Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Measuring Progress - A People Industry

As I tap these words onto the screen on Christmas Eve, the "reviews" of the year are all around us. Suddenly, the calender has caught up with us and the year 2013 will very soon be added to the history books. What can we say in years to come about 2013 from the perspective of transport?
It's been another challenging year. Although the UK's public transport systems are largely in private hands, they rely significantly on the public sector, which continues to face huge challenges.
Have we come to a fork in the road or maybe a set of points on the rails?
Ask some people and they'll regard public transport as being on the continuous slippery slope downwards. But for me, despite all of the doom-merchants, I think we have reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
There's no doubt that some bus services face a rocky road in 2014. Some local authorities such as Worcestershire are proposing a nightmare withdrawal of all subsidy for it's tendered services. Worrying times indeed, and I hope it won't come to that. Even buses in urban areas face real challenges. Centro is consulting on what might face the chop from the support it provides as the budget is slashed there.
So there are real dangers.
But I am hopeful the worst-case scenarios can be overcome because we have good people working in transport. It may be a national past-time to haul ill-thought-out abuse on our public transport, but we have decent professionals working in our bus, train, tram and coach industries at all levels, and I'm confident they will again overcome the worst of what is thrown at them and continue to provide decent services in the face of continued pressure from several directions.
No one says it's easy. Transport is both a service industry and a retail industry. We give our money to Tesco and walk away with the goods. We give our money to transport operators and sometimes we can't guarantee what people have paid for. The difference between Tesco and transport operators is that the supermarket is in total control of its operations. Transport operators are at the mercy of continued variables on the road and tracks. In 2013, we haven't seen much progress in addressing this. In fact, we've probably gone backwards.
If the number one objective of transport users is reliability, why on earth have we got people such as Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary - in high office - making such irresponsible, poorly-made statements about letting people park on double-yellow lines? If such measures to restrict parking exist in the first place, there can't be that many "mistakes" that require a complete overhaul. We have Council professionals employed to model such town centre traffic flows. What we don't need are politicians pumping out hot air on the subject, and equally mis-informed "armchair experts", who's only interest is themselves. Similarly, the actions of the Mayor of Liverpool, who's removal of bus priority in the City is the sort of neanderthal action that sets a modern urban area back 20 years. And for what? The short-term votes of car drivers?
But despite these setbacks, transport continues to innovate.
Investment - Government assisted - in hybrid buses has seen more and more "green" vehicles on our streets. Visual and audio "at stop" announcements help not only the hard of hearing and those with sight issues, but also non-regular bus users who can understand where they are. Likewise, smartphone apps are continuing to innovate, incorporating "real-time" information so that the mystery of "where the bus is" is being taken away. Yes, I've criticised GPS-based technology on the blog this year, and it needs more work so that we can trust it more, but progress is being made.
Operators continue to invest in new vehicles, and refurbish others to "new" standard, even in these uncertain times. On the whole, the UK's bus fleet, to me, is looking a lot smarter, cleaner and more professional than it has for a long time.
Of course it isn't all rosy.
Ride around the UK on local bus services and the whole journey experience isn't consistently great. We still have lots to do before we have generally great levels of bus service experience everywhere. Passenger Focus's excellent surveys show a decent enough pattern generally of satisfaction, but there are wide variations across the country, for all sorts of reasons. There is still much work to be done.
On the railways (where I work), the grumblings continue, not least of all next month, when the fare rises will hog the rolling news channels and newspaper headlines, but underneath these concerns, and those of "late" trains, lies an industry that is more successful now than at any time in the last 50-odd years. We're spending more on the railways now than ever, and we need to keep on doing so. High Speed 2 needs to be built. Not so we can get "men in suits" to London 20 minutes earlier, but because the capacity it will bring can benefit the network elsewhere in so many ways. Parliament supports it, so let's crack on.
More immediately, despite boom-time for the railways, we can still do better. Information, especially during disruption, can be improved on, although social media (for those willing to use it) continues to evolve and is fast becoming a vital tool. In some respects, (as one of the previous blog posts explores) we may be guilty of almost giving "too much" information, with which to beat ourselves up with. The effect of leaves on rails causing trains to "slip" has always been there, but to those reading twitter, it is almost a "new" phenomenon. Likewise, when bus companies helpfully warn of delays in City Centres, this is derided by some sections of the boorish twitterati. You can never have too much information to assist you on your journey, but some choose to use it to deride public transport, sadly.
Public transport will overcome. It is an incredibly resilient industry. The award ceremonies that exist are not about slap-up meals for industry bigwigs, but a celebration of innovation and all that is good about the world of public transport. They are showcases that, hopefully, operators can bring to their own services, improving the passenger's lot. Although I'm an avid transport historian - I love nothing better than settling down with a book all about buses or trains from years gone by - I am also immensely proud of our public transport industry in 2013. We all like to look back on public transport 50, 60, 70 years ago through rose-tinted spectacles (no one more than me!), and of course we can learn a great deal through history, but today's public transport operators have huge challenges, both politically, operationally and socially.
And do you know what? Our bus, rail, tram and coach operators will continue to move people, every minute of every day. We may not be able to measure "progress" in all aspects, and there is still so much to do. It may be "easy pickings" to deride our public transport, because of course we're never far from a problem of some sort.
But in 2014, the UK's public transport industry will continue to move forward, innovate and deliver.
And that will be because of the people who work hard within it.

Happy New Year to readers of the blog! 

Friday, 13 December 2013

An Un-fare Cop?

Midway through December is when you become aware of Noddy shouting his annual Christmas message on the Slade song, those with a fetish for flashing lights dressing up their houses like a fairground ride and the chance to experience what it must be like to play rugby if you join the scrum at the German markets in Brum.
It is also the time that my local bus operator National Express West Midlands announces it's fare revisions for January. A tradition that is almost as comforting as shuffling around the attic to find out which bin bag has got the Christmas tree in. 
In recent years the operator has been criticised for not announcing the new fares with enough notice. This year they've done it nice and early. But the natives are still revolting. Social media is full of the usual un-thought-through comments and the local paper's website has helpfully printed a selection of tweets that are consumable by a family audience. (I've seen some written with such bile that you'd think the writer was being attacked by a rabid hound as it was tweeted).
No one, of course, wants to pay more for anything. Wouldn't we all like to still be paying 20p for a pint and still see the kid in short trousers delivering the loaf on his bike? It is simply a fact of life - and the economy - that things go up in price. Doesn't mean we have to like it, but we could do with understanding it a bit more. 
Transport operators tend to spend much of January inhabiting that most lonely of places - the less than des-res somewhere between the Rock and the Hard Place. The moral indignation raised by readers of the Express & Star's website is small-fry compared to what will be next month's annual collective UK-wide rant at rail fare prices. I for one can't wait to see red-faced commuters screwing their faces up at the camera outside Euston station for a BBC News Channel reporter. Actually, in truth I'm quite depressed about it. 
Is it an "un-fare cop" (excuse the pun) for public transport operators to shoulder such negative vibes when, actually, most of everything else is going up in price as well? 
Take my visit to the pub last week. My place of solace (apart from on Facebook) where I can rant-lyrical, and have an audience to mock my displeasure of life in Britain in 2013. But even here, in this sanctuary, I found the price of the nuts had gone up. No advance warning, no sign above the bar. I just subtlety received slightly less change, with the "nuts price revision" revealed only upon enquiry. I also suspect my favourite choccy bar has gone up, as, I'm sure, the price of bread and milk has. But Tesco doesn't tell you this. There's no sign saying "as from 2 Jan 2014, the price of a Snickers will be rising by 10p". It just does. 
The problem with public transport fare rises is two-fold. First, it's a "distress purchase" (whereas my pub nuts are purely for pleasure). That leads on to the second point whereby, because people resent paying more, they consider the "value for money" of what they're paying for, often unjustly and without sensible reasoning. I'm not advocating transport operators not fore-warning of fare increasing, it's just that by doing so, it opens the gates to open-season for the rant-savvy. 
What, perhaps, could transport operators do to mitigate such negative publicity? 
It's difficult. Despite the spending on transport here in the West Midlands (and other areas) being less than half of that lavished on London, we do some great things on bus, train and tram. We should, at least, shout about them a bit more. But inevitably, if you aren't a student of public transport like me, you'll only view your "distress purchase" as a necessary evil and only focus on your payment for the service provided getting you to where you want to be on time. Punctuality and reliability naturally remain at the top of every users list. And naturally, people forget the vast majority of times when public transport delivers, but focus on the occasions when it doesn't. And more often than not, it is out of the hands of operators when services run late. So the logic of tweet-ranters who declare they're going to give up the bus because the fare's gone up 10p to drive because the bus is always late (an oft-repeated turn of phrase) isn't actually logical at all, given that the person is simply going to add to the congestion and, dare I whisper it, actually going to cost them far more because that is the nature of owning and running a car. 
First Group have won some praise in parts of their operation by lowering fares, and whilst this is welcome on the face of it, it won't work everywhere. It is also my experience that in some of these areas, the fares represented poor value for money in any case, so fair (fare?) play to First for bringing them down to more realistic levels.
I notice some disdain at the new headline bus fare of £2.10 for a single journey from January on National Express West Midlands buses. Actually, this is still one of the cheapest areas for bus travel in the UK. Is the issue here though, that whilst you can go quite a distance for £2.10, it is also perceived as expensive for shorter trips. The issue here is the amount of fraud that used to go on when there were cheaper single tickets available. So look at the actions of the something-for-nothing brigade, dear ranter, when asking why there aren't cheaper fares for shorter trips. 
Why do bus and rail fares have to rise in the first place? Costs, including fuel, continue to rise. Investment continues. We've seen a lot of new buses and trains in recent times, and the railway has record spending in the next few years. Some may say this necessary, but actually we need even more of it. And someone has to pay. London has benefited from huge transport investment in more recent times, but it is absolutely necessary to cope with the population explosion in the capital. That plan of investment now needs to radiate outwards across the country. But it also needs to be coupled to political will to free up road space for buses to deliver what people actually want - more reliable journeys. Bus operators can buy new shiny kit - and they increasingly do - but they need the path ahead to be free to deliver a good service. 
So spare us please local Councillors stoking the rhetoric on "unjustified" fare increases. They need to show some long-term vision on making transport more reliable instead of short-term easy-on-the-tongue statements designed to capture votes at the next local elections. Some local Councillors are excellent, but we have far too many who don't "get it". 
Only when we have really effective local public transport constantly will we be able to view fare increases as something other than a necessary evil.       

Friday, 6 December 2013

Too Much Information?

Amongst perhaps the more lesser-known recordings of The Police is a track called "Too Much Information". 
"Too much information, running through my brain. Too much information, driving me insane", warbled the great Sting. Perhaps, in this pre-internet, pre-twitter era, it was a song ahead of it's time. 
Why the reference to an 80s pop song on a transport blog? 
Because, in all the years of advocating more and more information being given in the world of public transport - especially at times of disruption - I wonder if, perhaps, sometimes, we have too much of it. 
Most of the time, for regular travellers, it's a godsend. We have more chance of knowing if our bus or train is going to be late than ever before. The information via our smartphones allows us to seeth at least in knowledge if our train is cancelled, or if our bus is delayed. 
But there still persists, sadly in a number of media circles, a belief that delays are caused by public transport operators intent on heaving misery on us hapless travellers. 
I've just read a newspaper article about delayed trains in the London area due to "slippery tracks" (their inverted commas, not mine). And that's where the bile begins. Why is "slippery tracks" expressed in such a way that it may be unbelievable? Ever since the railways moved out of shifting coal to shifting passengers, weather conditions, especially in inclement weather, have had an influence on the ability of trains to get a grip on the rails. It's always happened. But because train operators now provide the "excuse" (my inverted commas), it appears that some people simply don't want to believe it. Twitter, this force for "good" (again, my inverted commas) becomes a vehicle for torrents of mindless abuse from some of the very people the train operators are trying to help. 
It's the same on the buses. 
Birmingham City Centre experiences it's traditional festive Armageddon around late November onwards. Every man, dog and living creature has to descend onto the City in order to fulfill their "Christmas shopping" and visit the German market (which often resembles a frightening football crowd). The roads are one ridiculous mess of gridlock. So when bus operators tweet information about routes caught up in the quagmire, out come the armchair experts, tapping their ill-informed claptrap into their phones, so that their 6 followers can see the full extent of their ignorance. How "liberating" (my inverted commas) social media is. 
Mind you, the transport industry sometimes doesn't help. 
I stood in central Birmingham last week watching the "real time" information for my bus count down from 10 minutes to "due". Then nothing. It only raises expectations in a child-like Santa expectancy on Christmas Eve, only to have your hopes dashed. Maybe I haven't been a good boy this year. 
But really, judging by the state of the roads, was I hoping beyond all hope that my bus really was "due", just around the corner? I'm old enough and daft enough to know otherwise, and probably daft in the first place to be standing in the middle of Brum waiting for a bus in the run up to Christmas. 
And the "apologies". 
Why do some transport operators do this? 
"Sorry, Not In Service" says the bus. They don't do this in London. The buses there just proclaim "Not In Service". Fair enough. I know that, somewhere, a controller is trying to recover the service from the appalling mess uncontrolled traffic access has on the bus service. I've seen how hard service controllers in the bus and rail industry work to sort things out after its gone wrong, only for lazy, ignorant journalists to write some claptrap in the hope of whipping up some minor hysteria amongst some people who can't think for themselves. I suppose it's what the media does. 
But back to the "apology" bit. A Twitter friend tweeted to me that she gets annoyed by all of the automated "apologies" that accompany every bit of train delay information. It's a fair point. On one hand, train operators are trying to be sincere when they announce the delay of a service, but do we really take a blind bit of notice when they apologise via a computer voice? 
Let's be clear here. I work in the transport industry, on the "coalface". Whenever there is a delay, I am as frustrated and concerned as anyone else is. And I don't know anyone else who isn't. We all want the best for passengers. Yes, we can apologise, and it often comes over better if it is face-to-face, not a computer-recorded version, but we really need to, as a general public, start to get over this idea that travel delays are things manufactured for the fun of it, with various mocked "excuses", such as "the wrong sort of snow", etc. 
How do "other countries" do better than us? 
Actually, they don't. I can recall only earlier on this year being stranded both in Cologne and Rotterdam stations due to "weather-related" incidents. What I do recall in both incidents is good, clear, concise information, provided via tannoys, on screens, and via multi-lingual staff on the platform. What I don't recall much of was apologies. And, actually, I didn't want one. My German delay had been caused by overhead wires coming down. They were working hard to fix it. That's all I needed to know. And I'm sure, when the leaves come down, the Germans have the same issues as we have with gripping the rails effectively. 
Train delays have always been. Traffic congestion similarly. It isn't a new phenomenon. But because we tell people about it in real-time, in a way that is supposed to be helpful and informative, it somehow becomes a symbol of how "useless" public transport is, in a new kind of way. We don't write newspaper headlines about how people circle shopping centre car parks for hours on end looking for a space, or how they spend more hours trying to escape at closing time. We don't write headlines about how snow sends cars slipping and sliding into each other because the tyres can't grip in inclement weather. No one ever "apologies" when ignorant people park their cars poorly, blocking roads. And who apolgises for congestion on our roads? Indeed Eric Pickles MP and the Mayor of Liverpool appear only too happy to create more congestion for ill-thought out reasons. You won't find them saying sorry via a computer-generated voice every few minutes. We need less pre-recorded "sorrys", less lazily written attacks on public transport delays and more real, long-term action and investment in our public transport.