Fair’s Fare?


That bleak mid-winter time after Christmas usually heralds the annual bus fare “revision” in the West Midlands. For “revision”, read usually “increase” – although in more recent times, certain fares and tickets have either remained frozen in price or actually come down.

That doesn’t usually stop the carping on social media and local newspaper letters pages though. Despite the West Midlands urban area being one of the cheapest spots in the UK for many years to use buses, perception appears to be nine-tenths of the thought police. You can always bank on a few petrol-heads regaling their back-of-a-fag-packet calculations that supposedly “prove” driving their gas-guzzler is still cheaper than using the bus (despite proper research that tells them it..er..isn’t), as well as some local Councillor who needs to shore up their percentage of the vote for upcoming local elections – despite photo-bombing the scene when the operator has invested in a few hundred-thousand of new kit. Ah. Such is life….

The price of using buses is a debate for all of us. Well, apart from the lucky souls who have concessionary passes. Mobility seems to be an ever-increasing issue for everyone. We’re all moving from A to B to C, etc. But perceptions of “value for money” loom large on those Transport Focus research results. I might live in the West Midlands, but I’ve bussed it around huge parts of the British Isles – and I can tell you that we’re cheap around these parts, compared to elsewhere!

But that doesn’t always relate to people’s overall feelings. If the bus has empty bottles rolling around on the top deck, the windows etched, and it’s stuck in the same traffic as everyone else is, that “cheapness” can quickly evaporate. Leaving to one-side for the moment, the endless discussion about needing more bus priority, what about the price you pay to “go your own way”? (as Network West Midlands’ recent advertising strapline goes).

Despite my protestations, friends and colleagues regularly tell me that the bus is “too dear”. The motorists do the aforementioned “fag-packet” calculations, others tell me they’re either confused or “I wouldn’t pay that”. Actually, those who ARE regular bus users don’t normally wax lyrical at me about the price. Plus, I’ve always been convinced that offering “bargain basement” bus fares isn’t the whole story to getting more people on board.

Nevertheless, we live in a price-conscious society like never before. “Bargain-basement” really isn’t everything. At my local hyper-shopping centre Merry Hill, I often witness 2 or 3 people getting into a taxi next to the bus station. Now, there is little doubt that a taxi is more expensive than the bus, but the calculation has obviously gone on that, split between them, it isn’t a bad alternative, given they haven’t got to wait for the bus (that might be stuck in traffic), and it’ll take them to the front door. The bus could be 50p – but would that be a game changer? Also, we await, in the Black Country, the impending arrival of Uber. Next door, in Greater Birmingham, the Uber cars are ubiquitous. I’ve tried them. Yes, they’re still significantly more expensive than the bus, but… the same calculations as our Merry Hill shoppers may increasingly be coming into play. When I tried it, it was simplicity itself. It was even fun! The little map shows the cartoon Uber hurtling towards my location in real time. Within minutes, it’s there. No fuss. No money changes hands, as I’ve linked the app on my phone to my bank account. I’m not dropping physical coins into a 1970s-style metal vault on the bus. And it’s getting me from A to B via any which way is quickest. You can clearly see the attraction.

The big danger for the bus operators is if and when the price generally comes down to a ball-park bus ticket figure. It doesn’t have to match it (otherwise the bus operators are in trouble!), but if it’s where people start to make serious decisions about whether to Uber or bus, it’s reckoning time for the bus folk!

Of course, the most forward-thinking of the bus folk have their thinking caps on. Brian Souter has been warning of this very thing for a while now. Stagecoach’s “Little & Often” high-frequency minibus affair in Ashford is interesting, not so much for it’s “back to the future” idea of 1980s minibus networks, but it’s attempt to say “you don’t need Uber around these parts”. It’s laying down the gauntlet. And the whole bus industry is watching with interest. Likewise, Alex Hornby at Transdev has a bus route with vehicles fitted with Satnavs which take the least-congested route on one of his services. Of course, there’s comparatively few examples of where you could do that elsewhere, but it shows that the top brains are thinking outside of the box. It’s “adding value”.

Which brings me onto something going on in my native Black Country.

This week has seen the launch of a cheap area zone ticket for Dudley & Sandwell (Sandwell being that mythical place where you won’t find an actual town called “Sandwell” – but the locals know what’s what). So what, you might say?

Despite the West Midlands being cheap as it is, National Express West Midlands reckons people think it’s still too expensive in this area, if they’re only making local trips. I’d agree with those comments (if not the reality), because it’s what I’ve heard many times before.

So, if you’re only “staying local” in Dudley & Sandwell, you can get a day ticket for only £3 (compared to £4.60). A single is £2.40, so for some people, this is going to be really good value. For the company, it’s picked up some really positive press, and it’ll be interesting to see how much effect this has. Will people really see this as a “game changer”? Weekly and Monthly tickets are imminent.

It also shows a de-regulated, private operator at their commercial, swashbuckling best. Able to respond to the market quickly, and effectively. Would you get this inside the dead hand of a franchised operation?

Intriguing is also a word to consider. Why do this? Why now? Is it meant to head-off any challenge for local trips when Uber does finally hit the scene? Is it in response to cheap offerings from other local rival bus operators (such as Diamond? I think not, personally – their network is much smaller), or is it a response to the market generally that sees great chunks of the bus World in a bit of a depressed state at present? Will it stimulate those “value for money” scores on the doors?

It wouldn’t be me unless I picked some holes in it.

What will the “levels of abuse” be like? The “border” for this on the east towards Birmingham is the M5 Motorway. Are we going to witness mass “chucking off” ceremonies on the Motorway bridge stop on the 9 in Quinton towards Birmingham? What happens when they inevitably make it to the bright City lights, then try and board to come home? I’ve witnessed enough “rugby scrums” on Colmore Row in the City Centre to consider that the poor old driver is going to have her/his hands full “refereeing” that lot!

Secondly, it is yet another product to add to the basket of fare offerings. Board a bus in the West Midlands without an inkling today, and you’ll be swept away with the mind-boggling amount of variations. Single. Short Hop. Day ticket before 0930. Day ticket after 0930. Day ticket before 0930 for all bus operators. Day ticket after 0930 for all bus operators. Day ticket for NX Buses & Metro. Day ticket for all bus operators and Metro. Day ticket before 0930 for buses, trains and Metro. Day ticket after 0930 for buses trains and Metro. (Deep breath….)

THEN….if you have a Swift card, you can get further discounts on all of these products. Or whip out your mobile and some of these tickets can be bought on there (and with discounts…)

Compare this to your Uber app. You type in A to B. It quotes you a fare (albeit that fare can change depending on demand / time of day) – and that’s it. OK, people are used to this “multi-choice” in other parts of their life (like choosing your car insurance provider or mobile phone tariff) but for my money, the jury is out on whether so much choice is such a good thing. Look at the negative press the railway industry gets over it’s fare combinations).

But it would be remiss of me to not at least wish the cheap Dudley/Sandwell Zone tickets a fair (“fare”?) chance of succeeding – if only to see if it really does attract more paying “bums on seats”.

One thing is for certain – the bus industry needs keep on looking outside of the box if it is to remain a true player in 21st-century mobility.




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