Sunday, 28 April 2013

Stourbridge Beer Festival - Buses, Trams & Trains in Stourbridge

This weekend has seen the 16th Stourbridge Beer Festival take place, organised by my good friends at Stourbridge CAMRA. Every year, there is a "theme", with this year focusing on "Buses, Trains & Trams in Stourbridge".
I was asked to write the article for the Festival Programme, and I arranged for the Black Country Living Museum's wonderful preserved Midland Red D9 to be posed for photographs, which made it onto the front cover and onto the commemorative glass.
A few people who couldn't make it to the Festival have asked if I could blog the article, so here it is. If you spot any inaccuracies, do please get in touch!

Early public transport in Stourbridge was predominantly of the railed variety.
The railways first came to the town in 1852, with the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway running between Stourbridge and Evesham (not reaching Cradley Heath until 1863, and Birmingham in 1867). The Stourbridge branch line to the Town opened in 1879, with the current Stourbridge Junction opening in 1901 (the original “Stourbridge Station” was located nearer to the where the current line bends right towards Lye).
Steam trams started running from the Amblecote side of the River Stour, through Coalbournbrook, up Brettell Lane, serving Brierley Hill and on to Dudley Market Place from 1884. These were operated every 30 minutes by the Dudley & Stourbridge Steam Tramway.
Electricity was rapidly advancing, and by 1898, the company had sold out to the newly-formed British Electric Traction Co (BET)., who re-laid the track and installed new equipment. By the following year, a new subsidiary company of BET – the Dudley, Stourbridge & District Electric Traction Company Ltd – had been formed and was operating the service, which was extended in Dudley to and from the Railway Station at the foot of Castle Hill. Frequency was also much improved, with trams operating every 5-15 minutes.
Other local lines rapidly followed, including;
·         Dudley – Netherton – Cradley Heath (5-Ways) in 1900
·         Dudley – Pensnett – Kingswinford in 1900
·         Kingswinford – Wordsley – Stourbridge in 1900
·         Stourbridge Mill St – Stourbridge Hagley Road in 1901
·         Stourbridge Foster St – Lye in 1902
·         Stourbridge – Enville St – Wollaston in 1902
·         Old Hill – Blackheath in 1904
The Kinver Light Railway, running from The Fish Inn (now the Ruby Cantonese restaurant) opened on Good Friday 1901, where over 14,000 people sampled the ride, despite the pouring rain!
By the mid 1920s, however, circumstances had changed. The tramway company had financial problems and struggled to fund track renewals. Motorbuses were emerging as alternative transport and were much more flexible, given that they didn’t have to worry about running on rails!
Between 1925-1930, all the local tramways were withdrawn.
The Birmingham & Midland Motor Omnibus Company (more affectionately known as the “Midland Red”) had been making rapid advances across large parts of the Midlands area. It had been running buses from Birmingham into Stourbridge since 1914 and opened its first garage in the town in 1926. Other garages opened in Brierley Hill (Harts Hill) in 1925 (although part of this had been a power station for the electric tramway earlier), Dudley in 1929, Oldbury in 1937 and Cradley Heath in 1939.
The bus was now the dominant mode of road transport and many people fondly remember the halcyon days of the “friendly Midland Red”.
By the 1970s, however, bus travel was in decline. The advance of mass-made family cars meant that private transport was within the means of many more people.
Midland Red had been state-owned since 1968. The Transport Act of the same year had established the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive. The PTE was required to have control of all services within its area, and following lengthy negotiations, in December 1973, all services operating within what was the West Midlands County area transferred to WMPTE, with the most visible effect being buses painted from red into the new blue/cream livery.
Midland Red as a company continued to operate outside of the area, in the Shire counties, but was eventually split up in 1981 into separate North, South, West, East and Express companies.
Stourbridge bus garage – by this time owned by WMPTE – closed in 1985 with operations in the town being provided by other local bus garages.
The 1986 Transport Act saw bus services mainly privatised and deregulated. This meant that companies were free to compete with each other, and set their own routes, times and fares.
The cream and blue WMPTE buses became West Midlands Travel, which was sold eventually to its employees and then merged with National Express. During the 1990s it changed its name to Travel West Midlands and, more recently, to National Express West Midlands. Buses operated by the company now serve Stourbridge from garages in Pensnett Trading Estate and Wolverhampton.
This era of private bus operation has also seen several other bus companies serve Stourbridge.
Hansons is a small company that has built up a local network in the area. It was originally a coach operator and driver training company before concentrating on local bus services in recent years. Diamond has its origins in Pete’s Travel and the Birmingham Coach Company – two companies that began operating following deregulation of the industry in 1986. Arriva is now owned by the German state railway company DB, but many of its local origins can be traced back to Midland Red days, as they are the direct descendants of “Red” operations in Cannock, Stafford and Shrewsbury.
Midland Red as a company is of course no more. The “North” part (Cannock / Shrewsbury / Stafford)  eventually became Arriva, the “West” section (Kidderminster / Worcester / Redditch) is now in the hands of FirstGroup, The “South” (Stratford / Leamington / Rugby) now belongs to Stagecoach, the “East” (Leicester) is Arriva-owned, whilst the “Express” (coaches) became absorbed into today’s National Express coach network.
Following the Transport Act 1986, West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive took on a much revised role. No longer responsible for directly operating buses (this had been transferred to the new “West Midlands Travel” operation), the PTE had responsibility for maintaining infrastructure (such as stops, shelters and bus stations) and funding (through public money) bus journeys that the new private companies thought unprofitable, but were deemed “socially necessary”. These mainly evening and Sunday journeys were tendered out to the private companies to operate. The PTE later renamed itself as Centro and its policies are set by Councillors delegated from the 7 Districts that make up the West Midlands area (Birmingham, Dudley, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Solihull & Coventry). Centro also promotes public transport in the area and more recently has worked in partnership with the private bus operators on large-scale local bus network reviews.
It also promotes the Midland Metro light rail tram system between Birmingham & Wolverhampton, and eventually plans to extend it down to the Merry Hill Centre.

I am grateful to Dr. Paul Collins, author of “The Kinver Light Railway”, for details of early tram operations, and to Stan Letts of the Black Country Living Museum Transport Group for making available their preserved 1963 Midland Red D9 double decker for pictures.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Wot No Bacon?

First Class on Cross Country this morning, and the small leaflet on the table appears to tempt my taste-buds with a bacon roll - served to my seat.
But of course, this is Saturday. I'm not entirely sure why Saturday precludes bacon on Cross Country, but in the event of my empty stomach rumbling on an ever-increasing decibel level, I scan the small print. Such delicacies are only on offer to weekday travellers.
Instead, I am afforded a (small) bottle of sparkling water as my only memoir of my increased premium.
Indeed, the ubiquitous trolley appears an hour later - it would seem the standard class had their option for eats first.....

Saturday, 13 April 2013

VfM - Ride Again?

“Sorry about that”, commented the bus driver, sheepishly.
You may think this uttering of apology had come about as a result of him missing my stop, or some harsh braking. It was actually the collecting of my fare. £7.60 return from Stourbridge to Bridgnorth on Whittles 125 service.
The 125 is a glorious romp from the edge of the urban Centro area into Worcestershire, then across the green fields of Shropshire, clinging often to the River Severn, affording the odd glimpse of steam from the Severn Valley Railway. It takes around 1 hour 20 minutes end to end.
With a maximum single fare across most of Centro-land of £2, you can see why some might consider this fare “eye-watering”.
After handing over my note and coins to the apologetic gentleman, I considered if I thought this “Value for Money”.
“Value for Money” is a difficult beast to nail, merely because it is so subjective. As a veteran of many a mystery traveller audit, the “VfM” is, for me, one of the most difficult categories to complete. As a regular bus passenger, am I more likely to accept the service provided because I’m used to it? Or, conversely, am I more likely to mark it down because “improvements” are often slow to arrive and not always immediately apparent?
An example might be standing in Stourbridge Interchange awaiting my 125. Even 3 years ago, the scene would have been very different. Now I’m standing in a recently opened state of the art facility, surrounded by a number of new and refurbished vehicles. Rewind 3 years and the picture would have consisted of rows of draughty 1960’s shelters, masquerading as a bus station. The buses themselves didn’t have too many newer examples. So things for the Stourbridge bus user have improved beyond recognition over recent times. But Passenger Focus’s incredibly useful Bus Passenger Survey records only 50% Value for Money for the Centro area. Of course the wider Centro area may not have benefitted like the good folk of Stourbridge, but the ITA have some catching up to do if they are to improve the perception of Value for Money amongst the West Midlands’ bus passengers.
To be fair, Value for Money is always the area to be worked on for public transport operators. On the railways, a similar story is evident, with a national average of 47%.  The overall percentage of satisfaction on the tracks is 85%, suggesting that the average rail passenger is reasonably happy until it comes to the cost of their ticket in relation to the service provided. On the buses, the overall satisfaction rate, all things included, is 79% in the West Midlands – but that is a figure that is falling.
Enough number-bashing.
What am I getting for my £7.60? The bus itself was presentable enough on the outward journey, but nothing more than a standard looking single decker. No leather seats or wood-laminate floor to suggest a “premium” experience for my “premium” fare. In fact, on a journey that had most seats occupied upon leaving Stourbridge, I am one of only 2 people I believe actually paid a fare. Most were concessionary pass holders. One presumes they might rate “value for money” slightly higher – because they aren’t parting with the fare!
The journey itself is fairly uneventful, save for a bit of hair-raising speeding along the country lanes of Shropshire to try and make up time after a delay (ironically due to a broken down bus) in Kidderminster. It isn’t the direct route a motorist would take between the two towns, but a much more winding affair. So maybe you could view the run as a bit of coach tour around the local countryside to help soften the blow of the return fare price.
The return trip is a revelation. The lady driver looks at my ticket and comments that I’ve “paid a lot of money” for this and begins to type away at her ticket machine to reveal that I needn’t have paid the seemingly expensive fare at all. Whittle do a £6.20 Day Ticket that allows all day travel on their services. Top marks to the driver for making that observation and telling me about it. I query as to why the charging of such a ticket should happen – shouldn’t the most you pay on a Whittle bus be that day ticket price? She then demonstrates what she thinks the original driver would have done and presses a few buttons, which does indeed reveal a Stourbridge-Bridgnorth return to be £7.60 – but there is one button for a Whittle Day Ticket at £6.20.
“He probably didn’t know” is the driver’s apologetic comment.
The lady driver’s driving skills are impeccable and as good as any I have “mystery shopped” over the years. But the journey experience is marred by the fact that, for the next 1 hour 20 minutes, I cannot see a thing out of any of the windows. The bus is filthy. So on personal perceptions, it certainly wasn’t “value for money”!
What to make of my experience?
The service seems well used, and is now mainly hourly during the day. But many are concessionary pass holders. If my first driver “probably didn’t know” that a Whittle Day Ticket would have saved me £1.40, it is possibly because he rarely has to issue cash fares!
Are Whittles maybe missing a trick with fares and marketing on this service? The 125 is a rare example of a service operating across the Centro/Worcestershire border. Although the rail service between Stourbridge and Kidderminster is more regular, and well-used, there are still a lot of people who aren’t aware the bus service exists. There are no rail alternatives for Stourbridge to Bewdley or Bridgnorth. What about some headline-grabbing fares offers, as part of a wider marketing push to raise awareness of this service?
Although I understand that simply slashing fares won’t work for every example, some of this is down to perceptions of what you’re getting for your dollar – or “Value for Money”.
First in Manchester, and some others around the country have reduced fares to try and stimulate demand (or is this a recognition that maybe they were set too high in the first place?)
A bit of imaginative pricing (works in Supermarkets with booze I note) can stimulate interest in a product as part of a wider awareness campaign. Buses need not necessarily be different in this respect.
The schoolboy error of a £7.60 return over a £6.20 day ticket is another anomaly that could be addressed. Surely the price of the day ticket should be the maximum anyone pays?
And ultimately, how would the user view “Value for Money” based on this experience?
One might address it as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.
The “good” being the excellent driving of my return trip lady driver, coupled with her willingness to point out the fares anomaly. She could easily have punched the ticket and said nothing. Top marks to her.
The “bad” being the fares issue itself – and the “brand unfriendliness” of a £7.60 bus ticket in the first place. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person ever to baulk at the cost.
The “ugly” represents the appalling state of the bus windows. You literally couldn’t see out of any of them. Paying what I did, I at least expected to see some of England’s green and pleasant land. Instead I had to resort to seeing a bit of the tarmac in front of me – as that was the only clear vision anywhere.
It is so, so important for the bus industry to attract and retain new users. Had I been one on this return trip, I’m not so sure I would have ticked the box for “Value for Money” overall – and yet maybe it could have been different, if only the driver had offered me a much more palatable £6.20 Day Ticket and the windows clean enough to allow me to see some stunning countryside.
Getting the basics spot on every time is what the best operators in the country do time and time again – and it’s no surprise to find their Value for Money scores higher than average.
“VfM = ride again”!