Fatal Attraction

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Checking tickets on my day job aboard the Stourbridge Shuttle, I came across a couple who didn’t have any. The ensuing conversation was sadly illuminating – not particularly for the railway, which was losing out on two £1 singles – but for the world of buses.

As I’ve often discussed here before, buses remain a mystery to certain parts of the public. The routes, the times, the ticketing – it all becomes a hazy puzzle that leads many to shrug their shoulders and use the car, or a taxi. It’s often a challenge to present the network in simple-to-understand terms if you’re a novice, but by golly, the industry does it’s own shooting-in-the-foot on far too many occasions.

This was one example. The man gave me an exasperated look when I asked him for his non-existent ticket. His other half was more diplomatic. Producing a National Express West Midlands DaySaver, I’d told them that it wasn’t valid on our service. She then told me a somewhat exasperating tale of their day.

Living somewhere in the urban Black Country, they’d decided to have a day out in Bridgnorth – an enduring favourite location for folk around the West Midlands, with it’s High and Low Towns, olde worlde charm, historic cliff railway and gorgeous steam trains of the Severn Valley Railway. It’s only around a dozen or so miles from Stourbridge. But…it’s across the dreaded border in Shropshire.

In the days of the mighty Midland Red, borders didn’t mean much on a “Day Anywhere” ticket. Stourbridge folk could jump on the bus for a day out “anywhere” across the erstwhile giant’s sprawling network. Today, an excellent service exists between the two towns, courtesy of the independent Central Buses. So here was issue number one. They’d decided to leave the car at home and hop on the bus. Their “day ticket” wasn’t valid on Central Buses across the border.

Then, they’d paid for 2 day tickets on Central Buses to get to Bridgnorth and seemed even more outraged when I told them about the two for £10 “Duo” ticket – which the driver hadn’t obviously informed them about.

Next up, after a stroll around the Shropshire beauty spot, they’d hopped back on the 125, only to find that it was running a short journey back to Kidderminster only, where a steep walk up Comberton Hill to the railway station awaited, in order to get back to Stourbridge. “Never again!” they almost cried in union.

What can we take out of this sorry tale?

Well, notwithstanding that when you use public transport, a bit of forward planning is necessary. Whether this couple had, or had gotten confused, or whatever, you can bet they won’t be using the bus much in future. The lady had commented “why can’t they do a ticket that covers the wider area?” It’s a good point. Of course there has to be borders and end-points somewhere, but the urban West Midlands plus a wider area is surely ripe for such a product – the railways already do it, and operators like Arriva provide such a product. But when it comes to different operators, the game changes dramatically. Buying single fare or day tickets for multiple operators suddenly becomes very expensive indeed. As for the short run of the last 125 journey, well, perhaps a bit more awareness of the timetable should have been in order.

But I felt a pang of sadness for them, and for the bus industry in general. Here were two people who’d had a poor experience. No one’s fault in particular, but it’s frustrating for sure.

Former Transport Minister Norman Baker talked about having one pass for the whole country. Now of course that sounds fiendishly challenging behind the scenes, but hang on – had our intrepid travellers been in possession of a concessionary travel pass, it would have been no problem (save for the lack of planning on their last bus journey). The technology exists, but the “back office” and haggling over who gets what part of the pie may be more difficult. But is it really impossible to envisage such a product that would allow you onto any bus in England and even work out the best price or cap it for a day? Remove the ticketing confusion and you’re half way there. With the Buses Bill on the horizon requiring open data, information – built upon by whizz-kid app designers – ought to be making buses less mysterious in a short amount of time. Granted, not everyone will take up this technological extravaganza, but the bus industry has to get in front of the game to stand any chance of being relevant in the years to come. When we whoop about “contactless” being just introduced onto local buses, it lays bare the fact that the industry is still generally behind the curve. We’ve got little old ladies out shopping to “go smart” with their passes – we need to kick on, not just with technology, but with operational attitudes.

The trip to Bridgnorth by bus had obviously been an attraction. Their ultimate experience: fatal to their chances of doing it again!

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