Monday, 27 June 2011

Sunday Morning Nightmare!

There aren’t many things that will get me up early on a Sunday morning (unless it contains the words “full”, “English” and “breakfast”), but a leaflet I acquired recently made an early start inevitable.
“Getting to the Wyre Forest” it proclaimed, with the words “by the 192/292 bus services” in smaller font.
The red slash half way down the leaflet swung it for me. “Special Offer, Sundays in June – Any single journey £1”.
The 192/292 services are remnants of the old Midland Red X92 which I rode as a child from Birmingham all the way down to Hereford. It’s an attractive journey crossing the spectacular Clee Hill and visiting the picturesque towns of Bewdley and Cleobury Mortimer on the way.
These days, the weekday service is a daytime hourly frequency from Birmingham to Kidderminster only (and partly threatened in Council cutbacks) as the 192 (operated by Rotala’s Central Connect) with the 292 linking Kidderminster and Ludlow on a similar frequency, this time operated by First (with the nostalgic amongst us clinging to the heritage that this was once a bit of the Midland Red empire!) On Sundays, it mostly operates as full length service, changing numbers at Kidderminster.
I can’t find any “terms and conditions” relating to the £1 offer and still can’t quite believe that I can potentially travel just shy of 2 hours for this amount.
I decided to travel the full-length of the route from Birmingham as I suspected this might be popular with concessionary pass holders – I wasn’t wrong!
At 0910 on Sunday morning, I joined throngs of pass-wielding day-trippers in lovely sunshine (we don’t get much of that in Brum) on Colmore Row. The Central Connect Mercedes, adorned in smooth sophisticated grey “Signature” livery (it usually works on Solihull services during the week) sat 3 stands down, the driver seemingly unwilling to load until the very last second.
The Worcestershire County Council –issued paper timetable makes reference to “a change of vehicle may be necessary at Kidderminster bus station”, and this has immediately thrown me. As the Merc glides up to the stand, it is showing 192 Kidderminster on the front.
There is much bleeping as the pass holders register themselves before I thrust my pound coin into the driver’s hand. He looks unperturbed.
The timetable appears to show that this vehicle will do the full length trip through to Ludlow and I enquire about this, given he’s showing “Kidderminster” on the front. He responds with “it’s the other one”, which leaves me quite confused. Are we now going to change buses in Kidderminster?
Not wishing to hold the bus up any longer, I move out of the way for another gaggle of pass holders to board.
The single deck Merc is resplendent with its leather seated interior and smooth ride. A few of the passengers behind me talk about their impending trip on the Severn Valley Railway – it’s 1940s weekend there, and our bus will serve the station in Kidderminster directly. Indeed the bus is full and I have only counted myself and another passenger who have actually paid a cash fare.
We’re soon down the A456, past the Little Chef (“full English breakfast” thoughts again) and into the glorious Worcestershire countryside.
At Kidderminster railway station, almost half the bus empties on Comberton Hill and I can hear air raid sounds from the 40s weekend as well as see a half-cab double decker on the forecourt (for the spotters, it was in United red livery, and was a Bristol – although I later discover its bodywork came from the early 1950s – but hey, who’s counting?!)
We’re in Kidderminster’s bus station. What happens now? Well, the “other one” the driver referred to appears to be this very same one. A quick flick of the finger and the digital destination now shows “292 Ludlow”.
The driver loads half a dozen more passengers, then leaves the engine running, doors open and walks off to the nearby Tesco. I wonder where that fits into the Health & Safety instructions.....
He soon returns clutching a bottle of pop and we’re off – on time – towards nearby Bewdley.
A mum with small child boards, excitedly clutching a birthday cake. And some more pass holders. But then confusion.
The road ahead is closed and we’re off through country lanes on seemingly a diversion.
Soon it becomes clear that the driver doesn’t actually know where he’s going. No one offers assistance until a deep voice from the rear booms “carry on driver”. And “carry on” (in the sense of the comedy film) might best describe what happens next.
We arrive at a road junction near to Cleobury Mortimer. Success it may seem – we’re back on route.
Except Mum/child/cake want Far Forest, which is 7 minutes in the opposite direction and has been missed out.
“How am I going to get there?” she remonstrates with the driver, who appears not willing to turn around and go there. Eventually, they get off, with the driver advising them to catch a bus going in the opposite direction. Except on a Sunday morning, that bus will probably be him coming back in the opposite direction in just under an hour’s time. It’s not been handled well. And I wonder what lasting impression of buses has been painted for Mum and child.
Onwards we travel, only a few minutes late, through the delightfully named Hopton Wafers, past expensive barn conversions, climbing the steep incline to Clee Hill with seemingly dozens of motorbikers speeding past us. The Merc makes heavy weather of it and I wonder how Midland Red D9s of the 1960s might have coped.
I admire the spectacular views from the top of Clee Hill and we descend into our destination at Ludlow, eventually arriving only 3 minutes late.
Here the driver faces 20 questions from passengers, including one from an old lady who somehow wants Kidderminster – from where we set off from. He advises her to sit down and he’ll take her back.
Meanwhile, I’m examining the council timetable in the shelter in Mill Street. It isn’t bad, but it contains far too many confusing codes a couple asks me if I know when the bus returns back to Birmingham. I show them and soon I have a small audience as seemingly the only person to understand the complexities of the bus timetable. I’m also disappointed to see that the 292 only appears to operate on a Sunday. “No Mon-Fri or Sat service” says the timetable, but of course it does. Bizarrely though, it only terminates and starts on this street on a Sunday. It’s another strange quirk of buses that the general public don’t understand. There also appears to be precious little evening or Sunday buses in Ludlow. This bit of middle England will remain a slave to the car.
The Tourist Information Centre fares little better.
I peruse the leaflets for anything bus timetable-related. All I find are ones for demand-responsive services in the area. What about the 292, which appears the only semi-regular service out of the town?
The lady behind the counter knows all about the 292 – and reaches into the secret world behind the desk to hand me a timetable. I won’t even ask as to why they aren’t out on the racks where any of us can pick one up.....
My next 292 departure is a “short journey” – only going back as far as Kidderminster. It’s an additional “summer only” journey.
It arrives dead on time, but I only manage to catch it as I’m “bus-savvy” – the driver is actually loading at the wrong stop around the corner. A little old lady shouts me, concerned that I’m going to miss it. I was actually going to play a daring game of “flag the bus down at the correct stop”, but her concern for me has thwarted that experiment.
But there’s more fun to come.
I board and hand the driver my £1. He gives me “that look”.
“Where are you going, mate?”
“Kidderminster, please” I reply, sensing another one of “those” conversations.
“It’s £3.20” he offers.
I offer him the timetable leaflet with the special offer on.
To my surprise, he’s seen one of these before. But he can’t accept my £1 coin as he “can’t issue a £1 ticket” and invites me to inspect his ticket machine. He sublimely presses virtually every button on the machine but decide that my fare is £3.20.
“How come he issued me with one coming down?” I ask.
“Ah, he shouldn’t have done that”, comes the reply, and he examines my £1 ticket as evidence like a top lawyer.
“What about the offer?” I ask, meekly.
“That’s for journeys to Wyre Forest only” he replies.
“But Kidderminster IS in the Wyre Forest” I respond.
“Hmmmm” comes the even more confused reply.
We’re already 5 minutes late, and not wishing to be the ironic reason that the journey slips out of Traffic Commissioner standards, I offer him £3.20 with the caveat that I’ll be taking this up with the powers that be.
The driver seems overjoyed and encourages me to do just that, and admits to not understanding the whole scheme.
Two teenagers delay our driver even further at the next stop as they board brandishing what appear to be tickets issued by First. After more pressing of ticket machine buttons, there appears to be a compromise and the girls are soon seated and our driver is off.
The vehicle this time is a new, very smart and comfortable Optare, again with leather seats and a cool blue spotlights. It’s all very well as the driver is having delusions of Formula 1, flinging the bus around country lanes in a quite un-nerving manner.
This time we head straight through Far Forest (no sign of mother with child and cake from earlier) and it would seem that the earlier road closure has disappeared.
My iPhone shows that this bus has wi-fi and I excitedly try it out, but it’s very sporadic and I soon lose all confidence in its ability to work properly and decide to enjoy the scenery as if driven by Lewis Hamilton.
We’re soon back in Kidderminster and we’ve made up time to arrive spot on. As I move towards the doors, the driver calls me over.
“I’ve sussed it”, he proudly proclaims. “The machine is programmed for £1 fares all the way from Far Forest to Kidderminster. Look!”
I inspect and the driver grins like he’s my new best friend.
“It doesn’t explain that on the leaflet though” I protest, like a football manager who’s already been relegated.
He agrees, and I thank him anyway, before he turns the engine off and leaves the bus in the opposite direction to me.
It’s been an interesting morning. A great idea to promote the use of Sunday bus services, but it’s been poorly executed, with lack of explanation about where the £1 fare is actually valid, coupled with drivers who seemingly don’t understand it themselves, nor care.
And for our Mum and daughter with their pink birthday cake, it’s probably been a Sunday Morning Nightmare, as 80s punk rockers Sham 69 once warbled.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty poor by all accounts; no wonder services in counties like Worcestershire are under threat when operators such as Central Connect make such an appalling job of running them properly. (Indeed, I hope Worcestershire C.C. look into this case as Central Connect are getting a pretty penny from journeys such as this).

    As for the mum, daughter and cake that's another two customers lost to the industry by sloppy service, plus more as bad word gets round amongst their friends. Perhaps an executive from Central Connect should sample this "experience" by being dumped in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday morning and be told to find their way back to base by bus...