Bus Stand 2015

Phil’s on the bus stand of 2015 – parked up and pondering the year past, and what might be on the road ahead…..

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Investment in new buses continued apace in 2015 – but for how much longer?

The festive period, apart from too many turkey sandwiches and drunken sing-alongs to the Pogues, always allows us a moment to pause, reflect on what has been, what might be to come and where we stand on all sorts of topics – maybe even life itself.

OnThisBus maybe isn’t so philosophical as to question the meaning of life itself – it’s really just all about buses. So, as we park the bus on the stand for 2015, where have we been, where are we going, and who’s on the stand with us now?

Maybe the biggest upheaval is the road ahead. In 2016, we reach the milestone of 30 years of deregulation. In 1986, I stood with my camera, as a spotty 16 year-old in Dudley bus station, capturing the very beginning of this brave new era. Deregulation has grown up, from a moody, argumentative, competitive child into a well-developed, matured adult. Like it’s human-being equivalent, it’s been through a lot, made some mistakes along the way and isn’t the perfect specimen. But every day, it gets up, goes to work and plays it’s full part in the very fabric of our nation. Maybe it isn’t fully understood, and again like it’s human version, there’s always room for improvement – but a failure it can’t claim to be.

Yet one of the biggest stories of the bus world in 2015 – the decision on the North East Quality Contract – which would have effectively reversed the story of the last 30 years – is only the very tip of the iceberg. When Chancellor George Osborne – one of the most politically astute Chancellors of modern times, and supposedly heir to David Cameron’s Premiership – creates a most un-Torylike situation as part of his grand plans to devolve power from Westminster, the bus industry needs to be on it’s toes like never before. The political party of free enterprise, the true-blue force that has long been business’s friend, is prepared to see private bus operators fold as part of it’s devolution masterplan.

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in which direction are bus services in the North-East heading?

The independent panel may not have thought too much of the North East’s plan to enact existing laws to introduce a Quality Contract, but the long-term Tory plans for City-Regions across the country will surely not fail. There is much political shadow boxing to come.

The bus industry has been slow out of the traps. Apart from a few laudable examples, the behemoths of the transport world have carried on, year-by-year, providing decent, solid bus services to the masses. But it’s been unexciting. I look, every year, at the winners of the UK Bus Awards and wonder – maybe unreasonably? – why we can’t have such excellent service universally. Am I being naïve? On one level, possibly. I know on the face of it, bus services are “easy”. You provide a bus, make sure it arrives on time, clean and smart, charge a reasonable fare, and Bob’s your Uncle. I also know through years of both observing it at a close level and being a passenger, that it is anything but that easy.

The industry continues to invest well in the kit. Shiny new bus sporting sexy, attractive liveries are all over the place (although how much that investment continues as the uncertainty over Government policy continues to rumble on is anyone’s guess), but the “smart” revolution, taking a lot of the confusion and fumbling over fares away, seems to move at a snail’s pace – and in many examples, it only seems to replace one set of confusing ideas for another.

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“Swift” is the smartcard brand for the West Midlands – but it’s nowhere near as easy to understand as London’s Oyster….

And yet the bus industry can only do so much. Despite new buses, bleeping smartcards and apps to count down your waiting time at stops, the one thing that passengers REALLY want – on time buses – continues to be the biggest single turn off when it comes to attracting new users, or even retaining existing ones.

As I write this, I’m watching National Express West Midlands’ Twitter feed. It’s the week before Christmas and the traffic has yet again descended into a shambles in central Birmingham. There are diversions, short-running of services, and long delays. It’s not only the City Centre. In my corner of the Black Country, I’m watching buses appear with strange destinations – short-running again in a desperate bid to get back on time. It’s a short-term remedy by the hard-working bus company controllers, but inevitably it’s rebounding on them, with real-life moaning at the bus stop and cyber-expletives on Twitter from irate users.

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Irate passengers quickly take to Twitter to vent their spleen!

Naturally, they blame the operator rather than think about the bigger picture of nose-to-tail Christmas shoppers in cars. If I had one Christmas wish, it’d be for more City Centre managers in the retail world to read Greener Journeys research into just how important buses are to the economy. It is buses that bring the most people to the shops of any mode, and for local councillors, listen to this: more Greener Journeys / KPMG research reveals that for every £1 spent on local bus infrastructure (including bus lanes, busway schemes and local infrastructure), up to £7 in benefits can be generated. Doesn’t that tell you something?

In 2015, I’ve had several, often heated debates about Quality Contracts and the forthcoming similar proposals for devolution of transport. I’m on the side of the deregulated, current model. Not because I’m a free-wheeling, free enterprise enthusiast – but because I simply don’t think the case for Authority control of bus services has been effectively made. If the North East QC proposal had clearly said “we intend to significantly increase the provision of bus priority at the expense of the private motorist in order to provide a more punctual service” I might have sat up and taken more notice. As it was, all it seemed to me was a power-grab that would have provided no noticeable improvement for Joe Bloggs at the bus stop. Of course, I’m making it sound simplistic, but overall, that’s what the provision of bus services is really all about – what happens at the bus stop and the experience of those who rely on the bus.

The provision of a well-performing public transport service is the goal of any City-Region leader, but are our City-Regions’ bus services currently failing that badly that they need major surgery to improve? I think not. Yes, always room to improve, yes, the bus industry has been to slow generally to push through some of those improvements, but please don’t tell me that local politicians, or someone imposed on us as a “Mayor” know more about “what the public want” than teams of dedicated professionals working in the bus industry at operator or current Authority level. We usually only hear from these local politicians come election time, when there are votes to be potentially won by slating the local bus service. I’ve heard these arguments a thousand times, and even stood up and argued back at them, some of their points revealing a true lack of understanding how bus services operate. Do we want more of this type of influence?

If we want more bus services (irrespective of whether they are financially viable or not), someone has to pay. The taxpayer? What happens when these new services – as advocated by the megaphone diplomacy of local councillors – appear day after day, week after week with little or no passengers? A waste of taxpayers’ money?  You can be pretty sure that, with a private business and shareholders to satisfy, private commercial bus operators know what broadly works, and what doesn’t. And that is the “beauty” of deregulation. On the whole, it provides for where and when people want to go. Buses aren’t taxis. I’d like a bus 7 nights a week down to my favourite country pub in case I fancy the occasional few pints. Of course I’d be the only one on it, so is that either commercially viable or worthy of taxpayer subsidy because I’ve lobbied my local councillor? Of course it isn’t. For that, there is another form of public transport – it’s called a “taxi”.

That brings me – very neatly as it happens – onto another potential upheaval for the bus industry in the coming years – taxis. Or more specifically the “Uber” model.

Taxis and buses have lived side-by-side for time immemorial. The “trade-off” largely specific – buses are cheaper, taxis significantly more expensive, but with the “immediate” door-to-door offer. What Uber is increasingly offering is a blur of the two. What happens when the price of a taxi falls to within a ball-park bus fare figure? That is the challenge for the bus industry.

Uber for savvy smartphone users is ridiculously simple. You whip your phone out, it knows where you are, you type in where you want to go, up pops a Google map and you watch a little cartoon car glide across the screen to where you are. You hop in, go to your destination and no money changes hands – because you’ve already linked the smartphone app up to your bank account. No waiting for buses stuck in traffic, no complicated fare or ticketing offer, a cheaper ride than a traditional taxi, and back at your front door (or other destination) quick and easy. What’s not to love?

There are downsides. There have been reports of Uber drivers accepting, then declining the job, whilst the app finds another driver. Then the fare increases with demand at certain times, so that a trip on a quiet Tuesday morning is significantly cheaper than on, say, a Saturday night.

It’s all new and it’s not a threat – yet – to the established bus service, in my view. But how long is a piece of string? When I sampled the Uber experience a few months ago, the driver told me there were hundreds of drivers signing up for Birmingham and that the service was getting busier every day. It is regularly launching in towns and Cities across the UK and around the World. It is another example of how the bus industry must not rest on it’s laurels. This may seem like something a 20-year old savvy technology geek might use, but if it kicks off big style, the bus industry may well find itself challenged far more significantly. It’s all about price and convenience.

Which brings me full circle back to what people at bus stops want. Whilst Taxis and Uber drivers can dart down side streets to avoid congestion hotspots, buses are on a fixed route. I was asked earlier this year why people seemed to prefer trams to buses. For me, it’s about certainty of journey. Whilst the street-running sections of tram lines can prove problematic if they aren’t segregated, the tram whizzes along on its’ own section of track, as do trains. Buses too could do this too if only they had more bus only priority lanes. And properly policed, with real fines for offenders.

The issue of bus lanes is an almighty problem for those who could authorise them. It isn’t, of course, easy to put them everywhere. Our road infrastructure often doesn’t allow for it. But, there appears this default “objection” to any suggestion we take away road space from motorists and give it to a form of transport that is a far more efficient user of that space than any car can be. So often, it isn’t a case of “can’t” but “won’t”, for reasons political. In 2015, we’ve seen another year of stagnation when it comes to effectively tackling the scourge of congestion. Grand plans there may be for City-Regions and blueprints for City Centre “regeneration” that always come with blue-skied illustrations of handfuls of smiling people strolling around. But I sadly take the depressing view that I’ve seen too many of these “visions” before, and I’ll believe them when I see them. The traffic in Birmingham City Centre now is as bad as I’ve ever known it, and until our political leaders decide to bite the bullet and do something for the long-term benefit of people’s mobility in Cities rather than short-term political backlash from motorists, we’ll be forever stuck in this perpetual downward spiral of decline.

But 2015 hasn’t all been a grim cesspit of grease in the back of the bus depot.

National Express Group became the first private sector transport group to commit to the living wage. First continued to improve in various parts of its’ (now shrunken) empire, Reading Buses – under the guidance of one of the best bus managers Martijn Gilbert – won several awards, including Operator of the Year, at the UK Bus Awards, and in the West Midlands, the first “bus alliance” was agreed between operators and the Integrated Transport Authority that will see £150m invested over 5 years – and hopefully prove that there is a valuable alternative to simply handing over control of bus services to local Mayors. And of course, we must not overlook the fact that, despite an underlying feeling of general malaise about buses, the industry continues to achieve satisfaction levels that other industries would die for. Buses must be doing something right.

The long-awaited Buses Bill should arrive in 2016, and then we’ll be able to see whether or not this means the biggest shake up of the bus world in 30 years.

Our nation’s bus operators continue to provide a tremendous service overall. To Britain’s army of bus drivers, controllers, cleaners, managers, shunters, fuellers, inspectors, tweeters and anyone else I haven’t listed, I thank you, as a passenger. I know from my own job as a train driver that getting up at half past three in the morning never gets any easier, or going to bed at gone 1am. Providing Britain’s bus services is a monumental effort from untold thousands – and I salute every single one of you from my usual position – next to a bus stop somewhere in the UK.

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You’ll always find Phil near a bus stop pondering something! 

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Fare Deal or No Deal?

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Are National Express West Midlands’ new fares a genuine attempt at providing better value for money, or a confusing conundrum? Or even both?

“It’s That Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (as Andy Williams sang on his Christmas album) when the West Midlands’ largest bus operator National Express West Midlands announces its annual “fare revision” (or “increase”, as many punters bemoan into the nearest TV camera or radio microphone).

This is a gift for local media. The local TV news can be found lurking around the pavement nearest a bus stop looking for a bus user who, on their first day back at work since the Christmas break, is willing to whinge into a camera about how their fare has risen above the rate of inflation, how rubbish the service is, and how they’re getting nothing in return. It is as if there is a laughing group of baddies in suits creaming a load of profit off our hapless passenger.

Of course, there are always two sides to a story. Some fares are usually “frozen” (although traditionally not the most popular ones) and there is a lot of investment going into local buses at the moment. The butt of the whining is usually the perception of it all – traffic congestion never seems to improve much around the West Midlands conurbation, so bus users feel compelled to vent their spleen when they cough up more for something that doesn’t seem to improve at it’s very basic level – getting people from A to B when they want and expect to get from A to B. Hardly the bus operator’s fault – but creating conditions whereby the bus has real, meaningful priority is still mostly a step too far for our local politicians when votes are concerned.

Back to bus fares.

This year’s “revisions” are the most interesting in a long time. There will be “losers”, inevitably, who will pay more, but this time, there has been a real attempt to actually reduce fares for a significant proportion of users.

This is all based around two concepts – the active ramping up of “off-peak” time (in this instance, after 09:30, Mon-Fri, with no evening peak time) and the emerging “smart card revolution”.

All good on one level – but for me, it has introduced a level of potential confusion and the loss of real simplicity in the fare structure.

In today’s modern Britain, we’re used to “offers / deals”, etc to try and make us buy. In the end, are we really sure we’ve got the best deal? We feel smug when we’re sure we have, but we mildly have our heads spun first.

And thus, this is returning to the world of bus fares.

Once upon a time, the world of bus fares was a complicated structure, often based on the distance travelled. A “fair” fare, you might say – plus there were conductors to sort all of this out whilst the driver dealt solely with just driving the vehicle from A to B. For the passenger, it wasn’t simple, unless you only ever religiously went from the same “A” to the same “B” and knew your fare.

Then came flat fares and day tickets. Simple.

In the West Midlands, the arguments about “exact fare” have rumbled for as long as I can remember. “Unfair / ridiculous / un-customer-friendly” cry the detractors. “look at how quickly you can fill a bus up compared to giving change” reply the supporters. There’s some truth in both sides.

The truth today in the urban West Midlands is that the majority of bus users aren’t actually buying a single cash fare with no change given. The Travelcard is all-mighty (as many smaller operators protest – but that is an argument for another day) and the “DaySaver” has been an all-consuming success. With only 2 single fares (the “short-hop” at £1.90 and the maximum £2.20), anyone using more than 1 bus per day is usually better off buying a DaySaver at £4.20, allowing them use of any National Express West Midlands bus service at any point in the day – no peak times in play.

The new fare structure both gives and takes away for some users.

The “short-hop” is often a “problematic” fare. Irregular users aren’t sure where “3 fare stages” are. Hell, even regular ones can get confused. Drivers too end up punching buttons on their ticket machine to attempt to answer the conundrum. The differential in price between the “short-hop” and the “main fare” used to be quite vast. Now it is only 30p (possibly because of abuse by some users – policing of it is inevitably down to drivers). Controversial as it may seem, I’d do away with it altogether and make it a simple flat fare or Day Ticket. The “short-hop”, however, will remain – and it will now become an “off-peak” ticket (after 09:30), meaning those who might “short-hop” to work in the morning peak will have to pay the new Adult Maximum single of £2.30. (I can hear the moans on the morning news now). Those who “short-hop” in the day (after 09:30) can look forward to their fare being frozen – or even falling by 10p – more of which shortly.

Those who currently pay the “usual” £2.20 maximum will have to pay 10p more. “What about inflation?” But do we really want “unusual” fares like £2.24? Especially when it’s exact fare? “Scrap the exact fare and give change” some may say, but as a native of the West Midlands who has grown up used to “exact fare”, I accept the very real argument that it fills busy buses in urban areas up very quickly. Whenever I go to other places around the country and watch buses loading where change is given, it is a laborious, often frustrating experience. Especially when the driver has no change after every bloke and his dog offers a £20 note for a £2.20 cash fare!

The Holy Grail may well be – as in other areas of retail – the attempt to remove cash altogether. Smart cards and contactless bank cards are seen as the future – wave your card at a machine and it’s all done automatically.

OnThisBus has looked at smart cards before .“Swift” in the West Midlands is the smart card option. (You can read my previous blogs about Swift, and how they aren’t necessarily the simple answer here).

National Express West Midlands has only recently agreed to join in the “Swift” game for “pay as you go”. (a good job, as the whole thing was effectively dead without them). And the operator has added a rather humungous carrot to get people using Swift Pay As You Go – discounts.

Users of Swift will see no rise in their £2.20 single fare. Whilst cash payers will fork out 10p more, Swift users will pay the same as now. “Short-hop” users will actually save 10p (although this now becomes post-09:30 Mon-Fri only) if they pay by Swift.

But the biggest benefits are reserved for users of DaySavers after 09:30 Mon-Fri. Whereas the universal DaySaver price is currently £4.20, this confusingly becomes FOUR separate prices, depending on what time you buy it, and if you use Swift.

Pay by cash before 09:30 Mon-Fri and you pay 20p more (£4.40). Pay with cash AFTER 09:30 Mon-Fri and you’ll pay 20p LESS (£4.00). Pay by Swift before 09:30 Mon-Fri and you pay the same as now (£4.20), but pay by Swift AFTER 09:30 Mon-Fri and the price is significantly cheaper at £3.80.

The deals, for some, are most definitely there. But the potential for confusion (both users and drivers) surely reigns supreme!

And, because Centro hasn’t yet announced prices for its all-operator day tickets, we can’t even compare what might be on offer here, nor the differential between the single-operator National Express West Midlands DaySaver (with its 4 variations in price) and the “n-bus” (for all bus operators. At the moment, the difference is a simple 40p (£4.20 for DaySaver, £4.60 for n-bus). I usually buy the latter, as, for 40p extra, allows me the choice of virtually every other bus operator as well as NXWM. Assuming the n-bus goes up even by 20p and there isn’t an off-peak variation, the differential between the cheapest off-peak NXWM DaySaver and the n-bus may well be £1.

Now, of course, NXWM would prefer me to buy a DaySaver as they get to keep all of the money I’ve paid for it. With n-bus, they only get a proportion of the money-cake.

I appreciate we live in a modern society where there is endless choice / offers / deals, etc. I spend one evening per year sighing over my computer on comparison websites sorting my car insurance. Do I get a “deal”? At the end of it, I guess so. But it’s time-consuming, often confusing, very often frustrating.

Do bus users need this?

Regular users like me will get used to this pricing structure. Savvy users will find their way to the cheapest deals – and for some there are real, meaningful savings with off-peak travel that it would be wrong to criticise. Real incentives to use Swift pay as you go smartcards can also be, on one level, commended (although many people have questioned why, like in London, contactless bank cards aren’t yet accepted – I guess technology is moving at such a rapid pace).

But….

If one of the most important aims of public transport operators is to get more people on board – especially current non and irregular users – the sheer number of prices, offers and options presented to them as they get on may well be overwhelming. Don’t forget too that they will have an audience of passengers watching them and a driver (behind a Perspex screen) already with one-eye on his mirror to move away. Can this new user be really sure they are going to get the best ticket price or “offer”?

Of course users can look information  in advance on the internet, but the “impulse buy”?

An impulse coffee purchase on the High Street is as simple as can be. Our consumer may not even fancy a mocha-double-chocolade (or whatever – I’m not a regular coffee drinker, apart from Mellow Birds) until literally seconds before they pass the shop window. “Wave & Pay” contactless payment makes it easier still. The “choice” of what to actually drink is still mind-boggling of course (!) but is this experience comparable to public transport? How easy – all told – is it to hop on a bus on impulse, or at short notice?

Of course there is a much wider discussion about making bus services more easily “accessible” – and I’m not necessarily talking about wheelchair access either.

And whilst attempts to encourage certain users to go “smart” and offer real cost savings to some off-peak users, the flip side is that it makes it that bit more complicated to present.

I’m sure someone can present me with scientific research to demonstrate such “trade-offs” and the effects they have on consumer behaviour, but I’m interested in getting new bus users onto the bus, because it’s an easy, simple, decent value-for-money, effective experience.

If the industry and its partners cannot move forward on that, the like of Uber will watch from the roadside with added interest. And possible make serious inroads with a simple travel alternative.

 

By means of “something interesting” to compare, my friend Steven Salmon from the Confederation of Passenger Transport recently sent me a wonderful original 1950 “Birmingham Tram, Omnibus & Street Guide”. Part of its fascinating contents include fare guides which appear a lot more complicated than today’s offerings. Of course, back then there were conductors to explain things to passengers, and public transport was possibly still in it’s “heyday” when vast numbers of people used it, rather than the alternative of owning their own private cars.

Is simplicity the key? Or is today’s practice of multiple options and “deals” what we should expect?

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Pages fro the 1950 guide. There are different prices depending on distance travelled, adult, Child and “workmen” fares. Should today’s fares be simple and limited to maybe one or two “headline” fares and a day ticket with no time restrictions?