Fatal Attraction

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Checking tickets on my day job aboard the Stourbridge Shuttle, I came across a couple who didn’t have any. The ensuing conversation was sadly illuminating – not particularly for the railway, which was losing out on two £1 singles – but for the world of buses.

As I’ve often discussed here before, buses remain a mystery to certain parts of the public. The routes, the times, the ticketing – it all becomes a hazy puzzle that leads many to shrug their shoulders and use the car, or a taxi. It’s often a challenge to present the network in simple-to-understand terms if you’re a novice, but by golly, the industry does it’s own shooting-in-the-foot on far too many occasions.

This was one example. The man gave me an exasperated look when I asked him for his non-existent ticket. His other half was more diplomatic. Producing a National Express West Midlands DaySaver, I’d told them that it wasn’t valid on our service. She then told me a somewhat exasperating tale of their day.

Living somewhere in the urban Black Country, they’d decided to have a day out in Bridgnorth – an enduring favourite location for folk around the West Midlands, with it’s High and Low Towns, olde worlde charm, historic cliff railway and gorgeous steam trains of the Severn Valley Railway. It’s only around a dozen or so miles from Stourbridge. But…it’s across the dreaded border in Shropshire.

In the days of the mighty Midland Red, borders didn’t mean much on a “Day Anywhere” ticket. Stourbridge folk could jump on the bus for a day out “anywhere” across the erstwhile giant’s sprawling network. Today, an excellent service exists between the two towns, courtesy of the independent Central Buses. So here was issue number one. They’d decided to leave the car at home and hop on the bus. Their “day ticket” wasn’t valid on Central Buses across the border.

Then, they’d paid for 2 day tickets on Central Buses to get to Bridgnorth and seemed even more outraged when I told them about the two for £10 “Duo” ticket – which the driver hadn’t obviously informed them about.

Next up, after a stroll around the Shropshire beauty spot, they’d hopped back on the 125, only to find that it was running a short journey back to Kidderminster only, where a steep walk up Comberton Hill to the railway station awaited, in order to get back to Stourbridge. “Never again!” they almost cried in union.

What can we take out of this sorry tale?

Well, notwithstanding that when you use public transport, a bit of forward planning is necessary. Whether this couple had, or had gotten confused, or whatever, you can bet they won’t be using the bus much in future. The lady had commented “why can’t they do a ticket that covers the wider area?” It’s a good point. Of course there has to be borders and end-points somewhere, but the urban West Midlands plus a wider area is surely ripe for such a product – the railways already do it, and operators like Arriva provide such a product. But when it comes to different operators, the game changes dramatically. Buying single fare or day tickets for multiple operators suddenly becomes very expensive indeed. As for the short run of the last 125 journey, well, perhaps a bit more awareness of the timetable should have been in order.

But I felt a pang of sadness for them, and for the bus industry in general. Here were two people who’d had a poor experience. No one’s fault in particular, but it’s frustrating for sure.

Former Transport Minister Norman Baker talked about having one pass for the whole country. Now of course that sounds fiendishly challenging behind the scenes, but hang on – had our intrepid travellers been in possession of a concessionary travel pass, it would have been no problem (save for the lack of planning on their last bus journey). The technology exists, but the “back office” and haggling over who gets what part of the pie may be more difficult. But is it really impossible to envisage such a product that would allow you onto any bus in England and even work out the best price or cap it for a day? Remove the ticketing confusion and you’re half way there. With the Buses Bill on the horizon requiring open data, information – built upon by whizz-kid app designers – ought to be making buses less mysterious in a short amount of time. Granted, not everyone will take up this technological extravaganza, but the bus industry has to get in front of the game to stand any chance of being relevant in the years to come. When we whoop about “contactless” being just introduced onto local buses, it lays bare the fact that the industry is still generally behind the curve. We’ve got little old ladies out shopping to “go smart” with their passes – we need to kick on, not just with technology, but with operational attitudes.

The trip to Bridgnorth by bus had obviously been an attraction. Their ultimate experience: fatal to their chances of doing it again!

The Orange Flyer – sampling EasyBus in Shropshire & Cheshire

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There’s an old bus industry tale about how Stagecoach supremo Sir Brian Souter decided have a go at the express coach market and went to see Stelios from EasyJet with the idea that the recognisable orange brand would form the basis for this. It never came to fruition. Sir Brian went his own way, and Megabus became almost as ubiquitous as the iconic white of National Express on the highways and byways of Britain (and of course elsewhere). “EasyBus” has continued to exist, but only as a handful of airport links in a competitive market.

I’m not a frequent flyer, but I decided to try one of the orange connectors – the recently-ish launched service from Telford to Manchester Airport. Launching in October 2016 with 12 low-emission minibuses, 16 services a day operate 7-days per week on the route, which operates via Shrewsbury, Oswestry and Chester.

Booking ahead by a couple of weeks, I paid just over £6 for a single – the 1330 departure from Telford.

Telford bus station is part-bus station, part building site, but my ticket clearly states that the EasyBus departs from “Stand S”, which is clearly marked with a large sign, slightly away from the row of usual bus stands. I’m warned to be in position 10 minutes ahead of departure, and I am – with no one else in sight looking like they’re off for some sun sea and sand on one of Stelios’s larger airborne vehicles.

A few minutes before the departure time, the orange minibus appears, and an orange-tabarded driver hops out of the cab to open the door and welcome me on board.

“Plenty of time for your flight?” he enquires, then looks slightly bemused when I tell him I’m not flying.

There’s probably more bemusement watching me haul my 6’7” frame into the small bus, which is akin to a baby giraffe attempting yoga. The driver relieves me of my ticket.

There’s a small gaggle of concessionary pass-wielding OAPs observing the goings-on. No doubt they are contemplating a potential hand-bagging of the driver for a free day out, but there’s no chance of that. This is a premium service.

Or it is until I catch sight of the state of some of the seats. They are badly stained and in need of a good clean. It isn’t the best sight to greet a business leader flying off to seal a deal.

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uninviting seats…

I’ve bagged the seat by the door, which appears the only one of twelve that will adequately accommodate my ridiculously stupid long legs. No one else is on board. Free Radio Shropshire wafts gently into my ear’oles.

We’re off, spot on time, into the serene Shropshire Countryside, and first of all, bound for Shrewsbury. Our driver is excellent, and the ride quality isn’t bad for a minibus, although a luxury coach this is not.

Arrival at Shrewsbury is greeted by more slightly intrigued looks, as we wait time for a few minutes. Again we have no takers.

Then we join the faster traffic on the A5 as we head towards Oswestry. The EasyBus doesn’t serve the town here, just the Travelodge and assortment of fast-food outlets at a road junction. It’s quite an innovative idea I guess – stay overnight then hop on the airport bus. We peruse the car park gingerly for anyone looking remotely like a flyer with a suitcase, but there comes none.

Then it’s back on the A5, Wrexham-bound. Free Radio is replaced by Radio 2 and we arrive into Wrexham General Railway Station 9 minutes early. Orange-tabard man informs me of the short interlude here, and I release my seatbelt and grab a bite of sandwich.

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speeding across the English/Welsh border

Now we’re off to Chester, where again we don’t bother with the City Centre, but instead serve the Main Reception of a Holiday Inn, where a slightly-exasperated woman can’t believe her road-blocking parking by the front door is hindering our progress. Honestly. You pull up here with not a soul in sight and this orange thing appears in your rear-view. Our man diplomatically suggests that pulling slightly to the left will allow us progress. David Bowie’s “Absolute Beginners” pumps through the speakers.

No one has joined us at the Holiday Inn, and we mix it with Arriva’s Sapphire service between Wrexham and Chester for a bit before hitting the M53, then M56 before an uneventful but on-time arrival into Manchester’s airport bus station. Orange man thanks me for using the service, then asks if I am aware that the service will be changing soon, with the Telford – Shrewsbury section being withdrawn. It’s a helpful interlude, and I thank him for the information. He departs the scene to use the loo and I capture several photos. Public transport links are good here, with digital and paper timetables available for local bus services, including direct to central Manchester, and literally a few steps down to the Metrolink trams and national rail services.

 

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Good information at Manchester Airport bus station. The steps lead directly to the Metrolink trams…

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frequent buses operate between the Airport and Manchester City Centre too…

The Verdict

All in all, it’s a useful service. I guess operators of services like this really need to know their market well. The frequency has to be decent to make it attractive, but my journey carried only me, all of the way. You can’t afford too many of those!

It’s an innovative service. Neither National Express, Megabus or anyone else covers this corridor – NX route you into Birmingham first if you type in Telford or Shrewsbury, then change onto a direct Manchester Airport service. The quickest journey via this method is over 4 hours.

It deserves to succeed – but clean seats and first impressions are all important!

 

The Bright Orange:

  • Excellent driver
  • Innovative service
  • Cheaper than driving and parking at the airport

 

The Orange Peel:

  • Dirty seats
  • Doesn’t serve Oswestry or Chester centres (although this saves time)
  • Losing Telford section soon

Billie Piper’s Nightmare…(A Couple of Hours in Swindon)

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Fleming Way, Swindon

Swindon. A place I’d never visited in all of my 40-something years. Famous for it’s railway connections, the UK’s first lending library and Billie Piper (Doctor Who fans will know who she is, as well as hapless DJs like me, who played her tunes around the turn of the Century). It’s then Local Authority-owned bus operator Thamesdown scooped the prestigious “Operator of the Year” gong at the UK Bus Awards in 2011.

My fellow bus nut pal Mark and I decided on a visit. It had actually centred around a last trip on Oxford Bus Company’s short-lived Oxford – Birmingham Airport service – “short-lived” because it’s facing the axe less than a year after being introduced. A trip between Oxford and Swindon on Stagecoach’s 66 Gold service would fit nicely in between.

To the City of Dreaming Spires…

We join the coach at Birmingham International station, and it’s spot on time. £20 for a day return – maybe it seems a tad steep, but that’s the way with premium airport services. After looping around Birmingham Airport, we leave for the Warwickshire countryside with 8 on board. It’s a nice ride towards the City of Dreaming Spires and we arrive, uneventfully, into Gloucester Green bus station where Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach are doing battle for the lucrative London market. All the dollar is to made by folk heading south, it seems.

Gold…and The Magic Roundabout

Also in the mix here are some Stagecoach Gold services. They are impressive beasts. We’re hunting a 66 to Swindon, but less impressive is the lack of departure. Our more-diminished beast rolls in almost 15 minutes down, and the incoming man on the upper deck front seat is fast asleep. Everyone piles off and the new takers immediately board, our man away with the fairies suddenly leaping up and making a sharp exit.

An Adult Explorer is £7.00, and once relieved of our coinage, we’re off on the upper deck and away.  Soon, we’re out of the City and into the greenery of a glorious English springtime. The service passes through Faringdon, a delightful location including The Old Crown – a 16th Century coaching Inn, where the original stagecoaches (in an era known as pre-Souter) plied their trade. The modern-day ones stop right outside.

But that’s a stop for another day, as Swindon beckons. The basic 30-minute frequency on route 66 takes around an hour an twenty minutes end-to-end but if the views en route delight, the end result is far-less salubrious. After negotiating Swindon’s almost-novelty “magic roundabout” (five mini-roundabouts that surround one big one in the middle – a scary moment for the more nervous driver), the arrival into the bus station is one of the biggest let-downs since the aforementioned Billie Piper’s second album (“Walk of Life” – hey, I knew my DJ stuff years ago, y’know…)

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Swindon’s famous “Magic Roundabout”

A very bad 70s Nightmare…

You can imagine Piper reminiscing in some TV documentary about her school days, spending Saturday afternoons singing into the end of a hair brush in Swindon bus station before becoming famous. Or maybe she avoided it completely. Given the choice, most people probably would. If first impressions count, this one certainly isn’t getting a second date. After leaving the luxurious surroundings of the Gold offering, this is like a very bad 1970s nightmare. I wander up and down, taking in the utter despair this place emits. It shouts out that bus travel is the very last resort. I feel a heady mix of sadness, frustration and absolute despondency. Pigeons and their excrement loom large. Threatening notices about the right to confiscate your alcohol are fastened to fences. Information is poor, although Stagecoach does have an office here (no 66 timetables are on offer though). If you’re new to buses here, a lack of an index to places served doesn’t help – the nearest thing is a very basic list of services on each stand. Concrete walkways abound, it looks threatening enough in the middle of the day, so goodness only knows what a young Billie Piper might have felt like hanging around here after dark.

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The 70s Nightmare – Swindon Bus Station

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Very attractive (part 1)

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Very attractive (part 2) 

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Minimal information in the bus station

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vandalised infrastructure

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Concrete Jungle…

It looks like the longer-distance services go from here. But if you follow the concrete maze away from this transport hell, you come to an equally 70s-inspired flyover-type arrangement called Fleming Way. Here, Thamesdown has an enquiry office, and we run in like excited kids into a record shop (remember them?), about to get our hands on the new Billie Piper album (the first one – it was better). There’s real-time information on offer at the on-street stands too.

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Information is better on Fleming Way…

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…including Real-Time information…

A Zone Too Many…?

Thamesdown’s information is good – although my first impression of the ticketing zones was one of confusion. There are 4 – inner, outer, plus and network. Is this really necessary? In fact, the more I scrutinise the leaflet as an outsider, the more baffling it becomes. We settle for a £4 Day Rider, as we’ve only got a couple of hours and drop our fare into another 70s phenomenon – the exact fare box. But at least this will soon be history, as since the company has been taken over by Go Ahead, customer-friendly change will soon be given.

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Good printed information

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A Zone Too Many…?

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Too many ticketing options? 

Actually, there is nothing yet to suggest Go Ahead ownership. It’s early days, but I’d half-expected something subtle like some “we’re part of the Go Ahead Group” stickers somewhere, as appeared quite quickly on the Plymouth Citybus takeover. The Dayrider appears to be valid on Stagecoach buses in the area as well. The beachball-liveried challengers have long-existed here too, but it seems that they’re upping the ante now that Thamesdown are in private hands. One to watch for the bus-observers in the coming months and years, methinks.

A Trip to Sparcells…

We’ve randomly chosen a 19 to somewhere called Sparcells, as it’s a Scania double decker. I bound upstairs and claim the front seat, like maybe a young Billie Piper might and we’re off around the outskirts of the town, past the ghosts of Swindon’s railway heritage. Ex-engine sheds are everywhere.

The bus is decent enough, but unexciting. It’s getting on in age and ground-in dirt inevitably shows. Me and Mark contemplate possible reasons as to why the Council has flogged the company to private hands. For all the successes of Council-owned operations such as Nottingham and Reading, this is a sobering reminder that not all of this genre glitters. Is it inevitable politics that leads to Councils concluding that other parts of their empire are further up the pecking order? Or has bus industry stagnation hit this part of Wiltshire?

We have no idea where the 19 terminus is. The service traverses a posh-looking new build housing estate and stops for a few moments just beyond this. The bus stop pole contains good information and prices. We expect to be kicked off, as we suspect it’s the end of the line, but we’re soon on our way back through the posh estate, so we think we’re heading back into Town. The driving itself is a bit on the “urgent” side, but our bus takes it well, and we pass an “extreme trampoline park” and further reminders of steam trains in the form of “Brunel Dental Practice”. I’m slightly disappointed to see no cashing in on Billie Piper’s fame.

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Serving a new housing estate

A Quick Trip to Hospital…

Back in Fleming Way, an awaiting driver puffs on his vape. Information on stand here is better than the disastrous bus station. Next up, a move to Great Western Hospital on route 1. It’s every 10 minutes, so plenty of buses on this one. Within moments, an elderly single deck Dennis Dart has appeared, and our electric fag-puffing man has vaped his last for a while and takes over our steed.

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well-presented buses – even this older example

Ah, driver changeovers. There’s only one place I’ve seen a fast, efficient driver changeover – TrentBarton in Nottingham. I don’t know what they do, but they have it far better than most other bus operation I experience around the country. This one is no different, and seems to take an age. Intending passengers shuffle in boredom. Eventually, we’re allowed on and take off hospital-bound. It’s another uneventful trip. The bus is 15 years old, but is unremarkable. Our now vape-less driver negotiates the Magic Roundabout like he’s done it thousands of times before (I dare say he has), and soon enough, we’re at the Hospital. Just across the way, we spot a 12 on-stand, which is heading back into town via a different route. We decide on immediate action but our sprint reveals how a lifestyle bereft of regular exercise is no good at all when it comes to running for buses. It’s a surprise that no one from the Hospital comes out and drags us in as we board our next Dart with our faces a deeper shade than that of a passing Salisbury Reds service. We needn’t have rushed as our driver is out of the cab deep in conversation on the phone.

The 12 returns to Town via the Old Town and provides a contrast to the more direct and frequent 1. Again, the bus is well-presented for it’s age.

Nothing to See Here (out of the windows…)

We’re back in the Town Centre, and evening peak is rapidly advancing. We’re aware of the time of our last coach back up to the Midlands from Oxford, so it’s time to hop back on Stagecoach’s 66. A sensible use of the toilet facilities back in the bus station is thwarted by the fact that they appear to close at 4.45pm (do the vandals start early here?). The 66 is on stand for a 5pm departure, and it has a decent take-up. But it’s disappointing to find the upper deck windows are absolutely filthy – and I’m inclined to believe that this isn’t one day’s worth of filth, either. It isn’t becoming of such a premium offering.

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“there’s so much more to see” – but not out of this filthy window!

The journey itself is a fine one. The dying embers of daylight across the gorgeous countryside is a simple but lovely pleasure as we head Oxford-bound. Back in the City, we partake in a ridiculously-priced pint of real ale and then make our way across to Gloucester Green for our evening trip back up to Birmingham International, where we are the only two takers for the entire journey – a sobering reminder as to perhaps why this very useful facility simply hasn’t been able to pay it’s way as a going concern. Full marks to Oxford Bus Company for giving it a try though. I’ll miss it more than Swindon’s bus station…

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Three Cheers:

  • Good Thamesdown info in a good old fashioned Travelshop, staffed by real people
  • Decent presentation of Thamesdown buses
  • Decent core network of services

Three Jeers:

  • Swindon bus station truly appalling
  • Confusing amount of fare zones
  • Some drivers a bit on the “urgent” side

    PS:

    Design Guru Ray Stenning has subsequently taken me to task, by reminding me of the fact that Swindon’s most famous star is the irreplaceable Diana Dors. Just imagine her admiring the classic lines of half-cabs in the days when buses were real buses! Sigh…..

    The Bus Tracker 13/03/17 – “Fake Bus Stops and a cover up”

    With all the furore over “fake news”, The Bus Tracker notes with interest some excitable happenings over the altogether more sedate world of bus stops.

    First up, none other than “National Treasure” (as described by The Daily Mail) Dame Judi Dench, who managed to get involved in some low-key whinge from a bus driver whilst on some jolly stunt involving a pub landlord and a fake bus stop.

    The shenanigans involves some cheeky pub boss in Kent who erected a bus stop outside his boozer, claiming that he’d doubled his takings by doing similar in 2015. So he invited his friend the Dame to attend the “opening” of his new one and stick her hand out for the next Metrobus-operated 291. The driver duly pulled up and then realised it was part of a wheeze – especially when the film star didn’t even get on. “Well that was a waste of time”, he was supposedly heard to mutter.

    In further intrigue, the Landlord claims to have found the bus stop pole “in the bushes”….

    At least Dench turns out to be a secret fan of buses. “I love buses. I like them better than tubes”  she says – although she also admits that she never uses them. Oh well. At least she’s saved the Local Authority from coughing up for a concessionary journey…

    You can read all about it here

     

    And there’s more, as Jimmy Cricket used to say…

    In the equally sedate area of Harrogate, suggestions of skulduggery involving missing timetable information. Local independent Connexions Buses is complaining that all of it’s timetables have disappeared from timetable cases on the route between Harrogate and Knaresborough – a route that sees competition from Transdev. North Yorkshire County Council aren’t getting involved (despite them owning said cases).

    Transdev claimed information relating to their own services has been “covered up” – so they’ve produced a replacement that shows all operators services on the corridor. Now isn’t that a grown up response?

    At least the good folk of this part of North Yorkshire have got roadside information – something that might be regarded a bit of a treat in other parts of the Kingdom…

    So What’s The Fuss?

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    Perusing my copy of Coach & Bus Week whilst actually on a bus set me off on another deep and meaningful ponder of the state of the industry at the moment.

    One of the news items referred to National Express Group – and the fact that strong overall growth has offset a “slowdown” in it’s bus division. National Express West Midlands is my local operator, and I use it and watch it’s fortunes closely.

    NXWM has had an uplift in recent years. The driving skills are much improved, the buses look more attractive in their gorgeous crimson livery, a new “Platinum” product has been rolled out, brand-awareness is much-improved, and new fare offers have been introduced (although at the danger of becoming confusing due to the sheer number of alternatives).

    So what’s the fuss? Commercial revenue is up 2%, but offset by an expected decline in concessionary income to balance out at 0.1% growth overall. It all feels a bit, well, flat – if figures like that are your thing. On the buses themselves as a passenger, it feels probably the best it has in many a year.

    But here’s the rub – the one thing that could be a game-changer is not in the control of the operator – reliability. It has become very apparent in the suburban West Midlands – as noted elsewhere – that congestion has rapidly become a massive issue again. If the buses are posh, with extra legroom, comfy seats and free WiFi, the journey itself is as bad as it’s ever been. There are tailbacks everywhere – some not entirely predictable either, with the end reason being simply too much traffic for no particular reason. It’s “white van man” delivering goods ordered online – which in turn means less trips to the High Street , taxis (Uber and others) and a general upturn in car traffic, possibly brought on by the feeling that petrol costs aren’t rising by much and another feeling that we might finally be seeing the end of the financial crisis that has gripped us for the best part of a decade. People are getting out and about in their private vehicles, and the bus can’t find it’s way through effectively.

    It’s another reason why people like trams and trains more than buses. I’ve always been curious about the disconnect between the bus and other modes of public transport. Catch the bus and you’re one of Thatcher’s losers (if you’re 28 and still catching the bus, you’re a failure, blah blah), yet everyone loves the tram. And the train (unless you’re a Southern passenger). Much of that is surely about certainty. Railed public transport is permanent. It’s going to get you there without anything else getting in the way. You can rely on it. Buses on the other hand…

    How about giving the bus it’s own permanent way? In Cambridge and Manchester to name but two, buses rank much higher on the clapometer, because of the guided busways. But these are rare incursions into an otherwise typical urban landscape. Giving the bus priority to make them more reliable and thus more attractive involves, yes – you’ve guessed it – more space on the tarmac at the expense of other road users. And for most Councillors, that’s too much of a vote risk.

    One of my Facebook friends suggests Bus Users UK fielding candidates in elections to raise the profile of bus users in all of this. Good shout – except who’s footing the bill for the deposit, which may well be forfeited? It opens up even more ponderings on my journey – who is shouting for the bus user’s lot? Bus Users UK do a sterling job (disclaimer: I used to work for them), as do Transport Focus (ditto disclaimer) – but getting that into the mainstream media on a regular basis to hammer it home is nigh on impossible – because the campaign for more bus priority is, frankly, boring. And up against the army of motorists who believe that there is some sort of phony “war” against them anyway (laughable – they’ve never had it so good) – well, you might as well forget it. If National Express West Midlands had a network of routes that had buses actually beating the car drivers stuck in their little tin boxes on bus priority that had stringent fines attached for misuse, they’d be raking it in. No question.

    Instead, we have on the local TV news the very day I’m writing this, a story about how bus lane cameras are bringing in thousands every week from errant motorists who are either hopeless at reading large signs or think the rules don’t apply to them and thus break them – then cry wolf to the media when the fine pops through the letter box. The story is a lazy one, and rarely changes in context. I well recall myself appearing on TV and Radio to defend such scenarios – and setting myself up as public enemy number one in the process. Furthermore on the day I write this, I hear from a friend in the industry that part of what precious bus priority there is in Wolverhampton is being removed shortly “to aid traffic flow”. This is in the City where a few years ago, a local “business leader” stood at a traffic junction one morning, pen and paper in hand, to attempt to count the number of passengers on passing buses to see if he could prove that bus priority wasn’t needed. Yes folks. It actually came to that. Across the conurbation in Coventry, we have a number of bus lanes currently suspended to see if it “helps traffic flow”. You can bet most if not all of them won’t be reinstated. What a depressing state of affairs.

    I also hear from industry sources that Uber and the taxi trade are “killing” the night time bus trade in Birmingham. Maybe that’s to be expected when looking at the night time economy in some respects, but the danger is that the taxi trade and Uber in particular start making real inroads into daytime travel. Imagine something like an app offer along the lines of “3 rides for £12”. Yes, it’s still more expensive than a day ticket for the bus, but the trade off is hassle-free door to door mobility. If the economy is picking up, people may well consider ball-park prices in this way, because unless you’re a strange transport geek like me who rides about on buses to examine the science, the only real reason people catch buses is to get from A to B. If there is no real prospect of getting there any quicker on the bus, and you can drive, you’ll drive.

    We don’t do long-term thinking in this country. In the 60s, when everyone was buying cars and the railways were a dead duck, no one had the foresight to think that, maybe, when everybody has bought a car, we might see mass gridlock, and railways might be needed after all. No. We sent in Dr Beeching and we all know what happened there. Today, we’ve learnt none of these lessons. We get rid of bus lanes for supposed short-term gain. Maybe even to appease the motorist, come election time. Instead, we have an impending Buses Bill that doesn’t definitively address the biggest concern of the bus industry  and it’s users – congestion. The income from concessionary fares – another huge thorn in the side of operators – isn’t mentioned. And please can we put a sock in it when some people talk about concessionary fares being a “subsidy to the bus industry” – it isn’t anything of the sort.

    In the case of the NXWM “disappointing results”, I feel sorry for them. The company has tried hard to raise the image and standard of bus travel in the West Midlands. I don’t really know what more they can do or could have done. The latest role of the dice is dirt-cheap tickets for users in Dudley & Sandwell. It’s undoubtedly worth a go, but it’s papering around the edges – congestion remains the biggest killer by far.

    Who knows if NX’s CEO Dean Finch will throw in the towel when it comes to the underperforming bus division? He has done with UK rail. Are buses getting in the way when there are seemingly more exciting opportunities in North America, Spain, Morocco, German rail and, of course, the iconic white coach brand? That, of course, is pure speculation – but I’ve long-thought that some parts of the “Big 5” might merge at some point.

    That’s business. The hard-headed commercial reality of bus operation today. But what about the other aspects of having a well-functioning bus service?

    We somehow have to get away from this idea that buses are the mode of last-resort. Now that’s much harder said than done. Today I have made a journey during the evening peak from Birmingham to Dudley. It tried the patience of even this committed bus user. Congestion was as bad as ever, someone had something loosely described as “music” emanating from a tinny mobile phone speaker, whilst another smoked something disgusting, which mingled in with the smell of what could only be described as close-to-rotting chicken. It was an appalling journey in every respect, and if I wasn’t a fine connoisseur of public transport, I’d be thinking about getting a car if I had to make that journey regularly. Which of course, would only make the congestion worse, and leave the pot-smoking, rotten-chicken-scoffing undesirables to increase in number.  We somehow need to turn this downward spiral into a virtuous circle – and it’s not easy at all.

    I keep returning again and again to congestion – and the need for the bus to cut through it. The industry is probably doing all it can on their part. There are new buses everywhere, ticket deals, WiFi, posh seats, you name it. What isn’t needed are franchises and “London-style operations”, oft-spoken by local politicians who clearly don’t grasp the magnitude of what might be needed to achieve that. The Buses Bill is a side show. We have a hardy, resilient bus industry which, when paired with Local Authorities who share the same goal, can achieve great things. But we need politicians – local and national – who can see the benefit to society of the long game. To take the admittedly difficult and unpopular decisions to grant more – not less – bus priority that will see the bus whizz past stationary motorists and create a true game-changer.

    How we need an extraordinary mix of Ken Livingstone, Sir Brian Souter and Mystic Meg to see us through the coming years!

    The Good Old Days! 

    Technology has taken over the World. 

    Hellfire – I’m even writing this on a mobile phone! But as I immerse myself in my grouch-like mid-40s “middle age”, I often consider the downside to our seemingly ever-increasing reliance on all things cyber. 

    In my day job on the railways, I notice the rise and rise of mobile phone ticketing. Everything, it seems, can be stored in our hand-held devices. On a journey this morning on the Stourbridge branch line, every passenger (around 15 of them) was peering into their phone. Every last one. 

    The convenience is well known and appreciated, but I worry that we’re heading towards a scenario whereby a major hack (by the Russians or whoever – possibly some 13 year-old kid I’ve just told off for not having a ticket, maybe) will throw millions of us into a blind panic. 

    People of my age (hark at me) can remember a time before tech. We’ll be the last generation. I appreciate “real” things, like actual paper timetables, for example. Yesterday, I went mooching around rural Shropshire by bus – and there were things to consider by ever-ageing old farts like me.

    One of the reasons I actually planned this mini-jaunt was to use an Arriva Midlands Day ticket – stored on my phone. I’d embraced this techy world last year, when the aquamarine crew held a “flash sale” of mobile tickets. Hence the £6.20 product was on offer for a short time at half price. I bought 2 and stored them on my phone. 

    And there they lay, quietly, until I fancied a roam around the large Arriva Midlands patch. Except when I upgraded my handset just after Christmas, the promised “easy transfer of apps” was anything but. My Arriva app didn’t appear on my new phone. So I downloaded it again. But I couldn’t log in. So I re-registered. But my tickets weren’t there. Somewhere in cyberspace lay 2x Arriva Day tickets. 

    Then I had an email from Arriva telling me I had 4 days left to transfer my tickets to their new app. They’d been emailing me about it. (They hadn’t). But it was OK. All I had to do was click the link below and they would magically appear on my new phone. (I clicked. Nothing happened). I emailed Arriva. They didn’t reply, but I received another automated email saying I really had to get a move on clicking the link below to transfer my m-tickets across. 

    So, with nothing much happening, I went on my Shropshire romp the good old-fashioned way – by handing the driver coinage in return for a paper ticket. 

    Of course, as expected, once out and about, Arriva promptly replied to my email telling me that they could see my 2 tickets in cyberspace, but couldn’t see my new app on my new phone. It turns out that, although I had my new phone, I had somehow downloaded the old app – which I thought was the new app. Keep up. I’ll ask questions pub quiz-style at the end. The next day, I downloaded the “new” app, and tried to buy a ticket to see if it worked. It did. Then Arriva emailed me and said joy – they could now see my new app and they transfered my 2 existing day tickets across. So now I have 3…(plus £6.20s worth of paper ticket for the previous day’s travel).

    The postscript to this jolly romp through the despair of technology was that when checking that I actually had 3 m-tickets to use on my phone, ready and waiting to go, my new Arriva app promptly froze, then said I couldn’t connect to their server! An hour later, everything seemed to have rectified itself and there – finally – in my app “ticket wallet”, sit 3 Arriva day tickets ready to use. But what might have happened should I have been boarding a bus when the server horror show occurred? 

    Such are the potential pitfalls of an over-reliance on tech. Arriva even warns on it’s website that flat mobile phone batteries (that curse of modern day life) cannot be tolerated. In other words, if your phone’s dead, pay up. Of course, there’s nothing else they can say – how many would try that old chestnut if they thought they could get away with it? – but it’s another example of the potential fragility of living your life through your mobile. 

    Another example of this over reliance of tech lies in online timetables. Printing is expensive, say the councils and operators. And they can be quickly out of date. Just check online, they say. So when I found myself halfway between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster, close to the beautiful River Severn, on a plucky Optare Solo, wishing to check my connection times in the carpet town, I was bamboozled by the fact that mobile phone data signals didn’t extend to this lovely little corner of Shropshire. Luckily, in my trusty bag (complete with large British Rail logo from the 6os to remind myself of better days when iconic design was the norm) I possessed a paper copy of said timetable. Yes folks, the old fashioned way didn’t let me down. 

    And I was delighted to pick up, in Shrewsbury bus station, a recently-released copy of a new Shropshire bus map! It’s basic, and has little of the beauty of an FWT product, but it’s there, in my hands, ready to be of use there and then, when I need it. 

    It’s produced by volunteer members of Bus Users UK in Shropshire, with financial help from local independent bus operator Tanat Valley. In an era of cash-strapped Local Authorities, could this be a way forward in other areas? 

    The small independent travel office in Shrewsbury bus station (situated in the back of the newsagents) is also a joy for nostalgia freaks. It resembles something out of the 1970s, with timetables adorning the walls – a mix of professional-looking Arriva ones, dead-basic independent operator ones, local coach holiday brochures, and a handwritten note informing us that photocopies of any timetable are available – for 50p.

    But I recall in my not-so-distant youth, Shropshire County Council providing a really excellent timetable service, which consisted of a ring-binder containing timetables for every bus route in the county, which for an annual subscription they would send updates for. So you had an up to date set of timetables without any need for an Internet connection! They also provided a rather nice map too. Neighbouring Hereford & Worcester (as it was then) did similar, although they did area booklets with subscription to updated leaflets. 

    I suppose it was never going to survive. There has long been an argument about having to pay for timetable booklets at all – which is why most of them don’t exist any more. But I suppose it’s geeks like me who are more than happy to cough up for things of beauty like the Derbyshire booklets and maps. These are the work of real transport professionals who obviously take a pride in their service. The European Rail Guide is another example. 

    And yet the existence of this printed matter offers ideas that Internet facilities often do not. Online journey planners are decent enough (if still on too many occasions clunky to use), but browsing printed material shows alternative ideas for travel. Looking at the new Shropshire bus map gives me ideas for future days out, and reminds me of links between different areas that I’d forgotten about. Overall, it shows a network of public transport services in the county and makes sense of it. And to think it has been produced by volunteers who believe in the very idea of bus services restores just a little faith in a humanity you could easily be led to believe now lives it’s entire existence “online”…

    Technology has it’s place. This blog wouldn’t exist without it. It provides convenience. But we should caution against it absolutely taking over our lives to the point that, if it all fails big-time, we have nothing left to fall back on. 

    Long live the Shropshire bus map. And the team of volunteers that believe in it. 

    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.

    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.

     

     

    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.