Use It or Lose It

20190813_092903

It’s always depressing to open the local paper (if you still have one) and be confronted with a picture of a gathering of (usually older) bus users looking a mixture of faux anger or sad resignation, gathered around a bus stop waving a petition. It’s usually the withdrawal of a bus service – and it makes for terrible headlines for the bus industry.

“Use It or Lose It” sometimes becomes the phrase, should the operator decide to have second thoughts, or the local authority find some money down the back of the proverbial sofa to keep it going – but what sort of phrase is that? It’s a bit like the Health Secretary asking you to make yourself ill in order to use your local GP or A&E – or it’ll be gone. We all use our GP surgery from time to time, but it is a community asset. Why don’t we see bus services like that?

Lightly used, but seen to be essential bus services being faced with the chop is certainly nothing new. But instead of this perennial run-around and bad news stories abound, isn’t time we had a bus strategy that begins to look at people’s basic mobility requirements and plan for it accordingly?

Let’s be honest. Having a bus rolling around country lanes on a fixed route, picking up handfuls of folk will never be a commercial proposition. Back in the days of post-deregulation, we seemed to be content to fund this through local authority tenders, although I suspect there was disquiet in certain corners of the Town Hall. Nowadays, the last of that coinage down the back of the sofa has been spent, and we’re all too busy arguing about Brexit to notice what is going on.

The people in the picture are complaining about a long-standing National Express West Midlands service. There are several of them in the west Dudley area, some of which cut across the invisible border into South Staffordshire. And here’s another problem. Folk in the West Midlands conurbation area have largely avoided large-scale cuts to vulnerable services because they had Centro – and now Transport for West Midlands – to ride in on horseback and save the day. Logistically, some of these routes cut across the oddly-shaped South Staffordshire border area, and it’s often caused issues. Before the universal England-wide concessionary pass, you had bizarre rules whereby you could get on in the Centro area, ride through the bit of South Staffs if you didn’t get off, but if you did get off, you couldn’t get back on again unless you paid. That’s all thankfully history now, but you get my drift. What do you do with a problem like an administration border?

This far corner of the Black Country border has long-been a commercial concern for National Express West Midlands. It’s nothing like the cash generator of Greater Birmingham. The problem for the operator is that if you drop the frequency, you make the service even less attractive. “Round the houses” services provide lifelines for some people, but they certainly aren’t attractive for people going to work, who pay good money, who want something that gets them there in the least amount of time with no fuss. NXWM are good at some of these, with high frequency, limited stop offerings covering large parts of the West Midlands conurbation. The other side of the coin is the more traditional estate services that need to be there, but increasingly don’t wash their face in commercial terms.

So we have the traditional photo, with local Councillor centre-stage. And often, we have the quote that includes something about how franchising would solve all of this, because the politicians would control the network for the good of us all. Sounds good? You bet! Except we’ve either got short memories or we’re too young to remember what used to go on, and would no doubt go on again if the Town Hall ran the show.

How long do you think the 4×4-driving neighbours of these semi-rural lack-of-bus protestors would take to open their council tax bills over the latte machine one morning to protest about how they’re paying for a bus service that is hardly carrying anyone in the traditional sense? I’d give it about ten minutes. And with little money in the piggy bank, the local politicians would be looking to shore up votes by spending it on other, more politically vote-winning projects. This week’s petition-waving pic of bus-less pensioners in the paper is next week’s fish & chip paper, as the saying goes.

So I have little confidence that franchising bus services in this sense would be anything more than a photo opportunity for the local Councillor – who has “saved” the bus service – only to be quietly withdrawn six months later, because people haven’t “used it” – they’ve now “lost it”. You simply can’t expect a commercial company to keep on subsidising loss-making services. You wouldn’t expect Hovis to carry on making peanut butter flavour bread because only me and half a dozen others liked it and no one else did – it makes no commercial sense. And this is the bitter situation that people in loss-making local bus service areas face. “Use it or lose it” may sound like a passive-aggressive threat, and everyone understands it, but it’s a basically empty phrase, because if people already “used it”, they wouldn’t be under threat of “losing it” – and are we expecting people to radically change their lifestyles to “use it”?

We need better solutions rather than cheap threats. Provision of bus services are radically different animals depending on where you operate them. Yet, we have bizarre views on how to do that. We see successful commercial operations in large conurbations, but seem to want to turn them over to politically-led franchised networks. But we see struggling set ups in marginal, often rural areas with no clue as to what to do with them. It’s the wrong way round. Leave the professional high-frequency city operations to the experts. Instead, why not look at the rural stuff and create a nationwide bus strategy that has minimal levels of public-based mobility available. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean full-sized buses trundling around country lanes, but other options, such as demand-responsive operations, or options that include merges with local non-emergency ambulance provision. Revise the contentious concessionary pass issue that often ends up with people having a “free” pass, but no service to use it on. How about providing a number of tokens for local residents to use on such demand-responsive operations every year, with more rides charged for at a low rate for pass holders and a commercial rate for others? Of course people will argue that most rural dwellers use their car, and whilst this is undoubtedly true, there should be alternatives available, should this suddenly not become an option. And what about choice? In this environmentally-concerned world, shouldn’t everyone have the choice of not motoring?

If our new leader Boris is such a bus-loving person as he makes out, perhaps an innovative bus strategy that benefits everyone, makes best use of commercial innovation and provides effective mobility in areas where it isn’t commercially viable, ought to be high up on his list.

Advertisements

Big Boys No More

020 - Copy
Ahh, the corporate identity. A show of business muscle. The brand image. It permeates every nook and cranny of every day life. From radio stations to dentists, veterinary surgeons to coffee outlets. And, of course, our everyday bus services.

Marketing folk and brand experts will argue till the cows come home (oh, I forgot the milk industry) about the success or otherwise of the brand image. It undoubtedly works for Coca Cola to be a world superpower, but does it work for something inherently “local” as a bus service?

Apart from buses, I have a fascination with radio. The radio industry has taken a somewhat similar route to buses in recent times. Technology has allowed what were local radio stations to “network” their output from studios far away, and clever software allows seamless input of “local” features, such as local news and traffic, and “voicetracked” voice links, that allows the presenter to sound like they are “local”. It’s extremely clever, the listener in the main cares not one jot where their Sugababes song is actually being played from, and the local snippets serve their needs. Some of my local buses in the West Midlands carry all over adverts for “Greatest Hits Radio”. Is this a “local” radio station? Does anyone actually care? It’s a triumph of brand image and business muscle.

What on earth am I babbling on about? Well, if other industries have learnt this lesson about the importance of how they present themselves, the bus world is patchy. And if the love affair between large corporates and local buses is over, might a truly localised set up benefit passengers going forward?

The likes of Arriva, First and Stagecoach went in hard during the nineties and noughties with the corporate might. Stagecoach’s “beach ball”, First’s “Barbie” and Arriva’s “aquamarine” became – and in many instances still are – ubiquitous. You might think it matters not, so long as the bus turns up, and there’s a lot to nod along to with that, but what people see really does matter, even if it does mean digging down into the psyche. Go Ahead didn’t pursue the corporate image, instead going for the more local, rooted in the community feel with individual group companies all “being themselves”. That, of course, is backed up by a culture that devolves local decision making down to local level. I’m no managerial expert, but it’s always seemed to me to be a sensible way to go for an industry that operates inherently at a truly “local” level.

The likes of Ray Stenning’s Best Impressions company has understood this for many a year. Way ahead of the curve, Ray has dragged many a bus operation kicking and screaming into 21st-century brand image. Just down the road from me in Worcester, the bland corporate First Barbie pink has been washed away with beautiful “Worcester” and “The Malverns” branding, as well as individual route branding like “Nimrod” and “Salt Road”, which portrays a deep understanding of a company rooted in it’s local community. Behind the scenes, it’s still corporate First, but it’s a million miles away from the corporate head office diktat of 15-20 years ago. Other, smaller operations like Wellglade (parent of TrentBarton) and Transdev (they of countless local brand images in the North) have also long understood the importance of local.

The current problems of Arriva, First and Stagecoach suggest that the make-up of Britain’s bus industry might be about to significantly change.

Stagecoach have retracted in recent times. America and Europe are no longer playgrounds, and the well-reported issues with rail franchises are pushing the company back to their roots – UK bus operations. There is talk of a new brand image for Stagecoach’s local bus operations – might that include a move away from almighty corporatism into something more locally focussed? Stagecoach has never really gone for the local image – remember Norfolk Green? That was pulled back into the corporate fold after a while. First has increasingly gone for the “local”. As mentioned, Worcester has all but abandoned the “flying F” going forward, and we can see similar in Leeds, with the very attractive green image. Arriva sticks doggedly to aquamarine, and despite a repaint programme that introduces a new shade and a new corporate logo, for me it’s still a cold corporate message. Why not learn from their colleagues in rail, who have all sorts of different brands and liveries, simply adding the Arriva corporate ownership underneath the name?

For First and Arriva in particular, change is rapidly arriving. First’s boardroom squabbles have led to the perennially under-performing monolith to finally admit defeat and offload UK Bus. Arriva’s parent company DB has a £3.6bn gap in it’s finances, so it looks like it’s all going to go. But is this an opportunity to move forward positively, both for local staff and passengers that use the services?

There’s no doubt that belonging to a big group offers some positives. Resources and investment are the two obvious ones, but being a smaller, locally focussed set up may offer alternatives. Would a less-focussed drive towards a set margin of profitability help? Might there be a chance of local ownership that includes all staff having a stake in the company? Could a smaller, leaner, fitter local operation be the sort of set-up supposedly envisaged by Thatcher’s Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley, when he ushered in deregulation of the industry over 30 years ago?

The bus world faces myriad challenges today. But, like the world of radio, this long-established industry has to change or die. Video would apparently kill the radio star, and the likes of the Sony Walkman, and now the tech-driven Spotify would all supposedly render the ancient world of radio irrelevant. Today, despite many changes and unsettling times, the radio industry is in rude health. The bus industry has got to learn lessons from other operations. Maybe a move away from large-scale corporatism into freedom to do what it does best at a micro-local level could be a blessing in disguise.

New Tricks with Old Tools?

20190717_181426

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…

Will Ma Catch The Bus Again?

014

‘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…

 

X-it Innovation?

20190601_164757_compress69

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?

20190601_174005_compress92

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.

The Politician’s Bus Journey

It must be local election time, says cynical me. What other time do local councillors – and wannabe councillors – discover buses?

To be honest, the bus industry is an obvious target, waiting to be whipped by vote-hungry local politicians at this time in the political calendar. And the industry often doesn’t do enough to counter some of the more outlandish claims. Local councillors – let alone local people – often don’t understand the make-up of their local bus services.

I’ve only had one disagreement with a local candidate this time around, so I consider that quite a success. But it’s not just local councillors putting the boot into our buses – it’s the big boys too. Enter one Jeremy Corbyn.

The Labour leader was sneered at a while ago when he raised the issue of local bus services at Prime Minister’s Questions. Granted, it made a refreshing change to Brexit (quite frankly even the vexed topic of lettuce imports would make a refreshing change to the “B” topic) and some of us even mildly cheered on Jezza for even recognising buses in such lofty political circles.

But he’s back. Jezza’s back. The old lefty has come up with – gasp – whole new plan for Britain’s buses. In fact, £1.3bn worth of plan.

Now, before you – like me – rush to dismiss this plot to revitalise our bus networks as the work of an outdated socialist and his cronies, chew it over a tad more.

There’s no doubt, apart from notable exceptions, that buses continue on a downward trajectory. As passengers, we often feel the tired image of bus travel. The bland interiors, the late running, the congestion, the adverts for getting STDs checked out, the utter blandness of a Dennis Dart. I could go on. You know this. (Other, upmarket, bus success stories are available). As I stood waiting for a bus in Dudley bus station last week, I felt thoroughly depressed about it. And I felt depressed for feeling depressed about it. The people using buses out of Dudley last week were, in the main, those that HAD to. I honestly think at the point I stood there, I was the only one who had a choice and was there voluntarily.

Are there votes in this? You bet there are. From the retired contingent, who have seen some of their services disappear – often for reasons understood in the back office, if not necessarily on the front line – there’s simmering unhappiness. From young people, who increasingly aren’t aspiring to car ownership, but have mobility needs like the rest of us – and are being seduced by Uber and the like – buses often aren’t seen to be delivering. Is Corbyn tapping into something the Westminster bubble class actively dismiss but Joe Public actively sees?

But…and when it comes to politicians getting involved in buses, there’s always a but…we need to look cautiously at Corbyn’s new-found bus love.

Labour’s policy is of public ownership. This has found popular support when it comes to similar on the railways. But is it real politicking? We don’t see a clamour for renationalising British Airways. What about publicly-owned taxi cabs? Nope. It is dodging the real issues that get up people’s noses when it comes to public transport.

Bus passengers want the bus to turn up on time. You can trawl (as I do – yes, I’m the one) through Transport Focus’s excellent Bus Passenger Survey stats until the cows come home – and go back out the next morning. But ultimately, if the bus is reliable, happy days. The trouble is, it often isn’t. But Jeremy’s plot talks more about the great socialist ideals of you and me owning that double decker over there, rather than it actually just turning up on time. Actually, Jeremy, I don’t particularly want to be a taxpayer part-owner of my local bus – I just want it to be there at 08:23. Cutting through the long lines of cars with one driver in them, polluting the atmosphere much more than one bus could ever do. It might be some sort of class warfare to imagine fat cats in suits licking up the cream in boardrooms across the land, slashing bus services , making us all suffer. But, as ever in life, it’s never really that simple.

Corbyn talks about “thousands of routes axed”. Granted, some have suffered, but again, we’re dodging the bullet. Even if these figures are accurate (and some of these “withdrawn” services are tender losses that are replaced by “new” registered services), we need to look long and hard at these lost services. Maybe they’re lost because very few are using them, in the conventional sense. I’m not saying we dismiss lost links as just a function of “the market” – in fact, quite the opposite. We need to not promise some sort of nostalgic battle cry to return mostly empty buses on rural routes riding around carrying fresh air on fixed routes. We need some real innovation. Maybe it will cost money, but what about more demand-responsive operations? What about merging non-emergency ambulance provision with some minimum level of service to outlying areas? How about a real national local mobility strategy (note I didn’t use the word “bus”) that guarantees people in certain areas a basic level of mobility, but not left to the mercy of high taxi prices?

Another Labour politician is also missing the point. In Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham seems determined to have publicly-controlled buses without addressing the amount of private cars free-wheeling around the City. It’s barmy, and entirely misses the point. By all means, simplify ticketing and paint them all orange, or something. But the industry is offering to provide a step-change in this great northern City that will be quicker to implement than the saga of public control and expose tax payers far less. Maybe the threat of losing their businesses in Manchester has gee-ed up the bus operators there, but hey-ho – a public/private partnership done properly is always the best way.

It’s a challenge for the industry to respond to proposals like Labour’s. Another strand to this plan is the removal of fares for young people. It’s all very noble, as is the current concessionary pass, but there’s no indication that there will be sufficient funds to pay for it adequately. The conundrum for those of us who argue about the concessionary pass now is that any move to discuss funding for it sensibly is often seen incorrectly as a call to abolish it! Those cows are still coming home as my face turns an increasing shade of blue as I tell people I’m NOT suggesting the concessionary pass is withdrawn or even watered down – merely that it requires proper funding for it in the back office. And I can see myself having similar arguments when it comes to free young persons travel too. The bus industry needs to put some of these points succinctly and intelligently – merely plastering adverts on the side of buses anti-Barbara Castle style or anti Thatcher’s 1985 Transport Act style would just be seen as scaremongering today.

Labour says it will fund all of this with vehicle excise duty. I’m not at all convinced. But even if it is the case, it merely alienates the “already hard-pressed motorist” – and if they’re paying more for their motor, they as sure as hell are going to make sure they use it! It’s an already well-worn comment – “if I’m buying, taxing and insuring a car, and filling it with fuel, I’m going to use it for all of my journeys”. And again, it’s entirely understandable. We need motorists to convert SOME of their journeys to public transport – and again it’s reliable services that will achieve this. Who is the politician who will tackle congestion rather than bash the bus industry because it’s the easy option?

So beware politicians local and national bearing gifts this polling day. As is often, the real issues are the ones swept under the carpet.

Life Quality

This is Wordsley High Street, outside the Church. It’s a scene I’ve known all of my life. I’ve also got a fine shot of a Midland Red D9 double decker powering up the hill in the early 70s, so much so you can almost hear it’s famous throaty engine!

But today, this picture is in the news for a very different reason. This particular spot is today blighted by air pollution. It comes as no surprise whatsoever. Throughout much of the day, the High Street is thronged with traffic.

Dudley Council makes all of the concerned noises, but what, actually, realistically, can it do? There’s talk of “realigning” the traffic lights (isn’t this always the stock answer?) and some comment about working with bus operators.

And what’s coming soon? Loads and loads of new houses nearby on the site of an old Hospital. Add to this, a recent Council headline-grabber: free parking on authority car parks. Yeah, I get this “stimulus” idea to promote town centres, etc in the battle not only against internet shopping (equals yet more traffic on the roads to deliver it all), but also the Merry Hill shopping centre (where everyone seemingly wants to go, all of the time, with free parking). But – and it’s one of those “fundamental” buts – what about quality of life? What about life itself?

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that polluted air is literally killing people early. What about mental health? I, for one, am quite sick and tired of this never-ending parade of vehicles, exhausts pumping out God knows what into my lungs.

It’s not just city centres. It’s urban areas and even villages like Wordsley that are now being blighted hour after hour, day after day with this.

There’s more and more of us, all trying to get from A to B, all of the time. It’s not only harming us, it’s killing us.

And whilst Brexit continues to wrap it’s octopus-like tentacles around us, we’re not paying attention to things much closer to home.

Where’s the real mobility policy? Where’s the dedication? Public transport has a potentially huge roll to play in addressing this. The industry itself has to step up to the plate, but it needs fundamental support from Governments local and national.

If the buzz-phrase is “carrot & stick”, it’s rapidly out of date. We’ve surely persuaded all those who are persuadable to think about their mobility habits. The “carrots” have nearly all been nibbled. Now we need the sticks, to cut the congestion, to save our lives and provide the coming generations with a society fit to live in.

Who’s in? Or who’s still sitting in their tin box going nowhere?

Tickety-boo

In amongst the myriad emails in my inbox telling me either how public transport is the most wonderful thing since sliced bread, or a more god-awful experience than Piers Morgan over your breakfast cereal, came one about a new innovation regarding ticketing on my local West Midlands Metro trams and my “Google Wallet”.

A confession. Now in my late forties, I have turned not into my Dad, but possible my Grandad, when it comes to whipper-snapper-y. I’m no technophobe, and I can order burger and chips on my pub-grub app like the next 18 year-old (that’s how the middle-age spread doesn’t get any better), but there’s something more than a little disconcerting about how this tech – attractive as it may be for the young ‘uns – is potentially leaving others not exactly “behind”, but continuously “running for the bus”. OnThisBus has often lauded ticketing technology in blog passim but there’s always another side to all of this…

Bus Users UK’s CEO Claire Walters has been talking about London recently in CBW magazine. She makes an interesting point about the Capital’s cashless bus system. Being the “non-technophobe” I supposedly am, I was an early Oyster adaptor for my trips to London – indeed my Oyster is still “first generation”, which means I supposedly can’t use it to check certain things online – not that I’m bothered. Whenever I’m in London, I still use it, it works, and occasionally it tops itself back up. Now, even I’m old-hat, as the kids (and savvy Londoners) are now using their bank cards to do the same. But Claire’s point is this – what about very occasional visitors to London? Even most Brits have a contactless bank card, surely?  Well, actually, a third of British people have never made a contactless transaction. Over 1.5 million of us don’t have a bank account. Then there’s the foreign tourists, who maybe don’t have contactless on their cards, or it isn’t set up to work on UK systems. I have two experiences of this; German friends who were coming to London trying to obtain Oysters reported a total fail – and resorted to taxis, and myself trying to buy a souvenir mug in Helsinki last summer using contactless brought blank looks from the Nordic shop assistant as my contactless repeatedly failed to work (I used good old cash to purchase my drinking apparatus).

So is London missing out? Well, numbers are down on the buses, so who knows. But despite acknowledging that convenient ways to use the bus must be looked at critically, we must leave open the more traditional options too.

Who is looking at potential fraud in all of this too? In my day job on the front line on the railways, I increasingly come across “problems” with mobile ticketing. People have bought a ticket and now “can’t find it” on their phone. People’s batteries have run out but they’ve definitely bought one. People show me screenshots of their ticket, although they can’t show me the original. I’m sure some of these reasons are genuine, but I’m also sure that some of them aren’t. It is placing me immediately into a conflict situation, in which I have to continuously take decisions and/or use my discretion.

On the flip side, tech doesn’t always work. I well recall an early version of my local “Swift smartcard”. It failed to work on one specific operator, which also happened to operate my local evening and Sunday service. Every time I boarded (on evenings or Sundays) it made that noise familiar to all who used to watch Family Fortunes in the eighties. Depending on who was driving, I was either waved through or eyed up like a fraudster, despite my protestation that there was plenty of credit on it. I was once told – on the platform of said bus – to “ring the helpline” – which of course was only operational Mon-Fri 9-5. So I used to resort to taking coinage out with me for such journeys, defeating of course the object.

Back to the tram ticket. It’s a “UK first”, screams the press release. You can store your ticket on your phone using Google Pay. It’s not available for Apple iphones. It’s only for the tram (although the intention is for other modes to be included later). It includes a pic of Councillor Roger Lawrence (the Combined Authority’s Portfolio Holder for Transport) duly posing with his Android smartphone making a Google Pay transaction. I’ve tried the set up. Maybe I really have turned into my Grandad, but I found it a tedious faff. I’m sure once it’s set up, it becomes a walk in the park – until the Family Fortunes sound appears. Or O2’s network goes down again. Or my battery runs out. Or some Russian hacker deletes the app off my phone. Or myriad other excuses I may or may not have picked up from my how-to-avoid-paying-on-public-transport WhatsApp group.

Look, I might sound like some old out-of-touch curmudgeon who doesn’t move with the times, but I really do understand that we have to offer systems that suit the individual and how they like to pay for things. But at the same time, have we really thought out the responses when they tech inevitably fails? Or how to effectively deal with the inevitable individuals who will want to defraud the system? Tech developments make for great positive headlines, but, as ever, there’s so much more to it down on the ground…

Blobby in Bath

Bath has a problem. It’s geographically located in a “bowl”, and, like many urban areas, it’s full of cars. The air quality, like many urban areas, is rubbish.

I spent a full day at a conference there the other week, listening to the often compelling case for light rail. Despite some haggling over whether buses have had their day, there is a feeling something has to be done.

Maybe Noel Edmonds has the answer. Mr Blobby’s mate was already known for his supposed ownership and use of a black cab in order to cruise the bus lanes. Now, during his stint on “I’m a Celebrity” (proving that yesterday’s stars really can’t give it up) he was telling anyone who would listen that he’s apparently now the proud owner of a Routemaster, and that if he and his mates fancy a day’s shopping in town, he simply parks it up at the nearest bus stop.

What a pity his old programme Swap Shop isn’t around anymore. We could have swapped Noel for someone who actually cares for his own City…

Read about it here…

Why Don’t We Just…

I’ve been reading a bit about “populism” recently. It’s seemingly how we got Trump in power, Brexit and Nigel Farage as one of the most recognisable political figures of recent times.

Populism is one of those topics you can talk about forever, without a definitive outcome. But it’s also potentially damaging, because it often simplifies things down a “if only we did this” argument. And this even filters through to buses.

Heaven knows I’ve been having these discussions all of my adult life. Even before “populism” was a thing. But as everything on the road grinds to a halt, and then pollutes the air, killing thousands of us prematurely, “why don’t we just” takes on a new significance. In a world of social media and one-liners, it’s too easy to suggest “if only we did it like this” is a solution to all of our woes.

Mooching through the transport press, I came across this: “Why don’t we just…bring our buses into public control”? You can read it here. It is written by Pascale Robinson. The article, I guess, is written sincerely. It asks a lot of questions borne out of frustration with transport in Greater Manchester – and could apply to any urban city-region. There’s a fair bit of inaccuracy in there too (such as “you cannot have a smart ticket which lets you get on any bus or tram in one City” – sorry Pascale, I have one such smart ticket in my wallet right now – and “many bus companies hate the idea of a daily cap on spend” – so why is National Express West Midlands promoting contactless payments with exactly that “cap”?) I could go on, dissecting several more comments Pascale makes.
But the problem the UK bus industry faces (amongst many) is that these often wildly-written articles aren’t rebuffed, firmly, with clear reasoning. And without that response, the arguments start to take hold.

I recently attended a conference on trams. Everyone loves trams, and there’s no denying that they are really effective people movers and possess a certain “sexiness” which is akin to comparing buses and trams to me to Brad Pitt (but don’t forget, girls – Brad can’t drive a railcar…). But I also detected an element of open hostility towards buses – even from tram industry experts. Pascale thinks I can’t hop from bus to tram to train, whereas I can – and often do. It may not be so seamless in some parts, but in Brum I do it most days. And whichever mode I’m on at any one time is what suits me best at that moment. That’s how we have to view public transport – people increasingly want their mobility to be simple, effective and relevant to them. But there’s too much “demonising” of buses in particular, both for the wrong reasons, and also from people who should frankly know better. On the flip side, some parts of the bus industry also have to up their game.

In the battle against “why don’t we just”, we need to effectively and robustly knock down the false arguments that keep popping up, identify that the likes of congestion can’t be solved by giving the local authority the keys to the bus depot and that if we REALLY want to effect modal change for everyone’s benefit and health, we need to have our politicians making tough choices and offering people a real, quality alternative – and be frank about where we’re currently failing.

Why don’t we just do that?