Friday, 9 March 2012

The Battle to be Better!

Passenger Focus's Bus Passenger Survey is exactly the sort of research needed to focus one's mind when it comes to perceptions or otherwise on just how good (or not so good) England's buses really are.
Despite what some people like to tell me ("it's all rubbish") 85% of more than 21,000 passengers across the country are satisfied with their buses. There are, however, significant variations in different areas, and it's this devil in the detail that proves to be most fascinating.
The big winners in all of this are Nottingham and Tyne & Wear. Having had Nottingham on "my patch" when I worked at Passenger Focus, I'm really not surprised at this huge vote of confidence. I met some really dedicated people at operators like TrentBarton, Nottingham City Transport, Premiere, and both the City and County Councils. There seemed to me to be a "can do" attitude. The trams compliment the public transport scene and the City Centre almost takes on a continental theme whereby public transport is most definitely seen as the sensible, default way of travelling.
To create this environment, difficult political choices have to be made. There is bus priority in Nottingham, and I recall inspecting a mobile camera unit that compliments the effective monitoring of the bus only areas. Bus operators battle on quality issues - there are very few examples of old bangers in this City!
Likewise, Tyne & Wear is another hotbed of the best in bus services, and a fitting tribute in no small part to the late Peter Huntley, who ran Go North East. I've visited Sunderland and Newcastle a couple of times in recent years and things are good. It comes as absolutely no surprise to me that both these areas top the charts in user satisfaction.
Of more concern to me is the poorer showing closer to home in the West Midlands. As a champion of public transport around these parts, I almost take it personally!
What's not so good in the Centro area?
Punctuality is marked down, and this I have long-argued is a major problem in the West Midlands urban area. Whilst no-one is ever saying we can wave a magic wand to dispel our congestion woes, I've never felt the political desire to tackle it head on like other parts of the country do. If we don't want to confront it and accept the endless traffic jams as "just the way it is", can we really expect the area's bus users to report that punctuality is good? My work with Bus Users UK locally in partnership with National Express West Midlands vividly shows just what a battle the bus operator has to consistently run a good punctual service - there are a hell of a lot of variables on the West Midlands roads!
This impacts onto the other main strand of the Passenger Focus research - Value For Money.
How does one quantify "value for money"? Journey experience? Fare paid? comfort and speed of journey? Other journey experiences? Information? Of course it can be any of these and all of them.
Again, the West Midlands urban area isn't near the top. Having used buses all over the country, we have, still, some of the cheapest fares in the country around here, but that's only one part of what a passenger might consider when considering value for money, of course. One of the other interesting quirks to come out of the research is that passengers in the Centro area feel amongst the most uneasy in the country about their fellow passengers. Again, going back to when I worked at Passenger Focus, we commissioned some specific research into this issue. The Safer Travel Team do some really good work and offences on our local bus network have been reduced by over 60% in the last 4 years. The "See Something Say Something" campaign is very effective, but still the concerns obviously exist.
Should we be pleased ultimately that 85% of England's bus users feel satisfied with their buses? It proves that they aren't the disaster area that the doom-mongers keep professing to me that they are, but I'm far from satisfied!
The bus industry faces significant challenges to attain satisfaction ratings that other industries do. Much of this, I maintain, is down to the fact that they aren't in control of their own destiny much of the time. Buses are all about getting from A to B, and if they don't have control of the "track", it reflects badly on them when the service fails to arrive on time. This is why bus priority is so important, despite it being a thorny issue for local councillors.
Bus operators do have to think about the best possible image for their products though. Cleanliness is vital. Yes, we know that the creators of litter are the passengers themselves, and some areas are worse than others, but its an area I feel that some operators simply do not keep on top of enough.
For those "top of the class" in this survey, they can be proud of what they are achieving. For those below, the battle to be better has to be uppermost in their minds!


  1. Interesting read, also feel a good and simple way to understand your customer requirements is to ask your customers. What or how could we do things better? always good to understand your customer aspirations. Only item I’m a little concerned at is the bus lane, where space prevails its a good idea, but a bus lane at the cost to all other traffic, I was under is illusion we had to share the valuable road space.

  2. Bus lanes are something I feel very strongly about. Yes, they have to be on high-frequency routes where other road users can see the benefit of using buses can bring, but all too often they are abused and not monitored. I've seen instances of them taken away because of political pressure, or a million excuses not to put one in - the motorists lobby is a string one, and a vote catcher!
    Ultimately, shouldn't the most of efficient user of road space - the bus - be the one to benefit? I think most bus users would agree!