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Tickety-arrgghh!

I’m not having a great week with my local operator National Express West Midlands.

First the belly-aching over the 4pm Twitter feed finish (see previous blog Driven to Drink?), now more tech nightmares in this modern age of bus travel.

Forget that NXWM’s free WiFi and my phone don’t get on (although I think it’s my piece of kit that is the culprit here) – now we have the arrival of “m-ticketing”. With more woe.

M-ticketing is the future, they tell us. I’ve never been over-keen, to be honest. What happens when your phone battery dies? (I work with a colleague who spends half his waking hours plugging in his phone charger) “Not our problem” says bus operator. Fair enough – the propensity for fraud must be very high amongst the n’aer-do-wells. But it’s more potential hassle for bus drivers, who face a bewildering amount of ticketing options to contend with, from a general public, who are either bewildered themselves, want to play the system, or who think they understand it and don’t. Not to mention everything that can go wrong with mobile apps. Sorry, tech wizz-kids, they do. Oyster is surely one of the most simple, effective and unarguable systems. You have a card with credit, it bleeps when it works, there’s no ambiguity (although I’m sure Londoners will tell me otherwise).

So to M-ticketing. National Express West Midlands has been unusually shy about shouting about this. It’s crept out only because I spotted it off the back of something else, and the fact that my bus-driving pal Mark Fitchew told me it was here.

So I found the app in the app store and downloaded it. Seems like other ticketing apps I have for First and Arriva. Register it (although that procedure didn’t work – click on the email, “this link has expired, click for another email with a link on it to click” – that email never arrived), select what ticket you want (day, week, etc), pop your card details in and Bob’s your Uncle.

But Bob’s nephew isn’t happy.

On my First and Arriva apps, I have “ticket wallet”. Buy your mobile tickets in advance and store them here, activating them when you want to use them. Arriva recently had a “half-price sale” on day tickets, so I bought a couple, meaning that I have 2 cheaply-bought tickets ready to use whenever I want to use Arriva buses locally. First’s is exactly the same. I have one ready to use on my app whenever a ride around Worcester and The Malverns takes my fancy. No messing around with change, no trying to find a signal, then tapping in card details – go straight to the app, activate the ticket, show the driver, and make sure my phone battery is topped up.

So, out of curiosity, I buy a National Express West Midlands Daysaver. And, actually, it’s the most expensive option (£4.40 – a cheaper £3.80 version is available after 0930 Mon-Fri & all day at weekends if you use Swift). My intention is to see how easy it is to use, then use said ticket on a day of my choosing.

It’s simple enough. There’s a big red button that says to “activate”. But curiously, it gives an expiry date of something like 2am the next morning. I think nothing of it and go to work. I’ll use it on my day off next week.

Except I won’t. Because next morning, the curiosity of the expiry date gets the better of me and I check the app. In my wallet, there’s nothing there. My Daysaver has “expired”. I hadn’t activated it, but it’s gone. Deep in the “terms and conditions” (hey, who reads those?) it explains that your ticket is ready to use and “valid immediately for travel at the time you make your purchase. Please ensure you wish to travel on the day you purchase the ticket as no refunds will be given” 

Which is completely different to their contemporaries, where YOU choose when to activate and travel. There is no warning that you have to use the ticket on the actual day you buy it – indeed, you are lulled into a false sense of security by the fact it asks you to activate it before use!

Joy. £4.40 up the swanny. Maybe I’ll just pay by cash next time…..

Driven to Drink?

National Express West Midlands has come on leaps & bounds in recent years. Better driving, smart buses and a useful real-time app. 

But for a company of this size, the Twitter feed is, at best, average.

At worst, it is downright frustrating. 

I have it set to “notifications” on my phone, so I can see what is going on instantly. What surprises me is the tweet that appears dead on 4pm every weekday. It goes something like “I’m heading home now, back at 8am”, or words to that effect. It starts around 8am, so it is obviously 1 person doing office hours. Nothing happens at weekends, either. 

Now, I know not everyone does Twitter, but it’s a useful tool for those that do. In the transport world it also adds a bit of reassurance “on the spot” if something isn’t right. Recently, I had cause to tweet Go Ahead’s Oxford Bus Company. Within seconds, I’d had a response to say that my service was running, and would be with me imminently. And it was. 

But it’s somewhat surprising that the major operator in Britain’s Second City sees fit to abandon such communication just at the start of the evening peak, when there is arguably more need than ever to be in touch with customers. I may be putting people into convenient boxes here, but will the t’wirlies be on their smartphones off-peak looking for answers? Or is it more likely tech-savvy workers in the evening peak might want to make use of modern tech and communication? I digress…

But the reason I’ve been tipped over the edge is because I read that, this evening, Birmingham City Centre is it’s usual shambles traffic-wise – or maybe worse than that, given that we’ve had a downpour and the idiots have been out to show us their driving “skills” again. Buses bunching, 3 in a row, nothing for half an hour, etc.

NXWM Twitter feed? Sorry, our keyboard hero (or heroes) have locked the laptop up and disappeared spot-on 4pm again. Except not quite. Because 2 hours after the fond goodnights, up pops some random tweet (obviously pre-programmed) informing us that if you’re called “Tom” and you’ve got your Mother in tow, you can get a free drink at some City Centre bar. What? 

Yes, I know it’s all about “lifestyle” and if you’re going to get bladdered with your Mum, you’re better doing it with a Daysaver, etc. I get all of that. But for the poor bedraggled commuter awaiting their Bristol Road service resembling someone having just had a bucket of water chucked over them, you wonder why the NX tweeters have seen fit to scurry off home 2 hours earlier, shut the shop up, but still found the wherewithal to tell us about the potential for a boozy midweek night out…

By all means, do the marketing, but how’s about a bit of bread & butter first? 

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The Bearwood Spruce-Up!

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I had a little giggle at this pic – 3 local Councillors on what looks like a murky day in the depths of Bearwood, near Birmingham. Two of them look like they’re grimacing – as Councillors tend to do, when it comes to anything bus-related.

Actually, it’s one of those schemes that people look at, scoff maybe, or moan about there being “better things to spend council tax money on”. But if we want to get more people onto buses, it’s EXACTLY the sort of thing we should be doing.

Now, we have National Express West Midlands spending shedloads on new buses with all-singing, all-dancing WiFi and comfy seats, and that’s important. But what about where you wait for your bus? Too often, it’s not great. You might even groan like Councillor Worrall is doing.

Bearwood bus station was, up until fairly recently, such a place. It has a car park in the middle of it, and I well recall during my days at Bus Users UK a number of years ago asking Sandwell Council to either clean up or pull down the outrageous toilets there. If ever there was a brick version of Armageddon, this was it. There was also the dodgiest-of-dodgy subways, which you had to use to reach the other side of the Hagley Road to catch west-bound bus services – so you had a wonderful choice: risk running the gauntlet across 4 lanes of traffic,which was akin to  death-by-wacky-races, or take something like a 1-in-2 chance of being mugged in the subterranean World below ground.

Well, the subway has gone, filled in and replaced by surface-level crossing, the City-bound bus lane has been extended to the laybys adjacent to the bus station, allowing buses free-run in, rather than having to pull into the 2 traffic lanes, only to enter the layby again (and of course white van man was never known to give way to a bus – no Sir – he’d rather die a gruesome death by grizzly bear than suffer the indignity of letting a 126 out). And now the toilet has gone too.

In it’s place, not a lot. A new automatic pay-as-you-go loo, and a general “spruce up” of the immediate area. But the difference, whilst not what you might call “breathtaking”, now enters the category of “quite pleasant”. And it all adds up. Where 2 years ago, you ran the gauntlet of the subway, daren’t go in the loo, stood in less-than-salubrious surroundings to get on a bus that was, at best, average, now you can cross the road with confidence, await your bus in decent environs and then get on a swanky new bus to whisk you into Birmingham City Centre.

These things are fairly obvious, if you want to get folk out of cars onto public transport. It’s the jigsaw. There are some more pieces to fit yet, such as more car restrictions, more bus priority, etc but it’s when you start doing the supposedly “little” things like this, it starts to add up. From little acorns, etc….Well done Sandwell Councillors and Transport for West Midlands!

Just one thing for the eagle-eyed amongst you – the display behind the grimacing Councillors shows “X10 Tansey Green” – that isn’t what the X10 will show on it’s destination screen (“Pensnett”, since you ask) – another part of the little jigsaw pieces: co-ordination between what the bus shows and what the timetable and displays shows is so important!

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The Numbers Game

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An interesting snippet reaches me via the excellent Midland Branch Bulletin of the Omnibus Society.

It seems that a major revision of Nottinghamshire County Council-funded services took place recently, which resulted in some renumbering of services. Some routes now have 3-digit numbers, replacing those with 1 or 2-digit ones. There is also an ingenious idea that the first of the 3 digits should reflect the District Council area.

I wonder where I’ve seen this before? Ah yes. Throughout most of my life until fairly recently, the West Midlands urban area had a spookily similar system. 1xx for Birmingham, 2xx Black Country, 3xx Walsall, 4xx Sandwell, 5xx Wolverhampton, and so on. This has been largely swept away in recent times for single and double-digit route numbers in each of the localities (except 2xx in the Black Country) – for reasons that it’s “simpler to understand”.

Now, despite confusing (and continuing to confuse) an old curmudgeon like me with a penchant for bus enthusiasm, I have no idea if more general bus users find this brave new world easier to grasp or not (even if we now have identical route numbers in adjacent areas of the conurbation), but this idea to scrap 1 & 2-digit numbers and replace them with 3-digit ones appears to fly in the face of the recent logic peddled by Centro (oops,can’t call them that now) and the operators.

Everything goes around in circles. Rather like bus tyres.

Top Deck Sketch: Flying Metros and Secret Liaisons…?

Toot! Toot! Sounds the driver as the girl waves back. We round a corner and several Metro newspapers fly, briefly majestically, through the air to end – unceremoniously – on the floor. Our tooting driver exits the cab and picks them up, repositioning them against the window. How many drivers do that? Gold star please! 

An elderly gentleman boards and scans his pass. “Good morning”, he bids our hero driver, who reciprocates in kind. He clutches a semi-large pink envelope. Maybe it’s a birthday or late valentines card. He departs a few stops later with a spring in his step. Maybe the start of a secret liaison? 

I too hop off, but minus the spring. Our driver thanks us all, as she parks her bus – which must surely win an award for the squeakiest of the month. It sounds like someone with a rusty farmyard implement scraping the inside of a washing machine. 

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Populism Doesn’t Make It Better

I’ve got a lot of time for Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a man with his own ideas for society, although I don’t agree with much of what he says. People may be disillusioned with capitalism, but I’m not convinced they’re reaching out for his brand of socialism either. It’s a much wider political debate.

What bothers me though, is the appearance in the media of Jeremy’s pledge for more bus franchising and council bus companies. I’m afraid it smacks of populism – a bizarre Farage-like simplistic view that “if only we did this, everything would be wonderful again”.

He’s made similar noises – inevitably – about the railways. But, like life itself, if only it were so simple.

As we edge closer to the 30th anniversary of bus deregulation, lest we forget the state of the bus industry back then. Comparisons with life 30 years ago are obviously difficult, but although the set up of the bus world then may have had plus-points, the overall scene was one of managed decline. OK, you may say that’s still been the case since, but the deregulated world – whilst not being perfect – has matured over the three decades it’s been set free. There’s been innovation, improvements and harsh realities to confront. It’s forced everyone – users and providers – to think long and hard about what bus services are. The more recent years of austerity have only sharpened minds in that respect.

But I cringe at this modern-day default setting that suggests that we have a rubbish transport system whilst fat-cats sit around the boardroom table lapping up bowls of cream. If only the system was run with public money by civil servants, they cry. Everyone could have the bus service they really want and need. No one seems to consider the practicalities of this. The demand. The budget. The value for money.

I understand the frustration. I’m lucky enough to live in an urban area. My local bus is service is good. It’s comprehensive, it’s good value for money and it works. It isn’t always like that. Rural areas have had issues for years. The scene now is often as bad as it’s ever been. There has been innovation in some areas, with demand-responsive provision, etc. And it’s not just these outposts. Even Shire areas are feeling the pinch. I’ve argued before that, if anywhere, franchised bus services ought to be tried out in these areas, rather than the seemingly political posturing going on in big City areas. I can’t for the life of me see why Manchester is hell-bent on taking control of it’s buses – the private sector does a pretty decent job, as far as I can see.

So, as ever, Jeremy’s intervention into public transport continues a well-beaten path of politicians sounding off on a populist theme in order to attain cheap votes. His vision of council bus operators may well be a sincere one. I like nothing better to peruse my bookshelves and leaf through images of wonderful old liveries and buses with open rear platforms with conductors cranking their little handles. It’s how we often used to do bus services. But it’s a bygone world we can’t hope to recover. These were the days before mass car ownership.

What about the likes of Reading, or “Rosso”, I hear you cry? Look at Nottingham City Transport with all of their awards. These are council-owned operations. A compelling argument for more of the same? There’s no doubt these are top-class operations. But they are in many ways unique operations. Relics from the past that have done good. They have carved out niches and don’t always have head-on competition. And, most importantly, they have good support from their paymasters. Could we guarantee this scenario everywhere? Do we have Authorities lining up to start running buses? Do we have a commitment to deep investment, not just now, but in 10, 20, 30, 50 years time?

Jeremy might put the argument – and it’s an interesting one – but I don’t feel the clamour from Joe Public for it – especially in the bus world. I’m not sure we’ve ever had it. The great names like Midland Red, etc in their heyday were privately-owned, and there wasn’t much shouting back then, as far as I can make out. Instead, bravo the incredible innovation Midland Red brought to bus operation back then – would that have been stifled under council ownership? You might say that there were examples of such innovation under council ownership – the brilliant Ronald Edgley Cox at Walsall Corporation being one such example – but they were fairly few. No, the public at large has never given too much thought about who owns the buses – they just want them to turn up on time. And that’s a different argument altogether.

We’ll see how the new set up following the Buses Bill pans out. Manchester may get uniform control, but will it make bus travel any better? If Dudley Council took control of my buses tomorrow, would it improve matters? Would I feel any better knowing that my £4 Daysaver was going back into the public purse rather than to National Express shareholders? Would I actually care? Would the Council be planning to invest in the fleet? Or maybe it might be eyeing up any cash there was for other important needs, like education or social services. And what about those services that people say they want? I well recall a number of years ago lobbying bus operators to provide a service from the Gornal Wood area of the Black Country direct to Russells Hall Hospital. It was “what people wanted”, according to endless letters in the paper, staff at the hospital, visitors and Councillors. We finally got one. It lasted a few years, National Express West Midlands withdrew it, a smaller operator took it on commercially, and it quietly disappeared for good a couple of weekends ago. This is the gritty reality of bus service provision – it actually needs certain numbers of people to actually use it. Gone are the days of “nice to have”, especially in urban commercial areas. In Jeremy’s Utopian vision, the public sector pays for and provides such services. But how long before the people – the general public themselves – start questioning the logic of directly funding very lightly-used bus services?

It is things like the funding of the Concessionary Bus Pass that need closer scrutiny. Let’s be clear here, lest anybody think I’m calling for a watering down or abolition of it. The “free” bus pass is a great thing. It helps people get out and about and function in society. It’s what a civilised society should do. But like most things involving politicians involvement, this good idea has turned sour behind the scenes, with funding for it’s use falling and falling over the years. You might, as an operator, even be faced with a bus full of bums on seats and still not make it pay, because the reimbursement you need to carry these passengers isn’t enough. The Government takes the glory, but passes down the nuts and bolts of payment down to the local authorities – who haven’t got 2 halfpennys to rub together as it is. And woe betide anyone politically or otherwise who suggests we tackle this issue by means-testing use of the pass. What should happen is that reimbursement for pass use should be set at a much more realistic level, rather than inevitably forcing commercial bus operators to up their prices to those who have to put money in the fare box.

What the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and others who argue their cases should be looking at are issues like these, and of why buses struggle to fight their way through traffic congestion and operate reliable services. Populist proposals may be just that – popular – but they don’t make things better.

 

(pic of Jeremy Corbyn: Reuters / BBC)

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On The Job – who’d be a bus driver?

“Do you enjoy meeting people?” is often the strapline when it comes to bus driver recruitment. It’s pretty reasonable, given that drivers are the face of the bus company.

The more innovative of bus operators recruit staff based on their apparent “customer skills”, then train them to drive a bus, not the other way around of grabbing anyone they can with a PCV licence gained elsewhere. Setting up an in-house training school is darned expensive, but it surely pays dividends in the end, when you can pick and choose who your “faces of the company” are going to be.

But that’s only part of the issue surrounding the attractiveness – or otherwise – of a job on the public transport front line.

Two news stories in the last 24 hours have caught my eye, and underlines the challenges faced by our bus drivers today. They will resonate with transport staff everywhere. (See end for links to the two news stories).

Redditch-based Diamond Buses has reported an increase in racial attacks in the town in recent times. Good on General Manager Dave Brundrit (who I know cares passionately about his role, and in public transport in general) for raising this. It isn’t the “sexy” side of buses that we often see – it’s the bitter reality for many. It doesn’t make public transport attractive, and those reading the Redditch Standard who don’t currently use Dave’s buses might conclude they’ll stick to their cars, thank you very much, if that’s what it’s like on the buses. But Dave is right to raise it, and stand up for his staff, working in difficult situations. It can be hard to smile at your passengers when you’ve just been abused 5 minutes previous. The solutions, of course, are much harder to come by.

Another clipping shows a mobile phone recording of a UPS delivery driver in London punching a bus window. Amusing, it seems, to the person who recorded it, but a rather nasty, pathetic bit of road rage. Again, bus drivers everywhere will recognise it.

We may all shrug our shoulders at these two examples and conclude that this is the World we live in today. Suck it up.

I disagree.

Of course, conflict avoidance courses for staff help. As professionals in the industry, it can help to be aware of how to react in such situations. But that only goes so far. In an age where there is more traffic on the road than ever, more frustration, more tempers flaring, we have also seen the wholesale reduction of police, and in particular, traffic police. Of course, you can’t have police everywhere, but, to me, it seems that much of the sheer ridiculousness that goes on on our roads is down to a calculation that there is probably a 99.9% chance that the perpetrator will “get away with it”. It’s no wonder there is so much road rage and silly acts of petulance.

And it makes the recruitment of bus drivers more difficult. since the advent of the “living wage” (something I’m not against, by the way), it has raised the level up to a “ballpark” figure that begins to get fairly near to bus drivers. Faced with some of the claptrap bus drivers have to put up with, are people now considering less stressful opportunities, like shelf-stacking in Aldi instead? Who might blame them? Shifts, late nights, early mornings are an unavoidable part of the job, and whilst some may not find that attractive, it can’t be undone. But other parts of the job, such as dealing with abusive passengers and stupid motorists can, and should, be looked at much more proactively. Rates of pay should be examined, although I understand the huge commercial viability of a private commercial company is a massive consideration.

The “churn” in the bus industry (drivers entering, then leaving the profession) is a concern. Passengers need to have confidence in the professionalism of the industry. I’m not suggesting for one moment it is inherently unsafe with drivers who don’t care and can’t wait to get out, but I notice rather large differences between the contentness of some operator’s staff to others. That’s a wider discussion, but why are some companies “keepers” when it comes to their staff, and others not so?

There’s no magic wands. Buses operate in some real “gritty” areas, and making the job attractive is nothing less than a huge challenge. At least Managers like Dave Brundrit have made a start by highlighting the less-salubrious side of the job – and putting down a marker that he’s determined to look at it.

It highlights the vast difference in bus operating terrain today. I’m sure Alex Hornby’s troops in Harrogate have a vastly different view of the bus driving world when piloting the gorgeous 36 route around Yorkshire to the guy in central London who’s just had his New Routemaster thumped by a delivery driver with the temperament of a 10 year old.

There’s no easy remedy. But being trained as a professional, having the support of your Manager and company, and having further back up and support in the wider community is essential if the job of being a bus driver is seen as an attractive career to pursue. And happy drivers equals happy customers!

 

Links to the two stories mentioned:

Redditch story

London story

 

 

Bingo! Look at what you might win…

I see Transport Times is reporting that Nottingham City Council has reached it’s 2020 climate change targets 4 years early. 

This, apparently, is down to the popularity of cycling and public transport. 

If you’ve been to Nottingham in recent years, you might have seen how the car isn’t necessarily “God”, especially in the centre. The buses have TrentBarton & NCT – both award-winning bus operators of recent years – as well as YourBus. There’s no tat in this City; all competition is on quality. 

Then there’s the tram. A hugely impressive and quality operation.  

The gateway to the City – the railway station – has also had a facelift in recent years (although finding the Gents here is one of life’s little irritations). 

The City Council also introduced a workplace parking levy, which of course was unpopular when introduced, but signalled a definite direction – one that said “we don’t have to take the view that the car is King”. There’s another way. And Nottingham has proven it. 

No need for bus franchising here – it’s all been done with a commitment to quality and a good working relationship with the Local Authority. The foresight to extend the tram network also demonstrates the “can do” attitude. 

So well done Nottingham! 

Why can’t we do this everywhere? 

Nottingham’s top quality information at the railway station 

…and another thing: Who Let The Traffic In?

We all know our urban areas are congested. Recent reports highlight the effects of “white van man”, delivering our internet-ordered goodies, and Uber – the trendy but rapidly-growing taxi service. The economic recovery and historically-low price of fuel encourages more and more people onto our saturated roads.

Which is why public transport is more important than ever. It’s the future. It’s the answer. It has a monumental mountain to climb to persuade large numbers out of their cars, but there are examples of best practice out there to give us hope.

And yet…..

At around 6pm this evening, I found myself sitting on a bus trying to leave a bus station. Ten minutes later, it was STILL trying to leave the bus station. From a spot-on time departure, 30 metres and 10 minutes later, it was technically in breach of Traffic Commissioner regulations. How so?

Many years ago, Dudley Council made the approach to the town’s bus station bus-only. Plus access for a nearby car park. Of course, you had the rogue motorists who still cut through the area, and hardly any of it was ever policed. But in more recent times, the area has been slightly remodelled, and the cars are now legitimately back in. In their hundreds.

There was no real need for this. Despite the remodelling, the bus-only area could have stood. Instead, cars, white van man, and anything else perform a slow version of Wacky Races, with all sorts of vehicular traffic on show.

Leave a gap by the bus station exit so buses can leave easily? Not on your nelly. The good motorists of Dudley aren’t having a bus pulling out in front of them. No Siree.

So we sit there and sit there, until eventually one car driver does the decent thing.

An when our late-running bus eventually appears at a rain-sodden stop, what might our drenched traveller be thinking? <“enter expletive> buses”? “Can’t wait to learn to drive”? “I think I’ll take the car tomorrow”?

And will the area around the bus station now riddled with car traffic be designated outside of air quality targets in the coming months and years?

Well, it’s those filthy diesel buses, isn’t it?

Good call, Dudley Council. Good call.

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Top-Deck Sketch – Bookish Buses

Just a handful of us are hovering around stand M in Worcester’s Crowngate bus station on a overcast Wednesday mid-morning. The object of our fancy is parked further up the bus station. It is a pretty nondescript First Trident, predominantly white, with the 90s-style bits of purple that has yet to receive the more modern-day version of the livery.

But this vehicle is doing something a bit special for around one week only. It’s the literary jamboree in the small Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye called “The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts”. Since 1988, book fans from all over the world have descended on this tiny venue – famous for its many bookshops – and First has, for a number of years, operated a bus service from Hereford to the venue.

Last year, the operator pulled out of it’s small operation in Hereford and left it to the local independents, but this year, it’s still operating the shuttle service. The bonus is that, since Worcester garage now operates it, some journeys are extending from/to Worcester.

It may be one week only, and it might be a nigh-on 2-hour jaunt, but the fare is eye-watering. £15 return. No First passes. No OAP passes. (although kids and concessionary pass holders get discounts). The flyer, attached to the departure pole, cheekily adds the strap-line “Great Fare Deals from First” without any hint of irony. Maybe the kind of people who love their books and will spend their bodyweight buying them in Hay can more readily afford the price – which would actually buy me a week’s worth of Black Country bus travel for 30p more!

Our driver I recognise. He did the rail replacement service for the Stourbridge Shuttle a few months ago, and he too recognises me back, handing me a simple bus ticket for my outlay.

Then it’s out of the darkness of Crowngate, across the River Severn and Worcester’s famous cricket ground out into the rolling hills of the glorious Shire County, crossing into Cider Country, the area that First abandoned less than 12 months ago, vaguely startling a Yeomans bus driver who is graciously let out in front of some roadworks, who must have thought the big boys were back to haunt him.

Our man at the helm hasn’t hung around, and it’s a good job. We’re still slightly late into Hereford Railway Station as the traffic in this small City is horrendous. Around 7 or 8 people join us here for the just-under-an-hour run out to Powys.

Having bypassed the beautiful Malvern Hills, we’re now seeing the gorgeous Black Mountains, sprawling across Monmouthshire and Powys, and into England. Somewhere, we’ve crossed the border into the Principality as the road signs start to show names I daren’t even try to pronounce. We take a left and descend down into Hay, with instructions for motorists on where to park. The huge show ground is on the right, just outside of the town centre, but our service weaves it’s way through tiny streets, thronged with book lovers, to arrive at a rather large car park, only around 8 minutes late.

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arrival at Hay

Our small gaggle of passengers hop off, with our man roaring off to have his break.

The bus stop at the car park is also the base for the shuttle bus operation around the town, with a motley line up of Optare Solo midibuses, some of which are instantly familiar, as they are still in the liveries of National Express West Midlands and Coventry. In contrast to the huge fare I have just shelled out, this operation has a £1.50 all-day ticket! (although, to be fair, you can’t go very far in this town!)

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The Town Shuttle Bus operation had a familiar feel! 

I have just under 2 hours here (or 5 and three-quarters, but I don’t think I’d last that long!) so I find a fish & chip shop (as I haven’t eaten since early morning, as I had to do a few hours at work) then attack a couple of the myriad bookshops around the town. It’s a joy. All sorts of weird and wonderful titles! I end up with a diverse array of books ranging from The Burton & Ashby Light Railways to Margaret Thatcher to 7/7.

It’s ten-to-three. I wander back up to the car park for the 3pm departure and a treat is in store!

In the car park, awaiting our journey back to Worcester, is the First “Midland Red heritage bus”. This is the vehicle painted in a 1930s version of the famous old company livery to mark the centenary of the 144 Worcester-Birmingham route last year. I’ve already got pictures of this vehicle, but you can never have enough (!) so I wander down, clutching camera. I am greeted by another familiar face – another one of the drivers who worked on the Stourbridge Shuttle rail replacement! “I heard you were around”, she says. My notoriety must precede me. I snap away, then join the bus for the run back to Worcester.

In Hereford, I can’t resist the chance to snap a picture of a “Midland Red bus at Hereford Railway Station in 2016”! “You’ve got 1 minute”, our pilot warns, sternly, as I bolt out like some 6’7″ giraffe at zoo feeding time. Then it’s more jolly jaunting across the glorious green fields, into Worcester, where several locals try to flag us down at incoming bus stops. Our lady pilot is having none of it, this being a strictly limited-stop affair.

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“Midland Red” at Hereford Railway Station – in 2016! 

Back in Worcester, I head for Foregate Street railway station for the trip back to Stourbridge, sharing a bench with a waiting commuter who tucks into a bizarre array of sushi. I stick my nose into Margaret Thatcher speeches.

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arrival back in Worcester

 

For details of the Hay Festival shuttle buses, click here