Thursday, 24 January 2013

Diamond Geezers - Scope For New Thinking?

The news that Rotala has bought First’s Redditch and Kidderminster operations isn't a particular surprise, but it will be interesting to see if they develop the network in these two areas.
Almost certainly, Rotala will brand these as “Red Diamond”. They've been in Redditch for a number of years now, as First faced competition initially from independent Pete’s Travel (who were born in the years following deregulation, taking on West Midlands Travel in the Centro area initially), which then became part of the Go Ahead Group when Pete’s sold out to the “Big 5” company. When Go Ahead gave up its West Midlands operation, it was Rotala who took it on, branding it “Red Diamond” – partly doffing its cap to the famous old Midland Red operation – and investing in some new vehicles for the town.
Kidderminster is an interesting area also. In recent times, First has seen competition from long-standing independent Whittles (more recently part of Peter Shipp’s EYMS). The town itself isn’t big, but there are several local estates which were prime minibus areas post-1986. I’ve always thought that First made their Kidderminster area network difficult to understand, with bits of one-way route and allsorts to make it not the most attractive service. Maybe the locals understood it, but I’m always keen to see networks as simple as can be, so that strangers like me – and indeed locals who’ve never seriously considered trying the bus – can grasp it.
Kidderminster is just across the border from the mighty Centro area, but it is surprising how little buses cross the invisible line. First tried it a number of years ago with a service that linked the carpet-making town with Stourbridge, the giant Merry Hill shopping centre and Dudley. But this was more of a positioning operation than anything else, and wasn’t pushed. Inevitably, it died a death. Whittles have been the most innovative here, extending their Bridgnorth-Kidderminster operation, across into Stourbridge on an hourly daytime frequency, and it seems to be working. The other bit of cross-border action was the 192 – once part of the trunk Birmingham-Halesowen –Kidderminster-Ludlow-Hereford Midland Red operation. This fell victim to Council subsidy cuts and now is operated as Kidderminster-Halesowen only by Whittle.
The train provides stiff opposition from both Redditch and Kidderminster into Birmingham, and both are regarded as “travel to work” (i.e. to Birmingham) areas. But whilst the train takes the strain, the bus isn’t that much a realistic alternative. As mentioned, the 192 from Kidderminster now goes only as far as Halesowen, where, admittedly, there are buses every 7/8 minutes on National Express West Midlands’s 9 service – but the 192 is barely hourly during the daytime, there are no “all operator passes” covering this (as it crosses the border between Worcestershire and Centro land) and, ultimately, people don’t like changing buses. The railway station in Kidderminster is up the hill from the town centre, and parking charges are expensive. The result? Anyone living in Kidderminster looking to use public transport into Birmingham won’t find it easy or attractive. There is evidence that some of them actually drive their car into Stourbridge to take advantage of free car parking at the Centro station there, to take the onward trip into the City Centre!
Redditch does have buses to Birmingham. First’s hourly 146 and Johnson’s X50 (every hour and half) are the options here, but again, whilst that might be only what is commercial achievable for the operators, is it attractive to potential new users?
And for both areas, what about the Black Country’s giant Merry Hill shopping centre? There are most certainly people who drive from Worcestershire to this shopping Mecca – and it claims to attract people from across the region. Currently, getting from Kidderminster or Redditch to Merry Hill on the bus is often too complicated, time consuming, and ultimately expensive. Ditto hospitals and health facilities. Some of the larger providers now refer people to different centres for treatment, often as outpatients. But although Redditch and Kidderminster are not exactly a million miles from facilities in the Black Country and Birmingham, it realistically isn’t feasible to suggest public transport. I provide public transport information for a Hospital in the Black Country, and have been asked several times over the years about how to get from parts of Worcestershire into the Hospital. When I explain to them how difficult it is, they have been genuinely surprised. So there are people who are considering alternatives to stressful motoring, or hunting for elusive car park spaces at health or shopping facilities – but all too often, the alternative isn’t really there.
I’m not asking Rotala to consider launching lots of new commercial services here, with their newly-purchased operations in Kidderminster and Redditch. These are hard times for bus operators so I know I’m likely to be disappointed! But what is interesting is that Rotala – unlike First before them – are not entrenched in Worcestershire. Their Black and Blue Diamond operations in the Black Country and Birmingham respectively mean that they span the invisible border between Shire County and urban area. We know that there is a regular exchange of vehicles between some of these operations, so is there scope for some new thinking on cross-border services?
And is the Competition Commission going to cast it’s beady eye on Redditch in particular, now that Rotala is the main operator in the town? 

Riding The Snowdon Sherpa

It may be the bleak mid-winter, but it won't be long before Spring is here! One of my favourite places to banish the winter blues is North Wales - and there's no better way to blow the cobwebs away than having a ride on the "Snowdon Sherpa" between Betws-y-Coed and Llanberis. The route covers some of the most rural parts of North Wales and provides a link for walkers and tourists. By offering incredibly cheap fares (£1 for any single journey) it also encourages you to leave your car away from the area (if you have one!) and so is contributing to environmental action to curb car use in the Snowdonia National Park. It is part of a group of route that connect across the area.
Here's a brief description of what's on offer to hopefully whet your appetite!

The Snowdon Sherpa departs from “platform 2” at Betws-y-coed – an otherwise normal-looking bus shelter that gains its name from association with the adjacent railway station, which carries trains from the seaside town of Llandudno to the slate-surrounded Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Passing the array of tourist shops in this busy North Wales hub, a right-hand turn takes us meandering out of the town and towards Swallow Falls. Since Victorian times, artists have flocked here to depict the dramatic scenery as the River Llugwy tumbles into multiple waterfalls.
During the Edwardian era, the composer Edward Elgar stayed in the area and is reputed to have composed part of “The Dream of Gerontius” around this time.
Crossing the river, “The Ugly House” appears (“Ty Hyll”), which is now an Information Centre and tea rooms. Legend has it that the Ugly House was built in the 15th Century. Under ancient law, anyone who could build a house between sunset and sunrise with walls, a roof and a chimney that smoked could claim the freehold!
The beautiful scenery is starting to unfold now and after a few more minutes, we’re in the village of Capel Curig. A restored stagecoach is on display, and it is in this village that Lord Penrhyn built an Inn to provide refreshment and accommodation for coach travellers.
A few moments further the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel appears, which has been the choice of generations of mountain climbers. The successful Mount Everest expedition team of 1953 stayed here whilst practising to conquer the highest mountain in the World. The Victorian poet and novelist Charles Kingsley was also a visitor to the area, bringing with him his friend Thomas Hughes, author of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”. A tiny postbox connects the area with the outside world.
A right-hand turn takes the Snowdon Sherpa higher into the rugged Welsh hillside and even on days with inclement weather, mist and cloud hanging over the mountains makes for a dramatic scene.
Having passed tiny churches and the odd grazing sheep, the bus labours up towards Pen-y-pass with spectacular views of the valley below, punctuated only by centuries-old farm buildings and the odd hiker.
Sheep form an orderly queue to negotiate a tiny stream and numerous mini waterfalls tumble down the steep hillsides. We pass into the county of Gwynedd.
At Pen-y-pass, signs of life! A youth hostel is located here and it is a focal point for walkers to start or end their journeys. A car park is also located here as well as a small bus interchange where other Snowdon Sherpa routes converge. There are bus links to the popular village of Beddgelert and Porthmadog for the Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog Railways from here. After a few moments wait here, our journey continues as we plunge down into the Llanberis pass.
The road twists and turns like a tangled piece of string. Perfectly crafted stone walls, built over hundreds of years punctuate the scene, as more streams, walkways, sheep and humans share the countryside.
To our left, thousands of feet above us, the domineering Snowdon. Its sheer presence and beauty breathtaking. For those adventurous to tackle it on foot, it is “breath-taking” in another sense!
Nant Peris is another focal point for hikers, and some journeys deviate into the small car park here to collect and drop off passengers.
It is now only a short journey into the town of Llanberis.
Passing the Royal Victoria Hotel, the huge Dinorwig Power Station, on the banks of Llyn Peris make for an impressive man-made view. Opened in 1984, it was then described as “the biggest civil engineering contract ever awarded in British industrial history”. It is one of the top tourist attractions in North Wales and boasts visitor centre and cafe.
Slate quarrying was at one time a large-scale industry in Llanberis. In 1860, a quarryman’s hospital was established on the slopes around Llyn Padarn. A “shilling club” was organised, and this amount was deducted from the men’s wages each week, and in the event on an accident he could receive medical care without further cost. It is believed to be the first occupational health scheme in Britain, and only ceased in 1948 upon the foundation of the NHS.
The adjacent Lake Padarn hosts the narrow-gauge Llanberis Lake Railway, whilst opposite lies the gateway to Snowdon via the historic Mountain Railway.
Opened in 1896, the famous railway climbs 3943 feet to the summit for the most spectacular views of all!
The S2 Snowdon Sherpa terminates here. During summer months, the service sometimes operates with open top vehicles. Single journeys are £1 anywhere on the route and Red Rover tickets are valid, which cover a wider area of North Wales. At the Betws-y-coed end of the route, some journeys extend to and from Llanrwst.

Route S2 Snowdon Sherpa, operated by Padarn Bus.
Betws-y-coed – Llanberis.
Journey takes 45 mins-1 hour (depending on some route variants). Frequency approximately hourly during summer months (less during winter).

Sunday, 6 January 2013

"Right Time" isn't the Right Way for most of us

I've blogged previously about my concerns over "right time performance" figures being used on the railways, and now it seems the rail industry itself is unhappy, according to comments in the recent trade press.
Let's be clear. "Right time performance" - where the measure is within 59 seconds of the published timetable - is interesting for the inner geek that lurks inside us all. Who wouldn't be interested to see just how "efficient" our railways are when measured on a more or less "exact" basis?
It is all part of the Government's "transparency" drive - again, something hard to argue against.
The Train Operating Companies argue that these figures risk harming the railways image when comparing journeys against other transport modes - and they are right.
How many of us jump in a car and have an arrival time at our destination in our minds, and then compare it when we actually arrive? If I leave my house at 9am and drive the approximately two and a half hours to my favourite seaside spot in Llandudno, do I think "I'm going to arrive at 11:36 am and then compare it unfavourably when I get there at 11:40? Of course not! Because the realism is that there may be all sorts of reasons that I might get delayed on the way.
Why is that "realism" missing from this argument?
Of course we need punctual railways. Watching Chris Tarrant's "Extreme Railways" recently, when his train was delayed in some African town by over 8 hours (and no one seemed to care very much!) is one thing - and I wince when trains start to appear late by over 10-15 minutes. But isn't the current Public Performance Measure of within 5 minutes for regional / commuter services and 10 minutes for long distance services a much more rational way of measuring performance? Of course there are arguments about timings within some journeys that appear to allow wriggle room for some TOCs on some journeys, but the basic argument is surely a sound one.
On my journeys around the country over many years, I have rarely even considered making a connection that appears less than 15 minutes, and I often like to build in slightly more.
"Right Time" compared to "PPM" is not only unflattering in some examples, it also sends entirely the wrong message. For example, Southeastern's PPM is 91.6% - quite impressive. But it's "right time" score (within the minute rather than 5 minutes) drops to 65.8%. How many of us are seriously going to be affected by 5 minutes in our lives? But no doubt newspaper hacks far and wide will use this data to cast a negative image over the railways, adding it to fares increases and the like.
Who is going to produce "right time" information for road journeys? Why are we much more inclined to sit in endless traffic congestion in our cars and shrug our shoulders? Are we seriously going to think "I won't make the shops in my car within 59 seconds of my pre-set arrival time"? No. Because we don't generally operate our lives in such a way.
"Right Time" might be a useful method for the rail industry to look at where journeys and delays are problematic and prioritise actions to tackle this, but it doesn't really tell me much as a traveller.  My life isn't organised in chunks of 59 seconds - and I suspect most of us are the same.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Fare Old Issue...

For advocates of public transport, it's a depressing time when the headlines are made for negative reasons. Sadly, today's fare rises are one of those days.
Public transport, as an industry, is vital. It is the very lifeblood that helps the country function every hour of every day. And on the first day back at work for many after the Christmas break, it's the story of expensive tickets - with all the media pulling out the stops to find the worst possible example - that is today's ready-made headline.
Of course I sympathise with commuters who are bearing the brunt of some of these increases. I hear what they say when they argue that that they have little choice in the time of travel or the route that they use. The vicious circle continues to spiral downwards when passengers add their other negative experiences of rail travel.
But what's this? Rail travel continues to rise, despite the economic woes. It's more popular now than at any time since the halcyon days of the 1920s - when the network was much larger and the motor car was a luxury only for the wealthy. It's a very strange conundrum.
We often hear that train travel in Britain is the most expensive in Europe, but we often don't hear that, if you can book ahead and be flexible (a luxury not afforded to commuters!) there are some incredible bargains. Once again next week, I'm availing myself of a £6 ticket on Chiltern Railways all the way from London Marylebone to Stourbridge Junction. My 2 mile taxi journey home from there will cost me more.
So, always another side to a story, but back to the top news story of the day - why rail commuters, and why more pain in the back pocket?
Railways are expensive. An old railwayman once told me that no railway has ever made a profit. That's something to Google in a quiet moment, but whilst I'm sure individual train operating companies will have their accounts poured over by hungry journalists looking for a fat-cat story, we're talking whole costs of the railway here - including the infrastructure. For years the costs of running the railway in its entirety were split roughly 50/50 between farepayer and taxpayer, but successive Governments have gradually moved this more in favour of the farepayer paying a larger slice of the cake. Hence the now seemingly annual fare price, above the rate of inflation. Train Operating Companies also have some room to wiggle here in that they can increase some fares on a higher level, so long as some others are raised at a lesser level, or even cut. All of this applies to what are called "regulated" fares (i.e. the ones the Government has a say in), which amount to around just under half of all fares. These are mainly commuter fares for season ticket holders. The other fares are "unregulated" and the Train Operating Company sets these themselves (e.g. my £6 bargain!)
Investment in our railways is key. There hasn't been enough of it over the years and we're playing catch up. The Government are keen to remind us that it is they who are currently investing a lot of money in the railways, and whilst this is certainly not a plug for the coalition, it is so important that rail - for all of its issues - is not forgotten, and is invested in. We currently have several large-scale projects on the go, including CrossRail and the major station rebuilding work at Birmingham New Street and Reading. We also need long-term thinking and investment. High Speed 2 is supported by all 3 major political parties - we sorely need this not only to further enhance our rail network, but to create additional capacity on our existing lines.
Someone has to pay for all of this. Like all things, it's open to opinion as to what the Government - i.e. our taxes - should contribute. Would renationalisation be better? Or are our railways in better hands with the current franchise system? Should taxpayers pay more for the railways as a "national asset" or should the burden of paying for the railways fall squarely on those that use them most?
And who mentions the buses, where fares are also increasing, mainly in an industry that is free of Government intervention when it comes to setting the price of a journey? This industry is facing different types of issues to the railways - ever diminishing subsidies on marginal services, such as that on the amount of rebate they get on fuel and the issues of concessionary pass reimbursement and council subsidy for marginal services.
The public transport "experience" needs to be a positive one as a whole. Fares are only one part of that, but the negative headlines today impact on people's impressions of the transport industry. For commuters who suffer overcrowded journeys to work, they are right to question their quality of journey now that they are paying even more for it. The bus and rail industry needs to redouble its efforts to shout about the positive things going on (see previous post). Investment takes time, but a high quality rail and bus network is the goal. We all have to pay, but seeing the benefits is important too.
It's a fare old issue....