Obsessive. And Failed.

I recently updated my Twitter bio to read “Obsessive about quality public transport”. I’m also acutely aware that the blog seems to read like an endlessly moaning effort these days. Maybe I need to visit some of the more rewarding bus operations.

It’s easy enough to moan about public transport. And in a moment, I’ll kick off again. But I’m “obsessive about quality public transport” because I believe in the idea. Totally. I know that, because it involves things that contain mechanical parts, it will fail on occasion. Memo to smug motorists: your car will, eventually, let you down too. But what gets my goat is when public transport shoots itself in the foot.

Example 1: Last weekend, myself and the other half attended an event in Dudley. (“Dudlaaayy” to those reading this outside of the Black Country.) We could easily have driven. We decided to take the bus. Upstairs, the view across this once industrial powerhouse was obscured by crappy window etching. It immediately feels uninviting. The route itself winds around various housing estates – nowhere near as direct as taking the car. Then we grind to a halt as a pair of vans have been parked directly opposite each other and the occupant is actually sitting in one of them, of course unable to dent his pride and move it slightly. Our skillful driver manages to gingerly negotiate the situation. Result: delayed journey.

The etched windows ought to be addressed. I know it’s a continuous battle against these cretinous idiots, but it feels like a very poor mode of transport. The van parking is an altogether more difficult issue.

Example 2: When the evening is done, and alcohol consumed, we mosey back to Dudlaaayy bus station for the final bus of the night home. It counts down on the tracking display, then appears to be delayed. There are, in total, 5 of us waiting. Then counts down to “due”. Then fails to appear. It’s getting very late, and everyone is getting a bit shifty. 15 minutes later, I decide that I’m going for a taxi, which costs me £10, and will take me to the front door. No wonder local bus shelters have local taxi cab stickers stuck illegally to them.

Who knows what happened to that journey. I’ve emailed the bus operator, asking if they’ll reimburse me my £10. We shall see. I’m open-minded as to the possibility of breakdown, bus attacked by yobs, driver taken ill, whatever. But the other half makes good points.

Why can’t info be put on the live screen, she asks? Good question. And that point has been discussed on this here blog before. The technology is certainly there. Someone knows the bus ain’t going to run. Why can’t it be put on the screen? Or announced on the tannoy? Are there still bus station managers onsite at that time? If not, Security? I saw none. Could a message be gotten to them to inform waiting passengers? Is there a policy to get a spare bus/driver to the scene? Is there a policy to provide taxis as a replacement? If we want people to believe in public transport, these are the things we need to think about and have in place. Another topic raised by the other half has also been discussed here before. The perception of security. As a lone female travelling late at night, would she have felt safe? Dudley bus station isn’t the worst place in the world, but it also isn’t the greatest.

You could almost feel the relief as we jumped into the back of the taxi. This would also take us to the front door. But, damagingly, it also chips away at the reputation of the local bus service. You can’t blame breakdowns, or whatever else happened. They will always happen, and maybe we were just incredibly unlucky. But what you CAN do is recover the situation by having mitigation. And here lies the conundrum. It requires money, resources and, ultimately, will.

We both have cars. I’m not the best placed to talk about giving up on buses, because I’m a nerd and I believe in them. But I looked around at the other faces waiting for the no-show. I suspect they had no choice. They possibly could ill-afford the cost of a taxi. And possibly they will be there again tomorrow night. Or next week, hating having to use the bus, but not having a choice. Is this what we really want? People so unhappy at having to use public transport, but are because it really is a mode of last resort? If it is, I despair.

The other half commented that, with hindsight, we could have just ordered a taxi direct from the function we were at and saved ourselves an hour. “That’s what we’ll do next time”. So, future passenger lost, and a really negative view of bus travel painted.

I know it’s logistically very difficult (and expensive) to have a spare bus and driver sitting in the bus station every night, just in case it’s required. In days gone, when Dudley had it’s own bus depot, it was possibly more likely that they could have sent one 3 minutes up the road to cover such an eventuality. And we live in a world of progress? But there is surely a way of communicating these problems. On the bus station screen. Via the tannoy. Via a member of bus station staff. And is it really beyond the wit of mankind to devise a system that, with minimal fuss, says, “sorry about that. Here’s a taxi”. It would focus a lot of minds to get the system right, because public transport should be relied on, no matter how difficult or convoluted it can get.

If we’re polluting everyone with poisonous emissions, and we really don’t want to be the focus of silly pub jeers about “the Government want us all to get on the bus – I’m never going to stop using my car”, we have to get public transport as near perfect and reliable as it can be. Every time. It WILL go wrong. But like every good retail business, it’s how you win people back that is all important. And at the moment, the bus industry is failing big time.

Loss-Leading Lager and Bank Holiday Buses

Bank Holiday and the sun is out? Must be global warming. But nonetheless, the sandals and socks are on display, and the Brits want to play.

Myself and the good Lady unusually both had the day off last Bank Holiday. We both have cars but didn’t fancy the laughable “freedom” it might bring us, with “Bank Holiday traffic” (which always seems to bring a dire warning that it’s going to be “the worst ever” for gridlock). We also wanted the potential to enjoy a few drinks.

Several delightful areas were pondered. None of which were accessible by bus, either because buses had long-ceased to serve the area concerned, or because it was “Sunday service” (i.e. no service).

I work on the railway, where, ironically, I am often working on a Bank Holiday – to a normal weekday timetable. Where has this “Sunday service” on Bank Holidays for buses come from? Is a long-standing old tradition that goes back to giving the horse a well-earned break and an extra bit of hay? Or is it a bit of bus manager / bean-counter intuition that will save a few quid because there’ll be fewer commuters?

Many years ago, I held a Bus Users Surgery at a well-known supermarket entrance in a Manchester suburb (oh, the highlife). I positioned our stand next to a huge pallet of packs of lager. In between gripes about how the local service into town was “always late”, I watched the human behaviour. People would insert their pound coin into the trolley, then immediately be confronted with a pile of cheap beer. (Occasionally asking if I worked for the bus company, as if to prepare for the venting of the spleen – when I told them I didn’t, the disappointment was palpable).

After a while, the store manager appeared and asked if how it was going. “Fine”, I replied. “I bet you’re making a fortune with this beer though”. “Not at all”, he replied, and launched into a mini-lecture on loss-leaders in retail. They would take a hit on the beer, but the real money was in other products. Types of cheese were particular kerr-ching moments. Then, our happy shoppers would leave, beer-happy, but almost unaware that they’d been totally ripped off for some Ukrainian camembert, or the like.

Not that bus operators are in the business of ripping people off – even if a £6.20 “day ticket” for a return trip of around half hour each way did make my eyes water slightly recently. But “loss leaders” is surely something they could try. Could they tie in my £6.20 ticket into a cheaper “zone” just across the invisible border and knock £2 off the price? That might lose them some revenue in the short term, but it might just make me travel more on that service, thinking the price is far more acceptable. Likewise, with Bank Holidays. If only a normal Monday service was running on the Bank Holiday, there would have been a lot of destinations me and the other half would suddenly have been in reach of. It might have lost the operator some revenue, but it might alternatively had sent a message that, actually, the bus industry is serious and innovative about trying to attract people to its services – not just by taking a punt on Bank Holidays, but at other times too.

In the West Midlands, we never used to have Boxing Day bus services. Then, a number of years ago, Centro (as was) took a gamble at subsidising a limited service. It has grown year-on-year to the point that much of the Boxing Day network is now commercial. Is there a lesson to be learnt here?

As the good Lady sadly concluded, “let’s go in the car”, when she realised buses weren’t an option last Bank Holiday. She may well take that attitude on other days too.