Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Question of Quality Contracts

Who's best placed to have control of local bus services?
Like most things in life, the answer is far from straightforward.
In most of Britain, it is the operator who decides most elements - the routes, the times, the fares, etc. With 56 days notice to the Traffic Commissioner (who is mostly duty-bound to accept any changes), the bus company is up and running.
Good idea?
It's been that way since 1986, and whilst the debate has simmered since those days of Thatcher and Ridley (the then Transport Secretary), the answer ultimately hasn't been forthcoming.
A tool in the box - as yet unused - is "Quality Contracts". This effectively hands the Local Authority the power to decide the routes, times, fares, etc, and invite private bus companies to bid for exclusive powers to operate them - a franchise, if you like. This is what happens in London, where Transport for London (TfL) decides most aspects and the operators win contracts to operate them.
In many ways, London is unique. A "free for all" as such as happens everywhere else would bring chaos to the streets of the capital. Undeniably also is the quality of London's bus network. It is held up around the world as something very good. When I represented the UK on a European Union-sponsored project about public transport in Cities, everyone had heard of London's transport system, but precious few understood the deregulated environment outside of it. London's way of doing things is very "European".
Does it work? Undoubtedly. Is it expensive? Most definitely! It is the subject of much debate during the current Mayoral hustings - the rest of the country's local councillors and politicians would kill for the same interest in local bus services!
So Quality Contracts remain in the box - but for how long?
How do we suppose that we'll see one outside of London? How do we prove that we need one? Why might we need one?
All eyes in the bus world are currently watching the North East. It is here that Councillors are pushing the Passenger Transport Executive Nexus (their equivalent of Centro) to introduce a Quality Contract.
But on what grounds?
Although I wouldn't profess to be an expert, on the 2 occasions that I've been to Nexus-land in recent years, I found the local bus services to be really effective. Go North East, one of the major operators, is seen as one of the UK's best operators.
The company, alongside other operators, is pushing for more "Quality Partnerships" between Nexus and the bus companies. It quotes a figure of around £140m to operate the local network. Interestingly, the same councillors pushing for the Quality Contract have also ruled out a London-style congestion charge to raise funds - so who pays?
I'm all for more and better funding of local bus services, but with lack of London-style Mayors (for now at least), is returning control of our buses to local politicians the way to go?
In the main, bus operators know their stuff. As commercial businesses, they have a good handle on where the majority of people want to travel. Of course there will be demand for services that aren't commercially viable, but the system currently allows for this, with tenders for such services deemed necessary. It isn't perfect and there are losers, but with public money and public control would this necessarily be any different? If anything, public scrutiny of money spent means that loss-making services would be even more under the public eye. This is exactly how it was pre-1986. Then we were managing decline - now we need innovation in public transport more than ever.
I have no idea if the North East is failing so badly that its councillors feel the need to take control. What I do know though, is that the "Quality Partnership" approach that is taking place on my doorstep here in the West Midlands appears to be gathering pace and improving our lot locally.
Slowly, things are improving all the time in the Centro area. We have seen several "Network Reviews" which, whilst being extremely comprehensive and maybe unsettling for some, have generally improved local networks (appreciating that there will always be winners and losers in such moves), we have much improved facilities such as top quality Interchanges, operators have responded with new vehicles. The new Oyster-style smartcard is, we're told, almost there. But one of the biggest innovations is the continued evolving of the "Network West Midlands" brand. In a few short years, it has become ingrained into our psyche as a well-recognised brand that makes our large, often complicated public transport network more coherent.
I don't believe that all of this doesn't have its problems to address and issues to resolve, but it's all been done through a spirit of partnership between the public and private sectors, and it is us, the passengers, that reap the benefit.
There is always more to do, and our public transport in the West Midlands is by no means the best around, but it is on an upward curve, without the need to "bang heads together" in a Quality Contract.
I'm by no means dismissing the requirement somewhere for a QC. But the best bus services - be they in Brighton, Nottingham, Edinburgh or elsewhere - always feature a spirit of co-operation between the operators and the local authority. A "shared vision", if you like.
In these economic times, all money - especially public funds - needs to be spent extremely wisely. In transport, where more investment is always needed, a true public-private partnership that works well is always a good solution.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Bus Lanes and Councillors - the lack of love.....

It's the perennial problem.
 Give the bus some much needed priority and you can bet your house that a Councillor will, at some point, decide that it's easy pickings for a bit of a spat in the local rag. I've seen it loads of times over the years. When it comes to creating an issue that will create a talking point, buses are easy pickings.
If it isn't the fact that they're "always late" or that they are "too expensive", or "don't go where people want them to go", the mere mention of them having some tarmac to themselves certainly gets the blood pumping. Take away some valuable road space from already "hard done to" motorists and give it to buses? Scandalous!
And thus it came to pass that, once again, the front page of the Express & Star was adorned in more ramblings that bus lanes in Dudley Town Centre "do nothing" from the Council's transport supremo.
Excuse me?
I've been catching buses in Dudley for many of my 40+ years. I can assure the Councillor making these claims that the only thing "doing nothing" is the Council for not enforcing the abuse of the bus lanes!
Dudley is like many other towns across the country. It suffers at times from damaging congestion. It doesn't have enough bus priority, but that is easier suggested than done. So why the suggestion to remove some of the precious little that we do have?
Dudley Borough is doing rather well of late when it comes to public transport. Following the bus network review in 2008 (the first in a series of partnership working reviews between Centro and the bus operators)bus use is up. National Express West Midlands, Diamond and other smaller operators have invested significantly in new vehicles. In the south of the Borough, Stourbridge's new Interchange has opened this week, to critical acclaim. Merry Hill is next, with a £10m investment in the bus station and surrounding roads. And more investment in the form of hybrid electric-diesel buses for a major route linking Dudley and Wolverhampton has recently been secured. A lot of investment, then. And it is needed.
The chronic congestion that snarls up this part of the Black Country can partly be tackled by making public transport vastly more attractive - and that is what is happening. More to do, granted, but I haven't felt so optimistic for a long time. So whilst we see millions of pounds invested in new kit and new facilities, the humble tin of white paint that defines bus priority on our roads is as much as important as anything else. Because new buses and shiny bus Interchanges mean nothing unless the buses can be relied on to run on time. Yes, a huge, mammoth task, but get the jigsaw of quality Interchanges, smart new buses, easy to understand routes, competitive fares and - by no means least - reliable services right, and the prize is huge. So the suggestion to consider removal of bus lanes in Dudley is, in my opinion, short-sighted. Progressive local politicians need to see the bigger, longer, wider picture. They need to have the guts to sanction bus priority for the wider benefits that reliable bus services bring.
It's all too easy to consider bus lanes a poor use of resource - they are anything but. Instead, they need to be seen as an effective tool in helping public transport provide a better image of itself as a reliable mover of masses of people. I have written to the Councillor in question on a personal level to urge him to think again about suggesting removal of the bus lanes, and instead concentrate on enforcing them more effectively.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

New Stourbridge Interchange Opens!

The new £7m Stourbridge Interchange welcomed its first passengers this morning. (The picture shows the first departure - the 0737 service 9 to Birmingham). Although it was a low-key kick-off (the full "opening ceremony" will take place next month), bus users in the town will feel the huge impact and step change in quality - this really is something special! 18 months in build, it absolutely has been worth the wait. There simply is no comparison with what stood in its place previously, and makes a statement that quality public transport facilities are not only what is required, but is actually achievable, especially in these austere times. (The Interchange opened on time and in budget). I've often walked around transport termini in Europe and thought "why can't we have that back home?" - well, Stourbridge - along with it's larger sister in Wolverhampton, also recently opened, is right up there with the best. The basics are all here, and very well presented. Electronic information screens (as well as more traditional timetables), a small convenience store, toilets, CCTV, etc, and an artistic design that has been well thought out and designed. It links seamlessly with Stourbridge Town Railway Station, which has itself seen large improvements in recent times with the Stourbridge Shuttle Railcar service, linking in to brand new trains from London Midland on the Snow Hill lines. Arriva are also commencing some new journeys on some routes as part of contract wins - with some brand-spanking new vehicles, to compliment the new buses from National Express West Midlands too. These are indeed heady days for public transport in this little corner of the Midlands - and with passenger numbers up since the bus network review back in 2008, things are improving all the time. Public transport is often understated, but is vital to our country and the economy. To get more people using it brings benefits to all, but it must be a quality experience. We're by no means there yet, but achievements like the new Stourbridge Interchange are exactly what is needed to keep heading in the right direction. We must thank the bus and rail operators and their staff for their continued investment in new kit, and to the politicians and professionals of Centro and the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority for their ongoing drive to improve the passenger's lot. It is just so sad that Councillor Angus Adams - a gentleman I've interviewed several times on the radio, and talked a lot with about public transport, as Chair of Centro - who passed away last week, won't be able to finally see the new facility open and working. I know it meant a lot to him. I must also give a quick mention to Roger Chance's website - www.stourbridgeinterchange.co.uk - which is packed full of all things bus-related in Stourbridge. He was there with a handful of us early morning stalwarts to see the first departure this morning! Further information can be found on www.networkwestmidlands.com/stourbridge

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Little Things That Matter!

I went to buy a printer earlier this week. The usual bewildering choice.
Sadly, the "customer service" was as I expected. No one in "multi-national A" (as we'll call them) was remotely bothered. So I bought one eventually.
Equally as predictable, it had a fault.
I took it back. Equally as predictable, no one was remotely bothered. Except when I wanted a refund. I got one, in the end. But a bitter taste in the mouth was what I was left with. I won't be shopping there again. And I suspect "multi-national A" won't give two hoots either.
I took my business elsewhere, to an award-winner retailer. Much better service, product worked, I'm happy. I'll go there again.
But what has all this got to do with public transport?
Tonight was a prime example of how the little things really matter.
In the example of the printer, there were 2 retailers. One was, frankly, rubbish. The other went the extra bit. Not far, but enough to make me feel like I was happy with the service, and I'd be happy to shop there again.
In many examples of public transport, there is a monopoly provider. This isn't a "political" attempt to promote commercial competition in transport, nor to sing the praises of a monopoly public service provider. It is a simple, yet telling tale of how public transport has to understand the service it provides in the eyes of its users.
This evening, I have caught a late night bus home. In fact, mine was the last one. The great British weather has cast its spell again, and it was freezing at the bus stop.
As is the usual case, I can see my bus parked 100m down the road. Driver slumped half way down the vehicle, lights off. My bus is due at 2320. At 2321, there is some movement, and the bus shuffles onto stand, eventually departing 2 minutes late.
What's my beef, I hear you cry?
The bus left well within Traffic Commissioner standards. It got me home.
But to me, it says everything about why this particular bus operator - and the industry in general - need to understand customer service a lot more.
Like when I had my printer experience, the "service" was eventually provided, but I was left disappointed by "multi-national A".
Here, myself and 4 other passengers were left to shiver in a cold, dark bus shelter until the driver decided - 1 minute late - to saunter up to the stand and pick us up.
Imagine if he'd come up to the stand 5 minutes earlier and let us escape the cold? Imagine how much we'd all have felt - maybe even subconsciously - about public transport?
As it is, you get the impression that it reinforces stereo-typical attitudes about the industry. "If only I had use of a car".....
I board the bus, ask for a £1.70 fare back home, and am greeted with......well, actually nothing.
The whole experience is a sterile, love-less one.
And yet, by the simple acts of allowing us on 5 minutes earlier, and a "thank you" with eye contact when I pay my fare, just think about how my experience of public transport could have been transformed.
Public transport needs to learn these skills universally.
On my travels, I come across excellent examples of good practice, many of which I post on here. When I work on the railcar, I'm acutely aware - always - of public perception of the service I'm providing. Public transport, often as monopoly provider, needs to delight passengers whenever it can. This isn't always possible or easy, especially when there are problems, but it IS possible to do this much of the time.
Out of the 2 retailers I dealt with with my printer experience, 1 will get my custom next time, the other will not.
In the world of public transport, many won't even have the option of an alternative supplier. The danger is that, should they have an option of ditching the bus/train/tram or coach in favour of the car, some of them seriously would do so.
This is the great challenge for the public transport industry.
Giles Fearnley, MD of First (UK) Bus said recently "the challenge is to make the price of a bus ticket as valued as the price of a cappuccino"! He's got it in a nutshell.
Huge numbers of Brits pay well over the odds for overpriced coffee, yet value what they have in their cups. Yet huge numbers of Brits resent paying for their travel costs, as shown in endless surveys. Why is that?
The answer, of course, isn't simple. Maybe we'll never get to the point where we're happy to hand over our hard-earned to transport operators, in the same way that we get excited over skinny mocha-latte. (Or whatever it is).
But we really have to grasp the idea that, often, it's the little things that matter.
And when you're shivering at a bus stop at twenty past eleven at night awaiting a bus you can see with the driver not willing to relieve you of that feeling until he absolutely has to, you realise that public transport still has a way to go.