Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Unintended Consequences?

Boarding a bus in Wolverhampton quite late the other night, I soon became aware of an all too familiar event.
The driver of the bus (not National Express West Midlands) was refusing to accept a day ticket issued by NXWM. The holders of these tickets were 2 young-ish looking girls.
In the end, although I couldn't quite see or hear the discussion in great detail, there appeared to be some resolution to the conflict and we departed, still with the 2 girls on board.
But my journey home was filled with contemplation about the unintended consequences of this not irregular scene.
From the driver's perspective, he's damned whatever he does.
Accept the rival operator's ticket and he's lost his own company some revenue. Kick off the girls and there's a moral issue. No one would wish there to be a repeat of what happened in Nottingham in recent times when a girl was refused a ride home because she couldn't pay the full fare, which resulted in dreadful circumstances. The driver in that instance was roundly condemned in the media, but we don't know the full story.
Moral dilemmas such as this are difficult for the driver. Of course there are people who will "try it on". I see evidence of this when I'm working on the railway. But what about people who have inadvertently purchased the wrong ticket?
Passenger Focus has raised a not dissimilar issue about tickets on the railway. Offers are plentiful and cheap deals to be had, if you can be flexible about your times and dates. But it makes a lot of people's heads spin! And many aren't convinced they've got the best ticket for their journey.
On the buses, there is much to be considered about the issue on the late night Wolverhampton service.
OK, the girls should have bought an n-bus, which allows all-operator travel. But that is an awfully easy thing for me to say, who eats and breathes public transport.
National Express West Midlands' DaySaver is a very successful commercial product. Effective, bold marketing - on bus, and even all over the side of some of their new buses - obviously helps the cause. A bargain £3.80, it is used by many passengers every day. And when you consider the main single fare is £1.90, you're effectively getting all day NX travel for the price of what would be a return ticket.
NXWM is by far the largest operator in the area - and that isn't always a bad thing for the consumer. We may talk about choice and competition - and that is another argument for another day - but the NXWM network is huge and comprehensive. Chances are, at least during the daytime, you'll get where you want to be by using their services.
Centro's all-operator offering - n-bus - is only 20p more expensive, but allows use on most other bus operators as well as NX. Although sales of this product are rising, I still encounter much unawareness of n-bus. It is advertised in Centro's "Network West Midlands" corporate style, but to my mind, it isn't as "in your face" as the NXWM promotion of DaySaver. I'm certainly no marketing expert, but Daysaver appears to be far more known as a product than the all-operator version.
The competition authorities are probably pleased such market-forces exist. A choice between 2 products to suit personal needs. And they do. I'm by no means knocking NXWM's DaySaver product - it's marketed well, is well-used, and is a great value ticket offering excellent value.
And yet I wonder about the impression that has been left on the girls the other night, and of countless others who have come across this situation. Public transport is a maze for many. Timetables, routes, tickets - none of it is easy for many. It's a bit like me being asked to change my broadband supplier - I know there's lots of choice and I'd probably get a better deal. But I never get around to it because, a) it doesn't really interest me and b) I prefer the easy life! Do some people see the "offer" and deposit their £3.80 for a bargain ticket because they see "unlimited bus journeys"? You bet they do! Are they aware that for 20p more they can have "unlimited bus journeys - but by any operator"? Maybe some are, but for many, they aren't. The inevitable problem with the driver of the non-NXWM driver will leave them with a negative image of bus travel - one we could do without.
So what's the answer? Do away with operator-specific tickets and just have all-operator ones? It works in London! But London has different rules. And let's not even start to discuss the merits (or otherwise) of how franchising (or "Quality Contracts") might address this!
No, the answer is....there isn't really an answer! NXWM aren't about to give up DaySaver - it's a commercial success for them - and a great value ticket for it's legion of happy users. Their income from participation in n-bus isn't as great. And I'm not suggesting that they're forced to ditch DaySaver. For those that only use that ticket, who am I to suggest that they pay more to accommodate journeys on other operators that they may never use?
Maybe more aggressive marketing of n-bus to raise awareness higher? (A suggestion I put to Centro today).
To many people a bus is a bus is a bus. If they buy a DaySaver during the day, go out and return to find another operator on their route on an evening, is it their fault for not researching that fact in advance - especially if they are not a regular user? What price do we put on a "bad experience" of a "humiliation" by the driver, in front of an audience of onlookers?
Buses should be easy to use and understand. That is the simple crux of the matter for all of us who advocate more use of the mode. Sometimes it isn't easy to articulate, and in the case of the "wrong ticket" it is an unintended consequence of what ought to be a decent example of consumer choice for the user. A bad experience on the bus shouldn't be part of the plan, but a solution that suits all parties may be more difficult to find.

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