World Class Public Transport in our Cities? The Cynic is Watching….

272 London’s public transport has received huge levels of investment…

It isn’t so much a wind of change – because the nuts and bolts are yet to be seen. But George Osborne’s rather large carrot of transport control in Manchester in return for a whole load of other devolved responsibilities under a “Metro Mayor” would seem to be the first of many. What is good for Mancunians will be good enough for other City-Region areas.

The North East’s push for more Authority control has almost been eclipsed by the near-certainty that Manchester’s private bus operators will have to cede control of their operations to a public body.

I have long-argued not specifically against Quality Contracts and the like – rather I don’t see the point unless something radically game-changing is on offer. And there certainly doesn’t seem to be in Nexus-land.

While Sir Peter Hendy, Commissioner of Transport for London, has been receiving the plaudits for sustained transport investment for the Capital at the recent International UITP shindig, the inevitable point has been offered: why can’t the rest have what London has? And it seems to be closer now than for a long time.

Of course London is different, unique in many respects. Great tube, great bus network, high car park charging, congestion charge…the list goes on. In many ways, sustained transport spending in London has been a necessity, due to the incredible population explosion in the City in recent years. Car ownership is low, thus a good public transport system is used more and more. That is a good thing. Why indeed can’t we have that elsewhere?

It is down to politicians. It is they who will have to step up to the plate, should we have London-style operation elsewhere. It is they who will have to emulate their compatriots in the London Assembly and pledge long-term decent investment in public transport to get something even remotely close to London. It is they who will have to pledge larger proportions of council tax, take the rap in the media from irate motorists who, far from wanting to see investment in public transport, want rid of pesky bus lanes, which exist only to catch them out with their ignorance of why we need more bus priority.

And it is local councillors and politicians who will find no hiding place when specification of bus services is down to them, and not some “money-grabbing” private bus operator, which exists supposedly only to line the pockets of its shareholders. Will we see Councillors rubber-stamping a five-year investment plan for millions of pounds of new buses? I wait with bated breath. What happens when all these new bus services – which private operators won’t operate – suddenly pop up and then – unsurprisingly – prove not to work and are quietly withdrawn? What happens when the budget goes awry and social services need a few million quid to top it up? Chop a few bus services? We may just have been here before…

I don’t mind being proved wrong. Because, in 10 years’ time, if we have London-style bus services in our provinces, it will benefit all of us. It will also mean that politicians and councillors will have taken very difficult decisions that will have seen millions of additional pounds pumped into public transport to bring us up to a London style system that is world class.

I look forward to that point.

But the cynic in me is waiting. And watching….

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Not So Swift

Swift

There’s lots of mythology surrounding buses – especially to those who never or rarely use them. What time do they come? Where do they go? How much is it?

The stock answer is usually to take the car, or call a cab when it all looks like a load of gobbledegook. There’s a certain amount of noise in the industry at the moment about the threat of Uber and potentially other forms of technology-driven transport that takes all the hassle and confusion out of getting from A to B – if these types of offering can get the price of a door to door journey into the range of a bus ticket, the industry may face a challenging future.

Ticketing has long been a challenge for the non-bus regular. Some operators have myriad fares depending on length of route, others go for simple fares, a few go for a flat fare. There are day tickets that do take a lot of the hassle out of understanding fares structure, if you’re making more than 1 or 2 journeys, but some of these tickets are operator-specific or cover all the operators in a given area. If you aren’t savvy-enough to know if your service may change operators after 7pm due to an evening tender operation (and, let’s face it, who does unless you’re some sort of geek like me) and you’ve bought the operator-specific one, you can look forward to some awkwardness from the different operator and another single fare paid.

Ticketing also, in the main, hasn’t yet tackled the issue of the UK’s army of part-time workers, for whom a weekly travelcard doesn’t really add up, but day tickets maybe 2/3/4 times per week prove a tad expensive – it is these types of user that the likes of Uber may well begin to target.

Smartcard ticketing is the panacea. Norman Baker wanted it when he was Transport Minister, and increasingly we are seeing versions of this type of ticketing in different areas. But, to me, it remains largely baffling.

Take my native West Midlands. We’ve had something called “Swift” on the cards now for too many years I care to remember. It’s a valiant attempt at replicating the London Oyster – which itself has been hugely successful, and indeed itself is slowly going to be replaced by contactless bank cards. Swift is more of a challenge to implement than Oyster because it involves negotiating with a number of individual private bus operators for them to accept it, compared with the London scheme. Swift is also available to Metro tram users in the West Midlands, but acceptance on rail seems as far away as ever. And the biggest bug-bear of the lot is that by far the largest bus operator in the area – National Express – is still not accepting it as a pay as you go version on it’s buses.

So, bluntly, Swift remains largely useless for a huge number of potential users.

I first got my Swift card when it launched 2 years ago. I tried it for novelty value on the smaller operators, who initially offered a small discount to us lucky card wavers. That didn’t last very long. Another issue is that it doesn’t cap fares to a day ticket value either. So you could happily ride on numerous buses that accept Swift and spend far more of your credit than if you’d handed £4.60 over to the driver of the first bus and got a good old paper n-bus.

Good news though. An email tells me that my card is being reissued with some revised gubbins. There are now 13 new operators accepting Swift (alas still not the biggest one). I also have to tell the driver exactly what type of ticket I want as I press my card on the reader. (Single, return or n-bus day ticket).

There isn’t just one Swift. There’s a Swift for season tickets, a Swift for pay as you go and a National Express Swift for their own Daysaver product – stick with me here, I’ll ask questions later.

If I have a Centro/Network West Midlands weekly or monthly n-bus, I can have this on Swift – and use it on National Express buses. If I have a pay as you go Swift, I can apparently buy an n-bus day ticket -but supposedly can’t use it on National Express buses. I can buy a Swift card specifically for National Express Daysavers, but ONLY use it on National Express buses! Can you see the mist descending?

I’m presuming – HOPING – that this is eventually going to change, and become simpler. The holy grail of me having a Swift that auto tops up from my bank account (which it has the option for), is acceptable on every bus in the Centro area, and caps it at a day ticket rate (and – heaven forbid – gives me a small discount for converting to Swift) is all I’m asking. The blurb on the Swift website makes it clear that pay as you go versions of Swift don’t have to have photos, so anyone in the family can use it. The credit doesn’t run out, so it can sit happily on the shelf until someone wants to nip out and hop on a bus. Bingo. Except that it isn’t. Until all operators are in and the day ticket cap is in place, it simply becomes too complicated. Logging into my Swift account online brings up all my journeys so I can map out where I’ve been and how much I paid. It shows I haven’t used it since 2013. All the credit is still there, but it’s been gathering dust because it’s just easier for me to hop on any bus, buy a £4.60 n-bus paper day ticket, and show it to the driver of any bus, including National Express West Midlands.

Are things going to change? I sincerely hope so, but I’m not entirely holding my breath. NX are actively promoting “cheap Daysavers” by buying them in packs of 5, 10 or 15 (with a small discount) and putting them onto their own version of Swift. But as mentioned, they’re ONLY valid on NX services, whereas the standard pay as you go Swift is valid on most other operators but NOT NX!

There are several issues here. NXWM Daysavers are very successful. NX has only 2 cash fares – a “short hop” (which no one really understands) at £1.90 and the “usual” fare of £2.20. A Daysaver is £4.20, so any more than usually 1 journey on a given day means that a Daysaver is better value. It’s good value, very popular and buys in brand loyalty. OK if you’re only travelling during the main bulk of the day and your service is a NXWM one. The all-operator variant – the “n-bus” is 40p more. NXWM of course make a big noise about their day tickets (there are group versions too) and plaster details all over their buses. And of course, they get to keep all of the money. The more flexible n-bus means they only get a slice of the cake when the money is divvied up, so one can only deduce that they’d rather flog you a Daysaver. Is this where the reluctance to get involved with Swift pay as you go emanates?

I get this entirely from a business point of view. I also accept that 2 day ticket products – with a higher price for the all operators one – is a decent consumer choice: if your bus is entirely NX-operated, why not benefit from a cheaper product? What I don’t accept is that the technology advance that brings us the likes of Swift in the first place is being hampered by promising to make things simpler for bus users – and then putting a whole new raft of restrictions and complications in front of them.

I understand the complications of negotiating with dozens of bus operators, I accept that, for the biggest one (and indeed for many of the others), it potentially affects the revenue forecasts. What concerns me though is that, not only are we not grasping the use of this technology to simplify things for both regular users and current non or irregular users, but we appear to be blind to the threat as mentioned earlier about potentially damaging entrants to the public transport market – who are already making full use of technology but crucially may well offer something far more attractive to the end user. It also offers another argument in favour of those who support quality contracts to crow about how this would simply not happen under a QC, and we’d have a product that is simple to use and available universally.

The bus industry and it’s partners need to really crack on with all of this. Stop fiddling while Rome burns.

Perusing Platinum…The Wider Challenge to Win New Business

013 - Copy

In my previous waffle Never mind the quality…feel the service… I pondered the importance of buses on a social level. The bus that goes wandering around country lanes may not be attractive to anyone who can drive a car, but it’s a real lifeline to some.

On the other end of the scale comes the likes of Platinum. This is National Express West Midlands’ version of Stagecoach’s Gold and Arriva’s Sapphire – a more luxurious product designed to push upmarket the bus “offer”, and tempt motorists out of their cars.

Buses often have an image problem. Not in the sense that you you can’t make buses look sexy – Ray Stenning has long been there and done that. But an image problem in that, even though it might have the best external projection in the world, it’s still a bus. And it still gets stuck in the same traffic as you do in your car.

NXWM claims to have been working on this, by asking Birmingham City Council to alter traffic light timings, etc. All good stuff, but how visible to motorists is this? I’m not knocking it, or poo-pooing it for one moment, but with the amount of congestion there is in the conurbation, it may not be readily visible. The best example of this is, of course, the old bus priority, whereby car users get hot under the collar watching smart-looking buses whizz past them, gaining a definite advantage. A challenge, of course for those in charge of road infrastructure, who often can’t engineer easily such priority, or – as is more common – they aren’t allowed to by their political paymasters -councillors, who will happily pose for pictures standing next to new (private sector) investment, but won’t allow them the freedom they need to really thrive.

I digress. (And I’m perhaps being a little unfair – NXWM’s partnership with Centro is quietly making some real progress).

The aforementioned Ray Stenning has recently made some comments in the trade press about good design being a “highly effective, powerful business tool”. Of course, he’s right. He was making those comments in relation to the New Routemaster in London, but as master of livery and branding, the point is also well made about image. Getting non-bus users to even look at a bus in a different way starts to win the battle. NXWM’s new bus order sees the new kids on the block delivered in a highly attractive and classy red livery, quite different to the standard image of red/white. It looks good.

020 - Copy NXWM’s new image looks classy and turns heads on the street…

002 …compared to the “standard” red/white…

The new “Platinum” brand adds to the idea. Launched initially on the trunk 900 service serving Birmingham, the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham Airport and Coventry, it is also rolling out on route 957 from Brum to Solihull (also sharing part of the route with the 900). Birmingham to Walsall is also due soon, on a route that benefits from good highway infrastructure.

What of the passenger experience itself?

The vehicles have a new grey livery with shocking red that looks really classy.

016 - Copy the new “Platinum” livery – with branding highlighting its link with Birmingham Airport…

Internally, it feels posh, in an understated way. The information about ticket prices, etc has been specially designed to blend in with the upmarket feel. General adverts, both internally and externally, have been done away with – a new confidence from NXWM to forego such revenue; it’s refreshing to not be bombarded with reminders to see my doctor about my ailments, etc.

014 inside the Platinum vehicles…

Upstairs, the idea seems to be “classy”. The dark/grey feel reminded me slightly of Transdev’s “Witch Way” (although I think they still have the upper hand). Seats are a mix of “standard” and “leather effect” – an interesting combination. I’ve heard a few comments across the bus world to suggest that a love of leather is not necessarily universal (FirstGroup take note – their new order for several hundred new vehicles are all apparently being delivered with leather). That said though, you don’t “sink” into these seats in the same way you do on Arriva’s Sapphire or Stagecoach’s Gold. They seem more towards Arriva’s “Max” brand, than Sapphire.

Leg room is superb. At 6’7″, I want to personally hug whoever at NXWM decided on this! At last a bus I can ride and ride for a long time and not have to worry about the state of my back when I stand up! The floor is a kind of wood-laminate effect, though in a dark grey. There’s wifi (which appeared to load up without having to go through a sign-in page) but no plugs. Audio announcements are also present.

017 …at stop information also carries branding/awareness…

A decent touch is that the at-stop timetables – which are provided by Centro and normally in corporate “Network West Midlands” style – are also branded with awareness of Platinum. Drivers are wearing suits (which makes a change from “binman hi-viz yellow”) and the vehicles also carry digital destination displays on the rear of the bus – another first for this area.

Cynical pals in the bus world tell me it’s all been done before. Way back in 1986, at the birth of deregulation, the newly-born West Midlands Travel wowed us all with “Timesaver” – Metrobuses with coach seats and carpet on the floor. These too were on the 900 route, as well as several others. It was hugely impressive at the time and the difference between these vehicles and “standard” Metrobuses was much more marked than today’s Platinum offering.

WMT 2911 …have we been here before…?

What lessons were learnt from the “Timesaver” offerings of the time? Did they persuade the motorists of the day to convert to bus? Eventually, “Timesaver” disappeared an the buses eventually lost their silver livery (and a later blue version) and returned to the standard colours, and normal routes. Why “Platinum”, and why now? The trend for high-quality vehicles on stage-carriage type routes has been around for a while now. Has Stagecoach’s Gold or Arriva’s Sapphire attracted enough new patronage to justify the investment? Or is it about more than just hard-nosed economics? The bean-counters in the bus industry will, of course, be looking closely at the investment and the business plan, but it’s also for me about a wider cause. It’s about the bus industry having confidence to showcase what it really can provide. If it can turn the head of a non bus user, we are at least on our way to making people think differently about buses.

Of course, shiny posh buses on their own won’t be all that is needed. NXWM has been smart about incorporating the launch of Platinum with highway improvements, and they need to keep on shouting about this. There is much discussion in the bus world about an impending threat from the likes of Uber, and I think that threat is a reasonable concern. Young people off on a night out often pool funds to share a taxi home – they see that as a much more attractive offer than a bus (if they can even get one late at night). NXWM do well to offer their multi-person tickets, but it needs to be a much wider industry thing. And every late night bus in the West Midlands isn’t an NXWM one. I often see shoppers piling bags into the back of taxis – is this alternative to the bus getting more affordable and logistically easier than the bus?

So Platinum is welcome. But it must be seen in wider context to a confident bus industry offering a real step-change in it’s “offer” to the travelling public. With the political landscape offering a real challenge to the deregulated bus world (initially in City-Region areas) and the doom of Uber-like alternatives, more leg-room, comfy seats and free wifi should only be the very start.

Never Mind The Quality…Feel The Service…

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I was recently in the County town of Stafford. Not somewhere I visit that often, but I felt the need to mooch as National Express West Midlands has recently started a service to there from Wolverhampton (via the i54 Business Park) taking them out of their “comfort zone”.

Whilst there, I noticed something trundle into Gaol Square bus station that really needed to be in a museum. It turns out it was Select Bus Service’s 878 to Wolverhampton. I resolved to return and sample it…

Stafford’s Gaol Square is as close to a mini bus station as you’ll get. A collection of 5 stands at the top end of the main shopping street. It is overwhelmingly Arriva-populated, although others including First Potteries come here with their service to Hanley and National Express West Midlands back towards Wolverhampton. Most of the timetables and stop flags are Arriva-branded. If your bus happens to be operated by someone other than the aquamarine, it’s a bit of an afterthought. (In the case of NXWM’s 54 service, the timetable is so high, only someone of my height (6’7″) stands a half-decent chance of deciphering it..)

003 - Copy you need to be a giant to read the 54 timetable!

001 - Copy if your service isn’t Arriva-operated, it’s difficult to find…my 878 service wasn’t listed, and neither is NXWM’s 54…

Talking of timetable displays, this particular one was all too familiar. A mismash of presentation that would have a non-regular in despair, and remnants of old sticky tape (and other substances) which meant that you couldn’t actually clearly read the times. In comparison, Clear Channel’s advertising panel was spotless.

004 - Copy can you read what time the bus is due? 

I already knew my bus was due at 13:35, so my squinting at the appalling timetable display wasn’t really needed.

At 2 minutes to departure time, our chariot appears. I snap a pic, then frantically hail the driver, as he appears to not want to get onto the stand. Perhaps not many people ever get on…

He stops out on the roadway, as another bus is on the stand in front. I shuffle across the road and hop on. There’s no hope if you’re a wheelchair user. The low-floor revolution hasn’t arrived on this service yet.

“I couldn’t get on the stand” protests the driver. He isn’t late, but seems in a hurry. He’s even more mildly bemused when I offer to pay a cash fare to Wolverhampton. A frantic mess with the ticket machine reveals it’s £3.40 for a single. I’m issued with a ticket that thanks me for travelling, but is an hour out with the time. Our driver, though, is a friendly sort. He might be dressed in jeans and a t-shirt but at least he seems human.

“Change at Bishops Wood” he tells me. I didn’t know this. “Oh”, says I. “Tell me when we get there, please”. “We won’t go any further” is his jokey response.

And we’re off. At the next stop, we pick up 4 passengers. They’re obviously regulars, and banter ensues. I can hear jokes and giggles from my lofty position upstairs. No one else attempts the stairs.

The interior is poor. The bus – a J-reg machine that a quick Google reveals used to ply its trade for Stagecoach South – still has it’s corporate moquette. But Sir Brian would be horrified if it was still representing Stagecoach now. The seats are well worn and litter sloshes around.

008 - Copy the bus has seen much better days…

Soon we begin to hit country lanes. Acton Trussell is a typical English “chocolate box” village. Plenty of high-performance cars on the drives of expensive houses here. Unsurprisingly, no one boards. I wonder if anyone has ever boarded here. It’s a delightful run. Sheep one side, hitch-hikers wandering down the canal on the other. The road narrows further, and there are plenty of meetings with other road users, who seem surprised to see a full-sized double decker coming at them!

010 - Copy sheep to the right, hikers to the left…

Onwards we travel, through Penkridge, Wheaton Aston and Lapley, places that appear mostly untouched over the last century.

Then, in the middle of nowhere, we pull up! I suspect this is Bishops Wood as I can see another bus with “878 Wolverhampton” on the front. I make my way downstairs. “He needs this bus for schools” says our driver “and there’s more headroom for you on that one”, pointing to the newer bus, accompanied by a slight nasal snigger.

011 - Copy everybody off in Bishops Wood…!

012 - Copy …onto this one!

Just me and an elderly lady make our way over to our new bus. This is an anonymous white single decker – an Enviro 200. It’s much newer than our old double decker, which roars off into the distance to gather it’s young gaggle of passengers from their studies. This one, like our previous, also has windows that appear to have rarely seen the bus wash.

“Do you know where to drop me?” enquires the lady. “Yes, I know. Outside the pub” comes the reply. I don’t know if that’s some sort of banter/joke. He tells the 2 of us that he’s been driving this route for 20 years, so it’s surprising he hasn’t come across our elderly passenger before. Then, a mild rebuking of an oncoming motorist, who has, admittedly, made a complete pigs ear of trying to pass a parked car on the other side of the road. It doesn’t seem to overly concern our man, who has now acquired a pair of 80s-style sunglasses. Cool.

He does indeed drop off our lady traveller – outside the pub. There’s much thanking and gratitude on both sides. I’m the only one left, dreading any attempt at conversation from our experienced driver. But he swiftly picks up 2 more passengers – an elderly couple. He presses a timetable leaflet into the man’s hand, who appears grateful. I notice a sign on the vehicle – “no dirty site clothing or boots on this bus. Thank you”. I dread to think of building site contractors stripping off to comply.

Luckily, I don’t spot any building sites. Or builders. Or anyone stripping off on the bus. There is, though, an annoying rattle / squeak on this bus that would probably drive me mad i I was on it for much longer.

The bright lights of Wolverhampton City Centre beckon. From country lane to City street, our driver has been spot on time throughout. As I get off, I ask him for a timetable. “Rare as rocking horse ****, these”, he quips, “keep it covered”. He grins. I thank him. It’s all a bit 1980s Cannon & Ball-ish. And with that, he’s off for a return trip around the great British countryside.

It did get me thinking though. Much of the best of British bus operation today – the Sapphires, the Stagecoach Golds, the Platinums, etc, are geared to passenger growth. It’s all about getting people out of their cars and onto the luxurious seats and free wifi. This service will do nothing of the sort. The double decker should have been long-retired, the presentation was close to awful, the driver’s attire was as far away from a smart, presentable uniform as you could get.

And yet…. this was the other side of bus operation. A vital service, penetrating deep into rural countryside, with faithful regulars, who would no doubt struggle to live their daily lives if it wasn’t there.

In it’s own way, this quirky, often comedy-like at times service is just as important as the shiny state-of-the-art offerings on our streets today. And it proves just how vital bus services still are to so many people.

img153 the “rare” bus timetable…