They were discussing the pros and cons of today's bus industry, and how it can be made better for today's passengers.
Readers of this blog will know I'm a passionate believer in our country's bus services. There are some excellent examples of local bus service provision in Britain, whatever side you stand on regarding the discussion over deregulation or more control. Only this week, the UK Bus Awards again celebrated excellence in our bus industry.
The industry bigwigs' discussion hinted that things could be better - and of course this is true. Providing excellence requires the buy-in not only of the operating company, but the Local Authority and others if the bus service is to really shine.
The other day, I attempted to do something quite difficult - detatch myself from endearing optimism of our buses, and try to ride a few looking at them warts and all. And I did it in my own back yard of the Black Country.
Of course I've not spent the last 30-odd years looking at and riding buses with rose-tinted spectacles. My roles at Bus Users UK and Passenger Focus have required a hard-headed approach on occasion, but I'm also an enthusiast - and that means I often look at bus operation through a default "positive" side. When you sit amongst the discarded coke cans and chicken wings on a late night 87 from Brum to Dudley, you often don't even notice.
But the remains of fried chicken on the upper deck do matter. Along with the rest of the litter. And the driving skills. And the temperature. And the feeling of security. And the consideration of "value for money".
We've had the message for years now that the aspiration of those who rule us is for more of us to leave our cars at home and use more public transport. But whilst old suspects like me have worshiped at the altar of public transport for time immemorial, is progress really being made with the preaching to the unconverted?
Rail may be today's public transport success story. Yes, there's plenty of people moaning about it, but ridership continues in an upward trend, despite the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. People are more accepting of a train journey than one on a bus.
I believe it's a mindset, created by an acceptance that the mode of public transport is quite simply better than a car-driving alternative. Commuting from Stourbridge (where I live) into Birmingham by train is seen as a better option - usually - than driving in. Centro's policy of free parking is testament to this: car parks are full and heaving every weekday morning, and a further extension to car parks will take place by 2015. Despite the usual operational problems and the "leaves on the line" issue that some people still think is an excuse dreamt up by some anonymous back-room pen pusher, trains into the big City run usually well, on a 10-minute frequency.
Getting people converted to buses is a different matter.
If the trains are running well, prospective travellers know what to expect. So they consume it. The best bus services, with well-policed bus lanes, bright, comfortable vehicles and value-for-money tickets are also attracting new users. But these UK Bus Award-type winners are probably the exception to the rule. And this is what Roger French was harping on about in his discussion. You can put all sorts of gloss onto bus services - and this is often a good thing - but the normal run of the mill services need running consistently well to attract newcomers and change the mindset of the unconverted.
I'm in what I consider transport "home". I might love clambering aboard buses in far-flung corners of Britain and Europe and seeing what happens, but Stourbridge bus station feels like "base". It's my nearest bus station, and I barely take any notice of what happens here because I'm used to it.
It is here I will start a few hours riding around on my local services - bus routes I've known since childhood - to see if I could - acting as someone who doesn't normally use buses (difficult!) - be converted to using them more often.
It's a decent start. Stourbridge has been transformed in the last 18 months. The rows of 1970s bus shelters masquerading as a bus station have been replaced by what Centro describes as "State of the "Art". There are digital screens everywhere, some showing "real time" bus movements, but there are also Assistants in tabards, and paper timetables that you can take home and peruse at your leisure. (the timetables, not the Assistants).So if you wondered in here, car-less and confused, chances are you'd find out how to get to where you want to go.
I've already got an all-operator day ticket ("n-bus", £4.20) from my first journey in, so I'm good to go.
First up, an anonymous white single decker on the 240, an hourly service linking Stourbridge with Cradley Heath. This journey can be done end-to-end in around 10 minutes on the train, but this is one of those "around the houses" services that takes around half an hour. The bus is fairly new and modern-looking, but it is in all-over dealer white. Only by looking at the small writing near the front wheel can we discover that it is operated by "WMSNT" - West Midlands Special Needs Transport - the organisation that runs the Ring & Ride buses, but is increasingly picking up tendered services to operate "standard" bus services.
The 240 is one such operation. Paid for by Centro, it certainly shows. I am one of around 6 people who use it, and every other person is of pensionable age. There is no doubt such services are vital in the community, but what chance attracting new users? Unlikely, given the route, and the hourly frequency. The journey itself is uneventful. The bus is tidy enough inside, but the exterior is typical of a November morning - windows are filthy, and the white livery shows up every bit of grime possible. The driver is slightly heavy on the brakes and sports a luminous hi-viz vest throughout, making him indistinguishable from a dustbin man. Verdict: does the job, but potential? Virtually nil.
Now I'm in Cradley Heath Interchange. This is the nearest rail station to the giant Merry Hill shopping centre, and where PlusBus tickets apparently do well. Centro has capitalised on this, with large arrows pointing to where buses can ferry you quickly to retail therapy. It's a brisk walk from here to the town centre, and not all buses serving the town call in here - again potentially confusing if you're not a regular bus user. But I see the point of operators - it's a long enough detour out of the way for some town centre services.
It's here I sample a hot chocolate from the station shop and consider my next move, which comes in the shape of service 297 - a National Express West Midlands service that is also a bit of a "winder" route-wise, but serves the aforementioned shopping mecca.
The bus arrives 3 minutes late - another single decker, and quite an elderly Mercedes one at that. I board and flash my paper ticket at the driver, who takes virtually no notice. He is much more smartly dressed in corporate shirt and tie though. I'm just about to sit down when I hear him calling out of his cab, but it seems he's trying to communicate with a fellow passenger who has somehow got on the bus in the wrong direction.
The vehicle again is acceptable enough, save for an empty prawn cocktail crisp packet, but the bus isn't particularly warm. It also feels it's age with grubby side panels and has a "worn" feel. We pass through Merry Hill where the smartly-presented driver is replaced by another "bin man" who not only doesn't remove his hi-viz, but sports a scruffy woolen hat. It all feels a tad "downmarket". As a regular user, I don't usually take much notice, but because I'm looking through a different angle, it feels like it could be improved.
Shoppers pile on and the bus is almost full. This service has a 30 minute frequency, which feels about right. Rather than ride to the end, which is outside a row of garages in a housing estate, I decide to jump off at Russells Hall Hospital. Verdict: functional, but appears downmarket.
Centro has installed new, large bus shelters here and the timetable information is of it's usual decent standard. Plenty of buses call in here, and it is a hive of activity. I'm not here long before a Hansons 226 appears for the short run into Dudley town centre.
It's an elderly single decker, but in the company's swirly blue, green and white attractive livery. At least the driver scrutinises my ticket and forces out a grunt of acknowledgement before he joins the queue of traffic stuck behind a poorly-parked ambulance. There's no smart uniform here - our driver has a pair of jeans on!
Not much to see on here. A poorly positioned poster (over the top of another advert) asks for comments to Worcestershire County Council's consultation on cutting back bus services. It's all quite depressing. A man flags down our bus and it turns out he is known to the driver. The two of them converse at the front of the bus and it feels a little like a 1970s coach tour. All that is needed is a little old lady with cake and a flask. The bus arrives in Dudley on time and transforms itself from a 226 to an "X26", where it commence battle with National Express West Midlands on a different route back to Merry Hill. Verdict: average, but little things like a drivers uniform might portray a better image. (Although I appreciate for small operators like Hansons, costs are everything).
Dudley bus station too has digital screens. But people are giving them a cursory glance, because the mix of "real time" and "timetabled" isn't readily understood, and are more keenly looking towards the bus parking area next to the Rickshaw Restaurant to see if their bus may be parked up already (but digital destination displays, turned off, thwarts much of this traditional activity - bus nuts like me can make more educated guesses based on knowing what vehicles operate from which garages!)
I decide on a service formerly the scene of a pitched battle - the 226. Hansons used to compete on a section of the old 264/265 from Travel West Midlands, but from the large-scale bus review of 2008, TWM came off the route completely and Hansons extended their 226 to Dudley. Then, surprisingly maybe, Diamond (who operate the evening tendered service) appeared on daytimes too, 5 minutes ahead of Hansons on a 30 minute frequency, with colourful branded buses, named "The Swift 226". Thus a battle royale commenced with both operators continuing to register 5 minutes ahead of their rivals. For bus enthusiasts, and interesting spat. For the travelling public, a confusing, very poor example of what bus deregulation allows operators to do. In more recent times, Diamond have seen a little sense and moved to a slot with an even 15 minute headway between the 2 operators.
"Swift" it is not. The route meanders around every housing estate imaginable between Dudley and Merry Hill, and is still, to me, a bit of a strange battleground for 2 competing operators. It is a classic "around the houses" route that I am surprised still accommodates 2 operators.
The external branding on the Diamond version is an attractive red and black livery that diverts attention from the age of the vehicle. But boarding seems to take an age. Drivers change over here but there appears no hurry to alleviate the cold suffering of the awaiting passengers as one "binman" exchanges pleasantries with another inside the bus. Diamond drivers do have a smart uniform of their own, but many of them chose to cover it with the ubiquitous luminous green.
Eventually I join around a dozen others who, being mainly pensioners, begin the almost tortuous "bleeping" of the concessionary pass on the reader. I roughly consider around a third of them have some sort of problem with this and the driver regularly intervenes to correctly "bleep", although one of them refuses to register at all, with the slightly embarrassed holder invited to "sit down" with a shrug of shoulders from both parties. I still have concerns that the card readers on buses throughout the West Midlands aren't totally up to the job.
We're off just slightly late on board the "Swift 226", but this bus continues the theme of earlier journeys: functional, but seemingly unlikely to attract large numbers of new users. There are several seats that don't match the colour of the others, and whilst this may not seem such a huge issue, combined with grime patches around the floor and other fixtures, and what seems like an exploded egg on the offside window that has dried on several days previous, it all seems the kind of journey that a person using it only because their car is in for MOT will remain very much entrenched in their views. A rambling piece of typed A4 attempts to explain the pros and cons of using other operators tickets on the bus (which goes on far too long and just ends up potentially baffling anyone not used to using buses) and another poster - much simpler - tells us that "we're cheaper than Hansons" with a special single and return fare offer. Fair enough - the Competition Commission will love it - but with buses from both operators on the route both on a 30 minute frequency, will tying yourself to one operator look such a great idea on a freezing November afternoon when Hansons whizzes by, and you're forced to carry on waiting for Diamond?
It all feels a bit nonsensical to an irregular user, which, coupled with trying to peer out of the window through rotten egg, might just be enough to say "thank God I've got the car back tomorrow". At least the driver thanks me as I get off - the only one to do so today.
I've only taken 5 buses today, so this is hardly "scientific" research. But what does it actually feel like to those involved in the battle to win hearts and minds to convert car users to more bus ridership?
Dudley Borough has precious little bus priority. There aren't too many places where it could be installed, to be fair, but this is only one part of the package. The buses I have caught today have been by no means the worst examples, but I've also seen a lot better. Maybe many of the routes today are long, trundling ones that, rather than have serious scope for improvement, are more likely lifelines for concessionary pass holders. Nothing wrong with that. But it just feels like more could be done at the very basic level. Slightly dirty buses, driven by binmen-resembling drivers create an impression not readily noticed by us regulars, but are spotted by new users. There are many aspects of quality in other industries that the public experience that have risen considerably in recent years. Buses too are, in the main, on an upward trend. But it is slow, and in too many cases, not at the level it should be. All too often, people buying a bus ticket regard it as a "distress purchase", and "value for money" is often at too low a level for my liking.
I'm as guilty as other regular users of not really noticing such things, but if we are to see more people using buses, we have to continuously see what is provided through the eyes of the new or occasional user. As pleased as I was to see Stagecoach Manchester win "Bus Operator of the Year" at last week's UK Bus Awards, my own experience as a very occasional user on their flagship 192 route a couple of weeks ago was the amount of rubbish on the upper deck. That's my uncomfortable memory.
Consistent high quality isn't easy to achieve, and the bean-counters may question the benefit of having a person-with-broom sweeping out the 192s as they arrive at the Hazel Grove terminus. But image and experience are increasingly important factors in public transport, as well as reliability. "Value for money", however difficult to quantify, is key to whether a new or irregular user says, "hey, I might use the bus more often".
In his own words, Roger French says 80% of the bus industry is "mediocre, average, nothing really to write home about", 10% is "brilliant", and 10% is "absolutely appalling". If the message is "could do better", he is spot on.