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.