Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Measuring Progress - A People Industry

As I tap these words onto the screen on Christmas Eve, the "reviews" of the year are all around us. Suddenly, the calender has caught up with us and the year 2013 will very soon be added to the history books. What can we say in years to come about 2013 from the perspective of transport?
It's been another challenging year. Although the UK's public transport systems are largely in private hands, they rely significantly on the public sector, which continues to face huge challenges.
Have we come to a fork in the road or maybe a set of points on the rails?
Ask some people and they'll regard public transport as being on the continuous slippery slope downwards. But for me, despite all of the doom-merchants, I think we have reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
There's no doubt that some bus services face a rocky road in 2014. Some local authorities such as Worcestershire are proposing a nightmare withdrawal of all subsidy for it's tendered services. Worrying times indeed, and I hope it won't come to that. Even buses in urban areas face real challenges. Centro is consulting on what might face the chop from the support it provides as the budget is slashed there.
So there are real dangers.
But I am hopeful the worst-case scenarios can be overcome because we have good people working in transport. It may be a national past-time to haul ill-thought-out abuse on our public transport, but we have decent professionals working in our bus, train, tram and coach industries at all levels, and I'm confident they will again overcome the worst of what is thrown at them and continue to provide decent services in the face of continued pressure from several directions.
No one says it's easy. Transport is both a service industry and a retail industry. We give our money to Tesco and walk away with the goods. We give our money to transport operators and sometimes we can't guarantee what people have paid for. The difference between Tesco and transport operators is that the supermarket is in total control of its operations. Transport operators are at the mercy of continued variables on the road and tracks. In 2013, we haven't seen much progress in addressing this. In fact, we've probably gone backwards.
If the number one objective of transport users is reliability, why on earth have we got people such as Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary - in high office - making such irresponsible, poorly-made statements about letting people park on double-yellow lines? If such measures to restrict parking exist in the first place, there can't be that many "mistakes" that require a complete overhaul. We have Council professionals employed to model such town centre traffic flows. What we don't need are politicians pumping out hot air on the subject, and equally mis-informed "armchair experts", who's only interest is themselves. Similarly, the actions of the Mayor of Liverpool, who's removal of bus priority in the City is the sort of neanderthal action that sets a modern urban area back 20 years. And for what? The short-term votes of car drivers?
But despite these setbacks, transport continues to innovate.
Investment - Government assisted - in hybrid buses has seen more and more "green" vehicles on our streets. Visual and audio "at stop" announcements help not only the hard of hearing and those with sight issues, but also non-regular bus users who can understand where they are. Likewise, smartphone apps are continuing to innovate, incorporating "real-time" information so that the mystery of "where the bus is" is being taken away. Yes, I've criticised GPS-based technology on the blog this year, and it needs more work so that we can trust it more, but progress is being made.
Operators continue to invest in new vehicles, and refurbish others to "new" standard, even in these uncertain times. On the whole, the UK's bus fleet, to me, is looking a lot smarter, cleaner and more professional than it has for a long time.
Of course it isn't all rosy.
Ride around the UK on local bus services and the whole journey experience isn't consistently great. We still have lots to do before we have generally great levels of bus service experience everywhere. Passenger Focus's excellent surveys show a decent enough pattern generally of satisfaction, but there are wide variations across the country, for all sorts of reasons. There is still much work to be done.
On the railways (where I work), the grumblings continue, not least of all next month, when the fare rises will hog the rolling news channels and newspaper headlines, but underneath these concerns, and those of "late" trains, lies an industry that is more successful now than at any time in the last 50-odd years. We're spending more on the railways now than ever, and we need to keep on doing so. High Speed 2 needs to be built. Not so we can get "men in suits" to London 20 minutes earlier, but because the capacity it will bring can benefit the network elsewhere in so many ways. Parliament supports it, so let's crack on.
More immediately, despite boom-time for the railways, we can still do better. Information, especially during disruption, can be improved on, although social media (for those willing to use it) continues to evolve and is fast becoming a vital tool. In some respects, (as one of the previous blog posts explores) we may be guilty of almost giving "too much" information, with which to beat ourselves up with. The effect of leaves on rails causing trains to "slip" has always been there, but to those reading twitter, it is almost a "new" phenomenon. Likewise, when bus companies helpfully warn of delays in City Centres, this is derided by some sections of the boorish twitterati. You can never have too much information to assist you on your journey, but some choose to use it to deride public transport, sadly.
Public transport will overcome. It is an incredibly resilient industry. The award ceremonies that exist are not about slap-up meals for industry bigwigs, but a celebration of innovation and all that is good about the world of public transport. They are showcases that, hopefully, operators can bring to their own services, improving the passenger's lot. Although I'm an avid transport historian - I love nothing better than settling down with a book all about buses or trains from years gone by - I am also immensely proud of our public transport industry in 2013. We all like to look back on public transport 50, 60, 70 years ago through rose-tinted spectacles (no one more than me!), and of course we can learn a great deal through history, but today's public transport operators have huge challenges, both politically, operationally and socially.
And do you know what? Our bus, rail, tram and coach operators will continue to move people, every minute of every day. We may not be able to measure "progress" in all aspects, and there is still so much to do. It may be "easy pickings" to deride our public transport, because of course we're never far from a problem of some sort.
But in 2014, the UK's public transport industry will continue to move forward, innovate and deliver.
And that will be because of the people who work hard within it.

Happy New Year to readers of the blog! 

Friday, 13 December 2013

An Un-fare Cop?

Midway through December is when you become aware of Noddy shouting his annual Christmas message on the Slade song, those with a fetish for flashing lights dressing up their houses like a fairground ride and the chance to experience what it must be like to play rugby if you join the scrum at the German markets in Brum.
It is also the time that my local bus operator National Express West Midlands announces it's fare revisions for January. A tradition that is almost as comforting as shuffling around the attic to find out which bin bag has got the Christmas tree in. 
In recent years the operator has been criticised for not announcing the new fares with enough notice. This year they've done it nice and early. But the natives are still revolting. Social media is full of the usual un-thought-through comments and the local paper's website has helpfully printed a selection of tweets that are consumable by a family audience. (I've seen some written with such bile that you'd think the writer was being attacked by a rabid hound as it was tweeted).
No one, of course, wants to pay more for anything. Wouldn't we all like to still be paying 20p for a pint and still see the kid in short trousers delivering the loaf on his bike? It is simply a fact of life - and the economy - that things go up in price. Doesn't mean we have to like it, but we could do with understanding it a bit more. 
Transport operators tend to spend much of January inhabiting that most lonely of places - the less than des-res somewhere between the Rock and the Hard Place. The moral indignation raised by readers of the Express & Star's website is small-fry compared to what will be next month's annual collective UK-wide rant at rail fare prices. I for one can't wait to see red-faced commuters screwing their faces up at the camera outside Euston station for a BBC News Channel reporter. Actually, in truth I'm quite depressed about it. 
Is it an "un-fare cop" (excuse the pun) for public transport operators to shoulder such negative vibes when, actually, most of everything else is going up in price as well? 
Take my visit to the pub last week. My place of solace (apart from on Facebook) where I can rant-lyrical, and have an audience to mock my displeasure of life in Britain in 2013. But even here, in this sanctuary, I found the price of the nuts had gone up. No advance warning, no sign above the bar. I just subtlety received slightly less change, with the "nuts price revision" revealed only upon enquiry. I also suspect my favourite choccy bar has gone up, as, I'm sure, the price of bread and milk has. But Tesco doesn't tell you this. There's no sign saying "as from 2 Jan 2014, the price of a Snickers will be rising by 10p". It just does. 
The problem with public transport fare rises is two-fold. First, it's a "distress purchase" (whereas my pub nuts are purely for pleasure). That leads on to the second point whereby, because people resent paying more, they consider the "value for money" of what they're paying for, often unjustly and without sensible reasoning. I'm not advocating transport operators not fore-warning of fare increasing, it's just that by doing so, it opens the gates to open-season for the rant-savvy. 
What, perhaps, could transport operators do to mitigate such negative publicity? 
It's difficult. Despite the spending on transport here in the West Midlands (and other areas) being less than half of that lavished on London, we do some great things on bus, train and tram. We should, at least, shout about them a bit more. But inevitably, if you aren't a student of public transport like me, you'll only view your "distress purchase" as a necessary evil and only focus on your payment for the service provided getting you to where you want to be on time. Punctuality and reliability naturally remain at the top of every users list. And naturally, people forget the vast majority of times when public transport delivers, but focus on the occasions when it doesn't. And more often than not, it is out of the hands of operators when services run late. So the logic of tweet-ranters who declare they're going to give up the bus because the fare's gone up 10p to drive because the bus is always late (an oft-repeated turn of phrase) isn't actually logical at all, given that the person is simply going to add to the congestion and, dare I whisper it, actually going to cost them far more because that is the nature of owning and running a car. 
First Group have won some praise in parts of their operation by lowering fares, and whilst this is welcome on the face of it, it won't work everywhere. It is also my experience that in some of these areas, the fares represented poor value for money in any case, so fair (fare?) play to First for bringing them down to more realistic levels.
I notice some disdain at the new headline bus fare of £2.10 for a single journey from January on National Express West Midlands buses. Actually, this is still one of the cheapest areas for bus travel in the UK. Is the issue here though, that whilst you can go quite a distance for £2.10, it is also perceived as expensive for shorter trips. The issue here is the amount of fraud that used to go on when there were cheaper single tickets available. So look at the actions of the something-for-nothing brigade, dear ranter, when asking why there aren't cheaper fares for shorter trips. 
Why do bus and rail fares have to rise in the first place? Costs, including fuel, continue to rise. Investment continues. We've seen a lot of new buses and trains in recent times, and the railway has record spending in the next few years. Some may say this necessary, but actually we need even more of it. And someone has to pay. London has benefited from huge transport investment in more recent times, but it is absolutely necessary to cope with the population explosion in the capital. That plan of investment now needs to radiate outwards across the country. But it also needs to be coupled to political will to free up road space for buses to deliver what people actually want - more reliable journeys. Bus operators can buy new shiny kit - and they increasingly do - but they need the path ahead to be free to deliver a good service. 
So spare us please local Councillors stoking the rhetoric on "unjustified" fare increases. They need to show some long-term vision on making transport more reliable instead of short-term easy-on-the-tongue statements designed to capture votes at the next local elections. Some local Councillors are excellent, but we have far too many who don't "get it". 
Only when we have really effective local public transport constantly will we be able to view fare increases as something other than a necessary evil.       

Friday, 6 December 2013

Too Much Information?

Amongst perhaps the more lesser-known recordings of The Police is a track called "Too Much Information". 
"Too much information, running through my brain. Too much information, driving me insane", warbled the great Sting. Perhaps, in this pre-internet, pre-twitter era, it was a song ahead of it's time. 
Why the reference to an 80s pop song on a transport blog? 
Because, in all the years of advocating more and more information being given in the world of public transport - especially at times of disruption - I wonder if, perhaps, sometimes, we have too much of it. 
Most of the time, for regular travellers, it's a godsend. We have more chance of knowing if our bus or train is going to be late than ever before. The information via our smartphones allows us to seeth at least in knowledge if our train is cancelled, or if our bus is delayed. 
But there still persists, sadly in a number of media circles, a belief that delays are caused by public transport operators intent on heaving misery on us hapless travellers. 
I've just read a newspaper article about delayed trains in the London area due to "slippery tracks" (their inverted commas, not mine). And that's where the bile begins. Why is "slippery tracks" expressed in such a way that it may be unbelievable? Ever since the railways moved out of shifting coal to shifting passengers, weather conditions, especially in inclement weather, have had an influence on the ability of trains to get a grip on the rails. It's always happened. But because train operators now provide the "excuse" (my inverted commas), it appears that some people simply don't want to believe it. Twitter, this force for "good" (again, my inverted commas) becomes a vehicle for torrents of mindless abuse from some of the very people the train operators are trying to help. 
It's the same on the buses. 
Birmingham City Centre experiences it's traditional festive Armageddon around late November onwards. Every man, dog and living creature has to descend onto the City in order to fulfill their "Christmas shopping" and visit the German market (which often resembles a frightening football crowd). The roads are one ridiculous mess of gridlock. So when bus operators tweet information about routes caught up in the quagmire, out come the armchair experts, tapping their ill-informed claptrap into their phones, so that their 6 followers can see the full extent of their ignorance. How "liberating" (my inverted commas) social media is. 
Mind you, the transport industry sometimes doesn't help. 
I stood in central Birmingham last week watching the "real time" information for my bus count down from 10 minutes to "due". Then nothing. It only raises expectations in a child-like Santa expectancy on Christmas Eve, only to have your hopes dashed. Maybe I haven't been a good boy this year. 
But really, judging by the state of the roads, was I hoping beyond all hope that my bus really was "due", just around the corner? I'm old enough and daft enough to know otherwise, and probably daft in the first place to be standing in the middle of Brum waiting for a bus in the run up to Christmas. 
And the "apologies". 
Why do some transport operators do this? 
"Sorry, Not In Service" says the bus. They don't do this in London. The buses there just proclaim "Not In Service". Fair enough. I know that, somewhere, a controller is trying to recover the service from the appalling mess uncontrolled traffic access has on the bus service. I've seen how hard service controllers in the bus and rail industry work to sort things out after its gone wrong, only for lazy, ignorant journalists to write some claptrap in the hope of whipping up some minor hysteria amongst some people who can't think for themselves. I suppose it's what the media does. 
But back to the "apology" bit. A Twitter friend tweeted to me that she gets annoyed by all of the automated "apologies" that accompany every bit of train delay information. It's a fair point. On one hand, train operators are trying to be sincere when they announce the delay of a service, but do we really take a blind bit of notice when they apologise via a computer voice? 
Let's be clear here. I work in the transport industry, on the "coalface". Whenever there is a delay, I am as frustrated and concerned as anyone else is. And I don't know anyone else who isn't. We all want the best for passengers. Yes, we can apologise, and it often comes over better if it is face-to-face, not a computer-recorded version, but we really need to, as a general public, start to get over this idea that travel delays are things manufactured for the fun of it, with various mocked "excuses", such as "the wrong sort of snow", etc. 
How do "other countries" do better than us? 
Actually, they don't. I can recall only earlier on this year being stranded both in Cologne and Rotterdam stations due to "weather-related" incidents. What I do recall in both incidents is good, clear, concise information, provided via tannoys, on screens, and via multi-lingual staff on the platform. What I don't recall much of was apologies. And, actually, I didn't want one. My German delay had been caused by overhead wires coming down. They were working hard to fix it. That's all I needed to know. And I'm sure, when the leaves come down, the Germans have the same issues as we have with gripping the rails effectively. 
Train delays have always been. Traffic congestion similarly. It isn't a new phenomenon. But because we tell people about it in real-time, in a way that is supposed to be helpful and informative, it somehow becomes a symbol of how "useless" public transport is, in a new kind of way. We don't write newspaper headlines about how people circle shopping centre car parks for hours on end looking for a space, or how they spend more hours trying to escape at closing time. We don't write headlines about how snow sends cars slipping and sliding into each other because the tyres can't grip in inclement weather. No one ever "apologies" when ignorant people park their cars poorly, blocking roads. And who apolgises for congestion on our roads? Indeed Eric Pickles MP and the Mayor of Liverpool appear only too happy to create more congestion for ill-thought out reasons. You won't find them saying sorry via a computer-generated voice every few minutes. We need less pre-recorded "sorrys", less lazily written attacks on public transport delays and more real, long-term action and investment in our public transport.  

Friday, 22 November 2013

Preaching to the Unconverted

What message does this filthy bus portray to non-users?

The bus trade press recently has carried reports of a debate between two of the UK's most highly regarded busmen - Roger French, the recently retired ex-boss of Brighton & Hove Buses and Sir Brian Souter, he of Stegecoach fame.
They were discussing the pros and cons of today's bus industry, and how it can be made better for today's passengers.
Readers of this blog will know I'm a passionate believer in our country's bus services. There are some excellent examples of local bus service provision in Britain, whatever side you stand on regarding the discussion over deregulation or more control. Only this week, the UK Bus Awards again celebrated excellence in our bus industry.
The industry bigwigs' discussion hinted that things could be better - and of course this is true. Providing excellence requires the buy-in not only of the operating company, but the Local Authority and others if the bus service is to really shine.
The other day, I attempted to do something quite difficult - detatch myself from endearing optimism of our buses, and try to ride a few looking at them warts and all. And I did it in my own back yard of the Black Country.
Of course I've not spent the last 30-odd years looking at and riding buses with rose-tinted spectacles. My roles at Bus Users UK and Passenger Focus have required a hard-headed approach on occasion, but I'm also an enthusiast - and that means I often look at bus operation through a default "positive" side. When you sit amongst the discarded coke cans and chicken wings on a late night 87 from Brum to Dudley, you often don't even notice.
But the remains of fried chicken on the upper deck do matter. Along with the rest of the litter. And the driving skills. And the temperature. And the feeling of security. And the consideration of "value for money".
We've had the message for years now that the aspiration of those who rule us is for more of us to leave our cars at home and use more public transport. But whilst old suspects like me have worshiped at the altar of public transport for time immemorial, is progress really being made with the preaching to the unconverted?
Rail may be today's public transport success story. Yes, there's plenty of people moaning about it, but ridership continues in an upward trend, despite the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. People are more accepting of a train journey than one on a bus.
I believe it's a mindset, created by an acceptance that the mode of public transport is quite simply better than a car-driving alternative. Commuting from Stourbridge (where I live) into Birmingham by train is seen as a better option - usually - than driving in. Centro's policy of free parking is testament to this: car parks are full and heaving every weekday morning, and a further extension to car parks will take place by 2015. Despite the usual operational problems and the "leaves on the line" issue that some people still think is an excuse dreamt up by some anonymous back-room pen pusher, trains into the big City run usually well, on a 10-minute frequency.
Getting people converted to buses is a different matter.
If the trains are running well, prospective travellers know what to expect. So they consume it. The best bus services, with well-policed bus lanes, bright, comfortable vehicles and value-for-money tickets are also attracting new users. But these UK Bus Award-type winners are probably the exception to the rule. And this is what Roger French was harping on about in his discussion. You can put all sorts of gloss onto bus services - and this is often a good thing - but the normal run of the mill services need running consistently well to attract newcomers and change the mindset of the unconverted.
I'm in what I consider transport "home". I might love clambering aboard buses in far-flung corners of Britain and Europe and seeing what happens, but Stourbridge bus station feels like "base". It's my nearest bus station, and I barely take any notice of what happens here because I'm used to it.
It is here I will start a few hours riding around on my local services - bus routes I've known since childhood - to see if I could - acting as someone who doesn't normally use buses (difficult!) - be converted to using them more often.
It's a decent start. Stourbridge has been transformed in the last 18 months. The rows of 1970s bus shelters masquerading as a bus station have been replaced by what Centro describes as "State of the "Art". There are digital screens everywhere, some showing "real time" bus movements, but there are also Assistants in tabards, and paper timetables that you can take home and peruse at your leisure. (the timetables, not the Assistants).So if you wondered in here, car-less and confused, chances are you'd find out how to get to where you want to go.
I've already got an all-operator day ticket ("n-bus", £4.20) from my first journey in, so I'm good to go.
First up, an anonymous white single decker on the 240, an hourly service linking Stourbridge with Cradley Heath. This journey can be done end-to-end in around 10 minutes on the train, but this is one of those "around the houses" services that takes around half an hour. The bus is fairly new and modern-looking, but it is in all-over dealer white. Only by looking at the small writing near the front wheel can we discover that it is operated by "WMSNT" - West Midlands Special Needs Transport - the organisation that runs the Ring & Ride buses, but is increasingly picking up tendered services to operate "standard" bus services.
The 240 is one such operation. Paid for by Centro, it certainly shows. I am one of around 6 people who use it, and every other person is of pensionable age. There is no doubt such services are vital in the community, but what chance attracting new users? Unlikely, given the route, and the hourly frequency. The journey itself is uneventful. The bus is tidy enough inside, but the exterior is typical of a November morning - windows are filthy, and the white livery shows up every bit of grime possible. The driver is slightly heavy on the brakes and sports a luminous hi-viz vest throughout, making him indistinguishable from a dustbin man. Verdict: does the job, but potential? Virtually nil.
Now I'm in Cradley Heath Interchange. This is the nearest rail station to the giant Merry Hill shopping centre, and where PlusBus tickets apparently do well. Centro has capitalised on this, with large arrows pointing to where buses can ferry you quickly to retail therapy. It's a brisk walk from here to the town centre, and not all buses serving the town call in here - again potentially confusing if you're not a regular bus user. But I see the point of operators - it's a long enough detour out of the way for some town centre services.
It's here I sample a hot chocolate from the station shop and consider my next move, which comes in the shape of service 297 - a National Express West Midlands service that is also a bit of a "winder" route-wise, but serves the aforementioned shopping mecca.
The bus arrives 3 minutes late - another single decker, and quite an elderly Mercedes one at that. I board and flash my paper ticket at the driver, who takes virtually no notice. He is much more smartly dressed in corporate shirt and tie though. I'm just about to sit down when I hear him calling out of his cab, but it seems he's trying to communicate with a fellow passenger who has somehow got on the bus in the wrong direction.
The vehicle again is acceptable enough, save for an empty prawn cocktail crisp packet, but the bus isn't particularly warm. It also feels it's age with grubby side panels and has a "worn" feel. We pass through Merry Hill where the smartly-presented driver is replaced by another "bin man" who not only doesn't remove his hi-viz, but sports a scruffy woolen hat. It all feels a tad "downmarket". As a regular user, I don't usually take much notice, but because I'm looking through a different angle, it feels like it could be improved.
Shoppers pile on and the bus is almost full. This service has a 30 minute frequency, which feels about right. Rather than ride to the end, which is outside a row of garages in a housing estate, I decide to jump off at Russells Hall Hospital. Verdict: functional, but appears downmarket.
Centro has installed new, large bus shelters here and the timetable information is of it's usual decent standard. Plenty of buses call in here, and it is a hive of activity. I'm not here long before a Hansons 226 appears for the short run into Dudley town centre.
It's an elderly single decker, but in the company's swirly blue, green and white attractive livery. At least the driver scrutinises my ticket and forces out a grunt of acknowledgement before he joins the queue of traffic stuck behind a poorly-parked ambulance. There's no smart uniform here - our driver has a pair of jeans on!
Not much to see on here. A poorly positioned poster (over the top of another advert) asks for comments to Worcestershire County Council's consultation on cutting back bus services. It's all quite depressing. A man flags down our bus and it turns out he is known to the driver. The two of them converse at the front of the bus and it feels a little like a 1970s coach tour. All that is needed is a little old lady with cake and a flask. The bus arrives in Dudley on time and transforms itself from a 226 to an "X26", where it commence battle with National Express West Midlands on a different route back to Merry Hill. Verdict: average, but little things like a drivers uniform might portray a better image. (Although I appreciate for small operators like Hansons, costs are everything).
Dudley bus station too has digital screens. But people are giving them a cursory glance, because the mix of "real time" and "timetabled" isn't readily understood, and are more keenly looking towards the bus parking area next to the Rickshaw Restaurant to see if their bus may be parked up already (but digital destination displays, turned off, thwarts much of this traditional activity - bus nuts like me can make more educated guesses based on knowing what vehicles operate from which garages!)
I decide on a service formerly the scene of a pitched battle - the 226. Hansons used to compete on a section of the old 264/265 from Travel West Midlands, but from the large-scale bus review of 2008, TWM came off the route completely and Hansons extended their 226 to Dudley. Then, surprisingly maybe, Diamond (who operate the evening tendered service) appeared on daytimes too, 5 minutes ahead of Hansons on a 30 minute frequency, with colourful branded buses, named "The Swift 226". Thus a battle royale commenced with both operators continuing to register 5 minutes ahead of their rivals. For bus enthusiasts, and interesting spat. For the travelling public, a confusing, very poor example of what bus deregulation allows operators to do. In more recent times, Diamond have seen a little sense and moved to a slot with an even 15 minute headway between the 2 operators.
"Swift" it is not. The route meanders around every housing estate imaginable between Dudley and Merry Hill, and is still, to me, a bit of a strange battleground for 2 competing operators. It is a classic "around the houses" route that I am surprised still accommodates 2 operators.
The external branding on the Diamond version is an attractive red and black livery that diverts attention from the age of the vehicle. But boarding seems to take an age. Drivers change over here but there appears no hurry to alleviate the cold suffering of the awaiting passengers as one "binman" exchanges pleasantries with another inside the bus. Diamond drivers do have a smart uniform of their own, but many of them chose to cover it with the ubiquitous luminous green.
Eventually I join around a dozen others who, being mainly pensioners, begin the almost tortuous "bleeping" of the concessionary pass on the reader. I roughly consider around a third of them have some sort of problem with this and the driver regularly intervenes to correctly "bleep", although one of them refuses to register at all, with the slightly embarrassed holder invited to "sit down" with a shrug of shoulders from both parties. I still have concerns that the card readers on buses throughout the West Midlands aren't totally up to the job.
We're off just slightly late on board the "Swift 226", but this bus continues the theme of earlier journeys: functional, but seemingly unlikely to attract large numbers of new users. There are several seats that don't match the colour of the others, and whilst this may not seem such a huge issue, combined with grime patches around the floor and other fixtures, and what seems like an exploded egg on the offside window that has dried on several days previous, it all seems the kind of journey that a person using it only because their car is in for MOT will remain very much entrenched in their views. A rambling piece of typed A4 attempts to explain the pros and cons of using other operators tickets on the bus (which goes on far too long and just ends up potentially baffling anyone not used to using buses) and another poster - much simpler - tells us that "we're cheaper than Hansons" with a special single and return fare offer. Fair enough - the Competition Commission will love it - but with buses from both operators on the route both on a 30 minute frequency, will tying yourself to one operator look such a great idea on a freezing November afternoon when Hansons whizzes by, and you're forced to carry on waiting for Diamond?
It all feels a bit nonsensical to an irregular user, which, coupled with trying to peer out of the window through rotten egg, might just be enough to say "thank God I've got the car back tomorrow". At least the driver thanks me as I get off - the only one to do so today.
I've only taken 5 buses today, so this is hardly "scientific" research. But what does it actually feel like to those involved in the battle to win hearts and minds to convert car users to more bus ridership?
Dudley Borough has precious little bus priority. There aren't too many places where it could be installed, to be fair, but this is only one part of the package. The buses I have caught today have been by no means the worst examples, but I've also seen a lot better. Maybe many of the routes today are long, trundling ones that, rather than have serious scope for improvement, are more likely lifelines for concessionary pass holders. Nothing wrong with that. But it just feels like more could be done at the very basic level. Slightly dirty buses, driven by binmen-resembling drivers create an impression not readily noticed by us regulars, but are spotted by new users. There are many aspects of quality in other industries that the public experience that have risen considerably in recent years. Buses too are, in the main, on an upward trend. But it is slow, and in too many cases, not at the level it should be. All too often, people buying a bus ticket regard it as a "distress purchase", and "value for money" is often at too low a level for my liking.
I'm as guilty as other regular users of not really noticing such things, but if we are to see more people using buses, we have to continuously see what is provided through the eyes of the new or occasional user. As pleased as I was to see Stagecoach Manchester win "Bus Operator of the Year" at last week's UK Bus Awards, my own experience as a very occasional user on their flagship 192 route a couple of weeks ago was the amount of rubbish on the upper deck. That's my uncomfortable memory.
Consistent high quality isn't easy to achieve, and the bean-counters may question the benefit of having a person-with-broom sweeping out the 192s as they arrive at the Hazel Grove terminus. But image and experience are increasingly important factors in public transport, as well as reliability. "Value for money", however difficult to quantify, is key to whether a new or irregular user says, "hey, I might use the bus more often".
In his own words, Roger French says 80% of the bus industry is "mediocre, average, nothing really to write home about", 10% is "brilliant", and 10% is "absolutely appalling". If the message is "could do better", he is spot on.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A Few Hours In Manchester....

Stagecoach 192 at Hazel Grove terminus

I like Manchester. It's one of those places I've never really had time to explore properly, although I've been to the City numerous times when I used to work for Passenger Focus. You know the score - arrive, office, leave. 
I think it's the buildings that grab my attention. Victorian splendour adorns this great northern City. And it has trams. Loads of them. So in the area around Piccadilly Gardens, it almost reminds me of a European City. Manchester has also intrigued me from some of my earliest childhood memories - years before I ever visited the City: why orange for the colour of buses? One of my earliest toy buses was a Greater Manchester Atlantean, and it stood out amongst my mostly red collection. 
So on my day off, I decided to just take myself along with the flow and spend a few hours amongst the buses and trams of this gritty northern City. 
One thing that surprises me a little is the seemingly lack of multi-modal day ticket that covers the morning peak. Having searched web pages in recent days, I can't find an option that allows me freedom of the network of buses, trams and trains before 0930 on weekdays. Maybe there isn't demand, but I find that hard to believe. 
I arrive into Manchester Piccadilly railway station, which is always a pleasure. As gateways to Cities go, this is right up there. Roomy and airy, it says "welcome to Manchester" in a modern, pleasing way. You can connect directly onto the Metrolink trams here, but after the obligatory visit to the Ian Allan transport bookshop outside the station (Buses Annual 2012 for a quid purchased) I find myself sitting in the window at Greggs with a sandwich observing the comings and goings of route 192. 
This was the first route I ever tried in Manchester years ago, and it looks as busy as ever, with it's recently installed fleet of handsome Enviro 400 double decker hybrid buses, adorned in a very attractive green adaption of corporate Stagecoach squirls. 
I've been as far as Stockport before on this route, but never to the terminus at Hazel Grove, so I leave the warm surroundings of Greggs to jump on the first 192 that rolls up. But it isn't going to Hazel Grove - rather Stepping Hill Hospital. This appears to be a variation on the route, but I'm used to the West Midlands idea of adding an "A" or "E" to differentiate a route - in Manchester you have to look at the destination more closely! 
So I let this one go and 30 seconds later a Hazel Grove version arrives. 
"Can I buy a bus and tram day ticket please?" I ask the driver, who, sounding like a Coronation Street extra, tells me "yes, of course, it's £6.50". Armed with my paper passport to Manchester's public transport I'm off upstairs to view the delights of Manchester's suburbs along this famous route, which, Wikipedia tells us, dates back to 1889, when it was first operated by the Stockport Carriage & Tramway Co. Ltd. 
The impressive branding of my environmentally-friendly green machine hides a less than impressive interior. The bus is very untidy inside, with litter strewn all over the top deck, and muddy footprints up the front panels. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating journey out through the likes of Ardwick, Longsight and Levenshulme, all with fascinating glimpses of buildings from the past mixed with the new. This Enviro suffers from the same "noisy fan" syndrome as her West Midlands sisters...
We're informed that "electronic cigarettes are banned on this bus" (first time I've seen that anywhere), and I'm momentarily distracted by the sign outside Cape Cod's chip shop: "any pie and chips £2.95". Some good old northern roots still going strong here! 
I spot a Stagecoach Inspector with radio eyeballing our bus near Stockport and he obviously has his work cut out - the 192s are inevitably bunching all over the place - I spot 3 running in tandem in the opposite direction. 
The terminus at Hazel Grove is, like so many outer termini of City routes, completely underwhelming. It lies behind the Rising Sun pub next to a railway bridge and huge expanse of derelict land. It is here I jump off and consider a pint in said pub, but decide that 1 would probably lead to 2, and I've got more buses and trams to see! So I watch my 192 trundle off back to City whilst almost immediately another 192 has appeared. 
Drivers at Hazel Grove appear to check the upper and lower decks for anything untoward. My new driver does this, then asks if I want to get on, helpfully explaining he'll be a couple of minutes as he has to make a phone call. Buses from Hazel Grove are every 10 minutes and despite the bunching further up the route, all seems to be well regulated from this furthest outpost. We're soon on our way again, heading back towards the metropolis where other 192s emerge from the route variants, and we're soon bunching back into town, where another Inspector is scribbling onto his clipboard. This bus has marginally less litter, but is still a let down. Maybe the Mancunians could learn something from the West Midlands practice of daytime sweep outs at termini. There's seemingly adequate time for a bit of broom action at Hazel Grove...
Back in the City, I hop off at Piccadilly Gardens and marvel at the organised chaos there. Buses from Stagecoach, First, Arriva, Magic Bus, Finglands and Metrolink trams all jostle for space amongst throngs of people. I decide to try a Finglands service, as these will soon disappear as First is in the process of buying the bus operation. 
My 41 is a modern Wrights Gemini double decker, with less litter than its Stagecoach Sister, but still not great. Like Birmingham, I think it's a City thing...
I'm heading along the famous Wilmslow Road. Famous as it's often cited as the busiest bus corridor in Europe. This is student-ville, and as it's mid afternoon, I'm watching from my top deck vantage point as literally thousands of scholars besiege the numerous buses on the corridor. 
Finglands might have been the post-deregulation pioneer of cheap student deals, but today it is Stagecoach's Magic Bus service that appears to be the market leader. Our bus hovers around stops, but many students stand back and wait for the deep blue Magic Buses instead, of which there appears to be a never-ending stream. It's been a few years since I've been down here, but I am still fascinated at the incredible demand for buses down here. It looks like Brian Souter has again read the market extremely well, as his motley line up of elderly no-frills services have clearly attained cult status amongst the student fraternity. 
Other Stagecoach buses ply the route as well as Finglands and Magic Bus, and I spot one lone First vehicle in amongst the action, but with their impending take over of Finglands, they appear to be on the verge of becoming a more significant player in this incredible game. 
I hop off after a while and cross over the road, but I don't have long to wait for a bus. I make it about 17 seconds before one of Souters cheap and cheerful 10 year old-plus Magic Buses rolls up. Ironically, this has been the tidiest bus to date with very little litter rolling about! As I head back into the City Centre, I observe the outgoing services - it is virtually a sea of buses, each crammed full of people akin to a scene from Indian railways! 
I'm back in Piccadilly Gardens. 
Transport for Greater Manchester does decent timetables for its stops, but they appear not to show specific operators on journeys, which may be an issue for those who buy operator-specific tickets. I have a wander round, catching glimpse of the recently-refreshed Witch Way buses, with their red stiletto wearing witches adorning the sides of the vehicles. I decide I'll return in the future to have a ride on one of these. The numerous MetroShuttle free buses are also roaming the streets of the City. First seem to have the majority of their buses in their new, cleaner purple livery, which is growing on me all the time. It's a very colourful bus scene...
Next I'm off for a bit of tram action. 
We're heading into the evening peak and Piccadilly Gardens is awash with commuters. I join the crush and head for somewhere no self-respecting Manchester United fan should consider: Etihad Campus - home of Manchester City! 
This stop has only recently opened earlier this year in February 2013 and I've never been to the "noisy neighbours"! This evening, it isn't very noisy at all. In fact it's deserted as I hop off and wander around the outside of the stadium, adorned with faces of the players. It's pretty chilly and I feel like I'm in enemy territory (!) being a lifelong red, but it's an impressive place to be fair. I head back down to the deserted platforms, save for one guy who looks bewildered at the self-service ticket machines and hop on a tram up towards Bury. 
Metrolink is impressive. When it comes to public transport, I always like to compare what we have in my native West Midlands to Manchester, as it's much more comparative then, say, London. And I have to say, in some respects (although not all!) our northern friends have stolen a march on us West Midlanders. Metrolink has expanded into a superb tram network, comparable to many European Cities. The West Midlands has, for many political reasons I guess, fallen behind. Yes, we're getting new rolling stock, but so indeed are Manchester. 
I'm riding an evening peak service to Bury aboard a Bombardier M5000 tram. Standing room only, these vehicles are impressive. We pass through some great names, including Abraham Moss, Crumpsall and the delightful-sounding Besses o' th' Barn. Goodness knows what goes on here after dark. 
Bury is the final stop, and I wander up the stairs to the bus station at the top, and manage to spend 40p attempting to gain access to the toilets, as my first 20p attempt fails to get me into the jail-like grill that guards the facility against freeloaders. 
I consider catching a bus back to Manchester, but my options all look like they take around an hour, and I have a time-specific train ticket for my journey home, so no mishaps can be tolerated! 
So I return to the Metrolink platforms, where a much older tram - one of the original T-68s - is awaiting departure. I hop on to sample it - probably one of the last times I will do so as all of the remaining versions of this vehicle are scheduled to be withdrawn next year in 2014. They're showing their age, but they've earned their keep in the City. 
My trip back into town is a curious mix of commuter stragglers and the first of the evening party people. Manchester's bright young things are appearing for a night on the town, and Metrolink will take them to the bright lights of the City. 
But Metrolink is taking me back to Piccadilly station, where I'm homeward bound. It's early evening in the station but it's still very busy, as people queue for burgers and peruse the departure boards. I'm hunting for a litter bin (of which an example doesn't appear to exist) but a kindly man with rubbish trolley accepts my waste papers before I head onto platform 9 where my CrossCountry Voyager will sail southbound via Wolverhampton where National Express West Midlands' 256 bus will deliver me home. 
Wolves bus station is magnificent enough to rival anything Manchester can offer. Except my 256 doesn't exist according to the digital technology. (I know better of course!) 
Centro are currently canvassing views on plans to extend our Midland Metro trams to and from the rail station via the bus station, and whilst this may be a good thing, I just get the impression Manchester has already been there, done that and got the t-shirt! 

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Countdown to Zero - Why Isn't The RealTime Reliable?

I'm in The Strand, London. Famous for the location of the UK's first radio broadcast, and now a mecca for bus photographers who can see both old and new Routemasters side by side in service.
After spending a few minutes observing this phenomenon, it's time to head back to Euston via a 91. TfL's real time information is flawless as usual, as is the huge board at the railway station ahead of my trip north.
Yet back in Brum, things still aren't right.
On Colmore Row, the evening peak is in full swing as the rain lashes down. Commuters squint down the road to see which buses will bring them a bit of relief from the downpour.
For users of the 9 to Halesowen and Stourbridge (including me) it's looking pretty good. There is a usual frequency of every 7/8 minutes, and the real-time information on the the "totem" is showing two buses 1 minute away, a further one 2 minutes away, with a fourth 5 minutes adrift. But as the top two show "due", it's worse than a feisty Victorian lady tempting you with a bit of ankle. The anticipation comes to nothing and there is no sign of our 9s. Five minutes later, both have resorted to "1 min" and goodness only knows what's happened to the other contenders.
There is much mumbling in the rain as the crowd grows ever bigger (there is no such thing as a "queue" for a bus in Brum these days...). The "real time" mysteriously reverts to "timetable time" (almost as if someone has flicked a switch to remove the folly being played out on the totem screen) and it is a full 20 minutes before two 9s roll up together and gobble up two full loads. I decide (fool as I am) to hang around in the rain to catch the next one, which is a further 8 minutes away.
Centro has been at pains in recent times to explain what is being shown on the screens. It explains within shelter information that displays that "count down" (i.e. 5 mins, 4 mins, etc) are actual "real times", with bits of kit on board the bus tracking it's movements. "Timetable time" (e.g. 1135) is just the timetable reproduced digitally for information.
So, what was going on in Colmore Row?
Either the Brummie version of the Bermuda Triangle is at work, evaporating all buses somewhere on Snow Hill, never to be seen again, or something isn't right with the kit.
Versions of this technology have been around for a number of years in the West Midlands. And despite being full of hope that it would bring around a revolution in the way passengers had confidence in their bus services, I'm sadly coming to the conclusion that it is actually doing more harm than good. People just aren't believing what is on the display and are simply ignoring it.
Posh liveries and leather seats are important ways to woo people onto buses, but reliability will always be the number one issue that concerns bus passengers. Real time information (alongside smartphone apps) have the potential to be a game changer. I want them to work. Indeed TfL's London system seems to do just that. Back in the summer whilst I was bashing the New Bus for London on route 24, I hopped on and off for hours - and it all seemed to run perfectly. So why can't we get the technology to work properly in the West Midlands?
And there's more.
Centro's bus stations increasingly use screens with "live" information on them. Stourbridge's wonderful new Interchange - opened last year - is a great facility. But I'm afraid I've lost count of the amount of times the digital screens are showing incorrect information. In fact, I've given up reporting it to Centro. Even as recent as this very evening, the departures for some of Arriva's evening trips on the 257 are not showing on the departure stand - and these are for buses without the real time kit! It should be showing the standard timetable departure. But they're missing. In Wolverhampton the other week, the entire 256 departures weren't there. (since reappeared.)
Does all of this matter?
Yes, actually.
Bus passengers deserve to benefit from this type of information. They deserve to have real confidence in the system. If technology has the wherewithal to track a vehicle (a bit like your car sat-nav) and let you know how long you have to wait, that is a great thing. But so often does it not work around here, it is beginning to become a folly. So when one of Arriva's evening 257 departures actually didn't turn up this evening (resulting in a half hour wait for the next one), the screen simply dumped it, everyone ignored it, and a great waste of time was had by all.
Back to our Colmore Row saga earlier. It became apparent that something was going on traffic-wise as, when I finally boarded a 9 resembling a drowned 6'7" rat, it then took over 20 minutes to get less than half a mile. But here's an idea. We all accept that traffic incidents have a huge effect on bus reliability, and God knows the slightest prang in Birmingham City Centre has the network clogged up within minutes. But our super-shiny totems displaying the dubious real time information also have the potential to scroll information across the display. If a problem is known, why cannot that information be scrolled immediately, for the benefit of waiting passengers? In a similar vein, I've been banging on literally for years for PA systems in bus stations to be actively used to inform of delays as they happen. We know that someone knows about all of this, because the largest operator (National Express West Midlands) has an excellent control centre that is watching the movements of it's entire fleet, and altering their movements, as necessary. NXWM's Twitter feed has also upped it's game and is getting a lot better (although it tends to tweet info from Birmingham more so than Black Country happenings). We also know that bus stations, PA systems within them and info screens belong to Centro, so there is a potential conflict in who puts the information out, but surely this is not insurmountable? Although it may be hard to believe, not everyone does Twitter, and not everyone has a smartphone to whip out whenever there are delays.
Rail passengers have it all too easy. The "real time" works on the platform, and is trusted. The air is filled with announcements, automated or "real". Of course it is easier said than done, but why cannot bus passengers have this same level of information provided, and digital information they can reliably trust?
This isn't meant as a cheap criticism of the transport professionals who work at Centro or the bus operators. I know enough of them to know that they are dedicated people who want public transport to succeed.
But for the people standing in the rain on Colmore Row this evening - mostly without the use of a shelter seeing as that too has shrunk to minute dimensions since the City Centre went for the "minimalist" look last year when it comes to infrastructure - the complete non-believing of the information provided tells a poor tale of what should be real advancement of the bus users lot, but is anything but.
The ideas are really sound ones, but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. And execution of real time information in the West Midlands is still, years on, left wanting.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

From Wrekin to Oatcakes - Crossing Shires....

Phil goes for a ride on Arriva's cross-county service from Shrewsbury to the Potteries, samples Hanley's new iconic bus station and plays a missing word game....

The mighty Wrekin dominates the November landscape as my London Midland train rumbles from the darkest Black Country through the green Shropshire fields.
I'm on my way to Shrewsbury, the County's jewel in the crown. Complete with Gothic-style railway station and wonderfully antiquated signals. And a signal box to die for, should such buildings be your thing.
Arriva's corporate aqua-marine wasn't probably in the mind of Thomas Mainwaring Penson - architect of the mock Tudor splendour - but the German owned transport monolith is big in this town. Many of the buses bear the same Arriva brand.
But in this fine county town, I'm not staying. I'm here to catch the 164/64 route to the eminently more gritty potteries town of Hanley, to view it's new bus station.
Before I depart, I pay homage to the extraordinary bus station information centre. This establishment, lurking up a few steps in the rear of the newsagents is a living embodiment of the 1970s. It ought to be preserved by the National Trust. Paper timetables adorn the walls, some with yellow post-it notes attached to them. Coach holiday brochures are also on display, but that one reassuring thing is still very much present - a human being. If you think I'm somehow mocking this blast-from-the-past, think again! We need more humans and more paper bus timetables. Your smartphone is only as good as your 3G signal - and in Shrewsbury, it ain't always great!
Having obtained my 164/64 timetable, it's off out on stand to wait for my chariot. The service departs from the far corner of the bus station, near to the parking area. For bus spotters, there is a bit of relief from the aqua-marine. Bryn Melyn creeps into the Town from across the Welsh frontier, and Minsterley Motors are also here - although this company is infamous in enthusiast circles for drivers who don't like having photos taken of their bus - some rude gestures made the pages of that esteemed news organ The Sun recently.
I decide against whipping out my phone and pointing it at Mr. Minsterley, and within a few minutes my hourly 164 has arrived.
The journey begins as a 64 to Market Drayton, then becomes a 164 to Hanley - no doubt a victim of some more daft legislation. Why can't it just be a 64 with Hanley via Market Drayton on the front?
There are just 2 of us intending passengers for this trip. A bearded driver hands over to a younger gentleman who proceeds to punch his details into the ticket machine, whilst the aforementioned beardie rants-lyrical about some problem with the GPS and how the bus hadn't ought to be in service. New driver appears to take no notice apart from a semi-sympathetic "hmmm". Beardie walks away, pulling a hi-viz over his aqua-marine-lined jacket and we join the single decker for a nigh on 2 hour romp across to the potteries.
£3.50 single all the way to Hanley is a decent price, but such a bargain appears not in great demand as only the 2 of us leave Shrewsbury with our sunglasses-wearing driver (for reasons I cannot fathom - maybe he wants to look cool, or something).
It's not until we reach Hodnet that more souls join the party. And of the 4 that do, all of them have concessionary passes. Our journey takes us into the NAAFI at Tern Hill, where a quick reversing procedure at a dead-end adds a bit of excitement. Road signs advise "TROOPS AND CHILDREN CROSSING".
Ten minutes later, we're at Market Drayton - "home of gingerbread" - and a tiny bus station. A 64 is already here, heading in the opposite direction. A cursory wave and flick of the button to change our 64 to a 164 is the highlight of our stop, apart from the boarding of 3 local ladies, who then decide to open the windows next to their seats. No doubt minimal benefit to them, but a healthy November breeze for us less fortunate further back. The ladies manage to talk amongst themselves non-stop for the next 45 minutes - maybe they need to have the windows open to extinguish the hot air. Either way, I'm sure I can feel frost forming on my face....
The 164 section of the route from Market Drayton to Hanley is the prettier when it comes to views from the bus windows. The service diverts to serve several villages such as Ashley - an archetypal middle-England scene - and Loggerheads, complete with teeth-whitening outlet. There are well-manicured bushes to be seen around many a twist and turn... The bus operators though have to compete with large 4x4s on the drive as well as the teeth-whitening generation who may not see the 164 as a viable alternative to their personal registration plate.
Nevertheless, our bus swaps green fields for more built-up areas and we gain a few more travellers as we head towards the home of the Oatcake.
First we arrive into Newcastle-under-Lyme, where the barbie pink of First is the dominant scene, although increasingly it is being replaced by the more subtle new purple-based corporate image. First's new image actually looks a lot nicer in the flesh than on photos and it is growing on me all the time. But what I'm not so keen on is the huge "fat font" that emblazons itself mid-vehicle as an attempt at localism. In this case, it says POTTERIES with a clever montage of the local skyline incorporated into the name. But actually, it is almost "too clever" as you have to look closely at the name to appreciate what is actually going on. My own view is that the large font spoils what is actually a much nicer, classier livery than the 90s pink it is replacing. Wardles are also here, but the long-established name may be in danger of disappearing - the now Arriva-owned operation appears to have several of its journeys being operated by standard Arriva-liveried vehicles.
We plod on, finally arriving at Hanley's new bus station.
The £15m bus station actually opened back in March, but I've never got around to actually seeing it until today. Like Newcastle, there is much reversing going on, and a hi-vizzed gentleman is greeting all new bus arrivals before they go to their stand. He waves us through and our bus docks up, disgorging its throng of happy shoppers into the town.
Across the road, the former bus station is now a construction site. When I worked for Bus Users UK, I visited Stoke regularly as we had an office in the City. I well recall many years ago visiting the old bus station and branding it as one of the worst in the country I had visited (the other being Plymouth!). This new offering is a fine addition to Hanley and there is plenty of information for users. The toilets are free (for now - although barriers are fitted but as yet unused) and a small cafe / convenience shop is joined by an information centre. The only thing that catches my eye is that numerous services have 2 departure bays - one for daytime and one for after 7pm - does half of the bus station close in the evening? The information is clear enough, but why do this? It seems an unnecessary complication on the face of it.
After a short while wandering around, I'm going to complete a trio of "firsts" today, by trying out the 101 to Stafford.
A few years ago, when First bought some shiny new Scanias for the route, I attended a launch event at Trentham Gardens (on the route) as part of my Bus Users UK duties, but I have never ridden the route in normal service end-to-end. Bakerbus also used to do a Stoke-Stafford service (X1) but this appears to have been reduced and curtailed, so unless you want to ride the train, the 101 is the only bus route linking the two.
The Scanias still work the route, but the vehicle I am about to catch has had part of its branding removed - it now says "a special one every......" leaving you thinking you're part of some Radio 4-style word game. The bus still sports its old First livery - heavy on the pink - but I pass one of its sisters en route in the new classier purple, so hopefully the word-association game will soon be no more. (By the way, if you're dying to know the answer, the missing phrase is "20 minutes"...)
The bus should depart from stand Q, but leaves from the one next door. But this doesn't appear to affect the natives, who don't appear to understand the ethics of queuing. My Black Country manners count for nothing here as they barge aboard, leaving me to enquire the price of a single to Stafford Railway Station. (£3.50).
The 101 is another jolly romp across the countryside, made even more interesting by the First timetable, which, on its flipside, is like a mini-guide to some of the areas it passes through. It resembles a modern-day Midland Red guide and is a lovely thought to non-regulars like me!
End-to-end takes just over an hour, and soon enough we're at Stafford Railway Station. I contemplate more aqua-marine bus action back to Wolverhampton, but, having appeared indifferent to the joys of the smartphone earlier, my gadget tells me that a London Midland train is due in 10 minutes, so my staff pass will get me a free ride back to the Black Country!
Arrival at Wolverhampton is followed by what must have seemed to be a comedy image of a 6'7" unfit fat bloke sprinting to the bus station in order to catch the National Express West Midlands 256 home. But having arrived on stand puffing for England, I needn't have bothered. The driver was casually pushing buttons on his ticket machine and coolly departed. 2 minutes late.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Liverpool Singing The Bus Lane Blues

Where to even start with the news of the suspension of Liverpool's bus lanes by the Mayor?
Despair at such a crass decision is as good as any, but there'll be plenty of time for hand-wringing over the next few months.
But you really have to wonder at such an amateurish decision by the man in charge of one of our great northern Cities. Apparently there wasn't even a consultation with Arriva, one of the biggest bus operators in Liverpool about this. Of course some will argue that any such discussion would have been a waste of time - vested interests and all that - but surely we can do better than this?
The Mayor hasn't got much data either. Again, it can be argued that lots of figures can be arranged to give you whatever picture you like, but bus lanes in congested Cities doesn't need to be backed up with endless reports - it ought to be obvious that, as part of a comprehensive transport strategy, buses have priority.
And so we tiresomely return to the politics of the selfish.
This isn't about creating a scheme that keeps a City moving. It is all about pandering to a vocal group of motorists who (as usual) don't give a monkeys about a functioning City with lots of people wanting to get from A to B, with a plan that gives priority to the mode of transport that makes the most efficient use of road space.
And shamefully, the Mayor has taken a short-term, populist decision that sends out a really negative view.
I've been to many a European City and what strikes you in most of them is the natural way that public transport is respected and used as part of City life. Whether buses or trams, it naturally has priority and weaves its way around the conurbation. It has been this way for years, but, with a few honourable exceptions, Britain sadly lags behind. We'd rather follow "the American way".
It isn't just shameful short-term pandering to the motorist that the Mayor ought to be thinking about.
Air pollution in our Cities continues to concern us. What does this decision do? It simply encourages more people to drive into an already congested, air polluted City. All the evidence shows that if you provide more road space, it quickly fills up with cars. Buses now have no advantage, so will become less reliable. So more people will drive. And so the ever-diminishing circle downwards continues.
The transport campaigner Ray Wilkes also makes an important observation. Bus lanes are incredibly useful for emergency response vehicles. With all lanes of traffic congested, will fire engines, ambulances and other emergency vehicles take longer to get to an emergency? Has the Mayor consulted with these organisations?
This is all elementary stuff. But I find it fascinating just how blinkered people in high office can sometimes be.
From the barmy suggestion of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to allow people to park for 15 minutes on double yellow lines (what does Eric think might happen to traffic congestion in City Centres if ever that came to fruition, not to mention who polices the inevitable abuse of the suggestion) to comments about "handing over road space to private bus operators to make money" (I've heard this bizarre thought several times) we really are so far behind in our thoughts on suburban transport planning in this country.
I'd like to think a grown-up discussion between the Mayor and interested parties (such as bus operators) long before this was implemented might have saved my despair at today's news. But seeing as he appears not to have even contemplated such an obvious starting point leaves me with the conclusion that this is a "trial" based on a huge abuse of power.
Who has persuaded the Mayor that this is good decision? Business? Motoring lobby? Surely it hasn't been taken on a whim by the man himself wandering around the City looking at lines of traffic whilst buses are whizzing past?
And what does this do for good long-term governance of movement in Liverpool City Centre?
The best schemes run on partnership where various partners know their role and everyone works to the common good.
The Mayor of Liverpool has damaged this trust for reasons not easily understood. And for what? A few populist votes and comments?
If getting people moving around Liverpool City Centre is the aim, why hasn't the City taken a look across to it's near northern neighbour Manchester, where trams patrol the City streets and buses and bus lanes play a vital role in suburban life. If the politicians have failed over the years to build a public transport system that serves the City effectively, what is the point of cutting loose and creating a free-for-all that threatens to paralyse the arteries further?
For a City famous for it's musical heritage, singing the bus lane blues seems appropriate right now....

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Yes, Minister - The Politics of Reshuffle

Ahh, the political "reshuffle".
The attempt to "freshen up" the party scene, give some Departments new impetus, and conveniently remove some awkward ongoing scenarios.
Some view this as inevitable. In Government, as in working life, it can seem like time is a continuous revolving door - the "reorganisation" in companies is often for similar reasons as political reshuffles.
That's as maybe. But sometimes you simply find the right person for the right job. And when you have that spark, and the person themselves is happy in the role, good things happen.
Take Roger French at Brighton & Hove. Until his recent retirement he'd been there donkeys years. But what us transport observers saw on the south coast was inspirational. The company was - and still is - almost always quoted in the list of how to "do" buses right. A little bit of magic whereby the parent company, Go Ahead, let him get on with it. Buses in Brighton are much more than "buses" - they are a real part of the fabric of society there, with Mr French involved in local business groups, etc. The list goes on. Having one of the best local bus operations in the country isn't down to one man, of course. But such leadership - and longevity in the role - creates confidence for the longer term; a block to build on. The bus users of Brighton are reaping the benefits of this little bit of magic.
Which brings me onto Norman Baker - now former Transport Minister.
Like many who take a keen interest in the public transport scene, I've seen many a Transport Minister and Secretary come and go. Many are unmemorable - Transport is often said to be a Department for those on the up, or on the way back down the greasy pole. But Norman Baker struck me as someone "in tune" with transport, and buses in particular. In the latest "reshuffle", he's gone to the Home Office after 3 and a half years in Transport. One of the longest-serving Transport Ministers I can recall. And yet really, it's no time at all.
Transport is a long-term thing. We all collectively sigh that some projects take too long to do - that is often the nature of the beast. But maybe the usual (apart from Norman) revolving of the door at DfT doesn't help. Transport needs long-term plans, and they need to be seen through. Change the politician and there is an excuse to change the policy. Norman Baker seemed to understand the bus industry, and the bus industry seemed to respect him.
Not to be outdone, Ed Miliband also had a go at shuffling his pack on the Labour benches too. Here, Maria Eagle has departed to pastures new and is replaced by Mary Creagh. This has made minimal news, but could prove to be very interesting in the World of transport - especially in the run up to the General Election in around 19 months time. Maria Eagle had made previous rumblings about making Quality Contracts easier to implement, and a few railway-related ideas in her time as Shadow to suggest that, should Labour win the 2015 General Election, we may see significant change to the way the UK's public transport is structured. Will that message change with Mary Creagh?
It's all "short termism" and for an industry like buses, it means that we never achieve full potential. We get the likes of Eric Pickles' knee-jerk ideas like cramming more cars into town centres. Populist? Maybe. But he obviously never even thought to discuss them with the likes of Norman Baker and others at DfT. Result? A complete lack of joined-up thinking that gives little confidence in transport governance for the longer term.
Oh to have political figures with a real passion and understanding of the brief kept in position for the long term! Norman Baker was an extremely rare example, and now he's gone. Lord Andrew Adonis is another political figure who has transport nous. He needs a real political transport role with teeth.
In the meantime, the transport industry must again keep one eye on the messages coming out of politicians with the transport brief. Will they have real passion for the role, or for them is it just another career fare-stage?

Monday, 23 September 2013

Why Ed Needs To Listen To Mother

Sir Richard Leese, Labour Leader of Manchester City Council since 1996, sees the benefit a High Speed Rail link will bring to the North, and specifically the City he leads.
So no doubt a frank piece of his mind, directed at his own party’s Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, displays in no uncertain terms, irritation at comments made at this week’s Labour Conference.
Balls was commenting on the HS2 proposals – a challenging but genuinely exciting project first hatched by the Labour Party – which has that rarest of statuses: cross party support.
But is Balls, and Labour, getting cold feet? Or were comments made today an attempt to measure what votes might be gained in taking a somewhat “populist” stance of distancing themselves from the plans?
The Shadow Chancellor stated that he continued to back the plans, but seemingly attempted to dip his toe in the water of discontent, asking whether £50bn on HS2 was the best way to spend the money. His number 2, Rachel Reeves, appeared to go further, saying that the party would cancel it “if we don’t think it’s good value for money and costs continue to rise”.
Leese, clearly frustrated at such comments, accused Balls of a “cheap shot”;
“there are better ways for the Shadow Chancellor to demonstrate fiscal responsibility than take a cheap shot at HS2”
And he’s right.
HS2 has, in recent months, taken a battering from the antis. Highly inaccurate projections on costs have been doing the rounds, and some less than balanced reporting in the media has only added to the hype. For Balls to play with words in the search of potential votes is extremely disappointing. It is political gamesmanship of the worst kind, because he hasn’t come out against it – merely hinting that he “might”, depending on how the budget goes. Or possibly how the political ship is sailing as we head towards the altogether choppier waters of a general election, now probably a mere 20 months away.
It is this short-termism – a tendency for politicians to veer sharply from one side to the other – that is to this country’s detriment. We have this week seen the Germans once again put faith in Angela Merkel for a third term. “Mutti” – or “Mother” – is seen as an extremely safe pair of hands who guides Germany – and Europe – through the rockiest economic crisis we’ve seen in modern times. Not for her a lurch to the right or left in the short term. She’s in it for the long haul, and sticking to it.
What is the relevance between the German “Mutti” and High Speed 2 in Britain?
HS2 is not for tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. It is an investment in a much longer plan. It isn’t all about cutting 30 minutes off a suited toff’s trip to London. It is about connecting our country for real growth, opening up the South to the Midlands and North like we have never seen before. It is a continuation of a stalled plan started by the Victorians.
Anyone who has ever travelled across Europe by High Speed rail knows the difference it makes. Rail is our heritage but it is also very much our future.
By all means we need to continue investing in our existing network, and that is what we are doing - £37.5bn between 2014-2019 which will lead to significant electrification – 850 miles of it, new rolling stock, new lines, the list goes on.
That is only the next 5 years. What we REALLY need is to get a long-term grip on infrastructure in the UK.
This month’s Transport Times carries an interesting article regarding a report compiled by Sir John Armitt, who calls for a statutory body to set infrastructure priorities for the UK. And here’s the sense – it should look 25-30 years ahead.
It would carry out a national assessment every 10 years and have 10 year plans on how the projects would be delivered, voted on by Parliament.
Sir John comments;
“Over the last 40 years UK infrastructure has fallen behind the rest of the world and is increasingly struggling to cope with the demands we make of it”. Hear Hear.
Look at how London as a City has seen an explosion in its population, even over the last decade. Look at how the transport system has been bolstered to cope with the ever increasing demand. It has cost a lot of money, but it is simply needed to stop the City grinding to a halt. Sir Richard Leese in Manchester makes exactly the same point about HS2 being essential to stop the Midlands and North doing the same thing.
The Armitt report on long-term infrastructure planning was, interestingly, commissioned by the Labour Party.
What odds would you get on them implementing all of its recommendations if they seize power in 2015?

Friday, 13 September 2013

Clock Watching

It's 1124 in Dudley bus station on a fairly mundane Friday morning.  I'm waiting for service 42 along with half a dozen others for a route that will wind around the houses and end up in West Bromwich. 
The digital screen has been counting down in minutes, suggesting that the bus - a National Express West Midlands vehicle - has got the required bit of tracking equipment on. Indeed a notice on my previous journey had been trumpeting the new smartphone app which informs you of all things buses (or at least when they're due. In real time).
Because I'm a bus geek and can spot a West Brom garage Merc a mile off (my party trick, since you ask), I can see it parked up across the way. But as the screen moves from "1 min" to "due" and then falls off the end, there is no driver for my 42. The screen is disbelieved and a big fat fail ensues.
Arriving on stand now is the next 205, due in 4 minutes, but this will entail a driver changeover, cue more slamming of bus doors whilst this inexplicably long-winded procedure goes on. In TrentBarton land, passengers are let on BEFORE  the changeover takes place - now theres an innovation.
But whilst this is going on, I've noticed our 42 driver appear, seemingly in little rush, and then bring our bus around to the stand - now occupied by the 205.
Now there is the sound of bus horns honking as our 42 driver realises his slot has gone and the 205 ain't moving.
But the stand now has a mix of intending passengers for both services.
What happens now? In the end, our 42 driver opts to pull in 1 stop down, resulting in groans from at least 2 fellow passengers, one of which looks decidedly dodgy on her legs. It's a good job we haven't got any blind passengers or others who may not have been aware of what was going on. We eventually leave 4 minutes late.
Why the rant for something perhaps minor?
Because I'm passionate about getting the little things as right as we can in tandem with the big things.
Who knows why the driver emerged late for his journey. There could be a very good reason.  But over the years I've seen this far too often.
And it's the little things that non-regular users see and experience far more than us regulars.
If we are to get more bums on seats, the user experience needs to be flawless.  Big issues like traffic congestion are a long-term battle to overcome, but seemingly little issues like this one have disproportionate effects.
Providing good service should be objective number 1. Every hour of every day.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Kindle Your Next Bus

picture courtesy Centro

There haven’t been too many “World firsts” in Oldbury. The Black Country town lives in the shadow of its football-mad neighbour West Bromwich, and hosts the Council House for the Borough of Sandwell – though try finding the town of “Sandwell” on the map.
I digress.
Popping into my inbox the other day was an email from Centro, announcing that a trial of bus information at a bus stop in Oldbury was indeed a “World first”. Supposedly using technology similar to a “Kindle” (e-book device-type thing), it is on trial at a bus stop in the town.
So, seeing as it was my day off from work, I hopped on an 87 to take a look.
A technological first it may be, but so underwhelming it is, I reckon I was the only person at the stop to even notice. Which of course isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
At first glance, it looks like a bog-standard bus timetable inside a bog-standard shelter. Its only when you peer closer you notice it actually looks like a kindle on its side, displaying a bus timetable.
The experiment also features “NFC – Near Field Communication”, which is the wizardry that allows you to pay for a cup of coffee or other “low-priced” miscellanary with your enabled mobile phone or debit card (although judging by the cost of my last cup of coffee, I could hardly describe that as “low-priced”). It is the coming thing.
Not that the awaiting bus users of this anonymous bus shelter in Oldbury might think. I gently waved my “NFC-enabled” mobile phone at the display in various degrees of magician-style. Only on the 3rd attempt did it burst into action, showing me, well, the same information on the sideways kindle. Luckily the number 4 bus arrived before the passengers became too concerned at my strange act.
The idea is that, eventually, paper timetables might be replaced entirely by this technology, and so can be updated at the flick of a switch somewhere, negating the need for person-with-van to keep going out to replace them, when the operators change their times.
It also includes a panel that shows “real time” running information. Useful enough, but like the rest of the real-time information project across the West Midlands, seeing isn’t always believing. We’ve had “real time” in Centro Land for many years now, and – whilst ironically – it is probably the best it has ever been now, it still, frankly, isn’t good enough to be used with confidence, en masse. Too often I still look at “real time” information and it still isn’t working properly.

Still, at least for now, Oldbury can claim to be a leader of sorts in the World of public transport. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Buses To Hospital - Why The Drugs Don't Always Work

My local paper reports a “critical” review is underway to improve public transport access to Wolverhampton’s New Cross Hospital.
A new £4m multi-storey car park is being built on the site, but the Hospital’s Chief Executive David Loughton is branding it “a waste of money”, and wants more people to use buses to get to the site.
A laudable aim. But one that is fraught with difficulty.
Local Councillor Milkinder Jaspal has commented that Authorities had “failed miserably” to provide adequate public transport to the site in the past few years, but I’m afraid the situation is far more complex than that.
New Cross suffers from the classic complaint – not enough parking and awful access.
Local buses to the front of the hospital have always been good. A high-frequency service (59) passes during the daytime, but the problem lies within. Many services used to traverse the large site, bringing people literally to the door of many wards and departments, but the problem was always indiscriminate parking. So the bus operators decided that enough was enough and pulled out. A few low frequency routes still brave the inside, but the high frequency ones stay outside of the wall.
The problem isn’t confined to New Cross.
I used to work at Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley. During 15 years working there and at other hospital sites in the Dudley Group, I spent a lot of my spare time developing a Green Travel Plan (even before they became popular!) to address the problem of too many cars on too small a site. To this day, the issue hasn’t been solved. I’ve long since left the employ of the NHS, but on occasions I pass through Russells Hall on the bus and see that not a lot has improved.
Another problem is the provision of service to Hospitals.
Much of the parking problem is staff. And much of the issue is where they live and the hours they work.
I had many meetings with bus operators during my time with the NHS, and achieved limited success in getting them to try some earlier morning journeys on a commercial basis to see if staff would use them. But this is always a gamble for the operator. Staff drive in from a diverse array of areas these days. And they often arrive early, say 6am in some cases. Back in the 70s, staff minibuses would drive around the local area picking up employees, but they often live a lot further away these days. So they drive. Which clogs up the car park until, say, 2pm, when the afternoon staff arrive.
Bus services can often be of a good frequency at that time in the afternoon, so could staff be persuaded to catch the bus to work? Give them a special cheap pass, dangle the carrot of no parking worries? Of course.
But then they finish late. Staff starting at 2pm may well finish at around 10pm. I found this a real headache when I was developing the travel plan. No bus operator wanted to run higher frequency services that late, and Centro weren’t keen on subsidising additional journeys either. Staff were worried about waiting for buses in the dark in the middle of winter, and in any case, the nature of some NHS jobs mean that you can’t walk off the job spot on time. What if you finish your shift at 10pm and your hourly bus service departs at 10:10pm? If you are delayed leaving by 10 minutes you might have missed your bus for an hour, or the last one of the evening.
So staff inevitably drive, which brings more and more cars, more and more congestion, and annoys the bus operators because they get stuck around hospital sites which impacts on the wider service provision. Hospital security staff are often reluctant to clamp down on bad parking as they aren’t often aware of the circumstances related to the awkward parking. What if the person’s relative has been rushed in? They’ll park where they can and not care about the consequences.
Hospital car park charges also lead people to “rebel” and park on surrounding roads to avoid the charge, also impacting on local bus service provision.
Hospital provision too has seen the development of many huge “super hospitals” in recent years, built using private finance. The same issues as described above pop up again and again. New Cross in Wolverhampton, Russells Hall in Dudley, Walsgrave in Coventry, QE in Birmingham. All are massive, and all provide challenges for bus operators to serve effectively.
So it is all too easy for Councillor Jaspal to say that public transport access to New Cross has “failed miserably”. The whole issue requires dedicated time, effort and finances to tackle truly effectively.
And I’ve yet to see any local hospital succeed so far. 

New Ways To Pay?

Who pays for lightly-used but socially-necessary bus services?
In my previous post, we saw how, when public money is involved, one man’s “public service” is another man’s “dreadful waste of money”.
Bus services may be profitable commodities in areas of high demand, but in other scenarios, they are the catalyst to a civilised society, where the value is appreciated, rather than the cost.
A “lightly used” bus service may cost the taxpayer unnecessarily in some people’s eyes, but to the lonely pensioner, it is the gateway to life itself. And what price do you put on that?
With Council funds being spread as thinly now as they have ever been, sentiment isn’t high on the list. Little-used subsidised bus services face the chop if they don’t meet certain criteria. If Granny can’t make it to the shops anymore, that’s unfortunate.
But in times of austerity, new ways of thinking often emerge. It doesn’t have to be the Council that subsidises some bus services.
In South Yorkshire, an innovative, yet entirely logical idea has been suggested – get the shops to pay for the buses that bring the shoppers to them.
South Yorkshire PTE are to ask supermarkets to contribute to their tendered services bill, which, on the face of it, is a decent idea. Public purse pays for bus to take shoppers to supermarket, which then makes profit out of said shopper. Why not help support the bus that brings them there in the first place?
Or is it such a good idea?
SYPTE’s Spokesman even offers a veiled threat to divert the bus service away from supermarkets that won’t pay to ones that do.
But it remains to be seen who will be asked to stump up, and how much. The Sheffield Chamber Retail Forum has reservations. Their members are also facing rising costs and are finding it difficult to make a profit. It might be one thing to go dangling the cap to the likes of Tesco, but what about smaller outlets? And what of the threat to switch routes to shops that do pay? Would patronage fall away because the bus user / shopper preferred the other outlet and can no longer reach there easily? There are all sorts of questions to be answered, and precedents may be set.
Another solution to the lack of public subsidy is to pay for it yourself!
This might seem a rich man’s dream, but one local Councillor in Walsall has staked a substantial part of his Councillor’s Allowance to procure an evening and Sunday service for local residents.
Councillor Richard Worrall is no stranger to public transport. Formally Chair of Centro some years ago, Mr Worrall was re-elected Labour Councillor for Rushall / Shelfield in the Walsall area last year. He also campaigns in favour of the National Concessionary pass and has undertaken several England-wide trips to raise awareness.
But spend his hard-earned subsidising a bus route that not even Centro were prepared to spend money on?
Residents in part of Rushall used to have a good service, 7 days per week across morning, daytimes and evenings, thanks to National Express West Midlands’ trunk 997 route, which linked Birmingham City Centre with Walsall. But when NXWM re-routed part of the service, the area had to rely on a Centro subsidised service, but evenings and Sunday services have disappeared due to low usage.
It’s the usual dilemma. Some people still need it, but it falls below Centro’s threshold to throw public money at it.
Step forward Councillor Worrall, who has decided to subsidise a Sunday shopping hours service on the route – 35A – which started on Sunday, and will initially operate until 22 December.
How much is Mr Worrall shelling out? Likely well into 4 figures, he says. But he’s confident that if patronage is decent, he will look at an evening service next.
Centro have helped him set it up, and the actual service will be operated by WMSNT (West Midlands Special Needs Transport), the Ring & Ride operator which is increasingly itself operating standard bus services alongside its more specialist operations to make up the shortfall it itself is experiencing due to funding cuts.
As ever, it is down to the usual requirement.
“Now it will be up to the residents to demonstrate the need for this service by putting bums on seats”, says Councillor Worrall.
I wish him well with this venture, as I do with his counterparts in South Yorkshire as they try and prise money from hitherto unorthodox sources.

Despite the pain of the cutbacks, the spirit of innovation is as strong as ever.