Pride in the North – A Brief Zap on Transdev

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Think of the “Northern Powerhouse”. Think of Manchester, the great bustling City which is meant to epitomise the North’s renaissance. Whilst Metro Mayor Burnham ponders control of Mancunian’s buses, one great thrusting private operator is pushing ahead with some smart innovation.
Whether Transdev’s new CityZap Manchester – Leeds service is “smart innovation” or a return to inter-urban limited stop service commonly seen donkey’s years ago isn’t really the point. However you see it, it’s an attempt to gee up demand between one Northern Powerhouse and another.
You can, of course, do it on the train already. But rail’s spectacular growth in recent times also comes at a cost – literally if you rock up at the booking office just before boarding your train. Is there room for a road-based alternative that is cheaper and – dare I suggest – sexier?
If anyone can pull this off, it’s the famous bus industry tag-team partnership of Alex Hornby, CEO of Transdev’s Blazefield operation and the irreplaceable Ray Stenning of Best Impressions. And from the moment you clap eyes on CityZap on the streets of Manchester, you know there’s been a fair bit of thought gone into this.
It’s no mean feat to get excited over a refurbished single decker, and to be fair yours truly is more likely to than most. But it’s an attractive sight as it sits on the side of the street, just up from Chorlton Street coach station, flashing it’s provocative sleek red and silver lines at nearby white National Express coaches. The destination display is also teasing me, with “Leeds” departing in a few minutes as it counts down in minute interludes, an innovation Hornby first employed on his other darling of the North – the 36 from Leeds to Harrogate and Ripon.
I’m all over it like a rash, snapping pictures from in the middle of the road, dodging white van man in a sort of road version of whack-a-mole. The CityZap driver looks on, unperturbed. Then I join the throngs of intending passengers at the nearby stop. But the crowds are actually waiting for another, more established Transdev interurban offering – the “Witchway” up to Burnley and points further north. CityZap has started barely three weeks previous, but there are six of us in total who are intending to Zap across to Leeds. I take more pics of the more mundane TfGM bus stop and flag, which allows very little scope for excitement. Our CityZap driver pulls up behind the Witchway and another Transdev employee kindly informs us that CityZap will be ready in a moment. A further Transdev man (at least I’m presuming he’s employed by them) asks if I want this service. It feels good and helpful that there’s interest in me (although he’s probably curious about my taking pics of bus stop flags, if I’m being honest…)

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The “mundane” Transport for Greater Manchester flag…

“Greetings Zappers”!

CityZap is on stand. I whip out my phone, as I’m being ultra tech-savvy here, and have already purchased a mobile “Daytripper” ticket. It also happens to be “Black Friday”, that appalling American import event whereby everyone stamps on each other’s head in shops for a half-price telly. But I’m incredibly impressed that Transdev has got a half price offer on Daytrippers just for today – reduced from £9.50 to £4.75 for most of Transdev’s services across the north (apart from the coastal route) – what an absolute bargain! CityZap itself is £9 return normally.
Our driver looks impeccable in his smart red and white uniform, and you get a real sense of professionalism as you board. There’s also a bit of fun involved – “Greetings Zappers” is the phrase you first read on the driver’s cab door. There are paper timetable available next to the driver.

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“seats to die for…”!

The plush red leather-effect seats are to die for! Hornby has previously used this design on the aforementioned 36, but they are a real winner. They look and feel immensely posh. It’s a classy interior. These aren’t new buses, but to all intents and purposes they are. The personalised “ZAP” reg plates, plush seats and tasteful interior are all designed to make you feel that this is a classy experience. Yes, this is still a bus, but it somehow feels a bit more “posh bus” like…
We depart spot on time, and loop around to expose the brand at Piccadilly Gardens, where a lot more people will see CityZap. No one boards here, but you wonder if Hornby and co had access to the stand, whether a bit of Stenning magic might catch the eyes of a whole lot more. I get the need for TfGM to have uniform information, and present it as such, but a bit of tasteful additional colour and branding might catch the eye of random passers-by.
Internally, the vehicle uses the cove panels to feed more information about the service. The hourly departures are explained in a simple fashion – there’s no complicated timetable here. “ZapNav” is explained also – although this whole concept might be a throwback to interurban services of days of yore, there is a thoroughly modern element; CityZap can change route according to traffic delays. “Your driver can choose the quickest route, just like the car – only better”. Brilliant. If I was a motorist trying this out, I’d be thinking “this isn’t so bad after all. My preconceptions of bus travel might just be turning”…

 

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No-nonsense information – easy to understand 

Sprawling Towns and Distant Hillsides…

We’re soon on the M62. The vehicle copes easily. No noisy engine to trouble us. We hop off the motorway briefly to serve Ainley Top for connections to Halifax and Huddersfield (where I again resolve to visit the railway station in order to catch a glimpse of the famous Felix the Cat) before rejoining the run to Leeds.
You can see why Transdev took the decision to operate this service mainly with single deckers – it is a very exposed section of motorway. But another joy of letting someone else do the driving is the ability to sit back and enjoy the view! For a motorway journey, there are some gorgeous scenic views of rural northern England, with sprawling towns spilling out over distant hillsides. Also on view, in much near proximity, are roadside adverts for CityZap – telling motorists what they are missing!

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View from the Zap!

I’ve also used the USB power to top up my phone charge, and as we arrive into Leeds on time, the only blemish on this journey has been the attempted logon to the free wi-fi, which showed me a dire warning that the service was “not to be trusted” due to a lack of safety certificate, or something…
I’m in Leeds. And as far as bus stations go, this one is very pleasant. The facilities are supposedly 30p, but judging by the regular stampede, it appears they are currently free. A Black Friday offer, maybe….
I invade the travel information office, where CityZap leaflets for Manchester are prominent, but nothing whatsoever for the other CityZap emanating from here towards York. My plot is to head towards Keighley (which I live-tweet as “Keithley” and immediately get picked up on, by some irate local, to which I reply I understand – I’m from Dudley; universally spelt and pronounced as “Duddlaaay”). I’m looking for another Hornby innovation here – the “Aireline” 60 service. I spot the departure board, digitally declaring a 60 is due, but the printed information shows it to be a 760.

 

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The eye-catching sleek lines of the “Aireline” between Leeds and Keighley

Riding The Aireline…with robot Yorkshireman…

Undeterred, I hop on board the 60 – a locally-built Optare single decker, which also has a very welcoming green theme. We depart here on time also, and I settle down to tweet “Metro” – the local transport authority – about the 60/760 discrepancy. Then a pre-recorded voice of a Yorkshireman booms across the bus, informing us of next stop information in a witty format! I’m sure he’s about to tell me about whippet racing shortly too, in order to conform to my northern stereotype image. Metro commendably tweet back very quickly to tell me they’re in the process of changing the information (although another industry source tells me it’s been like it for months…)
Another joy of social media is the instant communication element. Alex Hornby has picked up on the fact I’m mooching across his network, and asks how things are going. He’s interested in my view on the robot Yorkshireman doing the announcements. As a newbie, I love them, and they are the perfect antidote to the soulless computer-generated voices you so often hear elsewhere. But I also guess that the locals may well get a sense of overkill if they’re on this bus several times a week. It’s one of those where you’ll either love it or hate it.
The interior is extremely pleasant. This is a fairly new vehicle, but it’s presentation is welcoming. The cove panels are full of information on services local and further afield. There’s not an advert for a local car dealer or a terrible warning of what to do if you’ve had a cough for more than two weeks in sight. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a mode of last resort – in fact, you feel quite privileged to be on this vehicle! Also noticeable are paper timetables on the bus, next to the driver as you board. It all feels right – and the almost damning verdict is that this is mind-bogglingly simple. Why many other bus operations across the country can’t do this, I have no idea. I accept hardcore inner city ones are a different kettle of fish, but this concept – although maybe not this high standard – could be copied in many other areas.

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Inside The Aireline – most welcoming!

There’s also a fair bit of bus priority. We hop along with a local First service, which looks positively bland in its corporate “Barbie” compared to our explosion of colour. We wind our way through some great northern-sounding towns – Kirkstall, Calverley and Thackley, into Shipley, where the traffic starts to worsen and another Aireline appears and runs in tandem. Whether this is a duplicate for busy school services or something running very late is unclear, but the school element is clear, with several “My Bus” school buses evident. We avoid the flock of uniformed kids in the main, with just a handful boarding our bus – although inevitably they can’t keep still for five minutes – one banging the side window in an attempt to capture the attention of a fellow scholar (in vain, I should add – said kid ignored the window-basher…)
The traffic congestion worsens considerably on the approach to Keighley and we arrive into the town’s bus station twenty minutes late. You can give people star-studded buses, but it appears the ever-increasing problem of traffic congestion is problematic all over the place.

Piped Music & Proper Persons…

One thing Metro appears good at is bus stations. My first ever time in Keighley is met by agreeable piped music in the agreeable bus station. It’s not large, but it’s quite bright and attractive. Timetables adorn the wall of one end of the facility, and a gaggle of drivers watch with only slight interest as I help myself to one of each of the brightly-coloured productions. Also present is a proper enquiry office with a proper person inside. I’m a fan of this – you can put everything online, save a fortune, tell people that it’s “what they want” and have the bean-counters pat you on the back, but nothing is more helpful than a proper person with proper local knowledge.

 

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Keighley Bus Station

But actually, I miss a trick. Despite being convinced I’ve picked up a timetable for my next journey – the M4 to Burnley – I haven’t. And there isn’t one in sight, both on the wall or in the office. Not to worry. I consult the timetable on the departure stand, but there is conflict between that and what is shown on the digital departure screen. I suspect the traffic has put paid to any timetable normality, and despite having difficulty in fathoming out what might be going on, I conclude that we’re thirteen minutes late as we depart.

 

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Attractive local publicity helps “sell” the bus service…

Across The Great Divide…Hearing Voices…

It’s another very well-appointed Optare, in a similar scheme to the previous Keighley bus, but in the orange of the Burnley Mainline network. This is the service that crosses the great divide – Yorkshire into Lancashire. I can imagine some Geoffrey Boycott-like character barking out orders that nothing in Keighley bus station of a printed type should refer to Lancashire, such is the historic rivalry. And talking of hearing voices in my head, I definitely can. It’s “the voices of Mainline” – David & Emma – who have won a competition to voice the next-stop announcements. On-board publicity shows their beaming faces. It’s a lovely touch, and further ingrains the idea that the local bus service really is part of the local community here.

 

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Inside the M4 – bright, colourful and attractive…

Frightful Weather, Half-Cut Men…and Witches…

Not so lovely is the weather. Darkness falls early on this November Friday teatime, and our bus faces the double-whammy of appalling traffic and snow flurries to arrive twenty minutes down at Colne. The original idea was to go through to Burnley to connect with an X43 “Witchway” back to Manchester, but at this time of the day, all X43s are running through Colne, so it’s bail-out time here in an attempt to ride the Witchway all the way back to the big City. The Transdev app has realtime info, but it’s clear here that the X43 is suffering with traffic too. Two of them are running within five minutes of each other and both are a good forty minutes away. The weather is frightful, and my debut in Colne bus station couldn’t be more unwelcoming. It’s a small affair, with just bus shelters. Maybe a town centre pub might help pass the time and help avoid the drowned rat look. One is duly found, but it’s not particularly a place I’d like to spend my hard-earned all evening. It’ll do.
One pint later, and a trip to the Gents accompanied by some half-cut gentleman who “recognises the Brummie accent” (cheers – but I won’t bother explaining the nuances between that and my Black Country one) I’m back in the bus station under the cover of darkness. A Lancashire County Council information board displays details of service changes in the Blackpool area – which must be a good thirty-odd miles away. Very helpful for the good people of Colne. I can’t help feeling that, whilst Council information is of course welcome, Hornby and his team might have been able to produce a more eye-catching and more locally-focussed effort.
There’s no let up in the rain/sleet/snow. Huddled in the shelter with a few more condemned individuals, I play with the Transdev app once more. The two Witchways are still more or less running together, and indeed they both appear. One is fifteen minutes down, the other eighteen. The first ones pulls onto stand, whilst the other – a single decker – sneaks up behind. It’s driver decants and politely begs our excuse me to ask the driver of the decker if he’ll take his passengers, which makes eminent sense. We’re off, out of Colne, towards first Burnley, then Manchester. I’ve acquired my favourite seat upstairs at the front. But it’s fruitless trying to play my childhood game of driving the bus as the heavens open once again and not a jot can be seen from my lofty position. Our driver is a true professional as he battles the conditions and drives carefully as the snow is beginning to lightly settle in hilly areas. Through Rawtenstall then onto the M66, as the wet conditions pound our glamorous witch. At Prestwich, the clouds ease somewhat, and we head in on the approach to the City, past Strangeways prison to what is fast-becoming the blight of our City Centres – more congestion.
It’s early evening. OK, it’s Friday evening, so I suspect it’s probably one of the worst times to arrive here, but it’s a failing of some significance. Hardly anything is moving. Let’s hope the new Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham can get some sort of grip on this. Whilst he may ponder whether or not to take control of Manchester’s bus network, there’s something much more fundamental to address. We’re barely moving at a snail’s pace as we wind around the streets of this great City. I don’t even consider how late this service is now – rather I contemplate how on earth you even begin to schedule bus services faced with ridiculous amounts of traffic of this magnitude.
We eventually reach Chorlton Street, where the adventure had begun some hours earlier. Our driver flicks the switch to change the destination and he’s off almost immediately again. I’m left to wander the streets around to Piccadilly Station for the delights of a Cross Country train back to Wolverhampton, and my Black Country homeland.

 

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Northern Heights:
• Real attention to detail makes Transdev’s operations a delight.
• Bargain day ticket (even more so with half-price “Black Friday” offer!)
• Superb driving from true professionals.
Northern Blights:
• Traffic Congestion! Transdev has made its local operations some of the best I’ve experienced anywhere. But that attractiveness is tempered by the fact that reliability – the number one concern of most bus users – is taking a hit. Political it may well be, but the politicians have got to get a grip on this and give the bus a fighting chance.

 

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Top Deck Sketch – the x26

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Visitors from the other side of the globe may be unimpressed – nay, bemused – with Heathrow’s Central Bus Station. Certainly, the woman clutching the Cathay Pacific goodie bag (or was it an enlarged sick bag?) certainly seemed bemused.
As was I. On one side of the facility, sexy tri-axle National Express coaches – whisking people to all corners of this great isle. In this section, a couple of TfL bus stop poles offering the City’s suburbia.
And there are plenty of red buses. The 105 in particular stands out. Several role up within a few minutes of each other. One in particular with it’s pilot sporting a huge cardigan, as if the route originated from the Outer Hebrides (Zone 114). Another driver looked as if he was questioning his whole life. Should he have worked harder at school? Taken the role of Macbeth in the school play rather than the back end of the donkey in the nativity? This is hardly “Welcome To Britain” stuff. But then, most board brandishing their little plastic Oysters, with the sound of bleeping filling the air. There is no interaction – just contemplation. On the driver’s part, mostly. The woman with the Cathay Pacific bag looks on, still bemused. Maybe Southall Station looks particularly inviting…
I’m here for the x26. A stupendous romp across West London from the window of the World at Heathrow to the suburbia of Croydon (East and West), where a military museum just about beats a shopping mall for foodies as the top reason to visit, apparently.
The end-to-end trip is around 2 hours, but it’s a standard red London bus that does the honours (a Wright-bodied Volvo, since you ask). I take my place on the upper deck, with plenty of other takers – the lower deck contains some large luggage racks, given the flying connection.
I haven’t been around Heathrow for years, and I’m almost startled at the size of the place. As we run alongside the perimeter fence, there is a spectacular vision of planes literally queuing up in the sky to land. We weave our way around huge aircraft hangers with monsters of the sky showing us their rear ends, proudly the sporting red white and blue colours of British Airways.
Then it’s out through Hatton Cross station, still with an aviation feel – once the location of a famous picture of a London DMS box-like bus with Concorde flying overhead in the 70s (worth a Google, if only for nostalgic purposes).
John Prescott was right. We’re all middle class now, he declared, prior to the Blair revolution. God only knows what the house prices are like around here, but it seems not to put people off using the bus. There’s a steady stream of users – middle class or not – and the limited stop nature of the service seems to work (although a tweeter to the @OnThisBusBlog Twitter feed bemoans the fact it doesn’t stop where they want it to. You can please some of the people some of the time, etc….)
We trundle through Teddington, then Kingston, Cheam and Sutton – all names that sound delightful as postal addresses. A load of schoolkids board, but they seem well-behaved enough, and the much-feared mini-riot never happens.
I eventually bail-out at East Croydon, where the trams criss-cross and the main line station carries me and hundreds of others off to the bright lights of our capital City. And for the more adventurous, Bedford.

Is Low-Fare better than Go-Nowhere?

Much trumpeting from National Express West Midlands regarding the direction of travel of their “low fare zones”.

Results from the first one – the Sandwell & Dudley Daysaver – appear encouraging: a 4% increase in passenger numbers and 2% increase in revenues, according to the operator.

All good on paper – especially in the short-term. But what about over the longer timescale?

There’s no doubt if you ask folk about bus fares, they want them cheaper. A friend of mine expresses the commonly-held view around these parts that you can travel quite a long distance for £2.40, but comparatively short trips seem proportionally much more expensive (NX’s “short hop” of around a mile is £1.50). But the alternative is a return to a hugely complicated system of fare tables, and a rather large army of individuals who would be willing to cheat the system, with the driver stuck in the cab and told not to leave it to get into confrontational situations.

So it’s commercial. And, actually, people love a bargain. Plus it actually works rather well. It’s even cheaper if you buy it through your mobile (£2.80 rather than £3), so as long as you’re making more than a single trip, and you’re only staying local (I.e. not venturing into Brum or Wolverhampton), it works out significantly cheaper than a £4.60 peak Daysaver. Weekly tickets also provide savings over the regional one.

That said, people have been caught out. A Facebook friend hopped on the bus with the local ticket for a meeting in Brum, forgetting she only had a local ticket and got stung by a revenue check going into Town! Ouch! An easy mistaka to maka, maybe, but how difficult is it to spot the determined fraudsters from the innocent mistakers?

But my biggest worry is in the longer term. Once local users have got used to paying less and seeing it as the norm, their attention may well spread to other aspects of their journey – and surely the concern here is the ever-increasing congestion snarl-up on our roads – the West Midlands being one of the worst affected anywhere in the country.

Low fares is but one part of the jigsaw. Smart, well turned-out products are another – and NX can’t be faulted with their role out of their Platinum spec kit. But the one thing that tops the list year after year above everything else is reliability. And that is the big concern. If people are going nowhere fast, will the low fare retain its current seemingly Midas touch?

Fatal Attraction

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Checking tickets on my day job aboard the Stourbridge Shuttle, I came across a couple who didn’t have any. The ensuing conversation was sadly illuminating – not particularly for the railway, which was losing out on two £1 singles – but for the world of buses.

As I’ve often discussed here before, buses remain a mystery to certain parts of the public. The routes, the times, the ticketing – it all becomes a hazy puzzle that leads many to shrug their shoulders and use the car, or a taxi. It’s often a challenge to present the network in simple-to-understand terms if you’re a novice, but by golly, the industry does it’s own shooting-in-the-foot on far too many occasions.

This was one example. The man gave me an exasperated look when I asked him for his non-existent ticket. His other half was more diplomatic. Producing a National Express West Midlands DaySaver, I’d told them that it wasn’t valid on our service. She then told me a somewhat exasperating tale of their day.

Living somewhere in the urban Black Country, they’d decided to have a day out in Bridgnorth – an enduring favourite location for folk around the West Midlands, with it’s High and Low Towns, olde worlde charm, historic cliff railway and gorgeous steam trains of the Severn Valley Railway. It’s only around a dozen or so miles from Stourbridge. But…it’s across the dreaded border in Shropshire.

In the days of the mighty Midland Red, borders didn’t mean much on a “Day Anywhere” ticket. Stourbridge folk could jump on the bus for a day out “anywhere” across the erstwhile giant’s sprawling network. Today, an excellent service exists between the two towns, courtesy of the independent Central Buses. So here was issue number one. They’d decided to leave the car at home and hop on the bus. Their “day ticket” wasn’t valid on Central Buses across the border.

Then, they’d paid for 2 day tickets on Central Buses to get to Bridgnorth and seemed even more outraged when I told them about the two for £10 “Duo” ticket – which the driver hadn’t obviously informed them about.

Next up, after a stroll around the Shropshire beauty spot, they’d hopped back on the 125, only to find that it was running a short journey back to Kidderminster only, where a steep walk up Comberton Hill to the railway station awaited, in order to get back to Stourbridge. “Never again!” they almost cried in union.

What can we take out of this sorry tale?

Well, notwithstanding that when you use public transport, a bit of forward planning is necessary. Whether this couple had, or had gotten confused, or whatever, you can bet they won’t be using the bus much in future. The lady had commented “why can’t they do a ticket that covers the wider area?” It’s a good point. Of course there has to be borders and end-points somewhere, but the urban West Midlands plus a wider area is surely ripe for such a product – the railways already do it, and operators like Arriva provide such a product. But when it comes to different operators, the game changes dramatically. Buying single fare or day tickets for multiple operators suddenly becomes very expensive indeed. As for the short run of the last 125 journey, well, perhaps a bit more awareness of the timetable should have been in order.

But I felt a pang of sadness for them, and for the bus industry in general. Here were two people who’d had a poor experience. No one’s fault in particular, but it’s frustrating for sure.

Former Transport Minister Norman Baker talked about having one pass for the whole country. Now of course that sounds fiendishly challenging behind the scenes, but hang on – had our intrepid travellers been in possession of a concessionary travel pass, it would have been no problem (save for the lack of planning on their last bus journey). The technology exists, but the “back office” and haggling over who gets what part of the pie may be more difficult. But is it really impossible to envisage such a product that would allow you onto any bus in England and even work out the best price or cap it for a day? Remove the ticketing confusion and you’re half way there. With the Buses Bill on the horizon requiring open data, information – built upon by whizz-kid app designers – ought to be making buses less mysterious in a short amount of time. Granted, not everyone will take up this technological extravaganza, but the bus industry has to get in front of the game to stand any chance of being relevant in the years to come. When we whoop about “contactless” being just introduced onto local buses, it lays bare the fact that the industry is still generally behind the curve. We’ve got little old ladies out shopping to “go smart” with their passes – we need to kick on, not just with technology, but with operational attitudes.

The trip to Bridgnorth by bus had obviously been an attraction. Their ultimate experience: fatal to their chances of doing it again!

The Orange Flyer – sampling EasyBus in Shropshire & Cheshire

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There’s an old bus industry tale about how Stagecoach supremo Sir Brian Souter decided have a go at the express coach market and went to see Stelios from EasyJet with the idea that the recognisable orange brand would form the basis for this. It never came to fruition. Sir Brian went his own way, and Megabus became almost as ubiquitous as the iconic white of National Express on the highways and byways of Britain (and of course elsewhere). “EasyBus” has continued to exist, but only as a handful of airport links in a competitive market.

I’m not a frequent flyer, but I decided to try one of the orange connectors – the recently-ish launched service from Telford to Manchester Airport. Launching in October 2016 with 12 low-emission minibuses, 16 services a day operate 7-days per week on the route, which operates via Shrewsbury, Oswestry and Chester.

Booking ahead by a couple of weeks, I paid just over £6 for a single – the 1330 departure from Telford.

Telford bus station is part-bus station, part building site, but my ticket clearly states that the EasyBus departs from “Stand S”, which is clearly marked with a large sign, slightly away from the row of usual bus stands. I’m warned to be in position 10 minutes ahead of departure, and I am – with no one else in sight looking like they’re off for some sun sea and sand on one of Stelios’s larger airborne vehicles.

A few minutes before the departure time, the orange minibus appears, and an orange-tabarded driver hops out of the cab to open the door and welcome me on board.

“Plenty of time for your flight?” he enquires, then looks slightly bemused when I tell him I’m not flying.

There’s probably more bemusement watching me haul my 6’7” frame into the small bus, which is akin to a baby giraffe attempting yoga. The driver relieves me of my ticket.

There’s a small gaggle of concessionary pass-wielding OAPs observing the goings-on. No doubt they are contemplating a potential hand-bagging of the driver for a free day out, but there’s no chance of that. This is a premium service.

Or it is until I catch sight of the state of some of the seats. They are badly stained and in need of a good clean. It isn’t the best sight to greet a business leader flying off to seal a deal.

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uninviting seats…

I’ve bagged the seat by the door, which appears the only one of twelve that will adequately accommodate my ridiculously stupid long legs. No one else is on board. Free Radio Shropshire wafts gently into my ear’oles.

We’re off, spot on time, into the serene Shropshire Countryside, and first of all, bound for Shrewsbury. Our driver is excellent, and the ride quality isn’t bad for a minibus, although a luxury coach this is not.

Arrival at Shrewsbury is greeted by more slightly intrigued looks, as we wait time for a few minutes. Again we have no takers.

Then we join the faster traffic on the A5 as we head towards Oswestry. The EasyBus doesn’t serve the town here, just the Travelodge and assortment of fast-food outlets at a road junction. It’s quite an innovative idea I guess – stay overnight then hop on the airport bus. We peruse the car park gingerly for anyone looking remotely like a flyer with a suitcase, but there comes none.

Then it’s back on the A5, Wrexham-bound. Free Radio is replaced by Radio 2 and we arrive into Wrexham General Railway Station 9 minutes early. Orange-tabard man informs me of the short interlude here, and I release my seatbelt and grab a bite of sandwich.

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speeding across the English/Welsh border

Now we’re off to Chester, where again we don’t bother with the City Centre, but instead serve the Main Reception of a Holiday Inn, where a slightly-exasperated woman can’t believe her road-blocking parking by the front door is hindering our progress. Honestly. You pull up here with not a soul in sight and this orange thing appears in your rear-view. Our man diplomatically suggests that pulling slightly to the left will allow us progress. David Bowie’s “Absolute Beginners” pumps through the speakers.

No one has joined us at the Holiday Inn, and we mix it with Arriva’s Sapphire service between Wrexham and Chester for a bit before hitting the M53, then M56 before an uneventful but on-time arrival into Manchester’s airport bus station. Orange man thanks me for using the service, then asks if I am aware that the service will be changing soon, with the Telford – Shrewsbury section being withdrawn. It’s a helpful interlude, and I thank him for the information. He departs the scene to use the loo and I capture several photos. Public transport links are good here, with digital and paper timetables available for local bus services, including direct to central Manchester, and literally a few steps down to the Metrolink trams and national rail services.

 

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Good information at Manchester Airport bus station. The steps lead directly to the Metrolink trams…

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frequent buses operate between the Airport and Manchester City Centre too…

The Verdict

All in all, it’s a useful service. I guess operators of services like this really need to know their market well. The frequency has to be decent to make it attractive, but my journey carried only me, all of the way. You can’t afford too many of those!

It’s an innovative service. Neither National Express, Megabus or anyone else covers this corridor – NX route you into Birmingham first if you type in Telford or Shrewsbury, then change onto a direct Manchester Airport service. The quickest journey via this method is over 4 hours.

It deserves to succeed – but clean seats and first impressions are all important!

 

The Bright Orange:

  • Excellent driver
  • Innovative service
  • Cheaper than driving and parking at the airport

 

The Orange Peel:

  • Dirty seats
  • Doesn’t serve Oswestry or Chester centres (although this saves time)
  • Losing Telford section soon

Billie Piper’s Nightmare…(A Couple of Hours in Swindon)

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Fleming Way, Swindon

Swindon. A place I’d never visited in all of my 40-something years. Famous for it’s railway connections, the UK’s first lending library and Billie Piper (Doctor Who fans will know who she is, as well as hapless DJs like me, who played her tunes around the turn of the Century). It’s then Local Authority-owned bus operator Thamesdown scooped the prestigious “Operator of the Year” gong at the UK Bus Awards in 2011.

My fellow bus nut pal Mark and I decided on a visit. It had actually centred around a last trip on Oxford Bus Company’s short-lived Oxford – Birmingham Airport service – “short-lived” because it’s facing the axe less than a year after being introduced. A trip between Oxford and Swindon on Stagecoach’s 66 Gold service would fit nicely in between.

To the City of Dreaming Spires…

We join the coach at Birmingham International station, and it’s spot on time. £20 for a day return – maybe it seems a tad steep, but that’s the way with premium airport services. After looping around Birmingham Airport, we leave for the Warwickshire countryside with 8 on board. It’s a nice ride towards the City of Dreaming Spires and we arrive, uneventfully, into Gloucester Green bus station where Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach are doing battle for the lucrative London market. All the dollar is to made by folk heading south, it seems.

Gold…and The Magic Roundabout

Also in the mix here are some Stagecoach Gold services. They are impressive beasts. We’re hunting a 66 to Swindon, but less impressive is the lack of departure. Our more-diminished beast rolls in almost 15 minutes down, and the incoming man on the upper deck front seat is fast asleep. Everyone piles off and the new takers immediately board, our man away with the fairies suddenly leaping up and making a sharp exit.

An Adult Explorer is £7.00, and once relieved of our coinage, we’re off on the upper deck and away.  Soon, we’re out of the City and into the greenery of a glorious English springtime. The service passes through Faringdon, a delightful location including The Old Crown – a 16th Century coaching Inn, where the original stagecoaches (in an era known as pre-Souter) plied their trade. The modern-day ones stop right outside.

But that’s a stop for another day, as Swindon beckons. The basic 30-minute frequency on route 66 takes around an hour an twenty minutes end-to-end but if the views en route delight, the end result is far-less salubrious. After negotiating Swindon’s almost-novelty “magic roundabout” (five mini-roundabouts that surround one big one in the middle – a scary moment for the more nervous driver), the arrival into the bus station is one of the biggest let-downs since the aforementioned Billie Piper’s second album (“Walk of Life” – hey, I knew my DJ stuff years ago, y’know…)

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Swindon’s famous “Magic Roundabout”

A very bad 70s Nightmare…

You can imagine Piper reminiscing in some TV documentary about her school days, spending Saturday afternoons singing into the end of a hair brush in Swindon bus station before becoming famous. Or maybe she avoided it completely. Given the choice, most people probably would. If first impressions count, this one certainly isn’t getting a second date. After leaving the luxurious surroundings of the Gold offering, this is like a very bad 1970s nightmare. I wander up and down, taking in the utter despair this place emits. It shouts out that bus travel is the very last resort. I feel a heady mix of sadness, frustration and absolute despondency. Pigeons and their excrement loom large. Threatening notices about the right to confiscate your alcohol are fastened to fences. Information is poor, although Stagecoach does have an office here (no 66 timetables are on offer though). If you’re new to buses here, a lack of an index to places served doesn’t help – the nearest thing is a very basic list of services on each stand. Concrete walkways abound, it looks threatening enough in the middle of the day, so goodness only knows what a young Billie Piper might have felt like hanging around here after dark.

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The 70s Nightmare – Swindon Bus Station

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Very attractive (part 1)

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Very attractive (part 2) 

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Minimal information in the bus station

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vandalised infrastructure

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Concrete Jungle…

It looks like the longer-distance services go from here. But if you follow the concrete maze away from this transport hell, you come to an equally 70s-inspired flyover-type arrangement called Fleming Way. Here, Thamesdown has an enquiry office, and we run in like excited kids into a record shop (remember them?), about to get our hands on the new Billie Piper album (the first one – it was better). There’s real-time information on offer at the on-street stands too.

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Information is better on Fleming Way…

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…including Real-Time information…

A Zone Too Many…?

Thamesdown’s information is good – although my first impression of the ticketing zones was one of confusion. There are 4 – inner, outer, plus and network. Is this really necessary? In fact, the more I scrutinise the leaflet as an outsider, the more baffling it becomes. We settle for a £4 Day Rider, as we’ve only got a couple of hours and drop our fare into another 70s phenomenon – the exact fare box. But at least this will soon be history, as since the company has been taken over by Go Ahead, customer-friendly change will soon be given.

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Good printed information

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A Zone Too Many…?

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Too many ticketing options? 

Actually, there is nothing yet to suggest Go Ahead ownership. It’s early days, but I’d half-expected something subtle like some “we’re part of the Go Ahead Group” stickers somewhere, as appeared quite quickly on the Plymouth Citybus takeover. The Dayrider appears to be valid on Stagecoach buses in the area as well. The beachball-liveried challengers have long-existed here too, but it seems that they’re upping the ante now that Thamesdown are in private hands. One to watch for the bus-observers in the coming months and years, methinks.

A Trip to Sparcells…

We’ve randomly chosen a 19 to somewhere called Sparcells, as it’s a Scania double decker. I bound upstairs and claim the front seat, like maybe a young Billie Piper might and we’re off around the outskirts of the town, past the ghosts of Swindon’s railway heritage. Ex-engine sheds are everywhere.

The bus is decent enough, but unexciting. It’s getting on in age and ground-in dirt inevitably shows. Me and Mark contemplate possible reasons as to why the Council has flogged the company to private hands. For all the successes of Council-owned operations such as Nottingham and Reading, this is a sobering reminder that not all of this genre glitters. Is it inevitable politics that leads to Councils concluding that other parts of their empire are further up the pecking order? Or has bus industry stagnation hit this part of Wiltshire?

We have no idea where the 19 terminus is. The service traverses a posh-looking new build housing estate and stops for a few moments just beyond this. The bus stop pole contains good information and prices. We expect to be kicked off, as we suspect it’s the end of the line, but we’re soon on our way back through the posh estate, so we think we’re heading back into Town. The driving itself is a bit on the “urgent” side, but our bus takes it well, and we pass an “extreme trampoline park” and further reminders of steam trains in the form of “Brunel Dental Practice”. I’m slightly disappointed to see no cashing in on Billie Piper’s fame.

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Serving a new housing estate

A Quick Trip to Hospital…

Back in Fleming Way, an awaiting driver puffs on his vape. Information on stand here is better than the disastrous bus station. Next up, a move to Great Western Hospital on route 1. It’s every 10 minutes, so plenty of buses on this one. Within moments, an elderly single deck Dennis Dart has appeared, and our electric fag-puffing man has vaped his last for a while and takes over our steed.

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well-presented buses – even this older example

Ah, driver changeovers. There’s only one place I’ve seen a fast, efficient driver changeover – TrentBarton in Nottingham. I don’t know what they do, but they have it far better than most other bus operation I experience around the country. This one is no different, and seems to take an age. Intending passengers shuffle in boredom. Eventually, we’re allowed on and take off hospital-bound. It’s another uneventful trip. The bus is 15 years old, but is unremarkable. Our now vape-less driver negotiates the Magic Roundabout like he’s done it thousands of times before (I dare say he has), and soon enough, we’re at the Hospital. Just across the way, we spot a 12 on-stand, which is heading back into town via a different route. We decide on immediate action but our sprint reveals how a lifestyle bereft of regular exercise is no good at all when it comes to running for buses. It’s a surprise that no one from the Hospital comes out and drags us in as we board our next Dart with our faces a deeper shade than that of a passing Salisbury Reds service. We needn’t have rushed as our driver is out of the cab deep in conversation on the phone.

The 12 returns to Town via the Old Town and provides a contrast to the more direct and frequent 1. Again, the bus is well-presented for it’s age.

Nothing to See Here (out of the windows…)

We’re back in the Town Centre, and evening peak is rapidly advancing. We’re aware of the time of our last coach back up to the Midlands from Oxford, so it’s time to hop back on Stagecoach’s 66. A sensible use of the toilet facilities back in the bus station is thwarted by the fact that they appear to close at 4.45pm (do the vandals start early here?). The 66 is on stand for a 5pm departure, and it has a decent take-up. But it’s disappointing to find the upper deck windows are absolutely filthy – and I’m inclined to believe that this isn’t one day’s worth of filth, either. It isn’t becoming of such a premium offering.

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“there’s so much more to see” – but not out of this filthy window!

The journey itself is a fine one. The dying embers of daylight across the gorgeous countryside is a simple but lovely pleasure as we head Oxford-bound. Back in the City, we partake in a ridiculously-priced pint of real ale and then make our way across to Gloucester Green for our evening trip back up to Birmingham International, where we are the only two takers for the entire journey – a sobering reminder as to perhaps why this very useful facility simply hasn’t been able to pay it’s way as a going concern. Full marks to Oxford Bus Company for giving it a try though. I’ll miss it more than Swindon’s bus station…

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Three Cheers:

  • Good Thamesdown info in a good old fashioned Travelshop, staffed by real people
  • Decent presentation of Thamesdown buses
  • Decent core network of services

Three Jeers:

  • Swindon bus station truly appalling
  • Confusing amount of fare zones
  • Some drivers a bit on the “urgent” side

    PS:

    Design Guru Ray Stenning has subsequently taken me to task, by reminding me of the fact that Swindon’s most famous star is the irreplaceable Diana Dors. Just imagine her admiring the classic lines of half-cabs in the days when buses were real buses! Sigh…..

    The Bus Tracker 13/03/17 – “Fake Bus Stops and a cover up”

    With all the furore over “fake news”, The Bus Tracker notes with interest some excitable happenings over the altogether more sedate world of bus stops.

    First up, none other than “National Treasure” (as described by The Daily Mail) Dame Judi Dench, who managed to get involved in some low-key whinge from a bus driver whilst on some jolly stunt involving a pub landlord and a fake bus stop.

    The shenanigans involves some cheeky pub boss in Kent who erected a bus stop outside his boozer, claiming that he’d doubled his takings by doing similar in 2015. So he invited his friend the Dame to attend the “opening” of his new one and stick her hand out for the next Metrobus-operated 291. The driver duly pulled up and then realised it was part of a wheeze – especially when the film star didn’t even get on. “Well that was a waste of time”, he was supposedly heard to mutter.

    In further intrigue, the Landlord claims to have found the bus stop pole “in the bushes”….

    At least Dench turns out to be a secret fan of buses. “I love buses. I like them better than tubes”  she says – although she also admits that she never uses them. Oh well. At least she’s saved the Local Authority from coughing up for a concessionary journey…

    You can read all about it here

     

    And there’s more, as Jimmy Cricket used to say…

    In the equally sedate area of Harrogate, suggestions of skulduggery involving missing timetable information. Local independent Connexions Buses is complaining that all of it’s timetables have disappeared from timetable cases on the route between Harrogate and Knaresborough – a route that sees competition from Transdev. North Yorkshire County Council aren’t getting involved (despite them owning said cases).

    Transdev claimed information relating to their own services has been “covered up” – so they’ve produced a replacement that shows all operators services on the corridor. Now isn’t that a grown up response?

    At least the good folk of this part of North Yorkshire have got roadside information – something that might be regarded a bit of a treat in other parts of the Kingdom…

    So What’s The Fuss?

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    Perusing my copy of Coach & Bus Week whilst actually on a bus set me off on another deep and meaningful ponder of the state of the industry at the moment.

    One of the news items referred to National Express Group – and the fact that strong overall growth has offset a “slowdown” in it’s bus division. National Express West Midlands is my local operator, and I use it and watch it’s fortunes closely.

    NXWM has had an uplift in recent years. The driving skills are much improved, the buses look more attractive in their gorgeous crimson livery, a new “Platinum” product has been rolled out, brand-awareness is much-improved, and new fare offers have been introduced (although at the danger of becoming confusing due to the sheer number of alternatives).

    So what’s the fuss? Commercial revenue is up 2%, but offset by an expected decline in concessionary income to balance out at 0.1% growth overall. It all feels a bit, well, flat – if figures like that are your thing. On the buses themselves as a passenger, it feels probably the best it has in many a year.

    But here’s the rub – the one thing that could be a game-changer is not in the control of the operator – reliability. It has become very apparent in the suburban West Midlands – as noted elsewhere – that congestion has rapidly become a massive issue again. If the buses are posh, with extra legroom, comfy seats and free WiFi, the journey itself is as bad as it’s ever been. There are tailbacks everywhere – some not entirely predictable either, with the end reason being simply too much traffic for no particular reason. It’s “white van man” delivering goods ordered online – which in turn means less trips to the High Street , taxis (Uber and others) and a general upturn in car traffic, possibly brought on by the feeling that petrol costs aren’t rising by much and another feeling that we might finally be seeing the end of the financial crisis that has gripped us for the best part of a decade. People are getting out and about in their private vehicles, and the bus can’t find it’s way through effectively.

    It’s another reason why people like trams and trains more than buses. I’ve always been curious about the disconnect between the bus and other modes of public transport. Catch the bus and you’re one of Thatcher’s losers (if you’re 28 and still catching the bus, you’re a failure, blah blah), yet everyone loves the tram. And the train (unless you’re a Southern passenger). Much of that is surely about certainty. Railed public transport is permanent. It’s going to get you there without anything else getting in the way. You can rely on it. Buses on the other hand…

    How about giving the bus it’s own permanent way? In Cambridge and Manchester to name but two, buses rank much higher on the clapometer, because of the guided busways. But these are rare incursions into an otherwise typical urban landscape. Giving the bus priority to make them more reliable and thus more attractive involves, yes – you’ve guessed it – more space on the tarmac at the expense of other road users. And for most Councillors, that’s too much of a vote risk.

    One of my Facebook friends suggests Bus Users UK fielding candidates in elections to raise the profile of bus users in all of this. Good shout – except who’s footing the bill for the deposit, which may well be forfeited? It opens up even more ponderings on my journey – who is shouting for the bus user’s lot? Bus Users UK do a sterling job (disclaimer: I used to work for them), as do Transport Focus (ditto disclaimer) – but getting that into the mainstream media on a regular basis to hammer it home is nigh on impossible – because the campaign for more bus priority is, frankly, boring. And up against the army of motorists who believe that there is some sort of phony “war” against them anyway (laughable – they’ve never had it so good) – well, you might as well forget it. If National Express West Midlands had a network of routes that had buses actually beating the car drivers stuck in their little tin boxes on bus priority that had stringent fines attached for misuse, they’d be raking it in. No question.

    Instead, we have on the local TV news the very day I’m writing this, a story about how bus lane cameras are bringing in thousands every week from errant motorists who are either hopeless at reading large signs or think the rules don’t apply to them and thus break them – then cry wolf to the media when the fine pops through the letter box. The story is a lazy one, and rarely changes in context. I well recall myself appearing on TV and Radio to defend such scenarios – and setting myself up as public enemy number one in the process. Furthermore on the day I write this, I hear from a friend in the industry that part of what precious bus priority there is in Wolverhampton is being removed shortly “to aid traffic flow”. This is in the City where a few years ago, a local “business leader” stood at a traffic junction one morning, pen and paper in hand, to attempt to count the number of passengers on passing buses to see if he could prove that bus priority wasn’t needed. Yes folks. It actually came to that. Across the conurbation in Coventry, we have a number of bus lanes currently suspended to see if it “helps traffic flow”. You can bet most if not all of them won’t be reinstated. What a depressing state of affairs.

    I also hear from industry sources that Uber and the taxi trade are “killing” the night time bus trade in Birmingham. Maybe that’s to be expected when looking at the night time economy in some respects, but the danger is that the taxi trade and Uber in particular start making real inroads into daytime travel. Imagine something like an app offer along the lines of “3 rides for £12”. Yes, it’s still more expensive than a day ticket for the bus, but the trade off is hassle-free door to door mobility. If the economy is picking up, people may well consider ball-park prices in this way, because unless you’re a strange transport geek like me who rides about on buses to examine the science, the only real reason people catch buses is to get from A to B. If there is no real prospect of getting there any quicker on the bus, and you can drive, you’ll drive.

    We don’t do long-term thinking in this country. In the 60s, when everyone was buying cars and the railways were a dead duck, no one had the foresight to think that, maybe, when everybody has bought a car, we might see mass gridlock, and railways might be needed after all. No. We sent in Dr Beeching and we all know what happened there. Today, we’ve learnt none of these lessons. We get rid of bus lanes for supposed short-term gain. Maybe even to appease the motorist, come election time. Instead, we have an impending Buses Bill that doesn’t definitively address the biggest concern of the bus industry  and it’s users – congestion. The income from concessionary fares – another huge thorn in the side of operators – isn’t mentioned. And please can we put a sock in it when some people talk about concessionary fares being a “subsidy to the bus industry” – it isn’t anything of the sort.

    In the case of the NXWM “disappointing results”, I feel sorry for them. The company has tried hard to raise the image and standard of bus travel in the West Midlands. I don’t really know what more they can do or could have done. The latest role of the dice is dirt-cheap tickets for users in Dudley & Sandwell. It’s undoubtedly worth a go, but it’s papering around the edges – congestion remains the biggest killer by far.

    Who knows if NX’s CEO Dean Finch will throw in the towel when it comes to the underperforming bus division? He has done with UK rail. Are buses getting in the way when there are seemingly more exciting opportunities in North America, Spain, Morocco, German rail and, of course, the iconic white coach brand? That, of course, is pure speculation – but I’ve long-thought that some parts of the “Big 5” might merge at some point.

    That’s business. The hard-headed commercial reality of bus operation today. But what about the other aspects of having a well-functioning bus service?

    We somehow have to get away from this idea that buses are the mode of last-resort. Now that’s much harder said than done. Today I have made a journey during the evening peak from Birmingham to Dudley. It tried the patience of even this committed bus user. Congestion was as bad as ever, someone had something loosely described as “music” emanating from a tinny mobile phone speaker, whilst another smoked something disgusting, which mingled in with the smell of what could only be described as close-to-rotting chicken. It was an appalling journey in every respect, and if I wasn’t a fine connoisseur of public transport, I’d be thinking about getting a car if I had to make that journey regularly. Which of course, would only make the congestion worse, and leave the pot-smoking, rotten-chicken-scoffing undesirables to increase in number.  We somehow need to turn this downward spiral into a virtuous circle – and it’s not easy at all.

    I keep returning again and again to congestion – and the need for the bus to cut through it. The industry is probably doing all it can on their part. There are new buses everywhere, ticket deals, WiFi, posh seats, you name it. What isn’t needed are franchises and “London-style operations”, oft-spoken by local politicians who clearly don’t grasp the magnitude of what might be needed to achieve that. The Buses Bill is a side show. We have a hardy, resilient bus industry which, when paired with Local Authorities who share the same goal, can achieve great things. But we need politicians – local and national – who can see the benefit to society of the long game. To take the admittedly difficult and unpopular decisions to grant more – not less – bus priority that will see the bus whizz past stationary motorists and create a true game-changer.

    How we need an extraordinary mix of Ken Livingstone, Sir Brian Souter and Mystic Meg to see us through the coming years!

    The Good Old Days! 

    Technology has taken over the World. 

    Hellfire – I’m even writing this on a mobile phone! But as I immerse myself in my grouch-like mid-40s “middle age”, I often consider the downside to our seemingly ever-increasing reliance on all things cyber. 

    In my day job on the railways, I notice the rise and rise of mobile phone ticketing. Everything, it seems, can be stored in our hand-held devices. On a journey this morning on the Stourbridge branch line, every passenger (around 15 of them) was peering into their phone. Every last one. 

    The convenience is well known and appreciated, but I worry that we’re heading towards a scenario whereby a major hack (by the Russians or whoever – possibly some 13 year-old kid I’ve just told off for not having a ticket, maybe) will throw millions of us into a blind panic. 

    People of my age (hark at me) can remember a time before tech. We’ll be the last generation. I appreciate “real” things, like actual paper timetables, for example. Yesterday, I went mooching around rural Shropshire by bus – and there were things to consider by ever-ageing old farts like me.

    One of the reasons I actually planned this mini-jaunt was to use an Arriva Midlands Day ticket – stored on my phone. I’d embraced this techy world last year, when the aquamarine crew held a “flash sale” of mobile tickets. Hence the £6.20 product was on offer for a short time at half price. I bought 2 and stored them on my phone. 

    And there they lay, quietly, until I fancied a roam around the large Arriva Midlands patch. Except when I upgraded my handset just after Christmas, the promised “easy transfer of apps” was anything but. My Arriva app didn’t appear on my new phone. So I downloaded it again. But I couldn’t log in. So I re-registered. But my tickets weren’t there. Somewhere in cyberspace lay 2x Arriva Day tickets. 

    Then I had an email from Arriva telling me I had 4 days left to transfer my tickets to their new app. They’d been emailing me about it. (They hadn’t). But it was OK. All I had to do was click the link below and they would magically appear on my new phone. (I clicked. Nothing happened). I emailed Arriva. They didn’t reply, but I received another automated email saying I really had to get a move on clicking the link below to transfer my m-tickets across. 

    So, with nothing much happening, I went on my Shropshire romp the good old-fashioned way – by handing the driver coinage in return for a paper ticket. 

    Of course, as expected, once out and about, Arriva promptly replied to my email telling me that they could see my 2 tickets in cyberspace, but couldn’t see my new app on my new phone. It turns out that, although I had my new phone, I had somehow downloaded the old app – which I thought was the new app. Keep up. I’ll ask questions pub quiz-style at the end. The next day, I downloaded the “new” app, and tried to buy a ticket to see if it worked. It did. Then Arriva emailed me and said joy – they could now see my new app and they transfered my 2 existing day tickets across. So now I have 3…(plus £6.20s worth of paper ticket for the previous day’s travel).

    The postscript to this jolly romp through the despair of technology was that when checking that I actually had 3 m-tickets to use on my phone, ready and waiting to go, my new Arriva app promptly froze, then said I couldn’t connect to their server! An hour later, everything seemed to have rectified itself and there – finally – in my app “ticket wallet”, sit 3 Arriva day tickets ready to use. But what might have happened should I have been boarding a bus when the server horror show occurred? 

    Such are the potential pitfalls of an over-reliance on tech. Arriva even warns on it’s website that flat mobile phone batteries (that curse of modern day life) cannot be tolerated. In other words, if your phone’s dead, pay up. Of course, there’s nothing else they can say – how many would try that old chestnut if they thought they could get away with it? – but it’s another example of the potential fragility of living your life through your mobile. 

    Another example of this over reliance of tech lies in online timetables. Printing is expensive, say the councils and operators. And they can be quickly out of date. Just check online, they say. So when I found myself halfway between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster, close to the beautiful River Severn, on a plucky Optare Solo, wishing to check my connection times in the carpet town, I was bamboozled by the fact that mobile phone data signals didn’t extend to this lovely little corner of Shropshire. Luckily, in my trusty bag (complete with large British Rail logo from the 6os to remind myself of better days when iconic design was the norm) I possessed a paper copy of said timetable. Yes folks, the old fashioned way didn’t let me down. 

    And I was delighted to pick up, in Shrewsbury bus station, a recently-released copy of a new Shropshire bus map! It’s basic, and has little of the beauty of an FWT product, but it’s there, in my hands, ready to be of use there and then, when I need it. 

    It’s produced by volunteer members of Bus Users UK in Shropshire, with financial help from local independent bus operator Tanat Valley. In an era of cash-strapped Local Authorities, could this be a way forward in other areas? 

    The small independent travel office in Shrewsbury bus station (situated in the back of the newsagents) is also a joy for nostalgia freaks. It resembles something out of the 1970s, with timetables adorning the walls – a mix of professional-looking Arriva ones, dead-basic independent operator ones, local coach holiday brochures, and a handwritten note informing us that photocopies of any timetable are available – for 50p.

    But I recall in my not-so-distant youth, Shropshire County Council providing a really excellent timetable service, which consisted of a ring-binder containing timetables for every bus route in the county, which for an annual subscription they would send updates for. So you had an up to date set of timetables without any need for an Internet connection! They also provided a rather nice map too. Neighbouring Hereford & Worcester (as it was then) did similar, although they did area booklets with subscription to updated leaflets. 

    I suppose it was never going to survive. There has long been an argument about having to pay for timetable booklets at all – which is why most of them don’t exist any more. But I suppose it’s geeks like me who are more than happy to cough up for things of beauty like the Derbyshire booklets and maps. These are the work of real transport professionals who obviously take a pride in their service. The European Rail Guide is another example. 

    And yet the existence of this printed matter offers ideas that Internet facilities often do not. Online journey planners are decent enough (if still on too many occasions clunky to use), but browsing printed material shows alternative ideas for travel. Looking at the new Shropshire bus map gives me ideas for future days out, and reminds me of links between different areas that I’d forgotten about. Overall, it shows a network of public transport services in the county and makes sense of it. And to think it has been produced by volunteers who believe in the very idea of bus services restores just a little faith in a humanity you could easily be led to believe now lives it’s entire existence “online”…

    Technology has it’s place. This blog wouldn’t exist without it. It provides convenience. But we should caution against it absolutely taking over our lives to the point that, if it all fails big-time, we have nothing left to fall back on. 

    Long live the Shropshire bus map. And the team of volunteers that believe in it. 

    Communication (Let me Down…)

    I bet Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet didn’t expect his song title to end up as the basis for a blog post on erratic bus services. So true…

    The tittle-tattle in Stourbridge bus station is about how they’ve been stood waiting for the 9 for “over 20 minutes”  (frequency: every 7/8 mins). It’s a devil of a route. An hour’s ride into Brum, and anything & everything can delay it. The intending ladies are perusing the electronic display board, which is seemingly counting down 2 vehicles almost together. “They’ll probably turn up together”, huffs one. “More than likely”, replies the other. And then, right on cue, both appear. One after the other. Then a third appears. 

    The first one disgorges it’s passengers, then there’s a driver changeover. Then it disappears. No words or explanation. The one directly behind looks more promising – until that one’s pilot presses a button, “Not in Service” appears, and an audible sigh is created in unison from the growing masses. The third of the trio has parked up around the rear of the bus station. 

    Finally, one of the previous vehicles (with new driver) appears, and we’re off. 

    This isn’t a typically uninformed rant about buses “running together in threes”. I understand entirely the challenges this route faces. I also appreciate running boards, driver hours, etc. But what I DO find frustrating is the age-old lack of communication with waiting passengers. 

    NXWM had an Inspector lurking. He was sorting things out with the buses & drivers. No problem with that. There was also a Network West Midlands tabbarded Bus Station Manager, complete with clipboard in view. Again, I know his job isn’t to get involved in the minutiae of NX bus operation – but it’s what people see. Two officials, three buses, twenty minute gap in high-frequency service…and not a peep out of anybody. 

    It underlines long-held negative views on bus travel. “They always come in twos & threes”…”they’re always late”…”no one tells you what’s going on”…

    These feelings linger. Long time. For all the good things operators do, the side is often let down by lack of attention to detail on the very simplest of things. I know the general public can be trying at times, but all it would have taken in this instance would have been a ten-second “we’ll have a bus with you in the next couple of minutes – they’re being delayed by <whatever the issue is>. All the research shows that passengers feel much better about delays if they’re kept abreast of what’s going on. That’s rarely possible easily out on the route (unless you’ve got a smartphone and an effective Twitter team) but we can surely do better in bus stations, where there are human officials in possession of the facts. 

    It’s not always the buses – it’s the communication that let’s us down.