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.