Monday, 23 September 2013

Why Ed Needs To Listen To Mother

Sir Richard Leese, Labour Leader of Manchester City Council since 1996, sees the benefit a High Speed Rail link will bring to the North, and specifically the City he leads.
So no doubt a frank piece of his mind, directed at his own party’s Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, displays in no uncertain terms, irritation at comments made at this week’s Labour Conference.
Balls was commenting on the HS2 proposals – a challenging but genuinely exciting project first hatched by the Labour Party – which has that rarest of statuses: cross party support.
But is Balls, and Labour, getting cold feet? Or were comments made today an attempt to measure what votes might be gained in taking a somewhat “populist” stance of distancing themselves from the plans?
The Shadow Chancellor stated that he continued to back the plans, but seemingly attempted to dip his toe in the water of discontent, asking whether £50bn on HS2 was the best way to spend the money. His number 2, Rachel Reeves, appeared to go further, saying that the party would cancel it “if we don’t think it’s good value for money and costs continue to rise”.
Leese, clearly frustrated at such comments, accused Balls of a “cheap shot”;
“there are better ways for the Shadow Chancellor to demonstrate fiscal responsibility than take a cheap shot at HS2”
And he’s right.
HS2 has, in recent months, taken a battering from the antis. Highly inaccurate projections on costs have been doing the rounds, and some less than balanced reporting in the media has only added to the hype. For Balls to play with words in the search of potential votes is extremely disappointing. It is political gamesmanship of the worst kind, because he hasn’t come out against it – merely hinting that he “might”, depending on how the budget goes. Or possibly how the political ship is sailing as we head towards the altogether choppier waters of a general election, now probably a mere 20 months away.
It is this short-termism – a tendency for politicians to veer sharply from one side to the other – that is to this country’s detriment. We have this week seen the Germans once again put faith in Angela Merkel for a third term. “Mutti” – or “Mother” – is seen as an extremely safe pair of hands who guides Germany – and Europe – through the rockiest economic crisis we’ve seen in modern times. Not for her a lurch to the right or left in the short term. She’s in it for the long haul, and sticking to it.
What is the relevance between the German “Mutti” and High Speed 2 in Britain?
HS2 is not for tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. It is an investment in a much longer plan. It isn’t all about cutting 30 minutes off a suited toff’s trip to London. It is about connecting our country for real growth, opening up the South to the Midlands and North like we have never seen before. It is a continuation of a stalled plan started by the Victorians.
Anyone who has ever travelled across Europe by High Speed rail knows the difference it makes. Rail is our heritage but it is also very much our future.
By all means we need to continue investing in our existing network, and that is what we are doing - £37.5bn between 2014-2019 which will lead to significant electrification – 850 miles of it, new rolling stock, new lines, the list goes on.
That is only the next 5 years. What we REALLY need is to get a long-term grip on infrastructure in the UK.
This month’s Transport Times carries an interesting article regarding a report compiled by Sir John Armitt, who calls for a statutory body to set infrastructure priorities for the UK. And here’s the sense – it should look 25-30 years ahead.
It would carry out a national assessment every 10 years and have 10 year plans on how the projects would be delivered, voted on by Parliament.
Sir John comments;
“Over the last 40 years UK infrastructure has fallen behind the rest of the world and is increasingly struggling to cope with the demands we make of it”. Hear Hear.
Look at how London as a City has seen an explosion in its population, even over the last decade. Look at how the transport system has been bolstered to cope with the ever increasing demand. It has cost a lot of money, but it is simply needed to stop the City grinding to a halt. Sir Richard Leese in Manchester makes exactly the same point about HS2 being essential to stop the Midlands and North doing the same thing.
The Armitt report on long-term infrastructure planning was, interestingly, commissioned by the Labour Party.
What odds would you get on them implementing all of its recommendations if they seize power in 2015?

Friday, 13 September 2013

Clock Watching

It's 1124 in Dudley bus station on a fairly mundane Friday morning.  I'm waiting for service 42 along with half a dozen others for a route that will wind around the houses and end up in West Bromwich. 
The digital screen has been counting down in minutes, suggesting that the bus - a National Express West Midlands vehicle - has got the required bit of tracking equipment on. Indeed a notice on my previous journey had been trumpeting the new smartphone app which informs you of all things buses (or at least when they're due. In real time).
Because I'm a bus geek and can spot a West Brom garage Merc a mile off (my party trick, since you ask), I can see it parked up across the way. But as the screen moves from "1 min" to "due" and then falls off the end, there is no driver for my 42. The screen is disbelieved and a big fat fail ensues.
Arriving on stand now is the next 205, due in 4 minutes, but this will entail a driver changeover, cue more slamming of bus doors whilst this inexplicably long-winded procedure goes on. In TrentBarton land, passengers are let on BEFORE  the changeover takes place - now theres an innovation.
But whilst this is going on, I've noticed our 42 driver appear, seemingly in little rush, and then bring our bus around to the stand - now occupied by the 205.
Now there is the sound of bus horns honking as our 42 driver realises his slot has gone and the 205 ain't moving.
But the stand now has a mix of intending passengers for both services.
What happens now? In the end, our 42 driver opts to pull in 1 stop down, resulting in groans from at least 2 fellow passengers, one of which looks decidedly dodgy on her legs. It's a good job we haven't got any blind passengers or others who may not have been aware of what was going on. We eventually leave 4 minutes late.
Why the rant for something perhaps minor?
Because I'm passionate about getting the little things as right as we can in tandem with the big things.
Who knows why the driver emerged late for his journey. There could be a very good reason.  But over the years I've seen this far too often.
And it's the little things that non-regular users see and experience far more than us regulars.
If we are to get more bums on seats, the user experience needs to be flawless.  Big issues like traffic congestion are a long-term battle to overcome, but seemingly little issues like this one have disproportionate effects.
Providing good service should be objective number 1. Every hour of every day.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Kindle Your Next Bus

picture courtesy Centro

There haven’t been too many “World firsts” in Oldbury. The Black Country town lives in the shadow of its football-mad neighbour West Bromwich, and hosts the Council House for the Borough of Sandwell – though try finding the town of “Sandwell” on the map.
I digress.
Popping into my inbox the other day was an email from Centro, announcing that a trial of bus information at a bus stop in Oldbury was indeed a “World first”. Supposedly using technology similar to a “Kindle” (e-book device-type thing), it is on trial at a bus stop in the town.
So, seeing as it was my day off from work, I hopped on an 87 to take a look.
A technological first it may be, but so underwhelming it is, I reckon I was the only person at the stop to even notice. Which of course isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
At first glance, it looks like a bog-standard bus timetable inside a bog-standard shelter. Its only when you peer closer you notice it actually looks like a kindle on its side, displaying a bus timetable.
The experiment also features “NFC – Near Field Communication”, which is the wizardry that allows you to pay for a cup of coffee or other “low-priced” miscellanary with your enabled mobile phone or debit card (although judging by the cost of my last cup of coffee, I could hardly describe that as “low-priced”). It is the coming thing.
Not that the awaiting bus users of this anonymous bus shelter in Oldbury might think. I gently waved my “NFC-enabled” mobile phone at the display in various degrees of magician-style. Only on the 3rd attempt did it burst into action, showing me, well, the same information on the sideways kindle. Luckily the number 4 bus arrived before the passengers became too concerned at my strange act.
The idea is that, eventually, paper timetables might be replaced entirely by this technology, and so can be updated at the flick of a switch somewhere, negating the need for person-with-van to keep going out to replace them, when the operators change their times.
It also includes a panel that shows “real time” running information. Useful enough, but like the rest of the real-time information project across the West Midlands, seeing isn’t always believing. We’ve had “real time” in Centro Land for many years now, and – whilst ironically – it is probably the best it has ever been now, it still, frankly, isn’t good enough to be used with confidence, en masse. Too often I still look at “real time” information and it still isn’t working properly.

Still, at least for now, Oldbury can claim to be a leader of sorts in the World of public transport. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Buses To Hospital - Why The Drugs Don't Always Work

My local paper reports a “critical” review is underway to improve public transport access to Wolverhampton’s New Cross Hospital.
A new £4m multi-storey car park is being built on the site, but the Hospital’s Chief Executive David Loughton is branding it “a waste of money”, and wants more people to use buses to get to the site.
A laudable aim. But one that is fraught with difficulty.
Local Councillor Milkinder Jaspal has commented that Authorities had “failed miserably” to provide adequate public transport to the site in the past few years, but I’m afraid the situation is far more complex than that.
New Cross suffers from the classic complaint – not enough parking and awful access.
Local buses to the front of the hospital have always been good. A high-frequency service (59) passes during the daytime, but the problem lies within. Many services used to traverse the large site, bringing people literally to the door of many wards and departments, but the problem was always indiscriminate parking. So the bus operators decided that enough was enough and pulled out. A few low frequency routes still brave the inside, but the high frequency ones stay outside of the wall.
The problem isn’t confined to New Cross.
I used to work at Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley. During 15 years working there and at other hospital sites in the Dudley Group, I spent a lot of my spare time developing a Green Travel Plan (even before they became popular!) to address the problem of too many cars on too small a site. To this day, the issue hasn’t been solved. I’ve long since left the employ of the NHS, but on occasions I pass through Russells Hall on the bus and see that not a lot has improved.
Another problem is the provision of service to Hospitals.
Much of the parking problem is staff. And much of the issue is where they live and the hours they work.
I had many meetings with bus operators during my time with the NHS, and achieved limited success in getting them to try some earlier morning journeys on a commercial basis to see if staff would use them. But this is always a gamble for the operator. Staff drive in from a diverse array of areas these days. And they often arrive early, say 6am in some cases. Back in the 70s, staff minibuses would drive around the local area picking up employees, but they often live a lot further away these days. So they drive. Which clogs up the car park until, say, 2pm, when the afternoon staff arrive.
Bus services can often be of a good frequency at that time in the afternoon, so could staff be persuaded to catch the bus to work? Give them a special cheap pass, dangle the carrot of no parking worries? Of course.
But then they finish late. Staff starting at 2pm may well finish at around 10pm. I found this a real headache when I was developing the travel plan. No bus operator wanted to run higher frequency services that late, and Centro weren’t keen on subsidising additional journeys either. Staff were worried about waiting for buses in the dark in the middle of winter, and in any case, the nature of some NHS jobs mean that you can’t walk off the job spot on time. What if you finish your shift at 10pm and your hourly bus service departs at 10:10pm? If you are delayed leaving by 10 minutes you might have missed your bus for an hour, or the last one of the evening.
So staff inevitably drive, which brings more and more cars, more and more congestion, and annoys the bus operators because they get stuck around hospital sites which impacts on the wider service provision. Hospital security staff are often reluctant to clamp down on bad parking as they aren’t often aware of the circumstances related to the awkward parking. What if the person’s relative has been rushed in? They’ll park where they can and not care about the consequences.
Hospital car park charges also lead people to “rebel” and park on surrounding roads to avoid the charge, also impacting on local bus service provision.
Hospital provision too has seen the development of many huge “super hospitals” in recent years, built using private finance. The same issues as described above pop up again and again. New Cross in Wolverhampton, Russells Hall in Dudley, Walsgrave in Coventry, QE in Birmingham. All are massive, and all provide challenges for bus operators to serve effectively.
So it is all too easy for Councillor Jaspal to say that public transport access to New Cross has “failed miserably”. The whole issue requires dedicated time, effort and finances to tackle truly effectively.
And I’ve yet to see any local hospital succeed so far. 

New Ways To Pay?

Who pays for lightly-used but socially-necessary bus services?
In my previous post, we saw how, when public money is involved, one man’s “public service” is another man’s “dreadful waste of money”.
Bus services may be profitable commodities in areas of high demand, but in other scenarios, they are the catalyst to a civilised society, where the value is appreciated, rather than the cost.
A “lightly used” bus service may cost the taxpayer unnecessarily in some people’s eyes, but to the lonely pensioner, it is the gateway to life itself. And what price do you put on that?
With Council funds being spread as thinly now as they have ever been, sentiment isn’t high on the list. Little-used subsidised bus services face the chop if they don’t meet certain criteria. If Granny can’t make it to the shops anymore, that’s unfortunate.
But in times of austerity, new ways of thinking often emerge. It doesn’t have to be the Council that subsidises some bus services.
In South Yorkshire, an innovative, yet entirely logical idea has been suggested – get the shops to pay for the buses that bring the shoppers to them.
South Yorkshire PTE are to ask supermarkets to contribute to their tendered services bill, which, on the face of it, is a decent idea. Public purse pays for bus to take shoppers to supermarket, which then makes profit out of said shopper. Why not help support the bus that brings them there in the first place?
Or is it such a good idea?
SYPTE’s Spokesman even offers a veiled threat to divert the bus service away from supermarkets that won’t pay to ones that do.
But it remains to be seen who will be asked to stump up, and how much. The Sheffield Chamber Retail Forum has reservations. Their members are also facing rising costs and are finding it difficult to make a profit. It might be one thing to go dangling the cap to the likes of Tesco, but what about smaller outlets? And what of the threat to switch routes to shops that do pay? Would patronage fall away because the bus user / shopper preferred the other outlet and can no longer reach there easily? There are all sorts of questions to be answered, and precedents may be set.
Another solution to the lack of public subsidy is to pay for it yourself!
This might seem a rich man’s dream, but one local Councillor in Walsall has staked a substantial part of his Councillor’s Allowance to procure an evening and Sunday service for local residents.
Councillor Richard Worrall is no stranger to public transport. Formally Chair of Centro some years ago, Mr Worrall was re-elected Labour Councillor for Rushall / Shelfield in the Walsall area last year. He also campaigns in favour of the National Concessionary pass and has undertaken several England-wide trips to raise awareness.
But spend his hard-earned subsidising a bus route that not even Centro were prepared to spend money on?
Residents in part of Rushall used to have a good service, 7 days per week across morning, daytimes and evenings, thanks to National Express West Midlands’ trunk 997 route, which linked Birmingham City Centre with Walsall. But when NXWM re-routed part of the service, the area had to rely on a Centro subsidised service, but evenings and Sunday services have disappeared due to low usage.
It’s the usual dilemma. Some people still need it, but it falls below Centro’s threshold to throw public money at it.
Step forward Councillor Worrall, who has decided to subsidise a Sunday shopping hours service on the route – 35A – which started on Sunday, and will initially operate until 22 December.
How much is Mr Worrall shelling out? Likely well into 4 figures, he says. But he’s confident that if patronage is decent, he will look at an evening service next.
Centro have helped him set it up, and the actual service will be operated by WMSNT (West Midlands Special Needs Transport), the Ring & Ride operator which is increasingly itself operating standard bus services alongside its more specialist operations to make up the shortfall it itself is experiencing due to funding cuts.
As ever, it is down to the usual requirement.
“Now it will be up to the residents to demonstrate the need for this service by putting bums on seats”, says Councillor Worrall.
I wish him well with this venture, as I do with his counterparts in South Yorkshire as they try and prise money from hitherto unorthodox sources.

Despite the pain of the cutbacks, the spirit of innovation is as strong as ever. 

What The Papers (Sadly) Say

Politicians call it “The Silly Season”. Those lazy hazy days of summer where no one seems to do much and newspaper journalists scramble around for anything to fill their pages.
Public transport, of course, has long been a haven for such hacks to whip their readers into a ready-made frenzy. Never on time, always dirty, full of strange people. Never mind the facts, just feast on the odd perception.
This summer, they haven’t let us down.
High Speed Rail is a ready-made saga the journos can continue to reheat for many years to come, but how about this double-paged screaming headline from Midlands paper The Sunday Mercury – “The Ghost Bus Routes Which Cost MILLIONS” (their capitalisation, not mine).
Ploughing through the “investigation”, which refers to some tendered bus services in the West Midlands reveals....well....nothing really. There is also reference to concessionary pass use – “a whopping £58.5 MILLION a year” (again, their capitalisation)
We are then taken through 2 pages of facts and figures, including information such as 473,000 people are eligible for the concessionary pass in the West Midlands, and a list of what local taxi companies might charge for a similar journey – seemingly to provoke a discussion about how it might be cheaper to send a taxi to users of the bus services in question, rather than the bus itself – but this excellently debunked by Centro, which points out that “in the real world, it would be difficult – if not impossible – for all the passengers to synchronise their arrangements and travel in pairs” – the only way the paper could get it’s taxi argument to possibly carry water. Even then, Centro proves how it is still more cost-effective to subsidise a bus service than pay for taxis.
The whole “investigation” appears to have been sparked by “a bemused reader”. Listen to this printed statement:
“Until recently, I had never heard of the 288, let alone been on it. But it had been re-routed down our quiet little road and I have been able to see how many passengers are on board: hardly any or none in many cases. I have never seen a passenger get off in my road – and I have only ever seen one passenger get on. The majority of passengers seem to be travelling into Stourbridge Town Centre to go shopping....The bus service seems like a dreadful waste of money”.
Clearly someone with too much time on their hands and not a clear grasp of the facts.
In the article Centro do a good job of defending their role in subsidising their tendered services. But why take a 2-page spread with a headline that doesn’t reflect the facts?
Despite the story petering out into a nothing article, the paper’s comment column can’t help having another pop at the subsidised services.
“The cost to the taxpayer of free bus travel in the West Midlands will come as a shock to many today. The bill for concessionary travel adds up to a whopping £58.5m a year, with some passengers subsidised by up to £3.27 per journey. Clearly the cost of such services needs to be looked at to see if savings can be made. We are not against free bus passes for the elderly and disabled, and we realise the importance of propping up lesser-used rural routes. But their must come a point where we stop paying for empty buses trundling along empty roads”.
Not against free passes for the elderly and disabled? Sounds like it! “Rural routes”? In the heart of the West Midlands conurbation? Learn your geography guys!
And underlying all of this, to me, is something far less palatable.
It is, at its heart, a dislike of the social aspect bus services bring to our community.
Thatcher may have brought private, commercial bus operation. Brown may have introduced “free” travel for all pensioners and disabled people. Those issues can be argued until the cows return to the cow shed. But public transport, in all its forms, will never be 100% commercial. It needs “topping up” with public subsidy outside of the times when people go to work or shopping. It needs to be there for people who don’t live on main arteries into towns. It needs to be there for people who can’t drive a car. Or choose not to. It needs to be there to encourage people who do drive cars to try alternative methods of travel, in order to tackle the real problems our crowded roads face – congestion and pollution.
And when those “socially necessary” services are identified and procured with public money by the likes of Centro, the framework in which they operate has to be robust and cost-effective. Which Centro repeatedly demonstrates.
We don’t expect Hovis to give away free loaves of bread because it makes a profit from people who buy their product, so why do think bus operators should run unprofitable buses? And where there is a social need for a bus service, public money rightly tops up the network. It is that public money which is under severe threat at present, as councils are squeezed, then squeezed again. We should be arguing for the retention or ring-fencing of public bus subsidy cash, not listening to a curtain-twitcher who sees an empty bus go by and rings the paper up.
And why isn’t the paper looking at the comments of one Eric Pickles MP, the Communities Secretary, whose comments in recent weeks regarding parking on double yellow lines “for 15 minutes” and making town centres more car-friendly, will have the effect of even more gridlock in our built up areas. Buses deliver more people to the High Street than cars do. But that uncomfortable-to-many fact is too often ignored.
The other article that sent my blood pressure rising was in The Metro. The paper of the public transport user (it is everywhere on the network) starting rabbiting on about “real time” recording of train arrivals and departures again last week. The perfect topic for commuters to get hot under the collar about as they make their way to work.
I’ve ranted about this before (!) but I’ll recap.
Local rail services are deemed “on time” if they arrive at their destination within 5 minutes of the advertised time. 10 minutes for long distance services. I might work in the rail industry, and this might be un-PC, but what’s wrong with that?
The ACTUAL to the second information may well be interesting to those of us within the industry, to see where the issues are and look at ways to improve the service, but what purpose does it serve the travelling public?
If I get in my car in Stourbridge and decide to drive to Manchester, do I expect to arrive at my destination within a minute of a proposed time? Of course I don’t. I’ll build in a rough estimate, allowing for congestion and other unexpected issues. What is the issue with doing that by rail?
Do trains not break down? Not have mechanical issues? Do people not take ill on trains? Do objects not get thrown onto the tracks? Do people not trespass onto them? Do some people not feel life is too much they decide to end their life, tragically, on railways?
There are all sorts of reasons why road users can face delays on their journey. And the same goes for rail travellers. So why do some people feel the need to continually beat the rail industry over the head with real-time train information?
Of course we need to improve. The rail industry universally accepts that. Putting it into practice is altogether more difficult. But people – often led by poor journalism – have got to relinquish this juvenile idea that public transport operators are somehow the devil incarnate and get some warped pleasure out of delaying journeys. Often delays are for reasons of safety, and the public transport industry, touch wood, has an excellent record in recent times.
Much is made of “public money” going into public transport. The Sunday Mercury article infers as much. In rail, the Network Rail debt mountain is often scowled at. Of course we need to look at how every penny is spent, but, make no mistake, public investment in public transport has always been here, and always will be. And so it should. In London, plaudits galore. An excellent system it is too. But it is handsomely rewarded by the public purse. And now there are howls from some London Assembly members as it is suggested that Transport for London’s budget is cut.
London may be unique, but it shows just how much people rely on its transport network, and, in turn, its public subsidy to keep it at the level it operates at.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever see the end of bored journalists picking on public transport to get their readers huffing and puffing. But how about some more intelligent insight into how our public transport networks provide the backbone of our economy?
I’ll live in hope....