New Bus – The Image Factor

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Nice, isn’t it?

Well, if you like your buses, it certainly is. But National Express West Midlands has been rather canny with it’s latest batch of newbies – they’ve given it a new livery too.

Or is it an old one? Those of an enthusiast nature (that’s me included!) and/or of a certain age, think it might be Midland Red come back to haunt them. Others think more London Transport. Actually, it’s a bit dark for either (if we’re going to split hairs), but whatever it is, it does enough to (briefly) turn occasional heads on the street.

And that’s no bad thing. The likes of Ray Stenning at Best Impressions is the Daddy of all things “brand image” on buses – although I don’t think this is one of his creations.  Nonetheless, I bet he – and others in the same game – are pouring over it to see if it’s got “pulling power” – i.e. that all-important “lightbulb in head” moment whereby the car is ditched (even for one journey) in favour of the bus.

I’m not entirely sure about that. Methinks we’ll have to wait for the late summer to see NXWM’s attempt at the “high spec” game, when they launch “Platinum” – their eagerly-anticipated version of Arriva’s “Sapphire” or Stagecoach’s “Gold”. Of course those cheeky wags at Arriva have done something their German parent would be proud of – they’ve “nicked the sunbed” in NXWM’s own backyard of Birmingham by launching Sapphire on the 110 to Tamworth. But has it upped the bums on seats? Hard to say (not least because they probably wouldn’t tell me unless it was good news), but it at least shows – from both operators and others – that the industry is far from “broken”, as Labour’s Transport mouthpiece Michael Dugher somewhat disparagingly puts it.

Arriva’s “shiny new thing” on the 110 is actually already dated. NXWM’s new buses are the new style Enviro 400 from Alexander-Dennis – the Enviro 400MMC no less (“MMC” standing for “Major Model Change”). I’m a particular fan of the original Enviro 400 model and I have to say I wasn’t all “wowed up” when I first saw the new version. There was a demonstrator in Stourbridge in the weeks leading up to the launch of the new buses on NXWM’s 9 route for driver familiarisation (cue big 6’7″ thing with a camera) but like most blokes I’m a sucker for an attractive model with it’s make up on. The demonstrator was in a less than inspiring silver livery, whereas the production models look well sexy in their particular shade of red (that is either “Midland” or “London” or neither).

Plus, that’s the point. NXWM have been having recent deliveries of new models of the old Enviro 400 design up until very recently. But in the “old” red/white stripe livery. Line them up against the 6 year old versions that are being usurped by the new ones and you’d hardly tell the difference. The new 2-tone red really tips the scales in notability.

Beauty, though, is always in the eye of the beholder. The branding – which I personally think is fine and eye-catching – has been slated by several on social media. This includes a green ring all around the number and destination on the front – something unkindly referred to as “snot” by one particularly unimpressed individual.

Inside, they’re clean (for now) and bright. The seats carry a new colourful version of the NXWM moquette and there’s no rattle to be heard. (Although ask me in six month’s time and if it’s still the same, I really will be impressed!). There’s a new “unscrew and push” window for emergency exit (how long before one of the West Midlands’ finest has to try it?) and an as yet unused screen (for next-stop visuals?). No audio announcements were heard, and another thing unheard is the good old bell – I pressed it when I was upstairs, and although the “bus stopping” light came on, nothing melodic to put my mind at ease that our driver would indeed stop at the next flag. The air-vents on the front upper deck windows haven’t been upgraded, and I don’t look forward to observing them with all sorts of chewing gum/sweet wrappers/used tickets stuffed in them in the coming months.

017 new colourful moquette

019 - Copy new “unscrew and push” emergency exit window

018 - Copy air-vent – awaiting whatever gets pushed into it…

And most disappointing of all – on the second day of service, I found the upper deck of one of them strewn with the usual litter and a sticky patch on the floor formed of the contents of a discarded pop can. I suppose, though, I should expect nothing less. Some people don’t deserve multi-million pound investment in new buses. But here’s a challenge to bus designers: How could a litter bin be incorporated? Last year, I caught one of The Green Bus’s services – which had a black bin bag tied to the top of the stairs on the upper deck. Unsightly, yes. But here’s the rub – it was used! Not only did I chuck my empty sandwich packaging in, I found others had done the same. Of course, there will always be the hardcore who won’t play ball, but do people just dump their rubbish on the floor literally because there’s nowhere else to put it? I always take mine with me, but I suppose it’s too much to hope for some of my fellow travellers to do the same…And what of the bus station and roadside trials of sweeping out buses throughout the day? I’ve seen them in West Bromwich and Wolverhampton bus station beavering away whilst the vehicle lays over for a few minutes. How about one in Stourbridge to keep our nice new buses looking something like? Finally on my list of gripes – the lower deck rear facing seats – something the designers still haven’t managed to engineer out – and an inevitable invite to lazy passengers to put their dirty shoes on.

So. Nice new buses, and a welcome sight to our streets. But there’s always an irony. On the very week they have launched, Dudley Council has announced that it is removing some bus lanes in Halesowen. At least whilst I’m sitting in endless traffic jams, they’ll still smell nice for a while……