Top Deck Sketch: Flying Metros and Secret Liaisons…?

Toot! Toot! Sounds the driver as the girl waves back. We round a corner and several Metro newspapers fly, briefly majestically, through the air to end – unceremoniously – on the floor. Our tooting driver exits the cab and picks them up, repositioning them against the window. How many drivers do that? Gold star please! 

An elderly gentleman boards and scans his pass. “Good morning”, he bids our hero driver, who reciprocates in kind. He clutches a semi-large pink envelope. Maybe it’s a birthday or late valentines card. He departs a few stops later with a spring in his step. Maybe the start of a secret liaison? 

I too hop off, but minus the spring. Our driver thanks us all, as she parks her bus – which must surely win an award for the squeakiest of the month. It sounds like someone with a rusty farmyard implement scraping the inside of a washing machine. 

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Populism Doesn’t Make It Better

I’ve got a lot of time for Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a man with his own ideas for society, although I don’t agree with much of what he says. People may be disillusioned with capitalism, but I’m not convinced they’re reaching out for his brand of socialism either. It’s a much wider political debate.

What bothers me though, is the appearance in the media of Jeremy’s pledge for more bus franchising and council bus companies. I’m afraid it smacks of populism – a bizarre Farage-like simplistic view that “if only we did this, everything would be wonderful again”.

He’s made similar noises – inevitably – about the railways. But, like life itself, if only it were so simple.

As we edge closer to the 30th anniversary of bus deregulation, lest we forget the state of the bus industry back then. Comparisons with life 30 years ago are obviously difficult, but although the set up of the bus world then may have had plus-points, the overall scene was one of managed decline. OK, you may say that’s still been the case since, but the deregulated world – whilst not being perfect – has matured over the three decades it’s been set free. There’s been innovation, improvements and harsh realities to confront. It’s forced everyone – users and providers – to think long and hard about what bus services are. The more recent years of austerity have only sharpened minds in that respect.

But I cringe at this modern-day default setting that suggests that we have a rubbish transport system whilst fat-cats sit around the boardroom table lapping up bowls of cream. If only the system was run with public money by civil servants, they cry. Everyone could have the bus service they really want and need. No one seems to consider the practicalities of this. The demand. The budget. The value for money.

I understand the frustration. I’m lucky enough to live in an urban area. My local bus is service is good. It’s comprehensive, it’s good value for money and it works. It isn’t always like that. Rural areas have had issues for years. The scene now is often as bad as it’s ever been. There has been innovation in some areas, with demand-responsive provision, etc. And it’s not just these outposts. Even Shire areas are feeling the pinch. I’ve argued before that, if anywhere, franchised bus services ought to be tried out in these areas, rather than the seemingly political posturing going on in big City areas. I can’t for the life of me see why Manchester is hell-bent on taking control of it’s buses – the private sector does a pretty decent job, as far as I can see.

So, as ever, Jeremy’s intervention into public transport continues a well-beaten path of politicians sounding off on a populist theme in order to attain cheap votes. His vision of council bus operators may well be a sincere one. I like nothing better to peruse my bookshelves and leaf through images of wonderful old liveries and buses with open rear platforms with conductors cranking their little handles. It’s how we often used to do bus services. But it’s a bygone world we can’t hope to recover. These were the days before mass car ownership.

What about the likes of Reading, or “Rosso”, I hear you cry? Look at Nottingham City Transport with all of their awards. These are council-owned operations. A compelling argument for more of the same? There’s no doubt these are top-class operations. But they are in many ways unique operations. Relics from the past that have done good. They have carved out niches and don’t always have head-on competition. And, most importantly, they have good support from their paymasters. Could we guarantee this scenario everywhere? Do we have Authorities lining up to start running buses? Do we have a commitment to deep investment, not just now, but in 10, 20, 30, 50 years time?

Jeremy might put the argument – and it’s an interesting one – but I don’t feel the clamour from Joe Public for it – especially in the bus world. I’m not sure we’ve ever had it. The great names like Midland Red, etc in their heyday were privately-owned, and there wasn’t much shouting back then, as far as I can make out. Instead, bravo the incredible innovation Midland Red brought to bus operation back then – would that have been stifled under council ownership? You might say that there were examples of such innovation under council ownership – the brilliant Ronald Edgley Cox at Walsall Corporation being one such example – but they were fairly few. No, the public at large has never given too much thought about who owns the buses – they just want them to turn up on time. And that’s a different argument altogether.

We’ll see how the new set up following the Buses Bill pans out. Manchester may get uniform control, but will it make bus travel any better? If Dudley Council took control of my buses tomorrow, would it improve matters? Would I feel any better knowing that my £4 Daysaver was going back into the public purse rather than to National Express shareholders? Would I actually care? Would the Council be planning to invest in the fleet? Or maybe it might be eyeing up any cash there was for other important needs, like education or social services. And what about those services that people say they want? I well recall a number of years ago lobbying bus operators to provide a service from the Gornal Wood area of the Black Country direct to Russells Hall Hospital. It was “what people wanted”, according to endless letters in the paper, staff at the hospital, visitors and Councillors. We finally got one. It lasted a few years, National Express West Midlands withdrew it, a smaller operator took it on commercially, and it quietly disappeared for good a couple of weekends ago. This is the gritty reality of bus service provision – it actually needs certain numbers of people to actually use it. Gone are the days of “nice to have”, especially in urban commercial areas. In Jeremy’s Utopian vision, the public sector pays for and provides such services. But how long before the people – the general public themselves – start questioning the logic of directly funding very lightly-used bus services?

It is things like the funding of the Concessionary Bus Pass that need closer scrutiny. Let’s be clear here, lest anybody think I’m calling for a watering down or abolition of it. The “free” bus pass is a great thing. It helps people get out and about and function in society. It’s what a civilised society should do. But like most things involving politicians involvement, this good idea has turned sour behind the scenes, with funding for it’s use falling and falling over the years. You might, as an operator, even be faced with a bus full of bums on seats and still not make it pay, because the reimbursement you need to carry these passengers isn’t enough. The Government takes the glory, but passes down the nuts and bolts of payment down to the local authorities – who haven’t got 2 halfpennys to rub together as it is. And woe betide anyone politically or otherwise who suggests we tackle this issue by means-testing use of the pass. What should happen is that reimbursement for pass use should be set at a much more realistic level, rather than inevitably forcing commercial bus operators to up their prices to those who have to put money in the fare box.

What the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and others who argue their cases should be looking at are issues like these, and of why buses struggle to fight their way through traffic congestion and operate reliable services. Populist proposals may be just that – popular – but they don’t make things better.

 

(pic of Jeremy Corbyn: Reuters / BBC)

On The Job – who’d be a bus driver?

“Do you enjoy meeting people?” is often the strapline when it comes to bus driver recruitment. It’s pretty reasonable, given that drivers are the face of the bus company.

The more innovative of bus operators recruit staff based on their apparent “customer skills”, then train them to drive a bus, not the other way around of grabbing anyone they can with a PCV licence gained elsewhere. Setting up an in-house training school is darned expensive, but it surely pays dividends in the end, when you can pick and choose who your “faces of the company” are going to be.

But that’s only part of the issue surrounding the attractiveness – or otherwise – of a job on the public transport front line.

Two news stories in the last 24 hours have caught my eye, and underlines the challenges faced by our bus drivers today. They will resonate with transport staff everywhere. (See end for links to the two news stories).

Redditch-based Diamond Buses has reported an increase in racial attacks in the town in recent times. Good on General Manager Dave Brundrit (who I know cares passionately about his role, and in public transport in general) for raising this. It isn’t the “sexy” side of buses that we often see – it’s the bitter reality for many. It doesn’t make public transport attractive, and those reading the Redditch Standard who don’t currently use Dave’s buses might conclude they’ll stick to their cars, thank you very much, if that’s what it’s like on the buses. But Dave is right to raise it, and stand up for his staff, working in difficult situations. It can be hard to smile at your passengers when you’ve just been abused 5 minutes previous. The solutions, of course, are much harder to come by.

Another clipping shows a mobile phone recording of a UPS delivery driver in London punching a bus window. Amusing, it seems, to the person who recorded it, but a rather nasty, pathetic bit of road rage. Again, bus drivers everywhere will recognise it.

We may all shrug our shoulders at these two examples and conclude that this is the World we live in today. Suck it up.

I disagree.

Of course, conflict avoidance courses for staff help. As professionals in the industry, it can help to be aware of how to react in such situations. But that only goes so far. In an age where there is more traffic on the road than ever, more frustration, more tempers flaring, we have also seen the wholesale reduction of police, and in particular, traffic police. Of course, you can’t have police everywhere, but, to me, it seems that much of the sheer ridiculousness that goes on on our roads is down to a calculation that there is probably a 99.9% chance that the perpetrator will “get away with it”. It’s no wonder there is so much road rage and silly acts of petulance.

And it makes the recruitment of bus drivers more difficult. since the advent of the “living wage” (something I’m not against, by the way), it has raised the level up to a “ballpark” figure that begins to get fairly near to bus drivers. Faced with some of the claptrap bus drivers have to put up with, are people now considering less stressful opportunities, like shelf-stacking in Aldi instead? Who might blame them? Shifts, late nights, early mornings are an unavoidable part of the job, and whilst some may not find that attractive, it can’t be undone. But other parts of the job, such as dealing with abusive passengers and stupid motorists can, and should, be looked at much more proactively. Rates of pay should be examined, although I understand the huge commercial viability of a private commercial company is a massive consideration.

The “churn” in the bus industry (drivers entering, then leaving the profession) is a concern. Passengers need to have confidence in the professionalism of the industry. I’m not suggesting for one moment it is inherently unsafe with drivers who don’t care and can’t wait to get out, but I notice rather large differences between the contentness of some operator’s staff to others. That’s a wider discussion, but why are some companies “keepers” when it comes to their staff, and others not so?

There’s no magic wands. Buses operate in some real “gritty” areas, and making the job attractive is nothing less than a huge challenge. At least Managers like Dave Brundrit have made a start by highlighting the less-salubrious side of the job – and putting down a marker that he’s determined to look at it.

It highlights the vast difference in bus operating terrain today. I’m sure Alex Hornby’s troops in Harrogate have a vastly different view of the bus driving world when piloting the gorgeous 36 route around Yorkshire to the guy in central London who’s just had his New Routemaster thumped by a delivery driver with the temperament of a 10 year old.

There’s no easy remedy. But being trained as a professional, having the support of your Manager and company, and having further back up and support in the wider community is essential if the job of being a bus driver is seen as an attractive career to pursue. And happy drivers equals happy customers!

 

Links to the two stories mentioned:

Redditch story

London story

 

 

Bingo! Look at what you might win…

I see Transport Times is reporting that Nottingham City Council has reached it’s 2020 climate change targets 4 years early. 

This, apparently, is down to the popularity of cycling and public transport. 

If you’ve been to Nottingham in recent years, you might have seen how the car isn’t necessarily “God”, especially in the centre. The buses have TrentBarton & NCT – both award-winning bus operators of recent years – as well as YourBus. There’s no tat in this City; all competition is on quality. 

Then there’s the tram. A hugely impressive and quality operation.  

The gateway to the City – the railway station – has also had a facelift in recent years (although finding the Gents here is one of life’s little irritations). 

The City Council also introduced a workplace parking levy, which of course was unpopular when introduced, but signalled a definite direction – one that said “we don’t have to take the view that the car is King”. There’s another way. And Nottingham has proven it. 

No need for bus franchising here – it’s all been done with a commitment to quality and a good working relationship with the Local Authority. The foresight to extend the tram network also demonstrates the “can do” attitude. 

So well done Nottingham! 

Why can’t we do this everywhere? 

Nottingham’s top quality information at the railway station