Monday, 31 December 2012

Public Transport Moving Forward - as ever!

So here we are, on the final day of 2012, and the temptation is to look back and review where we've been over the last 12 months.
For buses, these are challenging times. The continued economic squeeze has its effect on the industry. Cuts in subsidy affect marginal services, the concessionary pass continues to spark debate on the buses as to the cost of the scheme and both commercial and tendered services are under constant review.
Yet the bus industry remains remarkably resilient. My own feeling is that, despite some of the damaging rural cutbacks, the whole situation could have been a whole lot worse. Of course, there's still more to come, and word from several councils is that we face more cuts on tendered services. Only time will tell, but we're surely at the point where there isn't much more available to face the knife?
Politically, transport continues to be a revolving door. Only Norman Baker survived the reshuffle and that can only be a good thing, not only for a bit of continuity, but also because I believe Mr Baker "gets" public transport, unlike so many politicians who pass through Transport on the way up or down.
It was the year that public transport shone, during the Olympics. The Great British public took a collective breath and almost resigned itself to chaos during the greatest show on earth. Boris boomed across railway station platforms up and down the land, asking us to "get ahead of the games". And.....nothing happened! We held our nerve with much co-operation and dedication, proving that public transport CAN work - and work well.
It was also the year that transport hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. The West Coast Main Line franchise debacle is a sorry tale that should never have happened, and hopefully the two enquiries will lead to lessons being learnt, even if the effect on the public-facing day-to-day operation was one of no change. Locally in the West Midlands, the staff shortage at London Midland also provided a major headache, badly affecting the image of rail travel. But this was almost a "who would have predicted that?" scenario. With 3 months notice to leave and 12 months to train a new driver, the maths are evident. I'm not sure the scenario could have been predicted, but the image of train travel to the general public was dented. Let's hope we can repair some of that damage with a quieter, more regularly efficient 2013 on the railways.
As with the London Midland issue, the wider image of public transport is one I still believe there is work to be done with. With our crowded towns and cities becoming ever more congested, I sit firmly in the camp that says public transport is very much the future, not a mode of last-resort. For as far back as I can recall, buses and trains have been easy pickings for news reporters looking for negative headlines. It's par for the course that something as large and comprehensive as a transport network will have problems from time to time, and that news outlets will seize on that for headline making. But it really is time that public transport hit back and highlighted - continually - the excellent job it does, day in, day out, in providing the lifeblood of the economy. Greener Journeys has had an excellent year in its promotion of buses, and its reports have provided vital ammunition for transport advocates like me to hit back on the doom-sayers. We need to shout more about the good things that are going on in public transport - and there are many.
In my own home town of Stourbridge, we might moan when the rats chew through a cable and disrupt the trains for hours, but lets look at where we were 5 years ago and where we are now. We have a new, truly state of the art transport Interchange that has replaced a motley collection of 1970s bus shelters. We have a high-frequency, innovative, environmentally-friendly people mover link between Interchange and main line railway station that has flat-level entry, higher frequency, and more journeys than ever. We have new, comfortable, trains on the Snow Hill lines that also run at high frequencies with more seats, continued free parking that takes cars off the road and puts people on to trains, and new buses with the cleanest engines yet. It's a world apart from even 5 years ago, but we haven't shouted about it!
On my travels around the UK I see areas where public transport operators have made real efforts, and others where its in the doldrums. Where transport providers and local authorities work together with shared visions, a little bit of magic occurs. Nottingham has won award after award this year, and its richly deserved - but actually, despite all of the hard work that goes on there, its actually blindingly simple. Its just a vision that says public transport is not only important, its vital. It gives the impression that its buses, trams and trains are what makes the City's heart beat. It charges firms for its car park spaces and reinvests that cash into public transport: how cool - and blindingly simple - is that? Its the one place in the UK that feels almost like a continental city when it comes to public transport - and we need more of it. Perception is everything - look at the Passenger Focus report on what non-transport users thought in car-dependent Milton Keynes. People who hadn't used a bus in 30 years had hardened perceptions of what buses are like - and were simply not aware of the improvements. That scenario is repeated up and down the country, and whilst we must shout longer and harder about the benefits of public transport, I also firmly believe that answer also lies in more carrot and stick, especially in large urban areas. Remember the howls of derision that greeted the London Congestion Charge? Who would be without that now? The best examples around the World of towns and cities are ones where people have priority, with a mix of regular, easy to understand public transport. This isn't "anti-car" - it's common sense!
It's natural to look back, and we can only move forward if we know where we've come from. History is important - especially in transport terms - but it's the future where we must concentrate our ideas. In transport, we need continued - and more - investment. We need long-term plans - and a commitment from politicians to see those plans through. We need to see public transport for what it is - a solution to our ever-growing traffic congestion. So it needs to have priority at all costs, however unpopular with some people that may be. We need to shout, shout and shout some more about the successes that our buses, trains, trams and coaches achieve, every hour of every day, and we need to lobby our politicians until we're blue in the face about the tools we need to make our public transport even better.
There's still huge amounts to be done despite the achievements of public transport in 2012. The future is bright, with cross-party support (a rare thing!) for High Speed 2. New high-quality railway stations on the horizon at Birmingham New Street and Reading. Midland Metro trams proudly rolling through the streets of Birmingham City Centre will be a reality in the not to distant future. New buses - some of them with cutting edge hybrid technology - continue to appear onto the streets, raising the levels of quality. And in the West Midlands, Centro continues to be a force for good when it comes to public transport.
As someone who works within public transport on several different levels, I can see the difference the transport industry makes to people's lives every day. Public Transport Moving Forward - as ever!

Thank you to everyone who has commented on the blog this year, and on my blog at - it's always good to hear your thoughts about public transport! A very happy new year to all!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Age of the (s)Train - Investing in our Future

On my way home from Birmingham down the Snow Hill lines to Stourbridge Junction last night, the service was quite busy. Few seats and the odd standee. Nothing new there, you might say - but this was the 2157 from Birmingham.
Now, of course it's the run up to Christmas, and the German market and Bull Ring shops are pulling the punters into the City, but nonetheless - despite all the complaints and frustrations that seem to engulf the railway - this mode of transport has seen the most incredible rise in patronage over the last decade that no one can seem to put a finger on why.
Centro's own figures reveal that patronage has risen a whopping 94% on the West Midlands rail network since 2000/1. The trains must be doing something right!
A BBC report today reveals the top 10 most overcrowded trains in England - and one of them is on my very own local Snow Hill line. It doesn't make for great reading, and of course it is even more uncomfortable for those having to squeeze onto these services for the daily commute.
So, how to solve a problem like the great train squash?
Not as simple as you might think!
Why not simply buy more trains? Firstly, they don't come cheap! Fares may be going up, but this is as much to do with Government long-term plans to reduce the burden on the tax payer for the cost of running the railways. At present, it is roughly a 50-50 split between fare payers and taxpayers. The plan is to move this further towards those who actually use them, hence the year-on-year fare increases on regulated fares. And on a simple, practical level, some platforms aren't actually long enough to accommodate longer trains! Extending platforms costs more money, and some stations physically can't be extended.
Secondly, most of the rolling stock is owned by leasing companies - actual train operating companies have, in relative terms, mostly short franchise agreements. If they invested themselves in new bits of kit, would they recoup their investment by the time their franchise was up? And what if they lost the bid for the new one? Make franchises longer? The problem here is that the current economic situation makes it difficult to plan ahead for the next 5 years, let alone, say 20. And current industry thinking is edging away from the awarding of long franchises, even given the success of Chiltern's unique long franchise - although there are some reasons particular to Chiltern's operating area that help them.
So, for individual train operating companies, a conundrum. They take the brickbats for both the rush hour squash and the rise in ticket prices, when, actually, neither is really directly their own fault!
The answer must be substantial, long-term investment by the country itself if we are to continue the success story of rail. Many historians of the mode look to the 1920s as being the pinnacle of British Railways - but we are carrying more people now than we were then, on a much smaller network, trimmed down by Beeching (and other plans) in the 60s. It makes eminent sense to invest in rail and public transport as a whole to accommodate the huge rises in people on the move. There are more people living in the country than ever and they are on the move to work, shop and spend their leisure time.
Roads of course are important, but cars are wasteful. Public transport, at its best, moves large numbers of people efficiently and far more safely than cars. Projects like High Speed 2 are exactly the kind of confident long-term investment that is needed to help our rail network. The "high speed" is good, obviously, but the story should be more about the capacity it generates, not only on the main corridor it will serve, but on other parts of the rail network it frees up to create new passenger services and move more freight, reducing the need to move so much of our goods by road.
If investment is the key, logistics and management is also ripe for reform. Areas like the West Midlands and it's surrounding "travel to work" areas might well be served by having its rail services planned and managed more locally, rather than London. Centro is well placed to deliver this, and has long-term plans to see the local network expanded, using not only trains, but more metro and possibly tram-trains.
Ultimately, rail is a success already, by the sheer numbers of people it carries every day. But to see even more people using this this mode of transport, we need to see the entire passenger experience being one of excellence delivered, every hour of every day. Our roads are clogged, unpleasant experiences, but crowded trains for commuters offer a similarly less-than-great feeling for those that use them day in, day out.
The vision is simple: provide trains that people don't "endure" but choose to use and enjoy. The maths suggest that the railways are already extremely popular. Let's build on that and encourage more and more people to use our trains.
Government is at present already investing in our railways, but we need more of it, over the longer-term, that takes into account the whole system of franchising operating companies, but is also separate from it, with management and planning on different levels for different types of operation.
For the passenger, the utopia of reliable trains, understandable pricing, good information, smart ticketing, less overcrowding and easy integration with other modes is the goal.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Don't Tweet Back In Anger......

How the huge benefits of social media in public transport also have a downside for those doing the tweeting.....

One of the recent phenomenons of our time has been social media. Seemingly everyone is Tweeting or Facebooking, and the public transport industry is increasingly taking it up to keep passengers informed in “real time” of happenings on the network.
There’s no doubt that this is mainly a force for good. Delays can quickly be broadcast and alternative arrangements made for a nation that seems more on the move than ever.
But with such instant media comes a new set of rules. Or in many cases, a complete lack of.
Social media, apart from being a simple tool of information, is also built increasingly around the human element of what is being said. Conversations strike up between travellers and “tweet-masters” (or whatever we call them). On the plus side, this helps to break down barriers, adding to the more human face of what might seem a faceless, monolithic public transport operator.
It is, though, with that “human” element, interesting - and often depressing - to see the negative side to some people’s communications when things inevitably go wrong.
Take for instance the recent staff shortages at London Midland’s rail operation. Whether or not you take the view that the whole episode could have been something that could have been realistically anticipated, the effect on the travelling public was sometimes one of sheer inconvenience and frustration. The operator – which has won awards for its Twitter operation – was steadfastly professional and very useful in how it disseminated the issues on the ground that passengers faced on a daily (and often hourly or less) basis. Yet some of the vitriol it received back was, at best, expressions of frustration, and at worst mindless insults.
I suppose we just shrug our shoulders at all of this and accept it as “one of those things”. People are going to get frustrated at public transport delays and vent their spleen, and this is just another way of doing it.
But I wonder what the worst perpetrators of this cyber-aggression are really thinking as they type their diatribe into their smartphones and hit send? If, pre-Twitter, public transport was indeed this large, faceless organisation, it now often has real people at the other end of the social media page. These are the people who type in the updates, who try to gather information about what has gone wrong, and ultimately are actually trying to help travellers with their journeys.
Public transport is, of course, a huge operation. Inevitably things will go wrong, journeys will be disrupted and people will get frustrated.
What fascinates me, however, is the lack of understanding that transport professionals too are frustrated with delays. Who would ever want to delay trains and buses, as if to satisfy some adolescent mischief-making? Do some people honestly and truthfully believe this?
Working in public transport, I have met several public transport company “Tweeters”. Every one of them a consummate professional in their work, and often adding social media on to their “real” occupation. I have seen them tweeting at all hours of the day and night, offering advice and alternatives for passengers affected by delays and cancellations. I am sure they must mentally desensitise themselves from the quite offensive rubbish that some people choose to throw at them, simply for trying to help.
Some recent Passenger Focus research offers some thoughts on the whole social media scene. Would one way be to simply use the likes of Twitter and Facebook as almost a one-way information service and avoid the friendly chat that some operators offer? National Rail tends to do this on Twitter, but many operators are very open and human in their efforts – and obviously suffer from frustrated individuals who lack the social skills to engage meaningfully and politely. There are even people who spend time “re-tweeting” complaints about operators for others to see. What they are hoping to achieve is anyone’s guess.
I suspect the best of the Facebooking and Tweeting transport operators will want to keep the friendly, open channels between themselves and their customers. Abuse of public transport staff is, of course, nothing new, but isn’t it a pity that some people see fit to rant at and mock people who are only doing their job and trying to make things better?

Friday, 7 December 2012

A Day In The Life...On The Stourbridge Branch Line!

The Stourbridge Line User Group (SLUG) (of whom I used to be a committee member) asked me if I could write an article about "A Day In The Life" of the Stourbridge Branch Line, as someone who drives the Stourbridge Shuttle between Junction & Town. No problem! Here is the article, which appears in their current newsletter.

It’s 5am at Stourbridge Junction and not even the birds are singing yet.
A day in the life of the Stourbridge branch line is beginning. This will consist of over 200 individual journeys on the ¾ mile journey – the shortest in Europe – and will run continuously for over 18 hours linking the Snow Hill lines and Stourbridge Town Centre. There has been a service on this line since 1879, and is now operated using the unique Class 139 “Parry People Mover” Railcars. The service is operated by Pre Metro Operations Limited, on behalf of London Midland.
After booking on duty, we check the “Late Notice Case” – information regarding operation on our line or lines nearby. This may be to do with engineering work that we need to be aware of, or – especially during Autumn – operating conditions on the line due to leaf-fall. Rail conditions vary during different types of weather and, much like driving a car, care needs to be taken to react to different types of conditions. We also check the diary to note any other operating issues from the previous crews on previous days. The emphasis is always on safety, so it’s important to always be aware of operating issues.
Then we make our way to the depot at the end of the branch line where the 2 Railcars are stabled overnight. Every morning, before service begins, there are a number of pre-service checks that need to be carried out to ensure the vehicle is fit for service. Again, safety is critical and there are 2 pages worth of checks to be made before we can enter service.
Once we are satisfied that everything is in order, we move the Railcar towards the end of the “private area”, which is protected by a piece of kit that is attached to the track. This has to be unlocked to allow us to move onto the platform. For this to happen, we also need to obtain the “staff” – a token that allows us to operate on the single line to and from Stourbridge Town. This is locked away when we aren’t operating and is only available to us via communication with the signalling centre at Saltley. Once through the “de-railer” (so named as it would literally “de-rail” the vehicle if it was hit without being unlocked) it is re-positioned to protect the depot area.
Now that this has been completed, we can move onto the platform area, although it isn’t yet time to enter service (0547 on weekdays). We inform London Midland Control via telephone of the particular vehicle in service, and whether the other vehicle is available to us, should the one in service fail. There is also time to give the Railcar a good mopping so that it is clean and fresh for our passengers!
Now we’re in service!
There are surprising amounts of people around so early in the morning. Shift workers coming home from night jobs, inevitable early risers off to work, or perhaps further afield – it isn’t long before the first Chiltern journey leaves the Junction for London – and of course late night party animals for whom “tomorrow” is already “today”!
Railcar operation is always staffed by 2 people. We’re both trained to do both jobs – drive the Railcar and Customer Service, which involves checking tickets and helping/advising passengers. We have lots of “regulars” using the service and we have got to know many of them – a friendly smile at 6 in the morning is always very welcome!
We’re soon into the high-frequency 10 minute service and we’re filling up rapidly on every journey. Commuter time is here, and we also have lots of students going to/from Stourbridge College and Hagley – these journeys are extremely busy, and we receive assistance from a 3rd member of staff on the platform who safely assists with loading and communicates between our on-board crew for a safe departure.
Soon it’s time for our “PNB” – “Personal Needs Break”, in railway speak – so the 3rd member of staff will take over to allow us our break time one at a time.
Things are beginning to quieten down following the busy commuter time, and from 0930 we begin to welcome our Concessionary Pass Holders on board. Again, we see many regulars and it is very satisfying to know that, having provided the important connections for the commuters, we’re now providing an equally-important service for off-peak travellers too!
There’s a steady stream of passengers on every journey throughout the morning. We both take our meal break towards lunchtime, again with a 3rd member of staff providing cover. Usually, every hour or so, we “change jobs” so that one drives and one provides customer assistance. Sometimes we may be required to arrange assistance for a wheelchair passenger for their connection at Stourbridge Junction, or advise passengers on ticket or journey options, as well as being aware of any operational issues on Snow Hill lines that may affect their journey.
Sometimes Network Rail may be carrying out track maintenance, so we need to be ever-vigilant for orange-suited staff on our near the line to give them a “toot”. We also see several forms of wildlife, from domestic cats, to badgers, foxes and a family of buzzards! Some creatures are extremely cheeky and may sit on the railhead for as long as possible before moving! Amusing as this might seem, the driver always needs to be aware of any activity on or near the line, as rail conditions may cause us to potentially slide if the brake is applied too quickly! We have on-board sand which we can administer in such situations to help us quickly regain adhesion.
Line speed on the main section is 20mph, although on approach to both stations, this drops down to 10mph, then 5mph. Again, safety and comfort for our passengers is our over-riding concern.
The early crew’s last departure from the Junction is at 1449, and then it’s time for the late team to commence duty.
It isn’t long before the evening peak is in full swing, with the flow of passengers reversed – now there are lots more heading home from Stourbridge Junction to the Town. The students are also back after their lectures and we have a few busy journeys, again assisted by a 3rd member of staff on platform.
As evening approaches, we see the night owls! The evening leisure market becomes apparent, with people heading off into Birmingham, or coming into Stourbridge town centre, especially at weekends. Some of our journeys are now inevitably quieter, but still we carry a steady stream throughout the evening, right up until our final departure at 2354, which is designed to connect with the final arrival of the day – the Chiltern service from London Marylebone. We’re especially careful to double-check that we don’t leave anyone on this service as it’s a long walk to the Town if they miss it!
On arrival back at the Junction, it’s time to switch the destination board to “Not In Service” and a reversal of the morning procedures is in operation.
We regain entry back into the private depot area and the line staff is returned to its safe and secure locked away area.
Now it’s time to prepare the vehicle for tomorrow’s service. This includes replacing the LPG gas bottles that help power this very environmentally-friendly vehicle.
Finally, once the vehicle has been “put to bed”, it is securely isolated and locked away.
In the office, we book out and fill in the diary to advise tomorrow morning’s crew of any operational issues that may be relevant. It is now 0030.
In just 4 ½ hours, the early crew will be on site, ready to kick off another day of providing the branch line service to the people of Stourbridge.
On Sundays, our early crew will also handle an LPG gas delivery from our suppliers and perform a “car swap” where we exchange the vehicles routinely. This will involve operating the points at Stourbridge Junction and communication with the signalling centre at Saltley.
The service on Sundays is slightly reduced from Mon-Sat service but there are still 4 journeys per hour in both directions.
In the 3 years of Class 139 operation on the Branch Line, we have seen passenger numbers rise and the service is now the most frequent ever (mostly every 10 mins throughout the day), the most environmentally-friendly ever (our unique flywheel operation stores braking energy to help power the vehicle), the most accessible ever (flat level entry greatly assists wheelchair users and parents with buggies) and reliability is usually between 99.7% and 100%.
We’re very proud to operate such a unique, important and reliable service!

You can visit our new website at or read regular updates by “liking” our Facebook page ( and “following” us on Twitter (@SbridgeShuttle).