On Yer Bike!

Ahh, good old Norman Tebbit. For younger readers, you’ll have to Google what the Tory “big beast” was on about when he uttered those words. But it’s a phrase that lingers, and one that people who dream of a less car-polluting world certainly dream of.

I’m approaching 50. Not being one for the gym and rather fond of any meal that has “and chips” as the title, I’m not exactly healthy. I’m the kind of bloke who would benefit greatly from regular cycling. I live around 3 miles from where I work, so a nice 6 mile round-trip I’m sure would benefit me significantly (coupled with a substitution of lettuce instead of chips on the odd occasion).

But, like many others, I’m put off by idiots. Idiots in cars. And not just idiots. People who don’t take driving seriously. They aren’t concentrating, but they’re in charge of a pile of metal that can seriously injure and kill if not driven with due care and attention.

And a short stretch of white paint doesn’t help. Nor green tarmac at traffic lights. A non-statistical survey in the pub (before the virus put paid to my ale-supping) revealed that many of my fellow drinkers either don’t know what the green section for cyclists at traffic lights is, or don’t particularly give a monkeys.

Yet giving over newly properly segregated space for cyclists has also seen that space reallocated from bus lanes. Boo-hiss, you may well say, and I’ll probably agree with you.

However, cycling and buses need not be natural adversaries. Buses need, more than ever now, to become part of the “alternative” to cars, where possible, and that alternative includes cycling.

In recent times, I was involved in something called “Whim”. It was a notion that you could live without a car, and all sorts of modes were integrated into one app. So, for a monthly fee, you got all the usual bus/train/tram, but also car hire if you needed it short-term, and taxis, and where there was a scheme, bikes. I still think it has tremendous potential, and I was even flown (yes, I know) to where it all started – Helsinki – to see it for myself. Whim even launched in Birmingham, and I was part of a trial that inevitably needed some ironing out, but nonetheless became a “thing”. What happened to the Birmingham trial, I don’t know. It went quiet. And the great Covid disaster will no doubt have repercussions for it. But I remain a enthusiastic convert to MaaS (“Mobility as a Service”) and I really hope it’s time comes.

I’m also enthused by something I spotted recently in the trade press, that is simple, but potentially really effective.

When we talk about public transport, we often come across the issue of “last mile” connectivity. Whatever you think of your local rail service, for example, taking the train is extremely popular. But people still drive en masse to their local rail station because buses can be confusing and taxis too expensive. Cycle storage at stations is often hit and miss – and people often aren’t willing to leave expensive bikes chained up to primitive cycle parking (although that’s not always the case – the rail world is getting better at this). The interface between bike and bus is even less connected.

Yet Cardiff Bus and nextbike have joined forces to provide a simple option – pop the nextbus information onto the Cardiff Bus app. Users now have the option to take the bus, then, if the bus isn’t going close to home or work or wherever they’re going, they can check the app to see how many nextbikes there are at hubs along the route, hop off the bus and grab a bike to their ultimate destination – “last mile” sorted, and no need to actually own a bike.

From this, you can see that Cardiff sees cycling as very much in their future vision, but by integrating it with buses, it utilises the strength of both.

This requires the buy-in of more cities across the UK, coupled with smart ways of making road infrastructure much more cycle friendly – and not necessarily removing that all important bus priority. Manchester too, apparently, is looking to get a cycle scheme going again, after the failure of it’s original one following thefts and damage. Birmingham too seems close to it’s own scheme.

Buses need to be central to the future of “Maas”. In Helsinki, the question was asked as to, if taxis were part of this “eat-all-you-can” scheme, wouldn’t people just grab cabs everywhere? Apparently, initially, there was some evidence of this, almost as a novelty factor, but it soon settled down to sensible use. People hopping on  trams, then using buses, hiring cars at weekends if they were taking a long drive out, and taxis if they were on a late night out. Imagine throwing cycles into that mix too. No need to own a car, which is parked up 95% of the time at home or at work, no polluting the atmosphere with your own vehicle, more money to spend without tax, insurance, fuel, wear & tear etc – and potentially getting fitter.

I know this won’t work everywhere, and large cities will be the initial recipients, but just getting into the heads of people that there really are other options has to be the future. When covid is just a horrible memory, attention will swing back to the environment. People may actually remember the months of lockdown where, actually, traffic levels went right down and the air felt cleaner.

At the risk of sounding like an overweight, 50-something bloke-like version of Greta, there IS a future where the car isn’t at the centre of everything. The bus industry needs to quickly integrate itself into that future vision, to have a future itself.

Franchise By Default?

There’s much to be commended about how the bus industry has gone about it’s business during lockdown. A quite decent skeleton service has been there since day one. But with very few passengers using it – many estimates suggesting usage down around 90% in those early weeks – it is quite clear that a rather hefty amount of subsidy has been required to keep the wheels turning. A near-£400m package agreed at the start of April between Government and the industry was for a three-month period, involving a mix of existing grants that cover fuel consumption rebates and new emergency funding, for which services were expected to cover up to 50% of pre-lockdown service levels.

And by golly they needed it. On my daily strolls, I observed a fair number of buses passing through my village. Barely any passengers were on board. Now further emergency funding to the tune of £254m from mid-May for the next three months will hopefully help to see buses play their part increasingly as the country slowly climbs out of lockdown.

Predicting the future of the bus world is worse than ever. Warm words and promises of lots of extra cash from the recent election campaign had led many of us to believe the bus industry really had a promising future. As environmental concerns rise up the political spectrum and Greta’s message resonates with increasing numbers of people, public transport could be the centre of a better world.

And now this. The stuff of science fiction movies. A real, devastating message. “Don’t use public transport unless absolutely necessary. Use your car”. This, from Government.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps even admits its an opposite message to what he should be proposing. But the science has spoken. If buses were ever the mode of last resort, they certainly are for the time being. And the longer this goes on, the worse it will be for the bus industry.

Down the road from me, in Worcestershire, local operator Diamond has taken the opportunity to revamp one of it’s poorly performing routes, and withdraw two others. These are your classic Shire County examples. The sort of routes that barely wash their hands commercially. Ten years of austerity has also seen the piggy bank of the local authority shaken empty, when it comes to topping up these marginal services. The locals doth protest, but, as ever, the issue is a far wider one – made all the more difficult by the invisible invader.

What of the future of buses? Not even Mystic Meg can predict for certain, but the industry must be guarded and ready for new challenges. Notwithstanding the social distancing nightmare, the long-term market may be scarred and dammed irreversibly. The issue of home-working may have been heavily accelerated. Even when Covid is over, is the genie out of the bottle that says working from home more and more is the new norm? The virus hasn’t stopped home deliveries – be it food shopping or stuff from Amazon. In fact, a whole new range of people have discovered how easy online food shopping has become. Yes, there may be a delivery charge, but in the same way that the likes of Uber appeared on the scene, folks are increasingly making a mental trade-off in the minds. Twenty minute wait for a bus with heavy shopping bags? Or £5 delivery charge dropped to your front door, no hassle?

So what might buses be used for in the future? I think a framework of services will probably always need to be there, long into the future. People who can’t work from home, people who aren’t pre-disposed to home shopping deliveries, and of course leisure will all require buses to be there. And I think large City-Regions will ride the storm. My concern, as ever, is for rural services, but also increasingly, those oft-marginal Shire county routes that serve mid-sized towns. It also depends on who is running these services. The large groups have large overheads. They have shareholders that require profit levels. Perhaps for these, big City-Regions work in the business plan, with high-frequency operations and enough users to justify investment. Does that model work in smaller towns surrounded by green fields? Or can it work better with smaller operations? Less expectation of profit, fewer overheads. Are they best suited to Independent operators? But where are these small operators? Many have gone to the wall already, and for those who, traditionally have been both coach & bus operators, the coaching industry is facing an even more dire future than their stage carriage sisters.

If society isn’t ready to ditch the bus lock, stock and barrel, is the future based more on local authority control? If the Government money keeps rolling to support these covid-times timetables, then it surely is more and more likely. There is a requirement with the current batch of emergency funding for commercial operators to agree the level with local authorities required, as demand increases following the easing of lockdown. And that, of course, is perfectly reasonable.

However, as lockdown eases and baby steps are taken, who knows how long social distancing will be required. Many are suggesting that we may have to live with covid for a long time. What if a vaccine is never found? Or it takes many years? Jo Bamford, who brought vehicle builder Wrightbus out of administration seems a confident chap. He is calling for £500m of Government funding to help fund the introduction of 3000 hydrogen-fuelled buses. All positive stuff, but he is also aware of the effects of covid on the long-term future of the image of bus travel, suggesting ways in which buses may be redesigned internally, including handrails manufactured from hospital-standard stainless steel, and ventilation systems that extract air rather than recirculate it internally. Some operators are making real efforts to ensure the internal appearance of buses doesn’t look like a war zone, with bits of seat taped off like a murder scene. There’s some real thought going into making it look more appealing to travel by bus.
The future battle will surely be all about wooing passengers back. But with much reduced capacity, and networks propped up with Government cash, where is the commercial attractiveness?

In those aforementioned Shire County and rural areas, is the future possibly franchise by default? Many industry watchers were keeping an eye – pre-covid – on what is happening in Cornwall, where a new authority-led operation including single branding, simpler integrated ticketing and long-term bus service tendering to one operator, with investment in new vehicles is emerging, although plans for completely free bus travel across the summer appear mired in confusion (see Roger French’s blog on the situation here). There is no doubt that the Cornwall operation has attracted funding above and beyond the usual scrimping and struggling experienced by other Shire/rural areas. Many years ago, Gwynedd Council in North Wales attempted a version of this, with buses visibly painted red on the front with “Bws Gwynedd” logos amongst other initiatives. Is covid more likely to bring an area where the current operator decides to throw in the towel completely, leaving an area bus less?

Meanwhile, in Manchester, where Transport for Greater Manchester has the Government piggy bank, some disquiet has emerged regarding what it is telling operators they must do in order to receive the subsidy. No comment as yet from the City’s major bus operators, but Julian Peddle, the Centrebus Director, and a well known and respected figure on the bus industry scene has vented his frustration publicly. He suggests (amongst other issues) that conditions TfGM are imposing on operators equate to them having total control of the network and a fixed sum of money that may or may not be sufficient. Manchester is the scene of a bid by the Mayor Andy Burnham to consider the first franchise system of a major city-region area in the UK for it’s bus network. There appears not (at least publicly) to be similar situations elsewhere but it isn’t on the face of it a good look.

Chris Cheek, the industry analyst, thinks that bus use is unlikely to recover to more than 55-60% of where it was immediately prior to lockdown. He goes on to say that, in the medium term, lifestyle changes and economic issues could keep demand between 18-26%below pre-virus levels.

All of this potentially paints a bleak picture for the future of the bus industry, but, of course, we still know so little about this virus, and how it will act in the coming months and years. Maybe, if we’re looking at long-term Government support for the bus industry, the operators need to get on the front foot and utilise their undoubted commercial nous ahead of what will probably be inevitable calls for the paymasters to call the shots – franchising by default?

Stagecoach appear to be suggesting such ideas (see previous blog Out of the Darkness? ) which involve deep, long-term partnerships with authority partners.
For passengers, long-term, well thought out, well-costed plan can only be a good thing. But it requires the commercial talents of the bus industry to play their full part. Government funding for all sorts of industries since covid emerged has cost the country an unimaginable sum of money. If that has to continue into the mid and even long term, a bus operation dictated by local authorities may well find itself competing for scarce funding with others. Far better surely to have a long-term, fully planned, well costed network that encompasses the commercial talents of the bus industry, and the civic responsibilities of the local authority.

Out of the Darkness?

My last bus journey before lockdown was unspectacular. It was a 57 from the village 2 miles down the road to mine. The only other passenger, an elderly lady, giggled nervously with me and we both wondered what was going to happen. Then, the next day, Boris locked us down and I haven’t caught a bus since. And I’m missing it terribly.

But, seven weeks on, as we seem set to move mouse-like into some sort of slight lifting of the lockdown, I’m not sure if I’m feeling some sort of miniscule relief that the end is beginning to appear in sight, or if I’m feeling very nervous at the thought of taking a bus ride – especially if it’s a busy service.

Like most other industries, Coronavirus has been devastating for buses. The Government has moved with admirable speed to arrange temporary funding to keep a decent framework going throughout lockdown, but it’s what comes next that is arguably even more important.

Before all of this, it seemed like buses were on the cusp of something good. Boris likes them, and Rishi had promised them all sorts of funding. Politicians were talking about buses, and not always in a negative light. The virus might have cruelly whipped the rug from under the inspection pit, but does this unprecedented time give us all a blank piece of paper to try something new?

We all know buses are important, and they will remain so long after Coronavirus has become an unpleasant memory. What is important though, is that the sector comes out fighting.

There are some interesting stats and research emerging from our time in lockdown. Urban Studies reports that over half of people surveyed are not missing their car commute. Can buses capitalise on that? Before we get too excited, Transport Focus also report that around 60% said they would drive more than use public transport once restrictions are relaxed. A similar percentage said they would cycle more than use public transport. Around 40% also expect to work from home more, going forward.

How much of all this is fear of the unknown? Probably a lot, given that social distancing has been drummed into us, military style for the last month. Keeping that up on buses and trains is, on the face of it, going to be extremely challenging. First in Scotland has commented that, whilst demand for it’s services during lockdown had fallen by 85%, going forward it was going to be “unsustainable”, given that social distancing would require more vehicles to provide capacity. I agree. At least in the short-term, once things start to pick up who is going to co-ordinate thousands of businesses in city centre locations so that they don’t all work office hours and recreate the rush hour? And we seriously can’t expect bus drivers to police social distancing regulations. All of this has the potential to dent confidence in bus services.

Stagecoach though, takes a more holistic, long-term view that is both refreshing and potentially exciting, as it appears to challenge the “either/or” argument over deregulated or franchised operations. In Tony Blair-speak, it is a potential “third way”. We’ve seen evidence of Stagecoach’s out of the box thinking in recent times too. Before Covid, it was proposing a profit-sharing scheme for Manchester, in order to challenge the idea of a franchising arrangement there. Is this evidence of some real mature thinking on behalf of the private sector that realises that, perhaps in Manchester particularly, the game was up? This too from the industry giant that ruthlessly set the standard for Thatcher’s deregulation era. Have the descendants of the Souter era gone soft?

Not a bit of it. With the withdrawal from America and UK rail (and seemingly Sheffield Supertram in the not too distant future), Stagecoach is focussed solely back on buses. As the UK’s largest bus operator, it is, perhaps, looking to the long term. Indeed, at least pre-Covid, the UK bus industry big boys were showing an inclination to get ready for the long haul. First effectively reversed their decision to flog their UK bus operation and now seem intent on staying here. National Express has bought it’s last diesel bus and intends to run clean and green for well into the future. Go Ahead has always been a group of consistent high quality, and only Arriva appear to have a question mark over it’s long-term future in the UK.

Given that buses still seem important to the big groups for the foreseeable, it is welcome that the biggest of all – Stagecoach – is looking to the future framework of how buses are operated in this country, and suggests with it’s latest proposals that true partnership is the way forward.

Based on a unique opportunity to emerge from Covid with a clear long-term plan, Stagecoach suggests;
1. A joint operational and investment plan developed by industry and government to ensure a sustainable transition of Britain’s bus networks from the emergency levels of lockdown to more comprehensive links which support the country’s recovery. Measures needed include steps to rebuild confidence in mass transit, a move away from peak-time commuting to spread demand, and investment in transitional support for transport operators as passenger numbers take time to grow;
2. Radical, permanent changes by national and local government to infrastructure and planning. Road and street space should be prioritised for walking, cycling and high capacity public transport over private cars, with a fundamental reallocation of limited space and steps to encourage first and last mile connections. Public mobility hubs rather than private car parking spaces should be requirements for planning new housing developments, offering public transport connectivity, electric charging points and cycling;
3. Wide-ranging measures to deliver on the government’s levelling up agenda for regions outside London, with many hit hard by the economic shock of Covid-19. This includes new place strategies for towns and cities to rethink high streets, promote local spending and create new attractions, as well as leveraging public transport’s capacity to bring shoppers and visitors to regions on a scale that will not damage the environment;
4. Lifestyle changes, particularly around travel, as well as a focus on technology to address the damaging impact of transport emissions. Pollution, already responsible for asthma and lung disease, is now being linked as a contributor to Covid-19 deaths. Many single-user car trips – the transport equivalent of disposable plastic bags – should be replaced by public transport in urban locations;
5. A “grown-up conversation” to re-examine fiscal policy as the government considers how to pay for the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary actions the country has taken. This would include a complete transformation in how transport journeys are taxed. A move to a system where the polluter pays and sustainable behaviours and use of buses, trams and trains, as well as active travel, are rewarded to make these modes more affordable and accessible to all; and
6. Targeted investment in decarbonisation, including sustainable transport and infrastructure, to help restart the economy, put Britain at the forefront of the green revolution and speed up recovery. Maximising the potential of Britain’s world class and world-leading bus manufacturing sector by accelerating government investment in electric bus fleets will deliver a cleaner environment, improved health and cement Britain’s position as a clean-tech leader.

It’s easy for those of a cynical disposition to pick any or all of the above apart. And it is, of course, true that a real partnership between the industry and the public sector relies, bluntly, on the people involved. But what is different about this is that, while of course preserving Stagecoach as a business in the long-term, it looks on a far wider basis at how, once we are out of lockdown, we move forward with issues such as infrastructure, cycling, rethinking High Streets, the environment and fiscal issues. It also cleverly creates an image around how single user car trips should be replaced by public transport in urban locations: “the transport equivalent of disposable plastic bags”.

It’s a start. And perhaps other bus operators need to get behind this sort of thinking, perhaps as part of their revitalised trade body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport.
Before Covid, there were increasing examples of really good bus operations, beyond the usual excellence. Reasons to be optimistic, you might say. And as we eventually emerge from lockdown, buses will be not only as important as ever, but part of the solution to revitalising our poor environment. The country has had to do what it did with the emergency lockdown, but the future requires serious planning, new ideas and new thoughts about how to do everything, given the huge demands hurled at us by Covid. The threat of another era of austerity should spur us to do things differently, to work together to embrace the skills of a vibrant commercial bus industry coupled with a public responsibility to create real, environmentally-friendly ways to get around.

Maybe the bus industry recognises the deregulation model of the last thirty years isn’t the long-term way forward, but the public sector similarly needs to recognise that clunky authority control isn’t best placed as a transport model in 21st century Britain. A responsible mix of the two however…

 

Watch The Flix

Not unexpected, but still intriguing is the now confirmed appearance of scheduled coach giant FlixBus into the UK.

Growing out of the liberalisation of European coach travel, the German giant has only been in existence since 2013, but it’s already all over the continent. It also has operations in North America, Asia and plans to move into South America soon.

But what might the UK operation look like? There’s no word yet on routes here, but expect a robust defence of popular corridors already well served by National Express and MegaBus. Indeed, FlixBus might find it more of a challenge here then many of the territories it currently operates in.

Scheduled coach travel here, though, still has room for a few niche operations. Despite its popularity, National Express has had to revamp its network, and that’s left some places unserved directly. Could FlixBus try to reinvigorate the market in these areas? Or will a price war erupt on major direct corridors? And is there still room for the innovative Sn-ap set up, that has recently reappeared on the roads, albeit in limited form – and still not greatly known to the wider public at large?

Or will FlixBus just be another coach brand stuck in the slow lane behind the inevitable roadworks? Interesting times ahead…

Buses…I Like The Idea…

94%. Is that enough?
Should be. Or shall we get a Go-Pod? The charge might not be enough if we’re out all day.
Yeah. Remember when these were called Uber? And they had actual people controlling them?
Blimey. I’m too young to remember that! Talia’s Mum Willow remembers though. She was telling me how people used to drive cars manually and get all uppity about it, because they all wanted to be first in the traffic!
Funny isn’t it, when you look back. Maddox has been doing some history project. He was on about “buses” the other day. Like some sort of ride-sharing thing. Really fascinating. You’d stand on the side of the road in designated areas, and this thing called a “bus” would come along at set times. It ran on a fixed route, so everyone knew where it would go.
Was that driven by a person?
Yeah. And they used to collect fares too. Or people would wave a bit of plastic at it, in the days before we had our biometric chips.
I love this idea though. I know the pods are great but you don’t get to see anybody.
Probably a good thing!
I know, but still….it’s the interaction thing. Everything is so…functional these days…
The thing about buses is that they weren’t reliable…
But how come? They sounded like a good thing.
You know when people controlled their own “cars”? It was like a status thing. Their car was their personality. I mean – who would have their own pod these days? So there was no way they’d make space for buses to go first in the traffic. And the politicians wouldn’t let the buses go first. The minute they suggested that, no one would vote for them, because another candidate would suggest the opposite.
That’s just bizarre.
Isn’t it? You think about how many people you could get on a bus. There’s one in the museum. About 80 people on one bus.
Ha. And now there’s 80 pods! I know we’re zipping around here and there, but there’s something logical about a “bus” on a fixed line at regular times. It’d mean so many less pods everywhere.
They weren’t always attractive though. Imagine a bus every few minutes. No problem. But then you’d get outside the city and there wouldn’t be one for an hour. That’s where you needed a car or a pod now.
True. But you could have had a version of a bus that was more like a pod, surely? If a few people needed it, it could have had a slightly different route every day, according to demand?
Yeah. “demand responsive” – a bit like how we book our pods today.
Funny when you look back. They used to say that, in the future, no one would need to travel – we’d all be using video links and the like. That never happened, did it?
I know. But we all need to get around, don’t we? Pods are good, but you have to wait ages to book one in the peak times. If you had big pods running along fixed lines at regular times, you wouldn’t need to worry about trying to book and having to wait to see if one was available.
That was the beauty of bus, eh? They were mad to get rid of them.
Yeah. Buses…I like the idea…

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.

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.