The Politician’s Bus Journey

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

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

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

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

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

Now, before you – like me – rush to dismiss this plot to revitalise our bus networks as the work of an outdated socialist and his cronies, chew it over a tad more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blobby in Bath

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

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

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

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

Read about it here…

Why Don’t We Just…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why don’t we just do that?

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 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: 


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.