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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.