Cancelled. Got The Message?

My Other Half knows how to press my saloon bells. “It’s a bus”, she often says. “They’re all the same”. Well….

But I elicit bus opinions regularly from her. She’s a commuter, owns a car, but often uses the bus and train to get to and from work. The kind of person the industry needs to keep on board.

This evening, I received some rather annoyed texts. After a long day at work, her bus hadn’t shown. A frequent user of the mobile app with live departures, one such departure had shown up not as “real” time, but “timetabled” time. And the journey was missing. “Why show it on the app and the departure screen in the bus station if it isn’t running?” she protested. She knows the difference between “real” and “timetabled” departures, but points out that where I work – on the railways – the timetables are always “real” time – and that they actually show “cancelled” when the train is cancelled.
Also a problem was the coldness of the bus station, with an unscheduled wait of around 20 minutes for the next service. Notwithstanding the complexity of providing heated bus stations, it was again commented on that on the railway, she can wait in a heated waiting room.

There’s quite a bit of food for thought here. In a world where people are making multi-modal journeys to get from A to B (and increasingly C & D as well) – and is acknowledged by fledgling ideas such as Whim, bringing all modes simply together – the bus here, this evening, is looking yet again like the poor relation.

We’ve had electronic “real” time displays on railway platforms for years. Bus equivalents are still, in chronological terms, a recent phenomenon. When the bus ones work – and that same info is placed in the palm of your hand as a mobile app – it’s incredibly useful. But you have to trust what you’re looking at. Working on the railway as I do, I know people generally trust the information they are seeing in real time. They may not appreciate delays, but they can see – with confidence – what is going on. I don’t get that same feeling of trust from the bus world’s travelling public. And this is mainly due to the regular mix of “real” time and “timetabled” time. Do people readily understand the difference between the two anyway?

Tech is a force for good, in the main. But if we want people to use the bus more often, trust in the product, and appreciation of it is absolutely vital. So I have a question for the bus industry. If the railway can show cancelled journeys for the benefit of it’s passengers, why can’t bus?

My good lady’s cancelled journey this evening would be known by someone in authority at the bus operator. We have phone apps and digital displays in bus stations. We surely have the wherewithal to override the list of departures and add “cancelled” and highlight it in yellow, or something?

Now of course, there will be a million and one reasons why you can’t do that. Lack of resource. Lack of access (will the likes of Transport for West Midlands allow bus operators to override their tech system? Fat chance. The operators aren’t even allowed access to a timetable case in a bus shelter!). Lack of business case to support a human being able to input such information. Where is the case FOR doing something like this?
Again, we must look at the discerning traveller, and the ever-increasing options they have. After a long, hard day at work, a cold, unexpected wait nearly drove my Other Half to the nearby taxi rank, even though she pays £99/month for bus/rail/Metro access. In the end, she hung on, lambasting this state of affairs to me, with me not even trying to defend it.

I think we all accept buses will break down, or be missing a driver, or have some other reason why a particular journey won’t happen. That’s life. But communication – in this ever-increasingly connected world, is more vital than ever. If a bus is listed as departing (as scheduled time, amongst a list of real-time departures) at 18:25, people will expect it to be there. When it disappears off the screen without so much as a sarcastic cyber-wave, people; a) won’t like it, and; b) have less faith in the digital information next time, “real” time or “scheduled”.

If other modes of public transport, such as rail and tram, can do info on cancellations as a matter of course, why not the bus industry? I can hear the arguments now. “Far more bus journeys than rail/tram”, they’ll say. But how many cancellations are there? And if we want people to increasingly use buses as a wider public transport v. Private car “offer”, everything about people’s bus journey has to impress them, from reliability, to value for money, to comfort, to a real advantage over the car, to the very latest information about cancellations and journey options. When someone at the bus company knows a journey isn’t going to run, it should be as simple as tapping a few buttons into a tablet to get that information out electronically as soon as possible. It would give people that same confidence they already have in the worlds of rail and tram.

I shall leave the last word to my Other Half. For a regular public transport user – and car owner – it is rather damning: “To be fair, I expect buses to be ****. They have just fulfilled my expectations today”. If that doesn’t motivate those of us who work in, or care deeply about, the bus industry, I don’t know what will.

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Municipalisation? The Way Forward? Or Back to Never-Never Land?

At the risk of OnThisBus appearing to sound “anti-Labour”, can I clear something up? Their policies interest me. Buses must be more than the sum of the bottom line on the accountant’s spreadsheet, although inevitably that’s the way things usually end up on a day-to-day basis. Corbyn’s Party has recently announced “free travel” for under-25s if it gains power, and that, of course, has set the chattering classes on the Clapham Omnibus off. The previous blog here looks at all sorts of hurdles that must be overcome to achieve that.

But now we have Labour’s recently-appointed Shadow Transport Minister for England Matt Rodda reconfirming the party’s direction when it comes to local buses. i.e. potentially back to the never-never land of municipalisation.

Now I’m the first to wallow in a huge pit of nostalgia at bygone days of council-owned operation, with half-cab buses, clippies cranking tickets from impossible-to-understand fare tables and gorgeous liveries that proved that there was actually life before Ray Stenning. I guess we might call them halcyon days, when buses were King, not everyone had a car and cinema – not Netflix – was where the masses watched movies. They traveled on the bus to the flicks to watch King Kong scale the Empire State Building – today they flop on the sofa to watch the remake on their tablet.

Convincing people that buses can be part of the future as well as the past is a hard slog. “What’s the point?”, many will say, when the bus is stuck in the same traffic as your car. Getting people to do the maths as to how much running a car costs them every year is always countered by that unspecified calculation of convenience and “my space”. Buses stuck in traffic jams and on fixed routes aren’t sexy.

Rodda says that “it is clear deregulation has failed passengers and that bus market monopolies are the norm”. Ironically, he made these comments at the launch of Transport Focus’s annual bus passenger satisfaction survey, where those “failed” passengers from the likes of TrentBarton in Derby & Nottingham, Yellow Buses in Bournemouth & Poole and Go North East in Tyne & Wear to pick but three examples must be wondering what on earth he is talking about. All of these topped 90-plus percent for overall satisfaction with their bus journey. As for those masters of bus market monopoly Stagecoach – well several of their local operations also made it into the 90s too.

What is clear to me – as one of these “passengers” – is that deregulation hasn’t necessarily “failed” me at all. It is other phenomenon such as failure to act widely on effective bus priority and operators struggling to make ends meet with the rise of internet shopping, falling footfall in the High Street and ever-lower reimbursement for carrying concessionary pass holders – something Rodda appears happy to potentially add to, when he grants under-25s that same “perk”.  Indeed those commercial fat cats sitting around the boardroom table licking the cream have actually made my journey in the West Midlands cheaper with a slice of good old commercial risk: local area zones have seen a rise in the uptake of these cheap options – would a franchised operation come up with something like that?

Nevertheless, Rodda looks an affable fellow. A quick trawl on the internet brings up the happy smiling MP with Martijn Gilbert, CEO of Reading Buses. He is sitting Member of Parliament for Reading East, which may or may not have swayed his ideas, given that Reading Buses – one of the few “municipal” operations left – also happens to be one of the best operations you’ll find in the UK.

Reading and similar municipal Nottingham regularly scoop the gongs at award dos, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all municipal operations are the blueprint for guaranteed success. Lessons to be learnt from how the very best operators do things? Certainly. Municipal operators are all the holy grail? Er…not entirely. In recent times, we’ve seen Swindon and “Rosso” disappear into private ownership. Now these may not necessarily have been poor operations in the public sector, and we could spend hours discussing reasons why this happened, but maybe we ought to be looking a little more at how the best operators – municipal or private – do things, and learn the best lessons, rather than doggedly creating a political saga where one may not necessarily be needed.

Labour’s plans for buses create more questions than solve them. They want to end the ban on Councils setting up new municipal operations. Whatever. I don’t see any clamour from Councils to set up new bus operations. And if there was, it’s that old familiar question – “where’s the money coming from?”. If Labour want to create an “integrated, successful and sustainable” transport system, are they saying that they’d rob buses from high-frequency, high-performing routes and drop them onto areas that currently have no or few buses? Do that, and you risk the success of the former, with no guarantee that the latter would work anyway. If you really want to give under-served areas a decent bus service, you need to invest in it. Throw resource at it. It may not work. That’s why a lot of commercial operators don’t do it. If the public sector thinks it’s worth a go (and who’s to say the commercial operators haven’t missed a trick?) they need to spend public money on it. But we’ve seen millions of pounds in recent years slashed from already supported bus services in what are considered marginal areas. Do you run buses where there is little demand because it is the right thing to do? Or do you stop wasting money, where that money is public or privately sourced? Getting access to transport other than the private car is vital, especially in rural or marginal areas. It’s a debate we’ve been having for years. But ultimately, it’s actually very simple – someone somewhere has to pay to provide it. Robbing the “Peter” of a successful route to pay the “Paul” of a little-used one is folly.

So all eyes then on Manchester’s Labour Mayor Andy Burnham, as he prepares to set aside £11.5m just to prepare a business case to look at franchising. How much of that hefty sum might have been better spent setting up bus lanes, bus gates and effective cameras and fines for those who ignore them? Paint the buses orange if you really want and make it look like back to the 70s – but can the London-style idea really work in this Northern Powerhouse where the long-term funding and political will is as yet untested?

I’m not saying the “never-never land” of municipal operation is without all merit. Deregulation has it’s faults and can always be improved upon. Some private sector operators don’t do the commercial World any favours whatsoever. But a real, true partnership between private and public sectors, where both truly understand the other is the way to go.

Many years ago, I posed a question at a conference I was speaking at. I asked why we couldn’t have the success of the winner of the UK Bus Awards everywhere. I’m not that naive, but actually that’s as simple or as difficult as it gets. We need to see the bus as more than the sum of it’s commercial parts in society, and whilst Labour poses some interesting talking points, are the politicians of this left-leaning party driving down the wrong road to achieve it?

JC’s “Free” Giveaway

It’s easy to dismiss Jeremy Corbyn’s latest proposal to give free bus travel to young people under 25. The party has certainly learnt something by adding proposed funding streams to their ideas, in order to try and debunk questions from the likes of me as to how they are going to fund it all. (In this particular proposal, the £1.4bn idea would come from the bit of Vehicle Excise Duty earmarked for road building). But the questions – particularly the wider ones – remain.

A good place to start is with young people themselves. Transport Focus recently carried out some interesting research with 14-19 year-olds. Interesting in that it turns out that most young people only want, in the main, what the rest of us want from their bus service. Having it “free” would obviously appeal – as it would for the rest of us – but there are other aspects that this age group considers important to make them feel more attracted to bus use. Not knowing how the system “works” – inducing anxiety – and improving the journey experience are but two findings of this research, and younger people are more likely to demand a higher threshold of quality with whatever they consume.

But is “free” really the deal-breaker? The price of fares is mentioned in the research, especially amongst younger teenagers, but older groups (17-19) appear to be prepared to pay out a bit more to guarantee convenience. This is highlighted by a comment regarding Uber – it may cost a bit more, but worth it for door to door convenience.

Labour says the proposal will save up to 13m young people as much as £1000 per year. There is also a “hearts and minds” issue here. If you throw something “free” at young people, will you “keep” them as bus users into their later adult life? This age group is the biggest users of buses as it is, but it tails off sharply as they get older. Whenever I’m out and about on the bus, 40-somethings like me often seem in short supply.

But is the answer not so much the potential “blunt instrument” of free travel, but of convenience, and sheer relevance to users – whatever their age? We know that price alone in other industries is not always a determining factor – Waitrose and Aldi exist as supermarkets for, what appears on the face of it, the same reason. Dig deeper and you find all sorts of variables as to why people shop at either.

Estonia’s capital Tallinn is known in transport circles for being a trailblazer when it come to free travel – for all of it’s residents. In 2013, following a referendum by the Mayor, the City ceased charging fares for locals. All they have to do is register for a “green card” (2 Euros) and all travel is then free. Visitors pay fares as normal. Research by Dr. Oded Cats – an expert from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and published in The Guardian – however brings more questions. The number of people using public transport over cars was up 8% – but at the same time the average length of a car of a car journey was up 31%, something Cats suggests is down to there being more cars on the road, although other factors such as “shopping and leisure habits” are at play here.

Tellingly, Cats also suggests that he found “mixed evidence” as to whether the scheme has “improved mobility and accessibility of low-income and unemployed residents … [and] no indication that employment opportunities improved as a result of this policy”. He also points to another potential issue further down the line – “In the event of an economic depression, investment in public transport will be more exposed to potential budget cuts if they are not earmarked”. Readers of a certain vintage may well recall such a scenario here in Blighty pre the 1985 Transport Act.

Then we have the service providers. Are Labour suggesting that in introducing free travel for under-25s, it merely means we replace fare-paying members of that age group with free-travelling ones? What if there is suddenly a huge surge in demand? Great, you might think. But what about the nuts and bolts? Will the operators have to put on more resource to cope with this new-found demand? And then, there is the elephant in the room – reimbursement. Labour suggests that this will only be brought in under Local Authority-controlled operations or a franchise-type system. But if it is still private operators running under contract, will the figures on the balance sheet add up? A much larger dancing elephant in the far corner of the room is the inference that such goodies will only be available to certain areas that take up this very different system of bus operation. And that in itself brings up many more questions regarding who pays for this? Will there be long-term ring-fencing of funds? Long-term investment? Immunity from slashing of budgets when the going gets tough? We’re back to Doctor Cats’ concerns above. And whatever you might think of the age-old debate regarding private deregulated bus operation versus publicly-controlled ways of doing things, with the likes of Uber on the horizon with all their razzmatazz, will public sector mandarins be a match?

Labour pledge to pay for all of this through a slashing of the road-building budget. That will be music to the ears of those who suggest that continuously building new roads doesn’t work – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this. But is it a real “like-for-like” transfer of funds? Inevitably, if you rob Peter to pay Paul, something or someone loses out. The devil – as always – is in the detail.

None of this is to say the whole proposal isn’t without merit. It’s always interesting to speculate about what public transport is for in the very widest sense. And if nothing else, Corbyn and Labour have started a conversation about this.

But there remains a huge list of answers required before anyone can feel confident about this being the start of the holy grail for buses.

 

Disruptors to Journeys – Part 2: Burgers and Buses

 

To know your product, you’ve got to spend quite a lot of time consuming it at the coalface. Experiencing it as any punter might. That’s why I spent last Tuesday munching on a burger in McDonald’s, contemplating how the worlds of the Big Mac and the 226 bus past my house might be more related than you may first imagine.

“Disruptors” in industry interest me. In today’s world, no matter what industry you’re in, prepare to be “disrupted”. I guess it’s always been the case in a free-market economy, and the bus world only first experienced a version of it post-26th October 1986, when the Thatcher Government allowed anyone (within reason) to operate bus services. But in more recent times, technology has really allowed this free market to thrive. And no matter if you flog burgers or provide bus services, there’s an ever-increasing threat to what you do from people who think they’re more tuned-in to what consumers want.

I’d read an article about McDonald’s. You’d think this giant of the High Street might almost be untouched by disruptors, but the food industry must be one of the top markets where disruptors try their hand. Just take a thought as to how many options you have to eat when you’re out and about, or even if you’re at home and don’t want to be out and about. Technology has brought the likes of “Just Eat” into the palm of your hand. You might well have fancied one of Ronald’s Quarter Pounders, but if you download the Just Eat app, you can choose anything from a plethora of local takeaways and have it delivered to your door. Suddenly, McDonald’s have lost a potential sale.

The World of buses is, for the time being, rather different. Disruptors are trying their hand on the periphery of the industry, in places such as London and Bristol, but in the main, at the moment, it’s one of those “take it or leave it” scenarios. You take the bus, or you don’t travel. But does this lead to complacency in the bus industry?

The article on McDonald’s talks about how the restaurant chain saw disruptors coming, and subtly changed their offer. I’m by no means a regular burger-chomper, but I used to be in my mis-spent youth. I recall Maccies in my youth as a sea of plastic chairs and awful music, with most people trying to queue-jump. The idea of a “drive-thru” was genuinely innovative of it’s time. So I decided to have a toddle along to my local McDonald’s – via my local bus service – to see what had changed, and how it compares to the local bus service “offer”.

I’ve already downloaded the McDonald’s app. It promises “at-table service” – something that would have been considered alien to a teenage Tonks 30 years ago. So I follow the instructions on my phone, “checking in” via scanning a QR code on the wall as I enter. Then I order, pay via a card, get issued with a number and wait. The interior décor is more tasteful than I remember of years ago. On the tables, several have tablet-sized computer terminals, all of which are being tapped by children and adults alike. There are phone chargers. Everything is spotless. Others are ordering via giant touchscreens and waving cards at pay terminals. And then a member of staff appears with my order. I’m sitting in “zone 2” and he shouts out my order number. That’s it. I scoff my burger. It hasn’t changed in taste and presentation in 30 years, but all around it, the experience has been re-tailored. It says “my core product hasn’t changed, but you’ll appreciate the whole experience and want to come back again”.

Now burgers and buses may well be two very different worlds. Or are they? McDonalds may well have had to work hard to grab my custom, because I could have frankly eaten anywhere. But technology has been employed to make my experience good. Weatherspoon’s have also employed this method which means, especially if you’re on your own, you can occupy a seat and order without having to leave a load of bags or a jacket to “claim” your space. And that’s clever, because if I’m out solo, I’ll consider Weatherspoon’s subconsciously first because of that.

What about buses? What makes me think “I’ll go on the bus again, because I considered it quite good?”

Sadly, and frankly, not a huge amount.

My trip to Ronald McDonald’s burger emporium was made via my local route. A 15-year-old Dennis Dart, a driver with a woolly hat on, heaters blasting out (which the driver can’t control), a particularly annoying rattle and sploges of grime that 15-plus years of plying Britain’s roads have inevitably created without the loving care of a dedicated cleaner over time. My experience isn’t a disaster, but it’s hardly whispering “come back for more”. More “take it or leave it, son. Unless you want to drive”.

The bus industry isn’t like this everywhere. Locally, National Express West Midlands has the “Platinum” brand, which is a much nicer bus travel experience. We all know about Arriva’s “Sapphire” and Stagecoach’s “Gold”. Mobile ticketing is taking advantage of the aforementioned technology, and NXWM has a current one-minute advert that shows in a very effective way that simple mobile ticketing can get you out and about in a group. But we all know that congestion, and the bus’s lack of ability often to cut through the jams is what really turns a lot of punters off.

Despite the Platinum/Sapphire effect though, I’m still left with this nagging feeling inside that the bus industry generally needs to do more to get people onside, before the Ubers of this world move in, in a wider, general sense. There is still too much “acceptance” of poor presentation on our buses. Getting something done about congestion is the fundamental argument of our times, but making buses cleaner inside and having better standards of presentation are within grasp. Half-torn, out of date notices about service changes look subliminally poor. Passengers may not necessarily tell Transport Focus about them every six months, but inside I bet a lot of them still view bus travel as a mode of last resort, despite the headline 80%-plus marks for satisfaction that appear.

I think of the innovators, such as Alex Hornby, now at Transdev. I remember when he was at Trent Barton handing out free breakfasts on board buses in Nottingham and Derby. Some scoffed, and of course the passengers did (!), but what was actually going on there? It was an effort, alongside other seemingly small touches, that said “don’t see the bus as something that has to be endured, see it as part of your daily routine – and every now and again, we’ll have a bit of fun!” Add that to sparkling buses and award-winning drivers, and you create a bit of magic – on an otherwise mundane bus service. And Alex is now weaving his magic at Transdev’s northern operations. Look at the drive to make the buses look a million dollars on the outside. Ray Stenning’s Best Impressions agency makes vehicles on, say, the 36 from Leeds to Harrogate, look like more than a bog-standard bus. They’re also all-singing, all-dancing inside. The “product” – a bus from A to B – is still what it is, but this is what McDonald’s has achieved. The burger is still the same, but the whole experience surrounding it is uplifted. And it also says something about price. Trent Barton and Transdev aren’t the cheapest operators. I can also grab a burger for far cheaper than Maccies flog them at. It’s about having the vision to persuade the bean-counters in an organisation that passenger experience isn’t necessarily something you can mark out on the balance sheet in the short-term. It’s about what’s coming over the horizon.

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Transdev Route 36

And if your “product” – whether it’s burgers or buses – is suddenly perceived as “old hat”, and some young upstart can give people what they want, you’ll soon be out of service, maybe quicker than you ever imagined.  As the CEO of McDonald’s Steve Easterbrook commented “You have a choice to either be the disruptor or the disrupted”.