Thursday, 24 January 2013

Diamond Geezers - Scope For New Thinking?

The news that Rotala has bought First’s Redditch and Kidderminster operations isn't a particular surprise, but it will be interesting to see if they develop the network in these two areas.
Almost certainly, Rotala will brand these as “Red Diamond”. They've been in Redditch for a number of years now, as First faced competition initially from independent Pete’s Travel (who were born in the years following deregulation, taking on West Midlands Travel in the Centro area initially), which then became part of the Go Ahead Group when Pete’s sold out to the “Big 5” company. When Go Ahead gave up its West Midlands operation, it was Rotala who took it on, branding it “Red Diamond” – partly doffing its cap to the famous old Midland Red operation – and investing in some new vehicles for the town.
Kidderminster is an interesting area also. In recent times, First has seen competition from long-standing independent Whittles (more recently part of Peter Shipp’s EYMS). The town itself isn’t big, but there are several local estates which were prime minibus areas post-1986. I’ve always thought that First made their Kidderminster area network difficult to understand, with bits of one-way route and allsorts to make it not the most attractive service. Maybe the locals understood it, but I’m always keen to see networks as simple as can be, so that strangers like me – and indeed locals who’ve never seriously considered trying the bus – can grasp it.
Kidderminster is just across the border from the mighty Centro area, but it is surprising how little buses cross the invisible line. First tried it a number of years ago with a service that linked the carpet-making town with Stourbridge, the giant Merry Hill shopping centre and Dudley. But this was more of a positioning operation than anything else, and wasn’t pushed. Inevitably, it died a death. Whittles have been the most innovative here, extending their Bridgnorth-Kidderminster operation, across into Stourbridge on an hourly daytime frequency, and it seems to be working. The other bit of cross-border action was the 192 – once part of the trunk Birmingham-Halesowen –Kidderminster-Ludlow-Hereford Midland Red operation. This fell victim to Council subsidy cuts and now is operated as Kidderminster-Halesowen only by Whittle.
The train provides stiff opposition from both Redditch and Kidderminster into Birmingham, and both are regarded as “travel to work” (i.e. to Birmingham) areas. But whilst the train takes the strain, the bus isn’t that much a realistic alternative. As mentioned, the 192 from Kidderminster now goes only as far as Halesowen, where, admittedly, there are buses every 7/8 minutes on National Express West Midlands’s 9 service – but the 192 is barely hourly during the daytime, there are no “all operator passes” covering this (as it crosses the border between Worcestershire and Centro land) and, ultimately, people don’t like changing buses. The railway station in Kidderminster is up the hill from the town centre, and parking charges are expensive. The result? Anyone living in Kidderminster looking to use public transport into Birmingham won’t find it easy or attractive. There is evidence that some of them actually drive their car into Stourbridge to take advantage of free car parking at the Centro station there, to take the onward trip into the City Centre!
Redditch does have buses to Birmingham. First’s hourly 146 and Johnson’s X50 (every hour and half) are the options here, but again, whilst that might be only what is commercial achievable for the operators, is it attractive to potential new users?
And for both areas, what about the Black Country’s giant Merry Hill shopping centre? There are most certainly people who drive from Worcestershire to this shopping Mecca – and it claims to attract people from across the region. Currently, getting from Kidderminster or Redditch to Merry Hill on the bus is often too complicated, time consuming, and ultimately expensive. Ditto hospitals and health facilities. Some of the larger providers now refer people to different centres for treatment, often as outpatients. But although Redditch and Kidderminster are not exactly a million miles from facilities in the Black Country and Birmingham, it realistically isn’t feasible to suggest public transport. I provide public transport information for a Hospital in the Black Country, and have been asked several times over the years about how to get from parts of Worcestershire into the Hospital. When I explain to them how difficult it is, they have been genuinely surprised. So there are people who are considering alternatives to stressful motoring, or hunting for elusive car park spaces at health or shopping facilities – but all too often, the alternative isn’t really there.
I’m not asking Rotala to consider launching lots of new commercial services here, with their newly-purchased operations in Kidderminster and Redditch. These are hard times for bus operators so I know I’m likely to be disappointed! But what is interesting is that Rotala – unlike First before them – are not entrenched in Worcestershire. Their Black and Blue Diamond operations in the Black Country and Birmingham respectively mean that they span the invisible border between Shire County and urban area. We know that there is a regular exchange of vehicles between some of these operations, so is there scope for some new thinking on cross-border services?
And is the Competition Commission going to cast it’s beady eye on Redditch in particular, now that Rotala is the main operator in the town? 

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