New Tricks with Old Tools?

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With the current uncertainty surrounding the future of “big boy” bus operators, such as Arriva and First, the news that National Express appear set to operate the West Midlands’ Ring & Ride mobility service is as welcome for current users who rely on the service, as it is curious to see a move into this field.

Ring & Ride is one of the largest and long-established mobility operations anywhere. West Midlanders are long used to seeing the red white and blue minibuses on the streets, and the system predates the internet era. The collapse of Ring & Ride’s parent company ATG (Accessible Transport Group) and sister operation Igo – which operated several tendered bus services – left over 15,000 registered users and more than 900 staff concerned for the future operation. As well as mobility transport, Ring & Ride were also responsible for a home-to-school operation.

Whilst emergency funding has kept the show on the road since March 2019, it has emerged that National Express are poised to take over the operation. This is interesting stuff on several levels. Ring & Ride is well established. Whatever caused the collapse of ATG, National Express are masters at what they do. They are based in the West Midlands, and if they can’t make a go of it, you wonder who could. The company has also been making some pragmatic moves in recent times – as others have struggled, NX has shored up what it does have – and made interesting advances, such as ditching UK rail and expanding into German rail operation. It’s Spanish and US operations are on a sound footing. West Midlands buses remain a challenge – as many UK bus operators face similar struggles – but it appears to have struck a good chord with the West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who appears to have no grand vision of franchising in big urban landscapes like his counterpart in Manchester. It will be fascinating to monitor progress of our 2nd and 3rd largest urban areas  the coming years, when it comes to bus provision.

Maybe the acquisition of Ring & Ride scores some political sweeties locally. NX’s West Midlands bus operation in recent times has seen large-scale investment, and the emerging unifying of the local transport “brand” alongside rail, tram and bike, is only part of the quiet revolution currently going on. It won’t do NX any harm politically to take on such an important operation.

And is there an opportunity here to create some synergy between the traditional side of bus operation and the more specialised mobility operation of Ring & Ride? We’ve seen demand-responsive minibus Uber-style operations pop up in a few parts of the country. It’s probably to early to say whether these are a long-term success or not, but I spy an opening here to do something involving technology, demand-responsive routes and the preservation of a crucial traditional mobility service. Could such a set-up also save the public purse some money and create a real alternative to money-draining traditional evening and Sunday tendered services, or maybe introduce new offerings that wouldn’t be half-empty buses trundling around housing estates, but a more dynamic operation led by demand through an app? if it creates new opportunities and a service people can use effectively, I can see a potential win-win for everyone.

For people who think the days of the bus are old hat and in terminal decline, something like this might just be the breath of new life. Maybe you can produce new tricks with old tools…

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