Friday, 11 November 2011

Brum's Moving On.....

Over the years, I've often been critical of Birmingham's seemingly half-hearted commitment to public transport. I've watched enviously places like London and Manchester pushing on with making the public transport user's lot better. For years, Brum appeared not only to stand still, but to actually move backwards by removing the bus priority on Tyburn Road - what did that tell us about the City's intentions towards public transport?
Now, for the first time in my living memory at least, things appear to be on the up.
£800m is being spent on us bus, train, tram and plane passengers and it's looking very interesting.
New Street Station has long been in need of a facelift. Why should railway stations not be places where you'd like to spend some quality time? I've often taken time out in places like Manchester Piccadilly and Berlin's Hauptbahnhof to have a bite to eat or drink. St. Pancras' Eurostar terminus surely sits proudly at the top of the list for the modern day theatre of railway romance. One of my favourite haunts is the delightful Centenary Lounge within the surrounds of the gorgeously restored Birmingham Moor Street. Lovely staff serving lovely food and drink as you watch the world go by. Hopefully we'll soon start to feel good about New Street, rather than the chaotic turn off it often portrays.
Birmingham Airport too is expanding. Whilst I'm more in favour of short hops around the UK and close neighbours in Europe being made by train (bring on HS2 as soon as possible, I say!), for longer journeys to different continents it would be great to go from Brum. For a relatively short time, Ryanair used to fly from Brum to Frankfurt Hahn, close to the Mosel Valley - my favourite German destination. How convenient it was to hop across to Birmingham Airport and in a couple of hours I was drinking the locals wine. Mr O' Leary withdrew that route and now, the trip to Stansted is more of a consideration for my German jaunts. Which is why, for selfish reasons in this example, I can't wait to see HS2 come to Birmingham. To link this into the existing HS1 would mean Brum to Germany becoming a really attractive proposition by rail.
And then there's the Metro. Ah, our dear Metro. Who'd have thought that, over 10 years ago when I rode on one of the first trams, we'd still be waiting to add bits to it. It's a damning indictment on the way us Brits do light rail that we're getting excited over a small extension to the Metro from Snow Hill through the heart of the City to New Street. Welcome, yes! By why does it have to take so long? We should be building a whole network of Midland Metro lines by now.
Nevertheless, excited I am. Cities need trams. It makes a statement of intent that public transport is important.
But the Metro City Centre extension is not without some concerns. I was interviewed on BBC WM a few days ago regarding not the positive side of the Metro extension, but the downside of kicking large numbers of buses out of Corporation Street to accommodate it. Centro are taking the opportunity to reconfigure most of the City Centre bus stops because of this and grouping services into "hubs". My view is that, whilst upheaval is always unsettling for some, we may be able to benefit from simplification. For example, if I want to catch a bus from Birmingham to Dudley, I can hedge my bets across 5 different bus routes, departing from large numbers of locations right across the City Centre. Now, whilst that may be beneficial depending on where I am in the City, it also means that I'm constantly wondering why the bus at my preferred location hasn't turned up. Should I walk to another location and try a different service? Or stay where I am in the hope that it turns up? By grouping services together into hubs, I can potentially stand in the "hub" and take my pick from several different services going to the same location. This already happens in the City Centre for several groups of services, but the hub idea may develop on that. And the longer-term plan to introduce a Statutory Quality Partnership Scheme for all buses using the City Centre (similar to Nottingham) can only increase the quality of the service being provided. What a pity the radio interview only focused on what it considered to be a negative impact.
Then there's the "Sprint" initiative, bringing tram-like buses to the City Centre. Initially planned to run from 5-Ways to Walsall using the excellent bus priority along the A34, this service will bring high quality service, with priority at traffic lights, and a real step-change from what we already have. It might even be the prelude to a Metro extension along a similar route.
This is all great news for the public transport user and proves what can be done if the vision is there, but more importantly the will to see it through.
I'd still like to see more improvements "at the coalface" such as more bus priority, and more enforcement of existing bus-only areas - in fact I've been really pleased to see the Police actively enforcing entrance to Corporation Street on two occasions in recent weeks.
We mustn't also forget the "Shiny New Trains" running through the City, introduced by London Midland, really upping the journey experience forv those using the Snow Hill lines, and the recent upgrade to Chiltern's services further afield to London, reducing the journey time, simplifying the fare structure and of course selling the best bacon rolls anywhere on the rail network! The bus operators too are placing new buses onto the network, some of them with hybrid engines that provide the cleanest, greenest emissions yet.
Add to this the long-awaited Oyster-style Smartcard and public transport will not only be more attractive and reliable, it will be simpler and de-mystified for many people.
Things are looking up in Brum for us public transport users. Long may it continue!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Back To The Future - How Trams Are Back In Vogue

Has anyone else noticed how trams are quietly making their way up the transport agenda in Britain?
It wasn't so long ago that they were regarded as expensive bits of kit that no one really wanted to fund. A "glamorous" addition to a City Centre's transport portfolio, which somehow made us look more European, new tramways seemed to cause more heartache amongst stakeholders during the procurement and construction process (if it ever got that far) then almost anything else. It's certainly true that Edinburgh's new tramway is an appalling advertisement of how not to build a new system.
For years, we've had frustrations here in the West Midlands. For as long as I can recall, there has been talk of a strategic network of tram lines across Centro land. To date, we have just the one, from Wolverhampton to Birmingham, which largely utilises an old rail line. Almost everyone agrees that a network of lines is the way to go. Yet whilst the French take a City and build several lines in the space of a few years, we have talked and talked until we're blue in the face about extending Midland Metro to the point whereby the half mile extension into the City Centre is a huge cause for celebration. We shouldn't even be batting an eyelid at this. The real talking point should be the additional 4, or 5, or 6 new lines that we need to demonstrate that we're serious about public transport in this area.
I'm as excited as anyone about the City Centre extension - seeing trams on our City streets certainly makes a statement. But progress elsewhere is painfully slow.
But is all this "can't do, won't do" attitude changing?
Centro has always been positive about promoting a new network of trams.
Now it seems that Government - led by Transport Minister Norman Baker - are warming to trams.
As well as the Birmingham City Centre extension, HM Gvt has given its blessing to extensions to the Manchester and Nottingham networks, an upgrade to Blackpool's iconic tramway, modernisation of the Tyne & Wear system, and projects to investigate the feasibility of "tram-train" operation (trams that run on both street-level and existing heavy rail lines) on Sheffield-Rotherham and St.Albans-Watford lines. Locally, a similar "tram-train" operation remains an idea for Stourbridge Junction-Brierley Hill journeys along a lightly-used freight line. Vehicles such a version of the highly-successful Parry People Mover could be used.
This is all very welcome stuff.
The Department for Transport has produced a report entitled "Green Light for Light Rail", which, although noting that "building light rail systems has become expensive", acknowledges that they can also "help improve the attractiveness of public transport in major conurbations...promoting economic growth and reducing carbon through modal shift."
UKTram is a consortium of PTEg (Passenger Transport Executive Group), CPT (Confederation of Passenger Transport - the industry group), Transport for London and the Light Rapid Transit Forum. They have been asked to produce a report on how to reduce costs through standardisation and harmonisation of design. This surely makes eminent sense. The example of the Midland Metro Italian trams is one that should never have come to this - each one is now supposedly "unique" part-wise. To have a framework or template of procurement and harmonisation across different UK systems is how it should be.
Another aspect UKTram will look at is the major cost implication of diverting utilities running beneath the proposed tramway.
Norman Baker is also planning to Chair a Light Rail summit, and DfT will start consulting on how capital funding for transport schemes can be devolved to Local Authorities - a catalyst Centro is interested in to try and kick start a revival in funding Midland Metro extensions.
Trams are good. They give a City that certain "wow" factor and give a subliminal message that the City is serious about transport. Whenever I'm in Europe, City tramway systems fascinate me and I'm always impressed how so many people use them. For some reason I don't really fathom, there is less "stigma" attached to catching a tram then a bus, especially for irregular users. In the UK, just look at how trams have transformed Nottingham City Centre. Coupled with exceptional bus services in that City, there is a feeling that public transport is taken really seriously there. Ditto Manchester.
Horses for courses, maybe. Trams won't work everywhere, and sometimes there are cheaper options, such as the impressive Guided Busway in Cambridge. But for City Centres and large conurbations, the tram makes a statement.
Let's hope Norman Baker and UKTram can push on to a position where trams are once again seen across many of our UK Cities, providing quality public transport.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

High Speed YOU!

The debate continues to rage. High Speed 2. Why "waste" all that money when all we need to do is get up half an hour earlier.
Just one of the comments I've heard in this, the great transport debate of our times.
Brum to London in 49 minutes catches all of the headlines. It's fast, it's sexy, and panders to our childhood dreams of superfast travel, making the world a smaller place. But for me, the 49 minutes is almost a side issue. The real benefit of a new rail line is the capacity it provides address our ever increasing demand for rail travel.
Recession? What recession? I'm still - even now - bemused whenever I'm on the train as to where everyone is going. Board a Virgin service at Birmingham New Street on a wet September Tuesday lunchtime - a service, let's not forget, that has a 20 minute frequency to London - and it's still full. There is more demand now for rail travel than ever. You'll have to go back to the golden age of steam (before Dr. Beeching got rid of thousands of miles of track) to find any similar demand. Even though we're confused and often annoyed at ticket prices, we're still very much living in the "age of the train", as Sir Jimmy Saville used to gargle.
And demand on the Birmingham - London market is relentless. Chiltern are an increasingly important player with their Marylebone alternative, London Midland now run 3 trains per hour down the West Coast Main Line with their stopping service, to add to Virgin's tilting Pendolino offering. And still the trains are packed.
The "alternative" to HS2 comes in the suggestion of upgrading the West Coast Main Line. Cheaper than HS2, say its advocates. But effective? I can't see it.
We spent the best part of 10 years upgrading the West Coast Main Line not so long ago. Do we want to go through all that again? And there's only so much you can do with what is still, effectively, a Victorian-based design. And the end result of another decade of drilling, hammering and goodness knows what other disruption will barely scratch the surface of what we really need, which is capacity to address our future demands. The West Coast Mainline suffers because it's virtually full, with fast trains, slow trains and freight trains.
Is HS2 a pure vanity project? That's the kind of argument that is still being put forward. Of course it's big, bold and in your face - but by golly public transport sorely needs this! Why don't we scrap the HS2 idea and spend the money on boring, mundane, but really important local public transport, some cry? Take away the gorgeously-pouting HS2 and we're left with the ugly duckling of local buses and trains - both are vitally important, but here's something radical - why don't we invest in both? Local transport may be boring, but it's absolutely vital as the backbone to our society - and it'll be here long after the economic crisis has been and gone. Indeed, it's vital to our long-term recovery as a nation.
Once HS2 has it's own track, the WCML can be used with increased capacity for new services and links, attracting even more people to the benefits of using the railway to get from A to B. A sensible way forward?
I can't see any reasonably effective alternative.
HS2 isn't about some mythical creature that isn't welcome here. It's about me and YOU having our future transport requirements invested in. It's long overdue. It isn't solely about getting from Brum to London in 49 minutes. It's about linking our nation's great Cities like never before, opening up all sorts of possibilities, not only for business, but for leisure and visiting. It's about saying, eventually, we don't need to rely on environmentally-damaging flights to Europe - linking HS2 with the existing HS1 gives us a real alternative to reach Europe. In the next 2 years, DB will start to run trains through the Channel Tunnel, with one-train journeys possible from London to Frankfurt, Cologne and Amsterdam. Add connectivity to HS2 and the possibilities are impressive indeed.
The future of the railways through HS2 is exciting. Let's hope Transport Secretary Philip Hammond MP is minded to kick-start this dream into a much-needed reality.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Excuses, excuses.....

There's a story in today's media doing the rounds about how rail passengers are apparently getting increasingly irate about the "excuses" (or lack of) related to delays.
Passenger Focus are all too aware of the need for good communication when something goes wrong. They've carried out research on this.
My own experience of this varies quite tremendously. I've sat on trains in the middle of nowhere which have ground to a halt and heard nothing from anyone in authority about what is going on. Equally, I've received good information about any problems, both in stations and on board.
This week, we've heard about how London Midland have won an award for their use of Twitter to update real-time travel information. Equally, I have been able to follow the saga - quite late into the evening - of cows on the line affecting Chiltern Railways services; another supremely excellent service using Twitter.
But it's often easy to forget that, whilst a good few thousand of us follow Chiltern and London Midland on Twitter, we're still talking very much about a minority sport here.
Good, easy to understand information for travellers is essential. I actually agree about the "sincerity" associated with seemingly apologetic comments - in Birmingham New Street, for example, you can quite often hear a computerised voice "apologising" for "the delay to this service". OK, in the finest traditions of British manners, it may be - but it doesn't really mean anything - and when delivered by a hard-drive, it means less still.
But travelling on the rail network is a two-way experience. Yes, we all get frustrated about rail delays, but I'm still intrigued to see grown adults acting like spoilt children, spitting out their dummies because of delays. Do these people quite honestly believe that the rail industry sets out to cause misery and delays every day? What about the passengers who forced open a door recently and proceeded to walk along the track, because of delays? I don't know how good (or otherwise) the information was to these people, but what a mindless thing to do. Railways are a safety-critical environment - would we rather have (admittedly frustrating) delays, or suffer the nightmare of something far worse if the industry were more lax about safety?
SouthWest Trains are tackling the issue of information by looking at the whole issue again of how their staff keep travellers informed. Staff are receiving new training, having new procedures and are being issued with smartphones to keep them up to date first-hand with what is going on. Handy as tweets are, should the industry really be in such a position whereby I, as a passenger, might actually know more about a delay than the train manager? I can assure you that, on my travels, that's happened more than once!
So well done South West Trains for looking at this whole issue. Let's hope it's successful enough to be taken as a blueprint for other Train Operating Companies to improve the provision of information to passengers.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Shiny New Trains and Silver Dream Machines!

It's been a great week for rail travel in the West Midlands!
On Monday morning I rode on the very first public service to be operated by one of London Midland's brand new class 172 diesel trains - the 0755 towards Birmingham. Passenger reaction ranged from the completely non-plussed (head deep in Metro paper / Monday morning blues) to the genuinely excited and impressed! One lady jumped on with her friend and remarked about "how posh" it was!
And "posh" is quite fitting. The new trains are replacing 25 year old veterans that have served us well, but are quite long-in-the-tooth these days. You can't put a price on how positive the reaction is to seeing carpet on a train on the Stourbridge Line!
The new trains feel a lot roomier and certainly have better legroom for us 6'7" long-suffering rail travellers! And gone is the "3x2" seating arrangement that I don't think ever worked properly and not many people, if they were honest, liked.
The one thing I'd have liked to have seen would have been power points (for my ever-flat iPhone!) but I guess that these trains are seen as short-distance commuter ones rather than longer-distance.
There are initially 2 trains in service for the first week, with the rest of the new stock appearing gradually over September & October until they should all be in service by Christmas.
"Shiny New Trains" is how London Midland describe them!

On the same afternoon, I was invited to "afternoon tea" on one of the first Chiltern Railways "Silver" Mainline services from Birmingham Moor St to London Marylebone.
For quite a few years now, the Chiltern service was seen as the slower, cheaper alternative to the fast, tilting, sexy Pendolinos, introduced in a blaze of glory by Sir Richard Branson, with a fast end-to-end journey time and often a premium price tag to match. There's no doubt that, if speed is your thing, Virgin's 20 minute frequency is still top dog.
But only just.
When Chiltern started operating some peak time journeys all the way through from Stourbridge Junction to London Marylebone, I sat up and took notice. Slower, maybe, than Branson's red bullets, but a real alternative to changing in Brum and, to my mind, a prettier journey through the Chiltern hills to what is probably London's most civilised terminus - Marylebone. None of your 1960s Euston-style blandness here. It's quaint Edwardian charm is still something that attracts me whenever I pass through. And it was cheaper.
The Chiltern service might have appeared at first cheap & cheerful (there's no shop on board like Virgin, although they do sell the best bacon rolls on the network, bar none!) but they have steadily repositioned themselves as a real alternative. Whilst consistently recording high levels of punctuality and reliability (albeit on a quieter line than the West Coast Main Line) the quality of service on offer has now been further bolstered by the introduction of some "silver" trains, as part of their newly-branded "Mainline" offering. Ironically, these are older ex BR coaches, although extensively refurbished (and formerly part of the now-deceased Wrexham & Shropshire service) and receiving wi-fi as part of the new "Business Zone" offering - an attempt to provide an element of first class, without the first class premium price. There's no free food, but it feels a little bit more special with its wider seats and larger tables. It's really a play on the airlines "premium economy" idea, and for a simple on-board £20 upgrade, it'll be interesting to follow it's success as an idea.
There has been extensive engineering works (as we regular Chiltern travellers have experienced in recent months!) but the pain has definitely been worth the pain. Trains can now run substantial parts of the line at 100mph, and this crucially brings Chiltern's end to end service within a very reasonable touching distance of Virgin's. Sir Richard should be looking over his shoulder - Chiltern's offering overall is a very competitive one now.
I interviewed Chiltern's Chairman for my radio show, the ever-energetic Adrian Shooter CBE, who's energy and enthusiasm for the railways has obviously inspired the Chiltern project to what it is today. Who else could espouse the virtues of High Speed 2 and the promise of 49 minute journeys Brum-London from what would seemingly be a rival operation to his own, and we believe him?
Chiltern has a longer rail franchise than most, in return for providing such long-term improvements, and this ought to be a blueprint to be repeated elsewhere, where it is possible to do so. Back in the not-so-distant past, the service from London Marylebone to Birmingham barely made an hourly frequency. Birmingham Moor St was a jungle wilderness, surrounded by weeds, a sorrowful sight. Today, Moor St is a delightful City Centre station, providing a facility to London every half an hour during the day. Some turnaround.
To complete the great day for Midlands rail travellers, London Midland also announced faster trains, simpler fares and a 20 minute daytime frequency on its own Birmingham (New St) to London (Euston) services.
I travel on all 3 rail operators services regularly to the capital and back. I am regularly amazed at the seemingly insatiable demand for rail travel between the 2 Cities. The train operating companies have responded well to the demand, but I remain convinced that, in the long-term, we need High Speed 2 as further capacity.
But that's for the future.
Today, let's salute the improvements in rail travel for both local commuters on the Stourbridge Line and for those going further afield to London. As a nation we're often quick to criticize our railways - let's appreciate them when they do something right!

The need to keep it Human

Much ado in the press regarding supposed proposals to close huge numbers of rail station ticket offices and leave it all to the machines and the Internet.
Some interesting figures regarding this story have appeared. Over the last 5 years:
- the number of tickets sold through the Internet has risen by 210%
- the number sold through ticket machines has risen by 89%
- the number sold at rail stations has fallen by 12% and now accounts for 35% of all tickets.
But are we really all comfortable with this?
I buy tickets online. Not all of the time, but there are some good deals to be found - but only if you have significant amounts of time to go searching for them, and then are willing to trundle through websites that aren't the easiest to understand. And then you aren't really sure if you've actually got the best deal.
As for ticket machines, fine. But I recall the one at Stourbridge Junction being out of action more times that I would feel comfortable with.
A human being at the rail station around the clock provides reassurance. Removing ticket staff would surely encourage more ticketless travel amongst some who might consider the use of technology far too much hassle to travel from A to B. Public transport should be in the business of doing the very best it possibly can to make travel easy to understand, simple to use and cost-effective. Losing ticket office staff may help the balance sheet, but it isn't going help long-term.
Passenger Focus research regarding London Midland's recent proposals to reduce ticket office hours shows that, overwhelmingly, people value human beings in ticket offices. These further proposals, buried deep in the McNulty report, should be treated with concern and not simply be waved through.
Our ticket office staff a vital and valuable members of the rail network. They shouldn't be sacrificed for autonomous Internet sites and self-service ticket machines.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Breakout of Common Sense!

One of my previous blogs talked about the madness of one of the worst aspects of bus deregulation - running 5 minutes in front of a competitor.
Although this has largely died out (compared to the time immediately following bus deregulation in the late 80s), I was - and frankly still am - amazed at Diamond's actions on Black Country route 226 - a long and windy affair on a half-hour frequency that wouldn't ordinarily seem set to be the battleground for market share.
Over the summer, we've seen both operators re-registering times so that one gets 5 minutes ahead of the other. Even Centro appeared to lose the will to live (and the cost of regularly updating timetables on the route).
Now, as from yesterday, common sense appears to have broken out! There is now a regularly spaced 4 buses per hour between the 2 operators that makes sense.
This is logical for users, but still leaves me questioning whether the route - which largely carries concessionary pass holders throughout the day, and both operators offering £2 return fares - is sustainable on a 15 minute frequency long-term.
With the Merry Hill Centre at one end of the route, I hope it will be.
"Competition" in all walks of business may be one way of "upping" the level of service, but I'm still not convinced it's ultimately the best way for buses.
But are "Quality Contracts" as the alternative either?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Preserving our History

I've blogged before about the importance of preserving our transport history for future generations. To many, keeping old steam trains and buses may seem a fairly pointless activity, but as in all aspects of history, learning from the past is so important in understanding where we are now.
Last Sunday I attended an event on the Llangollen Steam Railway which was celebrating 100 years of the formation of Crosville Motor Services - the former largest operator in North Wales. "Former", as it formed the backbone of what is now Arriva Buses Wales.
For me, as I suspect many others, it brought memories flooding back of childhood memories consisting of green double deckers by the seaside, in 1970s holidays in Rhyl and Llandudno. There were also more recent examples of Crosville's post-deregulation 80s-style Leyland Olympians in their lighter shade of green as "Coastliner" branded buses - a name that has been brought back this year by Arriva for some of the Llandudno-based routes - history repeating itself!
The highlight was a ride on the free bus service a few miles up from the event at Glyndyfrdwy to Corwen (where the former tiny Crosville garage, capable of probably housing no more than 4 or 5 vehicles, is now a van sales business). Riding on 4227 FM - a 1964 Bristol Lodekka - was fascinating, if only to prove what a comfortable ride it provided! But is that a lesson we can learn? Here is this lumbering giant from the 1960s actually providing a smoother ride than can be experienced on some of today's vehicles?
Coupled with a steam train ride to and from Llangollen as well as a ride on a 1960s preserved DMU, it made you wonder just what the rail industry (and it's passengers) made of the huge transition from steam to diesel. We may gaze fondly at old steam locomotives but a friend told me that many of the drivers and firemen were very pleased at the time to leave the arduous, often dirty surroundings of steam locos for the new age of diesel.
And so it is sad to hear of the impending demise of the Aston Manor Transport Museum in Birmingham. I'm as guilty as everyone else of being an infrequent visitor. It's the age-old thought that when you live so close to a tourist attraction, you hardly ever go, as you think it's always going to be there.
Whatever the politics behind Aston Manor's closure, it is a shame that, inevitably, some of our transport heritage will be lost. Whilst we may be fortunate in having nearby Wythall Museum still there to preserve our memories, the closure of Aston Manor serves to remind us how important and precious our heritage really is.

Perks Of The Job - why rail workers should travel for free.

I came across an article in the Daily Telegraph the other day which made reference to free or discounted rail travel for those who work in the rail industry.
There was quite a bit of debate on my Facebook and Twitter feeds regarding this, especially my support for free / discounted travel for staff.
Some compared it to Sainsbury's giving their employees free shopping, but is it really the same? Is rail travel a product you can hold in your hand, or use, or eat?
The train is going to make the journey regardless of who is on it and how much they have paid.
Some in the industry work long, unsociable hours. What is the harm of letting them use the system that they work on? If we want to recruit and retain the best people to work on our railways, are we really going to be so spiteful as to say you can't use the network to which you dedicate your working life for free? Free or discounted travel is a perk of the job that says that we want to retain you and value what you do.
And is it really a problem? The majority of those with free passes received them pre 1993 when they still worked for British Rail. Are there vast numbers of these people crammed into our carriages taking up space?
Many of today's railway employees don't enjoy such perks. They've been watered down considerably.
My own view is that this is a spiteful article, which panders to the lowest common denominator argument - someone sees something of "value" and doesn't want the other person to benefit from it. The angle is that "millions of free or discounted journeys are made every year" and the report tries to link it to the above-inflation ticket rises.
Are we honestly going to believe that if we take away these well-earned travel benefits from railway staff that our ticket prices are going to come down? Come off it. This is spurious newspaper reporting at its best.
I've come across some railway employees on my travels who probably don't know the meaning of customer service. We need the best people to provide our rail network. Job motivation is a complex world, but let's start by forgetting this ridiculous jealousy-driven idea that by giving rail workers a free ride we've got it all wrong. Part of job satisfaction and motivation is surely about being proud of what you do. Free travel is a decent perk that hurts no one but says much about how staff are valued. If rail staff feel valued at least partly through such "perks", we might all just get a better service when we travel.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Trams Move More People!

In my mind, I tend to associate trams with more foreign climes. It seems entirely natural to ride around City Centres such as Brussels, Amsterdam and Zagreb on a tram, and people accept them as part of the natural landscape.
In England, didn't we do away with most of our trams years ago, only to leave them in the corners of of memories as shimmering black & white cine film footage?
We sometimes forget that, whilst we can't compete with some of our near Euro neighbours for the numbers of tram networks, we do actually have a few of our own - and they're flourishing.
We have the world-famous Blackpool system, with it's fabulous 1930s Balloon cars, the excellent Croydon system, the Docklands Light Railway, Manchester Metrolink, the soon to be extended Midland Metro, the NET in Nottingham (Nottingham Express Transit), Sheffield Supertram (which I "mystery shopped" a few years ago for an awards ceremony - and I found to be excellent) and the quirky but brilliant Tyne & Wear Metro ("quirky" as I find it quite small, being 6' 7" myself!)
Why am I celebrating our tram systems?
The Department for Transport has released some figures announcing that patronage is doing very nicely! Passenger journeys have increased by 5.5% in the last year across the systems.
In 2010/1 there were 196.5m passenger journeys - the highest number to date. Vehicle miles increased by 1.8% to nearly 14m miles.
It seems we English love our trams! And why not? I even still get a tad excited when I'm on my local Midland Metro goes onto the street-running section in Wolverhampton! Quite why, I'm not sure!
We often baulk at the cost of creating new tram systems, and it's true they don't come cheap. But they are a real statement of quality public transport, whichever City in England or across Europe they are in. It's a pity there is such a row in Edinburgh over the saga in building that City's new tram service.
Birmingham's Midland Metro will soon emerge from the corner of Snow Hill where it currently terminates and onto the City streets to link into the "new" New Street rail station. To have it visible to so many is exactly what it needs, even if there are concerns about where all the buses in Corporation Street are going to go. Trams are statements of vibrant Cities and Birmingham needs them. All we need now (as if it sounds that simple!) are more lines. The Midland Metro - over 11 years since it opened, mostly on an old disused rail line - remains a single service. It needs to be part of a network across the wider Centro / West Midlands area. Let's hope Government proposals for a change in the way such large projects can be funded proves to be the tipping point into having more of them.
In the meantime, let's celebrate England's trams moving more people!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Riding The World's Longest Guided Busway!

With all the pomp and ceremony out of the way, the World’s longest busway (at 25km) is running normally and finally open for business.
I’m outside Cambridge Rail Station to see how easy it is to use and what the fuss is all about.
Buses are circling around the small roundabout outside the station, but there’s no sign of the distinctive Busway livery that stands out from the corporate Stagecoach swirls.
But there IS a sign, however. There’s quite a few. They’re directing me around 100m down the road through what to all intents and purposes is a building site. It all looks like it will be better days when complete, but for now I feel like I’m on the set of Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
A clear sign instructs me that this is the stop for The Busway. It even instructs me in bold font to buy my ticket from the driver, although there aren’t any prices forthcoming.
The stop opposite has a shelter and within 2 minutes, a brightly coloured Busway Stagecoach single decker has arrived.
Myself and 2 more sandwich-munching intending passengers look at each other, wondering if we’re on the right side of the road, even though the sign clearly says so. The driver eyeballs us and I walk across the road to ask.
“Yeah, you’re OK there mate”, he bellows through his cab window. “Busway, yeah?”. I’m obviously not the first one. “I’m going the other way, mate – the other one will be along in a minute”.
He’s not far out. Two minutes later, a smart single deck in two-tone green and blue sweeps into the stop. This is route “A” – and it goes on the Busway.
“Is there an all day ticket for the Busway?” I enquire of the smart driver. “yes, £5.40 please”, he replies. This is a Stagecoach DayRider Plus, but it’s only for Stagecoach buses – more anon.
The interior is gorgeous. Leather seats, tasteful colours, and even a socket to charge my always battery-hungry iPhone. A notice ominously warns “240 volts” (presumably to warn off persons who may be tempted to stick fingers or other apparatus in there) but it works! I don’t know why I thought it wouldn’t…..
I have less joy with the “free wi-fi”.
My phone finds it straight away, but I can’t get any Internet. I give up and put my phone in my pocket but check 5 minutes later only to find that it’s now asking me to register. I do, and the wi-fi works, although it’s patchy. I’ve tried various public transport wi-fi offerings in recent years, and most of them are patchy at best. This is no different.
The journey is nearly full and it’s clear that for many, this is still a novelty. Me included. Many are concessionary pass holders with grandchildren.
We turn left and enter the Busway. I’ve been intrigued to know how cheeky motorists are kept out of it. Now I can see. It’s nothing more sophisticated than deep trench, that a bus can straddle but a car cannot. Like the very best ideas, it’s simple but effective.
There’s a slight wobble as the guide wheel aligns the bus onto the busway, and then we’re off.
There aren’t too many stops to slow us down, and we make some impressive speed. The ride is comfortable, if not entirely as smooth as, say, a train or tram. Before we know it, we’re at the end of the guided section at St. Ives Park & Ride, where service A terminates.
Several people take pictures and then cross the road for the return journey.
It is a simple but functioning terminus. There are two ticket machines for intending passengers and a rather large queue is building up. The publicity for The Busway advises that, when actually on the busway, passengers should buy tickets from the machines at the stop. Not the driver. Although the driver issues tickets everywhere else when the bus isn’t actually on the track.
A young lad takes one look at the queue and ignores it, bounding onto the bus to ask if he can buy one on there. He is met by a pointy finger towards the machine and a shake of the head. But seconds later, the driver appears to contradict himself by visibly accepting cash and issuing a ticket to a family.
The real-time information has been telling us that route “B” – a double decker affair that comes in from further afield in Huntingdon – is “due”. It’s been “due” for over 4 minutes when it finally appears, and I conclude that the “real time” display is actually “real time”.
The masses have squeezed onto the “A” route just ahead of the double-decker, so I decide to hop on to this less busy journey.
Leg room is excellent on the upper deck, but the power socket doesn’t work, and the wi-fi won’t let me play again. Eventually, it asks me to log in again – a tad frustrating for regular users maybe?
I only ride for a short while and jump off at Longstanton Park & Ride – another seemingly unfinished building site.
It’s here I am party to an illuminating conversation between two gentlemen, both of whom have purchased “Whippet” tickets.
Whilst Stagecoach is the overwhelmingly senior operator on the Busway, with routes A & B, local operator Whippet also has a route – the C – which is only an hourly frequency.
It carries the same livery as the Stagecoach vehicles, and only us with slightly more interest in buses can identify that Whippet’s buses are different models. To most, I would suggest that Whippet’s buses look like any other on the Busway.
But this has got the two gentlemen mildly annoyed. Because when you touch the screen on the self service ticket machines, it asks which company you’d like to travel with. Then it lists prices for singles, day tickets, etc. Whippet’s are cheaper than Stagecoach’s tickets, but unless you’ve done your homework and worked out that Whippet’s services are only hourly, you’ll have a small shock if you board a much more frequent (and identically liveried) Stagecoach bus. It’s not readily understood that there’s no inter-operator day ticket for use on the Busway.
This is what has perturbed the gentlemen. “It’s a disgrace”, complains one, the other sighing in agreement. “I’ve done the same” he replies. They’ve both bought a Whippet day ticket, and then discovered the Whippet buses are few and far between. This may be competition in its purest sense, but it’s not made for a good experience for these 2 travellers.
Indeed, the Whippet bus is due – and it's me who has to pay again. My Stagecoach day ticket won’t be valid on here.
I follow the instructions on screen and feed the machine £2.50 for a Whippet single to Cambridge.
The Whippet vehicle arrives 5 minutes late. This I know, as it appears that only the Stagecoach journeys are displayed in real time. Whippet’s has disappeared off the display.
“HELLO!” the driver exclaims, and I expect him to shake my hand and declare that he’s an old school chum, such is his customer care. “Thank you very much” he replies after I brandish my ticket. The two gentlemen with Whippet-only day tickets follow on, less-enthusiastically.
The bus is heaving. It’s standing room only. There isn’t any free wi-fi on here, nor power points. But it looks mostly the same on the outside to all the other Busway vehicles.
We’re soon back in Cambridge City Centre and I decide on impulse to cross the road and jump on one of Stagecoach’s “B” services – the double decker to Huntingdon.
It’s busy again up top and I make my way to the upstairs rear, where the only free seats are left.
The bus is again immaculate, but the wi-fi is asking me to log in again and the power socket is defunct.
We again reach impressive speeds along the long, straight busway. For all its well-documented problems and delays in its build, the end result really is impressive.
We loose a load of passengers at St Ives again, and even more just beyond at the small St Ives bus station. I stay on as the bus becomes a conventional service again and ride all the way to Oliver Cromwell’s birthplace – and former Prime Minister John Major’s constituency – Huntingdon.
The bus station is small and looks like it’s seen better days. Several Whippet buses are here – in a very distinct livery from their cousins on the Busway.
After a brief spot of lunch, I hop on a “B” service back to St Ives. This section of route is rather more quiet than the Busway, but the bus is around half full.
We’re soon at St Ives Park & Ride, where I jump off to link up with an “A” service, which will take me all the way back to Cambridge railway Station.
It’s late afternoon and the numbers have died down a little, although there are still several waiting passengers. There is also a gaggle of Stagecoach drivers and Inspector (collective noun) who appear to be in good spirits. It’s possibly because the sun is out, and I notice a garden shed-like structure, which I assume is there to house the drivers in less agreeable conditions.
Some of the buses are in a not dissimilar green livery of “bio bus”, displaying their “100% bio fuel” credentials. Indeed, my final journey on a Stagecoach single deck “A” is such a “bio bus” – and the power socket works”! As does the wi-fi.

The Verdict!
The Busway operation is impressive. Although still a novelty for parents, grandparents and children - riding en masse during the school holidays - it will be interesting to gauge the long-term use of this excellent facility.
One downside appears to be the ticketing. All the buses are branded virtually identically, but the two operators are very different. The two gentlemen who were annoyed at their purchase of Whippet day tickets won’t be the only ones to fall fowl of misunderstanding the system and plumping for the seemingly cheaper option.
There IS, however, a multi-operator ticket available for regular use on the busway. This appears on the Cambridgeshire Council website and is sold in smartcard form, which may be of use to regular users. But I didn’t see much evidence of awareness of this beforehand or on the day itself.
The “added bonus” of power sockets and free wi-fi are useful add-ons – but they need to work. Out of 5 Stagecoach journeys I made, only 2 had working power sockets. The wi-fi needs to work “out of the box” – I had to log in on 3 separate occasions through my iPhone – many will give up way before that.
But these are all relatively fixable issues. The truth is that The Cambridge Busway – touted as the World’s longest – is a real quality product, and can be held up as one of the best public transport offerings Britain has.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Rail Fare Rises Are On The Wrong Track

Much ado across the media outlets about the increases to rail fares. Of course, the hacks tend to go for the most eye-watering ("13%", some scream), but whilst the cost of living rises significantly for everyone, it's no real surprise to see rail fares suffering the same fate.
Yet, this is a move not borne out of private rail operator's making and desire to maximise the bottom line for share holders - this is the consequence of a political decision.
Make no mistake, railways are cash-hungry operations. They always have been. At present, the cost of operating the UK's trains is roughly split down the middle - fares income and general taxpayer. The Government is ploughing ahead with plans to reduce the burden on the taxpayer and place the cost of running our trains more on those that use them. Hence the need for fares to rise to effectively stand still (although ATOC - the Association of Train Companies - maintains that this is so that the rail industry can continue with the investment that is needed).
No doubt the rail industry will point to some of the "deals" that can be achieved by trawling the Internet and booking ahead, avoiding the peaks. Indeed, bargains can be had, but many of the woes of the average 8% fares increase will be suffered by those who have no choice in what times they can travel - commuters.
Passenger Focus also recently reminded us of the complex procedure we often have to endure to acquire some of these cheap fares - indeed there can be a large flurry of mouse clicking and significant time sat staring at computer screens before you're reasonably confident you've got a "deal". The ever-innovative Chiltern Railways are the first company to come out with a much-simplified fare structure - let's hope that others can follow suit in some shape or form.
Rail is crying out for investment. Passenger numbers continue to rise, even despite the economic downturn. It's a much more efficient way of travelling than by road or by air, and the rise in passengers suggests that people are recognising this.
So surely this is something that demands more investment, not less?
For businesses, the dream of video-conferencing does have its place, but face-to-face meetings will always be essential in order to build relationships. Rail travel plays a vital part in this. For the economy, getting people back into shops and spending is also vital. If people are put off and priced out of travelling because of fare increases, the recovery is stalled. And for some, the train of thought (excuse the pun) will be to simply get back in the car, as the mix of overcrowding and high prices finally becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Rail needs investment. Public investment. High Speed 2 is one thing, but the current network is here and now. As Jimmy Saville once remarked "This Is The Age Of The Train" - it would be a disaster if people are priced off such a civilised and sensible way of travel.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Light At The End Of The (Old Hill) Tunnel! New Trains for the Stourbridge Line!

Although it may sometimes not feel like it, we're living in a really positive age for public transport locally. Despite the concerns about some bus routes in Wolverhampton, we have a gleaming new bus station, very fit for purpose. We'll soon have one in Stourbridge too. New buses are promised by National Express West Midlands and other operators are placing their own new models into service.
And today, I've been riding on the inaugural journey of the first of a new fleet of trains to operate on the Snow Hill Lines, serving Stourbridge - Birmingham.
Admittedly, it's not in public service yet. I was riding with journalists and other stakeholders on the round trip from Stourbridge Junction to Leamington Spa, but it really won't be long before this fleet of trains enters service. London Midland told me that they'll be phased in over the coming months and should be all in service by Christmas.
What an improvement for Stourbridge Line travellers! These "Class 172" trains - built by Bombardier - will replace the 25 year old "Class 150" units. Workhorses they may be, but it's time to move on and up the level of quality.
Being 6'7", I find legroom to be one of my biggest considerations using public transport. I accept I'm probably the exception to most of society (!) but there are an awful lot of people who are 6' and over, and journeys on the class 150s were, put simply, physically difficult if you couldn't get a seat near the doors.
The new trains are a huge improvement. I tried several seats, and, whilst the legroom does differ depending on where you sit, even the "worst" seat accommodated me.
There's plenty of standing room too, important for a commuter line like the Snow Hill Lines. The seats themselves are a more standard "2x2" formation, not the 3 seats together that the 150s offer. I've never considered "3x" seating successful and it's good to see this phased out with the arrival of the new stock.
There are no opening windows on the new trains. The Air conditioning was working perfectly today, and I hope this won't be an issue for the types of days like we're having at the moment. That said, when the windows on the 150s were open, the noise from the engines was deafening.
These are promising times for public transport in the West Midlands. At last we are seeing real investment and the more the public is presented with a quality service, the more they will be likely to try it.
Today has been another important milestone on the road to better public transport locally.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

How Much Is That Ticket To Ride?

My old boss Anthony Smith at Passenger Focus is very good at DIY - he often hits the nail on the head when it comes to passenger issues.
News this week that Passenger Focus has concerns about the thorny old issue of train fares is nothing new. But top marks again to the watchdog for highlighting - and continuing to highlight - this aspect of rail travel.
Everyone loves a bargain. And you can actually get some really good ones on Britain's railways. London Midland have been running promotions which offer some quite stunning cheap fares if you book on the internet, in advance, and travel off-peak. Ditto Chiltern Railways, who have created something quite special on the London-Birmingham market in recent years.
But if your mind boggles trying to navigate budget airline's websites to find a bargain for the family holiday once or twice a year, spare a thought for regular rail travellers, who pour over their computers for hours on end comparing and contrasting the myriad offers and permutations on offer from a seemingly ever-increasing amount of websites who can sell you a rail ticket. "2 singles could be cheaper than a return" they cry. Indeed they could. "We don't charge booking fees" declare another. The more savvy amongst the train ticket hunter-gatherers also play the game of "splitting", whereby you can find even more savings if you book 2 singles for one length of journey - so long as your particular train actually stops at the station you're "splitting" at. For example, if you travel from Wolverhampton to Manchester in the morning peak, you can virtually half your fare by "splitting" at Stoke-on-Trent. So you order Wolverhampton to Stoke, Stoke to Manchester and vice-versa for the return. So long as your train actually stops at Stoke, not merely passes through Stoke.
Bargain indeed. But how many people know this? And how many people want the hassle of spending hours trying to work this out?
You can do this, but you can't do that. Travel on this "TOC" only ("what's a TOC?", the uninitiated cry). You can travel quite cheaply long distance if you book all of the legs in advance, split tickets here and there and travel off-peak (even "off-peak" varies on different bits of the network). And avoid peak time travel - but who would guess that all trains from Birmingham City Centre stations from 4.35pm on weekdays would be "peak"? And why?
And what if one of your connections doesn't work and you're on lots of cheaply booked specific journeys? More worries and concerns.
We all know that "walk up" fares are the most expensive. The term "eye-watering" could have been coined for that very experience. Just how did we get to over £150 for a walk up peak time fare from Birmingham to London on Virgin? Is it to price off the railways everyone except those who necessarily have to travel at that time (and often have it paid for by their employers)? There is an argument to be had about capacity on our railways - and we could have hours in the pub over a pint and cheese cob discussing what HS2 might offer us there - but there is no doubt that non-regular travellers are often shocked to see the raw cost of rail travel if they haven't played the "hunt the cheap fare" game for hours on the net in the previous few weeks.
We all accept that we pay a premium for flexibility. But are we necessarily going the right way with such practices involving seemingly endless options for ticketing on websites so that we might save a few pounds? Could this be damaging the perceptions of the overall travel experience using our railways?
The best retail experiences are the simple ones. No nonsense prices that make the offer desirable and irresistible.
We're a long way from that when it comes to railway ticketing.

What's On Track?

New figures released by Network Rail appear to show just how plain stupid some people can be.
In the year to March, take a look at some o the following items found on railway tracks, in many cases, according to Network rail, placed deliberately:
95 bikes
73 trolleys
22 traffic cones
9 mattresses
5 prams
4 sofas

Other items include: trampoline, toy car and a remote control helicopter.

More statistics reveal even more depressing reading:
1020 reports of stone throwing
61 reported incidents of children playing "chicken" with trains
7800 incidents of trespass (this is reported, and could be much higher) and 27 deaths as a result of trespass (again, may not be an accurate figure as the Coroners court has yet to classify the fatalities.)
Network Rail is currently embarking on a hard-hitting campaign aimed at children about the dangers of messing around on the railway. Some adults could do with heeding the message too.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Lithuania is the Age Of The Train.....

More from the latest Eurobarometer survey from the European Commission on our near neighbour's attitudes to their rail services.
All 25 members were surveyed (Cyprus & Malta don't have rail networks) with the Lithuanians seemingly most content with the offering on the tracks overall. Only 5% of those questioned were unhappy with the ease of buying tickets, for example.
Lithuania again came top of the tree when asked about satisfaction with the frequency of their rail services - 87% satisfied (against 10% dissatisfied).
Interestingly, it's the Poles who appear most unhappy with their lot.
51% of Poles are unhappy with the frequency of their services and nearly half of those surveyed (47%) aren't happy with the seating arrangements. (15% of us Brits had the same gripe).
The Germans and the Austrians are the most unhappy with the ease of buying tickets. Whereas only 5% of Lithuanians aren't happy about this, this rises to 42% and 33% respectively.
The UK is above average in 17 of the 19 aspects of the research.
More details available at:

Sunday, 24 July 2011

It's Getting Better All The Time.....

When you're an advocate for public transport, you open up yourself to be shot at from all angles.
Virtually everyone has a transport horror story (me included, as it goes!) and I quickly get to know about it, as soon as people learn of my interest in the subject.
Recently, I've been having some "head-to-heads"with people in the letters page of my local paper - I always believe it's good to talk about public transport wherever possible, if only to dispel some deeply held beliefs by some people about it.
Journalists are a pretty disparaging lot in general. They look for the worst in everything in order to create a headline. In my years at Bus Users UK I would regularly field questions from local hacks who were often interested, sadly, in the downside of public transport.
Sadly, things rarely improve.
Today sees a genuinely great piece of public transport news - the opening of Wolverhampton's new showpiece bus station. When us transport geeks talk about improving the passenger's lot, this is exactly what we mean. A fantastic new facility that is genuinely welcoming and a good experience to use. When Birmingham's new coach station opened last year, I felt the same. Rail-wise, it is an absolute pleasure to spend some time at stations like Birmingham Moor St, Manchester Piccadilly and London's Marylebone and St. Pancras.
Yet, still the press seek the downside to all of this. In the case of Wolverhampton, we had rumblings of discontent as the thing was being built because sections of the Ring Road suffered disruption. Heaven help us if we inconvenience the motorist in any shape or form. Now, the focus is on some of the services in Wolverhampton that won't serve the new facility. (See previous blog post for my thoughts on that!)
Is it what we Brits do best? Knock public transport because it's the easiest thing to do? Are we all drawn to the supposedly famous phrase that Margaret Thatcher allegedly uttered about being a failure in life if we're still catching the bus past aged 27? (although there is some dispute that she ever actually said it).
I'm constantly bemused by people who try to engage me in conversation about how cars bring "freedom" to their lives, and that buses are an "outdated mode of transport" (the subject of my latest debate on the Express & Star's letters page). Maybe they forget or aren't aware that I too am a motorist and I also drive my car around. But I'm only too aware that I'm adding to traffic congestion when I do so. I don't consider myself to be "free" when I'm driving. I actually consider myself to be more "free" when I'm using public transport. Free of stress, road-rage and bad driving.
Today not only is a day to celebrate another great new transport facility in Wolverhampton. The City has a new network of services, designed with a lot of public consultation. Of course there will be winners and losers, but the new network is a chance to improve the public transport offer.
Elsewhere, in Oxford, something else rather big is happening.
The major operators are working together to launch a new, co-ordinated service in the City, accepting each others tickets and actually reducing wasteful duplication on some routes where they formerly competed. New buses and smartcard ticketing also feature here.
In a couple of weeks,the new guided busway in Cambridge will finally be in operation. Put to one side the farce that has arisen in actually building it, and celebrate another piece of transport infrastructure that will improve the service to the travelling public.
Also next month, new trains for the Snow Hill lines. A step improvement in the passenger experience. New clean and greener hybrid buses will gradually take to the streets of the West Midlands in the coming months. Birmingham's New Street Station is having a huge makeover that will transform it's appearance. Stourbridge's Parry People Mover is genuinely innovative and now has some of the best reliability figures of any rail line in the country, as well as improving the frequency and reducing emissions compared to its predecessor class 150 diesel loco. In just over a month, Chiltern Railways will launch it's new "Mainline" services, promising faster journey times from Birmingham to London. And of course, High Speed 2 continues to occupy the conversation of the chattering classes - if it is built, it will address the growing issue of capacity on the rail network, as well reduce journey times to a mere 49 minutes from Birmingham to London. And, as a Stourbridge (or at least nearby) resident, there is no one looking forward to the opening of our new bus station more than me. Another superb investment in our public transport future.
Public Transport rarely gets the accolades it deserves for being the backbone of life in this country. So as we sit, fuming, in never-ending traffic jams and wonder whatever happened to the "freedom" of life in our tin boxes, let's applaud the Ladies and Gentlemen who are quietly working hard at all levels to bring us better public transport.
As those 4 lads from Liverpool once sang on the Sgt. Pepper album "It's Getting Better All The Time".....

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

It's Not The Horses Wearing Blinkers In Wolverhampton....

It ought to be another positive milestone for the City of Wolverhampton.
This coming Sunday, the new multi-million pound bus station opens it's doors for the first time. Added to that is the biggest upheaval of routes and numbering in the City, certainly in my lifetime.
Predictably, as the midnight hour approaches, there are concerns. Some are real concerns, from less-mobile citizens in the community who are concerned that their service will be inferior to the one they currently have. Others question the logic of opening a brand new bus station and then not having every route that serves the City going into it. Some even wonder why the route numbers have started at "1" again, when we have similar route numbers just up the road in Walsall and Birmingham (I have to say, I'm also yet to be convinced on the route numbering).
Large scale changes like this always result in someone losing out. For those that do, it can be unfortunate. But it can also be healthy for public transport to revise networks from time to time to best serve the majority of users. Buses, unfortunately, can never be taxis and cater for absolutely every single person's individual travel habits.
Rest assured, I'll be out and about in coming weeks to see just how effective (or not!) the new Wolverhampton network is.
But how about this golden nugget amongst the press cuttings?
In amongst all the angst from people whose buses are changing route and number soon, is a sorry tale from a group of business people in the City. Never mind the horses taking part in the 3.30 at the all-weather track - the blinkers are firmly strapped to this lot.
The Wolverhampton Business Group ("made up of hundreds of City company bosses" according to the Express & Star newspaper) has commissioned a survey on those pesky bus lanes.
The "survey" appears to have consisted of someone photographing all buses arriving into the City from the Wednesfield Road between 0730 and 0900 one morning. Then it would seem that someone has poured over the pictures to count how many people are on said buses. Even the spokesman quoted appeared to concede that he'd had difficulty counting the numbers of people on buses in the pictures;
"the only slight numerical issue was viewing the exact numbers on 50% of the buses that were double deckers".
This ought to be laughable nonsense.
Except that it's coming from supposed business leaders in Wolverhampton, who are reduced to photographing buses, then trying to work out how many people are on them in order to kick-start a debate aimed at removing bus priority. In order, presumably, for them to drive their cars just that little bit quicker into work.
Why am I reaching for my blood pressure monitor?
Because when I read articles about people's legitimate concerns concerning why they can't use the City's wonderful new bus station, I ask myself why it is that bus company managers consider it unworkable to route all City services through the bus station?
Those 2 words come to mind again.
Traffic. Congestion.
The bus companies have been brave in introducing some new cross-city services as part of the large review. Transport friends of mine (some in very high places, I might add) have voiced their private doubts to me as to whether they will be able to stick to their timetables. Routing them through the bus station would simply add to the time-keeping issue.
But this is yet another example of a British City that simply doesn't have the balls to tackle it's traffic congestion problem. And here we have supposed "business leaders" quite willing and open about being vocal in trying to get rid of some bus priority lanes!
The message, sadly, is as clear as ever.
Keep driving your cars into our City. Keep clogging it up.
We can dress up the new cross-city bus routes as much as we want. Of course they will open up new links, etc.
But if congestion wasn't an issue in Wolverhampton, wouldn't we have them serving our new bus station to allow easy interchange?
Goodness knows Wolverhampton is in need of investment and new business, as are many of Cities.
But just for once, why can't we have business people who look at the wider picture - one which recognises the importance that an effective public transport system can offer, which in turn can help reduce such damaging traffic congestion?
When we have the self-same people forsaking their breakfast to take pictures of buses to try and count how many people are on them to support a call to remove a bus lane, I for one begin to fear for our economic future in Wolverhampton....

Monday, 11 July 2011

Let's Go HS2!

Of course, the biggest transport discussion at present is HS2 - the one transport topic that transcends the mainstream news agenda.
I've been deliberately quiet about it, as I'm no expert in the pros and cons of the route it is proposed to take, the back gardens of supposedly well-off Chiltern-arians it will plough up, nor if it will address the "north-south divide" that we apparently have in this country.
I'm a public transport advocate. So naturally, I support good public transport. Does the prospect of Birmingham to London in 49 minutes excite me? Tremendously! I'll barely have time to scoff my bacon roll! Do we need it? I think so. Often, psychology takes over when talking in terms of journey times.For example, I'm looking forward to the new Chiltern Railway timetable that will provide some Birmingham-London journeys in 90 minutes. Does shaving a few minutes off journey times really matter, some people ask? Some may say that you may lose all of the benefit getting stuck in a traffic jam getting to or from the station. But I think journey times do matter. Railways may have lost an awful lot of the romance they once had in the halcyon days of the 1930s for example, but cutting journey times always sends a little bit of excitement to the brain. It makes the world a smaller place. Think of railway history as steam, then diesel locos shaved time off their journeys. Think of the Inter-City 125s when they first came on track. The Virgin Pendolinos that still have the ability to mildly thrill me as they tilt their way along the West Coast Main Line.
I think High Speed 2 will do the same.
But it isn't necessarily the speed that sells this project to me.
It is the potential for extra capacity on our railways that is so desperately needed.
I make lots of railway journeys to all sorts of places. The one thing that has stood out for me over the last 5-10 years has been the explosion in numbers of people travelling on our railways. The rise in numbers appears to be unrelenting.
I went to London last week. Birmingham to Marylebone on Chiltern Railways. 1015 from Moor Street. The peak commuter crowd have more or less gone. This train won't arrive into London until 1225. But it's a busy train, and I can't count all that many empty seats. My £10 ticket - bought on my iPhone - is a bargain. And everyone loves a bargain.
I return from Euston on London Midland's "slow" train, up the West Coast Main Line on the 1554. Even 1st Class pre-booked has only cost me £19.50. But as I stand in Euston at around 1530 perusing the departure board, I am surrounded by a large mass of travellers. As I settle into my supposed premium seat, I can see the sheer amount of people cramming on to this train. It is a scene repeating itself across the rest of the country, around the clock in some cases.
So does the prospect of HS2 give us a new blank piece of paper to start with?
It seems only recently that we upgraded the West Coast Main Line to give us Virgin services that operate every 20 minutes in the daytime between Brum and London. And yet even this isn't catering for the incredible demand for travel. If we can "start again" and build a new railway that can handle such demand, it potentially frees up the West Coast Main Line to both provide additional services and cater for more freight on our railways.
So in principle, HS2 excites me. I don't buy the argument that this is simply a "vanity project" just because the Germans, French and much of Europe has High Speed and we - the nation that gave the World the railway - does not. If anything, we ought to have done this a long time ago. But of course politicians of many colours have left us on the slow tracks.
There are, of course, many questions still to be answered.
The "Nimbys" are revolting. But they do have a point. I don't suppose any of us can really know what it feels like to have a High Speed Railway proposed to run through your back garden, unless you are that actual person. We shouldn't kill off such an exciting, important project based on this alone, but we really have to be assured that the minimal amount of people are affected. But this is progress, ultimately. The Victorians wouldn't have built our railways if they had succumbed to not dissimilar pressure regarding railway routes.
Another concern is the "end game" pricing of tickets on HS2. One letter I read in the papers recently compared HS2 to Concorde. As much as Concorde was a beautiful bird, she was a rich person's plaything. Phil Collins managed to perform at both Live Aid concerts in the 80s due to the miracle that was Concorde with her supersonic speed. But Concorde was indeed mostly for the rich and famous. We must ensure that tickets for High Speed 2 are not completely out of the range of the masses. One of the most intriguing sights I see at Euston are the rows of 1st Class carriages on Virgin Trains, under-utilised on some journeys, whilst others cram onto other areas of the train. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the abolition of 1st class, but it does need to be looked at. Let's not forget that, even now, a walk-up fare on Virgin in the peaks on the West Coast Main Line is probably only regularly in reach of those aforementioned "rich and famous". If HS2 is to be born, it needs to play to everyone's advantage and be available to a lot of people's budgets.
We also need to be clear that the budget for HS2, to build this once in a lifetime opportunity, is not at the expense of what is known as the "classic" network (i.e. what we have now), which also needs investment. Railways - and public transport on a wider scale - is so important in this country, but often falls by the wayside in politicians priorities. HS2 may be sexy, other railways, buses, trams and coaches not so, but all are the backbone to our nation.
So we do need HS2 for several reasons, and I support the project. But let this be the renaissance of public transport on a wider scale. Somehow, I fear that may be a much harder sell!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

"Transforming" Bus Travel

It is a rather grandiose phrase, and one that is open to a hefty slap of "egg on face" if it doesn't produce noticeable benefits. Like First's "Transforming Travel" strapline, you only hope that there is tangible evidence of their forthright statement.
"Transforming Bus Travel" (actually a "mk.2 version" - the original was a couple of years ago) is the name given to an agreement between Centro and National Express West Midlands. It is a statement of partnership, designed to focus minds (and press releases) that will aim to provide real benefit to us West Midlands bus passengers.
Has "mk.1" had the desired effect?
You'd forgive most passengers as not being aware of such a deal. I don't mean that in a negative way, because for most passengers, the bus is a pretty boring means to an end - only the geeks amongst us take more notice of what goes on operationally.
One of the major parts of all of this has been the Network Reviews - a root and branch review of local networks in several areas, kicking off with my very own area - Dudley - in 2008.
A culture shock for many - vast parts of the network were ripped up, re-cast and glued together again. Did it work? In the main, it wasn't bad. The Black Country, we are told, had been losing money for years in bus operating terms, and the new network was designed to give it a fresh new feel, reflecting more accurately where people wanted to travel. It was bold, and seems to have largely worked. National Express did come along 2 years later, however, and significantly revise some operations again.
Elsewhere, Solihull seemed more of a challenge. Seen perhaps as more "middle England" (how could it not be with villages called the likes of "Catherine-de-Barnes"), there were more car-owners in leafy suburbs than the former industrial heartland of Dudley and The Black Country. Selling a "new" bus network here was always going to be a significant challenge. The jury remains out as to whether Solihull's network review worked.
Elsewhere, Walsall ripped up the numbers and started again. Perhaps the boldest move yet, passengers had to get used to single and double digit numbers instead of ones that usually started with "3xx". We're told that research proves that people understand bus numbers like "1" and "61" more than "361". Wolverhampton will go through a similar renumbering and restructure later this month. I'm not wholly convinced personally that the renumbering is in passenger's best interests, but I'll see in more detail what this "research" has to say.
But "Transforming Bus Travel" is about more than just network reviews.
This new version includes the reaffirming of the long-awaited "Oyster"-style smartcard (recently delayed due to software problems) and investment in GPS and "end-user" applications, such as websites and iPhone apps to actually see where your bus is in real time.
These 2 initiatives, for me, are going to fundamentally change the way us West Midlanders use our buses.
When I was flown to Ireland last year to road-test an iPhone app for Dublin Coach, it was a liberating experience. To use a service in an area I've never been in and have the confidence to see a little dot on my iPhone screen moving in real time towards my stop was not only fascinating (and very much a "boy with a toy"), it gave me real empowerment. It worked flawlessly (to even the most sceptical of users!) and I flattened the phone battery trying to find a problem. There wasn't one.
Now add to that a credit card-sized piece of plastic charged up with stored value and no expiry date. The freedom to use any bus operator that comes along. The real-time information at the stop, counting down the minutes until my bus arrives, or the freedom to hop on and off different ones to suit. This is washing away many of the gripes and confusion about using public transport that people keep telling me.
But although this sounds blindingly obvious, IT NEEDS TO WORK!
You may agree that it's obvious, but in my years of travels up and down the country, sampling all sorts of operators networks, technology fails on too many occasions. Yes, we all expect that everything fails sometimes. Buses break down, computers crash, etc. But many people are naturally "bus bashers", and line up regularly in the pub on Friday night to tell me so! I so desperately want to prove them wrong. I want people to have real confidence in public transport.
And yet when Councillor Jon Hunt, Centro's lead member for buses and Vice-Chair tells the Birmingham Mail that he's "especially excited" about the smartcard ticketing (as we all are), I'd be even more excited if, wearing his hat as a Birmingham City Councillor, he'd start giving us more bus priority and start effectively policing the poor number of existing bus lanes that we have in the City.
To "Transform Bus Travel" means commitment from the likes of Birmingham City Council too.
Cleanliness is also mentioned, which again is so vital for us local bus users. We are almost desensitised to rolling bottles and cans, piles of free newspapers and empty burger boxes and chip paper. No one says keeping the West Midlands' bus network clean is easy, and of course it is the sheer pig-headed, selfish attitude of some passengers themselves that creates this mess, but whilst there may not be an obvious financial benefit immediately to employing armies of cleaners, it surely adds up in the long run to more passengers willing to give public transport a try, when coupled to the other pieces of the jigsaw that is "Transforming Bus Travel".
There are plenty of people ready to knock public transport, but I'm a proud user of our network of buses, trains and trams in the West Midlands. Centro has done a good job with bringing "Network West Midlands" as a brand to locals. National Express West Midlands, as the largest operator by far, has pledged to buy 300 new vehicles as part of this new agreement, showing new confidence for an operator that, even fairly recently, appeared to be on a slippery downward slope. It's "new" livery may split opinion, but there's much to be said for it's comprehensive network and (still) some of the cheapest fares in the country.
I genuinely wish "Transforming Bus Travel" well in this, it's 2nd phase. Making public transport work for all is a prize well worth the effort.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Love Affair That Needs A Reality Check

Every love affair or long-term relationship needs a reality check every so often.
In Britain, we have our own very deep, very personal love affair. Ever since the internal combustion engine appeared into our lives, we've gazed lovingly at it, let it steal our hearts and decided it's forever.
The freedom the car brings to our lives is well-documented. It is a status symbol of a modern Western-World nation, even if motoring journalists conveniently forget the damage that traffic congestion brings.
I was reminded of this blinkered view on several levels during the past few days.
On Sunday it was my local town's carnival. The one day of the year when the High Street is closed to traffic. I rejoiced on Twitter.
Stourbridge is a lovely town. A town with unique and beautiful buildings, if you look above the usual shop fronts. A traditional feel, some may say, and a complete antidote to the bland, soul-less experience that is shopping at the local Merry Hill shopping centre, two miles up the road. Indeed, I now avoid Merry Hill if I possibly can because the experience depresses me. I'd much rather shop in Stourbridge.
But shopping in Stourbridge can also be a depressing experience.
Many of the "big names" have decanted to Merry Hill (even though the monster that is Tesco is coming soon)and the experience of walking down the High Street - which should be a pleasant one - is always one of awkwardness. Pedestrians are shoved on to narrow pavements in dogged deference to motorists, who cruise the High Street in desperate search of a coveted car park space.
On my radio show, I have often raised this issue. Why not pedestrianise the High Street, so that the much better experience we felt during carnival day was one that we could enjoy all year round? Other towns do it, and are so much better for it. Deliveries could be "out of hours". The consumer and pedestrian could again the King & Queen.
Many of the businesses won't have it.
On one level they must surely decry the decline of shopping in Stourbridge since Merry Hill opened its free-parking emporium. On the other hand, they doggedly refuse to consider making Stourbridge a delightful place to shop via pedestrianisation of the High Street. The car is King and access must be kept as close as possible at all costs.
Of course, I'm being a tad simplistic here. Stourbridge is awkward. The town centre is surrounded by a 3-lane Ring Road. Constructed towards the tail-end of the 1960s, it actually helps traffic move quite well, but it also acts to cut off easy access via public transport. Our bus station - currently being redeveloped - will still be on the wrong side of the Ring Road. The rail station is next door, but Victorian design saw that this is where it ends. Current economics and politics dictate that we won't see it go any further. Our revolutionary "Parry People Mover" railcar - an environmental delight that links Town and Junction stations - ought to be brought right into the heart of the High Street. Imagine that - street cafes with no cars and a small environmentally-effective railcar linking the town to the mainline rail station? It's something that would be given serious consideration by some of our European neighbours. Here,it's a pipe dream. We can't even get a surface-level pedestrian crossing from the bus station to the town centre (on the grounds of "Health & Safety", because we might confuse motorists on the Ring Road) - instead we shove people like rats into the underpass, a vile experience no matter how often the Council repaints it. And car parking is an issue, due to the restricted amount of space within the Ring Road and the aforementioned Tesco's appearance requiring the demolition of a multi-storey car park.
So a combination of pro-car thoughts dictates that Stourbridge will always struggle to reach it's full potential. I can't be the only potential shopper who would use the town centre more if the experience was much improved.
Something else caught my eye last week.
The New York Times ran an article entitled "Traffic Torments, By Design".
The main thrust of this was that whilst the yanks were doing all sorts of things to make motoring easier ("apps to help drivers find parking"..."synchronizing green lights to assist traffic flow"...) us Europeans are "creating environments openly hostile to cars".
London, with it's congestion charge, is the only UK City to make the article. The rest include Barcelona, Paris, Stockholm and Zurich. And the more I read about these "openly hostile" measures, the more they make eminent sense.
To quote some facts from the article:
- Cities welcome new shopping malls... but severely restrict the allowable number of car parking spaces.
- On street parking is vanishing.
- Pedestrian underpasses...have been removed (are you listening Stourbridge?)
- Operators in the City's tram system can turn traffic lights in their favour as they approach, forcing cars to halt.
And so it goes on....
But there is so much common sense in all of this.
In Zurich, a riverside pedestrian zone lined with cafes used to be two lanes of gridlock. 91% of delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram to work. A startling statistic, but oh so sensible.
Sihl City, a new Zurich mall, is 3 times the size of the Atlantic mall in Brooklyn but has only half the number of car park spaces. 70% of visitors get there by public transport.
And what about this for a quote, from Pio Marzolini, a Zurich City Official: "We would never synchronize green lights for cars with our philosophy. When I'm in other Cities, I feel like I'm always waiting to cross a street. I can't get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car".
And yet that's what I am, when I'm in Stourbridge. I am worth less than a car.
So frustrated last Thursday was I when on the bus leaving Birmingham City Centre at around 5.30pm, I vented my spleen on Facebook. Despite me attending and speaking at the annual Birmingham Transport Summit over many years, my experience as a public transport user in the City is as worse as it ever was. The precious little bus priority that we have in the City is simply ignored and not policed, the bus has no discernible advantage over the car. It's a very poor show. Remember, this is the City that actually REMOVED a bus lane in the recent past.
Maybe I'm being a little hard on Brum. There are plans, to be fair, to create a more car-free City Centre, and to have the Metro tram running through the heart. But the proof of the pudding will be in the riding of it. Will it be actively policed and motorists illegally in the Centre actively punished for being so? And let's also acknowledge that our European friends in places like Zurich have well-established public transport that works. Here in Birmingham, it's not so much about having a "long way to go" to achieve a decent comparison, but for having the political will to really step up a gear and give public transport the arena it needs to really shine and be effective. In Britain, the car lobby is still mightily effective and protective towards its own interests, however selfish at times, they may be.
In Germany recently, in the spot where I like to down my BitBurger and pork schnitzel, it was recently "Happy Mosel" day - a version of car-free day that is supposed to give the Mosel River and its many communities a day free of cars. I'm sure there were voices of dissent somewhere, but most people accept it and enjoy it, from what I can see. They took the opportunity in many towns and villages to have small festivals and carnivals. The beer was drunk, the wine tasted and a good time had by all. Can you imagine such a thing on such a grand scale here in Britain?
I'll state for the record again that I'm not anti-car. I have one, and I use it.
But the love affair us Brits have with our tin boxes does need a reality check.
Once again, our European neighbours are streets ahead with such thinking.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Sunday Morning Nightmare!

There aren’t many things that will get me up early on a Sunday morning (unless it contains the words “full”, “English” and “breakfast”), but a leaflet I acquired recently made an early start inevitable.
“Getting to the Wyre Forest” it proclaimed, with the words “by the 192/292 bus services” in smaller font.
The red slash half way down the leaflet swung it for me. “Special Offer, Sundays in June – Any single journey £1”.
The 192/292 services are remnants of the old Midland Red X92 which I rode as a child from Birmingham all the way down to Hereford. It’s an attractive journey crossing the spectacular Clee Hill and visiting the picturesque towns of Bewdley and Cleobury Mortimer on the way.
These days, the weekday service is a daytime hourly frequency from Birmingham to Kidderminster only (and partly threatened in Council cutbacks) as the 192 (operated by Rotala’s Central Connect) with the 292 linking Kidderminster and Ludlow on a similar frequency, this time operated by First (with the nostalgic amongst us clinging to the heritage that this was once a bit of the Midland Red empire!) On Sundays, it mostly operates as full length service, changing numbers at Kidderminster.
I can’t find any “terms and conditions” relating to the £1 offer and still can’t quite believe that I can potentially travel just shy of 2 hours for this amount.
I decided to travel the full-length of the route from Birmingham as I suspected this might be popular with concessionary pass holders – I wasn’t wrong!
At 0910 on Sunday morning, I joined throngs of pass-wielding day-trippers in lovely sunshine (we don’t get much of that in Brum) on Colmore Row. The Central Connect Mercedes, adorned in smooth sophisticated grey “Signature” livery (it usually works on Solihull services during the week) sat 3 stands down, the driver seemingly unwilling to load until the very last second.
The Worcestershire County Council –issued paper timetable makes reference to “a change of vehicle may be necessary at Kidderminster bus station”, and this has immediately thrown me. As the Merc glides up to the stand, it is showing 192 Kidderminster on the front.
There is much bleeping as the pass holders register themselves before I thrust my pound coin into the driver’s hand. He looks unperturbed.
The timetable appears to show that this vehicle will do the full length trip through to Ludlow and I enquire about this, given he’s showing “Kidderminster” on the front. He responds with “it’s the other one”, which leaves me quite confused. Are we now going to change buses in Kidderminster?
Not wishing to hold the bus up any longer, I move out of the way for another gaggle of pass holders to board.
The single deck Merc is resplendent with its leather seated interior and smooth ride. A few of the passengers behind me talk about their impending trip on the Severn Valley Railway – it’s 1940s weekend there, and our bus will serve the station in Kidderminster directly. Indeed the bus is full and I have only counted myself and another passenger who have actually paid a cash fare.
We’re soon down the A456, past the Little Chef (“full English breakfast” thoughts again) and into the glorious Worcestershire countryside.
At Kidderminster railway station, almost half the bus empties on Comberton Hill and I can hear air raid sounds from the 40s weekend as well as see a half-cab double decker on the forecourt (for the spotters, it was in United red livery, and was a Bristol – although I later discover its bodywork came from the early 1950s – but hey, who’s counting?!)
We’re in Kidderminster’s bus station. What happens now? Well, the “other one” the driver referred to appears to be this very same one. A quick flick of the finger and the digital destination now shows “292 Ludlow”.
The driver loads half a dozen more passengers, then leaves the engine running, doors open and walks off to the nearby Tesco. I wonder where that fits into the Health & Safety instructions.....
He soon returns clutching a bottle of pop and we’re off – on time – towards nearby Bewdley.
A mum with small child boards, excitedly clutching a birthday cake. And some more pass holders. But then confusion.
The road ahead is closed and we’re off through country lanes on seemingly a diversion.
Soon it becomes clear that the driver doesn’t actually know where he’s going. No one offers assistance until a deep voice from the rear booms “carry on driver”. And “carry on” (in the sense of the comedy film) might best describe what happens next.
We arrive at a road junction near to Cleobury Mortimer. Success it may seem – we’re back on route.
Except Mum/child/cake want Far Forest, which is 7 minutes in the opposite direction and has been missed out.
“How am I going to get there?” she remonstrates with the driver, who appears not willing to turn around and go there. Eventually, they get off, with the driver advising them to catch a bus going in the opposite direction. Except on a Sunday morning, that bus will probably be him coming back in the opposite direction in just under an hour’s time. It’s not been handled well. And I wonder what lasting impression of buses has been painted for Mum and child.
Onwards we travel, only a few minutes late, through the delightfully named Hopton Wafers, past expensive barn conversions, climbing the steep incline to Clee Hill with seemingly dozens of motorbikers speeding past us. The Merc makes heavy weather of it and I wonder how Midland Red D9s of the 1960s might have coped.
I admire the spectacular views from the top of Clee Hill and we descend into our destination at Ludlow, eventually arriving only 3 minutes late.
Here the driver faces 20 questions from passengers, including one from an old lady who somehow wants Kidderminster – from where we set off from. He advises her to sit down and he’ll take her back.
Meanwhile, I’m examining the council timetable in the shelter in Mill Street. It isn’t bad, but it contains far too many confusing codes a couple asks me if I know when the bus returns back to Birmingham. I show them and soon I have a small audience as seemingly the only person to understand the complexities of the bus timetable. I’m also disappointed to see that the 292 only appears to operate on a Sunday. “No Mon-Fri or Sat service” says the timetable, but of course it does. Bizarrely though, it only terminates and starts on this street on a Sunday. It’s another strange quirk of buses that the general public don’t understand. There also appears to be precious little evening or Sunday buses in Ludlow. This bit of middle England will remain a slave to the car.
The Tourist Information Centre fares little better.
I peruse the leaflets for anything bus timetable-related. All I find are ones for demand-responsive services in the area. What about the 292, which appears the only semi-regular service out of the town?
The lady behind the counter knows all about the 292 – and reaches into the secret world behind the desk to hand me a timetable. I won’t even ask as to why they aren’t out on the racks where any of us can pick one up.....
My next 292 departure is a “short journey” – only going back as far as Kidderminster. It’s an additional “summer only” journey.
It arrives dead on time, but I only manage to catch it as I’m “bus-savvy” – the driver is actually loading at the wrong stop around the corner. A little old lady shouts me, concerned that I’m going to miss it. I was actually going to play a daring game of “flag the bus down at the correct stop”, but her concern for me has thwarted that experiment.
But there’s more fun to come.
I board and hand the driver my £1. He gives me “that look”.
“Where are you going, mate?”
“Kidderminster, please” I reply, sensing another one of “those” conversations.
“It’s £3.20” he offers.
I offer him the timetable leaflet with the special offer on.
To my surprise, he’s seen one of these before. But he can’t accept my £1 coin as he “can’t issue a £1 ticket” and invites me to inspect his ticket machine. He sublimely presses virtually every button on the machine but decide that my fare is £3.20.
“How come he issued me with one coming down?” I ask.
“Ah, he shouldn’t have done that”, comes the reply, and he examines my £1 ticket as evidence like a top lawyer.
“What about the offer?” I ask, meekly.
“That’s for journeys to Wyre Forest only” he replies.
“But Kidderminster IS in the Wyre Forest” I respond.
“Hmmmm” comes the even more confused reply.
We’re already 5 minutes late, and not wishing to be the ironic reason that the journey slips out of Traffic Commissioner standards, I offer him £3.20 with the caveat that I’ll be taking this up with the powers that be.
The driver seems overjoyed and encourages me to do just that, and admits to not understanding the whole scheme.
Two teenagers delay our driver even further at the next stop as they board brandishing what appear to be tickets issued by First. After more pressing of ticket machine buttons, there appears to be a compromise and the girls are soon seated and our driver is off.
The vehicle this time is a new, very smart and comfortable Optare, again with leather seats and a cool blue spotlights. It’s all very well as the driver is having delusions of Formula 1, flinging the bus around country lanes in a quite un-nerving manner.
This time we head straight through Far Forest (no sign of mother with child and cake from earlier) and it would seem that the earlier road closure has disappeared.
My iPhone shows that this bus has wi-fi and I excitedly try it out, but it’s very sporadic and I soon lose all confidence in its ability to work properly and decide to enjoy the scenery as if driven by Lewis Hamilton.
We’re soon back in Kidderminster and we’ve made up time to arrive spot on. As I move towards the doors, the driver calls me over.
“I’ve sussed it”, he proudly proclaims. “The machine is programmed for £1 fares all the way from Far Forest to Kidderminster. Look!”
I inspect and the driver grins like he’s my new best friend.
“It doesn’t explain that on the leaflet though” I protest, like a football manager who’s already been relegated.
He agrees, and I thank him anyway, before he turns the engine off and leaves the bus in the opposite direction to me.
It’s been an interesting morning. A great idea to promote the use of Sunday bus services, but it’s been poorly executed, with lack of explanation about where the £1 fare is actually valid, coupled with drivers who seemingly don’t understand it themselves, nor care.
And for our Mum and daughter with their pink birthday cake, it’s probably been a Sunday Morning Nightmare, as 80s punk rockers Sham 69 once warbled.