My Lucky Number’s Gone*

(*with respect to Lene Lovich – Google if you’re too young….)

You’d expect me to base my lottery numbers on lucky bus route numbers – and of course you’d be right. But this weekend – Sunday 2nd September 2018, to be precise – the Dudley area of the Black Country sees the biggest shake up of routes and numbers since I can ever remember. So my lucky route numbers become defunct.

A minor detail. But it’s anything but minor for the good folk of the Black Country. Hell, I’ve just spent the best part of an hour in the pub explaining some of it to an unsuspecting mate, who often takes his elderly father to hospital and has just found out that his bus will no longer run past the top of his road off-peak – and he’s none too impressed.

There’s always winners and losers whenever this happens. “Why?” he opines to me, screwing up the remains of his scratchings packet, as if the perpetrators of this demon act were inside it. He even eyeballs me, as if I’m somehow responsible (hey, don’t blame the messenger). I’m reminded of the scene in Dudley bus station, but a few weeks ago, when the bus station supervisor was surrounded by a gaggle of hardened women bus users as she explained the changes.

“who thinks of these changes? I bet it was a man”, shouted one of them. When I offered my opinion that that was a “tad sexist”, I thought she was coming at me with a brolly. I scarpered and caught the long bus home from another stand…

There is a serious point to all of this.

Much of the West Midlands urban area has been subject to these “area reviews” over the last decade or so. Dudley was actually first in 2008, but it wasn’t radical with the numbers like this one. In the ones that followed in other areas, the three digit route numbers were replaced by one and two digit alternatives. The reason consistently given being that people find it easier to remember one and two digit numbers, rather than three. There’s also a comment doing the rounds that areas that have been thus treated have seen an increase in patronage. Now, given that virtually every corner of the West Midlands has had one of these reviews, and overall patronage continues to fall, I’m struggling to square the circle on that. The 246 – once home to classic Midland Red D9 workhorses, and known to countless generations of local folk – becomes the 6. The 120 – trundling between Dudley and Birmingham since 1928, even before Dudley had a zoo – will be the 12. 276 becomes 7, X96 the 8. 255/6/7 all morph into 15/16/17. There are new routes, and routes chopped in half. Winners and losers abound. And bits of paper stuck to bus shelters, flapping in the wind and torn down by the local yob fraternity because Transport for West Midlands doesn’t trust it’s biggest operator National Express enough to let it have keys to put them inside the timetable cases. I digress…

I’m not sure I believe all this stuff about three-digit numbers being the offspring of the devil. It’s going down like the proverbial diesel-powered lead balloon, locally. We know for a fact that some of the route numbers that we’re losing on Sunday have been around since the halcyon Midland Red days of 1928! “Everybody knows the numbers”, cries my pub mate, still crushing the scratchings packet. True. And maybe there’s a sense of “they’ll get used to it”, whilst the bigger prize of new users is up for grabs.

It’s actually very neat now. There are numbers 1-20 across the area. And, actually, removing my hat of nostalgia, time does move on, and nothing is forever. Example: A recent similar exercise in South Birmingham has seen buses between Birmingham City Centre and the QE Hospital renumbered X20/1/2 and new posh Platinum vehicles used. This is an easier way to remember how to get to and from the QE, rather than the clunky old 98 number (and even worse, 636 before it – although these services no longer stop outside the main entrance because of the erratic parking and traffic flow there).

So I’m not rigidly against renumbering bus routes. Journeys change, routes evolve, and the bus industry has to always look at ways to make itself relevant to it’s potential audience. Us cynical old farts who loiter around the bus world think we know it all, but if I’ve learnt one thing following a recent trip overseas with a group of young people, it is that the bus industry needs to be relevant. Other modes are rapidly creeping in, but the bus can play a part in a true multi-modal offering.

Simplicity is the key. Imagine not so long ago if I was at the QE Hospital. I want to get back to the City Centre. Taxis are plentiful. So are trains nearby. Buses, as an alternative look clunky. They’re stuck in the traffic near the main entrance, it has a number I can’t quite remember, and when I get on, it’s exact fare or nothing. Hell, I’ll just pay for a taxi. Now, although the buses are a short walk away, they aren’t stuck in the traffic, becoming unreliable, they have posh seats with extra legroom, wi-fi and all the other bells and whistles, and an easy to remember set of numbers: X20/X21 & X22. I can pay as a one-off with my debit card – quick, easy, no hassle. With a turn up and go frequency, hey, I might just give it a go!

So whilst us historians cry over our 1928 bus guides and lament the passing into history of route numbers our mothers and grandmothers would have recognised, maybe we ought to at least accept that it’s finally time for a new brush to sweep clean and start again, if only to try and help the bus industry try to become relevant to an audience yet to try it.

Otherwise, the bus risks becoming a historical artefact in itself.

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Smart Air

A very clever move by Stagecoach to propose bringing 105 electric zero-emission buses to Manchester.

Mayor Burnham has been vocal in suggesting that Manchester should be a trail-blazer for new powers to control the City’s buses, whilst the industry, unsurprisingly, has mostly pointed out that partnership is the quickest, cheapest way to bring an improved bus service.

Stagecoach is playing a positive game – it was the first operator in Manchester to introduce contactless ticketing last year, and now the proposal for the fleet of clean, green machines. Compare with the hardball approach of First, who state they won’t buy any new kit until the outcome of the direction of travel regarding franchising is known (apparently by the end of 2018).

The Mayor is also putting aside £11.5m to explore a business case for Manchester franchising alongside “other options that could improve bus services” in the region. That’s a not insignificant amount of cash.

Of course it’s all political. Stagecoach are effectively saying “we can bring major improvements without all this franchising malarkey” – and it’s a fair argument. If air quality is the current major concern, with thousands of premature deaths every year linked to it in major urban areas, Stagecoach are offering a quick and easy method to address this, with no long drawn-out political shenanigans. Now, suddenly, the Mayor is under pressure to justify spending millions looking at options to replicate London, just as London starts to take a nosedive with it’s own bus network. And, by the way, Stagecoach’s proposal dwarfs the London Mayor’s own proposal for 68 new electric buses in the capital.

The Mayoral game in our urban centres is a fascinating watch. Whilst Andy Burnham waxes lyrical about plans to control Manchester’s buses (with no discernible comment I’ve seen about tackling traffic congestion, by the way), his counterpart in the West Midlands Andy Street is going down an alternative route – even if that means beginning to paint the buses all the same colour. The purists of the paint booth may be horrified, but there are bigger fish to fry here. Street has the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 – and he wants a legacy. Transport figures large on the agenda.

There are plenty who argued that City-Region Mayors with their newly-found powers could only go down the franchise route for real improvement. Who’s going to argue against Andy Street delivering those improvements under a remaining deregulated environment? And, back in Manchester, could Stagecoach’s irresistible march to greater improvement mean that this northern powerhouse remains in a deregulated bus world? By all means, paint the buses orange again, if it makes some people happy, but I reckon the privatised bus world is maybe, just maybe, getting a bit of it’s mojo back…

95%. The Passenger Interest?

In a fairly anonymous Council building on an industrial estate just outside Kidderminster, a crowd had gathered. It was standing room only as Traffic Commissioner Nicholas Denton held his Public Inquiry into the affairs of Diamond Bus.
Diamond has had issues with it’s Kidderminster area operation. I’ve only been to a few Public Inquiries, but I’ve never been to one with this many of the public in attendance. Maybe they were expecting some sort of gladiatorial event, but of course it doesn’t work like that.

Nevertheless, TC Denton did make reference to the amount of public interest in the Inquiry, and in the subsequent decision, referred to his Office receiving “large numbers of complaints” about the Kidderminster operation.
Details of the Inquiry and subsequent decision have already been published, but what about the wider issue of how bus services are regulated by the Traffic Commissioner, and how the public interest is served?

Kidderminster, as an example, is typical of many a mid-sized town in the UK these days. The former carpet-making community has seen retail decimated by internet shopping and, like so many other towns, is dominated these days by a rather huge Tesco – and rather huge car park to cater for it. Once part of the mighty Midland Red empire, Kidderminster’s bus operation latterly ended up within FirstGroup, who sold it – along with nearby Redditch depot – to Rotala, hence Diamond are the main operator in the area today. It appears not to be great bus territory. Local estates surround the area, and the town’s railway station (awkwardly positioned by the Victorians half way up a steep hill) has regular services into Birmingham one way and Worcester the other. It isn’t easily servable, and thus cars dominate the scene – even though their drivers are paying a premium to park there. Elsewhere, just down the road is the town of Stourport, which attracts many Black Country folk – in their cars – when the sun comes out. Gridlock ensues, and Diamond’s blue buses become the victims, often unpredictably.

Underlying all of this are often low-ish frequencies. Only the problematic route 3 – referred to in the inquiry, and ironically passing the back of the Traffic Commissioner’s head during the hearing – has anything like an attractive frequency (every 15 minutes). The rest of Kidderminster’s bus network has half hourly, hourly and less than that on it’s routes. The problem is laid bare if a journey on these routes doesn’t operate. Do other operators in other areas with higher frequencies have similar issues, but the public aren’t adversely affected because another one arrives soon after, and thus avoids the TC’s radar?

The Traffic Commissioner standard is 95% of journeys operating within the “window” of no more than 1 minute early and up to 5 minutes late. Thus there is a 6 minute “window” to get it right. In the passenger interest? I would say so. During the Inquiry, TC Denton made regular reference to it. Following much deliberation between the company and DVSA (who monitored 1443 services), the agreed figure of compliance was 91% – still below the 95% standard. But here’s something. Next door in the (admittedly often more congested) Transport for West Midlands area, the average is apparently 82% compliance.
Recently, Coach and Bus Week reported the case of Stagecoach in South Wales, who also found themselves in front of their Traffic Commissioner, Nick Jones. They too had been suffering from non-compliance, which at one point was as low as 47% on two routes in the Cardiff area. This had further risen up to 93%, but was still below the accepted standard.

In Diamond’s case, the Traffic Commissioner issued a fine of just over £9000, also referring to a clause in the Transport Act which allows compensation to be beneficial to passengers, maybe in the form of free or reduced travel. The TC decided that this should apply to route 3. The company is deciding whether to appeal the Traffic Commissioner’s decision.

What does the consumer – the bus user in this case – take from all of this?

In the case of the dreaded route 3, Diamond argued that it effectively ran at around 80% compliance. What to do? Continue to attract the attention of the TC and his bulging postbag, or dump the route altogether and leave users with no service? The Traffic Commissioner said that he didn’t accept excuses about traffic congestion being worse on specific days, and that the 95% compliance rate takes account of this. As a user, I’d like to agree – but I see for myself from the top deck of my local services how bizarrely random the traffic seems to be these days. Take my local services. They are scheduled for different running times at different times of the day, but even these are subject to the increasing vagaries of congestion. What should take 12 minutes to my nearest town can often take double that – and often without any discernible reason. When local politicians wave glossy brochures about the future of our towns and cities and proclaim new transport plans will provide public transport systems to be proud of, I seem to endlessly sit on my bus services stuck in never-ending traffic, without any sort of plan to effectively tackle this. I sound like a cracked record, endlessly repeating my mantra, parrot-fashion, that the bus really is part of the answer, if only it could shine and bypass this endless, polluting line of cars. But to do that takes real political guts. Motorists have votes, and rival would-be politicians are always the people’s friend when it comes to votes via attacks on hard-working citizens in their cars.

There’s no doubt Diamond has had it’s problems in Kidderminster. And it’s entirely correct that the industry regulator – the Traffic Commissioner – has a role to play in looking after passenger interests, including the setting of standards that users can expect the operator to function by.

But if we’re happy to wheel the operators in for a grilling and consequent fine for poor operation, should we at the very least expect others in the game to face their responsibilities too? I didn’t see the Local Authority being questioned about what they intend to do about keeping the highway clear when the sun comes out and loads of Brummies turn up in Stourport for an ice cream. I didn’t see any local Councillors being asked about what ought to happen about local congestion, the effect it has on bus users and on operators trying to provide a reliable service.

No one comes out of this smelling of roses. The operator has it’s reputation pulled through the hedge backwards. The user stands at the bus stop with no sign of the bus. One industry friend of mine – a former bus company owner – suggested to me that the Traffic Commissioner standards may not be fit for purpose. I would suggest they probably are, but there needs to be a process of looking at the much wider picture of just how much traffic congestion – and it’s often wide vagaries – plays in non-compliance. That will require further resource , political will, and shine a light on just how much the public sector does or doesn’t do when it comes to keeping the highway flowing.

Chances?

Communication…

Communication is always key. Transport doesn’t do enough of it, in a face-to-face sense.

In blogs passim, I’ve wondered why, when rail passengers are used to voices on tannoys announcing late-running services with accompanying excuse, bus passengers in bus stations aren’t afforded the same information. After all, someone, somewhere knows a service isn’t going to run.

Today, on a non-descript trip to and from Dudley, I came across not one, but two examples which bucked this trend.

In Dudley bus station, there were more folk than usual milling around the stand for my bus home. Not one, but two of the three services that use it had missing journeys. Now, as is the norm, not a tabard in sight, save for a gaggle of drivers about 100 metres away in the parking area. Enter the bus station manager. I know her well, as she also works in Stourbridge. She’s one of a rare breed who gets stuck in with the general public and tries to help. Today, she’s trying to find out what happened to the 127 (delayed due to an incident near Birmingham, as it happened – not that National Express West Midlands’ Twitter feed let us know…). Dudley is actually blessed with another helpful soul – a National Express West Midlands Inspector who is also happy to interact with passengers. It seems wrong to christen them “The Old School” – but I mean that in the nicest possible way; it almost seems a lost art of human being interacting with other human being via the use of speech.

Not only did our Bus Station Manager find them a “live” answer, she also asked if they were aware that the service was radically changing next month. Virtually all of them weren’t. She had booklets to give out, and 20-plus questions to answer, from newly-anxious passengers. She handled it admirably, before disappearing briefly to get a new stock of booklets.

The Dudley area is seeing one of the biggest upheavals to it’s services in years in September 2018. Many services are being renumbered, and routes are changing. NX West Midlands buses are scrolling information on their digital destination blinds. It’s a clever move, but I’m shot back down to earth immediately via a Facebook post that brutally comments on the truth – most regulars won’t even look at the front of the bus. Only geeks like me take a passing interest. Getting information through to the travelling public is challenging. My experience working on the railway is that you make tannoy announcements, flash screens and put signs up – but still some people aren’t aware.

But with around 3 weeks to go to this explosion of bus service molten lava, I’m slightly alarmed at the lack of awareness amongst a lot of the travelling public that any of this is happening. This is why the human touch is so important. And local knowledge. It’s clear our Bus Station Manager knows her patch. So with various questions flying in, she answers them all with confidence. Try that with someone in a call centre 50 miles-plus away. One rapidly-overheating woman bellows “Who thinks of all of these changes? Must be men!” I sheepishly challenge her and declare that “that’s rather sexist” and prepare for some part of the weekly shop to come flying past my head. All that is forthcoming is a loud Harrumphh.

My bus has disappeared. On a 20-minute frequency, one is missing. So there are more people than usual hanging around my stop. The next journey arrives, and everyone piles on. Our driver – from Diamond – seems the more jovial sort. The conversation on this Clapham omnibus is about the missing service. Folk are less than complimentary. Down the road at the local hospital, he pops his head around the cab and enquires about the missing bus. “I thought there were more of you than usual”, he quips. There’s a brief conversation about how the supposed vehicle to be used had disappeared off the bus station with “Not in Service” showing. Our man is intrigued. He says he’ll ring the garage and find out. Despite this slightly delaying our service, he has a conversation (whilst parked up, I must add). It isn’t clear what the outcome is (I’m sitting at the rear), but the previously baying mob now break out into spontaneous applause. In all my years of bus travelling, I’ve rarely seen the passengers clap a bus driver.

It makes me think. He could easily have kept his head down, but he interacted and tried to help. Like our Bus Station Manager earlier.

The public can be a fickle lot sometimes. Frustration with public transport problems can often boil over. But I’d like to think these 2 small examples today helped the travelling public in a way that a Twitter feed or a leaflet couldn’t. We haven’t all become robots.

Not just yet.

**UPDATE**

Not long after I wrote this blog, I received a communication from Management at National Express West Midlands. In it, it was explained how they were imminently about to start a big publicity push around the Dudley area to promote the changes. Here is what they said:

The go live date for information release was deliberately today – both for staff and drivers – to try to ensure consistency and so that inaccurate and incomplete messages weren’t released (as best we could prevent). From today, the customer guide is available in all Travelshops and destination displays have been reprogrammed to show changes specific to individual routes. ALL bus stops affected are due to have a poster affixed to them with detail of changes at that specific stop. Mitie are putting these up for us, and these should be done this week. There are something like 1500 stops so it may take some time!

We had around 6 of us out today in Dudley and Merry Hill talking to both customers and drivers & handing out the customer guide. We’ll be in West Bromwich and Oldbury tomorrow and Wolverhampton on Wednesday.

In the week before and week after the change, there will be around 20 staff deployed at key locations to assist customers – including the major hubs and interchanges.

The Travelshop staff have all been briefed, so should be in a reasonable position to help answer questions.

Timetables have all been proofed and printed. 5 are now in the shops and I’m assured the remainder will be in later this week, which is a big improvement on what often happens!

There will be a /Dudley dedicated page on the website going live tomorrow with all timetables linked.

A colleague is doing some bus station posters to further draw peoples’ attention.

Any other thoughts, please let us know !

 

 

 

 

The Argos Lesson

A friend tells me his elderly father wanted to peruse the Argos catalogue the other day. Fair enough.

So off he trotted down to his nearest store to pick one up. They usually sit on a huge pallet outside the front door. But when he arrived, there lain none.

“Ah”, says the Assistant “as soon as they appear, people swarm on them”. My friend’s Dad, in his 80s, can “always go online”, comes the advice. He isn’t online.

Is there a subliminal message for the bus industry here?

I’m increasingly aware of lack of printed timetables. Everywhere. Getting hold of one feels like a prized possession these days. Last time I was in Stafford, I hopped on a D&G bus solely to acquire their timetable booklet (before retreating, prior to departure). Another friend tells me they sell on eBay.

What? People bidding on eBay for a current bus timetable, because they’re so hard to get hold of? Another industry pal confirms this hard to fathom phenomenon.

Arriva in Leicester recently announced it was stopping printing timetables, and dressed it all up as “saving the planet”. Pull the other one. I might have been born the day before yesterday, but I’m not falling for that.

Printed timetable for buses may be a relic for today’s tech-savvy finger-prodders, (and – hey! I’m one of them), but I seriously believe that the industry is making a big mistake going down this route.

People like to browse. Like the Argos catalogue. OK, they might want an electric toothbrush, and they’ll find it online. But what about browsing the rest of the tome? How often has something else caught your eye? Something you never knew you wanted until you saw it?

Same with bus timetables.

When I was but a lad, pre-internet days, I used to revel in acquiring a timetable book. I’d spend hours looking at what was possible. I still do. Whenever I’m in Derby, I buy the local authority booklet, with it’s excellent map. It opens up new possibilities for travel that I never consciously knew about.  In Germany, the local bus & rail timetable booklet seems to reside in virtually every household and restaurant/pub. Last time I was there, I offered to buy one and the gentleman in the station simply gave it to me.

You don’t have to be a transport geek to want this. Yes, online timetables are useful, but I find the vast majority of them clunky to say the least. Then there’s the issue of revising your plans on the move. Is there a signal? Has your battery run out? A handy booklet is simple, effective and always to hand.

It may well be cost-effective to stop printing bus timetables, but what about the wider picture? What lessons can the bus industry learn from the stampede to acquire the new Argos book, whenever it appears?

Guess Who’s Back…Badger’s Back…

Pic: Chris Hanson

The much-loved “Badgerline” brand is set to return to Weston Super Mare, with First services seemingly being recast in an updated version of the classic livery in the seaside town.

It follows the demise of independent Crosville earlier this year, which also had vehicles operating in similar colours. This new version even features the classic badger loitering around the rear wheels!

It’s an interesting take on reviving an old identity. The railways seem hell-bent on it these days, since First revived the GWR brand a few years ago. The bus industry, in comparison, has tended to shy away from using old names – maybe due to ownership of such names, although of course Badgerline was the incarnation before First itself.

There is always a debate when a bus operator paints a bus into heritage livery. Does it mean anything to Joe Public? Might it even confuse them? This Badgerline rebrand is a slightly different argument though. Classic as the image may be, it certainly isn’t a relic from your Mother or Granny’s day – these colours should be recognisable to anyone apart from very young people.

And it’s another “softening” of First’s corporate image. Goodness knows what Sir Moir Lockhead makes of it all – it’s a long way from the rigid “Barbie” pink of his day.

“So what? It’s just a bus”, some may say. I say it’s more subtle than that. Popular and “friendly”-feeling liveries do make a difference. Warrington’s cat-based image feels better. National Express West Midlands’ crimson has a friendlier, classier feel than the blandness that came before it. People are already commenting on West Midlands Metro’s new striking blue look. They’re all the same vehicles underneath, but a makeover sometimes makes all the difference.

What might the Badger do for Weston?