Saturday, 13 April 2013

VfM - Ride Again?

“Sorry about that”, commented the bus driver, sheepishly.
You may think this uttering of apology had come about as a result of him missing my stop, or some harsh braking. It was actually the collecting of my fare. £7.60 return from Stourbridge to Bridgnorth on Whittles 125 service.
The 125 is a glorious romp from the edge of the urban Centro area into Worcestershire, then across the green fields of Shropshire, clinging often to the River Severn, affording the odd glimpse of steam from the Severn Valley Railway. It takes around 1 hour 20 minutes end to end.
With a maximum single fare across most of Centro-land of £2, you can see why some might consider this fare “eye-watering”.
After handing over my note and coins to the apologetic gentleman, I considered if I thought this “Value for Money”.
“Value for Money” is a difficult beast to nail, merely because it is so subjective. As a veteran of many a mystery traveller audit, the “VfM” is, for me, one of the most difficult categories to complete. As a regular bus passenger, am I more likely to accept the service provided because I’m used to it? Or, conversely, am I more likely to mark it down because “improvements” are often slow to arrive and not always immediately apparent?
An example might be standing in Stourbridge Interchange awaiting my 125. Even 3 years ago, the scene would have been very different. Now I’m standing in a recently opened state of the art facility, surrounded by a number of new and refurbished vehicles. Rewind 3 years and the picture would have consisted of rows of draughty 1960’s shelters, masquerading as a bus station. The buses themselves didn’t have too many newer examples. So things for the Stourbridge bus user have improved beyond recognition over recent times. But Passenger Focus’s incredibly useful Bus Passenger Survey records only 50% Value for Money for the Centro area. Of course the wider Centro area may not have benefitted like the good folk of Stourbridge, but the ITA have some catching up to do if they are to improve the perception of Value for Money amongst the West Midlands’ bus passengers.
To be fair, Value for Money is always the area to be worked on for public transport operators. On the railways, a similar story is evident, with a national average of 47%.  The overall percentage of satisfaction on the tracks is 85%, suggesting that the average rail passenger is reasonably happy until it comes to the cost of their ticket in relation to the service provided. On the buses, the overall satisfaction rate, all things included, is 79% in the West Midlands – but that is a figure that is falling.
Enough number-bashing.
What am I getting for my £7.60? The bus itself was presentable enough on the outward journey, but nothing more than a standard looking single decker. No leather seats or wood-laminate floor to suggest a “premium” experience for my “premium” fare. In fact, on a journey that had most seats occupied upon leaving Stourbridge, I am one of only 2 people I believe actually paid a fare. Most were concessionary pass holders. One presumes they might rate “value for money” slightly higher – because they aren’t parting with the fare!
The journey itself is fairly uneventful, save for a bit of hair-raising speeding along the country lanes of Shropshire to try and make up time after a delay (ironically due to a broken down bus) in Kidderminster. It isn’t the direct route a motorist would take between the two towns, but a much more winding affair. So maybe you could view the run as a bit of coach tour around the local countryside to help soften the blow of the return fare price.
The return trip is a revelation. The lady driver looks at my ticket and comments that I’ve “paid a lot of money” for this and begins to type away at her ticket machine to reveal that I needn’t have paid the seemingly expensive fare at all. Whittle do a £6.20 Day Ticket that allows all day travel on their services. Top marks to the driver for making that observation and telling me about it. I query as to why the charging of such a ticket should happen – shouldn’t the most you pay on a Whittle bus be that day ticket price? She then demonstrates what she thinks the original driver would have done and presses a few buttons, which does indeed reveal a Stourbridge-Bridgnorth return to be £7.60 – but there is one button for a Whittle Day Ticket at £6.20.
“He probably didn’t know” is the driver’s apologetic comment.
The lady driver’s driving skills are impeccable and as good as any I have “mystery shopped” over the years. But the journey experience is marred by the fact that, for the next 1 hour 20 minutes, I cannot see a thing out of any of the windows. The bus is filthy. So on personal perceptions, it certainly wasn’t “value for money”!
What to make of my experience?
The service seems well used, and is now mainly hourly during the day. But many are concessionary pass holders. If my first driver “probably didn’t know” that a Whittle Day Ticket would have saved me £1.40, it is possibly because he rarely has to issue cash fares!
Are Whittles maybe missing a trick with fares and marketing on this service? The 125 is a rare example of a service operating across the Centro/Worcestershire border. Although the rail service between Stourbridge and Kidderminster is more regular, and well-used, there are still a lot of people who aren’t aware the bus service exists. There are no rail alternatives for Stourbridge to Bewdley or Bridgnorth. What about some headline-grabbing fares offers, as part of a wider marketing push to raise awareness of this service?
Although I understand that simply slashing fares won’t work for every example, some of this is down to perceptions of what you’re getting for your dollar – or “Value for Money”.
First in Manchester, and some others around the country have reduced fares to try and stimulate demand (or is this a recognition that maybe they were set too high in the first place?)
A bit of imaginative pricing (works in Supermarkets with booze I note) can stimulate interest in a product as part of a wider awareness campaign. Buses need not necessarily be different in this respect.
The schoolboy error of a £7.60 return over a £6.20 day ticket is another anomaly that could be addressed. Surely the price of the day ticket should be the maximum anyone pays?
And ultimately, how would the user view “Value for Money” based on this experience?
One might address it as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.
The “good” being the excellent driving of my return trip lady driver, coupled with her willingness to point out the fares anomaly. She could easily have punched the ticket and said nothing. Top marks to her.
The “bad” being the fares issue itself – and the “brand unfriendliness” of a £7.60 bus ticket in the first place. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person ever to baulk at the cost.
The “ugly” represents the appalling state of the bus windows. You literally couldn’t see out of any of them. Paying what I did, I at least expected to see some of England’s green and pleasant land. Instead I had to resort to seeing a bit of the tarmac in front of me – as that was the only clear vision anywhere.
It is so, so important for the bus industry to attract and retain new users. Had I been one on this return trip, I’m not so sure I would have ticked the box for “Value for Money” overall – and yet maybe it could have been different, if only the driver had offered me a much more palatable £6.20 Day Ticket and the windows clean enough to allow me to see some stunning countryside.
Getting the basics spot on every time is what the best operators in the country do time and time again – and it’s no surprise to find their Value for Money scores higher than average.
“VfM = ride again”! 

1 comment:

  1. Surely Bus Services must now eclipse MI6 where public awareness of their activities is concerned.