Monday, 23 July 2012

The End Of An Era - And Golden Future!

For some bus users in Birmingham City Centre, last Saturday (21st July 2012) was the end of an era.
The City Centre saw various road closures, revisions and traffic-flow reversals in order to pave the way for the return of trams to the City's streets.
One of the main arteries - Corporation Street - lost its buses, which have dispersed to several other locations  around the City, which is now based around 6 key "hubs". Other locations were also affected. Bull St also closed, whilst Carrs Lane and Lower Bull St saw its traffic flow reversed.
National Express West Midlands and Centro (joined by Bus Users UK volunteers) provided marshals to advise the travelling public, and large maps and information appeared in stops to inform of the large-scale changes. A lovely touch was provided by National Express West Midlands, which gave free tours down Corporation St and around the City Centre in its preserved 1954 Daimler 3225 - a vehicle which had first traversed Corporation St when new 58 years ago! It looked resplendent in it's Birmingham City Transport livery and brought a lot of admiring glances from shoppers! The bus later made history that evening at 11pm  by carrying invited guests along Bull Street and Corporation Street as the last ever bus to do so! Several punters were still standing at bus stops awaiting their late night services, oblivious to the large information posters in the shelters! The bus then made another piece of history moments later by becoming the FIRST bus to travel UP Carrs Lane from Moor Street, as the road now has a reversed traffic flow.
What about all this "upheaval"? Why have thousands of passengers had their travel arrangements changed? Is it all worth it?
The resounding answer has to be a huge YES!
For many years I've been mildly critical of public transport in Birmingham. It's been "average", but I've always looked on enviously at other large urban areas across the UK and Europe where exciting projects have boosted public transport to a method of travel of FIRST resort - something we all have to aspire to in order to tackle wasteful traffic congestion and the damaging effects of pollution.
But in recent times, I've become more and more excited at the prospect of Birmingham finally getting into gear and upping the game when it comes to our transport.
Let's be clear - it's been a long time coming!
Manchester has an effective network of tram routes. Nottingham has some of the best buses and trams anywhere in the country. Birmingham had fallen behind with it's transport, but we're now catching up in a big way!
OK, so the French might have built an entire network of trams in the time it has taken Birmingham to agree a mile of tram extension from Snow Hill to New Street, but at last we're moving forward. And hopefully it's the precursor to more.
Seeing the tram on the City's streets sends an important message. Like Cologne, Brussels and Manchester amongst others, it says that the City takes high quality, effective public transport seriously.
That isn't to say that buses aren't important. They are the very lifeblood of public transport and will of course continue to play a vital role in moving people. The new Quality Partnership for Birmingham City Centre will see new statutory agreed levels of quality, and this can only be a good thing for the City. We're already seeing lots of new buses in town as well as the various examples of hybrid technology buses, providing the City with its cleanest, greenest buses ever.
We've also seen new rolling stock on the railways, and quicker journey times to London. High Speed 2 focuses on Birmingham, and whilst this is many years away yet, it is a welcome political investment in Birmingham. The "new" New Street station redevelopment will provide a much improved environment for travellers too.
Have we got public transport right in the City?
Of course not. Yet.
Like any industry, there is always room to improve, room to innovate, lessons to be learnt. Working in partnership to achieve these aims is vital, and - whisper it quietly - there seems to be a determination to achieve improvements across our public transport in the City and wider urban conurbation. It won't happen overnight, but I am genuinely convinced that we're moving forward in the right direction.
Centro are doing some great things on several levels, working with the operators across various modes, and the Network West Midlands "brand" is increasingly recognised.
So, the diggers have moved in, and within 3 years we'll be "back to the future" in a way when trams once more roll around the City's streets. Learning lessons from the past is helping the public transport professionals in Birmingham to move forward in the quest to provide better public transport.
When the "Road Closed" signs were pulled across Corporation Street at 11pm last Saturday, it was indeed the "End Of An Era" - but we are definitely looking forward to a Golden Future in public transport for Birmingham!

The picture shows both the end of an era and a bright future! Diamond Buses Optare Versa hybrid diesel/electric is one of the UK's most environmentally-friendly buses. It is picking up passengers on Corporation Street, Birmingham on the final afternoon before the road closed to allow works to begin to bring the Midland Metro tram down the famous street. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Is "Right Time" the Right Way?

Minor waves of excitement in the press recently as Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies produced "right time" information regarding punctuality.
Of course, the most important aspect of public transport is punctuality. You want your train, bus, tram or coach to be there when it's supposed to be there. It's the top "moan" amongst users when asked about journey experience.
On the railways, the current system classifies a train as "on time" if it is no more than 5 minutes late, or 10 minutes for long-distance services. The most recent figures (for the year to April 28th, 2012) show a figure of 91.7% under this method. But if you compare this to the figure for trains arriving within 1 minute of their scheduled arrival, the figure 69.8%.
What can we make of this?
The first thing to say is that there is always room for improvement. Getting people to use public transport on a regular basis relies on the selling point that it is a viable alternative to the private car. Punctuality is a crucial aspect of this. But is it always fair - as some media outlets inevitably did on seeing these figures - to give the railways a bashing for the "right time" figure?
We're talking about a figure "to the minute" here. How many of us run every aspect of our lives "to the minute"?
When I'm on early shift at work, I start at 0500. I aim to be there at, say, 0450. Leaving my house at 0440 for the 10 minute drive, I can arrive at anything between 0450 and 0455. Why? I have to pass through 6 sets of traffic lights on my way. If they are all on green (not usually) I'm fine. If they are all on red (as they are on occasions) it can add anything from 3-4 minutes on. As a motorist, who can I complain to about that? And yet I'm still "on time" for work when I get there, because journey times to the exact minute are not critical for me, nor as they are, I guess, for most motorists. Between 5-10 minutes should be perfectly acceptable, and such is the case of measurement on the railways.
This isn't to defend the 69.8% figure. We can and should do better. But my point is that travel, generally, has all sorts of reasons why we can't do things down to the exact minute, like robots. If a train departs 1 minute late because it has safely and securely accommodated a wheelchair user, is this something to look at negatively? What if the train arrives a minute late because of the sight of a trespasser on the line,  necessitating a proceed at caution operation? It is surely only the same as making a car journey, where unexpected roadworks, a collision, or a broken down lorry blocking the road can add a couple of minutes onto a journey. This is travel from A to B, and we are human beings, not robots.
"Right Time" data is, of course, interesting. This level of detail is a first for any transport industry in the UK or Europe, and the 69.8% figure is a huge improvement on the situation 10 years ago, when the figure was 46.9% (a fact not unsurprisingly missed by many media outlets last week)
In my view, of course the industry needs to do better, and on current trends, it will do. But I'm also wary of the doom-mongers who say that train punctuality is the disaster they always said it was. I don't live my life to the exact minute every hour of every day, and neither do most other people. The 91.7% of trains arriving within 5 minutes (10 mins for long distance) is the statistic for me that is worth building on.