95%. The Passenger Interest?

In a fairly anonymous Council building on an industrial estate just outside Kidderminster, a crowd had gathered. It was standing room only as Traffic Commissioner Nicholas Denton held his Public Inquiry into the affairs of Diamond Bus.
Diamond has had issues with it’s Kidderminster area operation. I’ve only been to a few Public Inquiries, but I’ve never been to one with this many of the public in attendance. Maybe they were expecting some sort of gladiatorial event, but of course it doesn’t work like that.

Nevertheless, TC Denton did make reference to the amount of public interest in the Inquiry, and in the subsequent decision, referred to his Office receiving “large numbers of complaints” about the Kidderminster operation.
Details of the Inquiry and subsequent decision have already been published, but what about the wider issue of how bus services are regulated by the Traffic Commissioner, and how the public interest is served?

Kidderminster, as an example, is typical of many a mid-sized town in the UK these days. The former carpet-making community has seen retail decimated by internet shopping and, like so many other towns, is dominated these days by a rather huge Tesco – and rather huge car park to cater for it. Once part of the mighty Midland Red empire, Kidderminster’s bus operation latterly ended up within FirstGroup, who sold it – along with nearby Redditch depot – to Rotala, hence Diamond are the main operator in the area today. It appears not to be great bus territory. Local estates surround the area, and the town’s railway station (awkwardly positioned by the Victorians half way up a steep hill) has regular services into Birmingham one way and Worcester the other. It isn’t easily servable, and thus cars dominate the scene – even though their drivers are paying a premium to park there. Elsewhere, just down the road is the town of Stourport, which attracts many Black Country folk – in their cars – when the sun comes out. Gridlock ensues, and Diamond’s blue buses become the victims, often unpredictably.

Underlying all of this are often low-ish frequencies. Only the problematic route 3 – referred to in the inquiry, and ironically passing the back of the Traffic Commissioner’s head during the hearing – has anything like an attractive frequency (every 15 minutes). The rest of Kidderminster’s bus network has half hourly, hourly and less than that on it’s routes. The problem is laid bare if a journey on these routes doesn’t operate. Do other operators in other areas with higher frequencies have similar issues, but the public aren’t adversely affected because another one arrives soon after, and thus avoids the TC’s radar?

The Traffic Commissioner standard is 95% of journeys operating within the “window” of no more than 1 minute early and up to 5 minutes late. Thus there is a 6 minute “window” to get it right. In the passenger interest? I would say so. During the Inquiry, TC Denton made regular reference to it. Following much deliberation between the company and DVSA (who monitored 1443 services), the agreed figure of compliance was 91% – still below the 95% standard. But here’s something. Next door in the (admittedly often more congested) Transport for West Midlands area, the average is apparently 82% compliance.
Recently, Coach and Bus Week reported the case of Stagecoach in South Wales, who also found themselves in front of their Traffic Commissioner, Nick Jones. They too had been suffering from non-compliance, which at one point was as low as 47% on two routes in the Cardiff area. This had further risen up to 93%, but was still below the accepted standard.

In Diamond’s case, the Traffic Commissioner issued a fine of just over £9000, also referring to a clause in the Transport Act which allows compensation to be beneficial to passengers, maybe in the form of free or reduced travel. The TC decided that this should apply to route 3. The company is deciding whether to appeal the Traffic Commissioner’s decision.

What does the consumer – the bus user in this case – take from all of this?

In the case of the dreaded route 3, Diamond argued that it effectively ran at around 80% compliance. What to do? Continue to attract the attention of the TC and his bulging postbag, or dump the route altogether and leave users with no service? The Traffic Commissioner said that he didn’t accept excuses about traffic congestion being worse on specific days, and that the 95% compliance rate takes account of this. As a user, I’d like to agree – but I see for myself from the top deck of my local services how bizarrely random the traffic seems to be these days. Take my local services. They are scheduled for different running times at different times of the day, but even these are subject to the increasing vagaries of congestion. What should take 12 minutes to my nearest town can often take double that – and often without any discernible reason. When local politicians wave glossy brochures about the future of our towns and cities and proclaim new transport plans will provide public transport systems to be proud of, I seem to endlessly sit on my bus services stuck in never-ending traffic, without any sort of plan to effectively tackle this. I sound like a cracked record, endlessly repeating my mantra, parrot-fashion, that the bus really is part of the answer, if only it could shine and bypass this endless, polluting line of cars. But to do that takes real political guts. Motorists have votes, and rival would-be politicians are always the people’s friend when it comes to votes via attacks on hard-working citizens in their cars.

There’s no doubt Diamond has had it’s problems in Kidderminster. And it’s entirely correct that the industry regulator – the Traffic Commissioner – has a role to play in looking after passenger interests, including the setting of standards that users can expect the operator to function by.

But if we’re happy to wheel the operators in for a grilling and consequent fine for poor operation, should we at the very least expect others in the game to face their responsibilities too? I didn’t see the Local Authority being questioned about what they intend to do about keeping the highway clear when the sun comes out and loads of Brummies turn up in Stourport for an ice cream. I didn’t see any local Councillors being asked about what ought to happen about local congestion, the effect it has on bus users and on operators trying to provide a reliable service.

No one comes out of this smelling of roses. The operator has it’s reputation pulled through the hedge backwards. The user stands at the bus stop with no sign of the bus. One industry friend of mine – a former bus company owner – suggested to me that the Traffic Commissioner standards may not be fit for purpose. I would suggest they probably are, but there needs to be a process of looking at the much wider picture of just how much traffic congestion – and it’s often wide vagaries – plays in non-compliance. That will require further resource , political will, and shine a light on just how much the public sector does or doesn’t do when it comes to keeping the highway flowing.

Chances?

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Communication…

Communication is always key. Transport doesn’t do enough of it, in a face-to-face sense.

In blogs passim, I’ve wondered why, when rail passengers are used to voices on tannoys announcing late-running services with accompanying excuse, bus passengers in bus stations aren’t afforded the same information. After all, someone, somewhere knows a service isn’t going to run.

Today, on a non-descript trip to and from Dudley, I came across not one, but two examples which bucked this trend.

In Dudley bus station, there were more folk than usual milling around the stand for my bus home. Not one, but two of the three services that use it had missing journeys. Now, as is the norm, not a tabard in sight, save for a gaggle of drivers about 100 metres away in the parking area. Enter the bus station manager. I know her well, as she also works in Stourbridge. She’s one of a rare breed who gets stuck in with the general public and tries to help. Today, she’s trying to find out what happened to the 127 (delayed due to an incident near Birmingham, as it happened – not that National Express West Midlands’ Twitter feed let us know…). Dudley is actually blessed with another helpful soul – a National Express West Midlands Inspector who is also happy to interact with passengers. It seems wrong to christen them “The Old School” – but I mean that in the nicest possible way; it almost seems a lost art of human being interacting with other human being via the use of speech.

Not only did our Bus Station Manager find them a “live” answer, she also asked if they were aware that the service was radically changing next month. Virtually all of them weren’t. She had booklets to give out, and 20-plus questions to answer, from newly-anxious passengers. She handled it admirably, before disappearing briefly to get a new stock of booklets.

The Dudley area is seeing one of the biggest upheavals to it’s services in years in September 2018. Many services are being renumbered, and routes are changing. NX West Midlands buses are scrolling information on their digital destination blinds. It’s a clever move, but I’m shot back down to earth immediately via a Facebook post that brutally comments on the truth – most regulars won’t even look at the front of the bus. Only geeks like me take a passing interest. Getting information through to the travelling public is challenging. My experience working on the railway is that you make tannoy announcements, flash screens and put signs up – but still some people aren’t aware.

But with around 3 weeks to go to this explosion of bus service molten lava, I’m slightly alarmed at the lack of awareness amongst a lot of the travelling public that any of this is happening. This is why the human touch is so important. And local knowledge. It’s clear our Bus Station Manager knows her patch. So with various questions flying in, she answers them all with confidence. Try that with someone in a call centre 50 miles-plus away. One rapidly-overheating woman bellows “Who thinks of all of these changes? Must be men!” I sheepishly challenge her and declare that “that’s rather sexist” and prepare for some part of the weekly shop to come flying past my head. All that is forthcoming is a loud Harrumphh.

My bus has disappeared. On a 20-minute frequency, one is missing. So there are more people than usual hanging around my stop. The next journey arrives, and everyone piles on. Our driver – from Diamond – seems the more jovial sort. The conversation on this Clapham omnibus is about the missing service. Folk are less than complimentary. Down the road at the local hospital, he pops his head around the cab and enquires about the missing bus. “I thought there were more of you than usual”, he quips. There’s a brief conversation about how the supposed vehicle to be used had disappeared off the bus station with “Not in Service” showing. Our man is intrigued. He says he’ll ring the garage and find out. Despite this slightly delaying our service, he has a conversation (whilst parked up, I must add). It isn’t clear what the outcome is (I’m sitting at the rear), but the previously baying mob now break out into spontaneous applause. In all my years of bus travelling, I’ve rarely seen the passengers clap a bus driver.

It makes me think. He could easily have kept his head down, but he interacted and tried to help. Like our Bus Station Manager earlier.

The public can be a fickle lot sometimes. Frustration with public transport problems can often boil over. But I’d like to think these 2 small examples today helped the travelling public in a way that a Twitter feed or a leaflet couldn’t. We haven’t all become robots.

Not just yet.

**UPDATE**

Not long after I wrote this blog, I received a communication from Management at National Express West Midlands. In it, it was explained how they were imminently about to start a big publicity push around the Dudley area to promote the changes. Here is what they said:

The go live date for information release was deliberately today – both for staff and drivers – to try to ensure consistency and so that inaccurate and incomplete messages weren’t released (as best we could prevent). From today, the customer guide is available in all Travelshops and destination displays have been reprogrammed to show changes specific to individual routes. ALL bus stops affected are due to have a poster affixed to them with detail of changes at that specific stop. Mitie are putting these up for us, and these should be done this week. There are something like 1500 stops so it may take some time!

We had around 6 of us out today in Dudley and Merry Hill talking to both customers and drivers & handing out the customer guide. We’ll be in West Bromwich and Oldbury tomorrow and Wolverhampton on Wednesday.

In the week before and week after the change, there will be around 20 staff deployed at key locations to assist customers – including the major hubs and interchanges.

The Travelshop staff have all been briefed, so should be in a reasonable position to help answer questions.

Timetables have all been proofed and printed. 5 are now in the shops and I’m assured the remainder will be in later this week, which is a big improvement on what often happens!

There will be a /Dudley dedicated page on the website going live tomorrow with all timetables linked.

A colleague is doing some bus station posters to further draw peoples’ attention.

Any other thoughts, please let us know !

 

 

 

 

The Argos Lesson

A friend tells me his elderly father wanted to peruse the Argos catalogue the other day. Fair enough.

So off he trotted down to his nearest store to pick one up. They usually sit on a huge pallet outside the front door. But when he arrived, there lain none.

“Ah”, says the Assistant “as soon as they appear, people swarm on them”. My friend’s Dad, in his 80s, can “always go online”, comes the advice. He isn’t online.

Is there a subliminal message for the bus industry here?

I’m increasingly aware of lack of printed timetables. Everywhere. Getting hold of one feels like a prized possession these days. Last time I was in Stafford, I hopped on a D&G bus solely to acquire their timetable booklet (before retreating, prior to departure). Another friend tells me they sell on eBay.

What? People bidding on eBay for a current bus timetable, because they’re so hard to get hold of? Another industry pal confirms this hard to fathom phenomenon.

Arriva in Leicester recently announced it was stopping printing timetables, and dressed it all up as “saving the planet”. Pull the other one. I might have been born the day before yesterday, but I’m not falling for that.

Printed timetable for buses may be a relic for today’s tech-savvy finger-prodders, (and – hey! I’m one of them), but I seriously believe that the industry is making a big mistake going down this route.

People like to browse. Like the Argos catalogue. OK, they might want an electric toothbrush, and they’ll find it online. But what about browsing the rest of the tome? How often has something else caught your eye? Something you never knew you wanted until you saw it?

Same with bus timetables.

When I was but a lad, pre-internet days, I used to revel in acquiring a timetable book. I’d spend hours looking at what was possible. I still do. Whenever I’m in Derby, I buy the local authority booklet, with it’s excellent map. It opens up new possibilities for travel that I never consciously knew about.  In Germany, the local bus & rail timetable booklet seems to reside in virtually every household and restaurant/pub. Last time I was there, I offered to buy one and the gentleman in the station simply gave it to me.

You don’t have to be a transport geek to want this. Yes, online timetables are useful, but I find the vast majority of them clunky to say the least. Then there’s the issue of revising your plans on the move. Is there a signal? Has your battery run out? A handy booklet is simple, effective and always to hand.

It may well be cost-effective to stop printing bus timetables, but what about the wider picture? What lessons can the bus industry learn from the stampede to acquire the new Argos book, whenever it appears?

Guess Who’s Back…Badger’s Back…

Pic: Chris Hanson

The much-loved “Badgerline” brand is set to return to Weston Super Mare, with First services seemingly being recast in an updated version of the classic livery in the seaside town.

It follows the demise of independent Crosville earlier this year, which also had vehicles operating in similar colours. This new version even features the classic badger loitering around the rear wheels!

It’s an interesting take on reviving an old identity. The railways seem hell-bent on it these days, since First revived the GWR brand a few years ago. The bus industry, in comparison, has tended to shy away from using old names – maybe due to ownership of such names, although of course Badgerline was the incarnation before First itself.

There is always a debate when a bus operator paints a bus into heritage livery. Does it mean anything to Joe Public? Might it even confuse them? This Badgerline rebrand is a slightly different argument though. Classic as the image may be, it certainly isn’t a relic from your Mother or Granny’s day – these colours should be recognisable to anyone apart from very young people.

And it’s another “softening” of First’s corporate image. Goodness knows what Sir Moir Lockhead makes of it all – it’s a long way from the rigid “Barbie” pink of his day.

“So what? It’s just a bus”, some may say. I say it’s more subtle than that. Popular and “friendly”-feeling liveries do make a difference. Warrington’s cat-based image feels better. National Express West Midlands’ crimson has a friendlier, classier feel than the blandness that came before it. People are already commenting on West Midlands Metro’s new striking blue look. They’re all the same vehicles underneath, but a makeover sometimes makes all the difference.

What might the Badger do for Weston?

Blackpool Rocks!

Blackpool Rocks!

It’s brash. Venue of many a stag and hen weekend. Kiss-me-quick hats, Big Dippers and 10p bingo. Blackpool is celebrated for its in-your-face, let-your-hair-down culture. It is famous too for its trams – the first in the country to have electric ones – and their bracing 11 and a bit mile slog up and down the coast to Fleetwood. Its buses, in my view, used to be fairly anonymous fodder. Something the locals use. But in recent times, Blackpool Transport has seen something of a renaissance in its operation.

So me and my bus-driving, blog-writing enthusiast friend Mark Fitchew rock up on a summer Monday morning to have a mooch around trams old and new – and the posh buses.

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Today’s Blackpool Transport bus fleet is looking increasingly impressive…

No Vacancies…

Mark is somewhat a Blackpool expert. His Facebook page often sees him posting pics of his latest visit, and he can tell you huge chunks of history about the system. And seconds after boarding our first vehicle – a rather splendid brand new Enviro 200 short single decker – he’s immediately pointing out where buses used to terminate in the 1970s. We’re on route 4 to Cleveleys – a fairly uninspiring dash around a Blackpool estate, dotted with guest houses and “no vacancies” in the front window – this seaside resort remains very popular, although we are in the height of the summer holidays.

The E200 is extremely impressive. The gorgeous leather seats fit nicely with the wood laminate-effect floor and tasteful yellow-based interior. There are next-stop screens and USB sockets and free Wi-Fi. The cove panels entice you with positive messages – no “check your bowel movements if you’re over 60” adverts on here.

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The impressive short ADL Enviro 200

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Live stop information

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USB charging points on seat-backs

Tickets Please…

A day ticket for buses and the modern tramway costs a decent £5.50. If you want to add unlimited rides on the heritage trams, an all-in-one ticket costs £11. We plump for the £5.50 as we’re only going to do a small bit of heritage in our limited time today. The friendly driver issues us our day ticket, but I’m slightly surprised that Blackpool Transport hasn’t got on board yet with contactless ticketing, given the amount of tourists that are here.

The trip to Cleveleys is uneventful. We hop off where it meets the tramway, and within 2 minutes, a tram to Fleetwood appears. Adorned across the front is the name “Alderman E.E. Wynne”. Edward Wynne was a former Blackpool Councillor, and it appears he was a rather controversial character, advocating complete closure of the system, when the future of the network was in doubt! Despite that, he was Chairman of Blackpool Transport for 6 of his 38 years on the Council.

Alderman Wynne would surely be pleased to day to see the effective modern tramway doing well. The purple and white beasts seem well-used, and within minutes, we’re at the northern terminus in Fleetwood.

Into Fleetwood and Across The Water…

The trams and buses stand next to each other, outside the imposing North Euston Hotel, built as a stopover for Victorians travelling from London to Scotland. The idea was that their rail journey would end here, and they’d catch a boat to Scotland because no rail link existed across the Lake District when it opened in 1841. Within a decade, the iron road to Scotland was complete, and the idea of Fleetwood being a major rail terminus had receded.  Fishing remained the big industry here, although this too began to decline in the 1960s. The last ferry to the Isle of Man departed in the 1961, the railway station closing down as part of the Beeching cuts in 1966.

One pleasing maritime-related service was running though. The Fleetwood to Knott End ferry has never been operational on the handful of visits I’ve made to Fleetwood in the past. Today, the “Wyre Rose” is going to whisk us across the water in a few minutes to Knott End for the princely sum of £2.

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The “Wyre Rose” from Fleetwood to Knott End

Time for Bitter…

Across the water, we find the Bourne Arms pub. A pint of bitter is consumed as Mark regales the history of local bus services to this unusual outpost, which actually feels more like somewhere in Devon in appearance than part of the gritty north!

The 2C bus service is Blackpool Transport’s northernmost service, east of the River Wyre. With a basic 30 minute frequency, we observe the departure of one service from the beer garden and then catch the next one, which is a rather elderly, but well turned-out Dennis Trident with East Lancs bodywork. The route is a splendid run through luscious countryside, through Preesall then Cold Row. At one point, we spot two “Black Country flags” fluttering from an upstairs window! We cross the River Wyre again, through pretty Poulton-le-Fylde, serving Victoria Hospital and skirting Stanley Park before arriving back in the town centre.

Our steed is carrying the older Blackpool Transport livery of black & yellow. Maybe it was once “trendy”, but I think it is looking increasingly dated these days. However, many of the newer examples in the fleet carry the altogether more agreeable “Palladium” branding and livery. It is classy, in an understated kind of way. When I first saw it a few years ago in a trade magazine, I wasn’t too bothered. But now I’ve seen it “in the flesh” a few times, it’s really beginning to grow on me. Coupled with the tram’s distinctive purple and white colours, Blackpool Transport for me is getting a real identity again.

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The “old” livery is starting to look dated…

We briefly sample the in-town “Customer Centre”, which has lots of visitors and is well-stocked with timetables, but alas no system map.

Heritage Bashing – and Ice Cream!

Now it’s time for some heritage bashing! We catch the 1930s double deck “Balloon” tram 717 down to the Pleasure Beach. “Mini” heritage tram tours cost £3.50 and are a lovely cost-effective way to sample some real transport nostalgia! Walter Luff, Manager of Blackpool’s Trams in the 1930s, commissioned these gorgeous machines, and their classy Art Deco-inspired swoops and lovingly-restored interiors are an absolute treat for any transport fan.

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Balloon Car 717

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1930s interior of 717

We retire for ice cream at this southern end of the heritage operation, as 717 whirrs away up the promenade – as it has done for the last 80-odd years. Nicely dodging a rainstorm (well, this IS the British seaside in the summertime, after all), we return to the Pleasure Beach terminus to admire the arrival of sister Balloon 715. Whilst the screams of terror emanate from the nearby Big Dipper, us transport nerds purr nicely as 715 glides away for a trip past the Tower and up to Cabin. This is where we hop off and observe a nifty little reverse procedure, as 715 trundles away back towards the heart of the action, and we similarly trundle our way to one of Mark’s favourite fish & chip establishments, where we eat in, chomping on our traditional seaside dinner, before making our way around the corner to catch a 3 service back to Blackpool North for our journey home.

Despite the excellence of another trip on a brand new Enviro 200 single decker, it was disappointing to find no timetable information on the stop (either vandalised or fell apart) and a car parked next to the bus stop.

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Some things never change…but where’s the timetable info? 

The short windy trip back to the station reveals the work going on to extend the current modern day tram network up to Blackpool North station. The buses have some temporary stops around the area, and we take the “back way” up to Blackpool North, where the 1974-built station awaits us. It’s the only station I know where doors keep you on the concourse, locked away from platforms until the very last moment. A Twitter discussion, mischievously started by me, fails to establish the reason for this, and problems on the Northern rail network delay us by over 30 minutes, but we’re soon heading back towards Preston and onwards to the West Midlands.

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Journey’s end – near Blackpool North station. 

The Verdict…

What to make of the Blackpool bus and tram network? It’s very much on the up. If you’d visited this seaside resort 20 years ago, you’d have seen the trams as an attraction, much the same as a donkey ride or stick of rock. Today, the modern rapid transit system not only serves a purpose, it looks good and sends a signal that not only is it “for locals”, it’s for everyone. For concessionary pass holders who don’t want to pay for the tram, the number 1 bus service mirrors the tram, all the way up to Fleetwood.

The buses themselves are becoming top notch. There has undoubtedly been – and continues to be – a transformation here. The “Palladium” brand – initially for high-quality vehicles – is rapidly becoming the norm here, and you can only applaud the decision to invest heavily in new kit. It’s a pity that the local yob fraternity decided to destroy the USB sockets on some upper deck tables, which warranted some unwanted publicity in recent times, but there’s no doubting the positive vibe going on with Blackpool’s buses.

The development of Blackpool’s much-loved heritage tram operation is a joy. Again, in years gone by, there appeared little identity in the tram operation. The balloons were front-line service providers, alongside rebuilt double deckers and some rather ugly-looking examples. Today, for my money, they have the balance just right. The modern fleet is distinctive and does its job well. The heritage service fits nicely in between, delighting tourists and holidaymakers. The day ticket is actually a “24 hour” ticket, which also fits well with holidaymakers.

Although I was only there for a few hours, I found a nice, well run, attractive operation, with high quality vehicles and friendly staff. Blackpool rocks!

 

Blackpool Rocks:

  • High quality investment in new vehicles
  • Excellent modern and historical tram services
  • Well-priced day tickets

Blackpool Lacks:

  • No contactless payment
  • No system map available from the shop
  • No bus information at Blackpool North station
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This Trident carries the “classic” heritage of green and cream

 

Farewell CityZap MCR

I happened to be in Manchester the other day and caught a brief glimpse – for the last time – of Transdev’s CityZap Manchester-Leeds service. It ends this weekend.

An earlier OnThisBus blog details the findings from not long after it’s launch – I was seriously impressed with this bold initiative that suggested the best of this swashbuckling commercial bus industry. It came across as something confident, something that was seriously useful. It also used refurbed vehicles – not that you’d notice; they looked and felt brand, spanking new.

Transdev’s top man in these parts Alex Hornby must be feeling saddened that this idea hasn’t worked. It certainly isn’t for the want of trying. That man Stenning had “created desire” with the whole image of CityZap and I was seduced.

So why is it disappearing?

Only Alex and his team will know for sure – but not enough paying bums on seats will have been a factor. Was exposure in Manchester City Centre enough? Was demand rising? Was it competitive with the train, both in time and fare? Familiar arguments.

But 10/10 for trying. Us “armchair bus critics” do like to play the bus industry board game. But this is real money involved – not the monopoly version.

It’s a blow to those of us who trumpet the bus industry, no doubt. But I bet Alex Hornby and his team will be back somewhere else to give it another go. And who would bet against him succeeding?

OnThisBus blog is changing….

OnThisBus blog is about to become busier!

As well as the more detailed, lengthier articles, there’ll be shorter, quicker comments on the bus industry goings-on from day-to-day – particularly from a user’s perspective.

You can find quick links to these on the Twitter page @OnThisBusBlog and of course on Phil Tonks’ own Twitter feed @philtonks2

We’re all OnThisBus!

Obsessive. And Failed.

I recently updated my Twitter bio to read “Obsessive about quality public transport”. I’m also acutely aware that the blog seems to read like an endlessly moaning effort these days. Maybe I need to visit some of the more rewarding bus operations.

It’s easy enough to moan about public transport. And in a moment, I’ll kick off again. But I’m “obsessive about quality public transport” because I believe in the idea. Totally. I know that, because it involves things that contain mechanical parts, it will fail on occasion. Memo to smug motorists: your car will, eventually, let you down too. But what gets my goat is when public transport shoots itself in the foot.

Example 1: Last weekend, myself and the other half attended an event in Dudley. (“Dudlaaayy” to those reading this outside of the Black Country.) We could easily have driven. We decided to take the bus. Upstairs, the view across this once industrial powerhouse was obscured by crappy window etching. It immediately feels uninviting. The route itself winds around various housing estates – nowhere near as direct as taking the car. Then we grind to a halt as a pair of vans have been parked directly opposite each other and the occupant is actually sitting in one of them, of course unable to dent his pride and move it slightly. Our skillful driver manages to gingerly negotiate the situation. Result: delayed journey.

The etched windows ought to be addressed. I know it’s a continuous battle against these cretinous idiots, but it feels like a very poor mode of transport. The van parking is an altogether more difficult issue.

Example 2: When the evening is done, and alcohol consumed, we mosey back to Dudlaaayy bus station for the final bus of the night home. It counts down on the tracking display, then appears to be delayed. There are, in total, 5 of us waiting. Then counts down to “due”. Then fails to appear. It’s getting very late, and everyone is getting a bit shifty. 15 minutes later, I decide that I’m going for a taxi, which costs me £10, and will take me to the front door. No wonder local bus shelters have local taxi cab stickers stuck illegally to them.

Who knows what happened to that journey. I’ve emailed the bus operator, asking if they’ll reimburse me my £10. We shall see. I’m open-minded as to the possibility of breakdown, bus attacked by yobs, driver taken ill, whatever. But the other half makes good points.

Why can’t info be put on the live screen, she asks? Good question. And that point has been discussed on this here blog before. The technology is certainly there. Someone knows the bus ain’t going to run. Why can’t it be put on the screen? Or announced on the tannoy? Are there still bus station managers onsite at that time? If not, Security? I saw none. Could a message be gotten to them to inform waiting passengers? Is there a policy to get a spare bus/driver to the scene? Is there a policy to provide taxis as a replacement? If we want people to believe in public transport, these are the things we need to think about and have in place. Another topic raised by the other half has also been discussed here before. The perception of security. As a lone female travelling late at night, would she have felt safe? Dudley bus station isn’t the worst place in the world, but it also isn’t the greatest.

You could almost feel the relief as we jumped into the back of the taxi. This would also take us to the front door. But, damagingly, it also chips away at the reputation of the local bus service. You can’t blame breakdowns, or whatever else happened. They will always happen, and maybe we were just incredibly unlucky. But what you CAN do is recover the situation by having mitigation. And here lies the conundrum. It requires money, resources and, ultimately, will.

We both have cars. I’m not the best placed to talk about giving up on buses, because I’m a nerd and I believe in them. But I looked around at the other faces waiting for the no-show. I suspect they had no choice. They possibly could ill-afford the cost of a taxi. And possibly they will be there again tomorrow night. Or next week, hating having to use the bus, but not having a choice. Is this what we really want? People so unhappy at having to use public transport, but are because it really is a mode of last resort? If it is, I despair.

The other half commented that, with hindsight, we could have just ordered a taxi direct from the function we were at and saved ourselves an hour. “That’s what we’ll do next time”. So, future passenger lost, and a really negative view of bus travel painted.

I know it’s logistically very difficult (and expensive) to have a spare bus and driver sitting in the bus station every night, just in case it’s required. In days gone, when Dudley had it’s own bus depot, it was possibly more likely that they could have sent one 3 minutes up the road to cover such an eventuality. And we live in a world of progress? But there is surely a way of communicating these problems. On the bus station screen. Via the tannoy. Via a member of bus station staff. And is it really beyond the wit of mankind to devise a system that, with minimal fuss, says, “sorry about that. Here’s a taxi”. It would focus a lot of minds to get the system right, because public transport should be relied on, no matter how difficult or convoluted it can get.

If we’re polluting everyone with poisonous emissions, and we really don’t want to be the focus of silly pub jeers about “the Government want us all to get on the bus – I’m never going to stop using my car”, we have to get public transport as near perfect and reliable as it can be. Every time. It WILL go wrong. But like every good retail business, it’s how you win people back that is all important. And at the moment, the bus industry is failing big time.

Loss-Leading Lager and Bank Holiday Buses

Bank Holiday and the sun is out? Must be global warming. But nonetheless, the sandals and socks are on display, and the Brits want to play.

Myself and the good Lady unusually both had the day off last Bank Holiday. We both have cars but didn’t fancy the laughable “freedom” it might bring us, with “Bank Holiday traffic” (which always seems to bring a dire warning that it’s going to be “the worst ever” for gridlock). We also wanted the potential to enjoy a few drinks.

Several delightful areas were pondered. None of which were accessible by bus, either because buses had long-ceased to serve the area concerned, or because it was “Sunday service” (i.e. no service).

I work on the railway, where, ironically, I am often working on a Bank Holiday – to a normal weekday timetable. Where has this “Sunday service” on Bank Holidays for buses come from? Is a long-standing old tradition that goes back to giving the horse a well-earned break and an extra bit of hay? Or is it a bit of bus manager / bean-counter intuition that will save a few quid because there’ll be fewer commuters?

Many years ago, I held a Bus Users Surgery at a well-known supermarket entrance in a Manchester suburb (oh, the highlife). I positioned our stand next to a huge pallet of packs of lager. In between gripes about how the local service into town was “always late”, I watched the human behaviour. People would insert their pound coin into the trolley, then immediately be confronted with a pile of cheap beer. (Occasionally asking if I worked for the bus company, as if to prepare for the venting of the spleen – when I told them I didn’t, the disappointment was palpable).

After a while, the store manager appeared and asked if how it was going. “Fine”, I replied. “I bet you’re making a fortune with this beer though”. “Not at all”, he replied, and launched into a mini-lecture on loss-leaders in retail. They would take a hit on the beer, but the real money was in other products. Types of cheese were particular kerr-ching moments. Then, our happy shoppers would leave, beer-happy, but almost unaware that they’d been totally ripped off for some Ukrainian camembert, or the like.

Not that bus operators are in the business of ripping people off – even if a £6.20 “day ticket” for a return trip of around half hour each way did make my eyes water slightly recently. But “loss leaders” is surely something they could try. Could they tie in my £6.20 ticket into a cheaper “zone” just across the invisible border and knock £2 off the price? That might lose them some revenue in the short term, but it might just make me travel more on that service, thinking the price is far more acceptable. Likewise, with Bank Holidays. If only a normal Monday service was running on the Bank Holiday, there would have been a lot of destinations me and the other half would suddenly have been in reach of. It might have lost the operator some revenue, but it might alternatively had sent a message that, actually, the bus industry is serious and innovative about trying to attract people to its services – not just by taking a punt on Bank Holidays, but at other times too.

In the West Midlands, we never used to have Boxing Day bus services. Then, a number of years ago, Centro (as was) took a gamble at subsidising a limited service. It has grown year-on-year to the point that much of the Boxing Day network is now commercial. Is there a lesson to be learnt here?

As the good Lady sadly concluded, “let’s go in the car”, when she realised buses weren’t an option last Bank Holiday. She may well take that attitude on other days too.

Cancelled. Got The Message?

My Other Half knows how to press my saloon bells. “It’s a bus”, she often says. “They’re all the same”. Well….

But I elicit bus opinions regularly from her. She’s a commuter, owns a car, but often uses the bus and train to get to and from work. The kind of person the industry needs to keep on board.

This evening, I received some rather annoyed texts. After a long day at work, her bus hadn’t shown. A frequent user of the mobile app with live departures, one such departure had shown up not as “real” time, but “timetabled” time. And the journey was missing. “Why show it on the app and the departure screen in the bus station if it isn’t running?” she protested. She knows the difference between “real” and “timetabled” departures, but points out that where I work – on the railways – the timetables are always “real” time – and that they actually show “cancelled” when the train is cancelled.
Also a problem was the coldness of the bus station, with an unscheduled wait of around 20 minutes for the next service. Notwithstanding the complexity of providing heated bus stations, it was again commented on that on the railway, she can wait in a heated waiting room.

There’s quite a bit of food for thought here. In a world where people are making multi-modal journeys to get from A to B (and increasingly C & D as well) – and is acknowledged by fledgling ideas such as Whim, bringing all modes simply together – the bus here, this evening, is looking yet again like the poor relation.

We’ve had electronic “real” time displays on railway platforms for years. Bus equivalents are still, in chronological terms, a recent phenomenon. When the bus ones work – and that same info is placed in the palm of your hand as a mobile app – it’s incredibly useful. But you have to trust what you’re looking at. Working on the railway as I do, I know people generally trust the information they are seeing in real time. They may not appreciate delays, but they can see – with confidence – what is going on. I don’t get that same feeling of trust from the bus world’s travelling public. And this is mainly due to the regular mix of “real” time and “timetabled” time. Do people readily understand the difference between the two anyway?

Tech is a force for good, in the main. But if we want people to use the bus more often, trust in the product, and appreciation of it is absolutely vital. So I have a question for the bus industry. If the railway can show cancelled journeys for the benefit of it’s passengers, why can’t bus?

My good lady’s cancelled journey this evening would be known by someone in authority at the bus operator. We have phone apps and digital displays in bus stations. We surely have the wherewithal to override the list of departures and add “cancelled” and highlight it in yellow, or something?

Now of course, there will be a million and one reasons why you can’t do that. Lack of resource. Lack of access (will the likes of Transport for West Midlands allow bus operators to override their tech system? Fat chance. The operators aren’t even allowed access to a timetable case in a bus shelter!). Lack of business case to support a human being able to input such information. Where is the case FOR doing something like this?
Again, we must look at the discerning traveller, and the ever-increasing options they have. After a long, hard day at work, a cold, unexpected wait nearly drove my Other Half to the nearby taxi rank, even though she pays £99/month for bus/rail/Metro access. In the end, she hung on, lambasting this state of affairs to me, with me not even trying to defend it.

I think we all accept buses will break down, or be missing a driver, or have some other reason why a particular journey won’t happen. That’s life. But communication – in this ever-increasingly connected world, is more vital than ever. If a bus is listed as departing (as scheduled time, amongst a list of real-time departures) at 18:25, people will expect it to be there. When it disappears off the screen without so much as a sarcastic cyber-wave, people; a) won’t like it, and; b) have less faith in the digital information next time, “real” time or “scheduled”.

If other modes of public transport, such as rail and tram, can do info on cancellations as a matter of course, why not the bus industry? I can hear the arguments now. “Far more bus journeys than rail/tram”, they’ll say. But how many cancellations are there? And if we want people to increasingly use buses as a wider public transport v. Private car “offer”, everything about people’s bus journey has to impress them, from reliability, to value for money, to comfort, to a real advantage over the car, to the very latest information about cancellations and journey options. When someone at the bus company knows a journey isn’t going to run, it should be as simple as tapping a few buttons into a tablet to get that information out electronically as soon as possible. It would give people that same confidence they already have in the worlds of rail and tram.

I shall leave the last word to my Other Half. For a regular public transport user – and car owner – it is rather damning: “To be fair, I expect buses to be ****. They have just fulfilled my expectations today”. If that doesn’t motivate those of us who work in, or care deeply about, the bus industry, I don’t know what will.