Communication (Let me Down…)

I bet Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet didn’t expect his song title to end up as the basis for a blog post on erratic bus services. So true…

The tittle-tattle in Stourbridge bus station is about how they’ve been stood waiting for the 9 for “over 20 minutes”  (frequency: every 7/8 mins). It’s a devil of a route. An hour’s ride into Brum, and anything & everything can delay it. The intending ladies are perusing the electronic display board, which is seemingly counting down 2 vehicles almost together. “They’ll probably turn up together”, huffs one. “More than likely”, replies the other. And then, right on cue, both appear. One after the other. Then a third appears. 

The first one disgorges it’s passengers, then there’s a driver changeover. Then it disappears. No words or explanation. The one directly behind looks more promising – until that one’s pilot presses a button, “Not in Service” appears, and an audible sigh is created in unison from the growing masses. The third of the trio has parked up around the rear of the bus station. 

Finally, one of the previous vehicles (with new driver) appears, and we’re off. 

This isn’t a typically uninformed rant about buses “running together in threes”. I understand entirely the challenges this route faces. I also appreciate running boards, driver hours, etc. But what I DO find frustrating is the age-old lack of communication with waiting passengers. 

NXWM had an Inspector lurking. He was sorting things out with the buses & drivers. No problem with that. There was also a Network West Midlands tabbarded Bus Station Manager, complete with clipboard in view. Again, I know his job isn’t to get involved in the minutiae of NX bus operation – but it’s what people see. Two officials, three buses, twenty minute gap in high-frequency service…and not a peep out of anybody. 

It underlines long-held negative views on bus travel. “They always come in twos & threes”…”they’re always late”…”no one tells you what’s going on”…

These feelings linger. Long time. For all the good things operators do, the side is often let down by lack of attention to detail on the very simplest of things. I know the general public can be trying at times, but all it would have taken in this instance would have been a ten-second “we’ll have a bus with you in the next couple of minutes – they’re being delayed by <whatever the issue is>. All the research shows that passengers feel much better about delays if they’re kept abreast of what’s going on. That’s rarely possible easily out on the route (unless you’ve got a smartphone and an effective Twitter team) but we can surely do better in bus stations, where there are human officials in possession of the facts. 

It’s not always the buses – it’s the communication that let’s us down. 

The BusTracker -17/02/17

….a new (hopefully) regular part of the blog featuring snippets from the bus World…

Regional Resilience…?

The “new, improved” Centro (which we can’t call them anymore) – “WMCA – West Midlands Combined Authority” has put out a press release declaring that it’s got plans for coping with upcoming “anticipated congestion”, due to a series of infrastructure work.

Not that we should be ever-so-slightly cynical of this (it was released on a Friday afternoon, after all – when Greater Birmingham regularly descends into gridlock hell as it is) – but where is the plan to deal with the existing apocalypse?

David Jamieson – the Police & Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands – naturally welcomes this, to…”ensure our roads keep flowing”. He’s obviously never caught a bus up the Hagley Road after 5pm.

We await the election of the “Metro Mayor” later this year, to see if congestion – and the meaningful tackling of it – really is on the agenda….

Talking of which…

Run Transport Services like John Lewis?

The Tory candidate for West Midlands “Metro Mayor”, Andy Street, reckons that he’s learnt a thing or two from his days running John Lewis. Suggestions abound that all sorts of local services could be run by “co-operatives”, in a not-dissimilar way to his old store empire.

The Times reports suggestions such as council care homes and public transport providers could be spun out in a John Lewis-style operation, should Mr Street emerge victorious.

It’s an interesting thought. Whilst the upcoming Buses Bill doesn’t appear to be blowing any hint of an ill-wind around the West Midlands, what might “Mr John Lewis” have up his sleeve for public transport in these parts? And would bus-operating staff on the front line feel more enthusiastic if, like John Lewis staff themselves, they partly owned the business?

I still hear the occasional lament from bus drivers of the time that West Midlands Travel was “proudly employee-owned” (even though plenty of them did rather well with shares, etc when they merged with the mighty National Express all those years ago).

I suspect it’s little more than the usual politicking from an electoral candidate, trying to catch the eye of the voter. Whoever wins the Metro Mayor contest, traffic congestion should be right up the top of the list of things to tackle in the West Midlands. Ken Livingstone in London was brave enough to introduce the radical Congestion Charge – will whoever wins here tackle it head on?

Doctors Against Diesel

Brum is also in the firing line for air quality. It’s had a dressing down from Brussels for the state of it’s environment, along with several other urban areas. The talk on the Clapham Omnibus (and the Selly Oak one, around here) relates more or less to a two-fingered salute to Johnny Foreigner, now that we’re going to make a success of Brexit (according to Mother Theresa). Of course, the irony of folks sitting in their personal tin boxes in endless miles of traffic jams blaming “dirty buses” for all of our ills isn’t lost on the BusTracker, but there’s uproar from the local taxi trade, as they’ve been told to clean up their act – actually just like the bus industry has been doing in recent years.

But of course, the way to effectively clean up Birmingham’s air quality is to get rid of all the private cars and “white van man”. It’s all too easy to ride into the City Centre in whatever vehicle you like – and beggar the air quality. The teensy problem with all of this is that Brum hosts loads of shiny swanky shops that attract lots of people in cars. Witness the regular shenanigans when they put the “car park full” sign up outside the Bull Ring. Perhaps Mr Jamieson the Police Commissioner should get his boys and girls in blue to get down there and “educate” a few of those blocking up the highway, forlornly awaiting a precious car parking space. A leaflet from Doctors Against Diesel, detailing the 25,000 deaths a year in England linked to vehicle emissions might not go amiss…

This, though, isn’t great for buses. Although Birmingham is pushing on with it’s Clean Air Zone (and consequent much-improved buses), the media headlines of bus users being 7 or 8 times more likely to be exposed to harmful fumes than motorists, and a historic viewpoint of buses spewing out black smoke (which is rarely the case these days) all add to a negative feel for those of us on the top deck. It feels like the bus industry isn’t in a great place at the moment – maybe a concerted effort to spell out the facts easily and positively is in order. Plus hopefully a meaningful effort to put the bus at the front of the queue from whoever wins the Metro Mayor contest.

nxwm-m-ticket

Fair’s Fare?

nxwm-m-ticket

That bleak mid-winter time after Christmas usually heralds the annual bus fare “revision” in the West Midlands. For “revision”, read usually “increase” – although in more recent times, certain fares and tickets have either remained frozen in price or actually come down.

That doesn’t usually stop the carping on social media and local newspaper letters pages though. Despite the West Midlands urban area being one of the cheapest spots in the UK for many years to use buses, perception appears to be nine-tenths of the thought police. You can always bank on a few petrol-heads regaling their back-of-a-fag-packet calculations that supposedly “prove” driving their gas-guzzler is still cheaper than using the bus (despite proper research that tells them it..er..isn’t), as well as some local Councillor who needs to shore up their percentage of the vote for upcoming local elections – despite photo-bombing the scene when the operator has invested in a few hundred-thousand of new kit. Ah. Such is life….

The price of using buses is a debate for all of us. Well, apart from the lucky souls who have concessionary passes. Mobility seems to be an ever-increasing issue for everyone. We’re all moving from A to B to C, etc. But perceptions of “value for money” loom large on those Transport Focus research results. I might live in the West Midlands, but I’ve bussed it around huge parts of the British Isles – and I can tell you that we’re cheap around these parts, compared to elsewhere!

But that doesn’t always relate to people’s overall feelings. If the bus has empty bottles rolling around on the top deck, the windows etched, and it’s stuck in the same traffic as everyone else is, that “cheapness” can quickly evaporate. Leaving to one-side for the moment, the endless discussion about needing more bus priority, what about the price you pay to “go your own way”? (as Network West Midlands’ recent advertising strapline goes).

Despite my protestations, friends and colleagues regularly tell me that the bus is “too dear”. The motorists do the aforementioned “fag-packet” calculations, others tell me they’re either confused or “I wouldn’t pay that”. Actually, those who ARE regular bus users don’t normally wax lyrical at me about the price. Plus, I’ve always been convinced that offering “bargain basement” bus fares isn’t the whole story to getting more people on board.

Nevertheless, we live in a price-conscious society like never before. “Bargain-basement” really isn’t everything. At my local hyper-shopping centre Merry Hill, I often witness 2 or 3 people getting into a taxi next to the bus station. Now, there is little doubt that a taxi is more expensive than the bus, but the calculation has obviously gone on that, split between them, it isn’t a bad alternative, given they haven’t got to wait for the bus (that might be stuck in traffic), and it’ll take them to the front door. The bus could be 50p – but would that be a game changer? Also, we await, in the Black Country, the impending arrival of Uber. Next door, in Greater Birmingham, the Uber cars are ubiquitous. I’ve tried them. Yes, they’re still significantly more expensive than the bus, but… the same calculations as our Merry Hill shoppers may increasingly be coming into play. When I tried it, it was simplicity itself. It was even fun! The little map shows the cartoon Uber hurtling towards my location in real time. Within minutes, it’s there. No fuss. No money changes hands, as I’ve linked the app on my phone to my bank account. I’m not dropping physical coins into a 1970s-style metal vault on the bus. And it’s getting me from A to B via any which way is quickest. You can clearly see the attraction.

The big danger for the bus operators is if and when the price generally comes down to a ball-park bus ticket figure. It doesn’t have to match it (otherwise the bus operators are in trouble!), but if it’s where people start to make serious decisions about whether to Uber or bus, it’s reckoning time for the bus folk!

Of course, the most forward-thinking of the bus folk have their thinking caps on. Brian Souter has been warning of this very thing for a while now. Stagecoach’s “Little & Often” high-frequency minibus affair in Ashford is interesting, not so much for it’s “back to the future” idea of 1980s minibus networks, but it’s attempt to say “you don’t need Uber around these parts”. It’s laying down the gauntlet. And the whole bus industry is watching with interest. Likewise, Alex Hornby at Transdev has a bus route with vehicles fitted with Satnavs which take the least-congested route on one of his services. Of course, there’s comparatively few examples of where you could do that elsewhere, but it shows that the top brains are thinking outside of the box. It’s “adding value”.

Which brings me onto something going on in my native Black Country.

This week has seen the launch of a cheap area zone ticket for Dudley & Sandwell (Sandwell being that mythical place where you won’t find an actual town called “Sandwell” – but the locals know what’s what). So what, you might say?

Despite the West Midlands being cheap as it is, National Express West Midlands reckons people think it’s still too expensive in this area, if they’re only making local trips. I’d agree with those comments (if not the reality), because it’s what I’ve heard many times before.

So, if you’re only “staying local” in Dudley & Sandwell, you can get a day ticket for only £3 (compared to £4.60). A single is £2.40, so for some people, this is going to be really good value. For the company, it’s picked up some really positive press, and it’ll be interesting to see how much effect this has. Will people really see this as a “game changer”? Weekly and Monthly tickets are imminent.

It also shows a de-regulated, private operator at their commercial, swashbuckling best. Able to respond to the market quickly, and effectively. Would you get this inside the dead hand of a franchised operation?

Intriguing is also a word to consider. Why do this? Why now? Is it meant to head-off any challenge for local trips when Uber does finally hit the scene? Is it in response to cheap offerings from other local rival bus operators (such as Diamond? I think not, personally – their network is much smaller), or is it a response to the market generally that sees great chunks of the bus World in a bit of a depressed state at present? Will it stimulate those “value for money” scores on the doors?

It wouldn’t be me unless I picked some holes in it.

What will the “levels of abuse” be like? The “border” for this on the east towards Birmingham is the M5 Motorway. Are we going to witness mass “chucking off” ceremonies on the Motorway bridge stop on the 9 in Quinton towards Birmingham? What happens when they inevitably make it to the bright City lights, then try and board to come home? I’ve witnessed enough “rugby scrums” on Colmore Row in the City Centre to consider that the poor old driver is going to have her/his hands full “refereeing” that lot!

Secondly, it is yet another product to add to the basket of fare offerings. Board a bus in the West Midlands without an inkling today, and you’ll be swept away with the mind-boggling amount of variations. Single. Short Hop. Day ticket before 0930. Day ticket after 0930. Day ticket before 0930 for all bus operators. Day ticket after 0930 for all bus operators. Day ticket for NX Buses & Metro. Day ticket for all bus operators and Metro. Day ticket before 0930 for buses, trains and Metro. Day ticket after 0930 for buses trains and Metro. (Deep breath….)

THEN….if you have a Swift card, you can get further discounts on all of these products. Or whip out your mobile and some of these tickets can be bought on there (and with discounts…)

Compare this to your Uber app. You type in A to B. It quotes you a fare (albeit that fare can change depending on demand / time of day) – and that’s it. OK, people are used to this “multi-choice” in other parts of their life (like choosing your car insurance provider or mobile phone tariff) but for my money, the jury is out on whether so much choice is such a good thing. Look at the negative press the railway industry gets over it’s fare combinations).

But it would be remiss of me to not at least wish the cheap Dudley/Sandwell Zone tickets a fair (“fare”?) chance of succeeding – if only to see if it really does attract more paying “bums on seats”.

One thing is for certain – the bus industry needs keep on looking outside of the box if it is to remain a true player in 21st-century mobility.

 

 

bus pass

The Baroness, The Arguments and the Bus Pass

bus pass

No, it isn’t a children’s bedtime story. Rather, a tale of passion, politics and the good old travelling public – with a bit of potential skulduggery thrown in for good measure.

As their Lordships debate the upcoming Buses Bill, Baroness McIntosh made the sort of suggestion that might have gotten her thrown in the dungeons hundreds of years previous.

In reference to the great concessionary fares debate;

“For me, the game-changer would be one simple thing: to keep concessionary fares on rural bus services but allow those eligible to pay a contribution.” 

Sound reasonable? The former MP for Thirsk & Malton was reacting to what seems to be the perennial discussion about the lack of money in the kitty to keep rural bus services going. “What’s the point in having a “free” bus pass if there’s no bus service to use it on” seems to be the mantra for our age, if you have any interest in rural transport.

I placed the article on my Facebook page and awaited the much-expected fireworks. I wasn’t disappointed. Around 80-odd comments later, I’d managed to gain repetitive-strain injury to my typing finger, someone spectacularly telling me he was fed up with it all and blocking me (!) and someone accusing the Government of punishing senior citizens for Brexit. Ah, the crazy World of social media.

What all this Facebook shenanigans does prove though, is the almighty mess that the Government has gotten itself into with the concessionary pass – and how it will be anything but simple politically to dig itself out of it.

Ah, you cry! The Government already thought of that – by handing the little issue of paying for it all down to local authorities. A classic bit of political manoeuvring Sir Humphrey himself might be proud of. Nowt to do with us, Guv. The authorities need to manage their budgets better. But whatever the situation now, the fact remains that somewhere, somehow, this issue is going to have to be addressed. The cost of giving senior citizens “free” bus travel simply isn’t sustainable in the long-term.

Let me make one thing very clear – lest I am accused of being “anti” concessionary pass. I support the concept whole-heartedly. It is what a civilised society should do. “It’s all very well taking away something from others that you don’t need yourselves. Sorry, Mr Tonks.” roared one individual on the Facebook thread, mistakenly presuming I’m someone who thinks it shouldn’t be provided. Sadly, one thing I AM convinced of, is that it won’t be there when I reach retirement age in twenty-odd years time (if we even have a “retirement” age by then). The problem – of course – like many other things, is that there is a rather large funding-gap emerging, when it comes to reimbursing bus operators for providing this service.

And yet, it’s so vitally precious. You can’t put a monetary figure on what the freedom of a free bus pass brings to some elderly people. I’m sure there are number-crunchers who can say that for every £1 spent on providing the free pass, “x”-amount is beneficial to the local economy, blah,blah,blah. But what price do you put on the social benefits of being able to get out of the house and be part of society? You can’t put a price, of course. And that is reason enough to keep the concessionary pass where it is.

Former Chairman of the Transport Committee of the West Midlands County Council Phil Bateman MBE made an important point. “You need to look at this the other way round, take concessionary fares away and you will lose even more of the bus network. It’s the OAP demand that keeps networks alive. Take their travel away, or reduce it, and the impact on networks will be severe. Plus then you will also have job losses within the bus operators, that will then deliver more loss in retail in town and city centres, as less travel journeys are made”. Food for thought.

The Baroness was suggesting that pass holders might be willing to pay up to half of the fare in order to keep the service going. I’ve heard this proposal many times before, not least from pensioners themselves at Bus Users Surgeries I used to organise. But this, for me, is an unworkable half-measure. It was the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (remember him?) back in 2011 who suggested “means-testing” for some pensioner benefits. It went down like a lead balloon. This followed an earlier report by the consultancy Oxera for the Local Government Association that concluded “Although the scheme has helped to improve social inclusion, there is also evidence that the scheme is targeted too widely, benefiting many people on higher incomes and with access to cars (i.e, those not affected by social exclusion and accessibility issues before the introduction of the scheme).” 

The LGA distanced itself from the report’s findings, saying “This recommendation is problematic as it could suggest an end to the current national concession, which is a popular policy that benefits millions of people and is highly valued by councils and their communities.

“Means testing for concessionary fares is not the solution. Take up of the scheme would fall drastically, the benefits it delivers greatly reduced and administrative burdens significantly increased.”

Free off-peak bus passes in England were introduced in 2008, but almost immediately some local authorities were complaining about the shortfall in funding to pay the bus operators.

Back to the Facebook debate. One person suggested that the bus operators “are able to choose to operate within the statutory obligations, or not.” And there is the rub. They can’t. Of course they should carry pass holders, but equally, they should be paid adequate recompense for doing so. Here are commercial businesses, with rising costs year-on-year, faced with a declining amount paid for carrying a significantly large number of their passengers. What happens? They increase their fares to compensate – which leaves those that DO pay a cash fare having to stump up even more – making the bus an even less attractive proposition. But please don’t assume that I’m creating a “young v old” argument (which the media has disgracefully created, especially over the Brexit argument). I’m merely pointing out the folly of getting on a bus in Shrewsbury the other week (Border Hopping – X75 Shrewsbury – Llanidloes) and being told it’s a £12 fare, whilst many concessionary pass holders followed me on for free. No problem with that on the face of it, but the operator most certainly won’t be getting £12 for every “beep” of the concessionary pass.

And that brings us to the very heart of the debate – and the intervention by the Baroness. This becomes it’s most acute in deep rural areas. The bus routes aren’t even being operated on a commercial basis. The local authority is propping them up, and is struggling to even do that because they haven’t got the money to do so. Some have received up to 40% cuts to their budget. So if some pensioners can afford to pay, isn’t it reasonable to say so? Actually, I think it’s just unworkable. Are we talking voluntary contributions? You could just hide your pass and pay the full adult fare, but what isn’t allowed is a “pensioners special fare”. Back in 2011, the top man at East Yorkshire Motor Services, Peter Shipp, asked a similar thing. A bus route facing the axe was retained, with pensioners being urged to simply hide their passes and pay instead.

But this, and the idea of some form of “means-testing” is a ham-fisted way of trying to cope with a scheme that is increasingly unfit for purpose in the back-office. The simple truth is that it isn’t funded enough to be sustainable in the long-term. When a local authority can’t afford to subsidise a bus service any more, everyone in the community loses out. Shouldn’t we be looking at rural bus services as part of “essential infrastructure”, just like telephones, power and broadband internet access?

Are grey clouds looming for other pensioner benefits? Following the recent autumn statement, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor and Damian Green (Work & Pensions Secretary) refused to give assurances on the pensions “triple lock” beyond 2020, stating that they’d have to look at the state of the economy in 4 years time. Now this may well be a bit of mischief-making on behalf of the media – who knows what might happen by 2020? – but it’s clear that funding for all sorts of things is under threat.

The statutory concessionary bus pass is a strange beast. In the Facebook discussion, I suggested that, what if the Government said that every OAP should receive a free loaf of bread, then told Hovis et al that it was going to give them less than half the retail price for every loaf? There’d be business uproar. It’d be a good thing to do, but as with everything else, there is a price to pay. And who should pay it? Pensioners tell me that they’ve worked all of their lives and paid their taxes, and “why should I begrudge them their bus pass”? I’m most certainly not begrudging them their bus pass. I agree entirely that they deserve it, and I’m sick of saying it until I’m blue in the face. But all of us – me, you, pensioners, workers – are living in ever-changing times. Now. Whatever pensioners have worked for, whatever I’m still working for – the money, we’re told, isn’t there. The NHS is “starved of funds”, my mate’s Dad tells me he might not be able to play bowls any more because the funding has gone from the local authority to maintain the bowling green. another friend’s sister has lost her job at the local library. These are all sorry tales of a lack of funding in today’s society. I’m repeatedly calling for more money to properly fund the country’s concessionary bus pass scheme, but I fear I’m being drowned out by competing demands for that last few coins at the bottom of the empty piggy-bank.

So the story of The Baroness, The Arguments and the Bus Pass doesn’t currently have a happy ending. The concessionary bus pass is a great British benefit worth fighting for. Whether it’ll still be around in 5, 10 or 20 years – along with lifeline rural transport services – is another matter entirely.

014 - Copy

Lining up the Hymn Sheets

Partnership is the best way forward when it comes to improving the bus user’s lot. But all those involved in that partnership have to be singing from the same hymn sheet to achieve the best outcome.

So what to make of Gloucestershire County Council’s decision to scrap plans for a bus lane in Cheltenham, which was fully funded and approved?

The route linking Cheltenham and Gloucester – Stagecoach’s 94 – was already known for it’s posh “Gold” buses, and, next week, the operator upgrades these vehicles with brand new ones, taking the bus passenger experience to new heights.

But the double-whammy of smart new buses and congestion-busting priority is now considerably watered down. As mentioned on this blog before, you can have state-of-the-art kit with comfy seats, WiFi and phone charging facilities, but if they crawl in the same nose-to-tail jams, too many motorists will conclude “what’s the point?”

That’s why it’s so important to line up the hymn sheets amongst all of the partners in these schemes to ensure the singing voice is one and the same. An excellent chance to send a message to congested road users of Cheltenham and Gloucester has been wasted.

271

Mind The (Satisfaction) Gap!

It all depends on where you stand on the pint glass stage.

If you’re “glass half-full”, the latest West Midlands Bus Passenger Satisfaction Survey results (produced by Transport Focus) indicate a healthy level of good feeling amongst bus users in the conurbation (around 9 in 10 report that they’re happy with the service overall). On the face of it, these are compelling figures that other industries would die for.

But if you’re on the way to the bar with a half-empty glass, you might want to think about a rather alarming drop in satisfaction with journey time – down a whopping 6% in 12 months from 86% to 80%. And that reflects a feeling amongst numerous transport experts that congestion has rapidly increased in the past couple of years.

The acknowledged transport expert Professor David Begg has produced a compelling report on the impact of congestion on passengers. Some words on the West Midlands make for depressing reading. It is the 5th most congested metropolitan area in England, with traffic speeds 15% worse than the UK average – and it’s only going to get worse, says Begg. Population growth forecasts combined with increasing car dependency will result in 34% more traffic over the next 30 years. Air quality levels will be amongst the worst in the UK.

These are interesting times for the powers that be. The rapid increase in congestion is acknowledged – the more difficult scenario is what to do about it.

Sitting on the top deck of a bus in Bearwood, on the edge of Birmingham City Centre the other day, I glanced across the road from the bus station to the layby. There, I considered the extent to which the areas’ largest bus operator – National Express West Midlands – has invested in it’s kit in recent times. There were three buses. None of them were 18 months or above old, two of them looked resplendent in their crimson liveries, and a third, in Platinum grey, boasted WiFi, charging points and extra leg room. Birmingham’s buses have never looked so good. Route 126 linking Birmingham with Wolverhampton is one such route converted to “Platinum” high-spec vehicles. Yet this route is one that Professor Begg highlights as a real example of the effects of congestion. In 1987, the return journey time was 160 minutes. Today it is 200 minutes – 40 minutes slower. Back then, it required 16 vehicles to run the service on a 10 minute frequency – today 20 buses. This all results in costs that are 25% higher. Begg concludes that the West Midlands is still suffering from a policy approach that has it’s origins in the 1960s, prioritising road building and car use – and if you stand in the middle of the City Centre, you can’t fail to appreciate that. This has resulted in a level of car dependency – 65% of all journeys – which is far higher than comparable areas in German areas such as Munich, Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, which are at a 35-45% level.

This isn’t to say that the efforts of transport folk in the West Midlands aren’t appreciated. The West Midlands Bus Alliance is quietly but effectively getting on with their work. New low-carbon vehicles and smart-ticketing are making things better for the bus user.

There is though a nagging confirmation amongst friends and colleagues who don’t use the bus that they aren’t about to any time soon. If anything, the increased congestion on display merely confirms their hardened attitude to being wedded to their private box on wheels. The Nat Ex WM Twitter feed contains – on an almost daily basis now – information on lock-jammed routes, delays of over 30 minutes and no discernible reason for it, other than sheer “volume of traffic”. As I write this, in mid-November, Britain’s second City is in full-on Christmas shopping mood. The German market is about to open (for an extended period this year, right across Christmas itself), the lights are on and the predictable gridlock is in full-flow. There is the usual soft-hearted plea to “consider using public transport” into the City, but you might as well try talking to the Queen of Sheba – the sheer amount of cars and vans clogging up the City is as worse as it’s ever been.

So whilst us bus-types collectively pat ourselves on the back for another good survey score, we need to remember that there are two sides to every coin. The bus operators are doing probably all they can for their part to up the image of public transport. Measures such as emission zones in Birmingham have rid the City of poor operators with dirty buses. Quality is the name of the game now. It’s still furtive ground for operators, but the issue of congestion – and pollution from vehicles other than buses – needs to be addressed. And soon.

So the new West Midlands Combined Authority, it’s transport arm “Transport for West Midlands” and whoever gets chosen by the people next year as the Region’s first “Metro Mayor” have some serious decisions to take. For me, we have surely come to the end of tinkering around the edges. We can make public transport look attractive – the new buses and sparkly Metro are testament to that – but the time has now surely come to take those very unpalatable decisions about restricting the use of the private vehicle in the City Centre, and it’s approaches.

This most certainly won’t be easy. Remember the attempt to introduce congestion charging in Manchester six years ago? Almost 79% rejected it. Well, of course they would, wouldn’t they? Sometimes, political decisions have to have a very bitter taste, but for the right reasons. Will this newly-devolved responsibility bring real results, for the first time in my lifetime? Well, my glass is, sadly, half-empty, until I can see the proposals of the Mayoral candidates. And then, we have to see what meat is on the bones, once they are in place. Solving congestion won’t be easy, nor pretty, but it surely has to happen soon.

There is also something that eats away at the back of my mind too. The Transport Focus Bus Passenger Surveys are a great tool, and very useful. And I’m not just saying that because I used to work for them years ago, either. It is that seeming “gap” between a very, very good overall score for the West Midlands’ buses and the kind of “reality” that, whilst existing users might be quite happy with their “lot”, there is a much bigger pool that see buses and public transport as an irrelevance. Are we in that same mode that saw the “shock” Brexit result or the “shock” US Presidential election result? Can we really believe the polling? Existing bus users might say that all is more or less well, but that big dip in satisfaction on journey times says a lot, to me. If buses – albeit very sparkly, state-of-the-art buses – are stuck mostly in the same traffic as private cars, what’s the point? So those that have access to a car are probably mostly using it. It’s only geeks like me that believe in the concept of public transport that are quietly seething on the top deck looking down on endless car bumpers. Me and a load of bus users who have no choice about using the bus. And this depresses me a huge amount.

If our politicians can’t stomach a popular revolt that includes locking out people’s cars and vans, how about the start of real, meaningful actions? Like Nottingham’s workplace parking levy for starters? Oh how the good people of Nottingham wailed when this was announced – but look at the excellent tram and bus network that is there now. Of course Brum is much bigger, but hey – let’s think big!

It doesn’t need the folly of “Quality Contracts” of “franchising” – that is merely a smokescreen. It requires political leadership to state the uncomfortable – that is we can’t keep on taking the congestion, gridlock and pollution that unrestricted access brings. And then it requires massive balls to go out and do something that will eventually bring benefits for the City Centre. The sad fact is that the politicians brave enough to do this won’t see the fruits of their labours. For them, it’ll be disastrous headlines, abuse on Twitter and a swift end to their political career (although the old adage “all political careers end in failure” is probably true).

It’s great that bus satisfaction figures are high – I’m not knocking that – but the much wider picture concerns me a lot. Because unless the sparkly WiFi bus can cut through the congestion and do it’s job effectively, the hawks like Uber and the like will cut their fares even more and bring their offering into the ball-park of the bus fare – which might mean near-instant gratification for the traveller – but also means even more vehicles on the road, leading to a slow, sorry death for the mode of transport best-equipped to move large numbers of people quickly, safely and effectively. It just needs a real chance to shine, and the only way to do that is to physically restrict free, unabated access to private vehicles.

That’s the challenge – and it’s coming quicker than any of us would dare to believe. Will our leaders grasp it?

113-copy

Border Hopping – X75 Shrewsbury – Llanidloes

I’ve got a rather smart model bus in my collection in the livery of Celtic Travel, the Llanidloes-based coach operator, which also operates a couple of bus services. One of the routes crosses into England – the X75 – running into Shrewsbury.

So what better on an autumnal day off to go border-hopping into the Welsh heartlands?

The X75 has it’s origins in Crosville’s D75. The erstwhile Welsh giant – which eventually morphed into Arriva Wales – ran the service from Shrewsbury, across the border into Welshpool, Newtown, and then Llanidloes. The same occurs today with Celtic’s X75, although a couple of trips extend to Llangurig and Rhayader.

103-copy

My journey from Shrewsbury to Llanidloes was on this Enviro 300

Guess Your Bus Times…

I’m here for the 0930 departure from Amwythig (Welsh for “Shrewsbury”). I spy a Celtic Travel single decker parked up in the layover area, across the road from the bus station. It isn’t one of the smart vehicles I have the model of. Instead, it’s an 11 year old Enviro 300. There is no on-stand timetable, seemingly the result of vandalism – or it has simply fell off….

107

The lack of timetable inforation at Shrewsbury bus station doesn’t inspire confidence…

Spot-on 0930 it rolls out of its slumber and on to the stand. There are a handful of other takers, including a lady with an excitable dog. Predictably, I am the only one to offer cash.

After much punching of the ticket machine buttons, a Shrewsbury – Llanidloes return comes out at £12 for the 2-hours and a bit journey (although once across the border in Powys it becomes £8 for a day ticket).

We set off 5 minutes down, looping around some of Shrewsbury’s houses before we hit the open road. Our semi-old girl copes admirably with the speeds of the fast road. The excitable hound descends into a slumber under its owner’s seat.

110-copy

The excitable hound descends into a slumber….

We acquire a few more takers, but this is a huge mass of green fields, until, after three quarters of an hour, we arrive into Welshpool (or “Y Trallwng” in the native’s language). We’re running continuously around 5-7 minutes late, but this doesn’t seem to bother anyone. After a loop around the Town’s one-way system, we’ve lost some travellers and gained a few new ones, as we again run out through the gorgeous countryside, with mist covering the distant Welsh hills and fields of cows chewing the cud, watching us fly past with seemingly little interest.

We divert occasionally from the main drag to serve small settlements such as Berriew (Aberriw) where our driver obviously knows the location of the public conveniences, as he temporarily bolts out of the cab, returning moments later looking a much happier man.

111

The X75 is very rural in parts! 

The Orange Brigade…

Then it’s back to the main drag of the A483 and Newtown (“Y Drenewydd”), where our approach is delayed into the tiny bus station by a gaggle of tabarded officials which show “GB Rally”. A quick conversation takes place between one such oranged-up official and our man at the wheel, before we serve our stand. Here, we gain 10 new folk.

There is a timetabled 10-minute recovery here, but we’re straight out and thus back on time.

Then we divert again from the main road into Caersws, where the streets are narrow, the parked cars are plentiful, and progress is, well, “demanding”. Our man has obviously done it plenty of times before, but there is much reversing from oncoming cars to avoid stalemate, especially at the picturesque bridge into the town, where there ain’t room in this town for our bus and anything else. Two fishermen, almost waist-deep in the River Severn with rods observe our progress.

We’re more or less on time into Llanidloes, where our service has a 6-minute layover, before carrying on for another 10 minutes to it’s ultimate destination of Llangurig. I bail out here for a few hours exploring, which inevitably ends up in a pub and faggots for lunch.

Austerity Hits – with gaffer-tape…

112

The timetable information at Llanidloes is held together by gaffer-tape…

Back on the opposite side of the road, my return journey appears a couple of minutes down, but is one of the much posher Volvo/Wrights single-deckers, which my model depicts. It’s the same driver from earlier, whom I presume has also been suitably fed and watered for his over-4 hour round trip across the border. The at-stop information is held together by good old gaffer-tape.

The vehicle has nicely-finished leather green and white seating and a screen that tells us that the next stop is Newtown bus station – which patently isn’t the case.

The X75 is very scenic in parts, as hillsides, mountains and still-not-cleared mist is observed. Back in Caersws, we again do battle with motorists. The fishermen have disappeared.

As we approach Newtown, the traffic congestion becomes horrendous. Whether this is a direct result of the “GB Rally” is not clear, but after 9 users have joined us at the bus station, we’re 15 minutes down. The “next stop” info screen fails to change.

“Next Stop” fail…

We fail to make up much time on the approach into Welshpool, where, if anything, the congestion issue is even worse. As we sit in stationary traffic, the X75 running in the opposite direction passes us, running 40 minutes late. It’s driver looks beyond fed up and throws his hands up in despair at our man as some form of greeting. We perform another loop of the town, by which time we’re 30 minutes late ourselves. Our “next stop” screen still doggedly shows “Newtown”.

114

The non-changing next stop information screen

Then a man boards with a sack which is the size of a small child. He tells the driver it’s dog feed, and wrestles it to the nearest seat. The driver doesn’t bat an eyelid, the rest of us are mildly bemused.

Back on the A483 we’re not really making back any time, and our progress is delayed further by a load of cows being crossed over the road, just past the English border. We eventually arrive back into Shrewsbury bus station 25 minutes down, where we pull on to the stand, I take pictures of the bus and it’s somewhat surprised new passengers, and our man makes a bolt for the bus station loo.

115-copy

Back in Shrewsbury for a very late departure…

 

The Verdict:

I presume that this service is subsidised by Powys Council, and it is indeed a lifeline to it’s users. The vehicles are decent, but the evening peak timetable – if my journey is typical – is a disaster. There is a bypass being built around Newtown, so maybe that will help when it finally opens.

 

The Good (“da”)

  • Smart buses
  • Friendly drivers
  • Lifeline service

The not-so-good (“ddim mor dda”)

  • No at-stop information in Shrewsbury bus station
  • Congestion in Newtown and Welshpool means the timetable goes to pot
  • Celtic Travel website has no fares information
001

The model version…

Simplicity

002

Why can’t the evening & Sunday journeys on the 257, and the 657 journeys on the right, be added to the main timetable (which already includes evening & Sunday journeys on 256) to make it simple to use? 

Buses are all about bums on seats. Or, more specifically, getting a good commercial return from your services (seeing that, in theory, you could fill a bus full of “bums on seats”, but if all those bums belong to concessionary pass holders, the return may not be great…)

Making bus services simpler to understand is, of course, a large part of attracting new users. The look of bewilderment on the faces of potential new users can lead to the abandonment of the bus as an option before any “wooing” with posh seats and Wi-Fi has even begun.

What to make of the seemingly current trend to re-number services down to single or double-digit route numbers, in order to “simplify” matters? I’ve rambled on about this before. The enthusiast in me isn’t particularly keen – bits of history are eliminated for a start, and for those of us who DO understand the local bus network, the potential for a reverse-effect is very real – new users might well find it simpler – but us “old heads” have to learn it all again!

But if I remove the “enthusiast” cap, I’m fairly open-minded to what this “simplification” can achieve. Having a “Worzel Gummidge” approach (2 heads) is important.

Two recent observations, whilst just idling around my local Black Country network recently stand out. I like to arrogantly think I know my own patch, so I pretty much switch off when getting around my area.

However, standing in Dudley bus station awaiting an 87 the other day suddenly nudged my conscious state. The 87 stand is often used by incoming drivers to unload. On stand, just arriving was an 82, having weaved it’s way around several estates from Wolverhampton. Next up was my bus, about to load – an 87. But my 87 carries route branding for the 87 – and it’s sister route 82. But it isn’t the 82 that’s just come in from Wolverhampton. It’s the 82 from Birmingham to Bearwood, which the 87 shares out of the 2nd City to form a common headway before they go their separate ways. It’s attractive for the good folk of Birmingham – but if you’re trying to make sense of the Dudley network, you’re being exposed to two separate 82s!

002

Users in Dudley see branded buses for the 82/87 – but confusingly, the 82 shown on this bus never comes as far as Dudley. Yet if you stand in Dudley bus station, you’ll see a completely different “82” bound for Wolverhampton….

I don’t know if this matters. Are people confident enough to know that the 82 coming in to Dudley from Wolverhampton is not the 82 they see plastered on the side of the 87 bus? Of course the regulars are, but what about newbies to bus travel?

The second bit of “simplification-that-may-not-be-simple” relates to at-stop information.

A recent round of evening tender changes has resulted in a few operator swap-arounds. So new at-stop timetables have been put up by what used to be Centro (now “Transport for West Midlands” or “West Midlands Combined Authority” or still “Network West Midlands” – too many “brands”?).

We now have the splitting off of the daytime and evening frequency on 2 routes, with the evening and Sundays put onto another timetable. A third timetable by a third operator during the day adds to the potential confusion.

Now, it may be that “computer says no” when it comes to the simple combination of all three routes into one timetable (after all, they’re all going to the same destination) but is it not beyond the wit of mankind to override the dreaded technology and make something dead-simple for passengers to refer to? Or is that a “resource” issue again?

Either way, it still isn’t as simple as it could possibly be for our intrepid new bus user. The chances are, they’ll probably shrug their shoulders and creep back to the certainty of their car, and if the likes of taxi and Uber-like entities reduce their fares by much more, how will buses attract new users?

Bells and whistles are great – but its that old chestnut the “jigsaw” that is undoubtedly key. Fit together the pieces of smart, attractive buses, proper meaningful priority in congested areas, good value fares and “simple to understand” nuts and bolts, and there’s a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, there are too little areas where all the ducks are lined up for this to happen. And frustratingly it’s the really simple things that still aren’t being done.

img226

The Cupboard of All Knowledge

Oh dear. I’ve been stirring it up again in my bowl of bus porridge.

It’s common knowledge amongst my pals that I’m not a fan of my local out-of-town-like shopping centre “Merry Hill”. Give me a traditional High Street any day – pedestrianised, with good nearby bus access, if you please.

However, I do recognise that Merry Hill is a major part of the Black Country retail scene. Thousands work here, and it’s where more countless thousands come to spend money, eat and play. There are myriad bus services based on this venue, which all get eaten up in the horrendous congestion it creates. It’s probably best to bring a tent if you’re planning on Christmas shopping here, and a small supply of baked beans and mini-camping stove. If you use the roads to and from, you’ll rapidly lose the will to live.

So, notwithstanding that large numbers of Black Country bus users’ lives get affected by traffic at Merry “Hell” (as the natives call it), I often make it my business to whinge at whoever might listen in what often seems a futile attempt to get some sort of holistic view on tackling the congestion, pollution and general annoyance that descends on the local road network.

It’s free parking here, which acts like a giant magnet to the local’s cars. Any notion of challenging that is long-since dead. A few of us hapless souls have investigated, but you may as well ask for a date with the Queen of Sheba. In the meantime, a race to the bottom ensues, with the local Tories on Dudley Council regularly dangling their carrot of “free Council car parking” in the traditional locations in a bid to stimulate the High Street, should they gain control. Except that doesn’t work either. In neighbouring Brierley Hill, a private shopping centre has thrown open it’s car park for “2 hours free parking”. So underwhelming was demand that it has now been announced that they’re going to build flats on half of the car park instead…

Metro trams are the great white hope, although I used to have brown hair and no discernible beer belly when that was first mooted. I have slightly more hope now that we’re getting a “Metro Mayor” in 2017 – and because the Black Country seems to believe all of the dosh will go to Birmingham, it might be a case of doing something for those of us west of the M5 to prove a point. Ahh, politics! We shall see…

A couple of years ago, when Aussies Westfield owned the site, there were plans to throw some real money at bus access for Merry Hill. A bus-only thoroughfare was suggested, and a larger bus station to replace the current one, which is just too small for the demand. Centro (as was) made a joint bid for Government cash and all seemed well – until it never happened. Westfield supposedly got cold feet, the bus revolution never happened, and the money went on revamping the bus/rail Interchange at nearby Cradley Heath instead – welcome, but the raiser of some eyebrows, to say the least. Westfield sold the Merry Hill Centre shortly after to Intu – who own several other similar retail outlets elsewhere.

And this is where the latest story begins.

Due to the requirement to purchase a birthday card for one of the few friends I have left, I actually went inside Merry Hill. Unusual for me. Passing the large customer services desk, I noticed lots of leaflets for “how to find your shops”, but, actually nothing whatsoever for “how to find your bus”.

A late night whinge on Facebook and Twitter, bemoaning this sadly typical state of affairs brought an interesting few responses. I suggested to West Midlands Combined Authority (who are the “new Centro”) that they ought to spend some money on a bus guide for Merry Hill. Network West Midlands said that they would look at trying to send some information out, and a northern friend told me that Intu actually produce their own public transport guide for their outlet in Manchester’s Trafford Centre.

Then, low-and-behold, Intu’s Twitter feed responded by saying that public transport guides were actually available at Merry Hill – “just ask!”

So off I went, courtesy of Diamond Bus’s 226, up to Merry Hill again to peruse the customer service desk in search of the improbable.

The impossibly grinning assistant beamed at me as I stomped up.

“Have you got any public transport info?” I fire. The grin drops slightly, as I reveal myself to be someone showing an interest in buses. “We don’t have the actual timetables”, she says, “but we do have the map and guide”.

“Yes please”, I respond, like a lap dog, about to get a chewy treat. “Bear with me”, she replies, “It’s in one of these cupboards”. And, with that, goes off flinging pure white cupboard doors open until she retrieves the nugget of gold – “Hop On Board” – the Intu Merry Hill public transport guide.

img225

The “infamous” Merry Hill public transport guide

I seize it like Dickens’ Scrooge and scurry off into the darkness of the bus station to examine.

It is actually a very decent publication. An excellent network line map, and individual route information, including frequencies and first/last buses. There’s also details of the less-frequent services and rail connections to nearby Cradley Heath (albeit with a few errors). And a vintage Diamond Buses logo, last seen sometime in the 90s. Whether Centro / WMCA / Network West Midlands had any involvement isn’t clear, but it’s a very decent effort.

img227

Good easy to understand information

But here’s the rub.

It is hidden away at the back of a cupboard. I had to ask for it.

Throughout Merry Hill are information stands dispensing leaflets on where to find the shops. No problem with that. But how about putting public transport in people’s faces? I recall visiting Cribbs Causeway near Bristol a while ago. There was a “public transport wall” near the bus station, full of all sorts of information. At Merry Hill, I have to ask, like another of Charles Dicken’s characters, Oliver Twist.

Merry Hill is car heaven (or hell, depending on your viewpoint). If we can’t have parking charges, or some serious long-term plan to tackle air pollution and congestion caused by it, at least a bit of “soft nudging” is surely in order. At least getting public transport into a corner of people’s brains ought to be the very least of a start.

Maybe when Midland Metro trams finally arrive, we’ll see a bit more interest. We’re told a serious upgrade to the current bus station isn’t on the cards, as it may move when the tram comes – but that still appears a way off yet.

Instead, a very decent public transport guide remains a tragic secret to the masses – I can’t even find it on Intu Merry Hill’s website – just a link to National Express West Midlands’ website (and never mind the other operators who serve the place).

The last time I came across decent info locked away was in Leeds bus station, when I wanted a timetable for Transdev’s now-seminal route 36 to Harrogate and Ripon. None on display, but kept safely under lock and key behind the counter. I hope Head Honcho Alex Hornby has long-since got that misdemeanour sorted out.

But in the meantime, do we ever have a cat in (Merry) Hell’s chance of  even trying to get a tad of modal shift going on in “car town” when the cupboard of all knowledge holds all the secrets from the masses?

 

“Quality” Contracts?

Not “Quality Contracts”, but “quality” in existing contracts.

Perusing the latest list of tendered bus service awards in the West Midlands, due to start in October 2016, it’s an interesting round of musical chairs this time.

Rotala’s Diamond has a net gain of 2, Arriva’s small Black Country operation loses 3 and National Express West Midlands – who have, of late, shied away from tenders – pick up half a dozen evening & Sunday operations that fit with their own daytime commercial work, which actually may benefit users of these routes, as they can buy a single operator cheaper pass now. Independent Hansons loses 4 but gains 8 new routes, several of which are in and around Sandwell, which isn’t an area they traditionally do much work in.

But the biggest loser is not-for-profit Igo. The bus-operating arm of West Midlands Special Needs Transport gains 2 but loses 14. Indeed all of Hansons 8 gains have been at the expense of Igo. Igo had previously burst onto the scene in recent years and picked up quite a lot of West Midlands tenders. Quite what has happened this time is anyone’s guess.

Apart from the numbers game described above, I personally will miss Igo on the evening and Sunday 226, which passes through my village. They use very well-presented recent Optare Solos, which have some lovely blue leather seats and are a pleasure to travel on. Next month, Diamond regain the tender, which they lost previously, and will provide an all day service on the route (alongside Hansons during the day, both commercially). Diamond will no doubt provide perfectly acceptable vehicles (I guess they may just leave the daytime vehicles on there), but they don’t possess anything like the posh solos that Igo are running. I don’t know the minutiae of the contract, but I suspect it doesn’t specify such high-spec vehicles. We 226 users may have just been “lucky” to have these buses on the route.  But it’s here we enter into the territory of the sub-conscious when it comes to bus services. I doubt you’d find anyone who would actually wax lyrical about the Igo solos, but subliminally it said “hey, travelling on our buses on an evening is actually a pleasurable experience”. When Diamond appear next month, it’ll probably be a 10 year old-plus Dennis Dart. Nowt wrong with that in principle, but it’ll almost certainly be a “downgrade” to what we’ve been used to.

Should we demand such high quality when putting routes out to tender? How often have we seen the daytime commercial service of a route operated with “bog standard” vehicles, yet the off-peak evenings and Sundays run by a different operator with a much higher spec? Or should we just accept that using taxpayers money to subsidise a lightly-used non-commercial bus service requires the cheapest we can get?