Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Spending a Penny...(or 20)

Much ado in the local paper regarding Centro's decision to start charging 20p to visit the loos in Walsall bus station. Local Councillors are gritting their teeth (and possibly crossing their legs) over the issue, but what about the wider implications of this?
I recall as a young child going on holiday to Germany. Stopping en route in Belgium, I was amazed at the prospect of having to pay a few coins to what always seemed to be an elderly lady to gain access to the loos. Ditto in Deutschland. It seems to have been the norm across the continent to spend a few pennies to spend a penny.
It's not unheard of over here. I've been coughing up at Birmingham New St and London Euston railway stations for an awful long time (and didn't New St go from 20p to 30p in one go a couple of years ago?) Bizarrely, I did start to pay in London Marylebone, but haven't for ages. I think paying is also the norm at Digbeth (sorry, Birmingham) Coach Station as well as London Victoria. But I don't think I've ever paid at an airport.
The new bus station and Interchange facilities at Wolverhampton and Stourbridge, provided by Centro, also attract a charge (20p) - and this would appear to be a new standard directive across all Centro bus stations in time (according to the local paper).
Amongst the howls of derision is the sentiment that we shouldn't be paying for something that used to be free. Shouldn't we be allowed to "do what we have to do" without forking out for it? If someone uses the new £80,000 (gold-plated?) loos in Walsall bus station 5 days per week, that's £4 per month on average.
But here's the other side of the coin.
If we get the attendant-based quality and security that I've seen across the Continent, it's money well spent in my view.
I've spent many hours in bus stations (as you can imagine!) and some of the "facilities" are truly horrific. The ones where you have to pay a small charge seem much better maintained, and, ultimately, are usable. As a comparison, Dudley bus station's Gents is nothing short of disgraceful and has been for many years. If 20p a visit improves that significantly, I'm happy to pay.
Why shouldn't the Council, or Centro, or whoever, pay to upgrade and maintain these facilities, I hear you cry. Well, of course they should. But they should also be doing a million and one other things, and with ever-decreasing funds to do it with, there are hard choices.
I'm always banging on about the whole public transport experience from start to finish. And that includes the toilets at stations. In an ideal world, they should be spick and span - and free. But we don't live in an ideal world, and finance is tight. But we, as passengers, DO deserve a quality facility and experience when we use public transport.
And if 20p a visit helps to achieve that, I'm happy to chip in.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Satisfaction Guaranteed?

Not quite, perhaps.
But when it comes to our railways, are our actual perceptions of our travels vastly different to those of the media and the frustrated ranting of the Twitter generation?
Passenger Focus has released its most recent National Passenger Survey results (from Autumn 2012) and, as ever, makes for interesting reading.
Over 31,500 people were surveyed, and if you’re ready to read about a tale of frustration, incompetent train operating companies and a damning indictment of how we move around the country, think again. A record 85% of passengers are satisfied with their journey.
Now, the more cynical amongst us will look at “surveys” and perhaps dismiss them as not representative. But 31,500?
Public transport takes a lot of stick from media types. For the more lazy of the species, it’s an easy target. Engineering works over Christmas, annual fare increases, snow...they all make easy headlines to write about tales of woe, dismissing the whole industry as one huge basket case of profiteering demons whilst the masses struggle against an endless line of delays and excuses.
And maybe it is against this backdrop of supposed doom and gloom that I try to amaze you with evidence that, actually, public transport is doing quite well!
As ever, context is required. No sooner I press the button to publish this blog, I will no doubt receive comments from people – perhaps locals here in the West Midlands who have been affected by a recent shortage of train drivers, coupled with a run of signal failures, etc. Public transport is such a huge operation; there are localised issues every day. But this across the board survey from Passenger Focus is worth its weight in gold, because it shows in all sorts of categories, what literally thousands of people really think about their rail journeys every day.
Of course, the media won’t trumpet these findings. But it shouldn’t stop the industry trying to shout louder about the good job it does in serving the travelling public.
The industry can do better though. As ever, there is always room for improvement. Fares are an issue to be debated ad infinitum and the Government’s review of this topic, due in late Spring should make interesting reading. Prices are one thing, but simplicity is the overriding issue for me. Information – especially at times of disruption – varies on all sorts of levels, from station announcements to the 140 character tweets of the techno-savvy generation. There is still a lot of work to be done in this area.
You can download the report at www.passengerfocus.org.uk which includes breakdowns of figures for each train operating company.
But whilst we inevitably acknowledge that our railways aren’t perfect, we must also see that there is much to be reasonably pleased with – an image not always shared by the media!