Monday, 31 December 2012

Public Transport Moving Forward - as ever!

So here we are, on the final day of 2012, and the temptation is to look back and review where we've been over the last 12 months.
For buses, these are challenging times. The continued economic squeeze has its effect on the industry. Cuts in subsidy affect marginal services, the concessionary pass continues to spark debate on the buses as to the cost of the scheme and both commercial and tendered services are under constant review.
Yet the bus industry remains remarkably resilient. My own feeling is that, despite some of the damaging rural cutbacks, the whole situation could have been a whole lot worse. Of course, there's still more to come, and word from several councils is that we face more cuts on tendered services. Only time will tell, but we're surely at the point where there isn't much more available to face the knife?
Politically, transport continues to be a revolving door. Only Norman Baker survived the reshuffle and that can only be a good thing, not only for a bit of continuity, but also because I believe Mr Baker "gets" public transport, unlike so many politicians who pass through Transport on the way up or down.
It was the year that public transport shone, during the Olympics. The Great British public took a collective breath and almost resigned itself to chaos during the greatest show on earth. Boris boomed across railway station platforms up and down the land, asking us to "get ahead of the games". And.....nothing happened! We held our nerve with much co-operation and dedication, proving that public transport CAN work - and work well.
It was also the year that transport hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. The West Coast Main Line franchise debacle is a sorry tale that should never have happened, and hopefully the two enquiries will lead to lessons being learnt, even if the effect on the public-facing day-to-day operation was one of no change. Locally in the West Midlands, the staff shortage at London Midland also provided a major headache, badly affecting the image of rail travel. But this was almost a "who would have predicted that?" scenario. With 3 months notice to leave and 12 months to train a new driver, the maths are evident. I'm not sure the scenario could have been predicted, but the image of train travel to the general public was dented. Let's hope we can repair some of that damage with a quieter, more regularly efficient 2013 on the railways.
As with the London Midland issue, the wider image of public transport is one I still believe there is work to be done with. With our crowded towns and cities becoming ever more congested, I sit firmly in the camp that says public transport is very much the future, not a mode of last-resort. For as far back as I can recall, buses and trains have been easy pickings for news reporters looking for negative headlines. It's par for the course that something as large and comprehensive as a transport network will have problems from time to time, and that news outlets will seize on that for headline making. But it really is time that public transport hit back and highlighted - continually - the excellent job it does, day in, day out, in providing the lifeblood of the economy. Greener Journeys has had an excellent year in its promotion of buses, and its reports have provided vital ammunition for transport advocates like me to hit back on the doom-sayers. We need to shout more about the good things that are going on in public transport - and there are many.
In my own home town of Stourbridge, we might moan when the rats chew through a cable and disrupt the trains for hours, but lets look at where we were 5 years ago and where we are now. We have a new, truly state of the art transport Interchange that has replaced a motley collection of 1970s bus shelters. We have a high-frequency, innovative, environmentally-friendly people mover link between Interchange and main line railway station that has flat-level entry, higher frequency, and more journeys than ever. We have new, comfortable, trains on the Snow Hill lines that also run at high frequencies with more seats, continued free parking that takes cars off the road and puts people on to trains, and new buses with the cleanest engines yet. It's a world apart from even 5 years ago, but we haven't shouted about it!
On my travels around the UK I see areas where public transport operators have made real efforts, and others where its in the doldrums. Where transport providers and local authorities work together with shared visions, a little bit of magic occurs. Nottingham has won award after award this year, and its richly deserved - but actually, despite all of the hard work that goes on there, its actually blindingly simple. Its just a vision that says public transport is not only important, its vital. It gives the impression that its buses, trams and trains are what makes the City's heart beat. It charges firms for its car park spaces and reinvests that cash into public transport: how cool - and blindingly simple - is that? Its the one place in the UK that feels almost like a continental city when it comes to public transport - and we need more of it. Perception is everything - look at the Passenger Focus report on what non-transport users thought in car-dependent Milton Keynes. People who hadn't used a bus in 30 years had hardened perceptions of what buses are like - and were simply not aware of the improvements. That scenario is repeated up and down the country, and whilst we must shout longer and harder about the benefits of public transport, I also firmly believe that answer also lies in more carrot and stick, especially in large urban areas. Remember the howls of derision that greeted the London Congestion Charge? Who would be without that now? The best examples around the World of towns and cities are ones where people have priority, with a mix of regular, easy to understand public transport. This isn't "anti-car" - it's common sense!
It's natural to look back, and we can only move forward if we know where we've come from. History is important - especially in transport terms - but it's the future where we must concentrate our ideas. In transport, we need continued - and more - investment. We need long-term plans - and a commitment from politicians to see those plans through. We need to see public transport for what it is - a solution to our ever-growing traffic congestion. So it needs to have priority at all costs, however unpopular with some people that may be. We need to shout, shout and shout some more about the successes that our buses, trains, trams and coaches achieve, every hour of every day, and we need to lobby our politicians until we're blue in the face about the tools we need to make our public transport even better.
There's still huge amounts to be done despite the achievements of public transport in 2012. The future is bright, with cross-party support (a rare thing!) for High Speed 2. New high-quality railway stations on the horizon at Birmingham New Street and Reading. Midland Metro trams proudly rolling through the streets of Birmingham City Centre will be a reality in the not to distant future. New buses - some of them with cutting edge hybrid technology - continue to appear onto the streets, raising the levels of quality. And in the West Midlands, Centro continues to be a force for good when it comes to public transport.
As someone who works within public transport on several different levels, I can see the difference the transport industry makes to people's lives every day. Public Transport Moving Forward - as ever!

Thank you to everyone who has commented on the blog this year, and on my blog at - it's always good to hear your thoughts about public transport! A very happy new year to all!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Age of the (s)Train - Investing in our Future

On my way home from Birmingham down the Snow Hill lines to Stourbridge Junction last night, the service was quite busy. Few seats and the odd standee. Nothing new there, you might say - but this was the 2157 from Birmingham.
Now, of course it's the run up to Christmas, and the German market and Bull Ring shops are pulling the punters into the City, but nonetheless - despite all the complaints and frustrations that seem to engulf the railway - this mode of transport has seen the most incredible rise in patronage over the last decade that no one can seem to put a finger on why.
Centro's own figures reveal that patronage has risen a whopping 94% on the West Midlands rail network since 2000/1. The trains must be doing something right!
A BBC report today reveals the top 10 most overcrowded trains in England - and one of them is on my very own local Snow Hill line. It doesn't make for great reading, and of course it is even more uncomfortable for those having to squeeze onto these services for the daily commute.
So, how to solve a problem like the great train squash?
Not as simple as you might think!
Why not simply buy more trains? Firstly, they don't come cheap! Fares may be going up, but this is as much to do with Government long-term plans to reduce the burden on the tax payer for the cost of running the railways. At present, it is roughly a 50-50 split between fare payers and taxpayers. The plan is to move this further towards those who actually use them, hence the year-on-year fare increases on regulated fares. And on a simple, practical level, some platforms aren't actually long enough to accommodate longer trains! Extending platforms costs more money, and some stations physically can't be extended.
Secondly, most of the rolling stock is owned by leasing companies - actual train operating companies have, in relative terms, mostly short franchise agreements. If they invested themselves in new bits of kit, would they recoup their investment by the time their franchise was up? And what if they lost the bid for the new one? Make franchises longer? The problem here is that the current economic situation makes it difficult to plan ahead for the next 5 years, let alone, say 20. And current industry thinking is edging away from the awarding of long franchises, even given the success of Chiltern's unique long franchise - although there are some reasons particular to Chiltern's operating area that help them.
So, for individual train operating companies, a conundrum. They take the brickbats for both the rush hour squash and the rise in ticket prices, when, actually, neither is really directly their own fault!
The answer must be substantial, long-term investment by the country itself if we are to continue the success story of rail. Many historians of the mode look to the 1920s as being the pinnacle of British Railways - but we are carrying more people now than we were then, on a much smaller network, trimmed down by Beeching (and other plans) in the 60s. It makes eminent sense to invest in rail and public transport as a whole to accommodate the huge rises in people on the move. There are more people living in the country than ever and they are on the move to work, shop and spend their leisure time.
Roads of course are important, but cars are wasteful. Public transport, at its best, moves large numbers of people efficiently and far more safely than cars. Projects like High Speed 2 are exactly the kind of confident long-term investment that is needed to help our rail network. The "high speed" is good, obviously, but the story should be more about the capacity it generates, not only on the main corridor it will serve, but on other parts of the rail network it frees up to create new passenger services and move more freight, reducing the need to move so much of our goods by road.
If investment is the key, logistics and management is also ripe for reform. Areas like the West Midlands and it's surrounding "travel to work" areas might well be served by having its rail services planned and managed more locally, rather than London. Centro is well placed to deliver this, and has long-term plans to see the local network expanded, using not only trains, but more metro and possibly tram-trains.
Ultimately, rail is a success already, by the sheer numbers of people it carries every day. But to see even more people using this this mode of transport, we need to see the entire passenger experience being one of excellence delivered, every hour of every day. Our roads are clogged, unpleasant experiences, but crowded trains for commuters offer a similarly less-than-great feeling for those that use them day in, day out.
The vision is simple: provide trains that people don't "endure" but choose to use and enjoy. The maths suggest that the railways are already extremely popular. Let's build on that and encourage more and more people to use our trains.
Government is at present already investing in our railways, but we need more of it, over the longer-term, that takes into account the whole system of franchising operating companies, but is also separate from it, with management and planning on different levels for different types of operation.
For the passenger, the utopia of reliable trains, understandable pricing, good information, smart ticketing, less overcrowding and easy integration with other modes is the goal.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Don't Tweet Back In Anger......

How the huge benefits of social media in public transport also have a downside for those doing the tweeting.....

One of the recent phenomenons of our time has been social media. Seemingly everyone is Tweeting or Facebooking, and the public transport industry is increasingly taking it up to keep passengers informed in “real time” of happenings on the network.
There’s no doubt that this is mainly a force for good. Delays can quickly be broadcast and alternative arrangements made for a nation that seems more on the move than ever.
But with such instant media comes a new set of rules. Or in many cases, a complete lack of.
Social media, apart from being a simple tool of information, is also built increasingly around the human element of what is being said. Conversations strike up between travellers and “tweet-masters” (or whatever we call them). On the plus side, this helps to break down barriers, adding to the more human face of what might seem a faceless, monolithic public transport operator.
It is, though, with that “human” element, interesting - and often depressing - to see the negative side to some people’s communications when things inevitably go wrong.
Take for instance the recent staff shortages at London Midland’s rail operation. Whether or not you take the view that the whole episode could have been something that could have been realistically anticipated, the effect on the travelling public was sometimes one of sheer inconvenience and frustration. The operator – which has won awards for its Twitter operation – was steadfastly professional and very useful in how it disseminated the issues on the ground that passengers faced on a daily (and often hourly or less) basis. Yet some of the vitriol it received back was, at best, expressions of frustration, and at worst mindless insults.
I suppose we just shrug our shoulders at all of this and accept it as “one of those things”. People are going to get frustrated at public transport delays and vent their spleen, and this is just another way of doing it.
But I wonder what the worst perpetrators of this cyber-aggression are really thinking as they type their diatribe into their smartphones and hit send? If, pre-Twitter, public transport was indeed this large, faceless organisation, it now often has real people at the other end of the social media page. These are the people who type in the updates, who try to gather information about what has gone wrong, and ultimately are actually trying to help travellers with their journeys.
Public transport is, of course, a huge operation. Inevitably things will go wrong, journeys will be disrupted and people will get frustrated.
What fascinates me, however, is the lack of understanding that transport professionals too are frustrated with delays. Who would ever want to delay trains and buses, as if to satisfy some adolescent mischief-making? Do some people honestly and truthfully believe this?
Working in public transport, I have met several public transport company “Tweeters”. Every one of them a consummate professional in their work, and often adding social media on to their “real” occupation. I have seen them tweeting at all hours of the day and night, offering advice and alternatives for passengers affected by delays and cancellations. I am sure they must mentally desensitise themselves from the quite offensive rubbish that some people choose to throw at them, simply for trying to help.
Some recent Passenger Focus research offers some thoughts on the whole social media scene. Would one way be to simply use the likes of Twitter and Facebook as almost a one-way information service and avoid the friendly chat that some operators offer? National Rail tends to do this on Twitter, but many operators are very open and human in their efforts – and obviously suffer from frustrated individuals who lack the social skills to engage meaningfully and politely. There are even people who spend time “re-tweeting” complaints about operators for others to see. What they are hoping to achieve is anyone’s guess.
I suspect the best of the Facebooking and Tweeting transport operators will want to keep the friendly, open channels between themselves and their customers. Abuse of public transport staff is, of course, nothing new, but isn’t it a pity that some people see fit to rant at and mock people who are only doing their job and trying to make things better?

Friday, 7 December 2012

A Day In The Life...On The Stourbridge Branch Line!

The Stourbridge Line User Group (SLUG) (of whom I used to be a committee member) asked me if I could write an article about "A Day In The Life" of the Stourbridge Branch Line, as someone who drives the Stourbridge Shuttle between Junction & Town. No problem! Here is the article, which appears in their current newsletter.

It’s 5am at Stourbridge Junction and not even the birds are singing yet.
A day in the life of the Stourbridge branch line is beginning. This will consist of over 200 individual journeys on the ¾ mile journey – the shortest in Europe – and will run continuously for over 18 hours linking the Snow Hill lines and Stourbridge Town Centre. There has been a service on this line since 1879, and is now operated using the unique Class 139 “Parry People Mover” Railcars. The service is operated by Pre Metro Operations Limited, on behalf of London Midland.
After booking on duty, we check the “Late Notice Case” – information regarding operation on our line or lines nearby. This may be to do with engineering work that we need to be aware of, or – especially during Autumn – operating conditions on the line due to leaf-fall. Rail conditions vary during different types of weather and, much like driving a car, care needs to be taken to react to different types of conditions. We also check the diary to note any other operating issues from the previous crews on previous days. The emphasis is always on safety, so it’s important to always be aware of operating issues.
Then we make our way to the depot at the end of the branch line where the 2 Railcars are stabled overnight. Every morning, before service begins, there are a number of pre-service checks that need to be carried out to ensure the vehicle is fit for service. Again, safety is critical and there are 2 pages worth of checks to be made before we can enter service.
Once we are satisfied that everything is in order, we move the Railcar towards the end of the “private area”, which is protected by a piece of kit that is attached to the track. This has to be unlocked to allow us to move onto the platform. For this to happen, we also need to obtain the “staff” – a token that allows us to operate on the single line to and from Stourbridge Town. This is locked away when we aren’t operating and is only available to us via communication with the signalling centre at Saltley. Once through the “de-railer” (so named as it would literally “de-rail” the vehicle if it was hit without being unlocked) it is re-positioned to protect the depot area.
Now that this has been completed, we can move onto the platform area, although it isn’t yet time to enter service (0547 on weekdays). We inform London Midland Control via telephone of the particular vehicle in service, and whether the other vehicle is available to us, should the one in service fail. There is also time to give the Railcar a good mopping so that it is clean and fresh for our passengers!
Now we’re in service!
There are surprising amounts of people around so early in the morning. Shift workers coming home from night jobs, inevitable early risers off to work, or perhaps further afield – it isn’t long before the first Chiltern journey leaves the Junction for London – and of course late night party animals for whom “tomorrow” is already “today”!
Railcar operation is always staffed by 2 people. We’re both trained to do both jobs – drive the Railcar and Customer Service, which involves checking tickets and helping/advising passengers. We have lots of “regulars” using the service and we have got to know many of them – a friendly smile at 6 in the morning is always very welcome!
We’re soon into the high-frequency 10 minute service and we’re filling up rapidly on every journey. Commuter time is here, and we also have lots of students going to/from Stourbridge College and Hagley – these journeys are extremely busy, and we receive assistance from a 3rd member of staff on the platform who safely assists with loading and communicates between our on-board crew for a safe departure.
Soon it’s time for our “PNB” – “Personal Needs Break”, in railway speak – so the 3rd member of staff will take over to allow us our break time one at a time.
Things are beginning to quieten down following the busy commuter time, and from 0930 we begin to welcome our Concessionary Pass Holders on board. Again, we see many regulars and it is very satisfying to know that, having provided the important connections for the commuters, we’re now providing an equally-important service for off-peak travellers too!
There’s a steady stream of passengers on every journey throughout the morning. We both take our meal break towards lunchtime, again with a 3rd member of staff providing cover. Usually, every hour or so, we “change jobs” so that one drives and one provides customer assistance. Sometimes we may be required to arrange assistance for a wheelchair passenger for their connection at Stourbridge Junction, or advise passengers on ticket or journey options, as well as being aware of any operational issues on Snow Hill lines that may affect their journey.
Sometimes Network Rail may be carrying out track maintenance, so we need to be ever-vigilant for orange-suited staff on our near the line to give them a “toot”. We also see several forms of wildlife, from domestic cats, to badgers, foxes and a family of buzzards! Some creatures are extremely cheeky and may sit on the railhead for as long as possible before moving! Amusing as this might seem, the driver always needs to be aware of any activity on or near the line, as rail conditions may cause us to potentially slide if the brake is applied too quickly! We have on-board sand which we can administer in such situations to help us quickly regain adhesion.
Line speed on the main section is 20mph, although on approach to both stations, this drops down to 10mph, then 5mph. Again, safety and comfort for our passengers is our over-riding concern.
The early crew’s last departure from the Junction is at 1449, and then it’s time for the late team to commence duty.
It isn’t long before the evening peak is in full swing, with the flow of passengers reversed – now there are lots more heading home from Stourbridge Junction to the Town. The students are also back after their lectures and we have a few busy journeys, again assisted by a 3rd member of staff on platform.
As evening approaches, we see the night owls! The evening leisure market becomes apparent, with people heading off into Birmingham, or coming into Stourbridge town centre, especially at weekends. Some of our journeys are now inevitably quieter, but still we carry a steady stream throughout the evening, right up until our final departure at 2354, which is designed to connect with the final arrival of the day – the Chiltern service from London Marylebone. We’re especially careful to double-check that we don’t leave anyone on this service as it’s a long walk to the Town if they miss it!
On arrival back at the Junction, it’s time to switch the destination board to “Not In Service” and a reversal of the morning procedures is in operation.
We regain entry back into the private depot area and the line staff is returned to its safe and secure locked away area.
Now it’s time to prepare the vehicle for tomorrow’s service. This includes replacing the LPG gas bottles that help power this very environmentally-friendly vehicle.
Finally, once the vehicle has been “put to bed”, it is securely isolated and locked away.
In the office, we book out and fill in the diary to advise tomorrow morning’s crew of any operational issues that may be relevant. It is now 0030.
In just 4 ½ hours, the early crew will be on site, ready to kick off another day of providing the branch line service to the people of Stourbridge.
On Sundays, our early crew will also handle an LPG gas delivery from our suppliers and perform a “car swap” where we exchange the vehicles routinely. This will involve operating the points at Stourbridge Junction and communication with the signalling centre at Saltley.
The service on Sundays is slightly reduced from Mon-Sat service but there are still 4 journeys per hour in both directions.
In the 3 years of Class 139 operation on the Branch Line, we have seen passenger numbers rise and the service is now the most frequent ever (mostly every 10 mins throughout the day), the most environmentally-friendly ever (our unique flywheel operation stores braking energy to help power the vehicle), the most accessible ever (flat level entry greatly assists wheelchair users and parents with buggies) and reliability is usually between 99.7% and 100%.
We’re very proud to operate such a unique, important and reliable service!

You can visit our new website at or read regular updates by “liking” our Facebook page ( and “following” us on Twitter (@SbridgeShuttle).

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The UK Bus Awards – Making Buses Better

Put a bunch of bus men and women in The Hilton Hotel. Feed and water them. What do you get?
Better bus services!
The UK Bus Awards are in their 17th year. It’s the kind of thing that might get funny looks if you brought it up in the pub, but for something considered so mundane as buses in the eyes of the general public, this annual event not only celebrates the very best that the UK bus industry offers us – the users – it inspires others to not only emulate the quality offered, but to improve on it! I came away pumped up, determined that my local stomping ground – the West Midlands – should work towards that moment when they are announced as “winners” of a category at the awards – a “gong” to recognise excellence in public transport.
I say “winners” in inverted commas. Everyone shortlisted for an award – over 270 entries for 20 categories – is already a winner. And on a far wider scale, I see winners in public transport every day – as a user and someone who works within it.
Buses are a means to an end. Unless you have some strange fascination in the industry itself like me, they move people from A to B. That’s it. Boring. But you can be “boring” yet absolutely vital at the same time!
There is a big prize up for grabs. Good buses are a large part of good public transport. Good public transport changes society – and the lives of all sorts of people. The UK Bus Awards celebrates innovation and shares good practice. The more “good buses” we have, the more society benefits.
The categories have a broad range. One such was Innovation – won by Megabus for something that was actually blindingly simple: putting flat beds in coaches and running them between Scotland and London. Simple? Maybe. But it opens up all sorts of travel opportunities at low-cost for all sorts of people. The bed-laden coaches might not be an earth-shattering idea, but it’s helping to change people’s life experiences – and enriching some of them.
There were environmental awards. First’s national plan “Small Changes, Big Difference” won because of targets to improve their environmental performance. For a large International company, lots of “small changes” really do make a difference. Hybrid buses were celebrated too – far from some people’s perceptions of buses being great big dirty things surrounded by black clouds emanating from exhaust pipes, today’s buses are cleaner and greener than they’ve ever been. And with more Government support to buy more environmentally-friendly vehicles, it’s important to recognise the efforts being made to advance the bus as a really genuine low-emission choice of travel.
The Awards are also very much about people.
It’s easy to dismiss an award that is “Bus Depot of the Year”, but actually, for those that tirelessly work around the clock and give large parts of their life to working “at the coalface”, one can only imagine the pride at working at Go Ahead’s Merton bus garage (London garage of the year) and at Metrobus’s Crawley depot (National depot of the year). The runner-up Burnley depot (Transdev) even has buses called “Starships”! To be recognised as being at the top of your profession not only brings pride in the job, but benefits the travelling public.
Individuals too are recognised. From Engineers to “unsung heroes”. These are the people who are there, around the clock, day in day out, keeping the UK’s buses out on the road. And none so more as the drivers. As one of the “mystery shoppers” for the awards, I see for myself the very best ambassadors of Britain’s public transport. It’s a tough job, because whatever you might think of bus driving as a profession, it is a hugely responsible job and one that can be immensely challenging.
Chatting to a colleague over lunch at the awards, we agreed that the standard of driving had improved considerably over recent years, so judging who would be crowned “Top National Bus Driver” is an incredibly difficult job! The drivers I mystery shopped (difficult for me to stay “undercover” at 6’7”!) were all winners – a real pleasure to see them obviously doing a job they loved and providing a superb professional face of the UK bus industry. Ultimately, the winner was Allan Gilmour of Trent Barton (a company collectively at the very top of its game) and it was a joy to see him receive his award – a true ambassador for the world of bus travel.
The winner of the biggest “gong” of all – “Bus Operator of the Year” – was Nottingham City Transport. Nottingham is something of a Mecca for people who appreciate good public transport. From its excellent (and expanding) tram system, to it’s innovate “Statutory Quality Partnership Scheme” (also the winner of an award) to its award-winning bus operators (Trent Barton are also big players in the City), I recommend anyone who wants to see good public transport in the UK to visit this innovative City! (see also previous blog: 
The UK Bus Awards brings together the best examples of the best in bus operation every year. For me, it was a pleasure to attend and celebrate some of the excellence in public transport that we have, and also to play a small part in helping the judges to decide who won!
As passengers, we’re ALL winners!

A full list of the awards can be seen at

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ticket To Ride: Is The Price Right?

Start a discussion on the price of bus or train tickets and you’re guaranteed all sorts of opinions.
The popular press like to use strong, emotive phrases such as “eye-watering” to sell their papers, and there is a huge, underlying suspicion that those companies involved in running our buses and trains are profiteering, in much the way they suspect other public utilities are.
In Britain, much is made of the cost of peak-time walk up fares on the railway. It’s true to say that, particularly for those that don’t use the mode very often, the price is often astonishing. Yet, whilst the general impression is that we have “the most expensive train fares in Europe” (cue the usual list of media suspects, especially when the fares go up again soon) far less is made of the fact that we also have some of the cheapest fares in Europe. Yes, you have to be quite flexible in your travel arrangements and trawl around the internet a lot, but I often get a £6 single via Chiltern Railways from London Marylebone back to Stourbridge Junction. A two mile taxi ride from Stourbridge back home will cost me more than that! Yes, there’s a lot to be done to simplify the way we make online bookings to make the process easier, but the fact is that, whilst our eyeballs might bulge at some fares, we can barely believe the cheapness of others.
On buses, fare prices are always a talking point – but often for unfair reasons.
In the West Midlands, you’ll usually pay £1.90 if you hop on a bus for a single fare. More raised eyebrows, particularly amongst non-regular users. But actually, the West Midlands has, traditionally, some of the cheapest fares anywhere in the country. Maybe the bus industry should do more to directly compare the price of its fares to a similar journey, say, by car. £1.90 actually gets you a good distance – Birmingham to Wolverhampton, Dudley – Stourbridge, for example. How about comparing that to what a car journey might cost if you throw in everything involved such as fuel, tax, insurance, maintenance, etc? There is always a feeling that “once you’ve paid for it”, the car doesn’t cost anything more. And I often hear the argument that people prefer their own space. Common views, but as our roads get more and more congested, none of us are going anywhere fast – the bus is increasingly going to provide the answer to much of this, and the industry needs to increasingly spend time consistently maintaining and improving the “offer” – and this includes how much it costs to ride.
Far from the afore-mentioned feeling of profiteering on the part of the operators, running buses these days is an ever-increasing challenge for the bean counters. Costs are ever increasing and subsidies are ever reducing. If running buses was ever a cash cow, it certainly ain’t now!
A friend maintains that, if bus operators would only drop their prices, all of their problems would be solved. A simple solution, on the face of it. A bit of supermarket pricing policy in the bus world?
If Sainsburys offer tins of spaghetti at half price, is there a mad battle around the spaghetti stand? Half price bus journeys resulting in queues to get on? What about supply and demand? Bus operators have seen this effect before with the introduction of concessionary passes. Buses full, bums on seats, but swelling coffers? And what if there is a need to provide more buses to cope with demand? Is the resource there? Will the cost of operating the second bus make the whole process worthwhile? OK, maybe the concessionary pass example isn’t the best to use. Operators aren’t getting the full single ticket price as reimbursement for carrying the concessionary pass holder for a start, but in the world of bus operation – and particularly smaller operators – life is difficult at the moment, and every penny counts. One small operator in the West Midlands has told me that they are not yet willing to join the new “Swift” Smartcard system because of concerns about reimbursement. This has to be overcome – and I have no doubt it will be – but the point is made.
There is some interesting research by UITP – the International Association of Public Transport.
They reckon that an average reduction of 10% in fare levels brings a 3% increase in patronage. So any reduction in fares has to be got right. For many operators, such a move will be a huge gamble, but First appear to be trying some of this.
On some of their Manchester network, fares have been slashed by up to 25%. Is this, perhaps, an admission that they were seen as too high to start with? It will be interesting to see if this move bears fruit.
Back at UITP, they have just launched “2025 – PTx2”. The campaign has laudable aims – raising awareness of the need for more and better public transport. Its stated aim is to double the market share for public transport worldwide by 2025. Given the current state of world finances, this would seem but a pipe dream – not only does this appear to call for major investment, but also to change the mindset of politicians to believe in the potential of public transport more.
But – by golly! – this is EXACTLY the type of focus that is needed!
UITP Secretary General Alain Flausch says “with this campaign, we want to change the perception of public transport from a necessary evil to a preferred choice”.
Perhaps surprisingly, in stark contrast to First’s move, UITP is suggesting RAISING fares. It argues that “providing better quality through charging higher fares brings more customers, and more revenue, to public transport”.
But are people willing to pay more for a higher quality service?
On the railways, the vexed question of “First Class” amongst the “masses” always raises a viewpoint. There are those who would see First Class dropped and everyone travel as one. Yet Chiltern Railways reckon their “Business Zone” (wider seats, more legroom, etc) is going well. Maybe passengers ARE willing to shell out more for extra comfort on longer journeys, but the equivalent on buses?
UITP’s suggestion is to raise the fare little and often, to create financial stability. Would this work in Britain? The media are quick to latch on to fare increases, especially if they happen more than once per year. In the West Midlands, we see the bus fares go up, usually, once per year. It makes the front pages and sends out a negative image – often unnecessarily – of the local bus service. Improving quality is, without doubt, a vital goal, and whilst I see the logic, I’m not entirely convinced that such an idea will work.
I’m also intrigued to see whether First’s “opposite” approach of lowering fares is also a worthwhile model. Of course everyone wants things cheaper, but ultimately, will the figures stack up?
Will the way we actually physically pay for journeys have an effect as we move to cashless systems more and more? Handing over £1.90 to a bus driver in coins is a powerful thing. If you had to do that every time you got behind the wheel of a car, would motorists feel differently about things? What about, in the future, if we flipped the scenario on its head? Motorists paying to use roads in a very physical sense, and public transport users using smartcards that don’t require the jangling of coins, but a mere swipe of a card.
I feel free in London with my Oyster card. Much more than in most other parts of the country. Of course I am still paying for my journey in some form, but it feels different. Smartcards are really going to change attitudes about travelling using public transport. And if those journeys are cheaper than by physically paying cash (as they are in London), you feel like you’re getting a bargain too!
My view is that public transport needs a much more level playing field. Priority on the road wherever possible, easy to use, attractive, competitively priced, and, ultimately, a distinct advantage over the car.
The actual price of using public transport needs to be seen clearly in context to motoring. The quality aspect as mentioned by UITP is also fundamental. We’re seeing new buses aplenty in the West Midlands, for example, and these are very welcome, raising the image bar. But keeping them, and existing older vehicles presentable is something that needs continuous work. Pleasing as it is to see regular cleaning on some buses throughout the day in Wolverhampton whilst buses are actually in service, this needs a huge increase to drive home both the upgraded quality and the actual visibility of someone carrying out the work. It says that public transport really matters, and that the industry is pulling out all the stops to provide that.
There is much to be won – and the price of tickets is only a part of the story. 

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Buses "Beating Stress"

Although I'm a car owner, I'm - of course - a huge advocate of public transport.
Myriad reasons for this, but I often refer to the added bonus of getting from A to B on a bus, train or tram. You'll often find me updating my Facebook or Twitter, replying to email, reading (the transport trade press usually!) or simply gazing out of the window at things I can appreciate rather than concentrating on the road ahead. There's also a lot to be said for the down-time of simply day-dreaming - possible on public transport, more difficult driving a car!
So this little piece that appeared on Bus Users UK's Facebook page really backs up my theory about bus passengers being the more relaxed and healthier of the travelling species!

Bus travel 'a third less stressful than driving the car'

New research shows that taking the bus (instead of the car) can reduce mental stress by a third.

The study by Dr David Lewis from The University of Sussex, who coined the term “road rage”, found that motorists face a hidden mental health impact from the stresses of driving, while bus travel can produce long-term health benefits.

r the experiment, the heart rate and EDR (Electro-Dermal Response) of 30 commuters was measured when taking similar journeys by car and bus. The findings reveal a vast difference in EDR, a form of biophysical measurement that Dr Lewis describes as an excellent indicator of mental stress.

When examining the EDR results, the experiment found that taking the car produced significantly greater amounts of stress than taking the bus, which was 33% less stressful.

“EDR can be a hidden stress – it’s not as visible as ‘white knuckle driving’ or audible as road rage. This type of stress can have long-term physiological and emotional implications. Boarding a bus can produce significant long-term health benefits,” said Dr Lewis.

Dr David Lewis says there are three key factors that reduce the attraction and increase the stresses of driving a car.

1. Driving in heavy traffic – especially against a deadline – requires a high level of vigilance, even for experienced motorists. This requires the brain to work especially hard processing a myriad of incoming information and making, often split-second, decisions.

2. Congestion and delays can raise blood pressure and physical tension which may manifest itself as ‘road rage’, a term coined by Dr Lewis in 1985 to describe the explosive outbursts of anger shown by some motorists. Increases in blood pressure can have serious long-term health consequences as well as causing drivers sometimes to take reckless and foolish decisions behind the wheel.

3. A sense of frustration of ‘wasting one’s life’ behind the wheel of the car, unable to do anything more productive than casual conversations or listening to the radio. On a bus it is possible to fill the time more profitably by doing some work or reading.

He also notes that trained, professional bus drivers are skilled in negotiating the challenges of the road, and the relief of trusting someone else to be in charge of the journey, is a key part of what makes taking the bus less stressful.

“This study shows that driving in congested traffic, now outweighs any previous benefits that driving in a private car once gave,” said Dr Lewis.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Lobbying My MP

It all came about as a result of a Facebook conversation.
My MP - Chris Kelly (Dudley South) - is a regular on the social media. And whilst he was bizarrely pictured in some long grass (not a metaphor for his chances of promotion - rather he wanted it cut), another update caught my eye. He wasn't a supporter of HS2.
Why not, queried I?
I felt a longer debate coming on, but he was keen to discuss it more in depth at one of his constituency surgeries, and I agreed. Sometimes, despite all of the advantages of social media, a more face-to-face discussion is more appropriate. Is "lobbying your MP" old hat? Or is it more important than ever?
I'm not a politician-basher. I'm probably in the minority in this country where I still believe MPs go into the job for the right reasons. I've interviewed enough of them on my radio show to get that impression.
So I believe it's important, if you believe passionately in something, to understand your MP's view on the topic.
It's probably fair to say that Chris Kelly MP knows my view on public transport already. His father, Chris Kelly Senior, owns a truck dealership and is all for roads. I've had a few "debates" with him over the years on the letters pages of local newspapers. But what of his son?
MPs are decision-makers. Or they're close to the ones that do. I don't subscribe to the view that politics and politicians aren't relevant in people's lives. Politics is in everything we do - and especially so in transport.
I was disappointed but not surprised to hear Chris's views.
On HS2 he thought it akin to Concorde - only to be used by those who could afford it. And the West Coast Main Line didn't seem to be an issue capacity-wise, in his opinion. He made the point that a family of 4 coming to visit him at Westminster faced a hefty bill for train fares - and for people who don't regularly travel by rail turning up for a walk-on fare via Virgin, it's a point that is well made and understood. For all of the cheap fares you can obtain by booking in advance, a walk-up fare for some journeys astonishes many people.
Would he "rebel" when it comes to the vote on HS2? In true politician-speak, he avoided that question, but it was clear that the people of Dudley South won't be having the support of their MP if they want HS2! To be fair, HS2 isn't a burning issue in these parts, unlike some of the constituencies where it will pass through. But nonetheless HS2 IS important to the Black Country - for reasons far more wide-ranging than simply getting people to London "a few minutes quicker" (which I corrected him on) - the whole issue of capacity on the existing network is vital to our long-term rail system in the West Midlands as well as new journey opportunities, and the chance to get more freight onto the tracks (might affect the long-term objectives of a certain truck retailer?)
Locally, what about buses?
The Black Country - like many other areas of the country - suffers from chronic traffic congestion at many times of the day. Chris even admitted he'd sat in nose to tail traffic to get to his surgery this evening.
I asked him how he could possibly be happy with that situation.
He made the point about "choice". It's all about giving people the choice about how they get from A to B. Reliability was an issue, but how could buses be more reliable if they were stuck in traffic?
The point was made by Chris that if buses were more reliable, more attractive and ticketing was simpler (the London Oyster was quoted - which we're getting a version of in Centro-land very soon) people would choose to use buses more. We're seeing large-scale investment in new vehicles by the Region's largest operator National Express West Midlands - all good, positive stuff - but it's still only one part of the overall jigsaw.
All very laudable (and an argument I've heard many times over the years), but, as in London, modal-shift has been in action due to a carrot and stick approach. Give the bus the advantage - via bus lanes, for example - and there can be no better advertisement for getting people out of their cars onto the bus.
I accept that, here in Dudley, it's different to London. We don't have lots of places where bus priority can be implemented, but then again, we don't appear to have the politicians - locally or nationally - who seriously want to see something done about the traffic congestion which blights our daily lives. The example Chris gave was an idea to implement a new traffic scheme in nearby Pensnett, which would give much freer access to the trading estate and allow freight to access the motorway network much easier (I wonder who else has been lobbying him!)
I don't accept Chris's analysis that "for most people, getting around by car is their only option". Yes, we have a huge challenge to "sell" public transport - as well as cycling and walking - as an alternative option, and of course people's journeys are often more complicated than we think, but the challenge is to create a situation where these alternative modes are seriously considered - and I admit we're not there by any stretch of the imagination yet. Centro is about to embark on a large-scale project - "Smart Network: Smarter Choices" which will attempt to address some of these issues. Whilst it's a challenge to change perceptions of public transport and other alternatives to the car, the will is there to try from Centro.
The other challenge - for everyone who is an advocate of public transport - is to challenge their MP to think about these issues. Public transport is about as exciting as utility bills for those who don't live and breathe it! Myself and other commentators on public transport talk about "making it sexy" - a talking point that gets it into people's thinking.
Whilst we must convince others that thinking about alternatives to the car isn't being "anti-car", we must always engage politicians - local and national - to think differently about public transport, and the difference it can make to congestion and getting around.
Chris talked about Centro lacking discussion about roads themselves. He may have a point, as he appears to see them as having a vested interest in promoting buses trains and trams (of course they do!) but the discussion has to embrace EVERYTHING about how we all move around from A to B (as well as C & D).
Was my 15 minutes with my MP successful? Who can tell? Getting better public transport is an ongoing process that never ends. The point is that we keep moving forward to achieve this, and part of the huge jigsaw that this involves is talking to people that matter. And whatever your views on politicians, they ultimately DO matter in the scheme of things. They are one of many people advocates of public transport need to talk to again and again and again to underline the importance of this industry and what it does for millions of people every day.
As for Chris Kelly MP, I'll keep talking to him, face-to-face, via social media or any via any other avenue. So long as he is my MP, he is one of many people who can make a difference. And as someone who wants the best public transport we can achieve he knows I will!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Taking The Bus Driver Challenge!

When National Express West Midlands asked if I'd like to try my hand at driving a bus, what was I to say? 
I write about them, monitor them, ride them endlessly, take pictures of them, read about them.....but DRIVE one? 
There were 4 brave souls from Bus Users UK who were up for the challenge. After a quick briefing at NXWM's training centre at Walsall Garage, we were taken out into the large training area, marked out with various cones and kerb-style mock ups. Just as well it was large - there were other trainees going through their paces, and whilst they were doing it for real, we all felt slightly apprehensive about getting behind the wheel! 
Our Instructor team split us into 2 pairs. We had a double decker Metrobus and an ex National Express Volvo coach as our vehicles. 
Me and my partner had the Metrobus first. I recognised this as the former "Timesaver" 2951 - a bus I'm sure I've ridden on in much younger days. 
"Who's going first?" shouted the Instructor. It appeared that I had no choice in the matter! 
I had the course explained to me - a bit like a bus version of an obstacle course - littered with cones in all sorts of pretty shapes and sizes. Foot on brake, select "drive", handbrake off, then, like my own automatic car, releasing the footbrake, the classic 80s decker rolled into action. 
I gently touched the accelerator and that familiar Metrobus roar appeared as I gingerly made my way towards the first "challenge" - the mock up kerb. 
"Don't forget the wheels are behind you", reminded the Instructor, as I edged towards my fictitious kerb, with possibly fictitious passengers. 
I didn't do too badly "for a first attempt", apparently, (although I think the Instructor was possibly being kind), as I headed towards challenge number 2 - the chicane. 
Weaving in and out of cones (without mangling them in the back wheels) was completed (without any mangling), and then a diagonal run (avoiding other trainees in their large white steeds) leading to a full left-hand lock, bringing me to challenge number 3 - lining up the back wheels in between two cones. 
"About 6 inches out" said the Instructor. Hey, what's 6 inches amongst friends?! 
The final challenge was the scariest! 2 lines of cones tapering in to 2 final large cones either side of the vehicle, which were positioned just about wide enough to get the bus through.  The secret was to watch the right -hand mirror, get the bus dead straight - and then don't move the steering wheel! Having been hugely tempted to pull the wheel all over the place, I listened intently to the Instructor's advice - and I managed to get through - without any injured cones! 
We swapped teams, Instructors and vehicles - now I was behind the wheel of the Volvo coach. The brakes certainly worked as I applied them for the first time! We repeated the assault course in our new vehicles and then the big test - our Instructor was going to mark us! Aaarrrggghhh!! No advice, no comments, nothing. 
Round the course one more time, trundling with the coach at no more than 10mph - the poor vehicle had once had the prestige of gliding down the motorway but now she had me - proving that the brakes very much worked every few moments! 
I managed to squeeze the coach through the tiny tapered cone arrangement one more time and spun her round, parking her next to the Metrobus which contained our other pairing. 
The moment of truth was very much like an X-Factor moment and in classic 3-2-1 countdown - I'd won with the scores on the doors, to raucous laughter and cheesy grins! We'd all had a lot of fun! 
Apart from a hugely enjoyable afternoon testing our skills behind the wheels of our mighty vehicles, what had we learnt? 
Well, in much the same way that I learnt to drive the Stourbridge Shuttle Class 139 Railcar, I can tell you that it is a lot more challenging than it looks! The real trainees face lots of theory tests and numerous practical ones before they can be let out onto the streets. It may look relatively easy but it requires huge amounts of concentration at all times - and it's very different to driving a car! 
Catching a bus is something most people don't really think about - and shouldn't have to. But driving such a large vehicle, in traffic, thinking not only about what you're doing, but the actions of others, whilst having up to 70+ people behind you is a huge, continuous responsibility. 
Apart from having a hugely enjoyable and fun afternoon, my "driver experience" has helped me to appreciate what skills bus drivers have and what an excellent job they do every day across the highways and byways of our country. 
Thanks to National Express West Midlands and the Training School at Walsall Garage for a fascinating afternoon. 

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Prince's Trust - Inspiring Young Lives In Transport

It's easy to get despondent. 
Only a few weeks ago, a friend remarked to me that he was glad he wasn't growing up these days - and I agreed with him. Young people face a lot of pressure in the World today, trying to make sense of it all, and the lack of jobs, or opportunities to gain experience must be a difficult dilemma to face. 
I was delighted, however, to attend an event at Centro House recently that was different to the usual transport gatherings I pop up at! 
The Prince's Trust "Get Into Transport" programme was, I confess, something I didn't know too much about, but I was very pleased that I attended. 
The scheme has been running for 3 years, and is managed by Centro, with it's partners Virgin Trains and - new for this year - National Express West Midlands. 
It was good to hear how, for the young people involved, the experience had been an overwhelmingly positive one, working, for example, on board Virgin's trains, and inside National Express West Midlands' bus garages, as well as some admin experience at Centro. Often, the people the Prince's Trust help have struggled to find employment, and it is all too apparent that lack of employment or hope after finishing school can often quickly turn to a downward spiral of hopelessness, knocking people's confidence and building on the fears of a "lost generation" of young people who are unemployed, and often unemployable. 
Seeing the 10 young people talking about their experiences was a joy. The World of public transport may not always immediately appear exciting (for me, a 5am start on the Stourbridge Shuttle is sometimes challenging!), but it is a great industry to work in, and so important to millions of people's lives every day. It was clear that their experiences had been very much positive ones - it had given them a sense of purpose, from which bigger and better things will grow. 
A few of them will go on to a longer-term placement with some of the partners to expand further their skills and progress in the world of transport
This scheme isn't going to change the World overnight, but it was so pleasing to see that the public transport industry is joining other industries in working with The Prince's Trust to offer what it can to tackle some of the real difficulties faced by our young people today. If some of them find work and a career in public transport, the partners can be very proud of their efforts. 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Nottingham's Competition for Passengers

I found myself in Nottingham for a few hours yesterday. It's always a pleasure to be here if you're an advocate of good public transport.
Riding the trams is a great reminder of how important and popular a good tram system is. My quick trip up to Hucknall was packed, even in the middle of the day, and the friendly staff looked happy enough in their work, offering passengers (including me) who asked, the choice of a tram day ticket or a "Kangaroo" (all buses, trams and trains in Greater Nottingham). The only slight downside was the dreaded contra-vision on the windows! I also think the conductors would look smarter if they wore a uniform instead of the more casual pullover as attire. The whole tram publicity appears to have had a subtle makeover to make it "softer" and more attractive, with the emphasis on "gliding" (instead of "riding") the system. (It looks very much like a Ray Stenning / Best Impressions production).
On the buses, the on-street competition fascinates me. The Competition Commission must be delighted with what goes on here. NCT and TrentBarton are the big players here, but there is also activity from Premiere and YourBus. What is also interesting is that the standard from all 4 is extremely high - no room for downmarket 20 year-old vehicles in this City! (Although the Statutory Quality Partnership Scheme - the first in the country - might well have something to do with that!)
The battle for "Brand Loyalty" is probably the most fierce as I've seen anywhere in the UK. Premiere takes on TrentBarton over several of their corridors and offers, on the face of it, cheaper fares. There is also a plethora of "deals" to wed passengers to the smaller operator. But TrentBarton have the extraordinary "Mango" smartcard product which offers very significant discounts compared to cash fares (and in turn, cheaper than Premiere on some examples), and is promoted very heavily. It's a very hard competitive battle in this City! I hardly noticed any advertising for the Kangaroo (all operator) ticket anywhere except on the tram (although I didn't have time to ride on any NCT buses to see their version of ticket promotions).
Whilst Premiere offer an undeniably good service (apart from one journey which failed to materialise), TrentBarton's offering is as good as it gets anywhere I've seen in the UK. I recommend anyone wishing to see an excellent model of how to run a bus service to visit "trentbartonland"  (as they call it!) to sample it for themselves.
There is a huge amount of branding going on across all of the operators and I never once saw the "wrong" bus on the "wrong route" - even though TrentBarton ran a couple of "standard" liveried buses on some routes, it was made very clear which services they were.
I shall return to the City for a more in-depth look as to why it is one of the UK's leading public transport cities in the near future, but it is certainly a scenario to discuss within the wider debate about whether areas need "Quality Contracts" or if deregulation of the buses actually worked or not (not a simple question to ever answer!). Here is a City with some of the best public transport in the UK - and all done in a deregulated environment.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Unintended Consequences?

Boarding a bus in Wolverhampton quite late the other night, I soon became aware of an all too familiar event.
The driver of the bus (not National Express West Midlands) was refusing to accept a day ticket issued by NXWM. The holders of these tickets were 2 young-ish looking girls.
In the end, although I couldn't quite see or hear the discussion in great detail, there appeared to be some resolution to the conflict and we departed, still with the 2 girls on board.
But my journey home was filled with contemplation about the unintended consequences of this not irregular scene.
From the driver's perspective, he's damned whatever he does.
Accept the rival operator's ticket and he's lost his own company some revenue. Kick off the girls and there's a moral issue. No one would wish there to be a repeat of what happened in Nottingham in recent times when a girl was refused a ride home because she couldn't pay the full fare, which resulted in dreadful circumstances. The driver in that instance was roundly condemned in the media, but we don't know the full story.
Moral dilemmas such as this are difficult for the driver. Of course there are people who will "try it on". I see evidence of this when I'm working on the railway. But what about people who have inadvertently purchased the wrong ticket?
Passenger Focus has raised a not dissimilar issue about tickets on the railway. Offers are plentiful and cheap deals to be had, if you can be flexible about your times and dates. But it makes a lot of people's heads spin! And many aren't convinced they've got the best ticket for their journey.
On the buses, there is much to be considered about the issue on the late night Wolverhampton service.
OK, the girls should have bought an n-bus, which allows all-operator travel. But that is an awfully easy thing for me to say, who eats and breathes public transport.
National Express West Midlands' DaySaver is a very successful commercial product. Effective, bold marketing - on bus, and even all over the side of some of their new buses - obviously helps the cause. A bargain £3.80, it is used by many passengers every day. And when you consider the main single fare is £1.90, you're effectively getting all day NX travel for the price of what would be a return ticket.
NXWM is by far the largest operator in the area - and that isn't always a bad thing for the consumer. We may talk about choice and competition - and that is another argument for another day - but the NXWM network is huge and comprehensive. Chances are, at least during the daytime, you'll get where you want to be by using their services.
Centro's all-operator offering - n-bus - is only 20p more expensive, but allows use on most other bus operators as well as NX. Although sales of this product are rising, I still encounter much unawareness of n-bus. It is advertised in Centro's "Network West Midlands" corporate style, but to my mind, it isn't as "in your face" as the NXWM promotion of DaySaver. I'm certainly no marketing expert, but Daysaver appears to be far more known as a product than the all-operator version.
The competition authorities are probably pleased such market-forces exist. A choice between 2 products to suit personal needs. And they do. I'm by no means knocking NXWM's DaySaver product - it's marketed well, is well-used, and is a great value ticket offering excellent value.
And yet I wonder about the impression that has been left on the girls the other night, and of countless others who have come across this situation. Public transport is a maze for many. Timetables, routes, tickets - none of it is easy for many. It's a bit like me being asked to change my broadband supplier - I know there's lots of choice and I'd probably get a better deal. But I never get around to it because, a) it doesn't really interest me and b) I prefer the easy life! Do some people see the "offer" and deposit their £3.80 for a bargain ticket because they see "unlimited bus journeys"? You bet they do! Are they aware that for 20p more they can have "unlimited bus journeys - but by any operator"? Maybe some are, but for many, they aren't. The inevitable problem with the driver of the non-NXWM driver will leave them with a negative image of bus travel - one we could do without.
So what's the answer? Do away with operator-specific tickets and just have all-operator ones? It works in London! But London has different rules. And let's not even start to discuss the merits (or otherwise) of how franchising (or "Quality Contracts") might address this!
No, the answer is....there isn't really an answer! NXWM aren't about to give up DaySaver - it's a commercial success for them - and a great value ticket for it's legion of happy users. Their income from participation in n-bus isn't as great. And I'm not suggesting that they're forced to ditch DaySaver. For those that only use that ticket, who am I to suggest that they pay more to accommodate journeys on other operators that they may never use?
Maybe more aggressive marketing of n-bus to raise awareness higher? (A suggestion I put to Centro today).
To many people a bus is a bus is a bus. If they buy a DaySaver during the day, go out and return to find another operator on their route on an evening, is it their fault for not researching that fact in advance - especially if they are not a regular user? What price do we put on a "bad experience" of a "humiliation" by the driver, in front of an audience of onlookers?
Buses should be easy to use and understand. That is the simple crux of the matter for all of us who advocate more use of the mode. Sometimes it isn't easy to articulate, and in the case of the "wrong ticket" it is an unintended consequence of what ought to be a decent example of consumer choice for the user. A bad experience on the bus shouldn't be part of the plan, but a solution that suits all parties may be more difficult to find.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Dependent On Our Cars?

I often get into discussions with all sorts of people about "car dependency". I'm acutely aware of the need to make the public transport "offer" as good as it can be.
Working on both sides of the fence in the world of public transport helps me to see the issues from all sorts of angles. Sometimes, we need the big schemes, like the new Wolverhampton bus station. Other times, we need to make sure that the travelling public receives the very best we can offer, especially when things go wrong.
"Car dependency" is often a challenge to define. You could say that even I am "car dependent" - for when I'm on an early shift that begins at 5am, there's no public transport to get me to Stourbridge Junction, in order to drive the first train on the Shuttle. For people who work all sorts of strange hours, public transport often doesn't work for them. We can't expect public transport to be there at every moment around the clock. It isn't a personal taxi service. Public transport is about moving numbers of people around when demand is there. There is a debate to be had around "demand" - even one about "creating demand" too!
Hats off then, to the Campaign for Better Transport, who have created a report entitled the "Car Dependency Scorecard". It gathers research from all sorts of different areas and gives us something to get our teeth into! The main thrust of the document creates a "league table" of towns and cities that are least through to most "car dependent".
The least car-dependent areas are:
1. London
2. Brighton & Hove
3. Nottingham
At the bottom of the league are:
24= Colchester
24= Peterborough
26. Wigan
Reading the report throws up some strange conclusions, such as the average Londoner needing to spend only 2.5% of their weekly wages on a bus pass, car ownership in Nottingham is just 35%, 1 in 10 Colchester people can only access their place of work by car and in Wigan 60% of all commuting is done by car. The good and bad starkly laid out before us.
It is simple to ask "why"?
We know that London has excellent public transport, but it comes at a cost. In the example of our capital, you really do get what you pay for. But London is often seen as unique.
What is more curious, and fascinating is why, say, Brighton is so good, and Wigan bottom of the pile?
There is no simple answer, of course. But it is clear that the likes of Brighton & Hove, and the ever excellent Nottingham, have some kind of transport "gold" going on, whereas Colchester appears not.
Politics? Maybe. Investment? Or lack thereof? Definitely. Vision? It's worked in Nottingham. Whenever I'm in the East Midlands City, I try to work out why it's public transport is good. Yes, they have a tram - that's always a good start! But the buses are clean, efficient and well-presented. There is more than one operator, but here there is a battle of quality going on. You get the impression that, for example, Nottingham City Transport and TrentBarton don't want to be upstaged by the other. Win-Win for passengers.
The CBT report urges the reversal of recent cuts to bus service funding and more partnerships, which are bringing better services to the people of the West Midlands, for example.
When it comes to cycling and walking, Cambridge comes out on top. But perhaps surprisingly, Dudley reaches the top 5 as an alternative to the car. Birmingham, more unsurprisingly comes out bottom but one - beaten only to the wooden spoon by Gateshead. Still work to do to convince Brummies that 2 wheels are important.
When it comes to car use, however, Dudley sinks into the bottom 3. Here, well over a third of all children are driven to school. That comes as no surprise when the local roads are severely congested in the morning. Only Leeds and Milton Keynes are worse. In MK, 97% of people of driving age own a car. But is this surprising, given that the whole feel to this town is that it was designed around car use?
One example to give us hope is Southampton, which has been rising up the league. New partnerships in South Hampshire and significant project funding from the Better Bus Areas and Local Sustainable Transport Funds show what can can be achieved.
Dudley's problems are highlighted as it's relative lack of railway stations and the effect of the Merry Hill Centre - although major public transport improvements and bus priority are coming soon here. It suggests Bristol is being "contradictory" for both having good policies on travel plans, parking and a proposed workplace levy on parking to pay for better public transport, but also for progressing a long list of road schemes around the edge of the City. ("Induced traffic", it says, is a well-known consequence of road-building and widening).
All in all, it is an interesting publication that creates as many questions as it answers.
But it is clear that public transport needs to keep on improving - with the help of local authority partners - if it is to seriously challenge the damaging effects of "car dependency" with its twin negatives of congestion and pollution.

The Report - "Car Dependency Scorecard 2012 - The Top UK Cities for Sustainable Transport" can be downloaded as a .pdf from the Campaign for Better Transport's website at

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Bamboozled By The American Dream

When Leyton Orient's football match with Hartlepool was called off yesterday because the visitor's coach was stuck in gridlock on the M11, an American (now living in the UK) joined in the discussion on Eurosport's website. This is what he had to say, and it's a refreshing view from one of our US friends......

The real tragedy is that the Brits don't realise how they've been influenced–and ultimately bamboozled–by the "American dream" of car ownership. As a Yank who has lived for years in the UK, I've been amazed by friends' and colleagues' willingness to sit in traffic–often for hours, the above being a case in point) when the train will drop them off at the door with less headache and angst. The argument that trains are more expensive doesn't hold, because when you factor in the gas/petrol, car park fees, the value of one's time which can be spent on the train catching up on reading or sleeping…driving, unless at least three people are going at once, just ain't worth it. The UK doesn't have the roads to support the number of vehicles on them and, unlike the US, you have public transportation that actually works. I bought a Beemer when I arrived and shortly thereafter got rid of it.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Signalling The Future

You might consider it a faithful old Grandfather. Rail travellers passing through Stourbridge Junction might barely notice it. But from the halcyon days of steam to the air-conditioned trains of today, Stourbridge Middle Signal Box (to give it it's correct title - there used to be 3) has faithfully served the railway for 111 years. 
This weekend, however, the old faithful is finally being retired, as a new signalling system, controlled from Saltley in Birmingham, is commissioned. 
For the travelling public, nothing will change. Likely improvements will follow, with reductions in delays should problems occur. For rail enthusiasts - and people like me who work at Stourbridge Junction - it is the end of an era. 
Built in 1901 to accompany the "new" Stourbridge Junction station (the original "Stourbridge" station was slightly north of the original site), it was one of 3 (Stourbridge North closing in 1978 and Stourbridge South in 1973). It was responsible for an area just north of Hagley to Jewellery Quarter. 
Sister boxes at Blakedown, Kidderminster and Hartlebury are also closing as part of the scheme and the national roll-out will include closures in Walsall, Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Stafford in the coming years. Some 19th Century signal boxes, with mechanical levers, are listed, and will remain in situe, but Stourbridge isn't one that has listed status. It is understood that the building may remain however, under the ownership of Chiltern Railways, which has a maintenance facility and staff based at Stourbridge Junction, although this isn't confirmed at the time of writing. The name plate, attached to the side of the building, will be auctioned off for charity. 
It's all progress, of course, but, like all old buildings, it has such a fascinating history, both functional, and of course for the people that have worked there over the years. 
As someone who had to visit the signal box as part of my duties driving the Stourbridge Shuttle, it will be strange not to have to climb the steps first thing in the morning or last thing at night. The building has a special aura to it, and of course being an important working building played a vital role every day in the running of the local railway. 
Nationally, more than 800 signal boxes will be replaced by 14 new signalling centres, and we will be more reliant on heritage railways like the Severn Valley Railway to see images of our proud railway past, still in working condition. 
Of course we can't stop the tide of progress. And if it means more efficient railways, would we want to? 
But it was nonetheless a moment to pause for reflection after I finished my shift on the branch line last night, to the continuous achievements of signalers, who have worked continuously at Stourbridge Junction for 111 years, keeping our trains running safely and efficiently, from a wonderful old building. 

Please note that the photograph was taken with special permission. Access to the area from where the photograph was taken is not available to the general public. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The First or Last Time?

Ever since Victor Meldrew uttered the immortal phrase "I don't believe it", battle-weary Brits have borrowed it to express their incredulity at a situation. Or merely as a substitute to a sigh.
There's been much observing this week in the railway world at the news of FirstGroup's trumping of Virgin for the West Coast mainline franchise. Much of it centered around the Meldrew phrase - even seasoned commentators wondering just how the Barbie operation could promise the Earth to the passenger and the taxpayer more gold at the same time.
I recall the early days of rail privatisation back in the 90s. The railways had yet to hit their "golden" period. The West Coast mainline was as popular as the famous old BR sandwich. Virgin had "mission impossible" to achieve, but Branson and co were up for the challenge. In a strange combination of the man responsible for introducing the World to "Tubular Bells" and the rags-to-riches busman Sir Brian Souter, Virgin Trains helped to change the face of travel on the WCML. From 10m passengers per year in 97 to 31m today, tilting high-speed Pendolinos replacing stock inherited that was over 30 years old, and a 91% customer satisfaction rating, few would argue that Virgin Trains did good.
FirstGroup, however, are offering candy. More of it. 11 new 6-car electric trains. Major refurbishment of the current fleet. Free wi-fi. New routes from Blackpool (from 2013) and Shropshire to the capital (planned from 2016). Cuts of 15% for some "walk-up" fares. The promises roll on.
Tim O'Toole, FirstGroup's CEO, is a shrewd operator. Since taking control of the transport giant in turbulent economic times, he would appear to know what he's up to. The bus division - long seen as being in need of serious review - is far from being out of the woods in that respect. But the challenge is being taken up, and I believe that, in the long-term, First's buses will improve. The Group's rail operations - including the long-distance Great Western - have inevitably had their critics, but have settled down.
So why do we view the awarding of the WCML franchise to FirstGroup with such suspicion and, in some parts, outright derision?
Have we seen this all before, particularly on the other side of the country, with the East Coast? GNER handed the keys back early, followed by a similar tale of woe from National Express. Maybe we can't exactly see how First can deliver all of these promises of better services, given the ambitious promises of much higher premiums back to the taxpayer. Does Branson have a point, or is he merely a sore loser? Has Tim O'Toole a brilliant masterplan that can deliver over the next decade and beyond, or has he ambitiously overbid? Make no mistake, this is a gamble for both FirstGroup and the Department for Transport.
The incredibly complicated world of railway franchising is not for the faint-hearted. It has already resulted in the East Coast having to be retaken back into public control following the disastrous National Express tenure, although one could argue that the breaking of the economic crisis put paid to the over-ambitious aspirations of Richard Bowker's outfit at the time.
Nevertheless, this is arguably an even bigger risk for FirstGroup. Fail with this one and there will be nowhere to hide. Both for them and the DfT. It would be no consolation for Branson to shout "I told you so" from the sidelines. As for the Government, the DfT's reputation would be in tatters.
But many are predicting a fait accompli. Just because it's happened before doesn't mean it's necessarily going to happen again. Challenging? Definitely. Achievable? Quite possibly.
We must hope, ultimately for passenger's sake, that First and the DfT have got it right this time. Or it could be the last time we see such examples of ambitious bidding for such a big prize.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Team GB Transport - The Silent Heroes

Whilst all the hype, plaudits and glory went to Team GB's athletes, when we reflect on the wider outcome of of London 2012, a huge lesson to learn was the successful implementation of the "car free games".
This had never been achieved before. An event the size and importance of this - including all the logistics of moving competitors, officers and media - to be operated largely private car-free, was an enormous task - and years in the planning.
And, like Team GB itself, it was a spectacular success.
The booming tones of London Mayor Boris Johnson had been heard in railway stations across the land, imploring us to "get ahead of the games" (dot com) as London threatened to grind to a complete standstill for Games fortnight. In the end, everything ran mostly to plan, and the collective efforts of "Team GB Transport" can be viewed with a sense of pride. Britain, of all places, proved that life goes on without the car.
Records were broken not only on the track, but on the tube. On one day, usage was up 19%. The Docklands Light Railway carried 70% more than it's normal daily levels, and Boris's cycle hire was also a success - recording 1 million journeys for the first time.
Further afield, a good news story in Sheffield, home of the Queen of the heptathlon Jessica Ennis. First has reported encouraging passenger growth on some routes in the City as people took to the buses to go to watch events or to celebrate with a trip to the pub. Special fare offers on 8 key routes have proved so popular that the operator is extending them beyond the end of the Olympics into September and possibly beyond. Fare cuts aren't always the simple answer to get more bums on seats and revive routes, but, coupled with the spectacular success of the London Olympic transport experience, there are encouraging lessons to be learnt here.
If public transport can deliver - as it most certainly has in this example - it is a win-win for everyone. The over-riding lesson appears to be partnership working and co-operation. Again, this won't and can't work everywhere for all sorts of reasons, but it has always been the case that where different organisations share the same vision eg forward-thinking bus operators teaming up with like-minded local authorities, great things can happen.
Making public transport work seamlessly so that the public don't even think about it is the ultimate goal.
Director of Transport at the Olympic Delivery Authority Hugh Sumner was asked how he might define transport success at the games.
"As long as it says sport on the front pages and not transport, we will have done our jobs" he said.
And the job has been done. Efficiently, successfully and quietly.
So whilst we bask in the glory of a successful Olympics for Team GB, let's also raise a glass to everyone involved in "Team GB Transport" - the silent heroes!

some background information in this blog provided by Passenger Transport magazine

Monday, 23 July 2012

The End Of An Era - And Golden Future!

For some bus users in Birmingham City Centre, last Saturday (21st July 2012) was the end of an era.
The City Centre saw various road closures, revisions and traffic-flow reversals in order to pave the way for the return of trams to the City's streets.
One of the main arteries - Corporation Street - lost its buses, which have dispersed to several other locations  around the City, which is now based around 6 key "hubs". Other locations were also affected. Bull St also closed, whilst Carrs Lane and Lower Bull St saw its traffic flow reversed.
National Express West Midlands and Centro (joined by Bus Users UK volunteers) provided marshals to advise the travelling public, and large maps and information appeared in stops to inform of the large-scale changes. A lovely touch was provided by National Express West Midlands, which gave free tours down Corporation St and around the City Centre in its preserved 1954 Daimler 3225 - a vehicle which had first traversed Corporation St when new 58 years ago! It looked resplendent in it's Birmingham City Transport livery and brought a lot of admiring glances from shoppers! The bus later made history that evening at 11pm  by carrying invited guests along Bull Street and Corporation Street as the last ever bus to do so! Several punters were still standing at bus stops awaiting their late night services, oblivious to the large information posters in the shelters! The bus then made another piece of history moments later by becoming the FIRST bus to travel UP Carrs Lane from Moor Street, as the road now has a reversed traffic flow.
What about all this "upheaval"? Why have thousands of passengers had their travel arrangements changed? Is it all worth it?
The resounding answer has to be a huge YES!
For many years I've been mildly critical of public transport in Birmingham. It's been "average", but I've always looked on enviously at other large urban areas across the UK and Europe where exciting projects have boosted public transport to a method of travel of FIRST resort - something we all have to aspire to in order to tackle wasteful traffic congestion and the damaging effects of pollution.
But in recent times, I've become more and more excited at the prospect of Birmingham finally getting into gear and upping the game when it comes to our transport.
Let's be clear - it's been a long time coming!
Manchester has an effective network of tram routes. Nottingham has some of the best buses and trams anywhere in the country. Birmingham had fallen behind with it's transport, but we're now catching up in a big way!
OK, so the French might have built an entire network of trams in the time it has taken Birmingham to agree a mile of tram extension from Snow Hill to New Street, but at last we're moving forward. And hopefully it's the precursor to more.
Seeing the tram on the City's streets sends an important message. Like Cologne, Brussels and Manchester amongst others, it says that the City takes high quality, effective public transport seriously.
That isn't to say that buses aren't important. They are the very lifeblood of public transport and will of course continue to play a vital role in moving people. The new Quality Partnership for Birmingham City Centre will see new statutory agreed levels of quality, and this can only be a good thing for the City. We're already seeing lots of new buses in town as well as the various examples of hybrid technology buses, providing the City with its cleanest, greenest buses ever.
We've also seen new rolling stock on the railways, and quicker journey times to London. High Speed 2 focuses on Birmingham, and whilst this is many years away yet, it is a welcome political investment in Birmingham. The "new" New Street station redevelopment will provide a much improved environment for travellers too.
Have we got public transport right in the City?
Of course not. Yet.
Like any industry, there is always room to improve, room to innovate, lessons to be learnt. Working in partnership to achieve these aims is vital, and - whisper it quietly - there seems to be a determination to achieve improvements across our public transport in the City and wider urban conurbation. It won't happen overnight, but I am genuinely convinced that we're moving forward in the right direction.
Centro are doing some great things on several levels, working with the operators across various modes, and the Network West Midlands "brand" is increasingly recognised.
So, the diggers have moved in, and within 3 years we'll be "back to the future" in a way when trams once more roll around the City's streets. Learning lessons from the past is helping the public transport professionals in Birmingham to move forward in the quest to provide better public transport.
When the "Road Closed" signs were pulled across Corporation Street at 11pm last Saturday, it was indeed the "End Of An Era" - but we are definitely looking forward to a Golden Future in public transport for Birmingham!

The picture shows both the end of an era and a bright future! Diamond Buses Optare Versa hybrid diesel/electric is one of the UK's most environmentally-friendly buses. It is picking up passengers on Corporation Street, Birmingham on the final afternoon before the road closed to allow works to begin to bring the Midland Metro tram down the famous street.