Thursday, 21 March 2013

Work In Progress

I was in Reading yesterday for the first time in a few years, and since the work started in rebuilding the railway station there.
It all looked an incredible hive of activity with plenty of work going on - I guess it's a huge logistical challenge to do this work whilst maintaining a fully-operational large railway station open and running to the general public.
My train was slightly delayed arriving due to issues "allocating platforms", and my departure home similarly delayed by a few minutes, the reason this time a "signalling issue".
But what struck me were 2 things.
It is good to see real investment in the future of our railways. Birmingham New Street is also currently receiving major renovation - again whilst staying open. Like Reading, it is a hugely significant location on the UK rail map, and so hats off to everyone involved in these huge works.
Secondly, it made me ponder the suggestion by opponents of High Speed 2 that we scrap the plans and instead improve what we already have. Well, we are already improving what we already have in many different examples, but imagine many more years of upheaval on the West Coast Main Line along the lines of Reading and New Street - only to end up with something inferior to HS2.
Both Reading and New Street aren't currently nice places to be. They are effective building sites with the added challenge of running a full rail service in between. But the price in the relative short term is one worth paying to see much better facilities for rail travellers in the longer-term.
When we consider HS2, we consider the real, long-term future of our country. For too long, we have neglected our rail infrastructure. Speed, actually, is only a part of what HS2 will bring - capacity is the biggest thing we gain.
Building a brand new railway of course will be an upheaval, and for those personally affected there is much to be considered and sorted out by Government, but that is another issue. Upgrading the WCML with years and years of inconvenience for existing travellers is not the answer. We need to continue investing in our existing network, but also move on with the HS2 build for future generations to benefit from.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Running The Gauntlet!

Just walked out of the main entrance of Birmingham New St station. As usual, it's a haze of discarded cigarette smoke, accompanied, ironically, by a large no smoking sign.
This entrance closes next month as part of the New St rebuild. Let's hope it takes the unpleasant tobacco cloud with it for good.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Incredible Invisible Bus!

Whenever the news is on TV and some reporter is bringing us more depressing figures from the High Street, they’re normally standing in one. Whilst the local Councillor waxes lyrical into the reporter’s microphone, inevitably a bus whizzes past in the background. You can’t miss buses. They’re large things that bring lots of people into town for all sorts of reasons.
But to many movers and shakers, they’re invisible.
Take a walk along many a High Street in Britain today, and you can see a problem. The economic crisis has taken its toll, with several large well-known brands now but a memory. Online shopping too has taken a firm grip on people’s purchasing habits. So the challenge is on to revamp the traditional High Street. How can we breathe life into our traditional town centres?
The self-styled “Queen of Shopping” Mary Portas created a TV show out of it. She also caught the ear of Government with a report containing 28 recommendations.
But incredibly, the bus is nowhere to be seen.
Lest we forget the statistic that buses bring more people to the High Street than any other mode – including cars. 40% of trips are by bus compared to 30% in cars.
Portas talks only about “free controlled parking”. This may seem logical as a response to the damage done by free parking at out of town shopping centres, but actually all it would do is create even more congestion and pollution by encouraging more car journeys into town. Difficult as it may seem, how about redressing the balance by introducing car park charges at the out of town establishments?
The Chairman of Wolverhampton Business Group is also lobbying for cheaper parking charges in the City – the same Gentleman also wants bus lanes removed and last year appeared in the local press stood on the side of the road taking pictures of buses in order to count how many people were on board to supposedly prove his point.
So, despite bringing more people into town than cars, the bus remains largely invisible to many and seemingly not part of the solution.
Which is a pity, with so much potential to attract more users, and thus footfall in our depleted town centres.
But is this, in part, because the bus industry doesn’t shout loud enough?
Look at any town centre bus operation. It will have its regulars. But the challenge is surely more users. Hassle-free travel. No eternal hunt for car park spaces. And that’s just the start of it.
Imagine a town centre where the bus runs past loads of queuing cars, in its own highly-policed lane. Where the fare is cheaper than the car park cost. Where, instead of driving around endlessly wasting fuel looking for a space, you’re perusing the internet on your phone or tablet via the free wi-fi. Where buses are frequent and on time because of good bus priority, and are luxuriously comfortable.
You can, of course, find this is some towns and Cities. But there are plenty more where there is work to be done.
Bus operators not only have to shout more about the benefits of using the bus to the town centre, they have to create long-term relationships with the people involved in running the town. Buses mustn’t be seen as some form of last-resort travel option on the peripheral corner of the big picture – they must be regarded as central to the revitalisation of our struggling towns. It requires investment by all parties – operators with attractive, reliable vehicles, and authorities with brave policies that give buses priority to provide excellent service.
At the moment, there are too many “invisible” buses.  


Good to see some new night services popping up in bus land!
London and some other selected Cities may have had 24 hour routes into the wee-small hours for a long time, but as we increasingly move (for better or worse) towards a 24-hour economy, public transport has a vital role to play.
In Bristol, route 75 between Hengrove and Cribbs Causeway sees round the clock services from 24th March. I'm also pleased to see First are the operator here. I'm convinced there are good times ahead for this giant in the industry under the direction of Giles Fearnley and Jerone Weimar after what I felt were many years in the wilderness, albeit as the country's largest operator! Local transport operators should thrive and be an integral part of their local communities, and, coupled with the fares review in Bristol, shows maybe a new willingness to listen and engage on a more local level.
In Birmingham, the 97 gains an all-nighter also from 24th March, which sees it extended from Chelmsley Wood to the Airport in what appears to be another breakout of localism - a partnership between National Express West Midlands and Birmingham Airport.
For what is England's supposed second-largest City (I'll have the Mancunians on my back now!), Birmingham has struggled for years with all night bus services. Indeed, until the 97 kicks in, we haven't got any at all! Incredible for a City and economy of our size. I hear that NXWM are looking at other options for night services, and this can only be welcome.
Let's hope that it doesn't follow the disaster that was Wolverhampton's night bus network in the 90s. These were based on special route numbers in the 9xx series that bore no resemblance to their daytime equivalents, rarely displayed anything other than a route number, and left people scratching heads as to what it was!
Operating late night and overnight services has its challenges - not least from those who can't handle their alcohol intake - but for shift workers and other users, they bring more options to get from A to B. And with two-thirds of jobseekers having no access to a car or cannot drive, a night bus may open up opportunities to a new job that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to get to.
Let's hope these new services are successful parts of the public transport offer.