The Cupboard of All Knowledge

Oh dear. I’ve been stirring it up again in my bowl of bus porridge.

It’s common knowledge amongst my pals that I’m not a fan of my local out-of-town-like shopping centre “Merry Hill”. Give me a traditional High Street any day – pedestrianised, with good nearby bus access, if you please.

However, I do recognise that Merry Hill is a major part of the Black Country retail scene. Thousands work here, and it’s where more countless thousands come to spend money, eat and play. There are myriad bus services based on this venue, which all get eaten up in the horrendous congestion it creates. It’s probably best to bring a tent if you’re planning on Christmas shopping here, and a small supply of baked beans and mini-camping stove. If you use the roads to and from, you’ll rapidly lose the will to live.

So, notwithstanding that large numbers of Black Country bus users’ lives get affected by traffic at Merry “Hell” (as the natives call it), I often make it my business to whinge at whoever might listen in what often seems a futile attempt to get some sort of holistic view on tackling the congestion, pollution and general annoyance that descends on the local road network.

It’s free parking here, which acts like a giant magnet to the local’s cars. Any notion of challenging that is long-since dead. A few of us hapless souls have investigated, but you may as well ask for a date with the Queen of Sheba. In the meantime, a race to the bottom ensues, with the local Tories on Dudley Council regularly dangling their carrot of “free Council car parking” in the traditional locations in a bid to stimulate the High Street, should they gain control. Except that doesn’t work either. In neighbouring Brierley Hill, a private shopping centre has thrown open it’s car park for “2 hours free parking”. So underwhelming was demand that it has now been announced that they’re going to build flats on half of the car park instead…

Metro trams are the great white hope, although I used to have brown hair and no discernible beer belly when that was first mooted. I have slightly more hope now that we’re getting a “Metro Mayor” in 2017 – and because the Black Country seems to believe all of the dosh will go to Birmingham, it might be a case of doing something for those of us west of the M5 to prove a point. Ahh, politics! We shall see…

A couple of years ago, when Aussies Westfield owned the site, there were plans to throw some real money at bus access for Merry Hill. A bus-only thoroughfare was suggested, and a larger bus station to replace the current one, which is just too small for the demand. Centro (as was) made a joint bid for Government cash and all seemed well – until it never happened. Westfield supposedly got cold feet, the bus revolution never happened, and the money went on revamping the bus/rail Interchange at nearby Cradley Heath instead – welcome, but the raiser of some eyebrows, to say the least. Westfield sold the Merry Hill Centre shortly after to Intu – who own several other similar retail outlets elsewhere.

And this is where the latest story begins.

Due to the requirement to purchase a birthday card for one of the few friends I have left, I actually went inside Merry Hill. Unusual for me. Passing the large customer services desk, I noticed lots of leaflets for “how to find your shops”, but, actually nothing whatsoever for “how to find your bus”.

A late night whinge on Facebook and Twitter, bemoaning this sadly typical state of affairs brought an interesting few responses. I suggested to West Midlands Combined Authority (who are the “new Centro”) that they ought to spend some money on a bus guide for Merry Hill. Network West Midlands said that they would look at trying to send some information out, and a northern friend told me that Intu actually produce their own public transport guide for their outlet in Manchester’s Trafford Centre.

Then, low-and-behold, Intu’s Twitter feed responded by saying that public transport guides were actually available at Merry Hill – “just ask!”

So off I went, courtesy of Diamond Bus’s 226, up to Merry Hill again to peruse the customer service desk in search of the improbable.

The impossibly grinning assistant beamed at me as I stomped up.

“Have you got any public transport info?” I fire. The grin drops slightly, as I reveal myself to be someone showing an interest in buses. “We don’t have the actual timetables”, she says, “but we do have the map and guide”.

“Yes please”, I respond, like a lap dog, about to get a chewy treat. “Bear with me”, she replies, “It’s in one of these cupboards”. And, with that, goes off flinging pure white cupboard doors open until she retrieves the nugget of gold – “Hop On Board” – the Intu Merry Hill public transport guide.


The “infamous” Merry Hill public transport guide

I seize it like Dickens’ Scrooge and scurry off into the darkness of the bus station to examine.

It is actually a very decent publication. An excellent network line map, and individual route information, including frequencies and first/last buses. There’s also details of the less-frequent services and rail connections to nearby Cradley Heath (albeit with a few errors). And a vintage Diamond Buses logo, last seen sometime in the 90s. Whether Centro / WMCA / Network West Midlands had any involvement isn’t clear, but it’s a very decent effort.


Good easy to understand information

But here’s the rub.

It is hidden away at the back of a cupboard. I had to ask for it.

Throughout Merry Hill are information stands dispensing leaflets on where to find the shops. No problem with that. But how about putting public transport in people’s faces? I recall visiting Cribbs Causeway near Bristol a while ago. There was a “public transport wall” near the bus station, full of all sorts of information. At Merry Hill, I have to ask, like another of Charles Dicken’s characters, Oliver Twist.

Merry Hill is car heaven (or hell, depending on your viewpoint). If we can’t have parking charges, or some serious long-term plan to tackle air pollution and congestion caused by it, at least a bit of “soft nudging” is surely in order. At least getting public transport into a corner of people’s brains ought to be the very least of a start.

Maybe when Midland Metro trams finally arrive, we’ll see a bit more interest. We’re told a serious upgrade to the current bus station isn’t on the cards, as it may move when the tram comes – but that still appears a way off yet.

Instead, a very decent public transport guide remains a tragic secret to the masses – I can’t even find it on Intu Merry Hill’s website – just a link to National Express West Midlands’ website (and never mind the other operators who serve the place).

The last time I came across decent info locked away was in Leeds bus station, when I wanted a timetable for Transdev’s now-seminal route 36 to Harrogate and Ripon. None on display, but kept safely under lock and key behind the counter. I hope Head Honcho Alex Hornby has long-since got that misdemeanour sorted out.

But in the meantime, do we ever have a cat in (Merry) Hell’s chance of  even trying to get a tad of modal shift going on in “car town” when the cupboard of all knowledge holds all the secrets from the masses?


“Quality” Contracts?

Not “Quality Contracts”, but “quality” in existing contracts.

Perusing the latest list of tendered bus service awards in the West Midlands, due to start in October 2016, it’s an interesting round of musical chairs this time.

Rotala’s Diamond has a net gain of 2, Arriva’s small Black Country operation loses 3 and National Express West Midlands – who have, of late, shied away from tenders – pick up half a dozen evening & Sunday operations that fit with their own daytime commercial work, which actually may benefit users of these routes, as they can buy a single operator cheaper pass now. Independent Hansons loses 4 but gains 8 new routes, several of which are in and around Sandwell, which isn’t an area they traditionally do much work in.

But the biggest loser is not-for-profit Igo. The bus-operating arm of West Midlands Special Needs Transport gains 2 but loses 14. Indeed all of Hansons 8 gains have been at the expense of Igo. Igo had previously burst onto the scene in recent years and picked up quite a lot of West Midlands tenders. Quite what has happened this time is anyone’s guess.

Apart from the numbers game described above, I personally will miss Igo on the evening and Sunday 226, which passes through my village. They use very well-presented recent Optare Solos, which have some lovely blue leather seats and are a pleasure to travel on. Next month, Diamond regain the tender, which they lost previously, and will provide an all day service on the route (alongside Hansons during the day, both commercially). Diamond will no doubt provide perfectly acceptable vehicles (I guess they may just leave the daytime vehicles on there), but they don’t possess anything like the posh solos that Igo are running. I don’t know the minutiae of the contract, but I suspect it doesn’t specify such high-spec vehicles. We 226 users may have just been “lucky” to have these buses on the route.  But it’s here we enter into the territory of the sub-conscious when it comes to bus services. I doubt you’d find anyone who would actually wax lyrical about the Igo solos, but subliminally it said “hey, travelling on our buses on an evening is actually a pleasurable experience”. When Diamond appear next month, it’ll probably be a 10 year old-plus Dennis Dart. Nowt wrong with that in principle, but it’ll almost certainly be a “downgrade” to what we’ve been used to.

Should we demand such high quality when putting routes out to tender? How often have we seen the daytime commercial service of a route operated with “bog standard” vehicles, yet the off-peak evenings and Sundays run by a different operator with a much higher spec? Or should we just accept that using taxpayers money to subsidise a lightly-used non-commercial bus service requires the cheapest we can get?

Britain’s Buses Linking Us

No wonder I don’t work in marketing. “Britain’s Buses Linking Us” is the best I can come up with off the top of my head, when trying to think of a phrase that sells the UK bus network.

Why so? Well, the railway industry has come up with “Britain Runs On Rail” – a new marketing campaign, (view here)  complete with shiny new website (and multi-coloured British Rail logo) that attempts to talk up our oft-maligned rail network, and place some timely positive facts into the public domain. I guess it’s an attempt to “set the agenda” as best it can from the usual sniping from disgruntled Metro readers and the media, who love nothing more than a negative rail tale.

Rail and bus may be very different creatures, but in many ways, they are similar. They move millions of people from A to B, and the country would grind to a halt if they ceased in the next 5 minutes. Naturally, if you’re a glass-half-empty soul, you won’t have to look very far for problems on public transport, but of all the myriad journeys made across the United Kingdom every minute of every day, the vast majority pass off without incident. It is something to consider for a moment that the affection the nation holds in something like The Flying Scotsman is not always translated into modern day examples of transport. Whenever I ride on one of Wythall Transport Museum’s preserved buses to and from Birmingham, there is nothing nicer than seeing the happy smiles of people on the footpath gazing for a moment at a relic of the past suddenly appearing right before their very eyes. Maybe we want to love our transport, yet we end up associating it with negative experiences, such as congestion and late-running.

It is lazy to moan about the UK’s trains and buses. Only today I have read yet another negative news report about the good people of Worcester’s attitude to getting around in their City. This was one of the places chosen quite a few years ago for something called “Choose How You Move” – an initiative designed to look at wider ways to get around, including cycling, walking, public transport, etc. On the face of it, it looks to have been a resounding failure, according to the two-and-a-half thousand people who responded to the survey. It makes for very depressing reading (read the news report here) – and makes the stark point that, despite all the excellent work carried out by the people behind “Choose How You Move” (and other similar initiatives around the country), there is still a very steep mountain to climb.

But enough of the whinging. Climb it we must. Traffic congestion is costing the country dearly, in terms of the economy, and – more importantly – our health. I won’t bore you with yet another link to some research pointing this out – but I’ll just make the point that, in the most recent two years, congestion is climbing steeply again.

My Facebook friends (the ones who haven’t removed me or blocked my posts) know how much I moan about the lack of effort of elected representatives (be they local Councillors, right up to MPs and Government Ministers) to seriously address the problem. Of course, I simplify matters by accusing them of “lacking the balls” to do something about it, and I know it isn’t as simple as that, but we need a concerted effort by everyone to look at this long-term, and grasp the nettle. Of course it’s going to sound unpopular – unfettered access from A to B represents “freedom”, and who are elected officials to tell us how to live our lives? Well, we end up with stories like the above-mentioned newspaper report, in which fuming motorists actually come out with phrases like “something must be done” without any appreciation of the sheer irony associated with saying it! Who do they think is causing the congestion? The “congestion fairy” 2 miles up the road?

The answer is well-appointed public transport. Of course I’d say that, wouldn’t I? I’m nothing if not predictable. But, to put it crudely, if all we do is keep on breeding, living longer and importing people to this country, we’re slowly going to grind to a halt as everyone want to move at the same time. Especially in such inefficient modes as private cars (often 1 to a car). If we keep on surfing the internet and ordering stuff, someone has to deliver it. The increase in “white van man” over the last few years has been phenomenal. All of these things add up.

Then we have the “status symbol” argument to contend with. Your car is an “extension of you”, apparently. This has developed since the days of the earliest motor car and with advertising agencies selling us this image of “sex on wheels”, it is an incredibly difficult scenario to contend with. How about the “dreadful human beings” that use public transport? Steven Norris, the former Transport Minister came out with that whopper years ago. The confusion of using public transport? It’s alive and well. Working at the sharp end of public transport as I do in my day job, I see significant numbers of otherwise intelligent people totally bamboozled by timetables and fares. The car is easy, it’s your “own space” and it’s “free” (despite all of the hidden costs that motorists seem to want to forget when you ask them how much it costs to drive from A to B).

And though I ramble on interminably about this conundrum, the point I’m trying to make in a long-winded way, is that “Britain Runs On Rail” is a small but very important way of starting to redress the negative views of the rail industry.

Should Britain’s bus industry do similar? Granted, they aren’t “linked” in the same way that the railways are, but we have 5 major groups, numerous middle-sized operators and many small ones. We have Greener Journeys – and a good job they do – but it comes from a slightly different position, using excellent research to make points on environmental, social and economic topics. All very valid. But the “simplicity” in parts of the “Britain Runs On Rail” website really makes it stand out. Plenty of positive bite-sized bullet points that are designed to make people think differently about their railway.

It’s about time someone shouted about the success story that is today’s UK bus industry. There are plenty who would knock it, but we should celebrate it’s good points and the role it plays in the fabric of the nation too.


I’m not having a great week with my local operator National Express West Midlands.

First the belly-aching over the 4pm Twitter feed finish (see previous blog Driven to Drink?), now more tech nightmares in this modern age of bus travel.

Forget that NXWM’s free WiFi and my phone don’t get on (although I think it’s my piece of kit that is the culprit here) – now we have the arrival of “m-ticketing”. With more woe.

M-ticketing is the future, they tell us. I’ve never been over-keen, to be honest. What happens when your phone battery dies? (I work with a colleague who spends half his waking hours plugging in his phone charger) “Not our problem” says bus operator. Fair enough – the propensity for fraud must be very high amongst the n’aer-do-wells. But it’s more potential hassle for bus drivers, who face a bewildering amount of ticketing options to contend with, from a general public, who are either bewildered themselves, want to play the system, or who think they understand it and don’t. Not to mention everything that can go wrong with mobile apps. Sorry, tech wizz-kids, they do. Oyster is surely one of the most simple, effective and unarguable systems. You have a card with credit, it bleeps when it works, there’s no ambiguity (although I’m sure Londoners will tell me otherwise).

So to M-ticketing. National Express West Midlands has been unusually shy about shouting about this. It’s crept out only because I spotted it off the back of something else, and the fact that my bus-driving pal Mark Fitchew told me it was here.

So I found the app in the app store and downloaded it. Seems like other ticketing apps I have for First and Arriva. Register it (although that procedure didn’t work – click on the email, “this link has expired, click for another email with a link on it to click” – that email never arrived), select what ticket you want (day, week, etc), pop your card details in and Bob’s your Uncle.

But Bob’s nephew isn’t happy.

On my First and Arriva apps, I have “ticket wallet”. Buy your mobile tickets in advance and store them here, activating them when you want to use them. Arriva recently had a “half-price sale” on day tickets, so I bought a couple, meaning that I have 2 cheaply-bought tickets ready to use whenever I want to use Arriva buses locally. First’s is exactly the same. I have one ready to use on my app whenever a ride around Worcester and The Malverns takes my fancy. No messing around with change, no trying to find a signal, then tapping in card details – go straight to the app, activate the ticket, show the driver, and make sure my phone battery is topped up.

So, out of curiosity, I buy a National Express West Midlands Daysaver. And, actually, it’s the most expensive option (£4.40 – a cheaper £3.80 version is available after 0930 Mon-Fri & all day at weekends if you use Swift). My intention is to see how easy it is to use, then use said ticket on a day of my choosing.

It’s simple enough. There’s a big red button that says to “activate”. But curiously, it gives an expiry date of something like 2am the next morning. I think nothing of it and go to work. I’ll use it on my day off next week.

Except I won’t. Because next morning, the curiosity of the expiry date gets the better of me and I check the app. In my wallet, there’s nothing there. My Daysaver has “expired”. I hadn’t activated it, but it’s gone. Deep in the “terms and conditions” (hey, who reads those?) it explains that your ticket is ready to use and “valid immediately for travel at the time you make your purchase. Please ensure you wish to travel on the day you purchase the ticket as no refunds will be given” 

Which is completely different to their contemporaries, where YOU choose when to activate and travel. There is no warning that you have to use the ticket on the actual day you buy it – indeed, you are lulled into a false sense of security by the fact it asks you to activate it before use!

Joy. £4.40 up the swanny. Maybe I’ll just pay by cash next time…..

Driven to Drink?

National Express West Midlands has come on leaps & bounds in recent years. Better driving, smart buses and a useful real-time app.

But for a company of this size, the Twitter feed is, at best, average.

At worst, it is downright frustrating.

I have it set to “notifications” on my phone, so I can see what is going on instantly. What surprises me is the tweet that appears dead on 4pm every weekday. It goes something like “I’m heading home now, back at 8am”, or words to that effect. It starts around 8am, so it is obviously 1 person doing office hours. Nothing happens at weekends, either.

Now, I know not everyone does Twitter, but it’s a useful tool for those that do. In the transport world it also adds a bit of reassurance “on the spot” if something isn’t right. Recently, I had cause to tweet Go Ahead’s Oxford Bus Company. Within seconds, I’d had a response to say that my service was running, and would be with me imminently. And it was.

But it’s somewhat surprising that the major operator in Britain’s Second City sees fit to abandon such communication just at the start of the evening peak, when there is arguably more need than ever to be in touch with customers. I may be putting people into convenient boxes here, but will the t’wirlies be on their smartphones off-peak looking for answers? Or is it more likely tech-savvy workers in the evening peak might want to make use of modern tech and communication? I digress…

But the reason I’ve been tipped over the edge is because I read that, this evening, Birmingham City Centre is it’s usual shambles traffic-wise – or maybe worse than that, given that we’ve had a downpour and the idiots have been out to show us their driving “skills” again. Buses bunching, 3 in a row, nothing for half an hour, etc.

NXWM Twitter feed? Sorry, our keyboard hero (or heroes) have locked the laptop up and disappeared spot-on 4pm again. Except not quite. Because 2 hours after the fond goodnights, up pops some random tweet (obviously pre-programmed) informing us that if you’re called “Tom” and you’ve got your Mother in tow, you can get a free drink at some City Centre bar. What?

Yes, I know it’s all about “lifestyle” and if you’re going to get bladdered with your Mum, you’re better doing it with a Daysaver, etc. I get all of that. But for the poor bedraggled commuter awaiting their Bristol Road service resembling someone having just had a bucket of water chucked over them, you wonder why the NX tweeters have seen fit to scurry off home 2 hours earlier, shut the shop up, but still found the wherewithal to tell us about the potential for a boozy midweek night out…

By all means, do the marketing, but how’s about a bit of bread & butter first?

BLOG UPDATE: when I wrote this post, I simultaneously sent my thoughts on email to NXWM (I don’t just whinge, then do nothing about it!) – they have since replied, saying they are indeed looking at extending the Twitter hours. Let’s see what happens….

The Bearwood Spruce-Up!


I had a little giggle at this pic – 3 local Councillors on what looks like a murky day in the depths of Bearwood, near Birmingham. Two of them look like they’re grimacing – as Councillors tend to do, when it comes to anything bus-related.

Actually, it’s one of those schemes that people look at, scoff maybe, or moan about there being “better things to spend council tax money on”. But if we want to get more people onto buses, it’s EXACTLY the sort of thing we should be doing.

Now, we have National Express West Midlands spending shedloads on new buses with all-singing, all-dancing WiFi and comfy seats, and that’s important. But what about where you wait for your bus? Too often, it’s not great. You might even groan like Councillor Worrall is doing.

Bearwood bus station was, up until fairly recently, such a place. It has a car park in the middle of it, and I well recall during my days at Bus Users UK a number of years ago asking Sandwell Council to either clean up or pull down the outrageous toilets there. If ever there was a brick version of Armageddon, this was it. There was also the dodgiest-of-dodgy subways, which you had to use to reach the other side of the Hagley Road to catch west-bound bus services – so you had a wonderful choice: risk running the gauntlet across 4 lanes of traffic,which was akin to  death-by-wacky-races, or take something like a 1-in-2 chance of being mugged in the subterranean World below ground.

Well, the subway has gone, filled in and replaced by surface-level crossing, the City-bound bus lane has been extended to the laybys adjacent to the bus station, allowing buses free-run in, rather than having to pull into the 2 traffic lanes, only to enter the layby again (and of course white van man was never known to give way to a bus – no Sir – he’d rather die a gruesome death by grizzly bear than suffer the indignity of letting a 126 out). And now the toilet has gone too.

In it’s place, not a lot. A new automatic pay-as-you-go loo, and a general “spruce up” of the immediate area. But the difference, whilst not what you might call “breathtaking”, now enters the category of “quite pleasant”. And it all adds up. Where 2 years ago, you ran the gauntlet of the subway, daren’t go in the loo, stood in less-than-salubrious surroundings to get on a bus that was, at best, average, now you can cross the road with confidence, await your bus in decent environs and then get on a swanky new bus to whisk you into Birmingham City Centre.

These things are fairly obvious, if you want to get folk out of cars onto public transport. It’s the jigsaw. There are some more pieces to fit yet, such as more car restrictions, more bus priority, etc but it’s when you start doing the supposedly “little” things like this, it starts to add up. From little acorns, etc….Well done Sandwell Councillors and Transport for West Midlands!

Just one thing for the eagle-eyed amongst you – the display behind the grimacing Councillors shows “X10 Tansey Green” – that isn’t what the X10 will show on it’s destination screen (“Pensnett”, since you ask) – another part of the little jigsaw pieces: co-ordination between what the bus shows and what the timetable and displays shows is so important!

The Numbers Game

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An interesting snippet reaches me via the excellent Midland Branch Bulletin of the Omnibus Society.

It seems that a major revision of Nottinghamshire County Council-funded services took place recently, which resulted in some renumbering of services. Some routes now have 3-digit numbers, replacing those with 1 or 2-digit ones. There is also an ingenious idea that the first of the 3 digits should reflect the District Council area.

I wonder where I’ve seen this before? Ah yes. Throughout most of my life until fairly recently, the West Midlands urban area had a spookily similar system. 1xx for Birmingham, 2xx Black Country, 3xx Walsall, 4xx Sandwell, 5xx Wolverhampton, and so on. This has been largely swept away in recent times for single and double-digit route numbers in each of the localities (except 2xx in the Black Country) – for reasons that it’s “simpler to understand”.

Now, despite confusing (and continuing to confuse) an old curmudgeon like me with a penchant for bus enthusiasm, I have no idea if more general bus users find this brave new world easier to grasp or not (even if we now have identical route numbers in adjacent areas of the conurbation), but this idea to scrap 1 & 2-digit numbers and replace them with 3-digit ones appears to fly in the face of the recent logic peddled by Centro (oops,can’t call them that now) and the operators.

Everything goes around in circles. Rather like bus tyres.