Dundee bus boss Ralph Roberts has been on a long journey from a mechanically-minded kid “crazy with Meccano” to running one of Scotland’s most ambitious transport companies.
He has overseen bus services in the city since Greenock’s McGill’s Buses bought Xplore Dundee in 2020. He has worked more closely with the Dundee company since the departure of former managing director Christine McGlasson earlier in the year.
And with a wave of recent timetable changes, reorganisations, service cancellations, driver shortages and Covid-19 it’s been far from a smooth journey in the City of Discovery.
‘What’s not to love?’
Yet the Coatbridge man’s enthusiasm for bus travel burns bright and never more so than when he talks about improving Dundee city services.
Key to that is the city’s first wave of electric buses, introduced to one of Scotland’s most polluted streets Lochee Road in 2021
“What’s not to love? It’s a new bus versus an old bus. So compared to the buses that were on the route 28, they’re brand spanking new,” he says.
“But the biggest difference is the experience. It’s so quiet and smooth.”
The improved efficiency is another winner. “A double deck diesel bus is a tortuous thing. It’s an expensive way to make noise.”
Ralph’s team had spent the previous five years researching the machines before launching 12 in Dundee out of total company fleet of 68.
It hasn’t been all Tomorrow’s World though. Ralph admits the company had to fall back on its diesels temporarily on the X28 route while the new electric tech bedded in.
Still, he admits the new models would have been an eye opener for the young man starting out as a management trainee with the now defunct Eastern Scottish in 1979.
“Electric buses would have seemed like a pipe dream. You would have only got 10 miles out of them.
“So now we’re at the cutting edge, even as we’re buying them and putting them in.”
‘I didn’t know which way was up’
Ralph is also the current president of UK industry body the Confederation of Passenger Transport. As well as his CEO position at McGill’s Buses and Xplore Dundee.
The industry is in his blood. He followed his father into the business after leaving school.
“I was a typical 17 year old. I didn’t know which way was up. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the world. I just knew I was good at organising things. I was tidy. I was good mechanically.”
His career in the industry would take him to Kent, Yorkshire, France and Denmark,
“I didn’t know what to expect. I loved every minute of it. I’m one of these lucky people who works at their hobby. I am very lucky in that regard. Work is an enjoyment for me.”
What’s different about Dundee buses?
And now, to Dundee.
He points out bus services in the city are ripe for investment. He said the median age of a Scottish bus is around seven or eight years while Dundee buses are older, around 10 years.
Ralph previously worked as a consultant in the city in 1990 as Tayside Buses staff prepared to take on employee ownership after deregulation of the industry.
He said 130 buses worked in the city then compared to 95 today.
“When you look at the number of cars parked out on the street then it’s no wonder why. Motoring is so cheap and convenient nowadays.”
Other changes, he added, have only come more recently.
“It’s very different in Dundee. It’s been highly insular. Up until January last year, the routes hadn’t changed in 20 years.”
He said it was the local team who finally decided to change the routes.
“In all that time, population had waned in Dundee and car ownership has mushroomed. Now that must mean you’re going to need some kind of change.
“We’ve tried to inject a bit of new thinking and new working practices into the organisation.
“In order to make sure that it is efficient as it needs to be in order to survive.”
What’s next for Xplore Dundee?
Passengers in the city will have differing opinions on the success of the change, at least to date.
From Ralph’s point of view, he is still managing a service with only 78% of its pre-Covid footfall and with government support for the industry tailing away.
He remains in no doubt about the central role both he and Xplore Dundee will continue to play as the city emerges from the pandemic.
“It’s that next step that’s crucial now. The bus industry hasn’t had the worst pandemic. When you look at the hospitality sector, nightclubs, pubs, hotels, the holiday sector, retail. They’ve had a rough time.
“The bus industry hasn’t had the worst time and it goes back to the kind of industry it is. It’s an essential public service.”