The battle for West Lothian

Wednesday 28th November 2018

A right royal bus battle is underway in West Lothian with more salvos being fired this weekend.

At the beginning of August First Bus gave their extensive network based on Livingston a good old sort out introducing a simplified route pattern offering quicker journeys and new links into Edinburgh’s city centre and airport. It left a few gaps but none, it was claimed, that were well used. Meanwhile Lothian Buses, under its Lothian Country brand, decided to not only fill those gaps but also expand its western flank into Livingston and onward to Bathgate, Armadale and Blackridge with new competitive routes challenging First’s new network.

I’d read all the PR spin from both companies about the changes so thought I’d pop up there yesterday and take a look to see what’s occurring. I sussed something was afoot earlier in the summer when I spotted the virtually anonymous branded bus pictured below outside Edinburgh Park station – the terminus of the former First Bus Service 21A – part of the convoluted network that’s now been much simplified.

This is no David and Goliath battle as I recently saw in Guildford; First Group may be a multi-national multi-modal giant but it has a huge financial debt burden round its neck from past follies meaning any network developments are forensically scrutinised while Lothian Buses is hardly a minnow – they’re in Scotland’s Premier League of bus operators by size as evidenced by recent phenomenal expansion…..taking over First Bus routes ceded in Mid and East Lothian; taking over a former Stagecoach route to Queensferry and quadrupling the number of airport services they run in addition to its long established extensive network throughout the city and significant sightseeing operations. This latest expansion has been introduced in three phases beginning in August with the latest route introduction commencing this weekend, with some new all night journeys on another route on Saturdays.

On Sunday the Lothian Country network will have grown within just fifteen weeks from nothing to operating five major routes with a peak requirement of thirty vehicles meaning additional annual costs looking for new revenue north of £3 million. Quite a task, particularly when, on the whole, First Bus do a good job in this area and the recently revised network has been a positive development. To use a TV quiz show analogy, this is not The Chase where the all conquering Beast or Governess trounce aspiring contestants, this competition is more akin to Pointless – in every meaning of the word.

IMG_4997First Bus may have retreated in recent years from many areas across Britain and still struggle in others but I detect renewed energy in Scotland under the leadership of the impressive and much experienced Andrew Jarvis. I don’t see First Bus waving the White Flag in West Lothian whatever Lothian Country may wish.

Many of First’s buses are branded with the long established West Lothian brand in a rather smart two tone dark blue livery but there’s evidence of work in progress to introduce a new brand for the two main Edinburgh corridor routes 23/X23 and 24/25 to a similar scheme now becoming familiar in many parts of the country.

It’s unfortunate that in the meantime, just when First should be making maximum impact, there’s a bit of a hotchpotch of double decks and single decks in various liveries on the network and route branding is far from effective, but I’m sure it’ll all look good when repaints are completed – as can now be seen in Bristol for example.

If there’s evidence of exciting initiatives locally, there’s the usual shortcomings from First’s all dominating centralised overhead operations including their usual unhelpful website and mobile app where you need a degree in computer software to find the information you need. For example prices of day tickets involves far too many clicks to work out zones and options – and after all my searching I couldn’t find the ticket I wanted to buy on the mobile app – the £7 day m-ticket for both Edinburgh and Livingston zones so I had to buy it from the driver at the higher price of £7.50. Not ideal when you’re dealing with intensive head to head competition where prices should be well promoted, never mind unavailable.

Lothian Country have more or less matched First’s headline ticket prices although this being Lothian there’s their usual inflexibility disallowing customers wanting to buy a single m-ticket (the only bus company that insists on a £10 minimum purchase) and while they’ve bundled the purchase of day tickets into attractively priced offers (eg their equivalent to First Bus £7.50 day ticket can be bought five for £25 or twenty for £95) their use is restricted: “m-ticket bundles can be used on any non-consecutive days within 180 days” – get your head round that one!

Both operators use an exact fare cash box system on board and Lothian are working hard to play catch up to First Bus who’ve offered contactless for a while – contactless readers are installed on Lothian’s buses but not yet activated. Not being able to buy the £9 all Lothian day ticket (including Airlink which I wanted to use later in the day) on my smartphone app and unable to use contactless on the bus, I ended up having to stuff a £10 note into the farebox for my £9 ticket (hence the inclusion of my wallet in the second photo below!). So for both operators I ended up paying over the odds for my ticket! So much for competition making for keener prices.

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I won’t bore you with describing all the competitive hot spots in detail but in summary there are three main markets – Edinburgh to Livingston by two different routes; within Livingston itself; and between Livingstone and westward to Bathgate, Armadale and Blackridge. There’s also a market for cross Livingston traffic – eg Bathgate to Edinburgh (and both First’s established and Lothian Country’s developing networks are designed to provide such journey options) but make no mistake rail dominates that market with frequent trains taking a fraction of the time on two electrified lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow (one via Bathgate through the north of Livingston and the other via Shotts, to the south of Livingston). I haven’t seen such a large car park at a station as at Bathgate for a long while and unlike when Google peered down on it, when I went by yesterday it looked very full.

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The epicentre of this competitive spat is Livingston. It lies 15 miles to the west of Edinburgh (30 miles east of Glasgow) and has a handy nearby access to the recently completed M8 linking both cities. It’s Milton Keynes on steroids; not least its ‘Town Centre’ which is a huge complex of shops, restaurants, cinema and ‘leisure’ options and over one hundred ‘Designer outlets’. Buses use the north/south road about a third of the way along in the aerial photograph below. Facilities for buses and passengers are basic and functional offering the usual contrast with the polished floors and commercial ambience inside the shopping centre. There are real time signs at each departure bay and an ability to wait under cover on the west side with smaller shelters at each stop on the east side.

Built in the early 1960s Livingston’s twelve residential districts surrounding this monolith of a ‘town centre’ have been commendably designed around cul-de-sac type roads with plenty of pedestrian walkways providing links to distributor roads (shown in yellow below) making for fairly sensible bus route options but the car inevitable dominates thanks to over-sized car parks around ‘The Centre’ offering cheap parking.

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.21.27First’s revamped and simplified network serving Livingston has retained long established route patterns which obviously reflect passenger travel patterns, so it’s a bit surprising Lothian have chosen to run different route patterns which while having the advantage of offering new journey opportunities, on the downside can seem somewhat circuitous and I have doubts whether the demand is really there for such links. For example my journey on the half hourly X27/X28 took around 45 minutes from Bathgate before reaching Livingston’s ‘bus station’ followed by a futher 55 minutes for the journey to Edinburgh.

As we toured around Livingston’s residential districts it was noticeable how many people were opting for the First Bus in front (in one district it was a 23, in another a 26) although Lothian Country seemed to do well picking up passengers from the huge St John’s Hospital complex.

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First Bus’s main 15-minutely route from Bathgate (Service 25) takes a quicker 33 minutes to reach Livingston and First runs an hourly X23 journey to Edinburgh taking 56 minutes while four buses an hour on the 23 or 24/25 take 64 or 66 minutes via two different routes.

For those that like maps, and who doesn’t, here’s the revamped network run by First Bus:

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 11.12.03and here’s the network run by Lothian Country (note the wiggly [light blue] route of the X27/X28 through Livingston mentioned above):

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.37.37to which the latest route, the half hourly X18 joins this weekend which interestingly bypasses Livingston completely and provides a direct link from Armadale and Bathgate into Edinburgh, something First Bus don’t provide:

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.40.11But the journey time from Armadale Station to Edinburgh is 90 minutes which compares unfavourably with the train’s 38 minutes, and I wonder if there’s enough demand for shorter hops along such a route. No doubt time will tell, as will the assessment of how this overall additional thirty buses on to the West Lothian bus network fairs. It’s certainly a bold move, and something the industry has not seen on this scale for many years.

As I observed in the case of Arriva’s challenge to Safeguard in Guildford last week, the incumbent operator has an advantage over any interloper if they’ve built up loyalty and familiarity. Admittedly I travelled off peak yesterday, but fifteen weeks on I would have expected to see buses busier than they were if this is going to be a financially sustainable operation for Lothian. I suspect it won’t be.

Roger French

PS Coming soon to this blog …. My Hundred Best Train Journreys 3 – don’t miss it – an amazing collection of another thirty fantastic journeys, these ranked 31-60.

Switched on Harrogate

Friday 23rd November

Hats off to Transdev Blazefield owned Harrogate Bus Company for getting their brand new fleet of electric buses for the town’s network of local bus routes on to the road and into service.

Unlike London’s all electric Waterloo garage where buses only charge up back at base, this scheme introduces ‘opportunity charging’ while buses layover in the bus station in between trips to keep the batteries topped up.

Stagecoach have electric buses which charge up in Inverness bus station (but it takes forever) while Arriva introduced ‘charging plates’ in the road at the termini for a route in Buckinghamshire, with TfL introducing a similar scheme in north east London for a handful of buses, but this is the first time opportunity charging has been introduced in such a big way and via overhead prongs.

As well as Harrogate bus station infrastructure has also been installed for the buses at the nearby Starbeck bus garage for overnight charging in a more conventional way.

Ambitious innovative schemes such as this one in Harrogate are never straightforward to introduce so full credit to Alex Hornby and his team for their commitment and hard work to make sure the inevitable frustrations are overcome.

I remember the trials and tribulations with the power company in Brighton to get even one roadside real time information sign connected up to a power supply so I can imagine the challenges involved in wiring up three large charging points in Harrogate bus station.

Indeed, there are still delays in commissioning the electric substation at the bus station so the bus manufacturer Volvo has loaned the large diesel generator which was previously used on the one bus trial earlier this year at Greenhithe in Kent.

This hums away as it does it’s stuff and is not as efficient as a proper mains substation, taking longer to recharge each time, nor obviously is it as environmentally friendly. But at least it’s enabled the scheme to get going rather than returning buses to the Starbeck garage for recharging during the day.

Operators with gas buses have faced similar infrastructure delays and frustrations but once sorted (I’m told the substation will soon be operational) it really will be the business and the whole project is very impressive.

The Volvo buses themselves have a real wow factor. You can’t fail to notice their quietness, impressive acceleration and smooth ride. It’s obvious much thought has gone into the interior design and layout to create a pleasant travelling environment to match the environmental credentials of the propulsion.

Nice touches include ample legroom, comfortable seats with a very attractive moquette, benches with contactless charge points over the rear wheels, bus stop push buttons on the insides of seats, a nice front view window in the seat behind the driver and two well proportioned rubbish bins including one for recycling as well as the usual usb points, Wi-fi and next stop announcements and some 2+1 seating.

All this is topped off by a very smart and attractive external livery promoting the Harrogate electrics brand. Ray Stenning and his team at Best Impressions have come up trumps once again with another desire creating package.

As well as the inevitable teething problems from a new bus fleet not least one with a new power and charging arrangement (as explained above) with incumbent driver and engineer unfamiliarity, my visit this afternoon coincided with the usual Friday traffic congestion that besets towns like Harrogate. So instead of a fifteen minute frequency on route 3 to Jennyfield, and half hourly on each of the 2A, 2B (Bilton) and 6 (Pannal Ash) – the four local routes involved – there were some delays and gaps in service but interestingly I picked up an empathic and positive approach from passengers who rightly seem pleased their bus company are investing significant sums in an impressive fleet of buses which will make a contribution to better air quality in their town.

Congratulations to Transdev for backing this extremely bold innovative initiative in Harrogate and to Alex for overcoming the many hurdles to deliver an impressive result.

I’m sure the remaining teething problems will soon be overcome and Harrogate electrics will be the obvious choice for Gold in the UK Bus Awards ‘Environment Award 2019’ this time next year.

Roger French

Go South Coast – a multi award winning exemplar

Tuesday 20th November 2018

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Photo courtesy © The Bus Industry Awards Limited

Many congratulations Andrew Wickham and all the team at Go South Coast.

They’ve only just gone and added yet another award to their bulging trophy cabinet this afternoon at London’s Troxy: the prestigous UK Bus Awards 2018 Bus Operator of the Year; having won top Shire Operator of the Year and pipped Nottingham (top City Operator) and Ensign Bus (top Independent) in the final play off.

It’s been an Award filled six weeks for Go South Coast; picking up David Begg’s National Transport Award for Bus Operator of the Year on 11th October, the magazine Route One Award for Large Bus Opeator of the Year on 31st October and climaxing today with the UK Bus Awards’ top accolade.

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Not only that, but Andrew and his team were also victorious in the same categories in both the Route One and UK Bus Awards last year making for a record breaking quintet of award winning trophies and, may I say, all richly deserved too.

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UK Bus Award Winners 2017 – photo courtesy © The Bus Industry Awards Limited

Unlike the usual crop of other worthy winners: Nottingham, Reading, Lothian, Brighton & Hove, Ensign Bus which all have a well defined geographic urban area at the heart of their business, Go South Coast is a very diverse company with a varied portfoilio of brands and operations within its remit which makes its award success all the more worthy of praise.

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A diverse portfolio includes buses running every 3 minutes between Poole and Bournemouth (m1 and m2 also winning the Sustained Marketing Award this afternoon)……..
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…… to one return journey three days a week from Lockerley to Romsey

These range from the original Wilts & Dorset core now branded as ‘more’ (based on Poole) and Salisbury Reds; urban operations in Southampton as Bluestar and Unilink, the infamous and much loved Southern Vectis on the Isle of Wight, the 2017 addition of Thamesdown Buses now branded Swindon’s bus company, not forgetting small coach and contract operations as well as tendered bus routes run by Damroy and Tourist Coaches in deepest Dorset as well as the former coach company Excelsior and some National Express contracts.

And to top off all of that there’s part of a former central engineering works which rose out of the ashes of the original failed Frountsource privatisation of National Bus Company’s southern engineering sites now successfully trading as part of Go South Coast as Hants & Dorset Trim, specialists in refurbishment, repairs, conversions, retrims and paint jobs. You don’t get much more diverse than that portfolio.

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Andrew (left) with former Opertations Director Ed Wills (now with Go-Ahead Ireland) and Alex Chutter, General Manager Swindon with the new look Swindon bus company

Andrew has led Go South Coast as managing director since 2011 having perviously been its operations director between 2003 and 2009. In 2009 he was promoted to managing director of Plymouth Citybus for two years on its aquisition by the Go-Ahead Group. Aside from that brief interlude, Andrew has therefore amassed fifteen years of continuity with Go South Coast overseeing many developments including the fall out from the original Dorset tender contract which didn’t quite work out as expected; more recently the aquisition of Thamesdown and it’s turnaround into a thriving urban operator and importantly, and key to any successful bus company, an evovlution of continuous improvements and investment in quality alongside nuturing excellent relationships with local authorities and other stakeholders.

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Damory – part of a multi-modal international transport group PLC but still ‘Dorset’s great local bus company’.

Andrew will modestly say this award success is down to having an excellent team. There’s no doubt Go South Coast has some highly motivated, top quality managers and a huge team of committed and enthusiastic staff providing excellent bus and coach operations in Wiltshire, Dorset and parts of Hampshire; but they’re motivation comes from being led by a passionate, energetic, committed leader who inspires his team and offers that all important encouragement to achieve the best.

Andrew exudes these qualities and well deserves the recognition that comes from this unprecedented award success. His dedication and commitment is infectious and I’m delighted to see his hard work being recognised.

At the launch of the latest buses for Bluestar in Southampton earlier this month

It’s not easy. I was chatting to Andrew a couple of weeks ago at the launch of Go South Coast’s latest £4 million investment in nineteen impressive ADL Enviro 400 double deckers for Bluestar route 18. I mentioned how important it is for a managing director to be able to ‘get his (or her) arms around a bus company’ (structurally and geographically). Andrew admitted it wasn’t as easy as it once was following recent expansions but these Award wins demonstrate his industry peers rightly have admiration in a job well executed despite the challenges from a growing business.

It’s not as if Go South Coast has the market to itself either. Competition with First Bus in Southampton and Yellow Buses in Bournemouth and Poole has actually raised the quality of bus provision rather like it has done in Oxford for many years, rather than go down market.

Go-Ahead’s readiness to invest in Swindon, which the Borough Council was unable or unwilling to do, has been to the benefit of bus provision in that town and competitive spats with Stagecoach have now subsided with each company concentrating on what it does best.

Where Go South Coast has a monopoly, particularly on the Isle of Wight, it continues to invest in quality improvements and provides a comprehensive network, including, uniquely, an intensive service on Christmas Day which must surely confound critics of the deregulated market which allegedly ‘leaves people isolated in their homes’.

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The popular Needles Breezer at Alum Bay – a must ride, if you haven’t done it
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The three New Forest Tours are an excellent way to explore the National Park

Go South Coast also knows all about the tourist and the leisure market with some great services on the Island as well as operating three extremely popular routes throughout the New Forest National Park during the high summer season and the year round Stonehenge tourist bus from Salisbury.

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The Stonehenge bus provides a popular public transport link from Salisbury

The Company’s network of inter-urban routes across parts of Dorset provides important connections between a range of destinations on impressive and comforable vehicles and are well marketed; not surprisingly they’re well used and popular. Travel Centres in Swindon, Salisbury, Southampton, Poole and Newport are well stocked with timetable leaflets and there’s a handy timetable book for the network of routes based on Poole and another for the Isle of Wight, produced twice each year.

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The popular X3 linking Salisbury with Bournemouth is just one in a network of inter-urban routes run by ‘more’

Every time I’ve travelled I’ve found Go South Coast staff to be courteous and friendly, not least when I’ve made bizarre requests for the bus to stop for a few minutes in the village of Nomansland so I could record I’d been there (another service with one return journey running just three days a week route!).

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In Romsey
In Nomansland

All in all a great example of how a company with a diverse portfolio of services in a challenging market in southern England can thrive when given the backing of investment from a Group plc and is led by a first rate managing director given the necessary autonomy and a great team.

A true exemplar for the bus industry to showcase. Congratulations once again.

Roger French

Will competition safeguard buses in Guildford?

Friday 16th November

Head to head bus competition broke out in Guildford last week. It won’t last; one operator will blink first – read on to find out which.

Long established family owned Safeguard Coaches runs circular routes 4/5 linking the city centre with Aldershot Road, Park Barn and the Royal Surrey County Hospital. Eight years ago they also ran part of route 3 serving Bellfields but back in 2010 Arriva, who also operated buses to both areas, took over the route to Bellfields exclusively leaving Park Barn exclusively to Safeguard. I’m not sure whether this arrangement was something of interest to the Competition Authorities at the time, but the local media certainly took an interest.

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From the local Surrey media

In the event, the “arrangement” is now history as Arriva have crashed back into Park Barn with a ten minute dedicated service (Route B) at the same time as revamping a longer cicular route (service 26/27) which also served the Royal Surrey County Hospital and an area called Stoughton. Now RSCH gets its own ten minute dedicated service (Route A) while Stoughton has its own fifteen minute frequency Route C.

The spark for Arriva’s Park Barn incursion came a few weeks ago when Stagecoach were given rights by the University of Surrey to run buses through the campus which had previously been served by Arriva on their now abandoned circular 26/27. The replacement route A now has to bypass the campus using what’s known as The Chase which also treads on the toes of Safeguard’s route 4/5.

Furthermore part of Stagecoach’s new network (Route 2) provides competition between the city centre and Stoughton to Arriva’s new Route C (old 26/27).

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The new Arriva A B C routes
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The long established Safeguard Coaches circular 4/.5 routes
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Stagecoach runs circular linked routes 1/2 taking in the University, Hospital and Stoughton

Passengers have never had a better service with well over twelve buses an hour running direct between the city centre and the Royal Surrey County Hospital and up to twelve an hour between the city centre and Park Barn estate. Bus fares have also come plummeting down. One thing’s for sure, despite the Hospital being a busy attractor for passenger journeys and Park Barn being what we euphemistically call ‘good bus territory’, there’s definitely not enough passengers for the high frequencies now on offer.

I feel sorry for Safeguard. They’re rightly regarded as a quality independent operator (because they are); a winner of industry awards; and well respected by the local community and passengers who use the 4/5 route – which meets the needs of the area well. They’ve provided an excellent service in Guildford for ninety years and route 4/5 is a quality local route of which they should be proud.

I’ve got sympathy for Arriva. It must have been disheartening to be chucked out the University campus which I’m sure was lucrative to serve on its 26/27 circular and the incursion from Stagecoach in Stoughton must be unwelcome. I appreciate the attraction of making good the loss with an incursion into Park Barn, but it simply won’t work out for them.

Good for Stagecoach who must have been working closely with the University to gain exclusive access rights to the campus and introducing what looks like a decent mini network linking the University with its catchment areas.

I’m impressed Surrey County Council have obviously worked hard to get all the bus stop flags and timetable cases updated with new route numbers and timetable displays even including large index displays and departure signs in Guildford bus station. Full marks to them for that and what a shame their comprehensive timetable book for Guildford only published and valid from 1 September (coinciding with the new Stagecoach routes 1/2) is now out of date.

Arriva have produced an attractive timetable leaflet for the A, B, C routes available in their travel shop in the bus station but it was a shame there weren’t any available on the buses I travelled on today. I wonder if they’ve done a house-to-house in the affected areas to promote the new routes?

Safeguard also have an attractive full colour timetable leaflet for the 4/5 (commendably Arriva have copies on display in their Travel Shop) and a small additional leaflet promoting extra buses to and from the hospital and its cheaper fares.

As always in these things it’s attention to detail that’s important – not one of Arriva’s strengths. For example the internal cove panels in one of the buses I travelled on was promoting an out of date 0844 telephone number and season tickets for the full Guildford wide network rather than the new less-than-half-price tickets (bizarrely called ‘seasonal tickets’ – will they only last until the Spring?) available on routes A, B, C.

A promotional poster inside Arriva’s Travel Shop

Safeguard on the other hand have high profile posters promoting their lower prices by the entrance of every bus – including bargain fares for NHS staff and their timetable and promotional leaflets are available on board buses. Also impressively their contactless payment option has a weekly and four-weekly cap built in. That’s quite an incentive to stick with one operator for your week’s or month’s travelling and as the incumbent operator with a long history of serving Park Barn and the Hospital, I’d be surprised if passengers desert them.

Certainly my observations today, which I appreciate are only at the end of week 2, indicate far too few passengers using Arriva’s new Route B and there’s certainly not enough potential to grow the market sufficiently to sustain both this and the 4/5. I can’t conceive Safeguard ever capitulating, they look financially sound enough to sustain this unwelcome onslaught. The only likely outcome is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down Route A) as it wont be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ.

Routes A and C look like a good idea – it simplifies what was a rather convoluted 26/27 circular but if I’d been Arriva I’d have also redeployed resources from the 26/27 (and used the transfer in of more modern single deck buses from elsewhere) to boost and protect the service to Bellfields – providing a more attractive offer than double decks lumbering round every twenty minutes – it wasn’t that long ago the great hope for Bellfields was the ridiculous Mercedes Sprinter minibuses, but that ended in disaster as the buses were totally unsuitable; I can’t help thinking double deckers are just as unsuitable to the other capacity extreme and I’d be very wary of a locally based family owned highly respected operator reinventing history and returning to that pre 2010 arrangement of serving Bellfields!

A double deck on Route 3 to Bellfields today
The Mercedes Sprinters were completely unusable and withdrawn from route 3 last year

One to watch with interest in the coming months.

Roger French

Feeling healthy on the bus?

Thursday 20th September

The Westminster Parliament’s Transport Select Committee have been inviting comments for their Inquiry into the health of the bus market. As Monday’s closing date for feedback is fast approaching I thought I’d better gather a few thoughts for them.

The Inquiry’s scope sounds worthy enough…

Personally I prefer the Easy Read booklet ….

(Love the blue coloured rail ticket to illustrate a bus ticket!).

I always worry about these London based Inquiries particularly when MPs (and DfT mandarins) spend so much of their time in London and see lots of red buses. There’s always a risk of buses-in-London are good; buses-in-most-other-places are bad syndrome.

To illustrate this institutionalised London bus bias phenomenon, here’s a tweet from the Transport Select Committee from a few weeks ago calling for evidence and feedback for the Inquiry.

More pertinent would be what’s been happening over the last 25 months (never mind 25 years) now that London is coming to terms with zero public subsidy grant (as per many provincial local authorities) and the impact of a politically motivated but financially suicidal fares freeze.

And that’s aside from all the external factors which impact bus travel such as population growth (or not); population density; land use locations and density; economic activity etc etc.

I’ll cut to the chase with my comments for the TSC. There are two principal issues.

First that lack of subsidy. When deregulation was introduced in 1986 one objective was to end the damaging cross subsidy dragging all bus routes down to the lowest common denominator of (lack of) investment. Profitable routes were robbed of investment to prop up loss makers instead of reinvesting in frequency improvements, new buses and attractive marketing to realise their potential for growth.

Loss making but socially necessary routes where instead made solely the responsibility of local councils who could fund them as much or as little as they desired. Now, that no longer works because in austere Britain local councils simply don’t have the funds anymore. They can barely keep statutory responsibilities going let alone non-statutory nice-to-haves like bus routes.

So point one is: without public funding the 18% of bus routes which need it can’t possibly be healthy; they won’t run unless community transport operators step in or commercial bus operators provide some form of skeleton service as a goodwill gesture to compliment their networks.

The second point is about structural organisation within the industry. Those award winning bus operators running successful networks correlate almost exactly where empowered and impassioned managers are based locally with authority to make a difference without the corporate straitjacket imposed by increasingly centralised transport groups.

It’s as simple as that. And as it’s self inflicted it can easily be solved. It just needs Corporate CEOs and FDs to have faith in their local managers and let them do the business without constant referrals up the convoluted chain of command.

Back in the mid 1980s the National Bus Company split up its large subsidiaries that had built up through mergers and reorganisations in the 1970s for a very good reason. To get management closer to the action in more locally run businesses as deregulation and the threat of competition approached.

That still applies today but there’s an even more important reason. The need to finesse effective relationships with key local stakeholders like council CEOs and leading politicians who can introduce policies to restrain car use and give buses priority. They need reassurance and confidence that such politically courageous decisions will come good and be effective. That only works if you have respected senior bus managers embedded in local communities.

So point two doesn’t really need a Transport Select Committee Inquiry nor DfT bus policies, it just needs a new approach by the Groups to reintroduce localised management structures where they no longer exist and employ empowered impassioned managers.

We’d soon have a healthier bus market. Just look at where it currently works well.

Roger French 20th September 2018

Seven steps to simpler rail fares. Sorted.

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Tomorrow is the last day to give feedback for the Rail Delivery Group’s review of rail fares with the aim of making them much easier to understand. They’ve produced a simple clickable online survey which, if you don’t make any additional comments or suggestions, only takes around five minutes to complete, so is well worth a whirl.

There are questions on things like the merits of basing fares on distance, time of day/day of week, level of service, time of booking, method of booking, flexibility of travel, split ticketing, rewarding loyalty, discounts for railcards as well as methods of payment.

The RDG review pledges any changes will be financially neutral so for every attractive outcome offering lower ticket prices there’ll be others paying more for their journey. I can’t see the latter going down well with the rail industry’s political masters nor the commentators and media who like to find fault. Which group of passengers will willingly pay more for the sake of achieving a more logical, easier to understand fares system?

And in that context here are my seven suggestions for simplification:

1. Do away with cheaper return tickets and just have single journey tickets.

In some cases cheap off peak returns are only 10p more than the single which is particularly anomalous. Instead maintain the ability to buy a return (for convenience) but it’ll simply cost double the single. In averaging this all out, most people already make return journeys so this won’t have a huge impact on what people pay; it will mean cheaper single journey prices and modestly more expensive return prices but still achieving the same overall revenue take. While we’re at it, the summation of single leg journey prices mustn’t be less than the price charged from end to end to avoid split ticket anomalies.

2. Do away with Advanced Purchase discounted tickets.

In many cases, for Standard Class travel, they don’t offer the savings they first appear to once the cost of a return journey is taken into account. An off peak return is very often just as cheap as two Adanced Purchase tickets for the separate journey legs. Furthmore, off peak returns offer complete flexibility on journey travel times.

3. Do away with peak/off peak price differentials; charge the same ticket price irrespective of travel time.

Bit radical, I know, but season ticket holders travelling five days a week already pay something close to five times the off peak fare anyway. They always reckon they’re hard done by, but actually the perceived high cost of travel is because they pay in bulk and make more journeys. An occasional traveller pays much more per journey as they pay full whack in the morning peak with an Anytime Ticket. This change will obviously mean off peak ticket prices rising relative to peak prices but see my suggestion number 7.

4. Do away with cheaper tickets restricted to one particular train company.

All tickets should be available on any train running between the origin and destination and used by ‘any permitted’ route between those points. Which brings me to…

5. Make it much more clear what the ‘Any Permitted’ route options are for tickets.

I’m pretty sure only the renowned ticketing expert Barry Doe knows what can be done and what can’t; the rules are so complex and almost impregnable. It can’t be beyond the wit of the fares experts at the RDG to produce a nice interactive online map of the rail network where you can click on your origin and destination stations and up comes all the route options possible on the map. I think people would be amazed what flexibility is available and when combined with the ability to break your journey at any station on route (something many passengers are also unaware is possible) opens up many flexible travel options.

6. Do away with seat reservations.

Increasingly I see passengers ignoring their allocated seat and instead opting for a preferred better placed unreserved seat especially when unreserved (or less busy) coaches are marked up on platform indicator boards. Passengers like the ability to choose a preferred seat once they actually arrive on the train, but this leads to chaotic scenes where reserved seats are foregone as passengers rush to bag unreserved seats. I’m also increasingly finding electronic seat reservations systems are unreliable leading to more confusion as passengers board along the route expecting to find their reserved seat.

7. My final suggestion, having swept away cheaper returns, cheaper advanced purchases, cheaper peak tickets and reservations in favour of a simple easy-to-understand one price system…….is to add a bit of complexity back, but using a promotional marketing approach by significantly expanding the range of Railcards.

7a Make Railcards available for any adult without the need to be of a certain age, have a partner or children, or work for the armed forces. Yes, let anyone buy a Railcard. A sort of Nationwide Network Card. The range will include paying something like £100 up front for a year which would offer say, a 50% discount off peak on the new standard single fare. Or another could be £40 offering a third discount. I’m not privy to know the revenue streams from different tickets now, so it’s difficult to know what the price band/discounts need to be, but I hope you get the idea behind the principle of establishing say three or four Railcards of this kind to appeal to different market segments. You’d design Railcards to appeal to regular users as well as occasional users and the discount would encourage travel by offering a good value price. Offers could also be made on the upfront price of the initial Railcard purchase to encourage take-up and discounts given for longer duration Railcards, as now, say for a three year validity.

7b Existing Railcards would continue and with some extensions of validity. For example Senior Railcard discounts should be available at any time, including during the morning peak in the London and South East area (ok, I need to declare a slight vested interest here; ok, a big-time vested interest here – I live in London and the South East and I use a Senior Railcard; a lot). Journeys wholly within London and the South East (as per the Network Railcard area – which itself is nonsensical to have one Railcard’s restrictions based on another’s area) are not discounted until after 9am presumably on the logic of not giving a discount at a busy time of day with packed out trains. But that doesn’t stand much scrutiny as Londoners with a Freedom Ticket (available to over 60s) giving completely free travel can use the overcrowded Underground at any time as can Senior Railcard holders travel at a discount on packed out morning peak trains in other conurbations around the country and finally as justification, Senior Railcard holders can already travel across the L&SE area border at morning peak times – e.g. there’s no time restriction on discounts for a pre 9am journey from Brighton to Ipswich (Ipswich is outside the L&SE area) but discounted travel is not possible pre 9am for Brighton to Colchester (Colchester is within the L&SE area). Again this is something many passengers don’t know about, indeed my recent experience has been even some ticket office staff don’t know about it either and wrongly assume a Senior Railcard means no discounts before 9am. Not true.

So that’s it, a much simplified ticket system with some attractive incentives through a new range of Railcards. Sorted.

If you’ve got ideas or comments about rail fares be sure to click here by close of play tomorrow.

Roger French           9th September 2018

LT’s reshaping began 50 years ago today

I won’t say I remember it as if it was yesterday, as that really would be an exaggeration but it seems impossible to believe today marks the 50th anniversary of London Transport’s revolutionary Bus Reshaping Plan hitting the streets of Wood Green and Walthamstow as well as a plethora of new Red Arrow routes criss-crossing Central London.

The Plan certainly looked impressive.

It was full of interesting statistics and artists impressions of how things would look much better when the whole of London had been reshaped. Here’s a flavour ….

For an impressionable teenager with a growing interest in London’s buses it was a game changer. Aside from RFs, the beloved GSs in the Country Area and the first experimental XMSs on new Red Arrow route 500 introduced in 1966, fifty years ago London’s buses were all double deck and mostly RTs and RMs at that (ok some were ‘L’ and ‘W’ variants and also a few RLHs and XAs for added spice). So a fleet of gleaming single deck buses with two doors seamlessly interchanging with revamped trunk routes and the Underground really did capture the imagination.

The idea was to limit the impact of traffic congestion on long routes while introducing cost savings through one person operation on the new shorter localised routes with a revolutionary 6d flat fare. All the new ‘satellite’ routes (as they were futuristically called) were centred on Wood Green and Turnpike Lane Underground stations and shopping area in the first scheme introduced on 7th September 1968.

I grew up in Winchmore Hill located at the north end of the new W4 route. This replaced the well established 141 (previously Trolleybus 641) north of Wood Green having originated in Moorgate.

As well as Winchmore Hill, new shortened routes went to Edmonton (W1) and Alexandra Park with Crouch End and Finsbury Park in the peaks (W2) and oddly a long established route from Northumberland Park via Wood Green to Finsbury Park (233) was simply renumbered W3 and converted to flat fare MBS vehicle operation. It was shortened and split into two sections on Saturdays with a W5 and W6 meeting at Wood Green and both continuing south to Turnpike Lane along the High Road shopping area, but as that was a congestion hotspot on a busy Saturday the arrangement didn’t last long and the W3 soon became daily. Unlike the others it hasn’t succumbed to any route change since 1968 and is the only route still operating exactly the same fifty years on!

It all must have seemed a very sensible idea on paper when LT’s Board Members gave the go ahead but sadly the wheels soon came off the whole Plan.

The MBS class was not best suited to London conditions and engineering staff were ill prepared. Mechanical and electrical problems weren’t helped by the buses being stored for months in damp wet conditions as negotiations with trade unions over their use had become protracted.

Drivers weren’t used to their longer length particularly in London’s congested traffic and manoeuvrability was a problem.

Passengers certainly weren’t used to the front entrance door (nor the centre exit) and particularly not the fiendish looking ticket machines protecting the turnstiles (yes, turnstiles) which were almost impossible to pass through if encumbered with shopping. I witnessed many shopping bags being pushed through and reaching the far side of the turnstile while their owners became stranded on the entry side. Children had to push an audible button on the ticket machines to alert the driver they were only paying 3d to release the turnstile.

The buses soon gained the ‘cattle truck’ nomenclature as the lack of seating forward of the centre doors meant most passengers had to stand with very little to balance against or hold on to in the central area away from the windows. After a short while seven individual seats were retro-fitted in this area.

The 6d flat fare was welcomed by those who’d previously paid more (8d, 1/-, 1/3), but regarded as extortionate for those making shorter cheaper priced journeys (4d), or in those pre-Travelcard and Hopper Fare days, had previously travelled through on a newly curtailed long trunk route without paying a separate fare at all.

Reliability, far from improving, plummeted as all these problems compounded to leave long gaps between buses.

Over in Walthamstow, the new bus station in Selborne Road alongside the just opened Victoria Line Underground station wasn’t ready so buses had to decamp to neighbouring unsuitable residential roads to turn, with dolly stops making for a chaotic introduction of the new flat fare circular route W21 and a whole host of truncated and changed longer distance bus routes to take account of the smart new tube trains; albeit they only reached Highbury & Islington for the first few months with Victoria itself only reached the following March 1969.

Other areas of London received flat fare routes later in 1968, including Bermondsey/Rotherhithe (October) and Ealing (November) as these plans were well advanced by September 1968 but it was soon back to the drawing board for later schemes.

With the benefit of hindsight and being positive and kind, the Plan suffered from being ahead of its time. Shortened routes in a congested Capital City make sense; indeed TfL are still shortening routes for exactly the same reason fifty years on. One person operation was eminently sensible to reduce operating costs, it’s just that ticketing technology freeing the driver from handling fares and cash has really only become available relatively recently. The 6d flat fare was certainly ahead of its time. And was remarkably cheap. In today’s money it would be around 45p. TfL’s flat fare, admittedly on longer routes across the whole network is currently frozen at £1.50. Better interchange between the shortened ‘satellite’ routes at Underground stations was another forward thinking aim; an improved bus station was built alongside the Piccadilly Line station at Turnpike Lane, which has since been further expanded and improved in the intervening years, as have impressive interchanges right across London.

As highlighted above route W3 is noteworthy for running unchanged between Finsbury Park and Northumberland Park fifty years on exactly as it did when introduced on 7th September 1968 (and as it had done since October 1949 as route 233 before that) while Red Arrow 507 also still runs between Victoria and Waterloo pretty much as it’s done for the past fifty years except for a minor rerouting via Vauxhall Bridge Road from May 2011.

Also noteworthy is route E3, part of the Ealing scheme introduced on 30th November 1968, between Greenford and Chiswick also running pretty much unchanged today.

There’s a brilliant new book just published by Capital Transport – Reshaping London’s Buses by Barry Arnold and Mike Harris. It’s extremely well written and full of fascinating background and detail; well worth a purchase and a read.

Finally if you’re reading this on publication day take a trip over to North Weald on Sunday (9th) for a unique line up of preserved ‘Merlin’ and ‘Swift’ buses organised by the Epping Ongar Railway.

Roger French       7th September 2018

All Change for Cross Country

Today is the last day to make your views known to the DfT if you’d like to see changes made for the next Cross Country franchise due to begin in December 2019. Although as befits things on rails it might be put back into 2020.

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The current franchise has been operated by Arriva Trains UK since 2007 when it took over from Virgin Trains.

The main issue DfT highlights in the consultation document that needs resolving, as we all know only too well, is over crowding particularly on late weekday afternoons when the 64% of us travelling who are long distant leisure travellers clash with the 23% using Cross Country trains to commute home from the major towns and cities served. Sunday afternoons also peak out as the number of journeys simply hasn’t kept up with growing demand for leisure travel.

Aside from the obvious answer of running longer trains, one option posed in the consultation is whether to concentrate resources on the core network centred on Birmingham and bounded by Plymouth, Southampton, Edinburgh and Manchester leaving extended journeys to outposts such as Aberdeen, Glasgow, Guildford, Bournemouth, Paignton and Penzance as well as localised parts of the Stansted Airport-Birmingham, Nottingham-Cardiff routes to other franchises. This could even include one of the two journeys an hour north of York terminating there or possibly Leeds.

The consultation points out GWR have plans to improve timetables west of Plymouth and TPE and LNER have plans for north of York while SWR serve the market well west of Southampton to Bournemouth.

For me the beauty of long distance travel is not having to change trains. Once settled into a seat with many miles ahead it’s a pleasure to enjoy the journey without the hassle of getting off, worrying about and waiting for a connection and then finding a new seat for the next leg. It might mean less frequent journey choices but that’s more than made up for by a direct journey.

Indeed I lament the ending of long distance journeys that once served Brighton including latterly a journey to Manchester via Reading and Birmingham. Although only once a day and taking much longer due to pathing difficulties (it used the Clapham Junction/West London Line/Willesden link) it was popular with passengers who dislike using the crowded Underground to cross London for stations such as Paddington and Euston.

Families heading for holiday destinations in the south west encumbered with luggage really appreciate having a through train to their destination. Bearing in mind the Rail Delivery Group’s current campaign encouraging train travel for leisure trips to Devon and Cornwall it will be the ultimate irony if Cross Country trains end up being cut back.

Another possibility raised in the consultation is whether the market can be segmented by removing some of the stations served or making some stations set down or pick up only to discourage commuters and move them on to more local trains. But as the consultation admits, longer distance passengers might also use and value stations proposed for withdrawal (eg Burton-on-Trent, Stafford – my examples) and it’s just not practical to enforce set down/pick up only restrictions.

Bearing in mind the foregoing, counter-intuitively, suggestions for new destinations to be added to the Cross Country network are also invited with Liverpool, Bradford and Swansea mentioned. Although these would be welcome additions they’d be contrary to the other aim of ditching peripheral routes to concentrate capacity on the core network. The consultation acknowledges this and points out there are also track capacity constraints so I get the idea it’s one of those things you add into consultations to create a feel good factor but won’t ever come to anything.

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But if we are going to add lines on maps and setting aside those track capacity constraints I’d like to see more south east options added including the aforementioned Brighton and hey, why not, Dover and Canterbury, maybe even using High Speed 1 tracks for part of the way. I can dream too!

The new franchise is an opportunity to draw a line under the hugely unpopular Advanced Purchase on the Day idea (APOD – as it’s fondly known) whereby a passenger nicely ensconced in their seat (even paying full whack) can be turfed out by a last minute passenger boarding along the route having just bagged a cheapo ticket with a newly reserved seat. The fact Cross Country’s senior management have always been in denial about how disruptive and unpopular this ‘innovative ground breaking’ (not) idea has been only made the irritation worse; and the Company’s Twitter team’s only response to any complaint is ‘you can also reserve a seat by text for yourself’, yeah and turf someone else out of their seat. I’m not that anti-social. Nor do I want to be pre-allocated a naff seat with no window!

Fortunately DfT bods seem to have caught on (maybe one of them had to shift seats) and the consultation says it expects bidders to come up with ways to improve APOD and meet expectations for all passengers. Here’s one – scrap seat reservations on Advanced Purchase. That’ll sort it.

Aside from the need for longer trains, the new franchise desperately needs a new fleet of trains to see off the unsuitable Voyagers. I really can’t think of a less attractive train to make a journey over 200 miles; and please can we have decent seat-align-with-windows especially in the first class section and a greater choice of in and against direction seats.

Judging by recent franchise awards, new trains seem a strong possibility and what a positive and welcome step forward that’ll be.

You have until 11.45pm tonight to let the DfT know your views.

Roger French           30th August 2018

72% increase in train fares from Saturday

That’s a headline to grab your attention for sure. And it’s true; for those of us on the Brighton line and travel off peak into Victoria. GTR have announced from Saturday 1st September it’s back to the bad old days with ticket restrictions reinstated around what trains we can use particular tickets on.

Looking at the range of ticket options available you’d never know all the trains are run by the same franchise, GoVia Thameslink Railway, which in turn is micro-managed by the Department for Transport where all the fares revenue ends up. The poster explaining the reintroduction of restrictions even has a helpful matrix so you can work out which trains to catch and which to miss if you want to save a bob or two.

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From my local station, Hassocks, the off peak ‘Thameslink only’ day return to ‘London Terminals’ (includes travel to either Victoria or London Bridge and stations through to City Thameslink) has been costing £14.80. Following May’s timetable meltdown all restrictions were lifted with ‘Thameslink only’ tickets valid on both Southern and Gatwick Express trains. But from Saturday if you’re travelling to Victoria (where Thameslink trains don’t venture) or you want the flexibility of using any train on the Brighton line you’ll need an ‘Any Permitted’ off peak ticket at a whopping 72.3% higher price of £25.50.

Other increases include 30.7% for the off peak one-day Travelcard rising from £22.80 (‘Thameslink only’) to £29.90 (‘Any Permitted’) while a peak hour return rises 20.7% from £37.60 (‘Thameslink only’) to £45.40 (‘Any Permitted’). The peak hour Travelcard rises 27% from £41.90 to £53.30.

You might well wonder why on earth these huge differentials continue when all the trains are run by the same company. In other parts of the country cheaper ‘one company only’ fares are available where two or more different train companies run on the same tracks. For example on the West Coast Main Line a ‘West Midlands Trains only’ ticket is usually cheaper than a ‘Virgin Trains only’ ticket which in turn are both cheaper than an ‘Any Permitted’ ticket. Similar arrangements apply on the East Coast line.

Train companies like having their own exclusive tickets as they get to keep all the revenue whereas they have to share ‘Any Permitted’ ticket revenue with all the other train operators who might offer alternative journey possibilities. 100% of a cheaper ticket is usually better for profits than a share of a higher priced ticket. And passengers not bothered about flexibility end up with a reduced travel price; so it’s a win-win.

But in GTR land, all the trains are operated by the same franchise operator, and all the ticket income goes to the DfT, so why on earth are these differentials being perpetuated? The cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option was introduced some years ago, ironically when GoVia ran the original Thameslink franchise and was in competition with Connex who ran the South Central franchise. To steal a march on Connex, particularly for the lucrative Gatwick Airport to London market (also contested by an independent Gatwick Express franchise) as well as the Brighton to London business, GoVia introduced cheaper tickets exclusively available on their own Thameslink trains. The same situation continued during the era when the tables were turned and GoVia ran Southern having lost the Thameslink franchise to First Group who renamed it First Capital Connect.

But now, it’s all in one ownership including Gatwick Express where the complete rip-off fare mentality fleecing tourists with higher fares for a less than premium ride is being reintroduced once again. How on earth DfT can justify charging £19.90 to travel on a red coloured train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria taking around 30 minutes (which could well have started its journey in Brighton where passengers don’t pay any extra) and a cheaper £16.20 to travel on a green coloured train taking around 30 minutes is beyond me, particularly when the green train has more comfortable seats. The differentials are even more stark in the off-peak if using a Pay-As-You-Go Oyster card when a journey on a green coloured train will cost just £8.30. It’s an absolute minefield for incoming visitors staring at ticket machine screens at Gatwick Airport trying to work through a myriad of complicated options. Not much of a welcome for sure.

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I reckon if DfT thought they could get away with it, they’d withdraw the cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option on the Brighton line completely and make us all pay the higher ‘Any Permitted’ prices but in the climate of incompetence surrounding this whole franchise that would be a PR step too far. Thank goodness for small mercies like this.

 

 

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