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.