Thursday, 1 March 2012

Late is The Word

In Croatia, it's "kasno". The Germans call it "spat" (with the umlaut). And our good friends and near neighbours in France refer to it as "tard". It all means the same, and brings a universal feeling of frustration. "Late".
Whenever I sing the praises of public transport, I'm reminded of this word. Because punctuality and reliability in the world of public transport is everything. Any measure of public mood on our buses, trains, trams and coaches - whether scientific or on the back of a fag packet - nearly always comes back to this.
So I'm always mindful that, despite the shiny new trains, the revolutionary "new bus for London", the environmentally-friendly hybrid vehicles and the exciting tram extension into Birmingham City Centre, any experience of public transport will overwhelmingly be based on whether it turns up on time. Or not.
Why am I stating what ought to be the obvious?
It's because I don't think public transport operators do enough to explain delays to an increasingly irritated and frustrated public. Communication is everything.
Communication regarding delays on the rail network is something Passenger Focus are keen on. Yet I think the rail industry on the whole does better than buses in getting the message across.
Let's be clear. Contrary to some views based on ignorance, this isn't easy. Whenever the bus or train is late, it's automatically the fault of the operator in some people's eyes - and it's obviously being done deliberately. That's why operators have to, in my view, almost "go on the offensive" to explain delays - warts and all.
A few weeks ago, I encountered a rather irate gang of pensioners in a bus queue. The service had a frequency of every 10 minutes, but no bus had been seen for over 20. Much talk of 2,3 and even 4 buses coming together. I dropped a quick text to someone in authority at the bus company concerned and quickly learnt that an "unofficial demonstration" at the other end of the route was the cause of this. Hardly the bus operator's fault, but once I'd quickly communicated this to my fellow travellers, they were more understanding of the problem.
There are several issues here to consider.
I was in a fairly unique situation. Most people haven't got access to senior bus company managers. I had more chance of finding out what was going on then most. Yet once the reason was clear, the frustration subsided. Communication helped enormously.
Now, this isn't going to be possible out on the road in many instances, but this particular example was in a bus station, with bus company and other staff present. With digital displays all around us and recorded announcements reminding us not to smoke, is communication so difficult a nut to crack?
If you follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you'll know that I'm endlessly updating my status (and others!) with travel news. But Twitter and Facebook are still, effectively, "niche" products, although growing all the time.
But whilst we still have some way to go to communicate delays, cutting down on the causes of them remains a huge challenge.
On rail, there exists a clear chain of command when it comes to delays, what has caused them and how best to deal with them. On the road, it's an entirely different story.
We're a crowded island, and despite the media's obsession with the "hard done to" motorist (I'm one myself, before anyone accuses me of being anti-car) we have mostly unrestricted car access to everywhere. If we accept that we aren't going to impose some form of car restriction for the good of the nation to tackle congestion, we surely must accept that the most efficient and effective vehicle to move people (i.e. the bus) must have priority to benefit the largest number of people?
So if bus lanes help to give this priority, why are there always howls of derision whenever I suggest that we need more of them?
A letter writer to the the local paper took me to task for suggesting this, commenting that he didn't know where ANY bus lane was successful! Well, of course, they need to be properly policed for maximum effectiveness (and goodness knows how many times I see people blatantly flouting the law and driving in them), but the benefits are there for all to see. And bus operators usually respond with good vehicles and decent frequency services to take advantage.
We need Councillors to back such ideas. Difficult decisions, maybe, as bus lanes are rarely popular amongst non-bus users, but I've seen blatant mischief-making by them to win short-term votes. The same Councillors are then often quick to lambaste bus operators for running late buses!
And when the Government takes a ground-breaking decision (not often in the transport world!) on building High Speed 2 - which will bring many benefits - the doom-mongers are at it again.
Rail operators are getting better at explaining delays. Bus operators - although the job is infinitely more difficult - are less so, although some like the often groundbreaking Go North East are good at explaining their reliability figures.
To understand traffic congestion and the difficulties bus operators face, I need do no more than walk to the top of my street during the peaks. On some days, the road is congested as far as the eye can see. On others, it flows freely. How can bus operators plan for that? In other areas, congestion IS predictable, and this is where it can be best tackled, with the will of those in authority to do so.
Delays are a huge issue for public transport and its users. The challenge for publicly-elected politicians is to tackle congestion on our roads with long-term thinking. For operators, the challenge is communicate the delays truthfully and honestly. For the travelling public, it is to think a little more honestly as to WHY their journey may be delayed. Is the bus driver REALLY having an extra cup of tea at the terminus?
Delays are hugely frustrating, but is a torrent of fowl-mouthed abuse on a social networking site or worse still in person really going to help?

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