Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Folly of the Great Fuel Scandal

What a surprise.
The moment Mr Cameron issued his Pike-like "Don't Panic" edict, there was only going to be one outcome. A mad dash to the pumps, with all the usual motorist's manners of pushing, shoving and "me first". How depressingly typical.
Whatever Unite's reasons to vote for strike action, it proves once again how over-dependent on barrels of fuel the Western World is.
Public transport ought to be well-placed to capitalize on such angst amongst motorists.
I for one haven't joined in the melee down at the pumps, because I know the bus, train and tram can get me to where I want to go, most of the time.
I'll just pause for a moment for those who now wish to rant at me about how their life depends on the car to compose themselves first.
But I'm being pedantic.
However much there's a lot of truth in the fact that public transport is well-placed to pick up new users, it rather isn't that simple.
Rail is enjoying a boom time. There are already record numbers of people using the trains, and we're having to play catch-up with regard to capacity issues. Backing High Speed Rail 2 is a welcome move, as are plans to add extra capacity in the form of carriages in some areas. But there is still lots to do.
Buses are different. Operators are finding it increasingly difficult to operate services profitably. Local Authority budgets are facing significant cuts to subsidise some services.
And the elephant in the room is that, for many people, buses aren't on their radar, for a whole host of reasons.
My blogs are often positive about public transport, because I have a passion for good public transport - and there's plenty of it around. But the industry still has a monstrous challenge to convert more people to use buses - and the bus industry can't do it alone. It needs Local Authorities and local politicians who are on the same wavelength.
There is also the issue of actually understanding public transport.
I've seen seemingly intelligent people stare blankly at timetables and information. I work with it every day, but I recognise that there is still a job to simplify the information that the travelling public sees and tries to use. Describing large conurbations like the West Midlands Centro area is always going to be a challenge, but it is this very interface that people have to come into contact with. How sad it would be if, given the impending fuel strike, people turned to public transport and had a poor experience, for whatever reason.
Now, more than ever, is the time to pick up new passengers and leave them with a feeling of "hey, that wasn't actually that bad. I might use it again".
There are lots of variables until we get to that point, but our public transport network is basically a decent one in many areas. Selling it to fuel-starved motorists - and then keeping them - must be the focus for every single person who works in the public transport industry.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Son of Happy Dragon!

Back in the 80s, when bus deregulation set the shackles free on bus livery and branding, Crosville (remember them?) not only had a lighter shade of green to what I remember as a small child, but also a big brash cartoon creature adoring part of their double deckers on the “Cymru Coastliner” – a “happy dragon”, no less.
Fast forward to 2012, and the dragon has breathed his last bit of fire a long time ago (happily retired, on at least one preserved Olympian), but the name of “Cymru Coastliner” is back – adorning some very smart Arriva double deckers on the long Chester-Rhyl service. Carol Kirkwood predicted fine weather, I had a couple of days off, so out came the travel bag!
First, I had to get to Chester.
A smooth 30 minutes aboard a London Midland Liverpool-bound train to Crewe was followed by a much improved class 158 of Arriva Trains Wales – showing off it’s newly refurbished interior. I was never a fan of 158s, but this at least looks and feels a lot better, even though the legroom for your own “Happy 6’7” Dragon” still leaves a lot to be desired. In many ways, Crewe to Chester reminds me of a big version of Stourbridge Town – Stourbridge Junction, with 1 train shuttling up and down with no stations in between. I bet I still complete more round trips then them though, when I’m at work!
Avoiding the temptation of the bacon roll offer at Chester station (difficult!) I was confronted with Helms of Eastham outside the front of the station. Last time I was here, there was a free shuttle bus to the City Centre. Now it’s £1. And I wonder if, in the long term, it is actually costing the Council more in concessionary pass payments than it ever did before…..
There’s plenty of takers. One full bus moves away and the next bus rapidly fills up, with the friendly driver reminding several takers that it isn’t actually a free bus. Several more pound coin transactions take place and within minutes we’re in the heart of the shopping area of Chester. Everyone piles off and more pile back on. The bus pulls away with a notice on its rear end proclaiming “I’m not as ugly as the other bus”. What on earth is that all about?!
The less-ugly shuttle bus doesn’t serve the bus station though (or “bus exchange”, as I discover), and for those not au fait with this historic City, it’s a bit awkward to locate, hidden (as many bus stations are) in a strange corner.
The bus station is as I remember it from the last time – fairly uninspiring, but seemingly functional. First and Arriva (as direct descendants of Chester City Transport and Crosville respectively) are the main players here , and route 1 “The Blacon Pointer” (the raison d’etre of my last visit) is still very much in evidence here – and still strange to see First and Arriva’s logo’s on each others vehicles, such is the spirit of “partnership” in this City (on this route, in any case).
There is still a small hut complete with man in dayglo tabard to advise us passengers, but I locate the “where to board your bus” board to see where my trusty stead will depart from.
“BX6” is the answer. Seemingly “Bus Exchange 6”. I’ve not come across a “bus exchange” anywhere else. Interchange, maybe, but “exchange”?
“BX6” is found by means of deduction. The remote shelter at the bottom of the exchange is anonymous, save for a route 11 timetable. The huge number 6, which should adorn said stand appears to have been picked away by Chester’s naer-do-wells.
A small gaggle of half a dozen passengers has gathered for the 1130 departure. A taxi driver manages to park right in the stand. You can hear the bus driver sigh from 200 metres. He unloads the incoming healthy load then pulls up to the stand and slams the door shut, walking off with his money bag. 5 minutes and a couple of photos later, he’s back and the few of us board the impressive looking bus, declaring its “free wi-fi”.
Most have concessionary passes, but I ask him for a day ticket. “Which one?” he asks. “Arriva please” I respond. “£6.50” he says, then asks where I’m going to. “Rhyl”, I offer. A quick nod of the head and I am relieved of coinage.
I make my way to the upper deck, where I greeted by luxurious seats and plenty of legroom. It isn’t THE most luxurious bus I’ve ever been on, but it feels nice, bright and clean.
And we’re soon on our way, speeding along unusually dead straight roads, past the huge Airbus factory and plunging into small villages. The bus appears to feel the wind quite easily as anything above 20 mph is greeted by the noise of a draught, even if we can’t feel it.
We pass beneath a low bridge at Shotton – the reason for the slightly lower than usual height double deckers?
The bus’s destination is actually Holywell (connect to Rhyl). Another effect of European legislation that sees the same bus and driver complete the full length of the journey, but has to be shown technically as two separate ones.
At Holywell we are greeted by a tiny bus station. I’ve never been here before. We are scheduled to have a 5 minute break here (presumably whilst the driver presses a button to show “Rhyl” or runs to a phone box to get changed, or something….) he even comes upstairs to inform us all that we’ll be here for a few minutes, actually “blaming the council” for changing the times! I replace my headphone in right ear-hole to the strains of Aretha Franklin, bemused.
I spot the “hole in the wall” cafĂ© from my upper deck window, but before I can consider running downstairs and grabbing something with bacon in it, we’re off again, waving at another 11 running in the opposite direction.
On this leg of the journey, the service takes on a very “local bus” feel, traversing several housing estates and a barriered caravan park on its way to Rhyl. The service appears to be reasonably well used, although I’m the only one making an end to end journey by the look of it. Maybe the summer will see more tourists using the service.
There aren’t that many “spectacular views” of the sea. Although we’ve been hugging the coastline, the” breathtaking” view doesn’t materialise and after 2 hours we’re soon into Rhyl and its relatively new bus station.
We’re only 2 minutes late on arrival, which isn’t bad for such a long trip. Last year I commented that £6 for a Rhyl – Llandudno return was maybe a bit steep. Although the day ticket price has risen to £6.50 now, Arriva’s day ticket area is huge, and this feels much better value. I can even use it on the next leg of my journey to my destination of Llandudno.
Rhyl’s bus information centre remains closed (as it was in the height of summer last year), but the on-stand departure display for service 12 to Llandudno has been tidied up. I literally have 5 minutes before a 12 starts to load – another double decker, although this time older than the Cymru Coastliner and, due to my geeky knowledge, was originally pounding the streets of London .
The 12 to Llandudno has also been branded as “Cymru Coastliner” (on the single deckers on this route in any case) but there seems more double deckers on the route since I was here last summer.
And double deckers are better on this route. You CAN see the sea on the 12, and it’s better from upstairs!
The trip to Llandudno takes just over an hour and I’m now at journeys end. Time to find my hotel, but not before a quick visit to the bargain book shop en route where I pick up a copy of Buses yearbook 2010 for £4.99!
A night of bus nostalgia and real ale beckons!

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Best Job In The World - Finding Bacon Heaven with Chiltern Railways!

I've had some tough assignments in the world of public transport. From lurking in the rain on an industrial estate for a bus that only runs once every 2 hours to chatting up Welsh barmaids in the hope of finding out local travel information (she didn't know, and I didn't woo her over), this must surely be the biggest challenge of them all.
For me, the words "Chiltern Railways" and "bacon roll" go hand in hand.
When I had cause to visit London regularly for meetings in my old job, a bacon ciabatta on my journey southbound was what life was all about. I even christened it "Maryleroll" in honour of Chiltern's beautiful London terminus.
I never knew that I'd created a monster on Twitter!
My lyrical tweetings of approval soon gathered pace on the social networking site and others began using the hashtag #maryleroll in reference to the now legendary bacon experience!
Chiltern asked me to help them create the ultimate bacon roll experience. What a challenge!
So off we set. Me with the equally legendary Chiltern all-girl Twitter band Emma and Jo, notepads at the ready, in search of the best of bacon.
First up, the "opposition".
Heading into Birmingham City Centre, we tried two outlets. One offering a sandwich, the other a 99p bap. Both were decent. Although the best way to experience a bacon roll is surely gliding through the Warwickshire countryside with a coffee close to hand! The "99p offering" was good, but with nowhere to sit and eat it, the whole bacon experience is lost in the hustle and bustle of the City Centre...
Then its on board the 1055 Chiltern Mainline to London.
This "silver dream machine" is close to bacon heaven. Poised at a table with the Chiltern photographer and an ever-eager Emma and Jo, we're presented with various versions of bacon roll to sample. Some smoked, some not. Some in roll form, some baguette. The search for the ultimate bacon experience isn't easy!
The criteria is challenging.
I'm judging on the "top 3 bacon pointers" to help me decide:
1. Presentation.
Does it appear desirable? Substantial? Does the aroma grab me?
2. The taste. On first bite....
Is it warm? Does it excite the palate? (I've learnt this from wine tasters). Is it too hard? Too soft?
3. What about added value? What would compliment it?
Mushrooms? Egg? Brown Sauce? Maybe Red? How about butter? And what about a "meal deal"? Should it include coffee?
As we pull into Marylebone, the decision is made.
The ultimate bacon roll is nothing too extravagant. It's soft, attractive and comes with a choice of sauces. It's unassuming, yet classy. And it's designed to tickle your tastebuds as you head to the capital.
It's been a long, arduous, challenging thing to do. But you can rest assured that the best bacon rolls anywhere on the UK railway network belong to Chiltern Railways. It's surely the best job in the World!
Now all I have to do is persuade them that their parent company in Germany is in need of such research work......

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Manners Cost Nothing

In terms of information, us travellers have never had it so good.
Websites, Twitter, Facebook, text alerts - you name it, our gadgets are vibrating and bleeping with updates.
Some operators are better than others. Some don't tweet at all. Others are burning the midnight oil to keep us updated in the dead of night, helping us complete our journeys from A to B.
The immediacy of social media like Twitter helps break down relationships between user and provider. It's often informal too, proving that whether you're a passenger or someone bashing away at the keyboard with updates good or bad, we're all human, ultimately.
And yet - and I know I have virtually no chance of seeing this happen - I wish some people would have a few manners when interacting with transport providers. Some of the comments I see are quite frankly disgusting.
Late or cancelled trains and buses are frustrating. We all accept that. We have important meetings to attend, jobs to get to, all manner of important journeys - and when things go wrong, it messes up our plans. Passenger Focus highlights the need for transport operators to up their game when it comes to providing information, especially during times of disruption. Again, some are better than others, and in the world of trains, all operators are signing up to a pledge to improve.
But there's nothing more depressing than seeing a string of blatant abuse from some individuals who hide behind their keypads and think they're being clever by venting their spleen. Their offending words say more about them than the disruption they face on their journey. If I was a prospective employer, I wouldn't give them the time of day.
This should be the quid pro quo for transport operators. By all means, accept that passengers are frustrated, upset and angry that they face delays and cancellations.
But basic manners cost nothing. If individuals resort to using foul, abusive language, including swear words, they should just ignore that individual until they can show some self-restraint and manners. There's nothing big or clever in acting like a petulant child, frustrating as the delay may be. Let's show some respect to those trying to help on social media. And let's hope, in many cases in vain, that these silly individuals show some respect to themselves.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Battle to be Better!

Passenger Focus's Bus Passenger Survey is exactly the sort of research needed to focus one's mind when it comes to perceptions or otherwise on just how good (or not so good) England's buses really are.
Despite what some people like to tell me ("it's all rubbish") 85% of more than 21,000 passengers across the country are satisfied with their buses. There are, however, significant variations in different areas, and it's this devil in the detail that proves to be most fascinating.
The big winners in all of this are Nottingham and Tyne & Wear. Having had Nottingham on "my patch" when I worked at Passenger Focus, I'm really not surprised at this huge vote of confidence. I met some really dedicated people at operators like TrentBarton, Nottingham City Transport, Premiere, and both the City and County Councils. There seemed to me to be a "can do" attitude. The trams compliment the public transport scene and the City Centre almost takes on a continental theme whereby public transport is most definitely seen as the sensible, default way of travelling.
To create this environment, difficult political choices have to be made. There is bus priority in Nottingham, and I recall inspecting a mobile camera unit that compliments the effective monitoring of the bus only areas. Bus operators battle on quality issues - there are very few examples of old bangers in this City!
Likewise, Tyne & Wear is another hotbed of the best in bus services, and a fitting tribute in no small part to the late Peter Huntley, who ran Go North East. I've visited Sunderland and Newcastle a couple of times in recent years and things are good. It comes as absolutely no surprise to me that both these areas top the charts in user satisfaction.
Of more concern to me is the poorer showing closer to home in the West Midlands. As a champion of public transport around these parts, I almost take it personally!
What's not so good in the Centro area?
Punctuality is marked down, and this I have long-argued is a major problem in the West Midlands urban area. Whilst no-one is ever saying we can wave a magic wand to dispel our congestion woes, I've never felt the political desire to tackle it head on like other parts of the country do. If we don't want to confront it and accept the endless traffic jams as "just the way it is", can we really expect the area's bus users to report that punctuality is good? My work with Bus Users UK locally in partnership with National Express West Midlands vividly shows just what a battle the bus operator has to consistently run a good punctual service - there are a hell of a lot of variables on the West Midlands roads!
This impacts onto the other main strand of the Passenger Focus research - Value For Money.
How does one quantify "value for money"? Journey experience? Fare paid? comfort and speed of journey? Other journey experiences? Information? Of course it can be any of these and all of them.
Again, the West Midlands urban area isn't near the top. Having used buses all over the country, we have, still, some of the cheapest fares in the country around here, but that's only one part of what a passenger might consider when considering value for money, of course. One of the other interesting quirks to come out of the research is that passengers in the Centro area feel amongst the most uneasy in the country about their fellow passengers. Again, going back to when I worked at Passenger Focus, we commissioned some specific research into this issue. The Safer Travel Team do some really good work and offences on our local bus network have been reduced by over 60% in the last 4 years. The "See Something Say Something" campaign is very effective, but still the concerns obviously exist.
Should we be pleased ultimately that 85% of England's bus users feel satisfied with their buses? It proves that they aren't the disaster area that the doom-mongers keep professing to me that they are, but I'm far from satisfied!
The bus industry faces significant challenges to attain satisfaction ratings that other industries do. Much of this, I maintain, is down to the fact that they aren't in control of their own destiny much of the time. Buses are all about getting from A to B, and if they don't have control of the "track", it reflects badly on them when the service fails to arrive on time. This is why bus priority is so important, despite it being a thorny issue for local councillors.
Bus operators do have to think about the best possible image for their products though. Cleanliness is vital. Yes, we know that the creators of litter are the passengers themselves, and some areas are worse than others, but its an area I feel that some operators simply do not keep on top of enough.
For those "top of the class" in this survey, they can be proud of what they are achieving. For those below, the battle to be better has to be uppermost in their minds!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Late is The Word

In Croatia, it's "kasno". The Germans call it "spat" (with the umlaut). And our good friends and near neighbours in France refer to it as "tard". It all means the same, and brings a universal feeling of frustration. "Late".
Whenever I sing the praises of public transport, I'm reminded of this word. Because punctuality and reliability in the world of public transport is everything. Any measure of public mood on our buses, trains, trams and coaches - whether scientific or on the back of a fag packet - nearly always comes back to this.
So I'm always mindful that, despite the shiny new trains, the revolutionary "new bus for London", the environmentally-friendly hybrid vehicles and the exciting tram extension into Birmingham City Centre, any experience of public transport will overwhelmingly be based on whether it turns up on time. Or not.
Why am I stating what ought to be the obvious?
It's because I don't think public transport operators do enough to explain delays to an increasingly irritated and frustrated public. Communication is everything.
Communication regarding delays on the rail network is something Passenger Focus are keen on. Yet I think the rail industry on the whole does better than buses in getting the message across.
Let's be clear. Contrary to some views based on ignorance, this isn't easy. Whenever the bus or train is late, it's automatically the fault of the operator in some people's eyes - and it's obviously being done deliberately. That's why operators have to, in my view, almost "go on the offensive" to explain delays - warts and all.
A few weeks ago, I encountered a rather irate gang of pensioners in a bus queue. The service had a frequency of every 10 minutes, but no bus had been seen for over 20. Much talk of 2,3 and even 4 buses coming together. I dropped a quick text to someone in authority at the bus company concerned and quickly learnt that an "unofficial demonstration" at the other end of the route was the cause of this. Hardly the bus operator's fault, but once I'd quickly communicated this to my fellow travellers, they were more understanding of the problem.
There are several issues here to consider.
I was in a fairly unique situation. Most people haven't got access to senior bus company managers. I had more chance of finding out what was going on then most. Yet once the reason was clear, the frustration subsided. Communication helped enormously.
Now, this isn't going to be possible out on the road in many instances, but this particular example was in a bus station, with bus company and other staff present. With digital displays all around us and recorded announcements reminding us not to smoke, is communication so difficult a nut to crack?
If you follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you'll know that I'm endlessly updating my status (and others!) with travel news. But Twitter and Facebook are still, effectively, "niche" products, although growing all the time.
But whilst we still have some way to go to communicate delays, cutting down on the causes of them remains a huge challenge.
On rail, there exists a clear chain of command when it comes to delays, what has caused them and how best to deal with them. On the road, it's an entirely different story.
We're a crowded island, and despite the media's obsession with the "hard done to" motorist (I'm one myself, before anyone accuses me of being anti-car) we have mostly unrestricted car access to everywhere. If we accept that we aren't going to impose some form of car restriction for the good of the nation to tackle congestion, we surely must accept that the most efficient and effective vehicle to move people (i.e. the bus) must have priority to benefit the largest number of people?
So if bus lanes help to give this priority, why are there always howls of derision whenever I suggest that we need more of them?
A letter writer to the the local paper took me to task for suggesting this, commenting that he didn't know where ANY bus lane was successful! Well, of course, they need to be properly policed for maximum effectiveness (and goodness knows how many times I see people blatantly flouting the law and driving in them), but the benefits are there for all to see. And bus operators usually respond with good vehicles and decent frequency services to take advantage.
We need Councillors to back such ideas. Difficult decisions, maybe, as bus lanes are rarely popular amongst non-bus users, but I've seen blatant mischief-making by them to win short-term votes. The same Councillors are then often quick to lambaste bus operators for running late buses!
And when the Government takes a ground-breaking decision (not often in the transport world!) on building High Speed 2 - which will bring many benefits - the doom-mongers are at it again.
Rail operators are getting better at explaining delays. Bus operators - although the job is infinitely more difficult - are less so, although some like the often groundbreaking Go North East are good at explaining their reliability figures.
To understand traffic congestion and the difficulties bus operators face, I need do no more than walk to the top of my street during the peaks. On some days, the road is congested as far as the eye can see. On others, it flows freely. How can bus operators plan for that? In other areas, congestion IS predictable, and this is where it can be best tackled, with the will of those in authority to do so.
Delays are a huge issue for public transport and its users. The challenge for publicly-elected politicians is to tackle congestion on our roads with long-term thinking. For operators, the challenge is communicate the delays truthfully and honestly. For the travelling public, it is to think a little more honestly as to WHY their journey may be delayed. Is the bus driver REALLY having an extra cup of tea at the terminus?
Delays are hugely frustrating, but is a torrent of fowl-mouthed abuse on a social networking site or worse still in person really going to help?