A Trip to the Village

We made a big mistake in 1953. Closure of the Birmingham tram system may have made some sort of sense at the time, but the flexibility of buses – and more importantly private cars – was always going to end in jam after jam after jam. Heaven forbid we ever get any long-term strategy in transport planning.

Yet…. realisation may be setting in. Ridding Birmingham of the most polluting vehicles is a start. Improving the public transport alternative is paramount. So why is the extension of today’s modern West Midlands Metro tram system such a milestone? After all, it’s only a measly three stops…

Clear, easy to understand route descriptions

Trams are attractive, in a way buses struggle to compete with. Extending Brum’s Metro “up the road” to Five Ways is something the city’s bus users have been able to ride forever. Yet, there is something significant about traversing Birmingham city centre on a tram. It says that we’re serious about an effective public transport alternative to the car.

It’s been a long time coming. Birmingham has long had an image of “car city”. Once you’re stuck with that perception, it’s very difficult to shrug off. Add to that the trauma of the pandemic and a series of unfortunate issues with buses, trains and the trams themselves – unsafe cracks have seen the withdrawal of the the Metro on more than one occasion in recent times. Damage has been done to the confidence of those using public transport in the city-region.

Now, as we climb out of Covid, the eyes of the world fall onto Birmingham, as host city of the Commonwealth Games. The Metro needs to showcase what is good about public transport – and it needs to be visible. And just in the nick of time, it has reappeared, gliding right through the city’s streets, with a new link to the West side of Birmingham.

A trip from Wolverhampton, through the industrial Black Country, into Birmingham city centre and out to the other side was therefore a must – as the new terminus is “Edgbaston Village”.

There has been a fair bit of comment on this chosen name. Quaint, it may seem, although the end of the line is amongst office blocks and a giant Morrisons , which doesn’t conjure up a “village” feel. Yet, I like it. “Edgbaston Village” is actually a “thing”. It’s a name given to a small area of development in this part of Birmingham, which should see improvements in the coming years. And it sounds much nicer than “Hagley Road” – which was the original name given to this stop, and still visible on tram stops along the line showing the coming extension.

Travelling through the heart of the city, first via Bull Street (near Snow Hill Railway Station), then down Corporation Street and “Grand Central” (for New Street Railway Station), the line then travels up hill to the Town Hall and onwards towards the Library, where the terminus was previously located. The new bit then involves mixing it with local buses up Broad Street, famous for it’s entertainment and night life (and gateway to the canal network) before swooping underneath the major Five Ways traffic island to terminate just on the other side, on Hagley Road.

It’s not quite finished. Integration with adjacent bus services is via a bit of an untidy yellow sign. There is a bit more work to be done to tidy up the finished effort.

The full-length journey I made from Wolverhampton was popular, with several people standing. The Metro is clearly popular, although the frequency is still slightly below what it was pre-covid – currently between 12-15 mins whilst more trams are brought back up to spec.

“Integration” with bus needs tidying up…

But the story is that the tram is finally back in the heart of the city – a very visible reminder that mass transit in city centres is often best done by systems that are attractive, high frequency and effective. Bus routes come and go. Railed tram systems have something of a permanent feel to them.

That isn’t to say that other modes don’t have a part to play. High quality bus services have crucial part to play – and we’re fortunate to have a network across the wider region that – despite it’s own recent challenges – has the basis of a good, solid system for many years to come. Improving the image of the bus is vital too. “Sprint”, as a concept aims to build on bus priority with reliable, fast links – and not for nothing has it been dubbed “Metro’s Little Sister”. Building tram lines is an expensive game, so real improvements to bus are vital – trying high capacity articulated vehicles in addition to proven quality double deckers adds to the attractiveness of public transport. If perceptions of buses as slow, passenger-unfriendly modes of transport can be challenged with simple to use, high frequency, reliable services, all the better. Integrating all of this is another challenge. I’m fascinated by the concept of MaaS – the clumsily-named “Movement as a Service” idea that you don’t necessarily need to own and run a car – you can bring bus, rail, tram, cycle, e-scooter, taxi and car hire under one umbrella. Seeing this operating under one app in Helsinki, Finland is inspiring. Can we do this in Birmingham and the surrounding city-region? We surely don’t have a choice if we’re serious about cutting emissions and congestion – electric cars on their own won’t solve everything.

Plenty of information…

So why is extending the tram service three stops such a milestone? Now in my 50s, I’ve been interested in West Midlands public transport all of my life. Only now does it fell like we’re starting to actually get somewhere. It’s been painfully slow progress. Politics inevitably gets in the way. Vested interests play their part. But we have to push on with providing a real alternative to private motoring. Making that effective, reliable, and – actually – visually attractive to look at, has never been so important.

Keeping extending the Metro, bit by bit, mile by mile, is crucial to this vision. It’s too easy to criticise – I could have spent this entire blog belly-aching about how long this has taken, the problems with the trams themselves, the naming of the stops themselves. It’s time to move on, celebrate our public transport – yes, with all of the problems we’ve faced in recent times – and give our city-region a network to be proud of. Whenever I travel to another world city, I look at their public transport system. I’m sure most have their challenges, but many inspire me, because they just work, moving thousands of people seemingly effortlessly around. It feels part of the city fabric.

And so should Birmingham and the West Midlands’ transport network. Edgbaston Village is just another leg on that journey.

BuzzViews – the latest from the UK bus industry: 27/02/22

Travel by car now costs three times more than by bus, warns watchdog https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/northern-ireland/travel-by-car-now-costs-three-times-more-than-by-bus-warns-watchdog-41350761.html This is what we need more of – clear examples of how much car use is costing, compared to bus travel. This example shows quite a large differential, but it’s still a matter of trade-offs in a lot of examples – people perceive that they can still “rat run” and avoid congestion in their own vehicle, and of course the ongoing potential for cancelled journeys due to staff shortage remains a significant hurdle to overcome…

UK bus and coach registrations fall to lowest recorded level as pandemic dents ridership https://www.smmt.co.uk/2022/02/uk-bus-and-coach-registrations-fall-to-lowest-recorded-level-as-pandemic-dents-ridership/ Totally understandable, if you have the purse strings, would you be splashing out until you had a better idea of the longer-term?

I rode a Hull bus for an hour to see if we are friendlier than Londoners https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/hull-east-yorkshire-news/i-rode-hull-bus-hour-6681404 Not even I have done this!

‘It’s time to replace buses with more appropriate vehicles’ https://www.autoexpress.co.uk/opinion/357388/its-time-replace-buses-more-appropriate-vehicles I know what you’re thinking. It’s another petrolhead slagging buses off. It’s Auto Express magazine. Rutherford has long seemed anti-bus (perhaps they get in his way….) But actually, if you can bare to read the piece and cut through the cobblers, he taps into the attitudes of many motorists – and it’s these perceptions the industry has to really challenge if we are to see any consideration of the bus, even for occasional journeys….

Incredible 1960s photos of London show drinks served on buses and people smoking on London Underground https://www.mylondon.news/news/nostalgia/incredible-1960s-photos-london-show-23109708 I’d love to have been around in the 60s, to ride on the “Gay Hostess” motorway services (and of course the Midland Red coach services between Birmingham and the capital). It must have been very exciting times…

Third of Manchester bus routes could be cut without funding https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-60469036 Scaremongering? Or a very real looming problem? There have been a lot of similar articles in the media this week predicting a doomsday scenario if the covid support ends at the end of March…

UK to become first electric bus city with BYD double-decker buses https://www.techgenyz.com/2022/02/22/uk-become-first-electric-bus-city-byd-double-decker-buses/ not new news, of course, but still great to see this making the media in a positive way.

Liverpool buses: Mayor Steve Rotheram plans to franchise network https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-60520838 again, not particularly “new news”, but it seems that the Mayor in Liverpool is keen on following his counterpart in Manchester with franchising…

‘London’s buses aren’t always the best – I found bus routes outside of the capital that have a better service’ https://www.mylondon.news/news/news-opinion/londons-buses-arent-always-best-23199395 man discovers life outside of the M25….some good points here though – London is often held up to be “the best”, but as we all know there are far better examples dotted around….

Britain’s Go-Ahead sets aside $40 mln for potential transport fine https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/go-ahead-sets-aside-40-mln-potential-uk-transport-department-fine-2022-02-24/ trouble on the tracks for Go-Ahead group – but with the proposed National Express / Stagecoach merger looking like a go-er, what price on a FirstGroup / Go-Ahead tie up?

Bus and rail operator FirstGroup sees improvement in passenger levels and fewer staff off sick as pandemic eases https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/markets/article-10551921/Bus-rail-operator-FirstGroup-sees-improvement-passenger-levels.html talking of FirstGroup… but that 70/75% figure seems pretty much the average for many UK larger operators at present, and some of the smaller ones potentially at even lower figures…

Northern bus crisis: How Yorkshire compares with Manchester, Liverpool and the North East https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/northern-bus-crisis-how-yorkshire-23211536 some quite sobering reading here…although based on quite low numbers replying to the survey, it is clear that a lot of people aren’t happy. But it’s interesting how the franchising proposal seems to grab people – would it necessarily be that much better in a franchised world? It’s that “black and white” political word again…what about the enhanced partnership operation where all parties play to their strengths to provide better services for everyone? Or is it more challenging to explain that “middle ground”….?

Row continues over how much ‘scandalous’ tree cutting bus has cost Caerphilly https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/row-continues-over-how-much-23214538 you can’t beat a good old-fashioned council house row over a tree-cutting bus…. the question is, who is cutting the trees now….?

BuzzViews – the latest from around the UK Bus Industry: 16/02/22

Staffordshire village bus route cuts ‘will affect mental health’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-60362466 Not particularly a new argument – there has always been a level of protest when a “lifeline” public transport link is not – but the solutions seem as far away as ever. There’s no point in blaming a commercial bus operator – which business would keep on providing something it makes a loss on? – but should council’s be properly financed to provide tendered journeys? Or maybe innovative options such as demand-responsive? Never easy answers…

‘Third of bus services could be cut within weeks’ without emergency government funding https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/bus-service-cut-department-for-transport-b2014200.html here’s a not-dissimilar argument – again, who provides the cash when the sums don’t add up? Hopefully, the vibes are that something will be coming along to mitigate the cliff-edge scenario of mass de-registrations, but the industry needs something more long-term to focus on. Again, not an easy topic…but it comes at such a crucial time when the environmental topic ratchets up the agenda. Buses need to be seen as something increasingly important to people’s travel habits – at the moment, it’s all in the wrong direction…

Her favorite old school bus found a new life in the U.K. https://www.wkbw.com/news/local-news/her-favorite-old-school-bus-found-a-new-life-in-the-u-k awwwww……..mind you – I become attached to old buses all the time…..

Are North East’s bus services up to scratch? Have your say in our survey https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/north-easts-bus-services-up-23108476 usual questions, here, but the one about “London-style” services seems to be cropping up more and more in discussions – yet not many folk then move on subsequently to the political shenanigans now engulfing TfL….

Zenobe signs deal with UK’s National Express for 130 electric buses https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/zenobe-signs-deal-with-uks-national-express-130-electric-buses-2022-02-15/ The future’s electric….!

Bus provision proves too expensive for university’s 300-home student flats plan https://thelincolnite.co.uk/2022/02/bus-provision-proves-too-expensive-for-universitys-300-home-student-flats-plan/ oh dear. Providing a decent bus service appears to be far too challenging. Looks like all getting into our cars again….

Expanded free bus travel would need to be funded from Council Tax https://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/19925530.expanded-free-bus-travel-need-funded-council-tax/?ref=rss ….at least someone dares to say that any extension to concessionary pass travel needs to be funded by someone…but it’s an interesting point: concessionary pass use normally begins at 0930 Mon-Fri in order to get the “morning peak” out of the way. I wonder if we’ll have such a “morning peak” going forward? And with concessionary pass use declining even before covid, could a removal of the morning peak revive use? But who’s paying…..

BuzzViews – news & views from the UK bus industry 13/02/22

Tory mayor Andy Street joins protest against cuts to bus funding in levelling up row https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/tory-mayor-andy-street-joins-protest-against-cuts-to-bus-funding-in-levelling-up-row-1446427 West Midlands Mayor Street distancing himself from his party – and rightly so. The West Midlands is quietly getting on with doing good things with public transport, and this needs to continue…

London bus police patrols under threat due to TfL funding crisis https://www.mylondon.news/news/zone-1-news/london-bus-police-patrols-under-23007967 The TfL long-term funding argument rumbles on, with a “threat to safety” the latest grenade being thrown in.

Yate Park and Ride facility opens to help combat congestion https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-60262312 you can’t beat a good Park & Ride…or can you? The one in Worcester closed after being unsuccessful, and this one appears to have only normal service buses calling on, every 30 minutes. That’s a bit of a low frequency for me…..

https://inews.co.uk/news/women-right-travel-through-city-safely-campaign-night-transport-1444339 perceptions of safety are always interesting to consider. Interesting here that one person says she would feel much safer on a tram than a night bus…

Tap on Tap off’ contactless payment launched on Arriva Buses Wales fleet https://www.deeside.com/tap-on-tap-off-contactless-payment-launched-on-arriva-buses-wales-fleet/ several operators have introduced this, including Diamond near me in the West Midlands. I’ve tried it, and it is really simple and effective, especially if you’re only going a short distance and wouldn’t benefit from a day ticket. There was/is some concern that it might be an issue on busy routes with people tapping off before they get off, but I wouldn’t mind seeing if that actually would be an issue in practice.

Cambridge City Council paid £31k subsidy for ‘ghost bus’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-60304820 “wooooooo” <ghost impression> ….but actually, a serious point. Taxpayers won’t be happy if they’ve paid for something that hasn’t operated….or, with discussions going on, is this some local politician’s mischief-making?…..

Driver protests 12-metre bus lane that’s made £442k from fines https://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/driver-protests-12-metre-bus-23033872 Bus lane argument no. 637,415. I don’t know this location, but beware of an 86-year old man with a placard stood at a junction. It must mean something’s up….

Weymouth First Wessex bus route saved after pensioner’s offer https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-60331170 ….and just to prove the UK’s pensioners are a diverse lot, the previous article had one placarding a junction over a bus lane – here’s another of our older population offering to stump up £3000 to save a Sunday bus service! Luckily, the bus operator and local authority have seen sense and let him keep his three-grand…He isn’t the first to do this though – I’m reminded of Councillor Richard Worrall in my native West Midlands who offered up his Councillor’s allowance to save a bus service in Walsall….

I went on the poshest London bus route that makes just 4 trips a day and found most people were on by accident’ https://www.mylondon.news/lifestyle/lifestyle-opinion/i-went-poshest-london-bus-23058999Throw in the occasional commuter and TfL could make a pretty penny from this yummy mummy nifty nanny bus. The ideal bus route for an au pair? Not exactly.” I have no idea what a “yummy mummy nifty nanny bus” is…..but this correspondent is suggesting it might be the saviour of TfL’s funding woes….

Inside London’s new ‘Future Bus’ with panoramic skylight and phone chargers in seats https://www.lbc.co.uk/news/london/london-new-future-bus-63-panoramic-roof-phone-chargers/ I thought London’s “future bus” was the New Routemaster?? And the Mayor is threatening them with “managed decline” if they can’t have a midlife refurb….meanwhile, these super-posh buses have attractions that have been seen in other parts of the country for quite a while – London doesn’t always lead the way, you know…. “They have flooring like it’s your actual house, bougie bougie…” says one passenger…. (eh?)

The shocking extent of missile attacks on buses, trains and trams https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/shocking-extent-missile-attacks-buses-23074387 meanwhile, it’s grim up north… “I would ask those who are thinking about doing such a thing, to contemplate the potentially devastating consequences that that one moment could have, not only for those who could be seriously injured or even killed, but for themselves, as our officers will take appropriate enforcement action against anyone caught throwing items at a vehicle.” says the local Superintendent. Are those doing the missile-throwing even capable of any sort of thought, yet alone contemplation…?

Inside the lost London bus graveyard where old iconic red buses were sent after they retired https://www.mylondon.news/news/nostalgia/inside-lost-london-bus-graveyard-22973149 …and of course the inner geek inside of me quietly dies as the opening picture is of an RT, not a Routemaster….(screams inside…)

First Potteries honours area’s past with Mainline interior design https://www.route-one.net/news/first-potteries-honours-areas-past-with-mainline-interior-design/?utm_source=routeone&utm_campaign=ffc300aa6e-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2022_01_05_10_20_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_584b65a2d5-ffc300aa6e-98991937 This has impressed me so much, I’m going to travel up to Stoke just to ride on one! Indeed, who would ever have thought that the Potteries is actually about to become the place to be in the bus world, given that it is one of the first announced “winners” of BSIP (Bus Service Improvement Plan) funding….

BuzzViews – 06/02/22: The latest news & views from the UK Bus Industry

Colas wins £14m Dover rapid bus route build https://www.constructionenquirer.com/2022/02/03/colas-wins-14m-dover-rapid-bus-route-build/

Good to see the bus being given some prominence in Dover. Should be a good showcase!

TRANSFORMING RURAL TRANSPORT https://rsnonline.org.uk/transforming-rural-transport

Bus Users’ Claire Walters on Demand-Responsive transport. I’ve always found D-R an interesting option that has potential, but often requires a fair bit of subsidy and – especially in rural areas – buy-in from users which may be challenging, especially if based on technology / apps that might not work!

UK bus operators warn 30% of services at risk of disappearing https://www.ft.com/content/833e5119-d456-4a64-8607-503b70f57667

…and still the UK bus industry awaits guidance on what might happen at the end of March, when subsidy is due to end. The rumours are that some form of assistance will become available, but the industry – and passengers – could do with some form of reassurance…

Warrington celebrates ‘levelling up’ bus services boost https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-60246777

Things looking up in Warrington! They are one of the early beneficiaries of Bus Service Improvement Plan funding. (see later piece below). I do rather like their Best Impressions-designed livery though!

Labour: Shapps ‘sold bus transformation, but is delivering managed decline’ https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/grant-shapps-louise-haigh-government-labour-barry-sheerman-b2006799.html

It’s still £3bn, apparently, according to Grant Shapps. We shall see….

£804m vision to upgrade North East buses plunged into more doubt as government asks for ‘pause’ https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/804m-vision-upgrade-north-east-22978182

Warrington might be feeling positive, but in the North-East there’s a bit of a cool breeze blowing…

‘It took me two hours to travel three miles on the bus service dubbed the worst in Wales’ https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/wales-worst-bus-service-blaenau-22951010

This popped up on BuzzViews earlier…What about alternatives? Rail? Demand-Responsive? Or do people really want their simple, reliable bus service….Driver shortages continue to be a problem, but people’s lived experiences count for everything…

The weird London bus route that suddenly finishes at 2.52pm https://www.mylondon.news/news/north-london-news/weird-london-bus-route-suddenly-22994529

I’m not sure how or why this is “news”? It’s a local minibus route that seems to cater for shoppers, then does a school run. I can think of other such arrangements around the country. Must be a quiet news day…

Residents displeased by work on bus stop road marking https://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/19899468.residents-displeased-work-bus-stop-road-marking/?ref=rss

…meanwhile, it’s another slow news day in Bradford…

On-demand bus service expanded in Coventry https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-60244318

There’s a fair bit of interest in this Demand-Responsive operation, as it isn’t particularly rural-based. Now it’s been expanded to cover a wider area of Coventry. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

Free bus travel in Newport announced by the Welsh Government https://www.business-live.co.uk/economic-development/free-bus-travel-newport-announced-22976251

I should really welcome this, but I have lingering doubts that something “free” will actually be appreciated in the longer-term, which seems to have been a factor in other experiments like this in other parts of the world. Yes, there’s an initial upturn in use, but then it tends to flatten off, and congestion remains an issue. This is only for a month anyway – it’ll be interesting to see just how much of an upturn there is in bus use after that period.

Early BSIP funding beneficiaries named in levelling up plan https://www.route-one.net/news/early-bsip-funding-beneficiaries-named-in-levelling-up-plan/

So the first few “winners” of BSIP funding are named… It’s to be welcomed, of course, but we wait to see just how many others get the funds they’ve asked for – and indeed whether it amounts to a £3bn kitty, or not…(see earlier Grant Shapps story).

BuzzViews – 03/02/22: the latest news & views from the UK bus industry

Incredible photos show three years of ‘iconic’ Manchester bus route the 42 https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/incredible-photos-show-three-years-22790551

I recall the first time I had a ride on Manchester’s route 42! I think everybody who is into buses should do it at least once in their lifetime!

Swindon bus drivers to be balloted on strike action over pay https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-60217391

More ballots for strike action – this time Stagecoach West in Swindon, as well as other depots in the Stagecoach West area. This adds to action currently at First’s Manchester operation and at Arriva depots in London, Essex and Kent.

Without hard cash for bus services, Levelling Up will just be another broken Boris Johnson promise https://inews.co.uk/opinion/levelling-up-broken-boris-johnson-promise-hard-cash-bus-services-1437294

A “tale of woe”, says the i’s Chief Political Commentator Paul Waugh, talking about what could be an anti-climax for those waiting for good things from the UK’s buses. Of course, it isn’t a universal “tale of woe” – far from it – but “Bus Back Better” is in danger of creating a lot of disappointment, if the budget cut consequences are to be believed…

Furious Scots mum says schoolgirl was ‘abandoned’ by bus driver in ‘cold and dark’ https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/furious-scots-mum-says-schoolgirl-26119154

Here’s a headline that all public transport operators should seek to avoid at all costs. There’s sometimes another side to some of these stories, but staff ultimately must be able to use discretion in these instances. The fallout is awful headlines like this….

Rotala agrees to purchase Claribel Coaches’ bus business https://www.route-one.net/news/rotala-agrees-to-purchase-claribel-coaches-bus-business/?utm_source=routeone&utm_campaign=17fae2e310-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2022_01_05_10_20_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_584b65a2d5-17fae2e310-98991937

Another small independent in the West Midlands will disappear, as Claribels bought by Rotala (Diamond Bus). There’s a fair bit of comment locally in the West Midlands about this. It further reduces the number of operators, but is this necessarily a bad thing? Rotala has hoovered up many a small West Midlands operator over the years, and this is no particular surprise. Claribel’s services are a tiny footprint on the WM bus network, and whilst a small established name passes into history, it consolidates Rotala/Diamond’s position as the number 2 operator to National Express West Midlands in the conurbation. The wider question is how the future of Bus Service Improvement Plans impact on the likes of Rotala going forward…

TfL funding crisis: Drivers to foot bill for £1.5bn black hole https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/transport-for-london-funding-crisis-tube-drivers-charge-clean-air-sadiq-khan-tfl-b979961.html

Now, some may say this is the sort of carrot & stick approach we’ve needed for a long time – charge motorists and plough it back into quality public transport. But it’s all part of the political brinksmanship that is going on between TfL and the Government. A long-term settlement is sorely needed….

Domestos and Buses – All for Profit?

A couple of seemingly unrelated moments tweaked my psyche the other day. One was a comment about shareholders and profit being at odds with a decent bus service (how long have you got to discuss that old chestnut?) and the other was related to sustainability, and how modern day companies factor in the aims of the likes of cop26 into their wider business objectives.

These two random moments were brought together by an article I read on the Tortoise Media, all about recent goings-on at Unilever, the huge multi-national behind such diverse consumer products as Domestos and Magnum ice creams. Put briefly, one of Unilver’s biggest shareholders has accused the company of having “lost the plot”. Unilever was putting it’s sustainability credentials ahead of running the business. In other words, the focus on hard profit-making was being watered down. The well-known Wetherspoons Boss Tim Martin also waded into the discussion, telling The Mail on Sunday that “there is too much virtue-signalling and too little attention to more important fiduciary duties, which require directors to put the company’s interests first”.

It’s only been a few months since World leaders appeared at cop26 in Glasgow pledging to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. And much of that going forward requires business to take green issues more seriously than ever before. Yet here is one of Unilever’s shareholders demanding a focus on getting back to good old capitalist principles, and Wetherspoons’ top dog bemoaning any other consideration than getting the profit margin higher and higher.

You can, I guess, understand it, if only partly. Covid has wreaked havoc in the boardroom and these are uneasy times for businesses large and small. But a new post-covid world surely must include consideration on a grand scale of the next huge challenge to mankind – the environment. And finally, dear reader, we come to where the bus world slots into all of this.

Ever since Thatcher and Ridley deregulated and privatised the buses during the mid-eighties, it’s always been about profit. Indeed, if you ask some old pre-deregulation National Bus Company Managers, they’ll tell you that hard-nosed business ethics were even creeping in prior to that era. Long-held arguments have existed since then about the role of the bus in society. The idea that they shouldn’t exist “for profit” has long been espoused. On the other side of the fence, the supporters point to dynamic business management, cutting out the waste, investing in new kit and an ability to rapidly respond to an ever-evolving travel market is what makes the bus world tick. So it should be about profit, they say.

But if companies and shareholders are looking to ditch the green credentials in favour of getting back to a drive towards profit at expense of everything else, where does that leave our future generations?

In the bus industry, I see two issues. Firstly, the new bus strategy upends the conventions of the last thirty-five years and swaps competition for co-operation. Where does that leave some business models? If the public sector is getting more of a say in how our buses are operated, some may say that this is a good thing – but if the affect of that is a bunch of shareholders who can’t clearly see trajectory of profit, might their investments start going elsewhere? Secondly, what does the bus industry’s market think about it all? Passengers – and potential passengers – surely look at buses as being an industry that should take sustainability far more seriously than most other industries. The bus World is doing well on it’s journey to present itself as a green one. The image of a dirty old double decker spewing out filthy smoke is largely confined to history these days, and electric/hydrogen vehicles are ever-increasingly the norm on our roads.

Hasn’t that investment in new technology been a result of a mix of good old fashioned capitalism and a business decision to embrace environmental concerns though? Sure, the bus industry could have considered the Tim Martin position of sod-the-green-agenda and gone straight for the hard-headed profit margins, but the more enlightened heads within the bus industry know that to survive the current bumps in the road, it needs a long-term approach. There’s a fair bit of scepticism within the industry as to what the longer-term future looks like. Sure, pure-deregulation, as imagined by Thatcher, has probably had it’s day, but however nice the partnership with the public sector looks on paper, no one is really certain how this is going to pan out, as we all climb out of the deep well that is the pandemic.

The winners will be those who embrace the inevitable large-scale changes of the coming years, including a vision to play the long-game. But I suspect the days of the large profit for bus operators is over. How much of that spooks the investors is anyone’s guess….

A Short Hop…

Bus fares are a barrier. If you aren’t a regular user, finding out about them can often be difficult. There are plenty of bargains, but – like in retail settings – you’ve got to be a super-sleuth to work out what a good deal looks like, amongst the myriad “offers”.

The ubiquitous “day ticket” often simplifies matters, and if you’re using the bus several times during the day, it works well. But what about a single journey? Often an “impulse buy”. You might have dropped the car off, or it unexpectedly starts to rain. Contactless payment has reduced much of the angst of not knowing the fare, then swinging around the front of the bus, eyeballed by the driver and fellow passengers as you try to find the correct fare, or can’t change a tenner. But whilst it’s now easier just to tap your bank card, if you’re only going a relatively short distance, are you going to be royally ripped off?

There are plenty of horror stories amongst irate bus users of being charged outrageous prices for a short trip – and by attempting to simplify the fares structure into a popular day ticket price range, occasional users might well feel that one quick trip really isn’t value for money at all.

In my native West Midlands, we’ve always had a “short hop” fare. It occasionally blows up as a negative scenario amongst passengers because the distance valid has often been ambiguous. In recent years, National Express West Midlands has tinkered with the Short Hop fare. For a while, it was barely cheaper than a standard single fare, as abuse of the cheap ticket was an issue. Asking drivers to police who was over-riding on a Short Hop was never going to be a good thing. Despite mystic Tonks’s premonition that it would be abandoned in favour of a simple single fare-or-day ticket set up, it’s still there today – and it’s proportionally cheaper at £1.50 for “around a mile”.

But even here, we run into issues. Exactly how far is “around a mile”? A friend of mine often used to get into “robust debates” with drivers of his local route, who had different interpretations of “around a mile”. Previously, it had been calculated on “fare stages” (not stops, as such), and that itself was often a trade secret to the average bus passenger. The current National Express West Midlands website offers a page about short hops – and invites you to look at local area maps to help decipher what a “short hop” might be. Except the maps are some Google product that you can’t view – it asks you to apply for permission to look at them! Ahh….technology.

Another problem is actually paying for it. On NXWM buses, you can only buy a short hop with actual cash – and exact fare (or more, of course) at that! Tap on the reader with your debit or credit contactless card and it’ll take a standard single fare off you. or you can use a Swift Pay as you Go card – assuming you’ve already got one of these products, and you’ve topped it up with credit. So much for an impulse ride….

And then we have Diamond Buses – who, actually, have cracked it. Their ticketing system is completely different to National Express West Midlands, and they’ve recently introduced “tap on, tap off”. Using the GPS within the ticket machine, there’s no ambiguity over “about a mile”. Tap your contactless card when you get on, then tap it on another reader as you get off. If it’s within the “short hop” range, it will charge you a short hop ticket – which is identically priced at £1.50. And it works!

I usually used a Swift Go product. This uses quite clever technology to work out where you get on, what operator you’ve been using, and uses a capping system. But because you don’t tap off with this card, the one thing it won’t recognise is a short hop.

So I tried it – actually as an “impulse” journey. I’d had a few drinks unplanned, and it had started to drizzle, so rather walk the 1 mile home, I noticed that a Diamond service was due. I hopped on, tapped my contactless card, and 3 stops later, rang the bell, tapped my card again on the other reader, and hopped off. And a few minutes later, my online banking app told me I’d spent £1.50 with Diamond Buses – a “short hop”.

The fragmentation is still there. I could only do this on a Diamond service – and their market share in the West Midlands is dwarfed by National Express. NX’s contactless system is faff-less – tap on all day and you either pay a single fare for one tap, or any subsequent taps during the day ups the amount to a day ticket. No tapping off (or forgetting to) when your journey ends. But if you want to short hop on NX, you need real cash, or the aforementioned Swift Pay-as -you-Go card.

Transport for West Midlands has an aspiration (via their Bus Service Improvement Plan) to greatly simplify ticketing, and to remove the (albeit small) premium for buying an all-operator bus day ticket as opposed to an individual operator’s product.

My other half regularly reminds me of the utter faff paying for public transport is, in the West Midlands. Before covid, she used an all-zones, all modes pass that topped £100 per month. You could discuss the relative “value for money” perception all night long, but now she will be working more from home, and that ticketing product won’t work for her any more. She can’t be the only one who will now be doing some head-scratching as one, two or three days travelling become the new normal – and using buses as well as rail (and maybe even metro trams) adds further complication into the mix.

The holy grail would be a system whereby hopping around different modes with a contactless card was always cost-effective, whether that was one solitary short hop of a mile, or numerous trips in and out of Birmingham several times a week using all different modes – and maybe even cycle hire as well.

This is what Mayor Burnham wants for Greater Manchester, based on the London-style system. He and his fans argue that you can only have this with a centralised franchised system. I’m not convinced. But it will take some leaps of faith from all of the current commercial operators across modes to achieve such a set up without a franchise arrangement.

Is the mood music changing? The current Government’s new arrangements for bus effectively have bus operators in mayoral zones over a barrel. Work with the Mayor or have franchising hanging over you. With such an ace card, the Mayors can wield a lot of influence, so maybe a willingness to work together is within sight these days, and that might benefit passengers greatly. But such a simple system is really what is required to push forward a step-change in modal shift.

Is a simple short hop ticket the start of what is needed to encourage more people to try public transport? If we can’t provide a simple, impulse journey to be a cheap, simple experience to a non-regular user, what chance of that user becoming a more regular one?

BuzzViews – 30/01/22

Fowey bus stop gets latest paint job https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cornwall-60154824

Lovely to see a bit of local pride in a bus shelter! This one gets a new design every few months!

Bus companies raise concerns over plans to remove Oxford bus lanes in favour of cycle lanes https://uk.news.yahoo.com/bus-companies-raise-concerns-over-030000013.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAEoTdvrW5pRFVkjTR-Mb2uZ5scTyp6BkG4OJAnUWm58f4bb29iv5osV5vRfINnBBH6j50dkERaFqsuRlIqiVuFvGz7MNTn0ct-ayUhvEJEjgYuk0UqtWNUa_FTnCfy36Q-3yXVzL0nCSYzH3uTdjhm858FAlYAlbStgg_fyJrptU

Road space continues to be an issue when it comes to trying to achieve modal shift. More cycling is important of course, but buses must continue to be seen as well-placed to achieve these aims. And Oxford – often held up as a good example of local bus provision – must be careful to keep quality bus provision at the forefront.

Woman’s message to man after surprise on Arriva bus https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/womans-message-man-after-surprise-22913442

An extremely quiet news day on Merseyside! But good to see manners aren’t quite dead just yet…!

BUS COMPANIES COME TOGETHER IN GAME-CHANGING MOVE FOR PASSENGERS https://www.firstbus.co.uk/cornwall/news-and-service-updates/news/bus-companies-come-together-game-changing-move-passengers

Good news for passengers in Cornwall – is this the sort of positive stuff we can expect from some of the Bus Service Improvement Plans, I wonder? Let’s also hope that Cornwall can improve it’s information offer to passengers as well!

Council tax hike of £22 to pay for police, buses and fire service https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/council-tax-hike-22-pay-22917638

Mayor Burnham’s bus revolution in Manchester is, in part, going to add £22 to council tax bills. There are other elements, including improvements to policing and the fire service, but is this the beginning of an expensive journey to franchised buses for Manchester residents? And can the West Midlands’ Mayor Street do buses just as well via a partnership strategy?

What people in West Yorkshire say about the big bus cuts hitting this weekend https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/news/local-news/what-people-west-yorkshire-say-22910357

Arriva in West Yorkshire are getting it in the neck over some network changes / cuts this weekend. Interesting how one person comments that they’re “not locally owned” as a particular reason. Perception is nine-tenths, as the saying goes, even though commercial reality is the obvious reason, whatever the status of ownership.

Bristol’s bus timetables to change from today in ‘major shakeup’ – everything we know https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/bristols-bus-timetables-change-today-6565475

Meanwhile, in Bristol, old routes are returning in a “major shakeup” of the city’s bus services. I’m not a frequent visitor to Bristol, but I’ve often had the impression that it is a difficult city to provide a consistently good bus service to. Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts – maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree!

Blaenau Gwent bus services branded a ‘shambles’ https://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/19882148.blaenau-gwent-bus-services-branded-shambles/

…and in Blaenau Gwent, a Councillor is on the warpath, branding the local bus service “a shambles”. A 2-mile journey now takes 55 minutes in one example, following the withdrawal of a service….

As ever, the media only ever reflects one side to local transport issues. If you’re local to some of these media reports, do get in touch and let me know your thoughts. You can contact me at the bottom of the blog, or through Facebook or Twitter.

BuzzViews – 27/01/22

Newport bus services branded a ‘disgrace’ with no timetables, infrequent services and drivers with no clue https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/newport-bus-services-council-station-22850710

So, is it a quiet news day in South Wales? It’s easy for a reporter to go trudging around a bus station to find someone moaning about their local service, but it’s still damaging to read it in print, or online. How often to we read about motorists causing congestion? The lack of paper timetables is down to short-notice changes because of the covid situation, says Newport Transport – a similar response to one given to me from Transport for West Midlands in reply to a mini-gripe by myself. I suppose I get it, but one hopes that, with the virus seemingly finally receding, the commitment will be there to restore at-stop information. We shall see….

Tyne and Wear Metro bail-out could save bus services https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-60141192

Councillors “reluctantly” handing over cash to support tendered services? And there are plans to reduce the amount it reimburses operators for concessionary pass use. Fingers crossed the rumours of Government help for the bus industry post-March are true. This regularly-quoted figure of around 25-30% patronage down on pre-covid numbers is a big concern. If the industry doesn’t have stability, it could be worrying for passengers on marginal routes.

National Rail to offer free Greggs and coffee under plans to boost passenger numbers https://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/uk_today_homepage/19876340.national-rial-offer-free-greggs-coffee-plans-boost-passenger-numbers/?ref=rss

Widely reported today is the carrot-dangling of free food, coffee and “mindfulness” apps to rail passengers via a Network Rail initiative. Call me jealous, but what about us humble bus users? I can think of nothing more enticing to divert attention from sitting in congestion than sinking my knashers into a free bacon bap (brown sauce, of course…). In fact, it takes me back many years to an initiative by IKEA of all people, who offered a free slice of cake in their restaurant in the Wednesbury store if you arrived via a newly-diverted local bus service. I appear to have been a lone character in participating, since waving my bus ticket whilst clutching the cake at the till cut no mustard with the lady at the cash register. One call to summon a Manager later, I had my free cake and (paid for) cup of tea. The offer disappeared quite quickly, as did the bus service, and if you wanted to visit IKEA Wednesbury by bus these days, be prepared for a long walk through the retail park to get there. But goodness knows how you’d get a fold-up flat pack build-it-yourself fold-out bed on the 11A back to Dudley….