwall.A new livery and brand, busKernow, is under developmentNow, that has been followed up with an announcement of 30 new double-deckers for Cornwall (routeONE, News, 27 April) as part of a national £70m investment.These are the first new buses that Cornwall’s had for 11 years, following some 05-reg Volvo/Wright Eclipse single-deckers. It has also had ‘nearly new’ buses: seven of the London 2012 Olympics double-decker order, which came via Plymouth’s park-and-ride service, to serve Falmouth University, by when they were a year old.But, says First UK Bus MD Giles Fearnley of the new order: “This is a substantial number”Relationship strengthWhen delivered during this summer the new buses will go onto the principle trunk commercial service – Truro-Redruth-Camborne-St Ives/Penzance – converting it from single to double-decker. Says Giles: “This is because of the growth we’ve seen and the further growth potential we believe there is. It’s also a classic route through the middle of Cornwall for sightseers, holiday tourists and so forth.“It is part of our partnership with the county and our customers in Cornwall.“This investment in Cornwall demonstrates the strength of relationship we have with the county, which is now very vocal about its aspirations around partnership, the work we are jointly doing and with other operators and GWR (the former First Great Western rail franchise) our sister train operator in improving the product, in integration measures and so on.”The Council shocked the industry last summer when the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a deal that made Cornwall the first county to “gain historic new powers under the Government’s devolution agenda, handing over control of bus services,” (routeONE, Big Story, 22 July).At the time, it was announced that Cornwall would “take over responsibility for franchising bus services by 2018,” making it the first rural unitary authority to gain this power.“The key word is stability. They want confidence in their bus operators. They don’t want to be landed with a problem. And they accept that fair returns need to be made.The council was named as having intermediate body status under the European Regional Development Fund and European Social Fund, allow it to select projects from April 2016.Since then, the Council has said it is not looking to use its franchising powers, but is now looking to partnership, although what that might look like is currently loose – there’s no formal agreement yet“There is a lot work behind the scenes,” says Giles. “The council’s particular aspiration – which we wholly support – is that we and the county has a truly integrated network in terms of customer-facing matters from December 2018.”Buses and trainsThis is when the Cornish main line will have been resignalled and new timetable – including new trains – comes in, with two trains per hour on the Plymouth-Penzance main line. This has been committed to by GWR under its direct franchise award from the Department for Transport (DfT).It won’t be even headway, as some trains will be limited stop, others all-stops, but it “will significantly enhance the rail offer across Cornwall,” adds Giles.“The aspiration is that at that stage we have a truly integrated network in terms of buses serving rail stations with sensible connections, (last bus, first bus and through the day).”There will also be common ticketing, information and other ‘joined up’ areas.“With GWR we’re working to deliver where we can, ahead of 2018, particular in terms of information provision at stations and ticketing. But the full timetable can’t come in until 2018 when the rail service upgrade starts.“There are a number of studies going on at the moment to work out what this could look like is practical terms.“Almost every rail station on the Cornwall main line is already well-served with buses, but we need to do more in terms of the marketing of through connections and some timetable tweaks to make connections.“The council has an aspiration – as we do – to grow patronage across Cornwall, which has suffered a hiccup with the Western Greyhound demise.Growth potentialThe providers and shape of the Cornish bus network have seen dramatic changes in recent years. Award-winning independent Western Greyhound grew strongly during the early 2000s, taking advantage of First’s operational weakness and ended up with a network over much of the county.But it was hit by three key issues, the low rate of free concessionary travel reimbursement, cuts to the Council’s bus budget and arson attacks. It failed to recover, was sold to new owners, but went bust three months later (routeONE, News, 18 March 2015).Says Giles: “There is no question: a lot of people were lost to buses during its 12-18 months of very poor service. We now run virtually all the former Western Greyhound services, either commercially or tendered, and people are coming back“But as we know it’s always quicker to lose people than to win them back.“Our investment in Cornwall, and our double-decker investment particularly, is designed because we believe there is much more potential. So we are totally aligned with the Council on meeting that objective.The other facet is the Council’s growth fund. From April it had £8m from DfT, being topped up by £2.4m of its own money, making £10m in total. This is designed to support bus networks, improve information and ticketing.It is likely to buy some vehicles for its tendered networks to provide better joined up services between community bus, which is quite an extensive network, and local buses with information, apps and so forth and First is “working very closely” with the council on this.The majority of this money has yet to be determined. It’s a two-year fund so, by 2018, just prior to the rail improvements that money will have been spent on customer-facing benefits.“So the whole thing is coming together and the spirit of Cornwall is now that everything is talked through and outcomes are agreed between operators and themselves,” adds Giles.First is the major operator in west, north and south Cornwall, with Go-Ahead and Stagecoach in the east of the countyPartnershipWith so much now in place, and being prepared, what’s to stop another operator coming and cherry-picking revenue on core commercial routes, undermining cross-subsidy that those routes offer to other commercial routes? Is some form of quality partnership likely?Says Giles: “Go-Ahead is now a worthwhile sized operator in East Cornwall, but for our part, which is west, south and north Cornwall, we have absolutely said we are prepared to commit ourselves to the cause.“The exact nature of a partnership agreement is yet to be thrashed out, but I would expect there would be discussions along those lines in the coming months“We are all looking for stability.“So enshrining this in some form of formalised partnership is sensible. I’m sure Cornwall is waiting to see the exact the clauses in the Buses Bill and legislation around the enhanced partnerships, but that could well form the foundation for what we do.”The network map shows that First serves much of the region, using around 200 vehicles in the summer (there is a seasonal uplift). A substantial number of these operate on contracted and tendered services. There is, for example, a network of 35 buses running from literally all corners, into Truro college, bringing students from right across Cornwall.Then there’s the core commercial network, plus a very extensive tendered network and contracted operation.First has two principal depots at Camborne and Summercourt (the former Western greyhound depot, which First has bought outright) where the majority of the engineering is carried out, and number of significant sized outstations, some with depot facilities at Truro, Penzance, Falmouth and Bodmin. There are small outstations at Newquay and Bude.ProfitablityFirst has historically lost substantial sums of money in its accounts on its Cornish operations.Says Giles: “It’s turned around dramatically. We moved into profit about 18 months ago, and while we still have further to go, partly because we’ve invested very heavily in the business because we believe in long term, it is now a profitable business.”Do the council and politicians understand that First Kernow needs to be profitable?“Yes, they do, totally. I’ve heard them say that publicly at council member level and they talk about the need for profitable bus companies.“We had moved our business into profit prior to Western Greyhound closing. But its closure brought that into sharp focus – that operators need to make a profit to invest and stay in business.”“The key word is stability. They want confidence in their bus operators. They don’t want to be landed with a problem. And they accept that fair returns need to be made.“We’re demonstrating that we are ahead of the game almost, that we are reinvesting our money into the business, with the order of 30 vehicles.The current rail franchise ends in March 2019, what happens if First doesn’t win it?“Whatever happens in the outcome of the franchise round, we will seek to work with the rail operator. Absolutely. And I will expect that Cornwall will lobby very hard in any rebidding for the franchise for there to be requirements on the winning bidder to work with bus companies“They are absolutely committed to this and they have lobbied and sought funding for Network Rail to resignal. The Council has contributed its own money to a number of rail enhancements around Cornwall – facilities and so on – and they’re not going to let that go.”Last autumn’s Cornwall Transport Expo with a rail carriage and a bus on display marked GWR’s launch. “It was us, as FirstGroup, coming together to show we are really one group that can work together.“We had one vehicle in a GWR type livery as a prototype and that livery has now advanced and we be shortly launching the final livery. This will demonstrate that we are hand-in-glove with our rail colleagues.“Importantly, the customers will see that and hopefully get confidence around the bus/rail work we are doing.”This is a significant move, and it’s worth noting that Giles also has a strong background in railways, previously being involved with an open access operator, and therefore understands the key issues and benefits around bus/rail integration.The first tangible evidence of the work being done will be when the new buses, in their new brand, roll out in numbers from the summer onwards, to be followed by a repaint programme of the existing fleet.This is one network that will be worth watching, especially when it delivers the growth aspirations of both the council and First.