‘tis the week before “Catch The Bus Week”. A sort of queasy excitement akin to the week before the fat man in the red suit squeezes down the chimney in late December. A gift to bored local newspaper reporters, who line up their iPhones to take pics of people waving with large green hands in front of the local shiny double decker (all the newspaper photographers long since in possession of their P45s).
This is not to knock the efforts of CTBW. The bus industry still lacks a 52 week-per-year feel-good campaign. I do my best to argue on Twitter during every waking hour that the bus is at least part of the answer to the chronic congestion that is giving our kids asthma. But try telling that to someone who has just ordered the complete box-set of Friends on Amazon – and wants someone in a white van PDQ knocking on their door with a brown parcel.
Even I’m to blame. I’ve used taxis and the dreaded Uber more times than ever this year. Faced with a 40 minute wait for the next bus home, I’ve reached into my pocket and procured a ride with devilish simplicity. Climate emergency? I’m starving mate – and the chip shop becomes 10 rather than 50 minutes away.
It’s hard going for the bus industry. All these pensioners may be up in arms over the BBC taking away their free TV licence, but there’s no word on doing the same with their free bus pass. Good Lord, no. There’d be a riot featuring those shopping bags on wheels if ever that came to fruition. I suggested a while ago that bus operators weren’t getting the correct amount of reimbursement for Granny’s trip to the shops – I was nearly bopped on the bonce with a stick. I’ll not go there again.
A Trip to Wolverhampton…
Talking of folk getting upwardly mobile with their free pass, my dear old Ma suggested a trip out on the bus recently. In an all too rare afternoon of unbroken sunshine, we ventured to our nearest stop – the plan being a trip to Wolverhampton and afternoon tea in the Art Gallery.
Ma isn’t a regular bus user. She is the driver of a rather large (for my liking) SUV-type thing, with buttons aplenty across the dashboard and heated seats, which are permanently on, even in June. So I have a job to do, impressing her and trying to persuade her that, actually, parking this great hulk of a thing wouldn’t be an issue if she hopped on the bus occasionally.
Not ‘appy Days…
My first bit of wooing involved the National Express West Midlands app.
“There’s a bus due in 8 minutes”, I proudly announce, with the pseudo-authority of someone who might know what he’s doing with technology. So we stride confidently to the bus stop. Two miles down the road, there are major roadworks, so where our bus was coming from was probably like some suburban Armageddon, and I notice a 16 and 17 appear to be running in parallel. The 17 appears first, and I instruct Ma to stand aside and let it go – we need the 16, which is coming one minute later. I know this, because the real-time tracker says so.
Our 17 glides away and I glance at the app for the 16, which I expect to say “due”. Instead, it shows 18 minutes.
“Is this it?” she says, eyeballing a Diamond 226, which shows on the app, but not in real time.
“Er….”, says I. “No”. This is the crushing disappointment I now have to deliver. The last time I did this, she’d set her heart on apple crumble for pudding in the restaurant, only to be crushed some 14 year old waiter-kid, who, barely able to put a sentence together, managed to inform us that all the crumble had gone, and only sticky toffee pudding remained. “I won’t bother”, she’d replied, disappointment writ large.
“er… this bus is now 18 minutes away”, I offer in a sort of it-doesn’t-really-matter-ish voice. “oh”, comes the response. We decide to cross the road and go in the opposite direction to Stourbridge instead. The next one due there is 8 minutes. So we run the gauntlet of the A491, with a motley collection of motorists and van drivers intent on breaking the land speed record.
Newly-ensconced in the bus shelter, my phone suddenly loses 4G and whirs around for infinity while I summon the real-time for this direction. And 5 minutes later, the errant 16 appears on the other side of the road, bound for Wolverhampton…..
Ma’s heart is set on whatever cake is on offer in Wolverhampton, so we run the gauntlet a second time back across the road to board the 16. Goodness knows which departure this is supposed to be. There’s nothing akin to it on the app.
“Good morning!” She beams at the driver, whilst scanning her pass. He looks shell-shocked. I scan mine (if only that were free). I grunt at the driver. He grunts back. We’re on our way.
The Long Way Around…
The bus is a six year-old ADL Enviro 400. We ride upstairs, and it’s perfectly presentable, save for an apple rolling around the floor. I resist the urge to pick it up (“you don’t know where that’s been”) and it eventually bobs it’s way down the stairs, as someone on the lower decks shouts “APPLE” as if some sort of apple attack is underway.
The 16 takes around 50 minutes to reach Wolverhampton. In the car, it would be around 20. Despite a rather scenic tour across the border into the green fields of South Staffordshire, you get the impression many would like a direct service. But that in turn would miss out the ever-growing village of Wombourne and threaten the viability of the service. It’s the age-old conundrum for bus operators – would you attract more users with a direct route, or lose your existing fan-base by excluding some of them?
Two of Wombourne’s “yoof” on bikes cause a minor harrumph by riding two-abreast (knowing full-well they’re delaying the bus), but apart from that, it’s a quiet trip into the City. Ma hasn’t been to Wolverhampton in a while, and is amazed at the amount of roadworks going on. It’s the usual free for all around the wishbone island, and, as is traditional, no one allows the bus much progress.
Our business in Wolverhampton concluded, I decide to “treat” Ma to a trip on a Platinum to Dudley (aren’t I the best Son any Mother could wish for?)
The X8 has super-dooper ADL E400MMCs on a 10 minute frequency between Wolverhampton and Dudley, so I know this is going to be a winner. The departure stand has been liveried up in a bright red, displaying all the joys of travelling Platinum – free WiFi, USB charging, next stop announcements, etc, etc. And it has a big “126” number on it as well – despite the X8 replacing the 126 nine months ago.
“Ignore that”, I bark, as a Platinum arrives. It has been debranded from it’s previous “X7/X8” offering since the X7 recently disappeared, and had previously also lost it’s “126” branding. Never mind that. Ma is interested in the “posh bus”.
I board and the card reader loudly refuses my pass. “Try again”, urges our driver. The same result. We stare at each other. It’s clear he thinks I’m a fraud. “Have you got a receipt?” he asks. Have I got a receipt? It’s direct debit. We stare at each other again. But my 6’7” 18-stone frame leering at him probably pushes him into a decision to let it go. Ma is right behind. The last time she argued on my behalf was when I was 7 and kept in at school for detention for something I had nothing to do with. 41 years later, I was really hoping she wasn’t going to kick off again. Driver sighs and waves me on. Then the machine refuses Ma’s pass too, and the passenger after her. I resist the urge to go back to the cab and grin and take my place on the front seat upstairs. Yes, I still think I’m driving it.
Ma shows faint bemusement. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened”, she remarks. I decide that, coupled with my app disaster previously, technology – along with Brexit – is actually driving us all mad.
The X8 is a jolly romp along the Birmingham New Road, observing the great British frivolity of driving like a maniac if you have a white van or souped-up car. I remark that, if only the Police had unmarked vehicles, they could probably recoup the cost of a dozen new Officers in the space of an hour if they rounded these idiots up. Ma notices the high frequency of the X8s, with various bunched examples running in the opposite direction. Despite the antics of other road users, and the timetable looking like it’s gone to pot, the drivers seem a reasonably happy bunch, with all sorts of waving and grinning going on between our man, and the pilots of the other chariots.
In Dudley, we are greeted by the pungent aroma of some possibly illegal drugs. Maybe it’s the output of some exotic animal wafting across from the famous nearby zoo, but I somehow doubt it.
Here, I’m on the hunt for a Diamond 226, which has the delights of brand new Wright Streetlite single deckers on it, but there are none in sight. I spot an hourly 5 and drag Ma onto that. We are entering Dudley’s evening peak, and it’s agonisingly slow progress, first past the Magistrates Court, then the Leisure Centre and then the local Hospital, where one of her mates gets on. They’re lost in conversation and I have time for another row on Twitter about how good the local bus service is…
Will She Do It Again?
Will Ma be tempted out of her big tin can onto the bus again? Despite a couple of faux-pas, Our 3 journeys have been reasonably OK. The biggest bug-bear is the “lack of direct bus”. Although the X8 is basically a straight line, the other 2 services trundle around various roads, taking a lot longer than it would by car. For some, not an issue, but for others it is endured. The Black Country’s road network is saturated. It is challenging to physically put in more bus priority, let alone politically. So the story goes, if you’re going to sit in traffic, you might as well sit in your own (heated seat) car.
Catch The Bus Week is a good enough effort, but the industry needs a continuous good news drumbeat. And finding those good news stories to sustain that is a challenge in itself.
As for Ma, she say’s she will. I’ll be watching…and curious for the feedback…