Love a good natter.

An accolade for Arriva. They’re had a rethink and in a turnaround of customer service contact policy reinstated the 0345 phone line on their website. Never let it be said blogging isn’t worth it. Well done and thanks Arriva. Now it’s just all the other stuff to sort!

After this success, I thought it might be interesting to see how Stagecoach, First Group, National Express and Go-Ahead encourage customer contact.

Stagecoach have a ‘Help & Contact’ on their generic webpage which brings up a full page ‘How do I contact my local Stagecoach office?’ and the usual Stagecoach ability to change area. Clicking on head office and ticket enquiries brings up a full menu which includes switchboards and even local bus garage telephone numbers. Now that is impressive. Well done Stagecoach. It shows what can be done for a Group keen on corporate identity but with local operational teams. You’d feel completely reassured by talking to someone based locally about your enquiry.

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Here’s an example for the vast Northern Scotland area which even includes the depot phone number for Portree. And it’s a very friendly person answering the phone there too.

First Bus similarly have a generic corporate webpage with localised pages but the ‘Help and Support’ tab takes you to a page showing an 0345 number and its operating hours.

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Clicking on one of the options below, doesn’t take you much further. In fact misleadingly there are a list of headings you’d think would open up more information by clicking on the downward arrow on the right hand side; but none of them are active. All very typical First Bus; half a job done.

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It’s not so good at National Express West Midlands where you have two options either Tweet them or fill in a form! Yes; that’s it. So if you’re not on Twitter; and you’re not a great online form filling addict err, other than sending a letter your contact options are … no contact. No plaudits for NatEx (and it’s excatly the same for their Dundee offshoot) – please follow Arriva’s example and have a bit of a rethink.

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Except… if you go to the National Express Group plc website where serious investors are directed, you’ll find a page full of contact details for all NatEx’s operations from coaches (only a costly 0871 number for coach customers) through Alsa in Spain, even Bahrain and North America are listed as is UK Bus…..

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… with a standard Birmingham 0121 number. Yeah! Loved option 3 on the answer menu when I called which intriguingly is :”Press 3 for Revenue Protection” 😃.

And then there’s the Go-Ahead Group. Not surprisingly for a Group that understands buses are a local issue with locally based managing directors running local companies with local branding, it’s straightforward to click on a “contact us” page and quickly and easily find a locally based telephone contact number to talk to someone who knows their local area. That is how to do it.

A similar set up applies to Transdev Blazefield albeit with a few extra click arounds to get to the locally branded operations in Harrogate, Keighley, Burnley etc, but all head up their pages with the contact phone number top of the list. So big tick for that.

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Top marks also for TrentBarton…..

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Love the “we love a good natter…” intro. Friendly and welcoming.

Plaudits also for the municipal owned sector with the usuals in Reading, Nottingham, Lothian and Cardiff all doing well to tell you how to contact them.

So plenty of examples out there for those that are not doing so well and want to see how to do it. Please do.

Roger French        17th August 2018

Ticket for a tenner

I’ve just spent a brilliant few days enjoying the scenery in an area stretching from Gloucestershire through mid Wales to Swansea.

The Black Mountains, the Forest of Dean, the Brecon Beacons, the Heart of Wales and the Gower are all delightful and so much more so from the vantage of a bus and train window.

My plea to bus companies – please review your day ticket offers and check whether they’re being effectively promoted to your leisure travel customers such as me. Chances are they’re not.

Stagecoach Wales have a one day Explorer at £8.30 which extends from Porthcawl as far east as Hereford while neighbouring Stagecoach West have a one day Explorer at £7 which extends west from Hereford as far east as Oxford.

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My Day 1 journeys straddled the boundary between these two adjacent ticket areas. I started at Abergavenny and travelled via Brecon to Hereford and from there on to Gloucester. Did I need both Explorers or was one enough? I showed my £8.30 ticket to the Gloucester bound driver at Hereford. Fortunately she just seemed happy to spot the word Explorer. I saved myself £7.

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It really is time to do away with these artificial boundaries for Explorer type tickets which reflect Company operating practices rather than customer needs. I’ve suggested for some time there should be a national £10 day ticket issued and accepted by every bus company – what a super sales messsge that would be. OK, perhaps with one or two exceptions for premium or long distance journeys: eg Thurso to Inverness, but otherwise a simple and effective sales proposition.

Meanwhile there’s no excuse for neighbouring Stagecoach companies not to be promoting one ticket price across a wide area; after all, no one is going to bus it from Porthcawl to Oxford in a day (although now I think about it I’m tempted: it takes around ten hours) but criss crossing a border, as I did, is much more likely, especially in a scenic area such as Gloucestershire to Monmouthshire/Powys.

The same issue impacted my journeys on Day 2, travelling on Stagecoach routes west from Gloucester through the Forest of Dean back to Hereford then continuing into Powys on a Sargeants route to Llandrindod Wells followed by TrawsCymru to Newtown. I paid for single tickets on both the last two journeys as I was unaware there’s an £8 Powys Explorer ticket – how would I know? There’s no mention of this attractively priced ticket on Sargeants’ or TrawsCymru’s websites nor Powys Council’s site which seems to be in a complete state of flux.

I found out about it on Day 3 when the driver of the Celtic Travel X75 from Shrewsbury to Llanidloes recommended it when I asked if there was a day ticket; and I wasn’t even in Powys at the time!

On Day 4 I’d repositioned to Swansea to explore the Gower using New Adventure Travel’s (strangely branded as N.A.T.) tendered bus network. I’d seen nothing to promote a day ticket on their website (nor is there any reference to one in their printed timetable booklet) but I spotted a poster in Swansea’s Quadrant bus station promoting a great value ticket for £7.50.

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It seemed just the job, but when I asked the driver for a day ticket he quickly established I would only be travelling in the Gower rather than needing the whole of Swansea so sold me a more attractively priced Day Ticket at £5.20.

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These are great value tickets but they really do need promoting more, as does the whole wonderful bus network across the Gower.

The TrawsCymru website gives details of a £10 day ticket available across the extensive geographic network from Cardiff to Caernarfon. It seems a small step to make that the default ticket for every bus in Wales …… and England …. and Scotland.

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Finally another example of ineffective price promotion is the TrawsCymru free weekend travel scheme, now in its second year. There’s been impressive infrastructure investment by the Welsh Government to promote the TrawsCymru network recently but nowhere is there a mention of this amazing weekend free travel deal. You’d think something so astoundingly attractive for visitors and tourists would be shouted from the rooftops; yet not a dicky bird of a mention at bus stops, shelters, whizzo electronic totem pole thingies, or on board buses. Quite extraordinary.

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Interestingly the scrolling messages on the internal screen inside the TrawsCymru bus I travelled on enticed passengers to ring Traveline Cymru, but gave the premium rated 0871 number rather than the 0800 freephone number exclusively available in Wales/Cymru.

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So, have free travel, but don’t tell anyone; have an 0800 freephone number but instead promote a premium one. You really couldn’t make it up!

Roger French      16th August 2018

 

 

 

Are App-A-Rides viable?

Followers of this blog, my twitter timeline and various magazine articles I’ve written will know I’m a bit of a sceptic about the current fashion for App-A-Ride, the modern day Dial-A-Ride and so called demand responsive services.

I just can’t see how the business model will ever deliver a profit. I must be missing something as hot on the heels of Oxford Bus launching Pick-Me-Up and Arriva announcing an expansion of their Click brand into Liverpool came National Express’s announcement last week of plans for something similar in the West Midlands.

Readers will know I’ve yet to actually share a ride with a fellow passenger other than on the Gett Black Bus 1 route (actually a Black Cab rather than a bus) in London one morning. My various Clicks, Slides, Chariots, My First Mile rides have all been Ride Solo rather than Ride Share …. until today.

In my continuing research to find the positive bottom-line secret of making App-A-Rides profitable I wandered back to Sittingbourne to have another try on Arriva’s Click; the first and original. My train was due into Sittingbourne station at 1114 and previous experience taught me to book a Click ride in advance to avoid a lengthy wait on arrival.

So I logged into the Click app to book my journey at 1015 soon after leaving Victoria. You’re given half hour time slots every 15 minutes as options so I booked 1115-1145 and hoped when the confirmation came it would be closer to 1115 than 1145 to minimise waiting.

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Not having received an update by 1108 I checked the App and was a little alarmed to find my booked slot had slipped to 1145-1215. If I’d not been a BusAndTrainUser I think I’d have cancelled and opted for a taxi waiting on the rank instead.

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But; almost as if the software knew, just as my train was pulling into Sittingbourne station I received a confirmation text that I’d be picked up … in 28 minutes at 1141. So much for minimising the wait.

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Just to add to the fun, as you can see from the rather operational explanatory wording (not sure what AC means!) it would be a spare minibus (maybe number 006 or maybe number 9?) and would pick me up a short walk away from the station in Park Road rather than outside – which, when I arrived, was obviously due to extensive roadworks immediately outside the station. But no mention in the text.

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Frustratingly my minibus passed by where I was waiting in Park Road at 1135 but going in the opposite direction which I later realised was to pick another passenger up heading in the same direction as me as by 1139 it had turned round and was heading back towards me!

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As I’d made my way from the station to the designated pick up point in Park Road I saw another minibus heading into the temporary bus stand obviously scheduled for a break but it did add further to the frustration of waiting to see this.

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Eventually driver Andy arrived with the other passenger on board at 1147 (33 minutes after I’d arrived by train despite pre-booking). He managed to park by a busy junction not helped by white-van parking at the designated spot, and kindly got out to open the manually operated door in this wheelchair accessible spare vehicle on hire.

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Fortunately my fellow passenger was alighting on the route to my destination (clever bit of algorithm) so we dropped her off without needing to make a detour. Interestingly she’s in the social/healthcare profession using Click to make home visits.

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My destination in Tunstall was out of bounds due to a road closure so Andy kindly dropped me as close as he could and then he was off.

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The App software isn’t able to indicate road closures so I didn’t risk booking my return from there so instead took a walk further into Sittingbourne’s suburbs to find another location.

Park Drive/Sterling Road looked a likely spot to book from with the usual unhelpful bus stop information. And a great shame too, as I found out after returning home, a bus on Chalkwell’s route 9 would have picked me up just 15 minutes later from this stop on one of its 5-7 journeys per day and taken me direct to the town centre.

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In the event I had better luck with my return booking. At 1202 a minibus was just 11 minutes away.

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And it turned out to be so. Driver Daniel was very friendly; been driving with Click for around a month and enjoying the change from running a newsagent.

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As we chatted away I detected we were actually heading south along Borden Lane towards Borden rather than north towards Sittingbourne’s town centre. ‘We’ve got another pick up’ Daniel explained. I’m thinking it’s just as well I’d not planned a tight connection for a train at the station.

We made the pick up in Borden and headed towards Tesco where the passenger wanted dropping off, not before he’d affirmed with Daniel the air conditioning wasn’t working as he bid us farewell.

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It wasn’t long before we arrived at my chosen town centre destination (a Pizza Hut car park!) probably about five minutes later due to the Borden deviation so not a huge inconvenience on what would have been a direct seven minute journey at most. But on the other hand more than a 50% increase in journey time was a bit of a downer.

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So for the first time I’ve shared a ride share, and twice, in one day, and to be honest it wasn’t painful. But notwithstanding this, I can’t see how Arriva made any money from either trip I made today. The outward journey cost me £3.75 for the 2.8 mile ride. It took around ten minutes. A bit pricey at £7.50 return (if I’d gone both ways); although you currently get £10 worth of Click credit for handing over £8.50 in advance. (Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up doesn’t require a deposit and just deducts what is currently a flat £2.50 fare from a pre-registered bank/credit card as each trip is made.)

My return trip today cost £2.50 being slightly shorter (as booked) at 1.7 miles although in the event the distance was greater due to the pick up.

There are of course no reduced prices for children or teenagers and no concessions are taken. It will be interesting to see if these issues are addressed in Liverpool’s much more price sensitive bus market when Click begins there in three weeks. It looks as though the requirement for credit will be waived: ‘click, pay and go’ as the tweet promotes.

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My experience today has not given me any further clues as to how this business model will succeed. It looks a sure fire money loser to me. Great to grab the headlines. Great to be seen to innovate. Great to be giving something different a go. But make a profit? No more likely than running rural buses which are being steadily withdrawn ironically as App-A-Rides are being introduced. Maybe, just maybe, they could have an application in rural areas as a halfway mode between a taxi and a bus, but someone is going to have to fund such a service and with local authorities strapped for cash and seniors expecting free travel, it’s not looking hopeful.

Roger French      7th August 2018

The only way isn’t (this part of) Essex

Yesterday saw the demise of another bus company name from the Harlow area. EOS Buses packed up and withdrew four routes, one of which had only been introduced eight weeks ago.

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To mark the occasion the Company borrowed an open-top Routemaster from Ensignbus running it over the four routes for one final fling: the 66 Waltham Cross to Loughton and Debden; 86 Harlow to Waltham Cross; 87 Harlow to Loughton and the new S1 Harlow to Stratford via the M11 and Redbridge.

It was all a jolly occasion as these things usually are. Camera wielding enthusiasts bagging the top deck while rushing around at every photo opportunity as passengers waiting for their normal hand-me-down ex-London single deck bus were taken aback to see a veteran open-top Routemaster turn up, complete with authentic looking destination blind, before an embarrassed smile as they climb aboard for a nostalgic shopping trip into town.

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Except all was not what it seemed. EOS had deregistered their routes with the required notice expiring on 31 August, not 31 July. They’d been reassuring passengers it would be a seamless transition with Arriva taking over the routes, even posting a helpful link to Arriva’s like-for-like timetables on their website.

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But a notice posted on Arriva’s website late yesterday implied the Traffic Commissioner had not accepted an earlier start date from the original 31 August handover. Perhaps not surprising in view of the competitive environment in this area where Trustybus run on parts of the routes affected.

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A tweet from EOS last night suggested a skeleton service will run on part of one route today, and a further tweet explained “EOS have put in a short notice to finish on 31 July, two weeks ago and Arriva had agreed to register short notices to replace these from the same date”. This morning in response to suggestions EOS should run until the original notice expires on 31 August a tweet advises “EOS does not have the manpower to do so. Our staff have been employed by Arriva as of today. Arriva have sourced extra buses and staff in readiness for this to happen”.

Further tweets this morning are providing updates about more limited journeys operating on the 66, 86 and 87. It’s like a snowline update without the snow.

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You’ve got to feel sorry for the good bus travelling folk living in this south western corner of Essex, especially the bits inside the M25 (Loughton and Debden) that feel as though they’re in London. Not only do they look enviously at their neighbours just over the boundary in the Boroughs of Waltham Forest and Redbridge with their Oyster and Contactless £1.50 flat/hopper fare, frequent TfL bus routes and generous concessionary travel arrangements, but it’s fair to say they’ve also had to put up with constantly changing unstable bus routes criss-crossing the Harlow, Epping, Loughton, Upshire, Waltham Abbey and Waltham Cross area for many years.

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This part of the Home Counties is challenging to serve with viable vibrant bus services as it is, yet for some reason it’s attracted one competitor after another, and often more than one at the same time fighting over a diminishing number of passengers.

Whereas Crawley and Grays in the former London Country empire have experienced  long term stable bus routes leading to passenger growth with Metrobus and Ensignbus providing quality services, Harlow and its environs seem to have attracted a plethora of bus operators intent on competing down to the lowest standards. Arriva have struggled against this tirade of competition, not helped by the area being managed remotely from its Maidstone base.

Ironically I reckon the new S1 service (Harlow to Stratford) introduced only on 4 June, and now withdrawn, had potential to attract commuters from the southern residential areas of Harlow (some distance from Harlow’s two train stations) to the Central Line at Redbridge in around 30 minutes journey time while shoppers for the popular Westfield shopping centre at Stratford could be whisked down the M11 in around 45 minutes. I reckon with sustained marketing this had the makings of a good service.

As well as the low fare regime which comes with the odd TfL red bus route crossing the boundary into Loughton and Debden (routes 20 and 397 run Debden and Loughton to Walthamstow via different routes and two other routes terminate at Loughton including the infrequent 549 to South Woodford) the problem bus operators also face is competition from the Central Line which runs frequently between Loughton and Epping.

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For example, the peak fare on the Tube is just £1.70; and off peak only £1.50 yet my fare on Trustybus’s route 418 which hitherto was in competition with EOS between Loughton and Epping was an eye watering £4.90. Ouch.

So it’s a tough bus operating market. Let’s hope this short term legal blip can soon be resolved and perhaps there really is a chance Arriva can stablise the network and give passengers the long desired quality bus service they deserve.

Roger French      1st August 2018

Update – 3rd August 2018 …….

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Don’t ask!

After I returned home from North Wales last week I thought I’d check out how much a few standard fares on Arriva’s bus routes around Rhyl are so I could compared them to the ‘One Arriva’ £4 ticket. Are there “massive savings on standard bus tickets” as the promotional poster claims, or is it all a bit of a price con?

WARNING: this all gets a bit protracted so to save the next eight minutes blog reading time in your life; here’s a quick summary spoiler-alert…..

There’s no contact phone number on the Arriva website. They encourage you to ‘Live Chat’, but only during limited office hours and then only when someone’s available at a keyboard at a remote location hundreds of miles away. There’s an online enquiry form to full in with your fare enquiry but you won’t get a response. You can also send a letter to a postal address in Luton. Or finally you can go to an Arriva Travel Shop. That’s it. In short. Don’t ask.

Now read on, if you can stomach it….

Of course, this is all pre the Holy Grail of Open Data so I wasn’t expecting a simple task like finding out how much a bus fare costs to be straightforward nor a few clicks on Arriva’s website would get me anywhere, but what really took me aback was just how hard it is to find any price information through any communication means. I thought the quickest way would be the phone. But what’s the phone number?

Click on the Contact Us page and you’d expect to easily find Arriva’s phone number….

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I love the “and want you to get answers to your enquiries as quickly as possible”. Some webpage copywriter has either got a rather twisted sense of humour or lives in total delusionary La La Land.

Click on the ‘Bus fares information’ tab….

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It doesn’t exactly inspire you does it? We’ll come back to the Live Chat option, as most times I’ve clicked around, it hasn’t been available. Filling in a general enquiry form sounds a bit on the bureaucratically tedious side; writing a letter seems a bit on the disproportionate scale to find out a bus fare, which only leaves ‘Call at a travel shop’ and there’s not one close to where I live in Sussex nor did I spot one anywhere in Rhyl. And what if I wanted to know the bus fare to the Travel Shop?

So I decided to click around elsewhere to try and find that elusive phone number. Surely they must have a phone somewhere. Clicking on ‘Timetable information’ brings up the same menu as fares, as does ‘Other general information’ although there’s also a naff ‘Ask Alfie’ option added, which, trust me, is not worth clicking. ‘Complaints or commendations’ can only be submitted on a form and even ‘Lost property’ needs a form filled in rather than a phone call; no number is listed there either.

Unbelievably there’s no contact telephone number for enquiries anywhere on the Arriva Bus website; actually there’s no telephone number anywhere for anything. Well that’s not quite true; there’s a media page with phone numbers for an external PR agency who handle some of Arriva’s regional bus divisions “we work hard to make sure journalists receive an accurate and timely response … 24 hours a day, 7 days a week”. Great for journos then, not so great for passengers who want information; but hey we’re just customers who pay money so who cares.

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As an aside you’ll notice it’s not so much ‘UK Bus regional press office numbers’ as the headline promises but ‘UK Bus regional press office emails’. Other than Manchester based external PR agency ‘Smoking Gun’ which looks after the North West, Wales and bizarrely, Southern Counties, who are happy to let journalists phone them, but strictly about the media only, of course.

I gave up searching the Arriva Bus website and chose a well known Internet search engine for ‘Arriva customer service contact number’ instead; back came 11 million responses within 0.85 seconds. Top two entries are Arriva’s non-phone number webpages we’ve already discussed; third and fourth are two different number options.  ‘ContactNumbers.Guru’ offer 0843 504 5763 while ‘NumberHelpline’ quotes 0843 208 2298 ; both numbers of course being outside BT calling plans so incur a penalty to call as they link directly to Arriva’s hidden number. What a scam. Finally at sixth and seventh are independent phone number finders Resolver and MyLifeInNumbers who both quote the non premium direct Arriva number 0344 800 4411 which rang a bell as the number I spotted at Maidstone’s Lockmeadow terminus a few weeks ago on my abortive Service 24 escapade.

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No; not the bus stop flag, that was the number that’s been discontinued – which I’m delighted to hear from the efficient local MD has now been covered over. It’s the one in the bus shelter; bottom left of the poster.

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I gave it a ring. Up comes a three menu option. Your first 90 seconds of call time comprises: Press 1 for Traveline for timetable information which of course, if you did, will be outside any calling plans so will probably end up costing 12p a minute or more; Press 2 for Customer Services and Press 3 for Arriva Click.

Good old Arriva Click – the App only taxi booking service based in Sittingbourne, yet it gets a phone number option! How bizarre.

Pressing 2 brings you to the next set of options and for ‘Lost Property’ and ‘Complaints and Commendations’ you’re given no choice other than being redirected to the website to fill in an online form. It seems Arriva don’t want to hear from you on the phone with a complaint or commendation after all. For “any other enquiries” which I guess means fares information, you’re extolled to hang on to speak to an advisor.

‘Hanging on’ are the operative words. I seem to always be the unlucky one who just happens to call when they’re “experiencing an exceptionally high call volume”. Every single time I ring in fact. I patiently hung on for 25 minutes before getting answered with no apology for the wait; I guess that’s regarded as normal waiting time. I asked for the single fare from Rhyl to Colwyn Bay, thinking that’s a likely destination for arriving holidaymakers at Rhyl station. I could tell my friendly travel advisor was flummoxed but we soon established we’re talking North Wales and Rhyl doesn’t begin with a W and I agreed to hang on while my by now best-mate advisor went to find the answer. Six minutes later, back he comes with the reply £3.90; so not quite such a massive saving for the £4 ‘One Arriva’ you might think (i.e. it’s 10p more!) for the single journey.

I hesitated to ask anything more after so much time had elapsed but couldn’t resist to ask what the return fare was. After a short pause I was told as this was Yorkshire, there were no prices shown for returns. Having reminded him we’re in North Wales, I asked whether no prices being shown actually meant there weren’t any returns or just there was an information gap? Reassurance eventually came that a day ticket was the best option and the Wales version cost £5.50. “Do I buy that from the driver?” I thought it worth asking, knowing an mTicket was now the really smart way to travel. “Yes, you can buy it from the driver’. “Can I buy it anywhere else?” I pressed on. “From our website or from a shop with a PayPoint” I was advised.

Turns out the delivery option from buying online is through downloading the Arriva mTicket app and therefore ending up with an mTicket; so we got there in the end.

Bouyed on by this I thought I’d try out the Live Chat to see if this is a quicker way to find a bus fare. First you have to know Live Chat is actually Live, as it only works during office hours, Monday to Friday, 8am to 4pm and then only when there’s an advisor available, as I found out this morning, trying at 8am, 9am and 10am. Sadly no advisor available to chat live on Live Chat was available.

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Interestingly the last two paragraphs of these explanatory instructions contradict each other. The final paragraph refers to a signpost icon which indeed used to appear alongside the fresh faced happy smiling advisors in the photo to let you know the Chat Room was good to go and Live. As the instruction says “just click it”. That paragraph text should have been deleted as the signpost has been superseded by a ‘speech bubble’ icon to the right and “all you need to do is click” as the penultimate paragraph explains. So the ultimate paragraph needs deleting. You really couldn’t make this nonsense up could you?

After checking every hour to see if Live Chat had started, eventually the Chat “button” appeared around 10.45 am.

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So I clicked on the icon and here’s how it went. I submitted my fare enquiry and it took a while to get an answer, probably about five minutes, but I’ve long found patience really is an imperative when using call centres; even Live Chat. It was encouraging when Helena eventually came on line and we started our chat. As there’s only one service between Rhyl and Denbigh, I was a little surprised Helena wanted to know which service I’ll be using but I thought I’d narrow it down a little for her ….

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Then I realised of course, that Helena is based 200 miles away from Rhyl so couldn’t possibly be expected to know…..

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…I like honesty in a call centre, so top marks to Helena for letting me know I shouldn’t expect local reassurance and also for her resourcefulness in using a journey planner. And, wanting to be helpful as always, and to while away the time while she was checking, I added…..

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And within two minutes, Helena was back confirming I was spot on….

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Within just two and a half further minutes came the fulsome helpful reply….

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So, six and a half minutes plus the five minutes wait at the beginning, meant an answer in just over ten minutes; much better than that old phone nonsense and ‘exceptionally high call volumes’. Mind you, while Helena was live chatting with me, she probably was keeping others waiting on the phone!

Before ending my Live Chat connection, I just wondered if Helena would know about the ‘One Arriva’ ticket which at £4 would give a £1.50 saving over the Wales zone day ticket. So after a short Live Chat silence, I gave it a whirl…

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Except Helena had gone silent on me. Nothing. For three whole minutes. I began to worry….

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Another four minutes…. I was now really worried for her welfare…. and then this…

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OK; I ducked out of pursuing the ‘One Arriva’ option; lost cause and all that, and this whole exchange had by then taken over 20 minutes, so I decided to quit. At least I now know it costs £3.90 to Denbigh.

There are two more options to find your fare.

One is to write a letter. But I couldn’t face sending a letter off to Luton to find out the fare from Rhyl to Colwyn Bay – I mean are they for real?

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So finally I thought I‘d try the online web form, especially as it says it’s something ‘new’ – well ‘new from 1 March 2017’! I filled it all in; (choosing not to make a comment as I didn’t want to wait up to 10 working days) hit submit; got an on-screen confirmation my fare enquiry had been submitted ….. that was last Thursday afternoon. I’m still waiting for a reply four days on……

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So, if like me, you’ve virtually lost the will to live after all this and can remember that spoiler alert at the beginning…. despite Arriva’s bold claim it wants “you to get answers to your enquiries as quickly as possible” it doesn’t promote a phone number; when you do find one to ring it takes around half an hour to get an answer; it’s Live Chat doesn’t Chat Live very often and when it does it’s from a remote location and handled by someone with less local knowledge than the enquirer despite the claim “before you know it you’ll be talking directly to one of our expert team”; otherwise it’s on-line form filling which doesn’t get answered or finally a letter by post or a personal visit.

I’ve laboured all this because if it wasn’t so despairing it would be highly amusing and worthy of an On The Buses sitcom script; but it’s actually very serious. This is not an under resourced small operator struggling to do their best in difficult operating circumstances. This is a huge resourced Multi-Modal International Transport Giant. Yet it simple fails with the most basic of customer communications. No wonder in turn buses are seen by many customers as failing.

I’m coming round to thinking Open Data just might be needed after all.

Roger French         30 July 2018

Trying out the ‘One Arriva’ ticket in Rhyl

I’ve long thought bus and train owning Groups are missing a trick by not upselling travel in the way savvy retailers would (‘people who bought this also bought this’) so I was encouraged in May last year when Arriva announced they were putting matters right with an exciting modal integration project in North Wales.

Arriva has long been the largest bus operator along the North Wales coast and since 2003 has run the train franchise in Wales so there’s been plenty of scope for joined up initiatives to benefit passengers. It’s a pity this exciting initiative had to wait until the last full year of the franchise but hey-ho, like a GTR train, better late than never.

Whereas trains from the east only get as far as Bangor before heading over to Holyhead on Anglesey, Arriva’s buses continue to the popular tourist hotspot of Caernarfon. Route 5C is a busy four-bus-an-hour route and with no other public transport option available (other than a pricey taxi) unsurprisingly there are always lots of visitors getting off trains at Bangor seeking out the bus to continue their journey to Caernarfon.

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The interchange at Bangor leaves a lot to be desired. There are two bus stops conveniently right outside the station’s pedestrian exit, one of which is unused, but Caernarfon bound buses stay on the main road stopping around a corner unseen from the station as they climb up a steep hill. Passengers who eventually find where to go are greeted by a shoddy shelter, a duff real time sign that’s probably never worked and a confusing array of bus numbers worthy of a drawn out Bingo game adorning the worn bus stop flag on a narrow pavement. It’s crying out for investment and a revamp. My guess is it’s one of the busiest stops for train/bus interchange in North Wales.

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So I was a bit surprised to hear Arriva had chosen Rhyl for it’s integration trailblazer rather than Bangor. This decision no doubt influenced by Denbighshire County Council upgrading the five bay bus station immediately outside the train station offering a great opportunity for Arriva to join the bandwagon and show what can be done to make buses and trains seamlessly work together.

I was intrigued to visit this week, just over a year since the launch in May 2017, to see what’s occurring.

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As you get off westbound trains at Rhyl and cross the footbridge to the exit on the eastbound platform you’re met with an impressive plethora of posters explaining the route and frequencies of the six onward bus services from the bus station outside. Someone’s certainly been diligent at utilising every opportunity to catch your eye as you leave the station.

 

 

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And that’s not all. Impressively by the station exit there’s a leaflet rack dedicated to Arriva bus timetables while outside there are more posters including one for the ‘One Arriva’ ticket.

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Aside from the posters and leaflet rack the ‘One Arriva’ ticket seems to be the main integration initiative. It’s basically Plusbus but includes travel along the full length of the six Arriva bus routes from Rhyl station. It costs £4 whereas the smaller Plusbus area costs £2.60 (or just £1.70 with a Railcard). There’s a 7-day ‘One Arriva’ for just £11 (a great value 2.75 time’s the daily price) and an intriguing ‘Group of 5 people’ ticket valid after 0930 for just £10 (half price compared to buying individual tickets which would be £20) and a 7-day version of that for £50 (5 times the daily price so only a measly fiver saving compared to buying five individual 7-day tickets for £55).

 

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Massive Discounts on standard bus tickets? A standard single from Rhyl to Colwyn Bay is £3.90!

The thing is though, the two main bus routes from Rhyl station, the 11 to Prestatyn continuing on to Flint and Chester and the 12 to Llandudno pretty much parallel the train so most passengers would presumably stay on the train if they’re Prestatyn, Flint or Llandudno bound and in a Catch 22 classic they’d not be able to buy a ‘One Arriva’ ticket to travel on the same bus from those stations as the information implies it’s only valid from Rhyl.

Well, that’s if you can find any information about the ‘One Arriva’ ticket. Other than the aforementioned posters at Rhyl station you’ll be hard pressed to find anything about ‘One Arriva’ anywhere. There’s no mention of it at all on the Arriva Trains Wales website and it’s buried so deep in the Arriva Bus website, you have to be an extreme keyboard warrior to click through and find it. I eventually found the details shown here under the ‘Latest’ tab on the Wales region page where you’d have to know to scroll down two pages of the last fourteen month’s PR puff to find the launch announcement back in May 2017. There’s no mention of it under Tickets or anywhere else I could find; strange as I thought it was a ground breaking integration innovation!

Even more odd, no-one at Arriva Bus seems to know about ‘One Arriva’. I tried telephoning, live chatting and fares enquiries form filling to find out about it, but no-one could help me. But I’ll tell you more about these experiences another time, as they’re a classic in their own futility.

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When you eventually find the information you’re told you can “simply buy your ‘One Arriva’ ticket from your train conductor or from Rhyl station”. Now that’s strange as surely you’d want to buy the combined ‘One Arriva’ ticket at your origin station as you do Plusbus? With gateline barriers at many stations it’s not really practical to buy from the conductor so I tested the system by asking at Chester station (probably the largest Arriva Trains Wales station in the area) for a ‘One Arriva’ ticket to Rhyl. To be helpful I explained it included bus travel (I’m not that cruel) and impressively the very helpful staff there had heard of ‘One Arriva’ and could remember selling one “months ago” but inevitably for such a sales rarity had forgotten the relevant code the ticket machine computer needed to make a sale. I give them full credit for perseverance and helpfulness as after many unsuccessful attempts they were determined to see it through and thought it best to phone colleagues at Rhyl who were able to help and a £4 ticket was issued called ‘BUS DAY ROVER’ showing it as issued at Chester in addition to a standard train ticket to Rhyl.

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When I arrived at Rhyl, I’m pleased to report the driver of the 51 bus to Denbigh allowed me on without comment after an initial quizzical look at the ticket, presumably helped by the words ‘BUS’ and ‘DAY ROVER’. I don’t think either he or I, or probably anyone knows exactly how far a ‘One Arriva’ ticket could take me as the bus continues all the way to Wrexham as the 51 becomes an X51 at Denbigh, nor if I’d chosen to ride the 11 back towards Flint, whether I could have stayed on the bus through to Chester.

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The Council’s revamp of Rhyl bus station is welcome with some excellent maps and clear information displayed but attention to detail is sadly lacking, particularly keeping things up to date.

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It’s the same old story ad nauseam. Introduce something supposedly innovative in a blaze of hype, bask in the glory of favourable launch headlines and media stories then forget all about it. But the world doesn’t work like that. You have to keep on top of these things; nothing stands still. Yesterday’s hyperbole is today’s stale, unattractive initiative going distinctly off the boil for all to see. Someone like me comes along and it’s all too easy to find fault and criticise whereas continued effort at keeping the pot boiling would reap rich rewards.

Here are a few observations and suggestions:

1. An old architects drawing for the revamped bus station (probably used in the consultation) was still on display in a prominent position fourteen months on – it has numbered bays instead of lettered bays and buses now depart from different stands to the original plan. Take it down and replace with the helpful network route map, assuming that is up to date!

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2. One of Arriva’s routes – the 51 to Denbigh and on to Wrexham – is no longer branded as MAX but the branding appears on the departure information. Remove it. Confusingly the through journeys to Wrexham are operated by Sapphire branded double deckers and the short journeys by standard single decks! A complete brand mishmash.

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3. Keep Rhyl station regularly supplied with bus timetable leaflets for all Arriva bus routes (and the excellent Denbigh County Council produced comprehensive timetable book) and instruct staff based there to ensure the leaflet rack is topped up as required. The rack was bereft of leaflets when I visited sporting just one route, the local Rhyl town routes better known as the 83/83A/84/84A/85.

 

4. ‘One Arriva’ needs proper and sustained marketing all along the North Wales coast not just at Rhyl as the ticket could be used from any of the stations along the 11 and 12 bus routes from Flint to Llandudno as all the ticket states is ‘BUS DAY ROVER’ with no reference to Rhyl on it.

5. Indeed ‘One Arriva’ should be available at every station between Chester and Holyhead where there’s an Arriva bus passing by. The £4 price and sales message would then be much more compelling and attractive.

6. Drop the inconsistent ‘Group of 5’ pricing and have a more usual range of family ticket options including children which would be much more useful for the families who holiday in this area.

7. Have leaflets promoting it at every station along the North Wales coast and make information easy to access on websites for both Arriva Bus and Arriva Trains Wales.

8. Display posters at all stations about bus routes that serve them as per the Rhyl exemplar.

9. Install leaflet racks at every station with supplies of bus timetables as per Rhyl.

10. Put a lot of effort into improving the interchange at Bangor including routing the Caernarfon bound 5C journeys around the station building with much improved signage. This really is a priority.

Sadly none of this will happen and the Rhyl initiative will fizzle out. Firstly managers will observe ticket sales are far too low; not surprising with the lack of high profile promotion, lack of any information, staff unfamiliarity and it only involves one station – a drop in an ocean of possibilities. Secondly Arriva’s involvement in running trains in Wales ends in October as Keolis-Amey start their new franchise. A ‘One Arriva’ ticket suddenly becomes somewhat inappropriately named.

But as luck would have it there’s a ready made alternative already available. The North Wales Rover. It’s been around for some years quietly offering combined bus and train travel for various zonal areas across North Wales. The trouble is you need to be a ticket officianado to know about the options. They’re buried on the National Rail website page on Rangers and Rovers, and even then you have to interrogate a full alphabetical list of every Rover ticket in the country to find the one you want, but at least it does confirm it’s available on both trains and ‘most’ buses. Astonishingly availability on buses doesn’t get a mention at all on the Arriva Trains Wales website. Bizarrely for a bus and train company, you’d think the ticket was only for train passengers, yet one of its unique selling points is you can travel all over North Wales on buses too! Suffice to say there’s absolutely no mention of the ticket at all on the Arriva Bus website!

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Commendably the North Wales Rover is promoted in the excellent Conwy and Denbighshire timetable books I was pleased to recently acquire. And when I bought an all-zones North Wales ticket at Chester station the staff member issued it efficiently and confidentially. I asked if there was a leaflet available to confirm exactly which bus routes it was valid on, or perhaps which are excluded – all you’re told is ‘all trains and most bus routes’ – but sadly there’s no leaflet and nothing to reassure wary passengers.

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I’ve long learned most bus drivers are as unsure as you whether tickets like this are valid so if you present it with a false assured air of confidence you’ll easily win the battle of ticket acceptance wariness. But what a way to run a railway and bus network! Come on; be bold and just state ‘Valid On All Trains And ALL Buses’. And guess what, if you really really promote it properly it just might actually become a big seller and grow the market. After all, Wales could do with a bit of that!

Roger French       26th July 2018

As a postscript, I was intrigued to come across this item in Arriva Group’s update of all that’s happening around the Group.

“A seamless service”; the writer has obviously not tried to buy a ‘One Arriva’ ticket!

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More Moorsbus please

Community Rail Partnerships have been the saviour of many rural branch lines. The closest the bus sector gets to something similar is in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks where small groups of committed hard working individuals devise and oversee the operation of significant networks of weekend bus routes branded as Dalesbus and Moorsbus.

I visit the Dales as often as I can but the last time I travelled on Moorsbus routes was five years ago – on the last day of 2013’s summer operation. There was a danger it was going to be the very last day ever as the National Park had withdrawn its funding; concessionary pass  reimbursement was rock bottom and no funding was available from North Yorkshire County Council.

Luckily the small band of committed volunteers who’d been promoting the network for some years took inspiration from the longer established Dalesbus organisation and set about raising funds to ensure a network could continue.

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Five years later and hundreds of passengers benefit every weekend from the untiring efforts of just three people who in their spare time have managed to slowly build up an impressive network of routes which criss-cross one of Britain’s delightful National Parks.

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Arriva North East, Reliance and York Pullman provide buses and drivers while East Yorkshire run two routes commercially which are included in the scheme. The volunteer team specify all the other routes numbered M1-M8, produce the map and timetables in a colourful and informative leaflet which they distribute widely as well as running a website. Some commercial bus operators could learn a thing or two from these guys.

 

 

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They’re also keen on feedback and on my travels this weekend I met Eden, one of the Moorsbus team of three, who was riding the routes, handing out questionnaires, chatting to passengers and bus drivers. What a gem he is.

And what gems the routes are. Simply using the words ‘stunning scenery’ doesn’t do them justice. I sampled the M3 on Saturday afternoon. This runs between the market town of Helmsley and the Visitor Centre at Danby and nearby Castleton (both Danby and Castleton have stations on the glorious Esk Valley rail line on its meandering route between Middlesbrough and Whitby).

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Helmsley

You travel for mile after mile across moorland steadily climbing until the summit at Blakey where stands Britain’s most isolated pub, the Lion Inn before continuing for many more miles back down again.

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Blakey Lion Inn

 

It’s along one of those narrow yellow roads with broken border edges surrounded by many brown contour lines and nothing else on the Ordnance Survey map so you get the picture of what it’s like.

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I also travelled on the M4 which links Guisborough in the north on a more westerly route via Rievaulx Abbey to Hemsley before continuing to the Park’s other Visitor Centre at Sutton Bank a few miles west.

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Sutton Bank Visitor Centre

Encouragingly Sunday’s first journey had an almost full bus and observations showed the M3 with a good load too. I was pleased to see this as Saturday’s journey had only a few passengers.

The timetables include connecting feeder journeys from Saltburn/Redcar and Darlington/Middlesbrough in the north and York/Malton in the south opening up the network to a huge population. There are also handy connections between routes at key points in the network.

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I talked to Eden about the challenges of running the network. Not surprisingly finance is the biggest closely followed by lack of volunteers to help.

The Government gives public funding to Britain’s fifteen National Parks. Eden explained, along with Dalesbus, they’re lobbying for some of this to be ring-fenced for public transport. The trouble is North York Moors National Park reckon they already do but none goes to Moorsbus, bus operators or the Esk Valley rail line. When pressed the Park admit the funds go on Accessible Transport; minibus/es providing bespoke services as needed. Bearing in mind all buses are now wheelchair friendly it would be far more effective to use this funding to provide bus routes for all to enjoy.

I understand Trans Pennine Express have provided financial support and there’s hope Northern will too since Moorsbus provides valuable bus links to a number of rail stations which skirt the National Park.

Private donors also provide some funding and this year there are notices on buses asking for voluntary donations bearing in mind the vast majority of passengers are concessionary pass holders.

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And here, it seems to me, lies the main funding problem. Eden explained Reliance, operator of the M8 York to Danby route which runs on Fridays and Saturdays (a two and a half hour journey), receives a paltry 91p for each passholder journey from North Yorkshire County Council which passes to Moorsbus. Assuming they make a return journey that’s less than £2 per passenger. Compare that to the commercial price of a Moors Rover ticket of £9 for a day. Other routes receive around £1.30 concessionary reimbursement per journey. This is insufficient and unsustainable.

I asked Eden if they’d thought of withdrawing the routes from the concessionary scheme as they’re very much exclusively leisure routes and instead charge say £5 for passholders. He was concerned at the affordability particularly as the northern catchment area of Teeside has areas of deprivation with even pockets of poverty in well heeled York itself. I understand his concern but it seemed to me many passengers on board appeared prosperous, were well equipped with walking gear and probably enjoyed a not inexpensive coffee and meal out during the day. I think there’s a real danger we make bus travel undervalued through the concession scheme.

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i don’t think people will be persuaded to give donations unless everyone is seen to give otherwise it appears unfair. It’s rather like me being the only person in my street recycling waste to save the planet. It’s got to be a more collective effort.

There are ways in which bus operators could help Moorsbus. Providing high profile promotion, helping to distribute timetables, make drivers aware of Rover ticket availability (my Arriva X93 driver couldn’t issue one from his ticket machine; it’s only valid on a small section of EYMS’s 128 to Scarborough) and train operators could offer integrated fare deals like Derbyshire’s Wayfarer. Bus and train companies could join the lobbying of the National Park for ring-fenced funding.

We also discussed attracting overseas tourists of whom there are many in York and many families can be found on the X93 to Robin Hood Bay and Whitby who might be enticed on to the Moors. This of course all needs money and time. Both in short supply due to the limited resources.

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It just seems bizarre that a well used substantial rural bus network, including some almost full buses, in a large area of the country in a publicly funded National Park depends on three dedicated volunteers and some private donations. But long may it continue and more please, because it’s brilliant and I’ll be back, and much sooner than another five years.

Roger French      22nd July 2018

 

Open data? Let’s get the basics right first.

‘We want a mobility ecosystem that delivers seamless intermodal transportation faster, cheaper, cleaner, more responsive and safer than today. This will be enabled by open data on fares and journeys across all modes – data that is available to everyone to access, use and share’.

No, they’re not my words; it’s the “putting passengers first” vision spearheading the DfT’s grand Bus Open Data consultation launched at four roadshows around the country over the last couple of weeks. I just hope this latest craze for all things open and techy is going to be a lot easier to understand than that gobbledegook of a vision the two consultants, Deloitte and ODI, have cobbled together with DfT mandarins. It might sound good to wordsmiths, but it’s totally meaningless to me. They might want a ‘mobility ecosystem delivering seamless internal transportation’; I just want a bus map that shows me where all the buses go and easy access to timetables.

In the old days you could pick up a bus timetable which would include lovely clear maps making it easy to work out how to get from A to B and maybe wander on to C too. There’d even be town plans showing bus stop locations and information about market days and other stuff. In the not-so-old days you could go online and find all that information even easier. Now vast bus map deserts are opening up across the country making it impossible to work out where buses go. London, Kent, Dorset, Somerset, North Yorkshire… the bus map desert list is getting ever larger. How ironic at a time when Open Data has become the latest fad!

Those ever helpful timetable books are getting more and more hard to find too. I spotted Conwy Council still produce a lovely clear and helpful book so as I’m planning a few days in that lovely county next week I gave the public transport team there a ring and asked if they could send me one in the post. They weren’t sure if they could do that; nor whether they had any available. “They’re like gold dust” I was told on the phone, “everyone wants one but we only produce a few now”. Agggghhhhhhhhh! (I’m pleased to say one arrived in the post yesterday. Gold dust definitely).

Everyone uses journey planners these days, I’m told. Well, that might work fine if you know there’s a bus from your A to your B and you have a pretty good idea approximately how often it runs; but what if you don’t know anything? What if you’ve just moved into a new area? What if you’re wanting to be helpful to an environmentally friendly mobility ecosystem and take a car-free holiday using public transport for a week (having been convinced by Catch the Bus Week and all that)?

Using a Journey Planner in such circumstances is like a game of Battleships. Try square B7 – has that hit a battleship or a cruiser? No, neither; you need square C6 for that, which if you’d had a map showing where they all were, would have been obvious.

And come on guys, journey planners are totally robotic in their travel advice. Take my plans tomorrow. One of the routes I’m catching is split due to the ridiculous bureaucratic 50Km rule; it’s not actually split, just technically split, so Traveline thinks it’s two separate services instead of one through bus, and because the ‘connection time’ between the ‘two’ journeys at the split point is too tight it insists I need to catch a bus half an hour earlier to change on to the one I could have got at the technical ‘connection point’. A human being reading a timetable can work that out; a journey planner following pre-set algorithms can’t.

There’s a classic in the Scottish Highlands where a once a day connection leaves Lairg station four minutes after one of the four a day trains arrives. Our helpful journey planner reckons such a seamless modal transfer needs more than four minutes so ignores it, instead insisting you have to make a two day adventure of a journey, yet there’s a footnote on the timetable that buses will wait for late running trains!

But my biggest beef about journey planners is this. Suppose an infrequent bus departs at 8.50am and then at 11.30am. You optimistically put in your origin and destination and a desired start time of 9am. Assuming you’ve managed to pair up precisely the correct originating bus stop from a menu which can stretch to many alternative options (and the same with the destination) then it’ll tell you the only option available is a departure at 11.30am rather than suggesting starting out just 10 minutes earlier. You’re denied that option.

It’s the greatest irony to see techy people salivating at the idea of soaking up data on bus fares and real time journey planners to develop Apps we never knew we needed when the basic rudiments of maps are being ditched by local authorities. Some bus companies are just as bad, by either not producing network maps or burying them so deep on their websites it’s like that illusive one square submarine yet to be found on the grid.

But hang on a minute. What on earth has happened to get us to the point where the DfT are employing consultants to carry out a massive consultation with hackathons, live streamings and all the techy gizmos you can muster so that I, as a customer, can work out what the fare is for my journey. Err, shouldn’t commercially orientated bus companies in a competitive travel marketplace be telling me the great value prices on offer anyway? Why do we need legislation and regulation for what should be one of the basic propositions of selling a product? Frankly the industry needs to hold its head in shame that for far too long it’s made information about prices and ticket options opaque at best and non existent at worse. It’s like we’ve not grown up from the days when the Road Service Licence conditions pre 1986 stipulated every bus driver or conductor must carry a fare table for inspection by the passenger on demand. (It was usually kept hidden away in their bag although London’s buses always displayed a fare chart on an RM  or RT for the particular route the capital’s restrictive operating practices designated it to be operating on that day). That requirement disappeared in the mists of time so bus companies breathed a sigh of relief and decided the best thing was to pretty much forget about telling anyone about fares information at all. Even in those areas where you are required to have the correct fare with no change; and there’s a fare box. And it’s not a flat fare. Glasgow – I’m looking at you (as I recall my no-change fare of £1.88 for a journey in that city; unhelpfully it needs one of each coin, admittedly some time back now!)

Mind you, I’m not convinced clever Apps developed in all-night pizza-eating Hackathon sessions in geeky-novetly-warehouse type settings which tell me all the fare options, day tickets, capping, weekly variants et al for my journey will make an iota of difference to modal shift. Unless pricing is made a whole lot simpler and attractive as part of the purchase offer the reverse may happen. “Blimey, now I’ve got all this information through the Holy Grail of Open Data, I never knew it was all so complicated. I’ll stick with the car. So much easier. You just fill up every so often and it’s one price.”

The DfT’s grand consultation has a second strand to it; and that’s Accessible Information. ‘Talking Buses’ to use the more colloquial term. In her forward to the consultation document the Minister says “I think every passenger, regardless of where they travel in Great Britain should be able to do so confident they have boarded the correct vehicle and are travelling to the right place”.

Well, hear hear to that. But hang on, why are we having to consider regulating bus companies to be doing something that is just so basic and should have been done as standard many years ago when the technology first became available. It’s not as though it’s expensive in the overall scheme of buying a bus which is going to last for the best part of 15 years and maybe more.  Instead we’ve had boasts about virtually impossible to log-on to WiFi provision, faux leather seats that aren’t any more comfortable and splashes of silver or gold in the external livery from most Groups but a complete block on spending a couple of grand or so on something that really is useful and welcomed by all passengers as the Minister observes.

She continues “with Regulations which focus on the information needs of passengers rather than the means of providing it, I believe we can encourage the change which is so desperately needed”. Commercial bus companies – change desperately needed by passengers – information needs ………………… Regulations.

What a terrible indictment of a so called commercial industry which aspires to entrepreneurial freedom and baulks at regulation and franchising that we need Government to regulate for something passengers “desperately need” (and she’s right, us passengers do desperately need it …. and maps too please!).

 

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Roger French            20th July 2018

How those PMQs should have gone…..

Jeremy Corbyn: “With fares rising above inflation, passenger numbers falling and services being cut, does the Prime Minister accept her failure on yet another public service: the buses?”

Theresa May: “I’m delighted my right honourable friend has taken the opportunity to raise the topic of buses; a vital and hugely important public transport mode which seldom gets the national attention it deserves. Buses are hugely successful at moving millions of people in their local communities and we should celebrate and congratulate the efforts made by so many dedicated people working tirelessly in the bus industry to provide attractive services which, despite his generalisations and negativity, in many areas of the country, are offering great value fares, maintaining or even increasing passenger numbers and improving frequencies.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “Since 2010, her Government have cut 46% from bus budgets in England and passenger numbers have fallen, and, among the elderly and disabled have fallen 10%. Her Government belatedly committed to keeping the free bus pass, but a bus pass is not much use if there is not a bus. Does she think it is fair that bus fares have risen by 13% more than inflation since 2010?”

Theresa May: “Local authorities are responsible for setting budgets to fund those relatively few bus routes which are not provided commercially, rather than Government, so his assertion is misplaced; although I acknowledge Government has made unprecedented cuts to grants paid to local authorities since 2010 making it virtually impossible for them to fulfil all the commitments they would wish to. Those areas with the most successful bus services are where local authorities work in constructive partnership with bus companies. Despite constraints on public funding some enlightened local authorities have used income from parking and even bus lane enforcement to fund unremunerative bus routes. It’s a ‘win win’ policy as motorists are curbed in favour of bus passengers. Bus fares rising by 13% above inflation over 8 years is 1.6% per annum which has helped fund a whole range of initiatives including cleaner Euro IV buses helping to improve air quality.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “Under this Government, fares have risen three times faster than people’s pay. Bus users are often people on lower incomes whose wages are lower than they were 10 years ago in real terms and who have suffered a benefits-freeze. Under the stewardship of this Government, 500 bus routes have been cut every year, leaving many people more isolated and lonely and damaging our local communities. Does the Prime Minister believe that bus services are a public responsibility, or just something that we leave to the market?”

Theresa May: “Dergeulation of buses introduced in 1986 has been hugely successful in allowing enterprising bus companies to provide attractive services in the market which millions of people use every day. It’s for local authorities to fund bus routes to meet identified social concerns but these are very much in the minority. It is unfortunate that we’ve seen local authorities cut routes they have been funding but I’m pleased to see in some areas private bus companies have worked hard to provide some replacement journeys commercially and volunteers in some local communities are taking the initiative to provide Community Bus replacements’”

Jeremy Corbyn: “When Sadiq Khan ran for Mayor of London, he promised to freeze bus fares, and what has he done? He has frozen fares. If the Prime Minister is concerned about the travelcard fares, she should speak to the Secretary of State for Transport: he is the one who sets that fare. Bus routes are being wiped out: 26 million fewer journeys have been made across the north of England and the midlands under her Government. So much for a northern powerhouse and a midlands engine. Can we be clear: does the Prime Minister think that deregulation of the bus industry, putting profit before osssengers, has been a success or a failure?”

Theresa Mayor: “Mayor Khan’s fares freeze was simply a populist attempt to get votes and get elected. The policy is a disaster for London’s public transport and bus and Underground users will ultimately pay the price when fares must inevitably rise significantly to catch up with rising operating costs. In the meantime the Mayor is overseeing cuts to frequencies of well used bus routes due to the dire financial situation he has created thus making gaps between buses longer causing inconvenience to passengers who have to travel on more crowded buses often in unpleasant conditions. It’s a short sited policy purely for political motives and needs to be called out for the cynical bribe it is. It will inevitably end badly with passengers suffering. The right honourable gentleman refers to falling passenger numbers in the north and the midlands but they have also been falling in London notwithstanding the Mayor’s fares freeze therefore confirming that fare levels are not necessarily the determination of passenger numbers. There are many other factors at play not least policies adopted by local authorities and shopping centres towards car use and car parking, as well as local economic performance.”

Jetemy Corbyn: “It will be a Labour Government who save the bus industry and who give free fares to under 26-year-olds. The truth is that since deregulation fares have risen faster than inflation, ridership has fallen and these private monopolies have made a profit of £3.3 billion since 2010. That is what the Torres give us in public transport. The Government have given Metro Mayors the powers to franchise and regulate to secure better services. Why will they not extend that power to all local authorities?”

Theresa May: “There’s no such thing as ‘free fares’; someone has to pay and the Labour policy will mean taxpayers, including those on low incomes, the ‘just-about-managing’ my Government are concerned about, having to pay more tax to fund free bus travel for young people. There’s also no logic in the Labour proposal to offer free fares only where bus routes are regulated. Either it’s a sensible policy to adopt for all; or it isn’t. I would like to see better fares for young people and would encourage bus operators, many of which are in common ownership with train franchise holders, to consider extending the 16-25 Railcard to include a third discount on bus travel. That would be a fine commercial initiative from entrepreurial private bus companies. In many cases the profits earned by private bus companies are not sufficient to fund full replacement of assets; and I would remind him that all such investment is funded at no cost to the taxpayer. All local authorities already have the power to fund bus routes that are not provided in the commercial marketplace and they don’t need extra powers to do so.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “it is a shame that this Government are so shy of giving powers to local authorities, and are instead more interested in cutting their resources. Bus services are in crisis under this Government. Fares are increasing, routes are being cut and passenger numbers are falling. The situation is isolating elderly and disabled people, damaging communities and high streets, and leading to more congestion in our towns and cities, with people spending more time travelling to work or school. It is bad for our climate change commitments and for our air quality. Will the Prime Minister at last recognise the crucial importance of often the only mode of transport available for many people by ending the cuts to bus budgets and giving councils the power to ensure that everyone gets a regulated bus service, wherever they live?”

Theresa May: “I’m very pleased to have had this useful exchange of views with the right honourable gentleman and grateful he has reminded me of the vital importance of buses. It is true more needs to be done to tackle air quality and congestion and there’s no doubt the bus offers the most effective solution. The responsibility for taking action must lie with local authorities as local circumstances vary from one area to another but it’s the role of Government to lead and set strategic policies and I intend to instruct the Secretary of State and the Chancellor to bring forward proposals which will favour buses including the return of the fuel tax escalator and the reintroduction of full fuel duty rebate for buses. I will also be announcing a new ‘Air Quality Solved By Increasing Bus Use While Reducing Car Use And Car Dependency’ Fund of £10 billion which local authorities will be invited to submit bids to. I look forward to further debates about how the Government can provide more help for buses in this House in the future.”

 

Roger French    16th July 2018

Reflections on Shetland

It’s as far north as you can go and still be in Britain. Any further and, aside from dodging the Faroe Islands to the west, you’ll be in the Arctic wastelands of Svalbard.

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Main administration centre of the 16 inhabited islands, Lerwick, is a tad closer to Oslo to its east than London to the south.

Shetland’s population is a sixth the Isle of Wight in an area three times its size. At 16 people per square kilometre, population density is roughly a third of the most sparsely populated areas of North Yorkshire.

Despite these challenges Shetland Islands Council does a good job of providing bus and ferry services for residents and tourists.  It’s called ZetTrans – a stautory body involving the Council, bus operators, ferry companies and airlines.

The bus network comprises an hour’s ride on a 90 minute frequency northwards to Lerwick on the main spine route from Sumburgh and its airport in the far south. Lerwick with its 7,000 population has an hourly town service and another route runs hourly to nearby Scalloway.

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There are less frequent links to Walls and Aith in West Mainland and Brae, Hillswick and Toft in North Mainland.

There are also a myriad of Dial-A-Ride connecting services from isolated hamlets into the aforementioned main routes proving ‘First Mile/Last Mile’ ‘Demand Responsive’ ‘bus-come-taxis’ are NOT new initiatives!

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Seven passengers connecting from the Bigton minibus onto route 6 to Lerwick at Channerwick.

A daily return ‘integrated’ service to Lerwick from the northern most island, Unst, uses the short ferry ride to Yell where a bus connection awaits which continues north to south through Yell and a second ferry to Mainland. Departure from Haroldswick in Unst is 0740, with a Lerwick arrival at 1020 including slick ferry connections. The return journey leaves Lerwick at 1440 arriving Haroldswick 1710. When I travelled south the Unst based 16 seater minibus became scarily completely full with locals off for a day’s shopping in Lerwick and homebound (mainly overseas) holidaymakers with their usual oversized luggage. Luckily the connecting minibus through Yell to Mainland is a 32 seater giving much needed extra room!

 

This through journey Unst/Lerwick can be made at two other times during the day but is less slick involving multiple changes using other bus routes and ferry connections.

Fares are subsidised by the Island Council and are very reasonable particularly if using their smartcard which acts as an electronic purse and is available from all bus drivers on Mainland and Yell based routes (but not Unst). The smartcard gives a 20% discount compared to paying with cash. So, for example, Sumburgh-Lerwick is £2.90 cash and £2.30 with smartcard purse – not bad for a 25 mile, 1 hour bus ride.

 

Buses are average in standard and vary from traditional single decks to luxury tourist-type minibuses to bog standard 16 seat minibuses. There are four or five bus operators on the islands, all of which also run coach fleets.

 

Despite the islands’ low population density bus routes are well used indicating well tuned timetables for the market. Buses also carry parcels, newspapers and provisions as a throwback to erstwhile traditional practice on rural buses in mainland Britain.

 

There’s an infamous bus shelter featured online in Ghetty images of allegedly the most northerly bus shelter on Unst which has something of a cult following with its quirky decorations. There’s even a well signed Visitors Book inside. When I visited this week the theme was a random combination of suffragettes and Star Trek.

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0A7F80DF-7FBA-479D-9EAF-BE2B4260E73EAnd I need to confirm it’s not the most northerly bus shelter. Isolated yes, but actually it’s third in Britain’s Most Northern Bus Shelter stakes. As I found out when I took the bus beyond Baltasound (where it’s located) to Haroldswick (second place) and the small hamlet of Valsgarth (by Saxavord) which truly is as far north as you can go by bus in the British Isles.

 

As always on these trips a few suggestions and thoughts for improvements……

There’s a desperate need for a network bus route map, particularly for visitors; much greater availability of printed timetable leaflets; as well as improved presentation of timetables online.

Timetables displayed at bus stops in colour coded route groups are fairly clear to follow and these are replicated in leaflets but online they’re in pdf format from the leaflets so covers are displayed unrotated at right angles and there are difficult to navigate click throughs to find the route you need.

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I managed to track down a set of photocopied timetable leaflets in Lerwick’s Tourist Centre but these were literally hidden under the counter and on asking I was in turn asked ‘which one I wanted’! ‘All of them please’.

I spotted ferry timetables on display and it’s a great shame bus timetables are hidden away (an all too common occurrence all over Britain – save for the usual exemplars!).

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At Sumburgh airport there was ironically one copy of Orkney’s excellent comprehensive public transport booklet on display but nothing for Shetland save for a small notice listing bus departures on the unmanned information counter. Sadly no timetables for route 6 were posted outside by the bus stop.

 

 

 

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The smartcard electronic purse sounds swish and is a step up on London’s infamous and renowned Oyster in that it’s available from drivers and there’s no upfront deposit to pay. But for visitors it’s a bit disappointing to find the minimum top up is £10 so unless your fares come to a multiple of £10 you’re going to be left with wasted cash on the card when you go home.

I was also surprised there’s no day ticket on Shetland having to pay for each bus ride as a single journey even on the ‘Integrated Service’ between Lerwick and Unst with its two bus legs. Still at least the ferries were included in the bus fare.

In summary an impressive set up in a sparsely populated area with surprisingly well used buses and ferries but I think much more could be done to make it easier and more attractive for visitors to travel around what is a fantastically scenic archipelago. Indeed, Britain’s best.

Roger French     12th July 2018