To the World’s End – and Beyond!

You know when you’re innocently perusing bus service registrations and the entry goes something like: “service extended to World’s End”? That.

Rotala’s West Midlands Diamond operation had just such an entry recently. How can you not be curious about a bus going to World’s End? Is it like Land’s End? Is it somewhere that is really the end of the World?

Now the good folk of Stourbridge can get directly to World’s End. There’s a good few of them gawping at the destination screens of route 142 recently. I bet at least one of them has gone home and asked their good half where “World’s End” is.

It’s actually (in this example) a fairly innocuous roundabout around the back of Quinton where there’s a few shops and houses, amongst the bus shelters. But that doesn’t stop me from randomly hopping on to try it out.

The notice on the stand at Stourbridge bus station is ominous.

“Diamond service 142 is subject to major delays. This is because of a route change and a shortage of drivers. We are working with the operator to try to minimise delays. Sorry for any inconvenience caused”.

The “we” in this announcement is Centro, although what they can do about the price of fish is beyond me, save from supposedly training up a load of new drivers and renting them out to Diamond. I’m also not entirely clear as to why a “route change” (presumably the extension to the “end of the World”) is causing them problems, although it doesn’t state the location of the woes. Maybe extending the 142 to some undefined extra-terrestrial location is the issue.

Who knows? Anyway, I roll up late afternoon after a long day at work, looking for a bit of excitement in my life. This particular journey appears to have no “major delay”. One of those quirky Plaxton Primo midibuses appears on stand, on time. Around half a dozen of us shuffle aboard, me flashing my n-bus one-dayer to a driver who appears either disinterested, or knackered, or both.

And we’re off around the back-streets of Stourbridge and suburbs towards Halesowen, streets abandoned by the major operator years ago. Poorly parked cars threaten our progress at times, but our driver makes mincemeat of them – he’s obviously been around these parts many a time before. The “urban 90” seats are hard and fairly uncomfortable. As dusk gathers and the sun goes down on Halesowen, we meander around a lengthy detour around the one-way roads of the town, as the departure stand is only accessible from one such road. One elderly passenger looks confused and enquires of her fellow travellers what is going on. Not many seem aware of the Worldly extension and I am about to intervene when the drivers head appears from around the cab to fill her in.

Everyone bar me piles off in Halesowen bus station – the previous terminus of the route. I remain seated as no one else joins us for the extension.

Then we’re off again, up the steep Mucklow Hill, with our quirky Primo making a sound like it is a metal being, being throttled. We pass Quinton Cinema, but there’s no sign of 007 on show. Only 99 – passing in the opposite direction. (The bus route. Not a rival secret agent disguised as an ice cream with a flake in it).

Then we head off down towards the huge Quinton Tesco, built on the site of the old Quinton bus garage, and hang a sharp right, then left, then more twists and turns until we reach a roundabout with some shops and some references to “World’s End”.

I’m expecting our man at the wheel to pull up and haul me off but he keeps going, around more streets until he reaches Hagley Road, which I instantly recognise. I try my usual trick of trying to decipher if the driver has changed the route number of the bus by looking at the reflection of the bus in passing shop windows. There are 2 National Express West Midlands rather smart Enviro 400MMCs running in tandem on the high frequency route 9 in close proximity, so I decide to ding the bell and hop off anyway to flag down a trip back to Stourbridge. Our driver pulls up and peers around the cab in bewilderment.

“I didn’t realise anyone was on” he says, unaware that a glance in his mirror might have revealed my rather large bulk in his reflection.

“No worries” I reply. “I only wanted to see where the end of the World was”.

He makes some sort of stifled scoff-cum-minor-laugh and opens his door. I can see now that, having reached World’s End (not the World-is-Nigh), he’s become a 54 and is now off a journey of discovery to West Bromwich.

I meanwhile join the 9, roaming with it’s partner, then swiftly overwhelmed by a load of football fans, who’ve been watching Halesowen in some no doubt blood-and-guts non-league encounter. A few attempt a good old-fashioned sing-song but the majority remain tight-lipped. It’s too far down the league for me to find the result on my smartphone. And I daren’t ask.

I’ve been to the World’s End and made it back to Stourbridge. That’s enough excitement for one day…..

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Swift Progress

Swift

Back in June of this year, I was having a bit of a belly-ache about “Swift” – the “Smartcard” for Centro-land Read it here

In an age where we’re going tech-loopy, progress with Swift has been longer than an elephant’s gestation period. We’re talking literally years for meaningful progress. But finally -FINALLY – we have some progress. The region’s largest operator, and grand-daddy of them all – National Express West Midlands – has finally joined in the “pay as you go” version (yes, there are several versions of Swift) to make it a viable product.

We can only speculate as to what has taken so long to get to this point. Was it NX who weren’t happy? Centro? The robustness of the technology? Who knows. But now NX are on board, there is finally something to sell to the bus travelling public of the West Midlands.

But it still isn’t the beautiful simplicity of London’s Oyster card. In the capital, you can hop from bus to tube to train, wave your little card and the magic of the technology even works out that you won’t pay more than a day ticket. With Swift, if you want the freedom of the bus network for the day, at least you can get an “n-bus” on the first NX bus you catch now – but they’ll still issue you with a paper ticket to carry around with you (despite boasting on their website that “paperless travel” is here…). And you can forget about using trains – they aren’t included for now, although we’re promised that they will be in the future – but goodness knows how long that will take. Ironically, the whole process takes longer than flinging coins into the vault – you have to hold your card on the reader, wait for it to flash up your card details on the driver’s machine, then tell them what product you want (cash single or day ticket), keep it held on and wait for the machine to print it. And woe betide if you move your card or take it off during this process – it all has to start again….

But maybe I’m being a tad harsh. Because this IS progress. I’ve set my pay as you go Swift to have auto top up, so when it falls below a certain level, it’ll automatically top up. So I never have to worry about finding the correct change any more. National Express West Midlands have created an “e-daysaver”, which loads your card with electronic versions of their popular DaySaver product, which then does give you a more Oyster-like experience, as there’s no paper ticket involved – you just bleep your card in on every journey – but the downside is that, like it’s paper cousin, it’s only valid on National Express West Midlands buses. And if you want the freedom of loading up your Swift with cash for using on the odd single journey on any operator, you’ll need a completely different Swift card for this than the “e-daysaver” Swift. A third Swift card is for use on season tickets – weekly and monthly versions. Confused? And it was all supposed to be simple…

Why the whinging? Because I want public transport to be accessible. De-mystified. The whole public transport “offer” should be as hassle-free as possible – and a viable alternative to the car. In the world of West Midlands bus fares, the major operator (NXWM) has had -rightly or wrongly – for many years, an exact-fare system. Understood by us regular bus-goers. But play “spot the occasional user” on the bus, and it’s cringe worthy. They get on, don’t know the fare, don’t have the exact fare and end up rummaging around in the bottom of their wallet or purse whilst hanging on for dear life in front of an audience. That alone puts many off for life – it’s sadly that simple. Imagine having a no-hassle smartcard that (like my London Oyster) sits on a shelf in my house, with credit stored until I actually need to use it – and it never expires. Anyone in the house can use it, and it doesn’t matter which bus operator turns up – you just hop on, swipe the card, and job done. That’s the vision.

With Swift, we’re finally getting close to this vision in the West Midlands, but we’re not there yet. The only users to have this utopian vision are actually the Concessionary Pass holders, who are free to jump on any mode of transport locally and not worry about anything.

Dealing with only 1 body in London – TfL – is undoubtedly easier than 25-plus commercial bus operators in the West Midlands. But is this something that should take years to overcome? Maybe the commercial bus sector should take at least some of the blame for this huge lack of progress. Because it all plays into the hands of those who shout for Quality Contracts – if you replicate London elsewhere, you can have London-style products, they scream. But I don’t buy that. Where there’s a will, as they say. As a public transport watcher, I appreciate the contractual challenge in setting up something like Swift in a commercial free-market setting. But you can be sure that your average punter doesn’t care. They want simple. Simple route, simple timetables, reliable services, and simple, no-hassle ticketing. That’s part of the “offer”, the “packaging” if you like that, with a bit of carrot and stick elsewhere, like well-policed bus priority, coupled with expensive car parking, car insurance and the like. This is what will eventually tip the “refuseniks” over to public transport. No one says it’s easy, and everyone has to line up the ducks in the right place, but the congestion charge did something for London – who says you can’t do it elsewhere?

That’s venturing onto the much wider picture, and for previous readers of my blog, you’ll appreciate that I’m starting to sound like a cracked record. But it’s things LIKE Swift, smartphone apps, real-time information, on-board wifi, etc which need to be working well, simple to use and reliable that will make the offer of buses and wider public transport so much more persuasive. Quality Contracts aren’t the answer at the moment – it’s much more simple than that.