Thursday, 28 April 2011

Round The Houses.....

One of the phrases that non-regular bus users use is "round the houses".
"The bus went all round the houses and it took ages...."
Of course making the network simple to understand is one of the great challenges for the bus industry. Here in the West Midlands, Centro's "Network West Midlands" initiative has worked very well in opening up what the intensive network actually looks like - and it is because we have such a web of services across Birmingham, the Black Country & Coventry, that it is often not easily explained!
There is some very good research that shows that bus users want frequent, direct services. That's hardly rocket science, as to attract new users, you have to provide them with something that isn't too far away from their existence as a car user.
But take the occasional user who hasn't got time for research and may be using public transport at short notice. They may be looking at the bus destination for where they need to go, jump on the bus and then - to their surprise - get taken "around the houses". A negative experience that might put them off bus travel in the future? You bet!
And yet the answer isn't relatively simple - apart from a good old bit of customer care.
"Round The Houses" services are important. They might not be attractive for commuters or high-frequency users, who do want that "fast" service. But many estate services are true lifelines for the people that use them, and very much deserve their place in the public transport matrix.
Given my day off today, and the glorious sunshine, the temptation proved too much - £3.80s worth of "n-bus" (all operator bus ticket for the Centro area) and I'm off riding to see what is going on.
I caught such a "round the houses" service - Hansons 124 from Dudley to Cradley Heath Interchange - via "the houses". Despite having a Birmingham-style number ("1xx"), this remnant from the days when the 124 did indeed serve the second city is purely a local facility these days. It also incorporates part of a route that sprung up in the heady days post-deregulation when converted bread vans provided minibus services to areas that had never seen such a thing. The old West Midlands Travel "Mini-Buzz" routes and Merry Hill Minibuses (complete with piped muzak and drivers with dickie-bow ties) seem a long time ago now, but quite revolutionary they were.
Hansons 124 these days uses mid-sized Darts, which carries its load rather well. The service - like many others of its ilk - seems to convey concessionary pass holders in the main. The lady driver scrutinises my n-bus ticket (issued on a previous journey by National Express West Midlands - and thus looks suspiciously like their own DaySaver) but she is very friendly and seems to know many of the passengers, waving them goodbye as they get off with their bags of groceries.
And isn't this what bus services are partly all about? You could feel the social worth in this service - which is simply not able to be valued in monetary terms.
Yet, say I was an irregular user. Cradley Heath on the destination display is probably around 15 minutes at most away from Dudley if you go by car. Despite the 124 going "round the houses", this journey takes only half an hour. But you see my point. It wouldn't necessarily tempt me to use it again if I was a busy person with access to a car.
This is partly where my earlier phrase" good old customer care" comes in.
On another Hansons journey I made the other week, I jumped on one of their services from Merry Hill to Stourbridge which I know goes "around the houses" (I was just curious to give it a go to see how well it was used). The driver actually asked me if I wanted Stourbridge, and told me it "went the long way around" (which I replied was fine). But that small piece of customer service might have proved to be extremely useful should I have been in a bit more of a hurry and an irregular user without knowledge of the Black Country bus network. I found it a very simple, but useful thing to ask.
Fast direct bus services are important in attracting new users. "Round the houses" services equally play their role in a social sense. Defining one from the other isn't always that easy for those not in the know. But buses are a "people" industry - and the more "people" that find them less of a mystery and more user-friendly and thus might use them more can only be a win-win for everyone.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Tram-Train Future?

Call it what you will. Many do. But the Class 139 RailCar (to give it its correct title) or "Parry People Mover" (affectionately named after its creator John Parry) is proving to be a huge success on the Stourbridge branch line.
Quirky it may seem to some, and often mocked by railway enthusiasts who should know better, "The Parry" has quickly settled down to prove a competent solution to a cheap, environmentally-effective operation for the short branch line in the town.
It operates on a 10 minute frequency for most of the day and meets similarly timed trains on the mainline into Birmingham. No need for a timetable, a transport success story.
I'm sure that rail buffs will attempt to pick me up on the finer points of the Parry operation, but as a mere passenger who uses it regularly, I can only sing its praises from the rooftops. The fact that its technology was developed locally in Cradley Heath is something else us locals can be proud of. The staff too are dedicated to the operation and can be commended.
I've interviewed John Parry on my radio show several times. A colourful character indeed! He's looking to take the project to other areas where the small railcar might be able to provide a similar service.
One such idea is to use a new version of the "Parry" on a local service from Stourbridge up towards Merry Hill and beyond. Many of us are waiting for the day when the Midland Metro tram finally makes it to Merry Hill, and, blue-faced, we're still holding our breath!
Frustrating as it is that us Brits don't "do" tram networks like the French and Germans do, why not mix a small bit of freight and a Parry "tram-train" on a lightly-used currently freight-only section of line?
Yes, the new version would have to be bigger, and the "bounciness" of the current operation needs to be addressed, but it's such an opportunity to put public transport into peoples psyche and create a new link at what in railway terms is fairly minimal cost. I've also never really understood why such a railcar couldn't have been trialled on part of the Severn Valley line from Bewdley into Kidderminster as a commuter link either.
It might not be a "train" or "loco" in some people's eyes, but it's public transport. And the more decent public transport we can get, the better!

5 minute madness

I remember having dinner in Zagreb one evening, discussing the vaguries of the UK's deregulated bus system with friends from the SPUTNIC project (Strategies For Public Transport In Cities - yes, I know it doesn't fit exactly, but it's catchy!)
Over some intriguing meat dish, some of them couldn't quite believe that, here in Blighty, our operators have free-reign to design their own routes, times, etc. Of course, most of them had been to London and waxed-lyrical about the TfL operation, but it appeared that most hadn't been beyond the outer reaches of the M25 either.
I've often been asked what I think about deregulation. Is it good for the passenger? Have we been doomed since 1986? Of course, there isn't a simple answer - there never is. Whilst we raised a tipsy glass in that downtown Croatian restaurant to all that is great about TfL, let's not forget the excellent services that operate in places such as Brighton, Nottingham and Edinburgh. Lest we forget that these have been achieved in the deregulated environment so unloved by some.
I can't see much appetite from any powers that be for a form of re-regulationat present. There are bigger fish to fry, although the upcoming Competition Commission enquiry into local bus services might throw up some interesting scenarios.
I largely think the UK bus industry has matured in recent years, from those heady days of the late 80s / early 90s when cut throat competition was popping up all over the place. Passengers didn't really understand why one bus operator turned up 5 minutes in front of another one, then nothing for another half an hour. Worse still, you couldn't use tickets from one operator on anothers.
"The Blacon Pointer" in Chester is a great example of how two previously warring operators (First & Arriva in this example) can come together in the passenger's interest to offer inter-available ticketing, and a sensible use of resources so that both operators get a slice of the pie. Everyone is happy.
So it is disappointing that the worst example of deregulation is about to pop up in my native Black Country soon. One operator (not the biggest one, I might point out) has registered on a service operated by a small company on a 30 minute frequency, 5 minutes ahead.
Now, many of the users of said service are concessionary pass holders. It's hardly a huge money-spinner, and was abandoned by the aforementioned "biggest operator" back in 2008.
Why act in such a predatory way? If they must, why not go onto the alternate 30 minutes to create a 15 minute headway? (which I don't think the service can really sustain commercially anyway)
I don't suppose we passengers will ever know the true reasoning.
But in a world where the deregulated system has largely settled down, this kind of action will only serve to cause mild confusion for passengers and threaten the existence of the incumbant service.

Riding the once a week X6!

Living in a large urban area, I'm used to having good bus service frequencies. If the route is badged as "every 8 minutes", I'm reaching for my wrist if 10 minutes goes by without said service approaching.
But I'm fascinated by rural bus services.
It's easy to place to one side in your mind the sheer importance of some rural services. Yes, like never before, many of these are coming under scrutiny because many ain't cheap! And we all know the plaintive cry from some corners about value for money, etc.
It's only right to examine what rural services we're spending our council tax on, but it's much harder to quantify the social worth of some of these. And one things for certain - when they're gone, it's not gonna be easy to bring them back!
North Wales is a particular favourite lurking place of mine. From my home in the Black Country, I'm soon into Shropshire, across the border into Denbighshire and the first hint of the Principality at Llangollen.
Usually, I drive beyond, through Corwen (where the old tiny Crosville garage is now an equally tiny car dealership) towards Betwys-y-Coed, through Llanrwst into Llandudno. Many a happy holiday was spent here as a child, and I love to come here as often as possible.
Perusing the Conwy timetable booklet one evening (as you do!), I came across a Saturday only service that runs from Llangollen, right through to Llandudno. The scenery along this route is often quite beautiful, but as a motorist you don't appreciate this readily.
Only one thing for it - I had to give it a go!
Most of Llangollen's bus services use Parade Street - it's become a kind of "mini-hub" for the town's bus services. I was even impressed to see that the town has an almost high-frequency service - the 5 to Wrexham every 15 minutes! There is an equally busy parking attendent, who had watched closely as I paid my £3.50 to park up earlier, and was now taking pictures of awkwardly parked cars and watching vehicles who had stopped in and around the bus area. He politely moved on 2 cars whilst I was there!
Across the road from Parade Street, Arriva's X94 Trawscambria leaves roughly 2-hourly for Bala, Dolgellau and Barmouth, and a small collection of intending passengers were awaiting its arrival on Llangollen Bridge as I awaited my X6.
The Tourist Information Centre has lots of information on local bus services, including the helpful (and free) timetable books published by Denbighshire and Conwy County Councils - a rarity in England these days for entirely understandable reasons - they would often be out of date as soon as the ink dried. Much of North Wales's rural network is obviously subsidised though, so there is possibly a larger degree of certainty in publishing. The Internet may be a wonderful thing, but a timetable book is a great addition to have for the intrepid bus traveller!
Padarn Bus X6 is subsidised by Conwy Council. It's inward journey from Bangor arrives a good 35 minutes ahead of it's Llandudno departure - a turnaround time some drivers in the West Midlands would kill for! It is whilst I am examining the ice-cream prices that Padarn's X6 arrives into Parade Street. A smart looking Optare Solo in red / silver colours. It is obviously used on Snowdon Sherpa network routes as it displays a message on its sides that a trip on each Snowdon service costs only £1. Bargain!
The driver has already changed his display to Llandudno, but the bus is parked up, engine off and driver off to find a sandwich (he returns later with a small bag of something that is swiftly depositied into his sandwich box).
I check the departure time on the bus stop pole. The layout of the timetable isn't all that easy to understand for the uninitiated - it takes me a few moments to identify the X6.
But then, the cardinal sin - it's wrong! At least it appears to be wrong. X6 shows as leaving at 1048, which is the time for the next village along, Corwen. The timetable validity matches that of the booklet, so I hover around semi-nervously to see what happens next.
Encouragingly, there are around 8 people who appear to want to catch the bus, and the driver appears at around 1020 (with aforementioned package for sandwich box) and begins to load up. There are a couple of hikers with rather large back-packs who intend to go roaming beyond Betwys-y-Coed. A couple of tourists. And a lady who seems to be a regular and offers to close the window "if it gets draughty" - such manners I rarely come across in deepest Birmingham.....
The hikers are asking a number of questions, and the bus finally departs 6 minutes late at 1036, but its obviously supposedc to go at 1030, so a quick email to Denbighshire County Council to inform them o the timetable inaccuaracy is noted for action.
The ride encompasses some of North Wales's most rugged scenery , and at £4.60 for a return ticket that takes just under 2 hours end to end is a real bargain!
Some of the joining passengers are regulars who greet the driver and many o them are using concessionary passes - the now familiar bleep of the pass reader is becoming one of those noises you simply hear everywhere on buses these days....
We're slightly late into Betws-y-Coed. The glorious weather has brought many people out and the traffic in this small yet bustling tourist town is very busy. The hikers disembark, timetable book in hand. Express Motors bright yellow X1 to Blaneau Ffestiniog is also touting for passengers in the small bus turnaround near the station.
We eventually make our way into Llandudno - "The Queen Of The North Wales Coast" as the tourist brochures describe it - and I'm feeling rather smug to be arriving in this way as the town is beginning to struggle under the weight of cars trying to find a car park space in the town.
The regulars get off, shopping bags in hand. It's almost a bit like a coach trip as the less-regulars (me included) double check the return time, as if you miss it, that's it! (although I can think of worse places to be stranded!)
"Ten Past Three?" I ask tentitively. "Yes Please" replies the impeccible driver.
So I have just under 3 hours to ride the Great Orme Tram, devour a 99 (with a flake in, since you asked) and watch the comings and goings of Arriva's local network, which includes at least one vehicle repainted into traditional Crosville green complete with classic fleetname to celebrate this year's centenary of the erstwhile North Wales operator.
Everyone is back on at 15:10 an we're off again, along winding roads and beautiful scenery, back towards Llangollen.
What to make of such a service?
It's an obvious lifeline for some of the locals. For others, it's part of a wider adventure for tourists and hikers.
But it's largely a well-kept secret. The £4.60 fare is one of the best public transport bargains I've had in recent times. And I sat back and enjoyed some of Wales's most dramatic scenery whilst being chauffered in a very clean and attractive vehicle.
It's surely a service that deserves to be more widely advertised so that more people could enjoy. But I guess such a budget will sit firmly on the backburner in the coming few years.
In the meantime, I hope the X6 survives the ever-present and active axe of the accountants. It's a service that is well-operated and seemingly well-appreciated.