Leeds partnership: Spirit of Leeds

Leeds partnership: Spirit of Leeds Rav Jagdev reports.

FIRST has signed a formal Quality Partnership Agreement with Metro and Leeds city council which aims to increase buses and frequencies and improve traffic and information systems for its ‘ftr’ service in Leeds backed by local authority investment.

To mark the occasion, FirstGroup chief executive Moir Lockhead named one of the city’s StreetCar vehicles to celebrate the partnership with the region’s transport leaders, which aims to play a major part in tackling congestion throughout the city.

The name given to the vehicle – Spirit of Leeds – represents First’s commitment to further develop its innovative ‘ftr’ service in Leeds. The agreement demonstrates First’s commitment to running a strong fleet of StreetCars in return for local authority investment on highway infrastructure improvements.

The signing of the agreement took place at Leeds Civic Hall in Millennium Square on 15 August. Signatories included First’s Moir Lockhead, Leeds city council deputy leader and executive member, councillor Andrew Carter, and Metro chairman Ryk Downes – who has reportedly sold his car and replaced it with a bicycle to help tackle Leeds’ congestion.

On signing the agreement, Lockhead says: "Leeds, like many cities in the UK, is currently facing a massive challenge to find new and innovative ways to develop a transport network that will tackle the twin threats of congestion and climate change. First is delighted to work in partnership with Leeds city council and Metro to meet this challenge and to work together for the benefit of its millions of customers in the city."

The Leeds partnership means that First's StreetCars
benefit form new bus lanes and other highway
improvements as well as new shelters and better
passenger information.

Leeds plays host to First’s second ‘ftr’ service comprising of 17 Wrightbus-bodied StreetCars – with 15 in operation during peak-hour services – serving the city’s route 4 service between Whinmoor, St James’ Hospital, the city centre and Pudsey.

Following the badly-managed launch of its service in York in May last year, First decided to phase the introduction of its vehicles for Leeds allowing services to be run alongside more conventional buses. First received initial problems in York with the StreetCar’s onboard ticketing machines, which have yet to be resolved. As an alternative method of fare collection in Leeds, First has replaced the ticket machines with a team of ‘ftr’ conductors to sell tickets and offer assistance.

Despite the problems associated with the machines, Lockhead is not concerned and says that the onboard conductors – customer service hosts – are an integral part of ‘ftr’ customer service, issuing tickets and offering guidance for passengers. "Buying tickets from a customer service host helps to speed up boarding times and make sure that the ‘ftr’ isn’t delayed," says Lockhead. "They [conductors] are able to provide assistance and answer any queries that customers may have."

First has made a significant financial investment in the ‘ftr’ project in Leeds. Around £5.4million has been spent on buying the vehicles. Fifty staff members have been retained as pilots to drive the vehicles and 47 new jobs have been created for a team of conductors to assist customers and collect fares. The bus operator is now responsible for running the service on the 13-mile route seven days a week as part of its commercial network in Leeds.

Celebrating the formal partnership:
Spirit of Leeds StreetCar unveiled.

The distinctive articulated vehicles now operate on biodiesel fuel, and since the service was fully operational from June, First says patronage for the service (route 4) has increased by 10 per cent compared to the same time period last year.

"The StreetCar is an example of a modern vehicle transforming 21st century travel that will encourage more people to leave their cars at home and travel by public transport," says Lockhead.

Leeds city council has invested £1.5million in the provision of new bus lanes, junction improvements, signal priorities and accessibility improvements at 140 bus stops along the route.

Councillor Andrew Carter says: "The council’s contribution illustrates its high level of commitment in the ‘ftr’ project. I am pleased that Leeds city council is again working in partnership with First and Metro to promote this step forward in a high quality public transport service."

Metro, the West Yorkshire PTE has also contributed significantly towards the ‘ftr’ service in Leeds. Metro has installed 40 brand new shelters along the route and has invested heavily in bringing other stops up to modern standards, and has added upgraded timetable displays. A total of 30 shelters now feature Metro’s yournextbus real-time information displays with the installation for a further 20 shelters due in the near future.

Metro chairman Ryk Downes says: "I am pleased to be able to take part in this launch and look forward to seeing the introduction of more innovative schemes that, like ‘ftr’, spell out a bright public transport future in Leeds, West Yorkshire and the city region.

"Metro aims to provide local people with the highest standards in public transport and works closely with partners such as First and Leeds city council to achieve this."

Moir Lockhead: We need to find new and
innovative ways to tackle twin threats of
climate change and congestion.

After a troubled start for its ‘ftr’ service in York, First says that it has received positive feedback following results of its latest independent customer survey, published earlier this month. The survey showed that 91 per cent of all ‘ftr’ customers rated their most recent journey on the ‘ftr’ in York as good, very good or excellent.

Following First’s completion of its phased introduction of the ‘ftr’ service in Leeds, the UK’s biggest bus operator has announced that its third ‘ftr’ service will go-ahead in Swansea, and is due to start in April 2009. A phased introduction of the StreetCars looks set to continue for Swansea also, following the example of Leeds.

A total of 10 StreetCars will initially serve the scheme in south Wales which will act as another example of positive public transport to help generate further investment from government.

The third scheme is part of a major £10million infrastructure development, which is currently in its second phase of development, ready for completion next year. Plans for the second phase include replacing a roundabout with traffic signals and new pedestrian crossings. A short section of busway is to be constructed next to County Hall, including two stations to serve the new Civic Centre.

The introduction of the vehicles for Swansea will complete First’s initial order of StreetCars from Wrightbus, however the bus operator has made no further commitment to its additional option on the first 100 StreetCars to be built by the manufacturer.