Friday 2 May 2014

I've Moved!

Just in case you thought I have no more to say on buses....
you can find me these days at

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.  

Friday 22 November 2013

Preaching to the Unconverted

What message does this filthy bus portray to non-users?

The bus trade press recently has carried reports of a debate between two of the UK's most highly regarded busmen - Roger French, the recently retired ex-boss of Brighton & Hove Buses and Sir Brian Souter, he of Stegecoach fame.
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.

Saturday 16 November 2013

A Few Hours In Manchester....

Stagecoach 192 at Hazel Grove terminus

I like Manchester. It's one of those places I've never really had time to explore properly, although I've been to the City numerous times when I used to work for Passenger Focus. You know the score - arrive, office, leave. 
I think it's the buildings that grab my attention. Victorian splendour adorns this great northern City. And it has trams. Loads of them. So in the area around Piccadilly Gardens, it almost reminds me of a European City. Manchester has also intrigued me from some of my earliest childhood memories - years before I ever visited the City: why orange for the colour of buses? One of my earliest toy buses was a Greater Manchester Atlantean, and it stood out amongst my mostly red collection. 
So on my day off, I decided to just take myself along with the flow and spend a few hours amongst the buses and trams of this gritty northern City. 
One thing that surprises me a little is the seemingly lack of multi-modal day ticket that covers the morning peak. Having searched web pages in recent days, I can't find an option that allows me freedom of the network of buses, trams and trains before 0930 on weekdays. Maybe there isn't demand, but I find that hard to believe. 
I arrive into Manchester Piccadilly railway station, which is always a pleasure. As gateways to Cities go, this is right up there. Roomy and airy, it says "welcome to Manchester" in a modern, pleasing way. You can connect directly onto the Metrolink trams here, but after the obligatory visit to the Ian Allan transport bookshop outside the station (Buses Annual 2012 for a quid purchased) I find myself sitting in the window at Greggs with a sandwich observing the comings and goings of route 192. 
This was the first route I ever tried in Manchester years ago, and it looks as busy as ever, with it's recently installed fleet of handsome Enviro 400 double decker hybrid buses, adorned in a very attractive green adaption of corporate Stagecoach squirls. 
I've been as far as Stockport before on this route, but never to the terminus at Hazel Grove, so I leave the warm surroundings of Greggs to jump on the first 192 that rolls up. But it isn't going to Hazel Grove - rather Stepping Hill Hospital. This appears to be a variation on the route, but I'm used to the West Midlands idea of adding an "A" or "E" to differentiate a route - in Manchester you have to look at the destination more closely! 
So I let this one go and 30 seconds later a Hazel Grove version arrives. 
"Can I buy a bus and tram day ticket please?" I ask the driver, who, sounding like a Coronation Street extra, tells me "yes, of course, it's £6.50". Armed with my paper passport to Manchester's public transport I'm off upstairs to view the delights of Manchester's suburbs along this famous route, which, Wikipedia tells us, dates back to 1889, when it was first operated by the Stockport Carriage & Tramway Co. Ltd. 
The impressive branding of my environmentally-friendly green machine hides a less than impressive interior. The bus is very untidy inside, with litter strewn all over the top deck, and muddy footprints up the front panels. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating journey out through the likes of Ardwick, Longsight and Levenshulme, all with fascinating glimpses of buildings from the past mixed with the new. This Enviro suffers from the same "noisy fan" syndrome as her West Midlands sisters...
We're informed that "electronic cigarettes are banned on this bus" (first time I've seen that anywhere), and I'm momentarily distracted by the sign outside Cape Cod's chip shop: "any pie and chips £2.95". Some good old northern roots still going strong here! 
I spot a Stagecoach Inspector with radio eyeballing our bus near Stockport and he obviously has his work cut out - the 192s are inevitably bunching all over the place - I spot 3 running in tandem in the opposite direction. 
The terminus at Hazel Grove is, like so many outer termini of City routes, completely underwhelming. It lies behind the Rising Sun pub next to a railway bridge and huge expanse of derelict land. It is here I jump off and consider a pint in said pub, but decide that 1 would probably lead to 2, and I've got more buses and trams to see! So I watch my 192 trundle off back to City whilst almost immediately another 192 has appeared. 
Drivers at Hazel Grove appear to check the upper and lower decks for anything untoward. My new driver does this, then asks if I want to get on, helpfully explaining he'll be a couple of minutes as he has to make a phone call. Buses from Hazel Grove are every 10 minutes and despite the bunching further up the route, all seems to be well regulated from this furthest outpost. We're soon on our way again, heading back towards the metropolis where other 192s emerge from the route variants, and we're soon bunching back into town, where another Inspector is scribbling onto his clipboard. This bus has marginally less litter, but is still a let down. Maybe the Mancunians could learn something from the West Midlands practice of daytime sweep outs at termini. There's seemingly adequate time for a bit of broom action at Hazel Grove...
Back in the City, I hop off at Piccadilly Gardens and marvel at the organised chaos there. Buses from Stagecoach, First, Arriva, Magic Bus, Finglands and Metrolink trams all jostle for space amongst throngs of people. I decide to try a Finglands service, as these will soon disappear as First is in the process of buying the bus operation. 
My 41 is a modern Wrights Gemini double decker, with less litter than its Stagecoach Sister, but still not great. Like Birmingham, I think it's a City thing...
I'm heading along the famous Wilmslow Road. Famous as it's often cited as the busiest bus corridor in Europe. This is student-ville, and as it's mid afternoon, I'm watching from my top deck vantage point as literally thousands of scholars besiege the numerous buses on the corridor. 
Finglands might have been the post-deregulation pioneer of cheap student deals, but today it is Stagecoach's Magic Bus service that appears to be the market leader. Our bus hovers around stops, but many students stand back and wait for the deep blue Magic Buses instead, of which there appears to be a never-ending stream. It's been a few years since I've been down here, but I am still fascinated at the incredible demand for buses down here. It looks like Brian Souter has again read the market extremely well, as his motley line up of elderly no-frills services have clearly attained cult status amongst the student fraternity. 
Other Stagecoach buses ply the route as well as Finglands and Magic Bus, and I spot one lone First vehicle in amongst the action, but with their impending take over of Finglands, they appear to be on the verge of becoming a more significant player in this incredible game. 
I hop off after a while and cross over the road, but I don't have long to wait for a bus. I make it about 17 seconds before one of Souters cheap and cheerful 10 year old-plus Magic Buses rolls up. Ironically, this has been the tidiest bus to date with very little litter rolling about! As I head back into the City Centre, I observe the outgoing services - it is virtually a sea of buses, each crammed full of people akin to a scene from Indian railways! 
I'm back in Piccadilly Gardens. 
Transport for Greater Manchester does decent timetables for its stops, but they appear not to show specific operators on journeys, which may be an issue for those who buy operator-specific tickets. I have a wander round, catching glimpse of the recently-refreshed Witch Way buses, with their red stiletto wearing witches adorning the sides of the vehicles. I decide I'll return in the future to have a ride on one of these. The numerous MetroShuttle free buses are also roaming the streets of the City. First seem to have the majority of their buses in their new, cleaner purple livery, which is growing on me all the time. It's a very colourful bus scene...
Next I'm off for a bit of tram action. 
We're heading into the evening peak and Piccadilly Gardens is awash with commuters. I join the crush and head for somewhere no self-respecting Manchester United fan should consider: Etihad Campus - home of Manchester City! 
This stop has only recently opened earlier this year in February 2013 and I've never been to the "noisy neighbours"! This evening, it isn't very noisy at all. In fact it's deserted as I hop off and wander around the outside of the stadium, adorned with faces of the players. It's pretty chilly and I feel like I'm in enemy territory (!) being a lifelong red, but it's an impressive place to be fair. I head back down to the deserted platforms, save for one guy who looks bewildered at the self-service ticket machines and hop on a tram up towards Bury. 
Metrolink is impressive. When it comes to public transport, I always like to compare what we have in my native West Midlands to Manchester, as it's much more comparative then, say, London. And I have to say, in some respects (although not all!) our northern friends have stolen a march on us West Midlanders. Metrolink has expanded into a superb tram network, comparable to many European Cities. The West Midlands has, for many political reasons I guess, fallen behind. Yes, we're getting new rolling stock, but so indeed are Manchester. 
I'm riding an evening peak service to Bury aboard a Bombardier M5000 tram. Standing room only, these vehicles are impressive. We pass through some great names, including Abraham Moss, Crumpsall and the delightful-sounding Besses o' th' Barn. Goodness knows what goes on here after dark. 
Bury is the final stop, and I wander up the stairs to the bus station at the top, and manage to spend 40p attempting to gain access to the toilets, as my first 20p attempt fails to get me into the jail-like grill that guards the facility against freeloaders. 
I consider catching a bus back to Manchester, but my options all look like they take around an hour, and I have a time-specific train ticket for my journey home, so no mishaps can be tolerated! 
So I return to the Metrolink platforms, where a much older tram - one of the original T-68s - is awaiting departure. I hop on to sample it - probably one of the last times I will do so as all of the remaining versions of this vehicle are scheduled to be withdrawn next year in 2014. They're showing their age, but they've earned their keep in the City. 
My trip back into town is a curious mix of commuter stragglers and the first of the evening party people. Manchester's bright young things are appearing for a night on the town, and Metrolink will take them to the bright lights of the City. 
But Metrolink is taking me back to Piccadilly station, where I'm homeward bound. It's early evening in the station but it's still very busy, as people queue for burgers and peruse the departure boards. I'm hunting for a litter bin (of which an example doesn't appear to exist) but a kindly man with rubbish trolley accepts my waste papers before I head onto platform 9 where my CrossCountry Voyager will sail southbound via Wolverhampton where National Express West Midlands' 256 bus will deliver me home. 
Wolves bus station is magnificent enough to rival anything Manchester can offer. Except my 256 doesn't exist according to the digital technology. (I know better of course!) 
Centro are currently canvassing views on plans to extend our Midland Metro trams to and from the rail station via the bus station, and whilst this may be a good thing, I just get the impression Manchester has already been there, done that and got the t-shirt! 

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Countdown to Zero - Why Isn't The RealTime Reliable?

I'm in The Strand, London. Famous for the location of the UK's first radio broadcast, and now a mecca for bus photographers who can see both old and new Routemasters side by side in service.
After spending a few minutes observing this phenomenon, it's time to head back to Euston via a 91. TfL's real time information is flawless as usual, as is the huge board at the railway station ahead of my trip north.
Yet back in Brum, things still aren't right.
On Colmore Row, the evening peak is in full swing as the rain lashes down. Commuters squint down the road to see which buses will bring them a bit of relief from the downpour.
For users of the 9 to Halesowen and Stourbridge (including me) it's looking pretty good. There is a usual frequency of every 7/8 minutes, and the real-time information on the the "totem" is showing two buses 1 minute away, a further one 2 minutes away, with a fourth 5 minutes adrift. But as the top two show "due", it's worse than a feisty Victorian lady tempting you with a bit of ankle. The anticipation comes to nothing and there is no sign of our 9s. Five minutes later, both have resorted to "1 min" and goodness only knows what's happened to the other contenders.
There is much mumbling in the rain as the crowd grows ever bigger (there is no such thing as a "queue" for a bus in Brum these days...). The "real time" mysteriously reverts to "timetable time" (almost as if someone has flicked a switch to remove the folly being played out on the totem screen) and it is a full 20 minutes before two 9s roll up together and gobble up two full loads. I decide (fool as I am) to hang around in the rain to catch the next one, which is a further 8 minutes away.
Centro has been at pains in recent times to explain what is being shown on the screens. It explains within shelter information that displays that "count down" (i.e. 5 mins, 4 mins, etc) are actual "real times", with bits of kit on board the bus tracking it's movements. "Timetable time" (e.g. 1135) is just the timetable reproduced digitally for information.
So, what was going on in Colmore Row?
Either the Brummie version of the Bermuda Triangle is at work, evaporating all buses somewhere on Snow Hill, never to be seen again, or something isn't right with the kit.
Versions of this technology have been around for a number of years in the West Midlands. And despite being full of hope that it would bring around a revolution in the way passengers had confidence in their bus services, I'm sadly coming to the conclusion that it is actually doing more harm than good. People just aren't believing what is on the display and are simply ignoring it.
Posh liveries and leather seats are important ways to woo people onto buses, but reliability will always be the number one issue that concerns bus passengers. Real time information (alongside smartphone apps) have the potential to be a game changer. I want them to work. Indeed TfL's London system seems to do just that. Back in the summer whilst I was bashing the New Bus for London on route 24, I hopped on and off for hours - and it all seemed to run perfectly. So why can't we get the technology to work properly in the West Midlands?
And there's more.
Centro's bus stations increasingly use screens with "live" information on them. Stourbridge's wonderful new Interchange - opened last year - is a great facility. But I'm afraid I've lost count of the amount of times the digital screens are showing incorrect information. In fact, I've given up reporting it to Centro. Even as recent as this very evening, the departures for some of Arriva's evening trips on the 257 are not showing on the departure stand - and these are for buses without the real time kit! It should be showing the standard timetable departure. But they're missing. In Wolverhampton the other week, the entire 256 departures weren't there. (since reappeared.)
Does all of this matter?
Yes, actually.
Bus passengers deserve to benefit from this type of information. They deserve to have real confidence in the system. If technology has the wherewithal to track a vehicle (a bit like your car sat-nav) and let you know how long you have to wait, that is a great thing. But so often does it not work around here, it is beginning to become a folly. So when one of Arriva's evening 257 departures actually didn't turn up this evening (resulting in a half hour wait for the next one), the screen simply dumped it, everyone ignored it, and a great waste of time was had by all.
Back to our Colmore Row saga earlier. It became apparent that something was going on traffic-wise as, when I finally boarded a 9 resembling a drowned 6'7" rat, it then took over 20 minutes to get less than half a mile. But here's an idea. We all accept that traffic incidents have a huge effect on bus reliability, and God knows the slightest prang in Birmingham City Centre has the network clogged up within minutes. But our super-shiny totems displaying the dubious real time information also have the potential to scroll information across the display. If a problem is known, why cannot that information be scrolled immediately, for the benefit of waiting passengers? In a similar vein, I've been banging on literally for years for PA systems in bus stations to be actively used to inform of delays as they happen. We know that someone knows about all of this, because the largest operator (National Express West Midlands) has an excellent control centre that is watching the movements of it's entire fleet, and altering their movements, as necessary. NXWM's Twitter feed has also upped it's game and is getting a lot better (although it tends to tweet info from Birmingham more so than Black Country happenings). We also know that bus stations, PA systems within them and info screens belong to Centro, so there is a potential conflict in who puts the information out, but surely this is not insurmountable? Although it may be hard to believe, not everyone does Twitter, and not everyone has a smartphone to whip out whenever there are delays.
Rail passengers have it all too easy. The "real time" works on the platform, and is trusted. The air is filled with announcements, automated or "real". Of course it is easier said than done, but why cannot bus passengers have this same level of information provided, and digital information they can reliably trust?
This isn't meant as a cheap criticism of the transport professionals who work at Centro or the bus operators. I know enough of them to know that they are dedicated people who want public transport to succeed.
But for the people standing in the rain on Colmore Row this evening - mostly without the use of a shelter seeing as that too has shrunk to minute dimensions since the City Centre went for the "minimalist" look last year when it comes to infrastructure - the complete non-believing of the information provided tells a poor tale of what should be real advancement of the bus users lot, but is anything but.
The ideas are really sound ones, but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. And execution of real time information in the West Midlands is still, years on, left wanting.