Will Ma Catch The Bus Again?

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‘tis the week before “Catch The Bus Week”. A sort of queasy excitement akin to the week before the fat man in the red suit squeezes down the chimney in late December. A gift to bored local newspaper reporters, who line up their iPhones to take pics of people waving with large green hands in front of the local shiny double decker (all the newspaper photographers long since in possession of their P45s).

Climate Emergency?

This is not to knock the efforts of CTBW. The bus industry still lacks a 52 week-per-year feel-good campaign. I do my best to argue on Twitter during every waking hour that the bus is at least part of the answer to the chronic congestion that is giving our kids asthma. But try telling that to someone who has just ordered the complete box-set of Friends on Amazon – and wants someone in a white van PDQ knocking on their door with a brown parcel.

Even I’m to blame. I’ve used taxis and the dreaded Uber more times than ever this year. Faced with a 40 minute wait for the next bus home, I’ve reached into my pocket and procured a ride with devilish simplicity. Climate emergency? I’m starving mate – and the chip shop becomes 10 rather than 50 minutes away.

It’s hard going for the bus industry. All these pensioners may be up in arms over the BBC taking away their free TV licence, but there’s no word on doing the same with their free bus pass. Good Lord, no. There’d be a riot featuring those shopping bags on wheels if ever that came to fruition. I suggested a while ago that bus operators weren’t getting the correct amount of reimbursement for Granny’s trip to the shops – I was nearly bopped on the bonce with a stick. I’ll not go there again.

A Trip to Wolverhampton…

Talking of folk getting upwardly mobile with their free pass, my dear old Ma suggested a trip out on the bus recently. In an all too rare afternoon of unbroken sunshine, we ventured to our nearest stop – the plan being a trip to Wolverhampton and afternoon tea in the Art Gallery.

Ma isn’t a regular bus user. She is the driver of a rather large (for my liking) SUV-type thing, with buttons aplenty across the dashboard and heated seats, which are permanently on, even in June. So I have a job to do, impressing her and trying to persuade her that, actually, parking this great hulk of a thing wouldn’t be an issue if she hopped on the bus occasionally.

Not ‘appy Days…

My first bit of wooing involved the National Express West Midlands app.
“There’s a bus due in 8 minutes”, I proudly announce, with the pseudo-authority of someone who might know what he’s doing with technology. So we stride confidently to the bus stop. Two miles down the road, there are major roadworks, so where our bus was coming from was probably like some suburban Armageddon, and I notice a 16 and 17 appear to be running in parallel. The 17 appears first, and I instruct Ma to stand aside and let it go – we need the 16, which is coming one minute later. I know this, because the real-time tracker says so.

Our 17 glides away and I glance at the app for the 16, which I expect to say “due”. Instead, it shows 18 minutes.

“Is this it?” she says, eyeballing a Diamond 226, which shows on the app, but not in real time.

“Er….”, says I. “No”. This is the crushing disappointment I now have to deliver. The last time I did this, she’d set her heart on apple crumble for pudding in the restaurant, only to be crushed some 14 year old waiter-kid, who, barely able to put a sentence together, managed to inform us that all the crumble had gone, and only sticky toffee pudding remained. “I won’t bother”, she’d replied, disappointment writ large.

“er… this bus is now 18 minutes away”, I offer in a sort of it-doesn’t-really-matter-ish voice. “oh”, comes the response. We decide to cross the road and go in the opposite direction to Stourbridge instead. The next one due there is 8 minutes. So we run the gauntlet of the A491, with a motley collection of motorists and van drivers intent on breaking the land speed record.

Newly-ensconced in the bus shelter, my phone suddenly loses 4G and whirs around for infinity while I summon the real-time for this direction. And 5 minutes later, the errant 16 appears on the other side of the road, bound for Wolverhampton…..

Ma’s heart is set on whatever cake is on offer in Wolverhampton, so we run the gauntlet a second time back across the road to board the 16. Goodness knows which departure this is supposed to be. There’s nothing akin to it on the app.

“Good morning!” She beams at the driver, whilst scanning her pass. He looks shell-shocked. I scan mine (if only that were free). I grunt at the driver. He grunts back. We’re on our way.

The Long Way Around…

The bus is a six year-old ADL Enviro 400. We ride upstairs, and it’s perfectly presentable, save for an apple rolling around the floor. I resist the urge to pick it up (“you don’t know where that’s been”) and it eventually bobs it’s way down the stairs, as someone on the lower decks shouts “APPLE” as if some sort of apple attack is underway.

The 16 takes around 50 minutes to reach Wolverhampton. In the car, it would be around 20. Despite a rather scenic tour across the border into the green fields of South Staffordshire, you get the impression many would like a direct service. But that in turn would miss out the ever-growing village of Wombourne and threaten the viability of the service. It’s the age-old conundrum for bus operators – would you attract more users with a direct route, or lose your existing fan-base by excluding some of them?

Two of Wombourne’s “yoof” on bikes cause a minor harrumph by riding two-abreast (knowing full-well they’re delaying the bus), but apart from that, it’s a quiet trip into the City. Ma hasn’t been to Wolverhampton in a while, and is amazed at the amount of roadworks going on. It’s the usual free for all around the wishbone island, and, as is traditional, no one allows the bus much progress.

Super-Dooper Platinum…

Our business in Wolverhampton concluded, I decide to “treat” Ma to a trip on a Platinum to Dudley (aren’t I the best Son any Mother could wish for?)

The X8 has super-dooper ADL E400MMCs on a 10 minute frequency between Wolverhampton and Dudley, so I know this is going to be a winner. The departure stand has been liveried up in a bright red, displaying all the joys of travelling Platinum – free WiFi, USB charging, next stop announcements, etc, etc. And it has a big “126” number on it as well – despite the X8 replacing the 126 nine months ago.

“Ignore that”, I bark, as a Platinum arrives. It has been debranded from it’s previous “X7/X8” offering since the X7 recently disappeared, and had previously also lost it’s “126” branding. Never mind that. Ma is interested in the “posh bus”.

Ticket Troubles…

I board and the card reader loudly refuses my pass. “Try again”, urges our driver. The same result. We stare at each other. It’s clear he thinks I’m a fraud. “Have you got a receipt?” he asks. Have I got a receipt? It’s direct debit. We stare at each other again. But my 6’7” 18-stone frame leering at him probably pushes him into a decision to let it go. Ma is right behind. The last time she argued on my behalf was when I was 7 and kept in at school for detention for something I had nothing to do with. 41 years later, I was really hoping she wasn’t going to kick off again. Driver sighs and waves me on. Then the machine refuses Ma’s pass too, and the passenger after her. I resist the urge to go back to the cab and grin and take my place on the front seat upstairs. Yes, I still think I’m driving it.

Ma shows faint bemusement. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened”, she remarks. I decide that, coupled with my app disaster previously, technology – along with Brexit – is actually driving us all mad.

The X8 is a jolly romp along the Birmingham New Road, observing the great British frivolity of driving like a maniac if you have a white van or souped-up car. I remark that, if only the Police had unmarked vehicles, they could probably recoup the cost of a dozen new Officers in the space of an hour if they rounded these idiots up. Ma notices the high frequency of the X8s, with various bunched examples running in the opposite direction. Despite the antics of other road users, and the timetable looking like it’s gone to pot, the drivers seem a reasonably happy bunch, with all sorts of waving and grinning going on between our man, and the pilots of the other chariots.

Dudley Aroma…

In Dudley, we are greeted by the pungent aroma of some possibly illegal drugs. Maybe it’s the output of some exotic animal wafting across from the famous nearby zoo, but I somehow doubt it.

Here, I’m on the hunt for a Diamond 226, which has the delights of brand new Wright Streetlite single deckers on it, but there are none in sight. I spot an hourly 5 and drag Ma onto that. We are entering Dudley’s evening peak, and it’s agonisingly slow progress, first past the Magistrates Court, then the Leisure Centre and then the local Hospital, where one of her mates gets on. They’re lost in conversation and I have time for another row on Twitter about how good the local bus service is…

Will She Do It Again?

Will Ma be tempted out of her big tin can onto the bus again? Despite a couple of faux-pas, Our 3 journeys have been reasonably OK. The biggest bug-bear is the “lack of direct bus”. Although the X8 is basically a straight line, the other 2 services trundle around various roads, taking a lot longer than it would by car. For some, not an issue, but for others it is endured. The Black Country’s road network is saturated. It is challenging to physically put in more bus priority, let alone politically. So the story goes, if you’re going to sit in traffic, you might as well sit in your own (heated seat) car.

Catch The Bus Week is a good enough effort, but the industry needs a continuous good news drumbeat. And finding those good news stories to sustain that is a challenge in itself.

As for Ma, she say’s she will. I’ll be watching…and curious for the feedback…

 

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X-it Innovation?

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The X7, on it’s final day of operation.

The withdrawal of a commercial bus service, with plenty of alternatives, shouldn’t really be a cause for much concern. But the removal of National Express West Midlands’ X7 brings with it a touch of mild despair, and a question mark about just what the bus industry in general can do to make services better, when all around them traffic congestion continues to asphyxiate the whole operation.

What was the X7, and why I am getting all half-glass-empty about it’s demise? After all, it had only been in existence for eight months. It ran between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, part of a rejig of services that, you guessed it, were suffering from unreliability as they approached Birmingham city centre. The old 126 ran straight down the Birmingham New Road, a dual carriageway linking the two cities. The route’s history goes all the way back to Midland Red days, when half-cab D9s trundled along the route and conductors cranked their little handles for tickets. It crosses the M5 motorway island near Oldbury, and, as you can probably imagine, causes huge reliability problems. There’s long been talk of remodelling the island, but the kitty is predictably empty. Bus priority is non-existent because car drivers and white van man have votes. Add to that the usual traffic malarkey around Birmingham city centre, and you can see why the 126 became the predictable basket case. In the 1990s, a local independent – Metrowest – capitalised on this and ran only on the Wolverhampton to Dudley section of the route, avoiding all of the hotspots. They made a killing, and were promptly bought by West Midlands Travel, the predecessor to today’s National Express West Midlands.
But the 126 was – and remains – an important artery. It’s direct (when not snarled up in congestion) and used by thousands every day. So it remains, running only between Dudley and Birmingham city centre – and is about to see it’s frequency uplifted again now that the X7 is no more.

How do you solve a problem like the 126? The planners at NXWM had an idea. Run something new that, in theory, skirted around the motorway island problem, served a new area, and ran fast, by making part of the route limited stop. Sounds good? I liked the idea. But of course, you never know how these things will work in practice, until you do them.

Kudos for National Express West Midlands for being brave. The bus industry is generally under the cosh these days. The money isn’t there these days, congestion makes services unreliable / unattractive and the concessionary pass reimbursement continues to shrink, making the bean counters frown. To try a new service is to face the fear and do it anyway.

The 126 between Wolverhampton and Dudley was replaced in September 2018 by the new X7 and X8. The X7, as we shall see, was a new innovation, post Dudley, but the X8 was a direct replacement for another old Midland Red route, the 140, between Dudley and the city centre. It had a long-standing loyalty, so it’s success was more or less assured anyway. The only difference was that it missed a few stops to go fast along the Hagley Road into Birmingham. The X7 was a completely new kettle of fish.

Whilst the 126 continued in truncated form, the new X7 was innovative. Using smart Platinum ADL Enviro 400MMC deckers moved from the 126 (and the 126 “downgraded” to “normal” kit), it followed the old 126 route down the New Road, then scurried off before the pesky motorway island around Oldbury, then down another dual carriageway through Smethwick, then down another road previously unserved by buses to emerge by the City Hospital, and then follow the 82/87 route into City. Clever, huh?

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Almost immediately, it had issues. Inevitably, few knew what it was or where it went. The cut-through to Oldbury was plagued with day-trippers in cars to the local tip. The X7 – now free of folk queuing for the motorway – was now stuck behind a long line of cars with unwanted sun loungers and tat unsellable on eBay sticking out of the boot. “Fast” it wasn’t. Oldbury itself required a circuitous route around the town to face the right direction. The same circuit every other car and van does. Bus priority? You must be joking. Then the run to the City Hospital. This bit seemed to work OK, but then the drag into the city centre is what regular users and drivers on the 82/87 have already long known and experienced. The X7 wasn’t really “fast” at all, and all of the delays faced by the old 126 were simply replicated elsewhere.

I wasn’t a regular X7 traveller, but I did use it on numerous occasions during it’s eight month existence. It struck me that, whilst most buses leaving city were usually hauling decent loads, the X7 was fairly quiet. During the first few months, you’d expect that, but in recent weeks, close to the end, and on the final day, the loadings were pretty dismal for a route serving such important places on the network.

So there’s little surprise the chop has occurred. The X8 has a simpler, improved timetable, as does the 126 – although the problem of the motorway island looks as far away as ever from being resolved. And 126 and X8 passengers face more dismay. The day after the X7 ran for the last time, the underpass at Five Ways was closed to facilitate work on the Midland Metro tram extension. Far from me to criticise any addition to the Metro – I welcome it with open arms – but the little bit of decent bus priority under the underpass buses had, entering the city from the west side, has now gone. Bus users will face even more delays and unreliability as they now have to queue to go over the top of Five Ways Island. An opportunity here has been missed, as there could easily have been bus priority along Hagley Road right up to the island. Sadly, inevitably, the powers that be haven’t implemented this.

Why “X-it innovation”? The bus operator must wonder what to do. The X7 was a decent, innovative idea. It failed because the traffic congestion it was supposed to avoid merely presented itself in other areas. If you’re going to sit in traffic, a) you might as well sit in traffic on a route you’re familiar with, and b) you may as well sit in your own car. A friend tells me that the Five Ways issue will be the final straw for him, and he’ll be getting back in his car to get to work. He won’t be the only one.

Herein lays the issue. Until there is a strategy, a change of mindset, a long-term plan to give buses real, unhindered priority that seriously punishes offenders of that priority, we will simply carry on going nowhere fast, failing to unlock the potential buses have to be that real alternative, still polluting our air, curtailing lives early and bringing early onset asthma to our children. The exit of the X7 may not be the big news of the day, but if we exit the innovation of people who want to give us real alternatives to stifling traffic congestion, we’re in big trouble indeed.