It’s been a strange week.
As I tweeted a picture of something vile and sticky which had partially attached itself to my jeans on the top deck to National Express West Midlands, I thought about how much better things were recently. Indeed, a few years ago, the occurance of something vile and sticky on the upper deck might have elicited another sigh from me and a wish for better times. Now I feel the need to tell NXWM because it isn’t so commonplace.
NXWM’s top man Peter Coates was waxing lyrical in the NX staff magazine recently about how pleased he is to see the improved state of NX buses out on the street – and I agree with him. The NXWM red and white livery has taken an awfully long time to grow on me, but the branded ones especially are looking really smart. Stand in the middle of Brum and you’ll see a much-improved scene to that of 5 years ago. And with NX’s 5-year deal with Alexander Dennis, we’ll see the next half-decade at least punctuated regularly with new, smart buses. The partnership working with Centro also sees steady progress – and if NX can see a long-term future of relative stability in the West Midlands, it will continue to invest – and that can only be a good thing for local passengers. (Although what might happen should the Government turn red next year is anyone’s guess entirely…)
Passenger satisfaction is up again according to Passenger Focus’s recent research – and again this is welcome. (Although it started from a very low point – things really could only get better, as the song goes!)
The current Which? magazine features an in-depth article about the best and worst brands for customer service. The very best is First Direct, followed closely by Lush and John Lewis. Winning scores are 83-87%. Much of the Passenger Focus research, although possibly not directly comparable, has the better bus operators in this ball park and even higher. (the worst out of Which’s top 100 was NPower – 57%).
And yet…..Although the research does show improvements in people’s perceptions of buses in the West Midlands, we have some way still to go. Only this week I became embroiled in a discussion with a good friend, who’s daughter had missed her bus to college because it was on diversion. No information about this anywhere to be gleaned. The techno revolution had totally failed her. Notices were on the bus – but what if you hadn’t been on the bus? “Centro! Useless!” snapped my friend – even though the blame lies not only with them, but the operator – a small one who only recently set up a web site, but fails to update it. Who’s “fault” is this regrettable saga? Centro has been busy in recent years pushing the “Network West Midlands” brand as a one-stop shop for all things transport in the West Midlands urban area – and with some degree of success. People recognise it. But the “planned works” section of their website is minimal (only 3 entries at the time of writing – 2 of which aren’t roadworks, but diversions used when but when local football teams are playing at home). Does Centro not have the resource following a hefty budget cut in recent times? Does the small operator have the resource to employ a webmaster? Their website carries details of a route withdrawn months ago. And how about putting a notice on the affected bus stops? Nothing to see here – so might you reasonably stand there and expect a bus to come? That’s what my friend’s daughter did….It may well be that operators themselves take the lead in such communication, but I’m not even sure they can gain entry to the bus stop timetable panel – or if they have permission to do so. No one in this instance has taken the lead on communication and the passenger has been failed – even when they’ve gone looking for information!
Technology is great – when it works. Today at the bus stop, I checked the National Express West Midlands “app” to see where my late-running 256 was. 3 minutes away, it said. It counted down – and appeared magically over the hill. Brilliant. And my friend’s daughter – a 17 year old student – like many others, embraces this techhy future. But if websites aren’t updated, it falls at the first hurdle. And what of the personal touch? A good news story today comes from Merry Hill bus station. A large crowd had gathered for Hansons 226 bus, which failed to materialise. Much concern at the stand, until Centro’s Bus Station Manager came across and informed everyone what was going on. Simple, human contact. And the good news is that there appears to be more of it going on. National Express West Midlands too have their Inspectors in bus stations wearing “Here to Help” Hi-viz. And they actually do! But incredibly, this is a recent-ish phenomenon. I’ve hung around bus stations for most of my 40-odd years, but, believe me, this sort of thing never used to go on. I used to moan about it in countless meetings with bus operators and Centro. So I’m pleased to witness more of this simple act of communication. We need more use of the tannoy in bus stations to keep passengers informed. It happens in railway stations, so why not bus stations? Many a time I’ve been at National Express West Midlands’ nerve centre, where controllers watch the location of every one of their buses moving around as little blobs on a computer screen. And they actively radio the drivers to manage the service. So if this information is known, why can’t passengers know about it, quickly and effectively?
This is my point. The bus industry, generally, IS getting better – despite all of the challenges it faces behind the scenes with concessionary pass reimbursements, and shrinking income from councils for tenders and rebate on fuel. The effort is there – you can feel it.
But are the public at large feeling it too? New buses are one thing – snappy mobile phone apps another. However, it doesn’t take much to stir up the negative feelings about buses. Road congestion doesn’t improve – the late bus causes more negativity than can be “bought” with comfy seats and free WiFi. The sticky chewing gum on the seat stuck to your expensive trousers drives home that view, and stood at the bus stop when your bus is going down another road because of roadworks no one has communicated will drive a 17 year old into a world of learning to drive and another person lost to the industry.
It is getting better – we just don’t know it yet!