Waiting…

bus pass

Stourbridge Bus Station. Waiting for Central Buses 125 to Bridgnorth the other day.

This is one that attracts the “free” pass holders, as it’s a rather delicious romp across the surrounding countryside in Worcestershire and Shropshire, through Kidderminster, Bewdley and Highley, at one point “racing” the famous Severn Valley Railway along it’s salubrious surroundings.

The service is once per hour, so when it doesn’t show, the natives get rather restless. The digital information screens show only “timetabled” departures, so as this particular one drops off the end of the screen, it isn’t looking good.

I know from my rather unhealthy obsession with my Twitter feed that Diamond – who run most of Kidderminster’s town services – have been putting out messages that, due to ongoing roadworks, their services are basically all over the place. I suspect this is what is happening to our service too. I relay this knowledge to a couple of waiters, who at least seem more relaxed about the uncertainty. Then enter bus station Manager Gill.

I like Gill. She’s got her finger on the pulse of what is going on in the bus station and further afield. She also catches the Stourbridge Shuttle when I’m at work, so we’ve got to know each other.

Stomping across the concourse with her clipboard, she looks poised for action.

“What’s going on?” I enquire, knowing that this will elicit a response. Roadworks, she thinks. But then she tells everyone waiting that she’ll give it a few moments, then try to find out more.

In a World of technological advance, this extremely old-fashioned “get-stuck-in” approach is gold dust. In 40-odd years of hanging around bus stations, the amount of times I’ve seen this is countable on one hand. People seem happier, because there’s communication. From a human being. Never mind the digital screen that is down more often than Frank Bruno in his World Title Fight with Mike Tyson. This is a real person. Communicating. And she has plan B if the bus doesn’t show.

Plan B isn’t needed. Moments later, our bus arrives. Our Gill immediately asks the driver if it’s the roadworks in Kidderminster, and he confirms.

And this confirms what numerous Transport Focus research shows. In times of disruption, people want information. The feel better about abnormal situations if they have accurate, up to the minute information.

My argument is this. Someone, somewhere knows about delays. Technology monitoring buses movements knows about delays. Sometimes, that information is shared, but often via a Twitter feed, which many (despite this assumption that the whole world is on Twitter) don’t use. Real-time screens in the bus station are good when they work. They don’t work on far too many occasions. And only National Express West Midlands appears to be currently signed up to Centro outlets to display true real-time information. Whatever the back office issues about who pays for this and logistics, we need real-time information to work reliably. And what about a central point whereby delays that are significant are relayed to bus stations so that real-time human announcements can be made, or pro-active stars like Gill can do it the old-fashioned way and just tell people?

I know it costs money and I know there’s more logistics to that than the simplistic way I’m describing it, but ultimately, it’s a will to want to help the passenger. People really do appreciate someone in uniform who can help them. If staff are armed with the up to date facts, it could help change perceptions of public transport in that all-important time when people are feeling let-down. They are more likely at that point to retain a negative feeling to public transport and maybe use the car next time.

As for our 125 passengers, they  don’t seem too perturbed now that they’re shuffling on board, having received the personal touch from our Gill. “Corporate” does “personal”. Who’d have thought it.

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Top-Deck Sketch -Just Champion! Leicester’s New Bus Station

As soon as you leave Leicester’s Railway Station and hit the shops, it soon becomes apparent that the City’s football team triumph has provided a rather large bandwagon on which local commerce should jump. Shop window after shop window contains tenuous links to the beautiful game. In the main pedestrianized shopping area, the bizarre sight of a miniature Shetland pony with a football scarf around it’s neck, it’s owner randomly breaking into some unidentifiable speech.

Around the corner, in the freshly reopened Haymarket bus station, another spectacle.

What looks like a pop-up jumble sale turns out to be a gaggle of mainly older ladies, perusing a load of bus timetable leaflets on a table top.

Upon closer inspection, it is an enquiry desk. But it brings home – in graphic form – the need for printed timetables in this technological World. I eventually fight my way through the crowd to snaffle a bus map, risking a hand-bagging, rather like the “baddie” in 1970s TV wrestling.

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The “pop-up jumble sale” – complete with claw reaching for route 14 timetable…

The good folk of Leicester now have 2 quality bus stations to use. This one has been transformed from a collection of shelters into a facility fit for King (even ones dug up in Leicester car parks) and it is heartening to see it so busy in its first week of operation.

There’s plenty of space to mingle in, lots of digital information screens and toilets that are free to use – bucking the seemingly recent trend of charging to use them.

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Plenty of information…

Talking of information, there’s plenty of that on the wall too, although it shows ALL bus services for Leicester, including the ones that don’t use Haymarket – and for my money, it isn’t immediately clear which ones are which.

Outside in the sun, two bus enthusiasts linger. One with a camera records everything leaving the station, the other with a notebook eyeballs me as I take pictures myself. There isn’t (to my knowledge) some secret bus enthusiasts’ secret greeting. So I nod my head at him, which momentarily surprises him. He stares back and makes a note of me in his book, as if I too have a fleet number.

Back inside, there are various people in hi-viz pointing people to their stops. The jumble sale of timetables has calmed down and I take a few for myself. On reflection, just like Leicester’s football team, this new bus station is just champion!

A quick stroll around to Leicester’s other bus station – St. Margaret’s – reveals a slightly less busy scene.  My next move is a Skylink service to Derby via East Midlands Airport, although I’m a bit disappointed to find no printed timetables on offer – not even in the Arriva travel shop (although Skylink isn’t an Arriva-operated service, you still rather hope they’d have a timetable). A resulting moan on Facebook results in an Arriva Director “sorting” it.

The power of social media, eh?

Facilitation – That’s What We Need!

 

I just came across a rather startling statistic whilst perusing the myriad emails I get containing all sorts of bus industry information.

At the Young Bus Manager’s Network Conference (held in Birmingham recently), the issue of “partnership” working popped up. It always pops up. What does it mean? There have been “partnerships” in the bus industry since I was in short trousers (and not the hipster-style cut-off ones that wouldn’t suit me, I should add).

This particular “partnership” is the one going on between Centro and National Express West Midlands. On the face of it, it seems to be going quite well of late. Well, there’s no talk of a “Quality Contract” like in the North East to get the bile up between the parties. It’s more “lily-pond” like in the West Midlands, by comparison. They’re quietly getting on with it, and, I have to say, it’s been the best it’s been at any point in the last 10 years in these parts, even given the financial horrors that have befallen other areas. We have a decent network, good information and continual investment in new kit to name but three. Of course there’s always room for improvement, but what would be the point if there wasn’t?

So, the “startling statistic”.

Since the introduction of National Express West Midlands’ “posh buses” (A.K.A. “Platinum”) a year ago, there’s been…(deep breath);

– customer satisfaction of 94%

– 25% growth on service X51 between Birmingham and Walsall

– 27% of respondents to the survey were “new to buses”

These are killer figures, if you’re looking for some good news about bus travel.

I noticed only the other day on an early morning trip into Birmingham on route 9 (also the recipient of smart new buses, although not Platinum recently) a plethora of “men in suits” – the demographic of traveller the bus needs more of, to rid it of it’s “loser cruiser” label that many people unfairly attach to it.

But of course, there’s something more that the bus company needs, but can’t provide on it’s own. The facility to help it run to time and be reliable – the prize every bus user values the most over everything else.

The huge success on the X51 doesn’t actually surprise me too much – it’s a bit like an open goal in bus terms. Why? Because there’s plenty of bus priority on the Walsall Road route. It’s fast, direct. and not too much in the way of hold-ups to delay it. It’s also been possible to develop the X51 into a frequent premium service that lives alongside it’s regular “all stops” sister, the 51. Both do their thing, both appear to work. It’s a great example of simple measures that involve local authorities, Centro and the bus operator all having the vision, and all playing to their own strengths for the common good.

Let’s not kid ourselves that this can happen everywhere. Other areas are more difficult to implement this type of thing . Road space is often an issue. But let’s also not kid ourselves about the potential that it COULD happen in far more places.

Coming soon, NXWM is introducing an “X10”, this time along another Birmingham arterial route – the Hagley Road. OK, it’s a re-hashed 141, but it’s becoming limited stop along part of the route. Hagley Road has plenty of stopping services, so have they hit upon something the travelling public are after?

Hagley Road thus far has priority only where it can maintain a two-vehicle carriageway. They added the bus bit between Quinton and Bearwood a few years ago because there was room to. The crunch for politicians everywhere is that decision to give over one existing lane to buses. That’s when the motorists become revolting. Is this going to happen on Hagley Road?

I’ve long been told that the road isn’t wide enough to add a third lane on the most congested bit from Bearwood into Five Ways and the City Centre, but the long-discussed “Sprint” project – which proposes articulated tram-like buses: “Metro’s Little Sister” – appears to suggest bus priority.

I’ll believe it when I see it. When buses actually take over an existing lane to reduce car capacity, I really will be partying on the rooftops (in my hipster cut-offs. It won’t be pretty).

That really would be a statement of effective partnership working to truly celebrate.

But if this first step of limited-stop services along the corridor (hopefully with smart, attractive buses) shows promise, the case for more bus priority could gain momentum. It’s worked spectacularly on the Walsall Road, why not elsewhere?

It’s all about facilitating the bus to do what the bus does best in urban settings – moving large numbers of people quickly, efficiently, attractively. Give them little extras like posh buses, with free WiFi and  USB charging points by all means. But also give them the competitive advantage of whizzing past people stuck in congestion. Add in what Nottingham have done and impose a workplace car parking charge to pay for public transport benefits. Then, the more people who “see the light” means that the bus is no longer a “loser cruiser”, but a means of transport that is at worst a viable alternative to the car, but also at best a cool way to travel in, stress free. Win Win.

We need politicians to facilitate this. To see the wider, long-term vision. with figures like the Walsall Road’s triumph, what’s not to love?

New, Old & “De-furbed” – Roaming The Streets of The Capital…

Day off.

So I thought I’d have a trip down to London for 3 reasons:

1: Try out the new BYD Chinese electric double-deckers on route 98.

2: Have a look at the new Volvo / MCV “Evoseti” type on routes 35/40.

3: See if I can find a “de-furbished” Routemaster (“Re-furbished” back to it’s original condition)

So I’m up at stupid o’clock and it’s not even a work day. First bus of the day to Stourbridge, then a run into Birmingham on the 9. National Express West Midlands has the recently-introduced Enviro 400 MMCs on here, and the combination of high-frequency, new buses and attractive livery is a winner. I notice plenty of “men in suits” boarding. This is good news. I’m always banging on about getting business people to use buses more, like they do in London. NXWM must be doing something right on this corridor.

In Brum, I board the “slow train to London” – London Midland’s service (not least because I can travel for free with my staff pass) and I’m in London for just gone 10am.

Although it’s mid-Monday morning, it’s still a bunfight at Euston. I walk out through the haze of smokers outside the front of the building (vile) and take a look at the busy bus station. Loads of “New Routemasters” everywhere, almost as a tribute to Boris Johnson, who, on this very day, has relinquished his role as Mayor of London. His legacy will live on!

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New Routemasters….Everywhere…..

Indeed, it’s one of these design masterpieces I board first – a 68 for a short run down Woburn Place to Russell Square to hunt for all things electric….

The 98 to Willesden Garage starts here, and there is a motley line up of several older vehicles here, opposite one of those fantastic old green “sheds” which used to provide refuge for taxi drivers – indeed this one still does, in the form of a cafe. Numerous cabbies are present devouring grease-laden delights. Horns are honking as a lorry temporarily unloads something and this corner of London grinds to an inevitable temporary standstill. All that moves are lycra-clad cyclists who weave in and out of anything stationary, or moving (as one nearly takes me out, for daring to stand on the pavement).

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The temptation of food in Russell Square is too much…

Our trucker moves on, and the blockage recedes, but there’s still no sign of anything electric. I check the London Vehicle Finder on my phone, which reveals my lurking around Russell Square is in vain – no sign of any BYD electric double deckers on the route at the moment (although one made an appearance earlier this morning). I decide the temptation of a full-english in sandwich form is too much and walk off towards Aldwych.

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The older set still provide the mainstay of service 98 provision – but no sign of anything electric…

I marvel at the Kingsway tram tunnel and imagine what joys I have missed all those years ago, when London trams used to disappear down below,with others appearing like monsters from the deep…How much fun would a ride on a London tram down there be?

Aldwych is of course the London theatre-goer’s paradise. There’s also much bus action going on. I decide my next move is an RV1 “south of the river” on a Hydrogen bus, which are normally on here. Just off the Aldwych is a side street where the RV1 terminates. But I’m out of luck again. The bus on-stand here isn’t of the hydrogen variety. It’s a bog-standard Enviro 200, it’s driver perched on the back seat chewing away on a sandwich.

My app says the next departure is 11 minutes away. I decide to attempt something of an “arty” picture, involving said bus and theatre adverts. I cross the road and line up something resembling “arty” (you may disagree – art is very subjective), but then our man gallops down his bus, into the cab and departs quicker than Linford Christie in a 100m Gold Medal race. So much for my app information.

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My attempt at an “arty” picture (yes, I know…) – seconds before the driver runs into the cab and drives off, leaving me on the other side of the street…

A few minutes later, a “proper” hydrogen bus appears and I hop on that. We take in Waterloo station and battle with traffic up to London Bridge, where roadworks has got everything at a standstill.

I’m looking for some unusual double deckers here – MCV “Evoseti”-types on Volvo chassis. Go Ahead have bought an initial 20 or so of these for routes 35 & 40. I’ve also always been fascinated by the destination “Dulwich Library” on the front of some London buses. What a delightful place to terminate – a library! I’ve never been to Dulwich. Enid Blyton was born here, and it’s also where Margaret Thatcher came to live after she left Number 10.

I can see a 40 in the distance, but it takes an age to reach us. When it finally appears, a young driver opens the door, accompanied by a man of more advancing years wearing a Hi-viz with “MENTOR” on the back. He barks in cockney at a man who doesn’t touch in properly with his pass “and again, my son, and again…”.

This is the first sizeable order of EvoSetis in the UK. I’m not overly-excited. The seats are hard, but apart from that, the journey isn’t  overly uncomfortable. Our mentored driver does well, negotiating the Elephant & Castle, and we head south to Camberwell Green, where a recorded message tells us that a driver changeover is taking place. We move on, but then another computer voice tells us that “the destination of this bus has changed”. We’re now going to terminate at “East Dulwich” instead. I have no idea where we are, as we’re hiked off by a railway station. Our Evoseti roars off and I’m left to ponder what life is like for non-regular bus users, who must get this similar feeling of not knowing what to do with public transport next in unfamiliar surroundings. I have no idea if Dulwich library is within walking distance or not. The map doesn’t make it particularly clear in the shelter. This whole idea of terminating a bus at short-notice has happened to me on quite a few occasions in London now. It may well be necessary, but it’s nothing like that in Birmingham.

Another 40 turns up. This time it’s a new Enviro 400 MMC. But it also is terminating here. At least the weather is decent. Eventually another new Enviro 400 appears. This one IS going to Dulwich library, so I flag it down. I conclude that, whilst the Evoseti isn’t bad (apart from the seats), the Enviro 400 is a better vehicle to ride. In the “looks” department, the Evoseti isn’t really a head-turner either, but it’ll be interesting to see if this is a breakthrough in the UK double deck market for MCV though…

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One of Go Ahead’s new Volvo B5TL / MCV “Evoseti” double deckers, opposite Dulwich library

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Also on Go Ahead London routes 35 & 40 are new ADL Enviro 400 MMCs

So this is Dulwich library. Looks a fairly unassuming place. I hop off opposite said building and my 40 roars off up the road and turns left. I pursue it and come across a pair of Borismasters on the 12 laying over in the side street. I eye up the monsters and their drivers eye up me. The road around the corner leads back to Dulwich library, and I stand here to capture a few pics, whilst an old friend who I didn’t know lived in these parts picks up on the fact I’m local from my blabbing on Facebook and offers an impromptu meet up. He works with London’s trams and has a meeting at HQ, so takes me over in his car. Like me, he’s into politics, so we talk about Sadiq Khan’s ascension to the biggest job in London, and what that might mean for public transport in the City.

I tram it from Tramlink’s Therapia Lane HQ across to Croydon. Here, there are plenty of red buses, but I don’t appreciate just how far out from Central London we are here. The bus stop information doesn’t show any direct links back to the Capital apart from a peak hour service. So I use Southern’s rail service back to London Bridge.

Back in the metropolis, I cross the water and stand on Cannon Street looking to head west back towards Aldwych. It’s traffic chaos. Nothing is moving. Tourists look longingly at the bus stop pole and it’s fictitious set of timetables. Eventually, an “original” Routemaster appears on the opposite side of the road. It’s RM1933 – a recently “de-furbed” example. It’s heading just up the road on “heritage” route 15 to The Tower. I decide to throw caution to the wind, cross over (nearly getting splatted by yet another lycra-clad cyclist) and hop on, whilst it’s stationary in traffic.

The Conductor (there’s a novelty) grabs my Oyster and scans it. I bound off upstairs.

Only a family of 4 are on the upper deck at the front. I seize the back seat and am immediately transported back to the mid-sixties. Hants & Dorset trim – apart from having a wonderful name – has done a wonderful job. The money saved by abandoning the other heritage route (9) is being ploughed into the RMs on this route. The vehicles are being brought as closely as possible back to “original spec”. The result is stunning. Outside, the cream band is back. Inside the floor has old-style treadmaster flooring, reupholstered seats (with original 60s-design moquette) and yellow “canary” roof. There are even light bulbs. Traditional light bulbs! Who knows how many courting couples have canoodled their way along London’s streets on the back seat I’m now occupying, but it’s a real nostalgia treat!

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The “de-furbed” Routemaster upper deck

At what amounts to barely half a mile later, we arrive at the terminus opposite The Tower of London. Our conductor winds the rear destination blind back to Trafalgar Square. I hop off and continue my fine tradition of being almost-splatted by a cyclist – the new cycling “super highway” is here, between bus stop and real pavement.

I decide to await the old girl’s turnaround and catch her back to The Strand, but the heavens suddenly open up and I end up resembling a drowned 6’7″ rat. There’s no sign of RM1933, so I flag down a passing “new” Routemaster on the “proper” 15.

It’s now evening peak time and traffic is predictably horrendous. I listen intently to an American couple sitting opposite, who seem horrified that a van driver is happy to push his way into the traffic and block the road off for our bus. I contemplate striking up conversation on Donald Trump but think better of it.

I hop off on The Strand and take a mooch around the London Transport Museum shop, where I threaten to buy my own weight in books (but limit myself to only 3). Back on The Strand, the skies open again and half the London population try to cram under the shelter. Luckily a 91 appears very soon and I hop on back to Euston, where my wait for a London Midland service back to Brum is made much easier by some lubrication in The Doric Arch public house….