Rubbish!

Interesting to see a bin bag strapped to the upper deck of one of Green Bus’s 22 journeys.
Well, interesting enough to get me pondering as to why we tend not to see litter bins on today’s buses.
The 87 from Brum to Dudley probably counts as one of the worst examples of litter I come across on local buses in the West Midlands (although I’m sure that’s challengeable) – I’ve seen all sorts on there rolling around from half chewed chicken legs to what looked like half chewed headphones…
But whilst litter – ally – challenged may take some re – educating on that route, would the general appearance of bins on buses encourage more responsible rubbish disposal?  I’ve already seen 2 people use this admittedly unattractive bin bag on this journey.
The used ticket bin used to be the destination of all sorts of disposed items but with more folk using passes even the requirement for that is declining.
It’s all rubbish.

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Catch The Bus Week – Work In Progress

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Not too many years after Lady Thatcher inexplicably snatched my milk, she was at it again.

Well, maybe not her directly. Nicholas Ridley, the Government man at the coalface of bus deregulation in the mid 80s supposedly had this vision of lots of little bus operators, free to compete with each other and revitalise the market.

Of course that wasn’t going to happen. Even I, as a spotty 16 year old, out with my camera in Dudley bus station on that memorable Sunday morning in October 1986, could have told him that. The new giants of contemporary bus operation – your Stagecoach, Arriva and First – were not too far away.

But wait.

Fast forward 28 years and I’ve lost my teenage acne, gained a pot belly, but I’m still lurking around Dudley bus station, watching what’s going on.

And what is this? Perhaps it’s Mr Ridley’s original vision: a small bus operator providing local service to the community? We’re not talking Hansons here, one of the few remaining small fries in the world of extremely big fishes. No, it’s a very small fish in the shape of a company called GRS, who are taking on the mighty National Express West Midlands on their high frequency 246 between Dudley and Stourbridge.

But as a user and keen follower of all things buses, my heart sinks.

I have no ideological position on free market operation or “quality contracts” of buses. London works well in a regulated environment for quite unusual and specific reasons. It also sucks in a lot of money. By the same token, Reading, Edinburgh, Brighton- and dare I suggest it – Birmingham have comprehensive, good networks that operate in the deregulated environment. The closest we have to the London model is a suggestion that the North East goes down the Quality Contract route. But I am yet to be convinced that authority Nexus can do things better than the current operators, which have one of the best figures for overall passenger satisfaction in the country. In the few times I’ve been in the North East, quality of service is the thing that stands out for me. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

So why has this old heart of mine plummeted at the sight of a small operator taking on the big boys?

Competition in the bus world can benefit passengers if it’s a battle of quality. I think of the Derby – Nottingham corridor where long-established TrentBarton is currently facing a challenge from YourBus. But YourBus aren’t using knackered old vehicles that espouse all that is downmarket about bus travel. What I see before me in Dudley bus station is a down-trodden image. If the afore-mentioned Lady Thatcher never actually uttered the phrase about being a failure if you’re still using buses after a certain age, there are plenty who might feel it looking at what is on offer here.

Competition in the bus world throws up some strange anomalies. Some routes can only really sustain one operator on a basic, say, 30 minute frequency. The idea someone puts a bus on 5 minutes ahead of that operator is the dark side of bus deregulation. Some routes, like the high frequency 246, possibly can sustain more than one operator. National Express West Midlands run an 8 minute frequency on here during the day. GRS are here every 20 minutes. Not that I can easily find that frequency – it isn’t shown on any bus stop or at the bus stations at either end. Centro either can’t be bothered to show this additional service, or perhaps GRS don’t pay into the pot to have such information displayed. Either way, it’s debatable whether GRS are operating to any schedule at all. I watch them over several hours just riding up and down the route, not even taking any kind of layover at either end. They surely can’t be late on every journey?

What brings GRS to this part of the Black Country?

They used to operate on route 16 in Birmingham. Indeed some of their vehicles still display 16 route numbers stuck to the back window. Did they disappear from there because their elderly vehicles weren’t good enough to comply with the Statutory Partnership in the City Centre that decreed buses on certain frequencies had to have engines of a certain emission quality to enter the central zone? A good thing that has seen bus quality improve in the City Centre, but now also means that the less good stuff has been shoved out. Birmingham’s famous Outer Circle bus route now has older vehicles on it than before, cascaded outwards to accommodate the demands of the City Centre. And is that actually a consequence of what I see before me in Dudley now? Has GRS been pushed out of Birmingham and decided to bring their motley collection of vehicles to the Black Country instead?

Somewhat intrigued at this incursion, I purchased a one-day n-bus ticket and decided to spend a few hours in the thick of it, riding the 246 on both operators.

The first thing to say is that National Express West Midlands hasn’t got it’s newest, swankiest buses on here either. Pensnett Garage puts out a variety of it’s allocation on here, which means it could be elderly Mercedes single deck, a more senior double decker, a more modern decker, or occasionally a single decker that was born only in the last 2 years. But at least they are, in the main, presentable both inside and out. GRS, in comparison, have strictly elderly single deckers, with drivers in a variety of t shirts and jeans. There is no waving at each other cross-company either. In fact, GRS’s drivers barely acknowledge each other either. Most of GRS’s buses are painted in a deep red all over livery, except for one which carries a blue on white design that is virtually identical to National Express’s – except the blue is a dead-ringer for NX’s Coventry operation. (Bizarrely, this I think, used to be, at one time, operated by a Birmingham independent who operated the bus in this design before NX started painting Travel West Midlands buses into their now standard NX livery!)

Anyhow, I board with my n-bus and take a seat, followed by slightly bemused punters who eye up the bus and attempt to get on with NX travelcards only to be stopped by the t shirt clad driver who tells them “n-bus only”. One savvy user has eyeballed the A4 piece of paper in the side window that shows that other operators passes are accepted with a 50p supplement and gets on, brandishing a coin.

And this is how it progresses at stop after stop. We roll up, the doors open, people sheepishly attempt to board, NX passes are refused, passengers get off, and only the pensioners get on, happy to bleep their pass at anything that appears on the route. In fact I can only recall one other person actually paying a cash fare on the several journeys I make.

The internal quality of the vehicles varies from just about acceptable to downright dirty. The drivers are not as skilled as their NX counterparts. I have a long-standing back problem that I felt far more often via the skills or otherwise of GRS drivers.

What can we consider from this whole scenario?

To be fair (for a moment) to GRS, the issue of National Express West Midlands’ dominance of the Travelcard market surely continues to be a significant issue to smaller operators in the West Midlands. It is quite evident that many of the travelling public that are regular users have purchased a National Express West Midlands product, rather than an all-operator Network West Midlands one. Prices here are significantly different. NX aggressively market their own product, and despite Centro marketing that does exist, there are still a lot of local users who either don’t know an all operator version exists, or actually don’t need to buy the more expensive one, such is the dominance of NX on daytime operation across the conurbation.

The 246 is a point in question. There has rarely been any competition on this high frequency route, so regular users who primarily use the route for work, etc need only purchase the operator-specific pass. Whether that is a conscious decision by them, or simply because they aren’t aware of a multi-operator pass, or simply don’t understand the system is a moot point. It seems to be the latter, judging by the amount of people who jump on and are asked to jump off again seconds later, unless they pay up. Who is going to do that after they’ve already forked out for a bus pass in the first place?

So GRS appear to be in the game simply to collect passengers who have a concessionary pass or an all operator one.

For one-off users, there isn’t any incentive to use GRS over National Express West Midlands. Single fares are the same price (short hop £1.80 – and who knows what a “short hop” is?, and £2.10 for regular journeys) and no return prices. N-bus tickets are sold, which retail at £4.30 (30p more than National Express West Midlands’ “DaySaver” ticket).

But for me, it’s a downmarket operation. Other operators, both large and small, have mainly decent operations these days. Centro has done well with infrastructure, timetables and other aspects of local transport. The West Midlands urban area has real issues with congestion and needs a good bus “offer” to try and tempt new users. Satisfaction is up in the most recent Passenger Focus survey (albeit from a relatively lower starting point than other areas of the UK), but it’s down to hard work by everyone who works in the industry locally that this has been achieved. But it doesn’t take much to cast a negative view on buses, especially when faced with something like a downmarket operation.

Supporters of Quality Contracts will no doubt point to the fact that this type of thing wouldn’t happen under their regime. But we’ve managed to continue with a free market in Birmingham City Centre and eradicate the worst of the poorly performing operators.

I accept entirely in a free market the right for operators like GRS to ply their trade, but in my view it damages the image of public transport. There isn’t even a cash incentive for me to use their services. Unfortunately, despite very well-intentioned attempts to compare bus operation to retail, it isn’t the same game. Yes, if Tesco p*** me off, I’ll go in Sainsbury’s instead, but stood at a bus stop in the rain waiting for a bus, will I be so principled? As I’ve mentioned, the GRS “product” is no cheaper than the alternative.

What’s the answer? There isn’t one, of course. So long as deregulated bus operation in the UK continues, we’ll continue to see smaller operators of varying degrees of quality pop up. That isn’t to say some of the “big boys” don’t need to up their game sometimes, but the prize is to see more and more people feel confident to use buses, feel they are getting value for money, can rely on their service, and receive a quality of service that makes them think “I can use this regularly”.

In the week I am writing this post, it is national “Catch The Bus” week – an excellent initiative to encourage bus use and point out the real benefits of catching the bus. Sadly, judging by my 246 experience, we still have a way to go.

Work in progress.

The Joy of Tech…

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More joy for the hapless consumers of “technology” – this time it’s the bus users of Birmingham.
When these smart new “totems” were installed, we were told that “live GPS-tracked buses” would appear on the digital screen and we’d all know when our bus was coming.
This has the potential to transform the image of bus travel and improve our lot when it comes to guessing how long we have to wait. I waxed lyrical about to anyone who would listen (and plenty who wouldn’t).
But it’s never worked properly or reliably.
And I’m greatly saddened to stand here,  in Colmore Row, watching the totem display standard timetabled information and worse still watch the punters ignoring it.
Another fine example of IT geeks talking the talk, but when it comes to it,  installing a system that promises so much but fails miserably in its execution.