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

 

bus pass

Waiting…

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Stourbridge Bus Station. Waiting for Central Buses 125 to Bridgnorth the other day.

This is one that attracts the “free” pass holders, as it’s a rather delicious romp across the surrounding countryside in Worcestershire and Shropshire, through Kidderminster, Bewdley and Highley, at one point “racing” the famous Severn Valley Railway along it’s salubrious surroundings.

The service is once per hour, so when it doesn’t show, the natives get rather restless. The digital information screens show only “timetabled” departures, so as this particular one drops off the end of the screen, it isn’t looking good.

I know from my rather unhealthy obsession with my Twitter feed that Diamond – who run most of Kidderminster’s town services – have been putting out messages that, due to ongoing roadworks, their services are basically all over the place. I suspect this is what is happening to our service too. I relay this knowledge to a couple of waiters, who at least seem more relaxed about the uncertainty. Then enter bus station Manager Gill.

I like Gill. She’s got her finger on the pulse of what is going on in the bus station and further afield. She also catches the Stourbridge Shuttle when I’m at work, so we’ve got to know each other.

Stomping across the concourse with her clipboard, she looks poised for action.

“What’s going on?” I enquire, knowing that this will elicit a response. Roadworks, she thinks. But then she tells everyone waiting that she’ll give it a few moments, then try to find out more.

In a World of technological advance, this extremely old-fashioned “get-stuck-in” approach is gold dust. In 40-odd years of hanging around bus stations, the amount of times I’ve seen this is countable on one hand. People seem happier, because there’s communication. From a human being. Never mind the digital screen that is down more often than Frank Bruno in his World Title Fight with Mike Tyson. This is a real person. Communicating. And she has plan B if the bus doesn’t show.

Plan B isn’t needed. Moments later, our bus arrives. Our Gill immediately asks the driver if it’s the roadworks in Kidderminster, and he confirms.

And this confirms what numerous Transport Focus research shows. In times of disruption, people want information. The feel better about abnormal situations if they have accurate, up to the minute information.

My argument is this. Someone, somewhere knows about delays. Technology monitoring buses movements knows about delays. Sometimes, that information is shared, but often via a Twitter feed, which many (despite this assumption that the whole world is on Twitter) don’t use. Real-time screens in the bus station are good when they work. They don’t work on far too many occasions. And only National Express West Midlands appears to be currently signed up to Centro outlets to display true real-time information. Whatever the back office issues about who pays for this and logistics, we need real-time information to work reliably. And what about a central point whereby delays that are significant are relayed to bus stations so that real-time human announcements can be made, or pro-active stars like Gill can do it the old-fashioned way and just tell people?

I know it costs money and I know there’s more logistics to that than the simplistic way I’m describing it, but ultimately, it’s a will to want to help the passenger. People really do appreciate someone in uniform who can help them. If staff are armed with the up to date facts, it could help change perceptions of public transport in that all-important time when people are feeling let-down. They are more likely at that point to retain a negative feeling to public transport and maybe use the car next time.

As for our 125 passengers, they  don’t seem too perturbed now that they’re shuffling on board, having received the personal touch from our Gill. “Corporate” does “personal”. Who’d have thought it.

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Top-Deck Sketch -Just Champion! Leicester’s New Bus Station

As soon as you leave Leicester’s Railway Station and hit the shops, it soon becomes apparent that the City’s football team triumph has provided a rather large bandwagon on which local commerce should jump. Shop window after shop window contains tenuous links to the beautiful game. In the main pedestrianized shopping area, the bizarre sight of a miniature Shetland pony with a football scarf around it’s neck, it’s owner randomly breaking into some unidentifiable speech.

Around the corner, in the freshly reopened Haymarket bus station, another spectacle.

What looks like a pop-up jumble sale turns out to be a gaggle of mainly older ladies, perusing a load of bus timetable leaflets on a table top.

Upon closer inspection, it is an enquiry desk. But it brings home – in graphic form – the need for printed timetables in this technological World. I eventually fight my way through the crowd to snaffle a bus map, risking a hand-bagging, rather like the “baddie” in 1970s TV wrestling.

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The “pop-up jumble sale” – complete with claw reaching for route 14 timetable…

The good folk of Leicester now have 2 quality bus stations to use. This one has been transformed from a collection of shelters into a facility fit for King (even ones dug up in Leicester car parks) and it is heartening to see it so busy in its first week of operation.

There’s plenty of space to mingle in, lots of digital information screens and toilets that are free to use – bucking the seemingly recent trend of charging to use them.

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Plenty of information…

Talking of information, there’s plenty of that on the wall too, although it shows ALL bus services for Leicester, including the ones that don’t use Haymarket – and for my money, it isn’t immediately clear which ones are which.

Outside in the sun, two bus enthusiasts linger. One with a camera records everything leaving the station, the other with a notebook eyeballs me as I take pictures myself. There isn’t (to my knowledge) some secret bus enthusiasts’ secret greeting. So I nod my head at him, which momentarily surprises him. He stares back and makes a note of me in his book, as if I too have a fleet number.

Back inside, there are various people in hi-viz pointing people to their stops. The jumble sale of timetables has calmed down and I take a few for myself. On reflection, just like Leicester’s football team, this new bus station is just champion!

A quick stroll around to Leicester’s other bus station – St. Margaret’s – reveals a slightly less busy scene.  My next move is a Skylink service to Derby via East Midlands Airport, although I’m a bit disappointed to find no printed timetables on offer – not even in the Arriva travel shop (although Skylink isn’t an Arriva-operated service, you still rather hope they’d have a timetable). A resulting moan on Facebook results in an Arriva Director “sorting” it.

The power of social media, eh?

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Facilitation – That’s What We Need!

 

I just came across a rather startling statistic whilst perusing the myriad emails I get containing all sorts of bus industry information.

At the Young Bus Manager’s Network Conference (held in Birmingham recently), the issue of “partnership” working popped up. It always pops up. What does it mean? There have been “partnerships” in the bus industry since I was in short trousers (and not the hipster-style cut-off ones that wouldn’t suit me, I should add).

This particular “partnership” is the one going on between Centro and National Express West Midlands. On the face of it, it seems to be going quite well of late. Well, there’s no talk of a “Quality Contract” like in the North East to get the bile up between the parties. It’s more “lily-pond” like in the West Midlands, by comparison. They’re quietly getting on with it, and, I have to say, it’s been the best it’s been at any point in the last 10 years in these parts, even given the financial horrors that have befallen other areas. We have a decent network, good information and continual investment in new kit to name but three. Of course there’s always room for improvement, but what would be the point if there wasn’t?

So, the “startling statistic”.

Since the introduction of National Express West Midlands’ “posh buses” (A.K.A. “Platinum”) a year ago, there’s been…(deep breath);

– customer satisfaction of 94%

– 25% growth on service X51 between Birmingham and Walsall

– 27% of respondents to the survey were “new to buses”

These are killer figures, if you’re looking for some good news about bus travel.

I noticed only the other day on an early morning trip into Birmingham on route 9 (also the recipient of smart new buses, although not Platinum recently) a plethora of “men in suits” – the demographic of traveller the bus needs more of, to rid it of it’s “loser cruiser” label that many people unfairly attach to it.

But of course, there’s something more that the bus company needs, but can’t provide on it’s own. The facility to help it run to time and be reliable – the prize every bus user values the most over everything else.

The huge success on the X51 doesn’t actually surprise me too much – it’s a bit like an open goal in bus terms. Why? Because there’s plenty of bus priority on the Walsall Road route. It’s fast, direct. and not too much in the way of hold-ups to delay it. It’s also been possible to develop the X51 into a frequent premium service that lives alongside it’s regular “all stops” sister, the 51. Both do their thing, both appear to work. It’s a great example of simple measures that involve local authorities, Centro and the bus operator all having the vision, and all playing to their own strengths for the common good.

Let’s not kid ourselves that this can happen everywhere. Other areas are more difficult to implement this type of thing . Road space is often an issue. But let’s also not kid ourselves about the potential that it COULD happen in far more places.

Coming soon, NXWM is introducing an “X10”, this time along another Birmingham arterial route – the Hagley Road. OK, it’s a re-hashed 141, but it’s becoming limited stop along part of the route. Hagley Road has plenty of stopping services, so have they hit upon something the travelling public are after?

Hagley Road thus far has priority only where it can maintain a two-vehicle carriageway. They added the bus bit between Quinton and Bearwood a few years ago because there was room to. The crunch for politicians everywhere is that decision to give over one existing lane to buses. That’s when the motorists become revolting. Is this going to happen on Hagley Road?

I’ve long been told that the road isn’t wide enough to add a third lane on the most congested bit from Bearwood into Five Ways and the City Centre, but the long-discussed “Sprint” project – which proposes articulated tram-like buses: “Metro’s Little Sister” – appears to suggest bus priority.

I’ll believe it when I see it. When buses actually take over an existing lane to reduce car capacity, I really will be partying on the rooftops (in my hipster cut-offs. It won’t be pretty).

That really would be a statement of effective partnership working to truly celebrate.

But if this first step of limited-stop services along the corridor (hopefully with smart, attractive buses) shows promise, the case for more bus priority could gain momentum. It’s worked spectacularly on the Walsall Road, why not elsewhere?

It’s all about facilitating the bus to do what the bus does best in urban settings – moving large numbers of people quickly, efficiently, attractively. Give them little extras like posh buses, with free WiFi and  USB charging points by all means. But also give them the competitive advantage of whizzing past people stuck in congestion. Add in what Nottingham have done and impose a workplace car parking charge to pay for public transport benefits. Then, the more people who “see the light” means that the bus is no longer a “loser cruiser”, but a means of transport that is at worst a viable alternative to the car, but also at best a cool way to travel in, stress free. Win Win.

We need politicians to facilitate this. To see the wider, long-term vision. with figures like the Walsall Road’s triumph, what’s not to love?

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New, Old & “De-furbed” – Roaming The Streets of The Capital…

Day off.

So I thought I’d have a trip down to London for 3 reasons:

1: Try out the new BYD Chinese electric double-deckers on route 98.

2: Have a look at the new Volvo / MCV “Evoseti” type on routes 35/40.

3: See if I can find a “de-furbished” Routemaster (“Re-furbished” back to it’s original condition)

So I’m up at stupid o’clock and it’s not even a work day. First bus of the day to Stourbridge, then a run into Birmingham on the 9. National Express West Midlands has the recently-introduced Enviro 400 MMCs on here, and the combination of high-frequency, new buses and attractive livery is a winner. I notice plenty of “men in suits” boarding. This is good news. I’m always banging on about getting business people to use buses more, like they do in London. NXWM must be doing something right on this corridor.

In Brum, I board the “slow train to London” – London Midland’s service (not least because I can travel for free with my staff pass) and I’m in London for just gone 10am.

Although it’s mid-Monday morning, it’s still a bunfight at Euston. I walk out through the haze of smokers outside the front of the building (vile) and take a look at the busy bus station. Loads of “New Routemasters” everywhere, almost as a tribute to Boris Johnson, who, on this very day, has relinquished his role as Mayor of London. His legacy will live on!

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New Routemasters….Everywhere…..

Indeed, it’s one of these design masterpieces I board first – a 68 for a short run down Woburn Place to Russell Square to hunt for all things electric….

The 98 to Willesden Garage starts here, and there is a motley line up of several older vehicles here, opposite one of those fantastic old green “sheds” which used to provide refuge for taxi drivers – indeed this one still does, in the form of a cafe. Numerous cabbies are present devouring grease-laden delights. Horns are honking as a lorry temporarily unloads something and this corner of London grinds to an inevitable temporary standstill. All that moves are lycra-clad cyclists who weave in and out of anything stationary, or moving (as one nearly takes me out, for daring to stand on the pavement).

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The temptation of food in Russell Square is too much…

Our trucker moves on, and the blockage recedes, but there’s still no sign of anything electric. I check the London Vehicle Finder on my phone, which reveals my lurking around Russell Square is in vain – no sign of any BYD electric double deckers on the route at the moment (although one made an appearance earlier this morning). I decide the temptation of a full-english in sandwich form is too much and walk off towards Aldwych.

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The older set still provide the mainstay of service 98 provision – but no sign of anything electric…

I marvel at the Kingsway tram tunnel and imagine what joys I have missed all those years ago, when London trams used to disappear down below,with others appearing like monsters from the deep…How much fun would a ride on a London tram down there be?

Aldwych is of course the London theatre-goer’s paradise. There’s also much bus action going on. I decide my next move is an RV1 “south of the river” on a Hydrogen bus, which are normally on here. Just off the Aldwych is a side street where the RV1 terminates. But I’m out of luck again. The bus on-stand here isn’t of the hydrogen variety. It’s a bog-standard Enviro 200, it’s driver perched on the back seat chewing away on a sandwich.

My app says the next departure is 11 minutes away. I decide to attempt something of an “arty” picture, involving said bus and theatre adverts. I cross the road and line up something resembling “arty” (you may disagree – art is very subjective), but then our man gallops down his bus, into the cab and departs quicker than Linford Christie in a 100m Gold Medal race. So much for my app information.

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My attempt at an “arty” picture (yes, I know…) – seconds before the driver runs into the cab and drives off, leaving me on the other side of the street…

A few minutes later, a “proper” hydrogen bus appears and I hop on that. We take in Waterloo station and battle with traffic up to London Bridge, where roadworks has got everything at a standstill.

I’m looking for some unusual double deckers here – MCV “Evoseti”-types on Volvo chassis. Go Ahead have bought an initial 20 or so of these for routes 35 & 40. I’ve also always been fascinated by the destination “Dulwich Library” on the front of some London buses. What a delightful place to terminate – a library! I’ve never been to Dulwich. Enid Blyton was born here, and it’s also where Margaret Thatcher came to live after she left Number 10.

I can see a 40 in the distance, but it takes an age to reach us. When it finally appears, a young driver opens the door, accompanied by a man of more advancing years wearing a Hi-viz with “MENTOR” on the back. He barks in cockney at a man who doesn’t touch in properly with his pass “and again, my son, and again…”.

This is the first sizeable order of EvoSetis in the UK. I’m not overly-excited. The seats are hard, but apart from that, the journey isn’t  overly uncomfortable. Our mentored driver does well, negotiating the Elephant & Castle, and we head south to Camberwell Green, where a recorded message tells us that a driver changeover is taking place. We move on, but then another computer voice tells us that “the destination of this bus has changed”. We’re now going to terminate at “East Dulwich” instead. I have no idea where we are, as we’re hiked off by a railway station. Our Evoseti roars off and I’m left to ponder what life is like for non-regular bus users, who must get this similar feeling of not knowing what to do with public transport next in unfamiliar surroundings. I have no idea if Dulwich library is within walking distance or not. The map doesn’t make it particularly clear in the shelter. This whole idea of terminating a bus at short-notice has happened to me on quite a few occasions in London now. It may well be necessary, but it’s nothing like that in Birmingham.

Another 40 turns up. This time it’s a new Enviro 400 MMC. But it also is terminating here. At least the weather is decent. Eventually another new Enviro 400 appears. This one IS going to Dulwich library, so I flag it down. I conclude that, whilst the Evoseti isn’t bad (apart from the seats), the Enviro 400 is a better vehicle to ride. In the “looks” department, the Evoseti isn’t really a head-turner either, but it’ll be interesting to see if this is a breakthrough in the UK double deck market for MCV though…

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One of Go Ahead’s new Volvo B5TL / MCV “Evoseti” double deckers, opposite Dulwich library

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Also on Go Ahead London routes 35 & 40 are new ADL Enviro 400 MMCs

So this is Dulwich library. Looks a fairly unassuming place. I hop off opposite said building and my 40 roars off up the road and turns left. I pursue it and come across a pair of Borismasters on the 12 laying over in the side street. I eye up the monsters and their drivers eye up me. The road around the corner leads back to Dulwich library, and I stand here to capture a few pics, whilst an old friend who I didn’t know lived in these parts picks up on the fact I’m local from my blabbing on Facebook and offers an impromptu meet up. He works with London’s trams and has a meeting at HQ, so takes me over in his car. Like me, he’s into politics, so we talk about Sadiq Khan’s ascension to the biggest job in London, and what that might mean for public transport in the City.

I tram it from Tramlink’s Therapia Lane HQ across to Croydon. Here, there are plenty of red buses, but I don’t appreciate just how far out from Central London we are here. The bus stop information doesn’t show any direct links back to the Capital apart from a peak hour service. So I use Southern’s rail service back to London Bridge.

Back in the metropolis, I cross the water and stand on Cannon Street looking to head west back towards Aldwych. It’s traffic chaos. Nothing is moving. Tourists look longingly at the bus stop pole and it’s fictitious set of timetables. Eventually, an “original” Routemaster appears on the opposite side of the road. It’s RM1933 – a recently “de-furbed” example. It’s heading just up the road on “heritage” route 15 to The Tower. I decide to throw caution to the wind, cross over (nearly getting splatted by yet another lycra-clad cyclist) and hop on, whilst it’s stationary in traffic.

The Conductor (there’s a novelty) grabs my Oyster and scans it. I bound off upstairs.

Only a family of 4 are on the upper deck at the front. I seize the back seat and am immediately transported back to the mid-sixties. Hants & Dorset trim – apart from having a wonderful name – has done a wonderful job. The money saved by abandoning the other heritage route (9) is being ploughed into the RMs on this route. The vehicles are being brought as closely as possible back to “original spec”. The result is stunning. Outside, the cream band is back. Inside the floor has old-style treadmaster flooring, reupholstered seats (with original 60s-design moquette) and yellow “canary” roof. There are even light bulbs. Traditional light bulbs! Who knows how many courting couples have canoodled their way along London’s streets on the back seat I’m now occupying, but it’s a real nostalgia treat!

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The “de-furbed” Routemaster upper deck

At what amounts to barely half a mile later, we arrive at the terminus opposite The Tower of London. Our conductor winds the rear destination blind back to Trafalgar Square. I hop off and continue my fine tradition of being almost-splatted by a cyclist – the new cycling “super highway” is here, between bus stop and real pavement.

I decide to await the old girl’s turnaround and catch her back to The Strand, but the heavens suddenly open up and I end up resembling a drowned 6’7″ rat. There’s no sign of RM1933, so I flag down a passing “new” Routemaster on the “proper” 15.

It’s now evening peak time and traffic is predictably horrendous. I listen intently to an American couple sitting opposite, who seem horrified that a van driver is happy to push his way into the traffic and block the road off for our bus. I contemplate striking up conversation on Donald Trump but think better of it.

I hop off on The Strand and take a mooch around the London Transport Museum shop, where I threaten to buy my own weight in books (but limit myself to only 3). Back on The Strand, the skies open again and half the London population try to cram under the shelter. Luckily a 91 appears very soon and I hop on back to Euston, where my wait for a London Midland service back to Brum is made much easier by some lubrication in The Doric Arch public house….