Saturday, 4 February 2012

Are Buses Local?

What endears passengers to their bus? In many respects, nothing!
Certainly at this time of year, running on time is surely the number one requirement (as it should be at any time of the year - except us passengers feel it more acutely at -5C when it's late!)
Passenger's "relationship" with their bus service can often run deeper though. Let's be honest, unless you're a fan of buses, your excitement levels will barely reach above "mundane" on the Richter scale when one appears. But you don't have to be a bus enthusiast to appreciate your local bus service a little bit more.
Around my local parts, National Express West Midlands has been running a "Love Your Bus" campaign. I see the thinking and logic behind it, but such a campaign is meaningless unless passengers are genuinely delighted with their travel experience. I'm usually satisfied with NX services, but "wow" factors are rare, unlike when I use some of the UK Bus Awards winning companies.
It's a bit like First's TV advertising campaign last year. Like them, I agree that "buses are our future", and I actually think that the industry should shout more about the vital and good work that it does every day. But First's TV ad was too cheesy! A bit of fun, maybe, but the result was, at best, some disbelief from regular passengers, and at worst a slating from some quarters.
But First is up to something more subtle, and the results could deliver far more than a jolly TV ad.
"Better Journeys For Life" is MD Giles Fearnley's attempt at turning around First's UK bus division. The new "manifesto" contains new commitments to customers, staff, partners, shareholders, safety, the environment and "developing the art of listening".
I've used First services throughout the UK, and whilst I don't necessarily buy into the "company bashing" that some people engage in, I've often been left with a niggling cold "corporate" feel to their services, which begins with the "barbie" pink livery.
Now, the colour of the bus shouldn't matter one iota, yet I believe company livery is vital to kicking off a passenger's experience with a bus company. Some of the UK's best operators have understood this. TrentBarton in Nottingham and Derby have employed the services of designer Ray Stenning to stunning effect. Ditto Go North East. The result is a plethora of individually liveried routes. What's so special about that? I think it encourages a subtle feeling of "ownership" inside regular passengers. "That's MY bus" - because, it has a hyper-local feel to it. Add other elements of community feel, such as regular drivers who get to know their passengers and you have, potentially, a winning formula. And for visitors and non-regular users, the bright individuality of a route is reassuring. When I was carrying out some mystery shopping for Go North East a few years ago, I found myself in places I'd never been before - the sight of, say, a bright orange bus on the "Fab 56" service (as it has been branded) gives a lot of confidence to the intending traveller.
Buses ARE local. They serve their local communities and are at the heart of them. I've never really felt that imposing national branding has been the right way forward. Even the National Bus Company of the 70s acknowledged that, despite the monolith livery imposed from the top of the tree, the local operating name survived.
First's move to "localise" operations is as welcome as is necessary. As part of its "Better Journeys For Life" manifesto, a gradual image change to something more local will follow, starting in Leeds.
And yet, the "new" livery isn't that different to what is already there. I suspect a wholesale change might have proved to much, too fast. And of course, it would have taken literally years to repaint the entire 8000+ First fleet (as is proving with the achingly slow transition from Travel West Midlands to National Express West Midlands around my local area).
But it's a start, and I wish Giles Fearnley all the very best in his quest to make First a more human, friendly face. He's certainly the man to achieve this.
It'll be fascinating to see how this progresses.

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Badger in the 4 Foot - A New Job on the Railway

"As one door closes, another one opens", someone once remarked.
The blog has been quiet in recent months, but I haven't lost interest! Rather, I've been concentrating on a new job in the world of public transport.
For more years than I care to remember, both on a voluntary and paid capacity, I've been involved in passenger representation. My roles firstly at Bus Users UK and in more recent times at Passenger Focus have been fascinating.
Since losing my role at Passenger Focus through enforced budget cutbacks, I was determined to stay in public transport. Whilst the industry has its fair share of critics, I believe passionately in the product, in all its various guises. Yes, there's always more to do, and provision of public transport transport in this country is often a complex web of responsibility, but its such an important sector. That's why, when I walked out of the revolving door at Passenger Focus last year, I wasn't walking out of public transport for good.
So when the opportunity to work in public transport on the front line became available, I jumped at it!
For 15 years, I worked in the NHS, initially as a hospital porter. I loved the job back then and missed the "front line" service, even though I had some wonderful times at Bus Users UK and Passenger Focus.
The chance to work on the railways, providing the service, was something I had to try.
The Parry People Mover is something unique in the railway world. It's actually designated a railcar, and provides a high frequency service (every 10 minutes) on the Stourbridge branch line. And here was an opportunity to drive it!
I'd long been a fan of the Class 139 (to give it it's correct terminology). It's flywheel technology means that it's much more environmentally-friendlier than the large diesel class 153 unit it replaced. It runs more frequently than its predecessor and it has a flat-level entrance making it much more easily-accessible for buggies and wheelchair users. it's a perfect solution for small branch lines such as Stourbridge, and the hope is that it can be the catalyst for more reopening of disused railway lines.
But to drive it, I'd need to go through the training course!
First up, a psychometric test. These are several elements of tests, including concentration, memory and logic. Some of my fellow candidates failed and I'd convinced myself that I too hadn't made it! They're tough! Then a structured interview in which I had to describe an emergency situation. I was fairly mentally exhausted at the end of the day!
Having survived the opening hurdle, its then on to learning the rules and regulations of the railway. And there are lots of them.
The first thing that struck me about the railway is the emphasis put on safety. As passengers, we take for granted the safety of our railways, but it really is the most important element of the job. Signals, methods of work, who does what, who doesn't do what, the phonetic alphabet (yes, I can do it all the way through!) - it all has to be learnt and tested on.
I obtained my personal track safety competency - the highlight of which was walking on the track at Kings Norton with CrossCountry Voyagers passing at speed - a lesson in understanding that, even at short distance, you can't hear trains approaching until they're really close. That's why Network Rail's education work in keeping schoolkids off the track is so vitally important - you won't get a second chance if a train hits you.
Back at Stourbridge Junction, the theory work ongoing, the practical work of actually driving the class 139 was the next step. I'd had a go on the private section of the track next to the depot, but now was my time to take it down the three-quarters of a mile single line down to Stourbridge Town!
Of course, safety being the number one priority, this would be in the dead of night, no passengers on board and the destination display set decisively to "Not In Service"!
And so it was, myself and the instructor, set off from Stourbridge Junction at gone midnight, through the first set of points at 4mph, gradually rising to 10mph on my first trip, down a gradient of 1 in 63 to the deserted Stourbridge Town. And we repeated this. All night long.
The line speed is 20mph, so hardly "High Speed Rail" (!) but it's certainly a bit hairy when you see a badger in the 4 foot (between the rails) looking at you! There's all sorts of wildlife on the branch line, including foxes, magpies, a buzzard (named "Leighton" by the drivers) and a ginger cat who leaves his tail tantalizingly on the rail until the last possible moment in a cheeky "man v cat" battle of mind games.....
Several overnights ensued in order to get used to the feel of handling the railcar and then it was time for the next stage - driving under supervision in public service.
At 0547 one dark wintry morning before Christmas, I trundled down the line from Junction to Town, carrying my first passenger! I don't think he was bothered, his book keeping him entirely engrossed.
Many more shifts carried out, under supervision, I gained confidence in driving with the comfort and safety of my passengers uppermost in my mind, even though the cat was still playing games and the fox liked to skip along the rail before diving off into the undergrowth.
More workbooks, more assessments, more supervised driving hours until, early in January, I was finally deemed ready to be passed out to drive unsupervised as a fully-fledged member of staff.
The job also involves checking tickets and helping passengers and its great to see our regulars on a daily basis. In many aspects, there's a real community feel to the operation, with a regular team of staff carrying, mostly, regular travellers. We see them going to work in the morning, and we see them coming home at night, off to the shops, even returning, suitcase-laden, from their holidays!
The 0330 alarm call for the early shift has little glamour attached to it (!) but I'm enjoying the experience tremendously!
And I'm still "jumping back over the fence" and helping to represent passenger interests in the world of buses as a volunteer with Bus Users UK - a role I first took up over 20 years ago when it was still known as the National Federation of Bus Users!
Now - tickets and passes please.....