Transport services operator Keolis Downer celebrated the handover of public transport services on the Northern Beaches.

The celebration, held last Thursday evening, marked the commencement of Keolis Downer as the operator of Region 8 public transport services, which includes the Northern Beaches from 01 November. At the same time, they celebrated the fourth birthday of the innovative and popular Keoride service in Pittwater.

Guests gathered at Bucketty’s Brewery Co at Brookvale for an informal celebration, including Keolis Downer staff, Northern Beaches Council staff along with Mayor Michael Regan, and Mackellar MP Jason Falinski.

Speaking exclusively with the Northern Beaches Advocate, Keolis Downer CEO David Franks (main image) said they were delighted to win the bus contract for the Northern Beaches.

David Franks

David Franks

“It was our number one target. There were three contracts coming to market which completed the transition from the STA [State Transit Authority] into outsource contract type arrangements.

“We’ve been operating the on-demand service Keoride in the Northern Beaches, where we felt a little bit incumbent, as much as you possibly could be, and we got to know some key players in the Northern Beaches.

“We really wanted to build on what we’ve done here already, with admittedly a small service offering. It wasn’t easy to win the bid. We had to be creative with our ideas and we had to build the right team.

“Mark Dunlop [Managing Director, Keolis Downer Northern Beaches] is really passionate. He led a great team in Newcastle before he came here. He’s a busman through and through. He’s been bus all his career and he’s going to do a great job here,” said Mr Franks.

Mr Franks believes listening to the community is a cornerstone of the way Keolis Downer intends to operate bus services across the Northern Beaches.

“What we’ve been proud of is the way that we work with the local community, the way we actually listen and the way we try to respond. We can’t do everything that everybody wants but in Newcastle we really tried to be part of the community and not just a bus operator. That’s what we want to try to achieve here, and Mark’s the right guy to do it.

“The on-demand service Keoride clearly enabled us to show we were doing something very well. The on-demand service in the Northern Beaches is probably the best in the world. It’s carrying more people and it’s got a great system around it.

“During the worst of the COVID crisis we listened and adjusted. We were picking up some of the more elderly residents and we expanded the hubs. We took them to the shops and picked them up from the shops. We took them to the doctors and picked them up from the doctors.

“That’s not what the service was originally designed to do but we knew it was a need. We’ve got local drivers, those local drivers talk to the residents, they’ve got an affinity with them that is just a bit different and that has helped us enormously,” said Mr Franks.

The Keoride service has proven successful in the Pittwater area, so much so that had Keolis Downer not won the contract for public transport services, it could have proven a headache for the NSW Government if the service had been discontinued.

Mackellar MP Jason Falinski talks to Keolis Downer staff about transport services.

Early customer satisfaction surveys put the popularity of the Keoride service in the high 90 percent range, a level almost unheard of for any service. Those numbers waned slightly as wait times increased with the popularity of the service, which has now completed over 500k customer journeys since it started in November 2017. According to Mr Franks, the challenge will be continuing to innovate and improve the service.

“We’ve got to work really closely with Transport for NSW, because at the end of the day, they subsidise the operation. We can present ideas and options as it gets more popular and we need new vehicles, otherwise we can’t meet some of the key performance indicators.

“We’ve looked at the size of the vehicles we’re operating and we’ve got a mix. We work closely with our technology partner Via. It’s a bit like Uber with on-demand, we’ve had to change the algorithms to improve the service.

“The dilemma is you really have to pump in more cost, because you’ve got to put more vehicles in or get some bigger vehicles, like we’ve just bought the Ponchos.

“Then of course, you’ve got to be careful because you start to defeat the object of the whole exercise. You need to keep on top of it, looking at the key performance indicators of wait time and journey time. You need to try to balance the two with more people getting into the vehicles.

“I give credit to Transport for NSW, they tried a number of on-demand services and they weren’t all successful. We had one in Macquarie Park, which was getting snarled up in traffic. It was a different model as well, from an inner hub to an outer hub. It was taking them into the inner hub in the morning peak, in the evening peak it was taking them back home. We just couldn’t guarantee all the times.

“The model here is fantastic. We’ve got a similar one operating in Mount Barker in South Australia, and that has taken off in just the same way as this has,” said Mr Franks.

Asked whether the Keoride on-demand service will now expand across the rest of the Northern Beaches, Mr Franks was circumspect.

“I’m sure people would like us to but we’ve got to get it right. We’ve got to do it sensibly, we’ve got to work with our technology partners to make sure the algorithms will do it. There is quite a bit of planning that goes in before we make change,” said Mr Franks.

Managing Director of Keolis Downer Northern Beaches Mark Dunlop

Managing Director of Keolis Downer Northern Beaches Mark Dunlop (image above) will be in charge of the day-to-day operations of public transport services on the Northern Beaches.

“We are extremely excited, it was a region we’ve always been focused on. We started Keoride four years ago, so we got to know the area. We love the area and it was one we were really keen to put our best foot forward and be involved in the community,” said Mr Dunlop.

Originally from Adelaide, Mr Dunlop had been running public transport services in Newcastle for Keolis Downer until June when he moved to Dee Why following the successful tender for the Region 8 bus services.

“I was part of the negotiation and we were successful, so I came down in June. I had two weeks and we went into lockdown. We transitioned the service in COVID lockdown.

“It came down to collaboration and communication with the people from the STA, Northern Beaches Council and Lower North Shore Council. Everyone has been open and engaged with us all about seeking the best outcome for the community. When you approach it that way, you get a good outcome,” said Mr Dunlop.

Keoride's fourth birthday celebrated

Asked what role he felt Keoride may have played in assisting Keolis Downer transition into the role of bus service operator, Mr Dunlop had little doubt about how important it was.

“Keoride has been an outstanding success. One of our parents Keolis operates on-demand in 16 countries and I’m proud to say that Keoride in the Northern Beaches with over 500k journeys has been an outstanding success. We set the benchmark and our French compatriots are looking at how successful it is.

“I’m immensely proud to be associated with the team, the STA team that helped with the transition, the local council, the community, our own Keolis people. I’ve got people here tonight from Keolis that have been assisting in the transition and this is the first time they’ve met face-to-face.

“Put their achievement into that perspective and it’s incredible, I’m immensely proud of them and really, genuinely excited to be on the Northern Beaches. I’ve shifted into the area and it’s a great location. You can feel the sense of community and the vibe. The majority of our drivers are locals and they have a passion for the community.

“We’re about relationships. We’re about people. We care. We imagine. We commit. That’s our values. And we genuinely live that in our DNA,” said Mr Dunlop.

Keolis Downer assumed responsibility for operation of bus services in Region 8 on 01 November from the STA, which covers the area of the Northern Beaches and Lower North Shore. They worked with the STA to transition almost 900 staff to continue delivering existing services.

The NSW Government retains ownership of the bus fleet and bus depots but they will be operated by Keolis Downer under contract, which is expected to save the NSW Government approximately $100m.

Part of the contract includes a gradual conversion of the bus fleet from diesel to electric, with 125 electric buses to be purchased over the eight year contract term.

Images: Northern Beaches Advocate

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