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.