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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