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MiniPlus Article
February 25 2019
By Michaela Peacock

Michaela writes for routeone and Group Tourism & Travel magazines

Carlone Buses: Providing a community lifeline

By operating essential services in Surrey, Carlone Buses is a firm that knows exactly where it stands in the market, with an important role to play where the larger operators may not, or will not, be able to

Carlone focuses on small PCVs, and buys new, such as this EVM Sprinter

Knowing who you are and where your place is in such a large industry like the coach and bus sector is vital, and it’s the key to success for minibus operator Carlone Buses.

In a time where new-build housing estates are not investing in bus infrastructure, and councils are making service cuts – limiting the travel opportunities to those in rural areas with no access to cars – the Lyne, Surrey-based firm prides itself on the hard work it does around the area, providing an essential service to users.

Climbing the ladder

Established by Martin Noakes in 1984, Carlone operates a nine-strong fleet of PSVs and two eight-seater vehicles, and is now headed up by Martin’s son Matt.

“After working with his father at the family coach firm for a while, my dad decided he wanted to launch a business of his own,” Matt explains, saying that Martin simply “wanted to do his own thing”.

He adds: “I came onboard in 2000 when I started as an apprentice mechanic, and then worked up from there. I did a few years in the workshop, some years driving, and a few years in the office.”

His parents wanted to retire but they settled on semi-retirement in the first instance. This saw the founders come back and work during the school term, at a time when Carlone was running more vehicles than it does now. They then retired completely in 2007 with Matt taking over the reins.

Quality service

Carlone proves that a completely brand-new fleet is not always required to provide essential services to the community. Its oldest vehicle is a well-maintained 05-plate and the newest is a 68-plate, with the average age of its main vehicles – the ones that work every day – around three years old.

Each vehicle in the fleet will be contracted out all day, so the firm does hold two spare vehicles which Matt explains are older than the others. It does home-to-school services, some school routes, and bus services where larger vehicles cannot fit or when it’s uneconomical.

A variety of work is undertaken, including school and stage carriage duties

Says Matt: “We started initially just doing home-to-school routes and then the council came to us and said: ‘We’ve got a few areas that don’t have a bus service. Would you be able to provide one in between school contracts where you are picking up some people and take them shopping?’

“And then it progressed from there. We’ve graduated from minibuses to welfare vehicles to now where we are pretty much buying full-specification minibuses so we can provide a quality service to those in wheelchairs. This includes wheelchair users being able to board the vehicle from the front as opposed to the rear.”

Most of Carlone’s vehicles are fitted with destination equipment and they include Ticketer’s hand-held electronic ticket machines.

The services don’t take contactless payments. However, Matt says as it doesn’t currently take a lot of cards on the buses at the moment, it’s not really an issue that is bothering the firm.

“But the next time we invest in ticket machines, we’ll be able to upgrade and get contactless,” he adds.

Why minibuses?

Running any business comes with its challenges and operating a minibus firm, Matt describes as being “a tough game”. “You do have to do a lot of hours for nothing, so if you’re willing to do that then the rewards will be there – but it’s like everything, if you’re willing to put the effort into it, you will get something back eventually.”

Carlone is a minibus firm that knows exactly where it stands in its market, which is one of the main reason why it hasn’t looked at investing in full-size coaches.

“It’s mainly due to the work that we’ve had. It has always been centred around the requirements for minibuses,” Matt says. “If you do what we do, where you have to complete every contract every day, it’s obviously a lot easier when you have the right infrastructure in place – when you have got the spare vehicles to move into a contract.

“To move into a service for larger vehicles, in my opinion, I would need to buy at least two of them. That way I can have one available should there be an issue. Even with our brand-new buses, they still need maintenance and could still have an accident or warranty repair that might take some time. So running brand-new vehicles still needs the capacity to cover the work.”

The fleet holds a mixture of vehicles; those used all day are all modern

Advice on running a successful-minibus operation? Matt says: “Don’t stretch yourself too far and don’t be ashamed to run older vehicles to get yourself going. “Just make sure you have the right vehicles for the contract.”

No driver shortage

Driver shortage is always a hot potato in the industry, but it is an issue that Carlone says it has not been affected by – the firm has 19 members of staff at the moment, 14 of which drive.

“We always do quite well for drivers; we tend to offer a mixture between part-time driving and full-time driving,” he says.

“We do tend to get drivers who are looking to semi-retire and still doing the same work. And a lot of our routes will have one driver on them, and they’ll do the same thing every day, offering them stability.

“We’re really lucky that our staff are absolutely brilliant,” Matt explains. As a smaller company, it has many benefits. All of his drivers know him, all of his passengers know him. He puts that down to going on all of Carlone’s services regularly.

“Passengers have my contact details, so if there are any problems they can get in contact with me and I’m always here. If there are any issues they can come straight to me to solve it,” he adds.

Future growth

Carlone is always looking to grow “but in the right areas,” says Matt. “At the moment, we do a lot of work for Surrey County Council and we would like to maybe look at other surrounding councils and move into the service work, but in our niche, we believe we can offer something different at a lower cost.”

With the rise of demand-responsive services in areas – such as Oxford PickMeUp service, and ArrivaClick’s operation in Kent and Liverpool – Matt sees a gap in the market for Carlone to venture into. “We like the idea of getting involved with on-demand services, working with councils or an authority; it looks like a good idea where we will be able to cope with not having that vehicle contracted out all day.

“We’ve got enough staff in the area that could do a little bit here and there and it would work as lot of our drivers never get near enough to the hours they could do. “We are always offering to help if we see another service in trouble or when an operator can’t run something commercially because of councils cutting funding. We will always try and offer support.”

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