Obsessive. And Failed.

I recently updated my Twitter bio to read “Obsessive about quality public transport”. I’m also acutely aware that the blog seems to read like an endlessly moaning effort these days. Maybe I need to visit some of the more rewarding bus operations.

It’s easy enough to moan about public transport. And in a moment, I’ll kick off again. But I’m “obsessive about quality public transport” because I believe in the idea. Totally. I know that, because it involves things that contain mechanical parts, it will fail on occasion. Memo to smug motorists: your car will, eventually, let you down too. But what gets my goat is when public transport shoots itself in the foot.

Example 1: Last weekend, myself and the other half attended an event in Dudley. (“Dudlaaayy” to those reading this outside of the Black Country.) We could easily have driven. We decided to take the bus. Upstairs, the view across this once industrial powerhouse was obscured by crappy window etching. It immediately feels uninviting. The route itself winds around various housing estates – nowhere near as direct as taking the car. Then we grind to a halt as a pair of vans have been parked directly opposite each other and the occupant is actually sitting in one of them, of course unable to dent his pride and move it slightly. Our skillful driver manages to gingerly negotiate the situation. Result: delayed journey.

The etched windows ought to be addressed. I know it’s a continuous battle against these cretinous idiots, but it feels like a very poor mode of transport. The van parking is an altogether more difficult issue.

Example 2: When the evening is done, and alcohol consumed, we mosey back to Dudlaaayy bus station for the final bus of the night home. It counts down on the tracking display, then appears to be delayed. There are, in total, 5 of us waiting. Then counts down to “due”. Then fails to appear. It’s getting very late, and everyone is getting a bit shifty. 15 minutes later, I decide that I’m going for a taxi, which costs me £10, and will take me to the front door. No wonder local bus shelters have local taxi cab stickers stuck illegally to them.

Who knows what happened to that journey. I’ve emailed the bus operator, asking if they’ll reimburse me my £10. We shall see. I’m open-minded as to the possibility of breakdown, bus attacked by yobs, driver taken ill, whatever. But the other half makes good points.

Why can’t info be put on the live screen, she asks? Good question. And that point has been discussed on this here blog before. The technology is certainly there. Someone knows the bus ain’t going to run. Why can’t it be put on the screen? Or announced on the tannoy? Are there still bus station managers onsite at that time? If not, Security? I saw none. Could a message be gotten to them to inform waiting passengers? Is there a policy to get a spare bus/driver to the scene? Is there a policy to provide taxis as a replacement? If we want people to believe in public transport, these are the things we need to think about and have in place. Another topic raised by the other half has also been discussed here before. The perception of security. As a lone female travelling late at night, would she have felt safe? Dudley bus station isn’t the worst place in the world, but it also isn’t the greatest.

You could almost feel the relief as we jumped into the back of the taxi. This would also take us to the front door. But, damagingly, it also chips away at the reputation of the local bus service. You can’t blame breakdowns, or whatever else happened. They will always happen, and maybe we were just incredibly unlucky. But what you CAN do is recover the situation by having mitigation. And here lies the conundrum. It requires money, resources and, ultimately, will.

We both have cars. I’m not the best placed to talk about giving up on buses, because I’m a nerd and I believe in them. But I looked around at the other faces waiting for the no-show. I suspect they had no choice. They possibly could ill-afford the cost of a taxi. And possibly they will be there again tomorrow night. Or next week, hating having to use the bus, but not having a choice. Is this what we really want? People so unhappy at having to use public transport, but are because it really is a mode of last resort? If it is, I despair.

The other half commented that, with hindsight, we could have just ordered a taxi direct from the function we were at and saved ourselves an hour. “That’s what we’ll do next time”. So, future passenger lost, and a really negative view of bus travel painted.

I know it’s logistically very difficult (and expensive) to have a spare bus and driver sitting in the bus station every night, just in case it’s required. In days gone, when Dudley had it’s own bus depot, it was possibly more likely that they could have sent one 3 minutes up the road to cover such an eventuality. And we live in a world of progress? But there is surely a way of communicating these problems. On the bus station screen. Via the tannoy. Via a member of bus station staff. And is it really beyond the wit of mankind to devise a system that, with minimal fuss, says, “sorry about that. Here’s a taxi”. It would focus a lot of minds to get the system right, because public transport should be relied on, no matter how difficult or convoluted it can get.

If we’re polluting everyone with poisonous emissions, and we really don’t want to be the focus of silly pub jeers about “the Government want us all to get on the bus – I’m never going to stop using my car”, we have to get public transport as near perfect and reliable as it can be. Every time. It WILL go wrong. But like every good retail business, it’s how you win people back that is all important. And at the moment, the bus industry is failing big time.


Loss-Leading Lager and Bank Holiday Buses

Bank Holiday and the sun is out? Must be global warming. But nonetheless, the sandals and socks are on display, and the Brits want to play.

Myself and the good Lady unusually both had the day off last Bank Holiday. We both have cars but didn’t fancy the laughable “freedom” it might bring us, with “Bank Holiday traffic” (which always seems to bring a dire warning that it’s going to be “the worst ever” for gridlock). We also wanted the potential to enjoy a few drinks.

Several delightful areas were pondered. None of which were accessible by bus, either because buses had long-ceased to serve the area concerned, or because it was “Sunday service” (i.e. no service).

I work on the railway, where, ironically, I am often working on a Bank Holiday – to a normal weekday timetable. Where has this “Sunday service” on Bank Holidays for buses come from? Is a long-standing old tradition that goes back to giving the horse a well-earned break and an extra bit of hay? Or is it a bit of bus manager / bean-counter intuition that will save a few quid because there’ll be fewer commuters?

Many years ago, I held a Bus Users Surgery at a well-known supermarket entrance in a Manchester suburb (oh, the highlife). I positioned our stand next to a huge pallet of packs of lager. In between gripes about how the local service into town was “always late”, I watched the human behaviour. People would insert their pound coin into the trolley, then immediately be confronted with a pile of cheap beer. (Occasionally asking if I worked for the bus company, as if to prepare for the venting of the spleen – when I told them I didn’t, the disappointment was palpable).

After a while, the store manager appeared and asked if how it was going. “Fine”, I replied. “I bet you’re making a fortune with this beer though”. “Not at all”, he replied, and launched into a mini-lecture on loss-leaders in retail. They would take a hit on the beer, but the real money was in other products. Types of cheese were particular kerr-ching moments. Then, our happy shoppers would leave, beer-happy, but almost unaware that they’d been totally ripped off for some Ukrainian camembert, or the like.

Not that bus operators are in the business of ripping people off – even if a £6.20 “day ticket” for a return trip of around half hour each way did make my eyes water slightly recently. But “loss leaders” is surely something they could try. Could they tie in my £6.20 ticket into a cheaper “zone” just across the invisible border and knock £2 off the price? That might lose them some revenue in the short term, but it might just make me travel more on that service, thinking the price is far more acceptable. Likewise, with Bank Holidays. If only a normal Monday service was running on the Bank Holiday, there would have been a lot of destinations me and the other half would suddenly have been in reach of. It might have lost the operator some revenue, but it might alternatively had sent a message that, actually, the bus industry is serious and innovative about trying to attract people to its services – not just by taking a punt on Bank Holidays, but at other times too.

In the West Midlands, we never used to have Boxing Day bus services. Then, a number of years ago, Centro (as was) took a gamble at subsidising a limited service. It has grown year-on-year to the point that much of the Boxing Day network is now commercial. Is there a lesson to be learnt here?

As the good Lady sadly concluded, “let’s go in the car”, when she realised buses weren’t an option last Bank Holiday. She may well take that attitude on other days too.

Cancelled. Got The Message?

My Other Half knows how to press my saloon bells. “It’s a bus”, she often says. “They’re all the same”. Well….

But I elicit bus opinions regularly from her. She’s a commuter, owns a car, but often uses the bus and train to get to and from work. The kind of person the industry needs to keep on board.

This evening, I received some rather annoyed texts. After a long day at work, her bus hadn’t shown. A frequent user of the mobile app with live departures, one such departure had shown up not as “real” time, but “timetabled” time. And the journey was missing. “Why show it on the app and the departure screen in the bus station if it isn’t running?” she protested. She knows the difference between “real” and “timetabled” departures, but points out that where I work – on the railways – the timetables are always “real” time – and that they actually show “cancelled” when the train is cancelled.
Also a problem was the coldness of the bus station, with an unscheduled wait of around 20 minutes for the next service. Notwithstanding the complexity of providing heated bus stations, it was again commented on that on the railway, she can wait in a heated waiting room.

There’s quite a bit of food for thought here. In a world where people are making multi-modal journeys to get from A to B (and increasingly C & D as well) – and is acknowledged by fledgling ideas such as Whim, bringing all modes simply together – the bus here, this evening, is looking yet again like the poor relation.

We’ve had electronic “real” time displays on railway platforms for years. Bus equivalents are still, in chronological terms, a recent phenomenon. When the bus ones work – and that same info is placed in the palm of your hand as a mobile app – it’s incredibly useful. But you have to trust what you’re looking at. Working on the railway as I do, I know people generally trust the information they are seeing in real time. They may not appreciate delays, but they can see – with confidence – what is going on. I don’t get that same feeling of trust from the bus world’s travelling public. And this is mainly due to the regular mix of “real” time and “timetabled” time. Do people readily understand the difference between the two anyway?

Tech is a force for good, in the main. But if we want people to use the bus more often, trust in the product, and appreciation of it is absolutely vital. So I have a question for the bus industry. If the railway can show cancelled journeys for the benefit of it’s passengers, why can’t bus?

My good lady’s cancelled journey this evening would be known by someone in authority at the bus operator. We have phone apps and digital displays in bus stations. We surely have the wherewithal to override the list of departures and add “cancelled” and highlight it in yellow, or something?

Now of course, there will be a million and one reasons why you can’t do that. Lack of resource. Lack of access (will the likes of Transport for West Midlands allow bus operators to override their tech system? Fat chance. The operators aren’t even allowed access to a timetable case in a bus shelter!). Lack of business case to support a human being able to input such information. Where is the case FOR doing something like this?
Again, we must look at the discerning traveller, and the ever-increasing options they have. After a long, hard day at work, a cold, unexpected wait nearly drove my Other Half to the nearby taxi rank, even though she pays £99/month for bus/rail/Metro access. In the end, she hung on, lambasting this state of affairs to me, with me not even trying to defend it.

I think we all accept buses will break down, or be missing a driver, or have some other reason why a particular journey won’t happen. That’s life. But communication – in this ever-increasingly connected world, is more vital than ever. If a bus is listed as departing (as scheduled time, amongst a list of real-time departures) at 18:25, people will expect it to be there. When it disappears off the screen without so much as a sarcastic cyber-wave, people; a) won’t like it, and; b) have less faith in the digital information next time, “real” time or “scheduled”.

If other modes of public transport, such as rail and tram, can do info on cancellations as a matter of course, why not the bus industry? I can hear the arguments now. “Far more bus journeys than rail/tram”, they’ll say. But how many cancellations are there? And if we want people to increasingly use buses as a wider public transport v. Private car “offer”, everything about people’s bus journey has to impress them, from reliability, to value for money, to comfort, to a real advantage over the car, to the very latest information about cancellations and journey options. When someone at the bus company knows a journey isn’t going to run, it should be as simple as tapping a few buttons into a tablet to get that information out electronically as soon as possible. It would give people that same confidence they already have in the worlds of rail and tram.

I shall leave the last word to my Other Half. For a regular public transport user – and car owner – it is rather damning: “To be fair, I expect buses to be ****. They have just fulfilled my expectations today”. If that doesn’t motivate those of us who work in, or care deeply about, the bus industry, I don’t know what will.

Municipalisation? The Way Forward? Or Back to Never-Never Land?

At the risk of OnThisBus appearing to sound “anti-Labour”, can I clear something up? Their policies interest me. Buses must be more than the sum of the bottom line on the accountant’s spreadsheet, although inevitably that’s the way things usually end up on a day-to-day basis. Corbyn’s Party has recently announced “free travel” for under-25s if it gains power, and that, of course, has set the chattering classes on the Clapham Omnibus off. The previous blog here looks at all sorts of hurdles that must be overcome to achieve that.

But now we have Labour’s recently-appointed Shadow Transport Minister for England Matt Rodda reconfirming the party’s direction when it comes to local buses. i.e. potentially back to the never-never land of municipalisation.

Now I’m the first to wallow in a huge pit of nostalgia at bygone days of council-owned operation, with half-cab buses, clippies cranking tickets from impossible-to-understand fare tables and gorgeous liveries that proved that there was actually life before Ray Stenning. I guess we might call them halcyon days, when buses were King, not everyone had a car and cinema – not Netflix – was where the masses watched movies. They traveled on the bus to the flicks to watch King Kong scale the Empire State Building – today they flop on the sofa to watch the remake on their tablet.

Convincing people that buses can be part of the future as well as the past is a hard slog. “What’s the point?”, many will say, when the bus is stuck in the same traffic as your car. Getting people to do the maths as to how much running a car costs them every year is always countered by that unspecified calculation of convenience and “my space”. Buses stuck in traffic jams and on fixed routes aren’t sexy.

Rodda says that “it is clear deregulation has failed passengers and that bus market monopolies are the norm”. Ironically, he made these comments at the launch of Transport Focus’s annual bus passenger satisfaction survey, where those “failed” passengers from the likes of TrentBarton in Derby & Nottingham, Yellow Buses in Bournemouth & Poole and Go North East in Tyne & Wear to pick but three examples must be wondering what on earth he is talking about. All of these topped 90-plus percent for overall satisfaction with their bus journey. As for those masters of bus market monopoly Stagecoach – well several of their local operations also made it into the 90s too.

What is clear to me – as one of these “passengers” – is that deregulation hasn’t necessarily “failed” me at all. It is other phenomenon such as failure to act widely on effective bus priority and operators struggling to make ends meet with the rise of internet shopping, falling footfall in the High Street and ever-lower reimbursement for carrying concessionary pass holders – something Rodda appears happy to potentially add to, when he grants under-25s that same “perk”.  Indeed those commercial fat cats sitting around the boardroom table licking the cream have actually made my journey in the West Midlands cheaper with a slice of good old commercial risk: local area zones have seen a rise in the uptake of these cheap options – would a franchised operation come up with something like that?

Nevertheless, Rodda looks an affable fellow. A quick trawl on the internet brings up the happy smiling MP with Martijn Gilbert, CEO of Reading Buses. He is sitting Member of Parliament for Reading East, which may or may not have swayed his ideas, given that Reading Buses – one of the few “municipal” operations left – also happens to be one of the best operations you’ll find in the UK.

Reading and similar municipal Nottingham regularly scoop the gongs at award dos, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all municipal operations are the blueprint for guaranteed success. Lessons to be learnt from how the very best operators do things? Certainly. Municipal operators are all the holy grail? Er…not entirely. In recent times, we’ve seen Swindon and “Rosso” disappear into private ownership. Now these may not necessarily have been poor operations in the public sector, and we could spend hours discussing reasons why this happened, but maybe we ought to be looking a little more at how the best operators – municipal or private – do things, and learn the best lessons, rather than doggedly creating a political saga where one may not necessarily be needed.

Labour’s plans for buses create more questions than solve them. They want to end the ban on Councils setting up new municipal operations. Whatever. I don’t see any clamour from Councils to set up new bus operations. And if there was, it’s that old familiar question – “where’s the money coming from?”. If Labour want to create an “integrated, successful and sustainable” transport system, are they saying that they’d rob buses from high-frequency, high-performing routes and drop them onto areas that currently have no or few buses? Do that, and you risk the success of the former, with no guarantee that the latter would work anyway. If you really want to give under-served areas a decent bus service, you need to invest in it. Throw resource at it. It may not work. That’s why a lot of commercial operators don’t do it. If the public sector thinks it’s worth a go (and who’s to say the commercial operators haven’t missed a trick?) they need to spend public money on it. But we’ve seen millions of pounds in recent years slashed from already supported bus services in what are considered marginal areas. Do you run buses where there is little demand because it is the right thing to do? Or do you stop wasting money, where that money is public or privately sourced? Getting access to transport other than the private car is vital, especially in rural or marginal areas. It’s a debate we’ve been having for years. But ultimately, it’s actually very simple – someone somewhere has to pay to provide it. Robbing the “Peter” of a successful route to pay the “Paul” of a little-used one is folly.

So all eyes then on Manchester’s Labour Mayor Andy Burnham, as he prepares to set aside £11.5m just to prepare a business case to look at franchising. How much of that hefty sum might have been better spent setting up bus lanes, bus gates and effective cameras and fines for those who ignore them? Paint the buses orange if you really want and make it look like back to the 70s – but can the London-style idea really work in this Northern Powerhouse where the long-term funding and political will is as yet untested?

I’m not saying the “never-never land” of municipal operation is without all merit. Deregulation has it’s faults and can always be improved upon. Some private sector operators don’t do the commercial World any favours whatsoever. But a real, true partnership between private and public sectors, where both truly understand the other is the way to go.

Many years ago, I posed a question at a conference I was speaking at. I asked why we couldn’t have the success of the winner of the UK Bus Awards everywhere. I’m not that naive, but actually that’s as simple or as difficult as it gets. We need to see the bus as more than the sum of it’s commercial parts in society, and whilst Labour poses some interesting talking points, are the politicians of this left-leaning party driving down the wrong road to achieve it?

JC’s “Free” Giveaway

It’s easy to dismiss Jeremy Corbyn’s latest proposal to give free bus travel to young people under 25. The party has certainly learnt something by adding proposed funding streams to their ideas, in order to try and debunk questions from the likes of me as to how they are going to fund it all. (In this particular proposal, the £1.4bn idea would come from the bit of Vehicle Excise Duty earmarked for road building). But the questions – particularly the wider ones – remain.

A good place to start is with young people themselves. Transport Focus recently carried out some interesting research with 14-19 year-olds. Interesting in that it turns out that most young people only want, in the main, what the rest of us want from their bus service. Having it “free” would obviously appeal – as it would for the rest of us – but there are other aspects that this age group considers important to make them feel more attracted to bus use. Not knowing how the system “works” – inducing anxiety – and improving the journey experience are but two findings of this research, and younger people are more likely to demand a higher threshold of quality with whatever they consume.

But is “free” really the deal-breaker? The price of fares is mentioned in the research, especially amongst younger teenagers, but older groups (17-19) appear to be prepared to pay out a bit more to guarantee convenience. This is highlighted by a comment regarding Uber – it may cost a bit more, but worth it for door to door convenience.

Labour says the proposal will save up to 13m young people as much as £1000 per year. There is also a “hearts and minds” issue here. If you throw something “free” at young people, will you “keep” them as bus users into their later adult life? This age group is the biggest users of buses as it is, but it tails off sharply as they get older. Whenever I’m out and about on the bus, 40-somethings like me often seem in short supply.

But is the answer not so much the potential “blunt instrument” of free travel, but of convenience, and sheer relevance to users – whatever their age? We know that price alone in other industries is not always a determining factor – Waitrose and Aldi exist as supermarkets for, what appears on the face of it, the same reason. Dig deeper and you find all sorts of variables as to why people shop at either.

Estonia’s capital Tallinn is known in transport circles for being a trailblazer when it come to free travel – for all of it’s residents. In 2013, following a referendum by the Mayor, the City ceased charging fares for locals. All they have to do is register for a “green card” (2 Euros) and all travel is then free. Visitors pay fares as normal. Research by Dr. Oded Cats – an expert from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and published in The Guardian – however brings more questions. The number of people using public transport over cars was up 8% – but at the same time the average length of a car of a car journey was up 31%, something Cats suggests is down to there being more cars on the road, although other factors such as “shopping and leisure habits” are at play here.

Tellingly, Cats also suggests that he found “mixed evidence” as to whether the scheme has “improved mobility and accessibility of low-income and unemployed residents … [and] no indication that employment opportunities improved as a result of this policy”. He also points to another potential issue further down the line – “In the event of an economic depression, investment in public transport will be more exposed to potential budget cuts if they are not earmarked”. Readers of a certain vintage may well recall such a scenario here in Blighty pre the 1985 Transport Act.

Then we have the service providers. Are Labour suggesting that in introducing free travel for under-25s, it merely means we replace fare-paying members of that age group with free-travelling ones? What if there is suddenly a huge surge in demand? Great, you might think. But what about the nuts and bolts? Will the operators have to put on more resource to cope with this new-found demand? And then, there is the elephant in the room – reimbursement. Labour suggests that this will only be brought in under Local Authority-controlled operations or a franchise-type system. But if it is still private operators running under contract, will the figures on the balance sheet add up? A much larger dancing elephant in the far corner of the room is the inference that such goodies will only be available to certain areas that take up this very different system of bus operation. And that in itself brings up many more questions regarding who pays for this? Will there be long-term ring-fencing of funds? Long-term investment? Immunity from slashing of budgets when the going gets tough? We’re back to Doctor Cats’ concerns above. And whatever you might think of the age-old debate regarding private deregulated bus operation versus publicly-controlled ways of doing things, with the likes of Uber on the horizon with all their razzmatazz, will public sector mandarins be a match?

Labour pledge to pay for all of this through a slashing of the road-building budget. That will be music to the ears of those who suggest that continuously building new roads doesn’t work – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this. But is it a real “like-for-like” transfer of funds? Inevitably, if you rob Peter to pay Paul, something or someone loses out. The devil – as always – is in the detail.

None of this is to say the whole proposal isn’t without merit. It’s always interesting to speculate about what public transport is for in the very widest sense. And if nothing else, Corbyn and Labour have started a conversation about this.

But there remains a huge list of answers required before anyone can feel confident about this being the start of the holy grail for buses.


Disruptors to Journeys – Part 2: Burgers and Buses


To know your product, you’ve got to spend quite a lot of time consuming it at the coalface. Experiencing it as any punter might. That’s why I spent last Tuesday munching on a burger in McDonald’s, contemplating how the worlds of the Big Mac and the 226 bus past my house might be more related than you may first imagine.

“Disruptors” in industry interest me. In today’s world, no matter what industry you’re in, prepare to be “disrupted”. I guess it’s always been the case in a free-market economy, and the bus world only first experienced a version of it post-26th October 1986, when the Thatcher Government allowed anyone (within reason) to operate bus services. But in more recent times, technology has really allowed this free market to thrive. And no matter if you flog burgers or provide bus services, there’s an ever-increasing threat to what you do from people who think they’re more tuned-in to what consumers want.

I’d read an article about McDonald’s. You’d think this giant of the High Street might almost be untouched by disruptors, but the food industry must be one of the top markets where disruptors try their hand. Just take a thought as to how many options you have to eat when you’re out and about, or even if you’re at home and don’t want to be out and about. Technology has brought the likes of “Just Eat” into the palm of your hand. You might well have fancied one of Ronald’s Quarter Pounders, but if you download the Just Eat app, you can choose anything from a plethora of local takeaways and have it delivered to your door. Suddenly, McDonald’s have lost a potential sale.

The World of buses is, for the time being, rather different. Disruptors are trying their hand on the periphery of the industry, in places such as London and Bristol, but in the main, at the moment, it’s one of those “take it or leave it” scenarios. You take the bus, or you don’t travel. But does this lead to complacency in the bus industry?

The article on McDonald’s talks about how the restaurant chain saw disruptors coming, and subtly changed their offer. I’m by no means a regular burger-chomper, but I used to be in my mis-spent youth. I recall Maccies in my youth as a sea of plastic chairs and awful music, with most people trying to queue-jump. The idea of a “drive-thru” was genuinely innovative of it’s time. So I decided to have a toddle along to my local McDonald’s – via my local bus service – to see what had changed, and how it compares to the local bus service “offer”.

I’ve already downloaded the McDonald’s app. It promises “at-table service” – something that would have been considered alien to a teenage Tonks 30 years ago. So I follow the instructions on my phone, “checking in” via scanning a QR code on the wall as I enter. Then I order, pay via a card, get issued with a number and wait. The interior décor is more tasteful than I remember of years ago. On the tables, several have tablet-sized computer terminals, all of which are being tapped by children and adults alike. There are phone chargers. Everything is spotless. Others are ordering via giant touchscreens and waving cards at pay terminals. And then a member of staff appears with my order. I’m sitting in “zone 2” and he shouts out my order number. That’s it. I scoff my burger. It hasn’t changed in taste and presentation in 30 years, but all around it, the experience has been re-tailored. It says “my core product hasn’t changed, but you’ll appreciate the whole experience and want to come back again”.

Now burgers and buses may well be two very different worlds. Or are they? McDonalds may well have had to work hard to grab my custom, because I could have frankly eaten anywhere. But technology has been employed to make my experience good. Weatherspoon’s have also employed this method which means, especially if you’re on your own, you can occupy a seat and order without having to leave a load of bags or a jacket to “claim” your space. And that’s clever, because if I’m out solo, I’ll consider Weatherspoon’s subconsciously first because of that.

What about buses? What makes me think “I’ll go on the bus again, because I considered it quite good?”

Sadly, and frankly, not a huge amount.

My trip to Ronald McDonald’s burger emporium was made via my local route. A 15-year-old Dennis Dart, a driver with a woolly hat on, heaters blasting out (which the driver can’t control), a particularly annoying rattle and sploges of grime that 15-plus years of plying Britain’s roads have inevitably created without the loving care of a dedicated cleaner over time. My experience isn’t a disaster, but it’s hardly whispering “come back for more”. More “take it or leave it, son. Unless you want to drive”.

The bus industry isn’t like this everywhere. Locally, National Express West Midlands has the “Platinum” brand, which is a much nicer bus travel experience. We all know about Arriva’s “Sapphire” and Stagecoach’s “Gold”. Mobile ticketing is taking advantage of the aforementioned technology, and NXWM has a current one-minute advert that shows in a very effective way that simple mobile ticketing can get you out and about in a group. But we all know that congestion, and the bus’s lack of ability often to cut through the jams is what really turns a lot of punters off.

Despite the Platinum/Sapphire effect though, I’m still left with this nagging feeling inside that the bus industry generally needs to do more to get people onside, before the Ubers of this world move in, in a wider, general sense. There is still too much “acceptance” of poor presentation on our buses. Getting something done about congestion is the fundamental argument of our times, but making buses cleaner inside and having better standards of presentation are within grasp. Half-torn, out of date notices about service changes look subliminally poor. Passengers may not necessarily tell Transport Focus about them every six months, but inside I bet a lot of them still view bus travel as a mode of last resort, despite the headline 80%-plus marks for satisfaction that appear.

I think of the innovators, such as Alex Hornby, now at Transdev. I remember when he was at Trent Barton handing out free breakfasts on board buses in Nottingham and Derby. Some scoffed, and of course the passengers did (!), but what was actually going on there? It was an effort, alongside other seemingly small touches, that said “don’t see the bus as something that has to be endured, see it as part of your daily routine – and every now and again, we’ll have a bit of fun!” Add that to sparkling buses and award-winning drivers, and you create a bit of magic – on an otherwise mundane bus service. And Alex is now weaving his magic at Transdev’s northern operations. Look at the drive to make the buses look a million dollars on the outside. Ray Stenning’s Best Impressions agency makes vehicles on, say, the 36 from Leeds to Harrogate, look like more than a bog-standard bus. They’re also all-singing, all-dancing inside. The “product” – a bus from A to B – is still what it is, but this is what McDonald’s has achieved. The burger is still the same, but the whole experience surrounding it is uplifted. And it also says something about price. Trent Barton and Transdev aren’t the cheapest operators. I can also grab a burger for far cheaper than Maccies flog them at. It’s about having the vision to persuade the bean-counters in an organisation that passenger experience isn’t necessarily something you can mark out on the balance sheet in the short-term. It’s about what’s coming over the horizon.


Transdev Route 36

And if your “product” – whether it’s burgers or buses – is suddenly perceived as “old hat”, and some young upstart can give people what they want, you’ll soon be out of service, maybe quicker than you ever imagined.  As the CEO of McDonald’s Steve Easterbrook commented “You have a choice to either be the disruptor or the disrupted”.


It’s fascinating to lose yourself inside the very excellent work that Transport Focus’s Bus Passenger Survey provides (disclaimer: I used to work for them years ago, but don’t let that sway you). In several ways, it either reaffirms your thoughts about a certain operator, or actually surprises your inner prejudices…

Take the other day. I caught a bus out of Wolverhampton, homebound, with the good Lady. She is a regular bus commuter, although not on this section of route, which takes one of the main arteries out of the City, along Penn Road. It was a typically miserable day, rain coming down, the evening peak setting the scene for a crawl out of town that was, actually, slower than walking pace. We were aboard a 16 year-old double decker.

Inside, I was decrying the state of progress. The dual-carriageway awash as per-usual with single-occupancy cars, “white van man” and anything else on wheels that might ascertain a similarity with a slow-motion version of wacky races. Of course the bus was the villain – no one giving us an inch whatsoever when trying to escape a layby. Goodness only knows what that might do to a petrolhead’s street-cred.

Suddenly, my girlfriend pulled her bag away from the window. “Uurrgghh”.

“What?” says I. Something’s dripping on her bag. She is mildly unimpressed.

Hmmmm. I look around at the ambience. It’s actually something I’ve rarely taken a huge amount of notice of, seeing as I’m that used to elderly Dennis Tridents on my local route. But it’s depressing. Enthusiasts might look fondly on a good old workhorse, still earning it’s keep, plodding the streets of the West Midlands after all these years. But look at this. It’s actually dripping spots of dirty rainwater onto passengers.

Elsewhere, I’d already moved a three-quarters drunk bottle of cider from the seat. This after our driver had stood on stand for a good 8 minutes in Wolverhampton, determined to keep us standing in the cold whilst he mooched about inside, perusing the Metro and taking a look upstairs, but obviously unable to remove cider bottle for himself.

The interior décor of our bus looked very tired indeed. Does this translate itself into the company having one of the lowest scores of anywhere in the country for internal cleanliness in the Transport Focus survey?

My girlfriend is resigned to sitting in buses in traffic. She only uses them to and from work. The internal presentation (and dripping water) is what caught her eye, whereas I seem to be subliminally accepting of this poor presentation and more frustrated at what is never-ending congestion and the lack of wherewithal from our elected representatives to actually do something meaningful about it!

So it’s all about perceptions. And we’re both right. And I guess it’s difficult to gauge opinion amongst everyone else on the top deck as to what really matters to them. Are most of my fellow travellers regulars who accept their lot and dream of a day when they might never have to use the bus again? If so, what a damning indictment of the bus industry.

This is not to have an easy pop at National Express West Midlands. In recent years they’ve tried hard. New Platinum vehicles are a step-change in quality to what West Midlands bus users are used to. New travel areas might be adding to the potential for unnecessary confusion, but they might also be saving people money and making bus travel look a bit more attractive in the whole.

But whilst I’m getting all excited about “Whim”, and it’s launch in the West Midlands that encourages people to ditch the car and use just about anything else on wheels – and consolidate it into one package – we must all remember what the “offer” of public transport actually looks like. And if you’re used to sitting in traffic in your own tin box, and the bigger tin box has no discernible benefit in beating the jams, and then drip-drips something wet and dirty onto your expensive jacket or handbag, you might just conclude that in your car you’ll stay.

In the absence of real demonstrable “benefits” of using public transport, it really is all about perceptions…

Disruptors to Journeys

Disruption is everywhere. Any bus operator or passenger will tell you that. But in this modern age – with technology moving faster than your average City bus journey – operators need to keep an eye not only on the disruption, but the disruptors.

Just as disruption is rife, disruptors are watching. No business sector is immune from these innovators – “blue sky thinkers”-turned real. The bus industry as a whole hasn’t really seen much “disruption” to it’s business model. Since the days when horses did the pulling, the bus is a means of getting people from A to B. That’s it, isn’t it?

A friend of mine works in the tech world. Don’t we all, these days? He’s been convinced for at least the last decade that we’ll all travel less in the future, and teleconferences are the future. The fact that he worked for a teleconferencing company shouldn’t unduly sway your thoughts on this. My argument – and experience – against this is that the roads seem more choked than ever. Where is everyone actually going? And wherever it is that they’re actually going to proves that we’re not all teleconferencing. I once read that business folk “like to see the whites of others eyes” when they’re signing a deal. And the fact that we now have “drive-thru Costa Coffee” suggests demand from infinite amounts of people in cars going from hither to wherever.

So if we’re all on the go, what’s the bus industry got to worry about?

Well, plenty, it would seem.

How come? At least part of this is the age-old “image problem”. Imagine Stormzy popping up at the Brit Awards proclaiming buses are the way forward. Sadly, the only Grime I found associated with buses was something down the side of the back seat on a 15 year-old Dennis Trident I travelled on the other day.

But making bus use appealing to young people is only part of the story. Transport Focus has recently carried out some research into young people’s attitudes to public transport – and, surprise, surprise, they don’t differ all that much from other age groups views. Reliability, cleanliness and value for money all feature. What is almost inevitable is the focus on the link to technology when using the bus. Charging battery-sapped mobiles is important, apps that show buses arriving in real-time and mobile ticketing stand out – and of course these things increasingly matter to older users too. In my late 40s, I find myself increasingly buying in to all of this too.

Another quote jumps out of the Transport Focus report – and this is where the disruptors are circling. “It may be £2 – £3 more to get Uber, but considered worth it because of door-to-door convenience”.

The Uber model continues to make the news. Sometimes for the wrong reasons, but the bus industry ignores it at it’s peril. I was encouraged recently to see my friend’s 16 year-old daughter completely at home using the National Express West Midlands apps on her phone to buy a local DaySaver and check the local times. But here came a rather large stumbling block. Going bowling with her boyfriend on a Sunday, her local bus – which operates at a 20-minute frequency Mon-Sat – has only an hourly timetable on the Sabbath. This was actually enough to bring Mom’s Taxi into play. Or, if the likes of Uber had a bigger presence in the southern Black Country, a ride via this method. The £2-£3 example in the Transport Focus report I would suggest isn’t something yet available to millions of cash-strapped youth widely, but…you can see the damage to the bus industry if and when it does.

It’s a real dilemma for a commercially-driven bus industry. The Sunday service on the aforementioned route may only be commercially sustainable on Sundays with an hourly frequency – but are the disruptors going to seriously take on even that with ball-park Uber fares? Once you’ve paid for bowling and had something to eat, a few extra quid to get from door-to-door rather than wait for an hourly bus makes bus travel seem very old hat indeed. A similar method of thinking also applies to safety considerations. I’ve caught many a “lively” bus home late at night – and indeed it’s a fair assumption that there is far less trouble than people perceive. But perception is nine-tenths of it. I’m 6’7” and 17 stones. And I work with the general public in my day job on the railways. I don’t always readily consider perceptions of safety as much as, say, a 16 year-old female might. Again, an extra few quid for a taxi or Uber not only seems more sensible, it gets people more used to whipping out their mobiles and ordering a ride in between updating their Instagram.

An article in The Guardian about disruptors in industry is as illuminating as it is blindingly simple. It refers to someone setting up a beauty salon.

Sharmadean Reid, founder of beauty brand WAH Nails, set up her first salon in East London. “I didn’t know how you run a beauty salon”, she says, “so I thought: ‘I’m just going to do what I think it should be like.’ I think disruptors bring a different opinion to an industry that might be a bit stale and rethink what a customer would want. All I thought was: ‘Why does it have to be like this?’”

See how easy you can transfer that thinking to the bus world? There may be many reasons why that route trundles around a loop in the housing estate. The Uber car doesn’t. Why does that travelcard zone end at this bus stop? I don’t get that level of detail in an Uber car. I click a couple of things on my phone and the lift turns up. It might be more expensive, but there’s a trade-off going on. And “value for money” isn’t always about the price.

Again, it’s a challenge to traditional bus operation. Here’s another example. My girlfriend lives barely 2 miles from the local rail station. She pays £100/month for a bus/rail travelcard. Buses to and from the station are 6 per hour during Mon-Sat daytime. She happily uses them. After 7pm and on Sundays, that drops to 2 buses per hour. If she leaves work late, she’ll often pay £7 for a taxi from the rail station, along the 2 miles home. Although she has the pass, she thinks that short 2 mile journey is expensive, at £2.40 for a single. National Express West Midlands has a competitively-priced £3 “Local DaySaver” which covers all it’s services in the area, all day. But she says the perception is that she’d only want a single trip, and £2.40 is “rather steep”. Another factor is that the 30 minute evening frequency along the corridor is shared with Diamond, on which the £3 day ticket isn’t valid. It’s too much faff. Uber or a taxi again is simpler, if more expensive.

There’s a lot being talked about “MaaS” or “Movement As A Service”. People are thinking less about “modes” of travel, more about just getting from A to B simply and effectively. Maas Global – a Finnish company – is developing a way to stop owning a car, but to reap all the benefits of getting from A to B – including car rental and taxi rides. In Helsinki, the company offers 2 monthly packages. For 49 Euros a month (in the City, or 99 Euros for the Region), unlimited public transport plus all journeys in taxis under 5km for a maximum of 10 Euros and a lease car from 49 Euros per day if you need one. MaaS Global have estimated car ownership adds up to around 500 Euros per month, so are offering the whole lot – car leasing, taxis under 5km, and unlimited public transport – for 499 Euros per month. A version of this – marketed as “Whim” –is on it’s way to Birmingham.

There’s a lot to think about there as regards price, etc. But what is clear is that disruptors to traditional ways of doing things are in play. Does Whim make buses relevant again to some people as part of a wider mobility package? What’s in it for the bus operators commercially? They’ll only get a proportion of the pie, as opposed to the whole pie, which is already the case with existing multi-operator/multi-mode ticketing. There’s an awful lot of brand awareness for National Express West Midlands’ own ticketing range, less so for all operator/mode products. The back end of many a NXWM double decker screams “unlimited bus travel” – but it has “on NXWM buses” in much smaller font. Misleading? Or are people more savvy? Either way, it creates levels of validity which just aren’t there when it comes back to our Uber friends.

For my money, we have to view bus services almost in two very different ways. City/Urban provision, which has high frequency and simple ticketing. Given good bus priority, it delivers. The other is types of service that are community-based. Rural/County-based, that meander around estates/villages, that are community lifelines. In the City/Urban example, the free market needs to be the major market, assisted by good partnerships with local authorities, providing effective bus priority where needed. In rural/County areas, there needs more public involvement in provision, with guaranteed funding to preserve these lifeline operations. If we’re talking about franchising and Mayors running the show, surely this should be in areas where services are needed as vital parts of the community, not highly commercial areas like city/region areas? If the disruptors are moving in, they’ll do it in big city areas where there’s a real chance of money to be made. Do we really want them up against the slow hand of the public sector?

City areas need good, effective partnerships between bus operators and the authorities. Leeds is currently in the news with some good things going on in the City. And with good progress comes investment. First are pumping significant cash into Leeds  and they’ve been bullish enough to say that they’ll only put the money in where they’ve got these good relationships with the local authorities. Similar things are happening in Bristol. And in Birmingham, where the local partnership is quietly getting on with things. Yet, congestion still rules the roost as the major sticking block in all of these areas. In Manchester, Mayor Burnham appears to be the first one to take up the new powers of control of the City’s buses. He’ll be watched very closely. But will congestion be seriously tackled?

But bus folk need to keep their beadies on the disruptors. It’s not just the likes of Uber that are looking at doing things differently.

In London, Citymapper’s “BB1” route between Highbury & Islington and Waterloo (7am-10am and reverse 5pm-8pm Mon-Fri) is something different. “BB1” means “Black Bus”, as it is actually operated by black cabs. Citymapper has teamed up with the Gett black cab app and provides a link not served by existing bus or underground. It has a fixed fare of £3, can nip down back streets when congestion strikes and people can hop in or out anywhere. The company says that it is matching demand to spare capacity. It is another example of a disruptor to the existing status quo providing an alternative that would be far more difficult to provide under traditional means. What other City areas might this type of “pop-up” provision start operating in?

It was only a few years ago I was invited to Ireland to try something innovative. Standing in Dublin Airport, I had an iPhone thrust into my hand and I watched in amazement as a little cartoon coach ran across the screen in real time. I travelled on it, got off in the middle of nowhere and watched again as the next image on the phone proclaimed my next service was due. In those few short years, this technology has become the norm. It’s this incredible speed of technology which is driving the disruptors to provide what people want – with little fuss and maximum efficiency.

It’s up to the bus industry to prove that it’s offering is still relevant to the masses. Or will our children and grandchildren look back at the quaintness of how we used to move?

The Non-Scenic West Midlands

Scenic bus route logo

“It’s grim up north”, so the phrase goes. But could the same be said for the West Midlands?

The heat is on to find “Britain’s Most Scenic Bus Route”, and you can bet your bottom dollar the arguments will rage long after the winner has been announced. I’m still debating who was my favourite Spice Girl since the 90s (“Baby Spice”, since you ask – “Scary” used to frighten me…)

What caught my eye was the comment that Bus Users UK are supporting the initiative, alongside four of the “big five” groups – the notable absentee being National Express Group.

Is this a tacit admission that the gritty heartlands of Birmingham and the Black Country have no views of beauty from it’s buses? Viewing the list of nominees so far, some of the usual suspects appear from this green and pleasant land, but what about our former great industrial landscape? Granted, the sight of that great plastic monstrosity Merry Hill hardly warms the cockles of your heart as the X10 disappears down the latest pothole, but what about a fleeting glimpse of glorious countryside from the upper deck of the 257 as it negotiates ridiculously-parked white vans on it’s escapades around the Stickley Estate? Or a breathtaking view of Greater Birmingham from the Oakham Road near Dudley Golf Club? Ah. the 120 is normally single-deckers. But you get my drift.

We may once have been the workshop of the World around these parts, but we can’t be letting all these green fields and rolling countryside around Yorkshire win the day. Besides, Alex Hornby at Transdev won’t have any more room for trophies in his office.

So think on. Our Outer Circle around the outskirts of Brum may not entirely be classed as “scenic”, but who said the three hour round-trip on our most famous of bus routes won’t leave you breathless at the end of it? Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder…


Vote for your favourite scenic route here

(F)air Quality?

NXWM Exhaust-kits
National Express West Midlands bus engineers with one of the filter kits (pic courtesy Transport for West Midlands)

Something worth singing about in what is a fairly dismal time in the bus World is a new fund to retrofit “pollution-busting technology” to bus exhausts, which will help to banish at least one long-held belief amongst the masses regarding “filthy dirty buses” spewing out all sorts of undesirable matter from their rear-ends.

Announcing the new pot of cash – from the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – the recently-installed Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani told the UK Bus Summit via a number of soundbites that “buses and coaches are hugely important…”…”We have to move away from nose-to-tail car traffic at peak times…” etc, etc.

I’m sounding slightly cynical. Which I’m not, actually. Of course we’ve all heard nice words from the Minister of the day before about all sorts of things, but putting the cash up to get bus emissions down is a noble pursuit and of course it’s very welcome.

The West Midlands and Coventry receive grants totaling £4.5m – including funding by industry operators National Express, Diamond, Claribels and First – and will fit over 460 buses with the kit. It takes a team of two engineers around six hours to fit a filter and a selective catalytic reduction “trap” to each bus, reducing harmful emissions by up to 96% – making the exhaust air coming out actually cleaner than the air in the City generally.

It’s good stuff, and the kudos goes to the much-lauded “West Midlands Bus Alliance” – between operators, councils and others – which is quietly getting on with progress, and shows little interest in franchising via the West Midlands “Metro” Mayor Andy Streeet.

Buses have been cleaned up – in Birmingham City Centre, at least – via another partnership: the “Advanced Quality Partnership Scheme”, which requires operators to have “cleaner” emissions on buses entering the City Centre. It’s certainly got rid of the tat, and improved the image of bus travel – but…

There’s always a but. Whilst other areas of the West Midlands are following suit with their own “emissions zones”, other traffic roams free. And that includes all sorts of Tom, Dick and Harry examples in old, dirty polluting vans, trucks and cars. Whenever I’m in Birmingham City Centre, there seems precious little restriction of any sort of traffic – even in what appear to be pedestrian areas.

There’s no problem with the bus industry cleaning up it’s act – and good on them for embracing it – but where’s the long-term plan for other modes of transport? If I’m now happy to lie on the pavement and suck in what’s coming out of the rear end of a bus (yes, I may have strange pastimes) because it’s cleaner than what I’m normally inhaling, the issue of dirty air quality now falls on everything else entering the City Centre. I accept this isn’t an overnight job, but is there a plan?

In Glasgow, it’s all kicking off over a not-dissimilar plan to clean up bus emissions in the City. Except they’re proposing to go at it in a rather bull-at-a-gate type fashion. The Authority wants it done rather speedily – and the 300 suspected premature deaths per year in Glasgow due to air pollution succinctly makes the point. But the suggestion that it has to be buses first – and quickly to a certain high standard – raises questions about how it is to be funded, and how other dirty vehicles will still be allowed in without restriction.

It’s all very well cleaning up the air that we breathe in City Centres – and no one can argue against that. But as Minister Ghani points out “Buses and coaches are hugely important to those who rely on them and to the communities in which these people live and work.” If the crucial importance of buses is noted in Government, and that buses are part of the solution for moving large numbers of people quickly and safely, let’s make the battle for cleaner air quality fair. And that includes all modes of motorised transport.

Or is that too politically difficult?