Why Don’t We Just…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why don’t we just do that?


Who Can See The Cars?

Politicians really ought to have a special Specsavers session just for them. Because it appears that, whilst they can clearly see a bus – maybe a Euro 6-enginned or hybrid clean one – spotting huge numbers of unrestricted private cars and vans idling away in never-ending congestion seems to be proving problematic.

Take Sir Richard Leese. He’s Manchester’s Council Leader. Maybe he’s a bit ruffled by the arrival of Andy Burnham as the City-Region Mayor, with ideas for buses of his own, but the local paper has uncovered potential plans for kicking buses out of Piccadilly Gardens. And it’s all based around the environment.

The state of our air in large urban areas is a concern. It becomes an even bigger concern once you start looking at how many people actually die early due to the effects of poor air quality. You’d think the politicians would be on to it.

But politicians are in the game for the short-term. They may be forgotten heroes the next time the polling station opens for business. And one of the quickest ways to aleinate the electorate, supposedly, is to stop them going places in their cars.

That’s why I sit in conferences year after year listening to grandiose schemes for City Centres that have artists impressions of green spaces and cyclists and pedestrians and happy children and motherhood and apple pie. Who can see the cars?

And yet, having attended one of my first conferences as a wide-eyed teenager, I now find myself in my late forties still turning up, still looking at the glossy brochures, still listening to a brighter tomorrow. And still, when I leave the conference, and watch many of the attendees get into their cars and I trudge off to the bus stop, I find myself in my natural environment as a bus passenger, stuck in stop-start congestion. Cars as far as the eye can see.

In Manchester, Sir Richard seems to think it’s the bus’s fault that air quality is crap around Piccadilly Gardens.

Now granted, if you’ve ever stood here and watched the magic roundabout of Mancunian bus services, there’s a lot of double-decker action going on. But here’s the rub:

The bus industry is largely cleaning up it’s act. Vehicle emissions are cleaner than ever. And moving up to seventy-odd folk on one vehicle is surely better than seventy-odd individuals in seventry-odd cars all idling away in never-ending congestion? I’m no expert, and I never even made the sixth-form at school, but even I can see that.

If I can see the cars, how come Sir Richard can’t?

Manchester’s Metrolink trams are excellent. And you have to say hats off to the City for what it’s achieved in creating the tram network – it far eclipses anything my home City of Birmingham has managed to achieve thus far. But politicians have to learn that trams can’t go everywhere. They may be shiny and swish, and people love them, but they come at a premium. They’re great, but they’re only a (relatively small) part of the public transport offer. Sorry guys and girls, but the good old bus will have to be retained for quite a while yet.

The painful thing for those in power is cars. Maybe that’s why they choose not to see them. If a few very environmentally-friendly buses are choking the good folk of Piccadilly Gardens, what might cars, vans and rest of an episode of Wacky Races be doing across the wider City?

There’s no doubt there’s a job to be done when it comes to the image of the bus, and I don’t mean employing Ray Stenning and thinking job done (although it’s a pretty good start). But that image needs to be the full offer. And that’s why it’s so disappointing to hear a politician like Sir Richard – who ought to be at the forefront of helping buses to provide the best service that they can – coming out with comments like he has.

He has the power to give buses priority, to promote public transport in all of it’s various forms and to tackle damaging congestion, not by hanging the blame for Manchester’s air quality on a busy bus terminus in the City, but by asking fundamental questions about how to tackle stationary lines of traffic to improve that pesky air quality.

First, he needs to see the cars.

Read the Manchester Evening News report here.

Sunday Morning Nightmare

Sunday morning. I have a vision of what England should be. Church bells gently chiming, birds singing in the sycamore tree. Ella had it right.

Actually, you’re more likely to encounter some aggression-fuelled argument over a car-parking space on Sunday mornings by me. It’s November as I write this, which of course means we’re fully into “Christmas” mode. And after a long, hard week at work, what better than to spend the morning of the Sabbath in the vast car park of your local shopping complex enjoying the appalling air quality of thousands of cars all circling around for an elusive (free) car parking space, in order to spend your hard-earned on festive tat?

The other week, it was little better. In my local High Street in Stourbridge, where a similar never-ending game of grab the space ensues, I was treated to more Neanderthal fist-waving from irate motorists arguing with each other about where to leave their hulk of metal. This is what we’ve become.

I relate this appalling tale of woe as I’ve been watching a six-minute video on the Guardian website entitled “Why We Should Be Paying More for Parking”. It’s all very enlightening, and makes entire fools out of most of us who drive cars. You can watch it here Pay MORE for parking, I hear the inner petrol head inside you shriek? No way, Jose. Indeed, my local authority here in Dudley have dangled the carrot of FREE parking on council car parks for two hours, in order to stimulate the High Street.

I get it. It’s politicking at it’s most simplistic and vote-grabbing. Why shouldn’t the council give us something back? And with punch-ups on the car park at Merry Hill’s vast shopping centre for what is already free parking, why should we pay for similar fisticuffs on council facilities? I’m seemingly the only one who has ever argued against it. “It revitalises the traditional centres”, my local Council Leader tells me, over a pint. I do see the point. But it’s desperate stuff. I do understand the worry of local business owners, desperate to stem the loss of trade to folk clicking on Amazon, and others having a Sunday morning brawl up Merry Hill. When I was on the radio, I stuck my neck out and suggested the aforementioned shenanigans on Stourbridge High Street ought to be curtailed once and for all by pedestrianising the lot of it, to create an ambient boulevard, free of polluting cars and mouthy motorists threatening to chew my ear’ole off unless they can park right here, right now. You’d have thought I’d asked to see the Queen pole dancing. Local shopkeepers queued up to tell me how I’d got it all wrong, and that they needed the steady flow of cars to keep trading. Maybe it hasn’t dawned on them WHY a lot of people prefer to walk around the shops – perhaps up Merry Hill – where there aren’t cars attacking them from all angles?

Even one of my bus driving pals throws his hands up in the air and tells me it’s still a society in love with it’s cars. Even if they’re slowly killing us early.

The Guardian video shows us the folly of our ways, and how it could all be different. It isn’t easy. The mindset needs a thorough overhaul. Likely? Not when the council is throwing free car parking like sweets in a kids playground.

I sat through a gruelling 8-hour conference on what devolving powers to local Mayors might mean recently (the things I do for fun). And while it became apparent that it’s all about economic growth (stupid), where were the definite priorities for tackling congestion? There came none. HS2 is a big thing, and rightly so. Connectivity is vital. But jumping in the car and congesting our local environment “because it’s what we’ve always done” has surely got to be tackled? If the big, fast train set is coming, and the excellent tram systems in our City areas are to be enhanced, we’ve still got to do the hard things politically. I still see too many “park here all day for £2”-style banners dotted around car parks uncomfortably too close to city centres. What bus lanes we have are never effectively policed – and when they are, it’s like howling wolf in the local press and on Facebook, as if those in authority should be out “catching real criminals” instead.

The problem lies with politicians scared witless (my spell check corrected me) of motorists with votes, opposition politicians all too eager to encourage votes next time around by becoming the motorist’s “friend”, and, actually business, who, all too often, fail to recognise that public transport users bring real value to their operations, and it actually isn’t all about families in their 4×4.

At conferences, and inside glossy brochures looking at utopian futures of city centres, the line is always peddled (excuse the pun) that cycling has to be pushed, and that tram and rail are what moves people. Hardly ever do I see those with real influence wax lyrical about the bus. It’s also about autonomous cars, electric cars and “walking strategies”. Sometimes I grab the mic at such gatherings and ask about the elephant in the room. Not the rotund bloke in the corner who enjoyed a bit too much of the buffet, but the bus. The huge number of buses in our cities. The ones that bring huge numbers of people in, The ones that get stuck in never-ending congestion and end up being beaten over the head by people who think that if only you gave them to the council, it would all be alright again. The people on the panel visibly squirm when you ask them about buses, because they aren’t sexy like trams. Trams are great. I love them, because they ARE sexy. But they’ll never go everywhere. And, actually, I despair of transport people who want to pit trams against buses against trains against bikes. It should be public transport, working together, providing seamless, effective, relevant mobility solutions against the car.
The bus industry, and transport as a whole, needs to keep on hammering home a message, that if only it had the tools, it could do an effective job.

The Guardian video guy makes a point that it’s no good being “anti-car”. I suspect he’s right. It’s actually about making fools of people sitting in endless, polluting congestion watching clean, swish, cost-effective, and – dare I say – “sexy” public transport whooshing by. It’s about getting public transport users closer to the shops and attractions than cars can. It’s about costing an absolute fortune to park if they insist on driving right in. It’s about having limited car parking space, rigorously enforced, so that driving is always the wrong choice. It’s about believing that driving a car into the city centre is polluting us, and actually costing us our lives too early.

I wonder how many politicians and business leaders are with me?

We’ll All Miss The Bus (Timetable Booklet)…

Word reaches me from “cider country” that the long-established timetable booklet has perished.

Sad, but not totally unexpected. A quick Google to confirm this finds an inevitable “letter to the Editor” of the local newspaper, expressing outrage. In fact, the author of said letter reckons the local authority couldn’t “give a monkey’s”.

I’m not even sure Herefordshire Council have any monkeys left to give.

It might be simplistic of me to throw out there the £30bn or so the Chancellor has thrown at motorists in the recent budget. Or perhaps the nineth year on the bounce fuel duty has been frozen for “hard-working families”* (*motorists with votes). Maybe I’m also being simplistic when I suggest that bus users are, as usual, being treated like second-class citizens, compared to motorists.

Of course, a few of us are actually both. But the reality is, as ever, that once motorists have their vehicle, they see little point in “paying again” to use public transport, compared to the perceived simplicity of hopping in their car.

Despite the effort in some parts of the bus industry to make their services simple, effective and price-competitive, there remains a general mystique about bus services. Much of that is based around the timetable. And, often bizarrely, it’s like trying to pull hen’s teeth to actually get hold of a timetable online quickly and easily. Some company and authority websites remain inexplicably difficult to navigate.

Look, I know it isn’t “sexy” or “cost-effective” or a “good use of taxpayers money” to print an old-fashioned booklet full of bus timetables (according to cash-strapped local authorities with little budget for such “frivolities”), but it’s all really part of why the bus still isn’t regarded as a serious alternative for many people’s journeys.

What about if we said we weren’t building any more roads? (because we all know that as soon as this expensive asphalt is laid, it quickly fills up with traffic). Or maybe we were going to build a load of bus priority, with heavy fines for offenders, rigourosly policed? Maybe parking your car in town would soon be more expensive than a bus ticket? (Hey, in Dudley we have started encouraging more car journeys – and more pollution – by giving motorists 2 hours free parking…)

And what if we saw local authorities being given funding for serious partnerships with private sector bus operators, who are commercial experts in their field, to really offer a viable alternative to endless queues of cars, all choking us to a potential early death?

And….what if the local authority kicked off all of this renaissance in the bus by having the funding to produce a bus guide that effectively and simply explained the local network in a comprehensive form?

Now THERE’S an idea….

A Snap of Sn-ap

I’m lurking at a draughty bus stop opposite the shiny retail heaven that is “Grand Central” in Birmingham (also contains rail station, don’t ‘cha know?). In the retail window adjacent, someone looks blankly at a scan-yourself machine. I too have a somewhat blank expression. Amongst the throngs of local bus passengers, I’m awaiting a Sn-ap coach to London, for the princely sum of a fiver. But what exactly am I looking out for?

Sn-ap is “on-demand, digital coach travel”, according to the website. “Pocket money prices” is another catchphrase. It appears that I’ve missed out on my “first journey free” offer, but a fiver is hardly going to break the bank. I’ve just paid more than that for a bacon bap and cup of tea.

It’s all about the text

Twelve hours ago, my slumber was interrupted by a text message from Sn-ap. I’d already registered my phone and verified it, and this text carried simple, clear instructions where the coach was going to pick me up, with a link to click on to show the location. Next morning, I’m at said bus shelter when the phone bleeps again. It’s “Carl from Solus Coaches”, with his coach registration number and another link to click on to track progress in live mode. Clicking on it reveals his previous movements, and what appears to be something akin to a 150mph sprint up the Aston Expressway, as the “live map” obviously speeds things up. Carl is now parked around half a mile away.

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The “Sn-ap map” on your phone, showing live tracking

All this is immensely helpful and reassuring. Add to that, when he finally appears in his anonymous white coach spot on time, the only reference to Sn-ap is something relatively small in the window. You can’t miss National Express and Megabus; Sn-ap is something a little different.

Carl already has my name and details on his gadget. All I have to do is confirm my name, he nods, and I’m on.

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Solus’s Mercedes-Benz Tourismo on Birmingham-London

Premium Coaches

Sn-ap promises “access to premium coaches usually reserved for elite sports teams, executive travel and luxury tours”. The partners involved in Sn-ap so far certainly does read like a list of well-respected operators, with the likes of Redwing, Oxford Bus Company, Reading Buses, Astons, Johnsons, Prospect and numerous others. This Solus vehicle – a Mercedes Benz Tourismo, formerly carrying National Holidays livery, but now plain white – is very well-appointed. “Drive” by The Cars is one of several 80s hits subtly playing in the background. The legroom isn’t great (although, being 6’7”, it rarely is) and there’s no Wi-Fi/charging, but I’m being carried to our great Capital for a fiver, so I’m not complaining!

There are 9 passengers as we depart the stop. One slight concern is that the stop in question (NS3, opposite Grand Central, for those in the know) is a very busy stop, and the road is quite narrow at that point, so there’s potential for a few problems if the vehicle isn’t quickly loaded and away.

Then we’re off around some of Brum’s suburbs, picking up other Sn-appers. 1 joins in Moseley, while 3 more hop aboard in Selly Oak, so it’s a reasonably loaded trip, as we hit the M42 50 minutes after departing the City Centre.

The motorway monotony… and a sweet-treat!

The monotony of the motorway prevails. Several coaches pass on the opposite carriageway, with our driver happily reciprocating their jolly waves. It’s all very bog-standard, as motorway travel is.

As we glide into central London, a young man appears, carrying a small bag. I think maybe he’s going to ask me for a tip for the driver, in the finest traditions of coach travel’s heyday. But ,actually, no. He wants to know what I think of it all. I tell him all is very good. Lack of Wi-Fi doesn’t really bother me (and with people increasingly getting more and more data included in their phone plans, I think it will increasingly become less important), but I’d have liked to have seen a charging point. That apart, it was a fiver well-spent. He smiles and gives me a free keyring and small bag of sweeties – something I’ve experienced before on Germany’s ICE train. Maybe Sn-ap’s CEO and founder Thomas Ableman – formerly of National Express and Chiltern Railways – knows a thing or two about delighting passengers with little things like this…



My Sn-ap arrives only around 10 minutes late, given the usual appalling nature of central London traffic, and my terminus is a bus stop just opposite Euston station. I’m a satisfied virgin Sn-apper! I’m immediately asked on the text to “rate my driver” in classic Uber style, which I do, over a pint at the nearby Euston Tap.

Sn-ap! I’m left behind!

But for the purposes of research (and the lure of cheap coach tickets) I’m back on getasnap.com to see where else I can go. This isn’t National Express. Destinations are limited, days limited and times often seemingly quite odd, but I spot one from Birmingham to Leicester on my day off from work, so I decide it’s time for another ride.
This time, I don’t get the 12-hour reminder text – it’s only 3 hours ahead. Three minutes before, I get another text as I wait in the same location. It’s “Liam from Roberts Travel Group” and he’ll be on his way shortly. Again, I can track his progress via the Sn-ap map.

And then something bizarre occurs.

I notice from the live map that Liam is actually parked up barely a few hundred metres from where I’m standing. I presume he’s about to drive around the block to pick me up, but instead, I watch with increasing incredulity as the coach joins the Aston Expressway and onto the M6!

The Sn-ap website has a contact number, so I call it, where a polite gentleman listens as I tell him my Sn-ap is hurtling down the motorway, minus me. He tells me he can see it on his tracker too. I’m apparently the only person booked on for the journey, and he apologies profusely and asks me to hold whilst he contacts the driver. A few moments later he tells me that the driver is coming off the motorway and returning to Brum to pick me up!

Around half an hour after the original departure time, Liam arrives in another very smart vehicle (a Yutong TC9) and he can’t apologise enough. There’d been a mix up over the departure location, and because the fares are so cheap, Liam explained that people sometimes don’t show up.


Robert’s smart Yutong vehicle

I am indeed the only user of this particular run, and Liam chats away, full of enthusiasm for Sn-ap, and for his job in general. He’s managed to turn a negative into a real positive, and he’s a real credit to both operator Roberts Travel Group and to Sn-ap. The Sn-ap control also call back to apologise again and check that I’m actually on the coach.
Arrival is at Leicester’s St. Margaret’s bus station, where Liam tells me his next trip is a schools run, and that he’d been to Scotland recently – a coach driver’s life is a varied one! He apologises again for the mix-up and I wander off into the bus station to plot my journey home, again a satisfied Sn-apper.


Sn-ap is an interesting addition to the coaching scene. Formed in 2016, it isn’t really on the mass radar – yet. But driver Liam told me that, whilst my journey was empty apart from me, he’d seen steady growth on several other journeys that he’d driven for Sn-ap. The dozen or so people on my journey from Birmingham to London – despite a huge array of rival coach and rail offerings – suggests that tech-savvy folk are becoming aware. By limiting trips to where demand really exists, rather than blanket daily timetables, cheap fares can be offered, but not at the expense of bargain-basement vehicles. I well recall the novelty of chugging down the motorway on an ancient ex-Hong Kong double decker which I’m sure never got over 40mph when Megabus first launched. My then-£1 ticket offered a certain amount of smugness compared to National Express passengers, who glided by – but had paid more. Today, passengers expect more. Cheap doesn’t have to mean basic, and while Megabus has moved on to provide much more attractive vehicles, Sn-ap is actively making the point that these super-luxury vehicles can be ridden for dirt-cheap prices a central plank of it’s marketing offer.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, no Sn-ap mobile app – but the website works perfectly for mobiles, so, like Megabus – which also doesn’t have an app in the UK – it’s not entirely essential.

The departing coach without it’s only passenger was a schoolboy error, and I’m not entirely sure what might have happened had the coach possessed more travellers – turning back to pick me up might not have been a reasonable option. But Sn-ap and Liam the driver turned this mishap around brilliantly, and I remain a very satisfied happy Sn-apper!

Happy Sn-apper
• Great booking process, with reassuring texts and link to live maps.
• Super-luxury vehicles
• Cheap prices

Sn-ap to do
• No Wi-Fi / charging facility on board
• Birmingham City Centre departure point not the best location
• More awareness needed

Full details are available on the Sn-ap website: getasnap.com 


Shout, Shout, Let It All Out!

I’ve just watched an advert for Uber on the telly. It was one of those mini-epics that pulls at certain heartstrings. In it, the ever-busy career Mum manages to get home via our hero in the driving seat of the cool mini-cab (if I can call it that) in time to see her offspring. You can do it all with Uber. There’s no doubting the power of this disrupter. I use it on occasion. It’s ridiculously simple and fun to watch, as the little Uber car on your screen cruises the streets to where you’re waiting. No faff.

Buses are so yesterday, aren’t they? Driven by surly, burly blokes, regularly late, with routes that go on forever, and populated by dodgy losers who have no other transport options.

We know at least some of the above isn’t always true. But over the last 40-odd years, the bus industry has allowed this hugely damaging perception to evolve, barely threatening to seriously rewrite the narrative.

It’s hugely challenging to turn the ship around. An often hostile press easily finds ever-willing “wronged” passengers and local politicians who can spot a voting opportunity at a hundred yards (especially around local council election times) to paint a picture of the damned, waiting for a perpetually-late or non-existent service. Yet the industry itself has to take at least part of the blame for where we now find ourselves. For too many years, there’s been an undercurrent of “take it or leave it” from too many parts of the bus world. An “understanding” that many of it’s customers have only one choice – and they’ll have to be back tomorrow, despite the rubbish service. This doesn’t exist everywhere, but I still see too much of it. It isn’t explicitly termed, but it’s definitely there.

Uber has come pretty quickly to the table. So has the upsurge in cycling. A resurgence in light rail is popular. The bus industry, despite being on a downward trajectory for far too many years, now finds itself not only increasingly challenged, but faces a fight for it’s very existence in coming years, if it’s not careful.

There’s lots to overcome. Operators aren’t in control of their entire “offer”. We might like to compare a bus operator with a supermarket – and it’s often interesting – but Tesco has absolute control of everything you experience, once you walk through the door. A bus operator has virtually no control over the one thing that dominates people’s bus experiences – reliability. Congestion is costing us dear. And another USP of the Uber experience is that they can often dodge jams by turning off down side roads, etc. Another is the commercial bus operator’s whole business plan. The concessionary bus pass is a terrible mess, from a funding perspective. It’s social benefits are priceless, but it’s back office funding streams are hugely disruptive. And finding drivers is increasingly challenging. We’re never going to really get over the fact that the hours can be anti-social, but do we value drivers with remuneration that reflects the professional, often challenging role of the driver? I’m no accountant, but huge pay rises won’t be possible, and again the business model won’t allow it – but when you see some operators “proudly” advertising rates that don’t even get near shelf-stackers in budget supermarkets, you have to ask who is going to be attracted to that?

Bleak? From one side of the mountain, maybe. Insurmountable? Not on your nelly.
Challenging, it might be, but the industry needs to big itself up. Like it’s never done before.

There’s a lot of good practice around. The UK Bus Awards highlights much of this, and I genuinely bristle with pride when I read the booklet of winners every year. The industry I love as a passenger CAN and DOES get it right. The winners get their five minutes of fame in the local press – and that’s where it ends. The trick is to get that feelgood feeling into the mainstream at every opportunity, every day, every week, every month. A co-ordinated mega-push that says that this isn’t a down-trodden industry, providing services of last resort, but a vibrant mover of people that is efficient, attractive and value for money. It is relevant to people’s daily lives. It deserves a serious spot in people’s mobility plans, alongside rail, alongside Uber.

There will be the inevitable ridicule. But look at “Britain Runs On Rail” as a campaign. It says “we’re proud”. People might hiss at stories in the Metro of “commuter hell”, but here is a definitive lesson in positiva from another part of the public transport World.

The bus industry has many a great story to sell. But there is no campaign that is co-ordinated to string it all together. And certainly not one that builds on something like “Catch The Bus Week”, which, for all it’s great intentions, still feels ultimately like a novelty week that ends with everyone taking a huge sigh of relief and agreeing to do it all again, same time, same place, next year.

The bus world needs to stop feeling sorry for itself, stop the underlying arrogance that says “take it or leave it”, and start shouting and letting it all out, so that people who currently don’t “bus” might – just might – start thinking about trying it.

And that’s where operators also need to try like never before to make every journey one that people leave, thinking, “yeah, using buses is part of me, part of my regular routine”. It’s one mega-package that needs the following all on board;
– Senior managers
– Middle managers
– Drivers
– Other staff
– Politicians
– Councillors
– Passengers – as champions of the cause

But more to the point, it needs the commitment – both financially and in hearts and minds – to keep on hammering away for the long-term.

If there’s been suggestions from within the bus industry that industry body CPT hasn’t been banging the drum loudly enough, then it’s time for it to provide the wherewithal to emulate the likes of the FTA.

Buses. Are. People. They have been since the days of horses dragging them through the streets. But today’s buses largely have an image problem. It’s time for an endearing campaign to make them relevant once again to the masses. Shout, bus industry. Shout. Let it all out.

Getting it Right

I’m waiting for a 256. Or is it a 16?

Over a week ago, National Express West Midlands renumbered loads of their Black Country services. The possible rights or wrongs of all of this were discussed in the previous blog, but what is clearly evident is that many of the bus stop flags are still displaying the old regime, even if the timetables have been changed.

Does this matter? In my view, yes. Wholeheartedly. To current non-bus users, buses often represent confusion. This big renumbering project – taking out route numbers dating right back to 1928 – is apparently based on simplification. I’m not averse to that, and I don’t lazily dismiss the concept. But if we’re going to do it, let’s at least get it right straight from the off.

One day after the changes, I found myself, randomly, in Wolverhampton bus station. I visited the travel shop. On display were numerous “old” timetables, showing old, now defunct, route numbers. Of two brand new routes, there were none.

I returned to the scene of the crime 6 days later. Much the same (although I did manage to acquire the new routes timetable). (A mini-whinge with a friend who works at Transport for West Midlands will hopefully sort this misedemeanor).

Another friend in the pub tells me that the renumbering and slight re-routing off-peak of his local route has left him and his elderly father without a direct route to the local hospital, off-peak. To say he’s spitting feathers does a disservice to feathered species everywhere. And to add insult to injury, the new part re-route only has one formal bus stop on it. Efforts to hastily arrange “hail & ride” has resulted in inevitable confusion, with some drivers playing ball and some not.

And what of the poor local Councillors here, who campaigned for this new section of route? What is needed is a new series of stops along the new route, but I’ll bet at least half of my life savings that wherever they want to site new stops will be met by resistance by some local residents – and that will leave a conundrum for said local councillors. A fascinating spectator sport.

But there’s a serious point to all of this. There’s been a long lead-time into this revision. Users and locals were rightly consulted on the changes, but the outcome has seen certain ideas clearly not thought through.

It’s potentially damaging. If the whole idea of giving Dudley’s buses “a new identity” was the plan, some of the execution of it hasn’t worked well.

The best bus operations run on true partnership between operator and authority. We have, on the face of it, a good partnership here in the West Midlands, but it clearly isn’t top of the league yet. The route changes were registered in time, but still the flags weren’t changed on time – and in numerous examples – appear that they won’t be for some time yet.

There is also anecdotal evidence that some buses themselves were in service on day one still displaying old route numbers – how were they even available for the driver to select?

I asked a senior industry figure if there is any evidence that the increasingly popular exercise of “simplifying” route numbers down to 1 or 2 digits actually brings increased patronage. His reply was that when he’d done it, it was normally accompanied with other measures, such as new vehicles and timetable/route changes, so the act of just changing route numbers on it’s own doesn’t, in his view, have any documented evidence one way or the other.

Whether we do this or not, and for whatever reasons, the industry needs to be on the ball and ready – from the first journey on the first day. There will be enough angst amongst existing users, without having to confuse potential new users too. Tesco’s wouldn’t have misleading information about their products over a week after they changed them – why is the bus industry being sloppy about this?

Transport for West Midlands / West Midlands Combined Authority owns and controls the infrastructure. So much so, they won’t even let the operators inside the timetable cases at stops and shelters to put up information for passengers. They also charge operators for changes that they make. Nowt up with that, in principle, and if they had a monster project such as this, they should bill the operator accordingly – but for goodness sake, get the job done on time. To their credit, the actual timetables at stop all seem to have been done – but there are now numerous examples of them not marrying up with what is on the flag.

We’re back to the ever-present argument of the bus industry needing to present a product that is relevant to people. With my finger stuck in another pie, I’ve been trialling some taxi products recently. I can’t emphasise enough how easy it’s been to order a cab through a mobile app, and how hassle-free and quick the whole experience has been. It’s still more expensive, but the trade-off is simplicity and efficiency. The bus industry needs to be relevant to people’s mobility needs. Anything that causes unnecessary confusion is a big bullet in the foot.

My Lucky Number’s Gone*

(*with respect to Lene Lovich – Google if you’re too young….)

You’d expect me to base my lottery numbers on lucky bus route numbers – and of course you’d be right. But this weekend – Sunday 2nd September 2018, to be precise – the Dudley area of the Black Country sees the biggest shake up of routes and numbers since I can ever remember. So my lucky route numbers become defunct.

A minor detail. But it’s anything but minor for the good folk of the Black Country. Hell, I’ve just spent the best part of an hour in the pub explaining some of it to an unsuspecting mate, who often takes his elderly father to hospital and has just found out that his bus will no longer run past the top of his road off-peak – and he’s none too impressed.

There’s always winners and losers whenever this happens. “Why?” he opines to me, screwing up the remains of his scratchings packet, as if the perpetrators of this demon act were inside it. He even eyeballs me, as if I’m somehow responsible (hey, don’t blame the messenger). I’m reminded of the scene in Dudley bus station, but a few weeks ago, when the bus station supervisor was surrounded by a gaggle of hardened women bus users as she explained the changes.

“who thinks of these changes? I bet it was a man”, shouted one of them. When I offered my opinion that that was a “tad sexist”, I thought she was coming at me with a brolly. I scarpered and caught the long bus home from another stand…

There is a serious point to all of this.

Much of the West Midlands urban area has been subject to these “area reviews” over the last decade or so. Dudley was actually first in 2008, but it wasn’t radical with the numbers like this one. In the ones that followed in other areas, the three digit route numbers were replaced by one and two digit alternatives. The reason consistently given being that people find it easier to remember one and two digit numbers, rather than three. There’s also a comment doing the rounds that areas that have been thus treated have seen an increase in patronage. Now, given that virtually every corner of the West Midlands has had one of these reviews, and overall patronage continues to fall, I’m struggling to square the circle on that. The 246 – once home to classic Midland Red D9 workhorses, and known to countless generations of local folk – becomes the 6. The 120 – trundling between Dudley and Birmingham since 1928, even before Dudley had a zoo – will be the 12. 276 becomes 7, X96 the 8. 255/6/7 all morph into 15/16/17. There are new routes, and routes chopped in half. Winners and losers abound. And bits of paper stuck to bus shelters, flapping in the wind and torn down by the local yob fraternity because Transport for West Midlands doesn’t trust it’s biggest operator National Express enough to let it have keys to put them inside the timetable cases. I digress…

I’m not sure I believe all this stuff about three-digit numbers being the offspring of the devil. It’s going down like the proverbial diesel-powered lead balloon, locally. We know for a fact that some of the route numbers that we’re losing on Sunday have been around since the halcyon Midland Red days of 1928! “Everybody knows the numbers”, cries my pub mate, still crushing the scratchings packet. True. And maybe there’s a sense of “they’ll get used to it”, whilst the bigger prize of new users is up for grabs.

It’s actually very neat now. There are numbers 1-20 across the area. And, actually, removing my hat of nostalgia, time does move on, and nothing is forever. Example: A recent similar exercise in South Birmingham has seen buses between Birmingham City Centre and the QE Hospital renumbered X20/1/2 and new posh Platinum vehicles used. This is an easier way to remember how to get to and from the QE, rather than the clunky old 98 number (and even worse, 636 before it – although these services no longer stop outside the main entrance because of the erratic parking and traffic flow there).

So I’m not rigidly against renumbering bus routes. Journeys change, routes evolve, and the bus industry has to always look at ways to make itself relevant to it’s potential audience. Us cynical old farts who loiter around the bus world think we know it all, but if I’ve learnt one thing following a recent trip overseas with a group of young people, it is that the bus industry needs to be relevant. Other modes are rapidly creeping in, but the bus can play a part in a true multi-modal offering.

Simplicity is the key. Imagine not so long ago if I was at the QE Hospital. I want to get back to the City Centre. Taxis are plentiful. So are trains nearby. Buses, as an alternative look clunky. They’re stuck in the traffic near the main entrance, it has a number I can’t quite remember, and when I get on, it’s exact fare or nothing. Hell, I’ll just pay for a taxi. Now, although the buses are a short walk away, they aren’t stuck in the traffic, becoming unreliable, they have posh seats with extra legroom, wi-fi and all the other bells and whistles, and an easy to remember set of numbers: X20/X21 & X22. I can pay as a one-off with my debit card – quick, easy, no hassle. With a turn up and go frequency, hey, I might just give it a go!

So whilst us historians cry over our 1928 bus guides and lament the passing into history of route numbers our mothers and grandmothers would have recognised, maybe we ought to at least accept that it’s finally time for a new brush to sweep clean and start again, if only to try and help the bus industry try to become relevant to an audience yet to try it.

Otherwise, the bus risks becoming a historical artefact in itself.

Smart Air

A very clever move by Stagecoach to propose bringing 105 electric zero-emission buses to Manchester.

Mayor Burnham has been vocal in suggesting that Manchester should be a trail-blazer for new powers to control the City’s buses, whilst the industry, unsurprisingly, has mostly pointed out that partnership is the quickest, cheapest way to bring an improved bus service.

Stagecoach is playing a positive game – it was the first operator in Manchester to introduce contactless ticketing last year, and now the proposal for the fleet of clean, green machines. Compare with the hardball approach of First, who state they won’t buy any new kit until the outcome of the direction of travel regarding franchising is known (apparently by the end of 2018).

The Mayor is also putting aside £11.5m to explore a business case for Manchester franchising alongside “other options that could improve bus services” in the region. That’s a not insignificant amount of cash.

Of course it’s all political. Stagecoach are effectively saying “we can bring major improvements without all this franchising malarkey” – and it’s a fair argument. If air quality is the current major concern, with thousands of premature deaths every year linked to it in major urban areas, Stagecoach are offering a quick and easy method to address this, with no long drawn-out political shenanigans. Now, suddenly, the Mayor is under pressure to justify spending millions looking at options to replicate London, just as London starts to take a nosedive with it’s own bus network. And, by the way, Stagecoach’s proposal dwarfs the London Mayor’s own proposal for 68 new electric buses in the capital.

The Mayoral game in our urban centres is a fascinating watch. Whilst Andy Burnham waxes lyrical about plans to control Manchester’s buses (with no discernible comment I’ve seen about tackling traffic congestion, by the way), his counterpart in the West Midlands Andy Street is going down an alternative route – even if that means beginning to paint the buses all the same colour. The purists of the paint booth may be horrified, but there are bigger fish to fry here. Street has the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 – and he wants a legacy. Transport figures large on the agenda.

There are plenty who argued that City-Region Mayors with their newly-found powers could only go down the franchise route for real improvement. Who’s going to argue against Andy Street delivering those improvements under a remaining deregulated environment? And, back in Manchester, could Stagecoach’s irresistible march to greater improvement mean that this northern powerhouse remains in a deregulated bus world? By all means, paint the buses orange again, if it makes some people happy, but I reckon the privatised bus world is maybe, just maybe, getting a bit of it’s mojo back…

95%. The Passenger Interest?

In a fairly anonymous Council building on an industrial estate just outside Kidderminster, a crowd had gathered. It was standing room only as Traffic Commissioner Nicholas Denton held his Public Inquiry into the affairs of Diamond Bus.
Diamond has had issues with it’s Kidderminster area operation. I’ve only been to a few Public Inquiries, but I’ve never been to one with this many of the public in attendance. Maybe they were expecting some sort of gladiatorial event, but of course it doesn’t work like that.

Nevertheless, TC Denton did make reference to the amount of public interest in the Inquiry, and in the subsequent decision, referred to his Office receiving “large numbers of complaints” about the Kidderminster operation.
Details of the Inquiry and subsequent decision have already been published, but what about the wider issue of how bus services are regulated by the Traffic Commissioner, and how the public interest is served?

Kidderminster, as an example, is typical of many a mid-sized town in the UK these days. The former carpet-making community has seen retail decimated by internet shopping and, like so many other towns, is dominated these days by a rather huge Tesco – and rather huge car park to cater for it. Once part of the mighty Midland Red empire, Kidderminster’s bus operation latterly ended up within FirstGroup, who sold it – along with nearby Redditch depot – to Rotala, hence Diamond are the main operator in the area today. It appears not to be great bus territory. Local estates surround the area, and the town’s railway station (awkwardly positioned by the Victorians half way up a steep hill) has regular services into Birmingham one way and Worcester the other. It isn’t easily servable, and thus cars dominate the scene – even though their drivers are paying a premium to park there. Elsewhere, just down the road is the town of Stourport, which attracts many Black Country folk – in their cars – when the sun comes out. Gridlock ensues, and Diamond’s blue buses become the victims, often unpredictably.

Underlying all of this are often low-ish frequencies. Only the problematic route 3 – referred to in the inquiry, and ironically passing the back of the Traffic Commissioner’s head during the hearing – has anything like an attractive frequency (every 15 minutes). The rest of Kidderminster’s bus network has half hourly, hourly and less than that on it’s routes. The problem is laid bare if a journey on these routes doesn’t operate. Do other operators in other areas with higher frequencies have similar issues, but the public aren’t adversely affected because another one arrives soon after, and thus avoids the TC’s radar?

The Traffic Commissioner standard is 95% of journeys operating within the “window” of no more than 1 minute early and up to 5 minutes late. Thus there is a 6 minute “window” to get it right. In the passenger interest? I would say so. During the Inquiry, TC Denton made regular reference to it. Following much deliberation between the company and DVSA (who monitored 1443 services), the agreed figure of compliance was 91% – still below the 95% standard. But here’s something. Next door in the (admittedly often more congested) Transport for West Midlands area, the average is apparently 82% compliance.
Recently, Coach and Bus Week reported the case of Stagecoach in South Wales, who also found themselves in front of their Traffic Commissioner, Nick Jones. They too had been suffering from non-compliance, which at one point was as low as 47% on two routes in the Cardiff area. This had further risen up to 93%, but was still below the accepted standard.

In Diamond’s case, the Traffic Commissioner issued a fine of just over £9000, also referring to a clause in the Transport Act which allows compensation to be beneficial to passengers, maybe in the form of free or reduced travel. The TC decided that this should apply to route 3. The company is deciding whether to appeal the Traffic Commissioner’s decision.

What does the consumer – the bus user in this case – take from all of this?

In the case of the dreaded route 3, Diamond argued that it effectively ran at around 80% compliance. What to do? Continue to attract the attention of the TC and his bulging postbag, or dump the route altogether and leave users with no service? The Traffic Commissioner said that he didn’t accept excuses about traffic congestion being worse on specific days, and that the 95% compliance rate takes account of this. As a user, I’d like to agree – but I see for myself from the top deck of my local services how bizarrely random the traffic seems to be these days. Take my local services. They are scheduled for different running times at different times of the day, but even these are subject to the increasing vagaries of congestion. What should take 12 minutes to my nearest town can often take double that – and often without any discernible reason. When local politicians wave glossy brochures about the future of our towns and cities and proclaim new transport plans will provide public transport systems to be proud of, I seem to endlessly sit on my bus services stuck in never-ending traffic, without any sort of plan to effectively tackle this. I sound like a cracked record, endlessly repeating my mantra, parrot-fashion, that the bus really is part of the answer, if only it could shine and bypass this endless, polluting line of cars. But to do that takes real political guts. Motorists have votes, and rival would-be politicians are always the people’s friend when it comes to votes via attacks on hard-working citizens in their cars.

There’s no doubt Diamond has had it’s problems in Kidderminster. And it’s entirely correct that the industry regulator – the Traffic Commissioner – has a role to play in looking after passenger interests, including the setting of standards that users can expect the operator to function by.

But if we’re happy to wheel the operators in for a grilling and consequent fine for poor operation, should we at the very least expect others in the game to face their responsibilities too? I didn’t see the Local Authority being questioned about what they intend to do about keeping the highway clear when the sun comes out and loads of Brummies turn up in Stourport for an ice cream. I didn’t see any local Councillors being asked about what ought to happen about local congestion, the effect it has on bus users and on operators trying to provide a reliable service.

No one comes out of this smelling of roses. The operator has it’s reputation pulled through the hedge backwards. The user stands at the bus stop with no sign of the bus. One industry friend of mine – a former bus company owner – suggested to me that the Traffic Commissioner standards may not be fit for purpose. I would suggest they probably are, but there needs to be a process of looking at the much wider picture of just how much traffic congestion – and it’s often wide vagaries – plays in non-compliance. That will require further resource , political will, and shine a light on just how much the public sector does or doesn’t do when it comes to keeping the highway flowing.