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! 

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