Neville Jephcote is a slight anomaly in the context of most community transport organisations… a former bus manager from the commercial sector.
He’s now Community Transport Manager for Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity (BRCC), managing the Bedford Door-To-Door service, but in a past life, was Commercial Manager (Suffolk) for the large Eastern Counties fleet, in the days after the Government decided to sell off all the National Bus Company and changed hands first to its management and then later to GRT, which became First Group. He left for Southampton Citybus but, eventually, moved back to the eastern counties to join Suffolk ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England), now part of Community Action Suffolk, as an officer for the rural transport partnership operation. He got a taste for community work: “It was a great organisation,” he says.
After a short stint when he started his own small bus company which then grew to 20 vehicles, his company was merged with another and Neville once again found himself on the lookout for a job. After a period at Suffolk County Council he moved to Bedford to be near his daughter and new grandson. This brought him to Bedford Door-To-Door.
Formerly an independent charity trading as Bedford Door-to-Door, North Bedfordshire Community Transport, had recently become part of BRCC and Neville took the reins of Bedford Door-To-Door in June 2013, joining a small organisation which is among a number of other community initiatives in BRCC. These include a community transport brokerage, ‘Wheels to Work’ moped loan schemes, a rural transport development initiative and a community rail partnership. BRCC has also bought a disused railway station as part of its Marston Vale Community Rail Partnership and even owns a community vineyard!
It’s not the only community transport initiative which is run by BRCC – one of 38 RCCs nationally working under the umbrella of ACRE, Action With Communities in Rural England. Aside from the Door-To-Door service, BRCC, which has been established for 60 years, offers group hire of vehicles and runs a Wheels2Work scheme which loans mopeds to young jobseekers and students who have transport issues. Bedford Door-To-Door is run from Bedford Council’s Highways Department yard, tucked away between the big machines such as tippers and refuse trucks. Like many community bus schemes, it doesn’t waste money on properties and is currently homed in an adapted building.
After getting his feet under the desk, Neville’s first act was to change some attitudes, he says: “Gone immediately were all the rules and reasons why we cannot do something. I hope we are now a much more ‘can do’ organisation,” he says. “We also set about renewing the fleet. The vehicles we had were constantly breaking down and we were spending a lot of time fire-fighting. “And I have tried to make us more flexible by using part-time staff more effectively. It didn’t save immediately on our costs but has delivered more efficiency.” The long journey to a balanced financial footing has been harder to achieve and often painful but we are almost there.
All of Bedford Door-To-Door’s drivers are paid and drive using D1 entitlement on the organisation’s Section 19 permits: We are looking at Community Bus Permits [section 22] because we may in the future look at bus-style routes. Right now, we’re expanding and have Lottery capital funding of £25,000 as part of a wider grant. “The core of our operation is dial-a-ride and the majority of our customers are elderly or mobility impaired, who need trips to the shops, doctor’s appointments and various therapies. They have to prove need to travel with us. Currently, we have about 300 members of the scheme.”
Members pay £15 to join for the first year, reducing to £10 a year afterwards, and can book journeys by phone up to a week beforehand. All of the vehicles are wheelchair-accessible.
“But we also do contracts now, with services for special needs adults to a day centre and a contract with a primary school. Of our eight vehicles, between five and seven each day are on dial-a-ride, the some of their time being spent on hire and contract.”
Turnover at Bedford Door-To-Door is around £300,000, and income is split about 30% from grants, 40% from contracts and the rest from hire, concessionary fares, cash payments and sponsorship/fund raising. Bedford Door To Door claims BSOG for its dial-a-ride mileage. In total, it makes about 16,000 passenger journeys a year – around 65 people each day plus others on the contracts.
“Our customers’ needs are quite simple. They want clean, simple, trouble-free transport. For us, it’s essential that the vehicles are clean and reliable – to be cost-effective, they need to be as modern as possible. The rest is down to our excellent team of drivers, who really do go the extra mile for all our customers,” says Neville.
“We both own and lease vehicles. We have leased two minibuses from Minibus Options and we have bought a Minibus Options Iveco Daily conversion from them, which is very attractive. I have to say that all three perform well; to be honest, build quality isn’t something you notice, but you soon notice when trim comes off and the floor lifts. We don’t have these issues with Minibus Options. “Small things do go wrong but Minibus Options is always quick to respond, sorts the problems and doesn’t quibble.”
Neville, as befits a bus man, is still building on the quality of the fleet, which ranges from a nine-seat Movano right up to the Minibus Options Renault Master-based 13-seater it leased this year. With one of its funding streams halved, he is making sure that, even when funding is cut, the bills are predictable and low.