Commuting with Zeelo

Friday 24th May 2019

There was a time if you fancied running a coach travel business you’d get yourself a coach or two (probably decent second-hand stock to begin with), pick up a school contract to run, get known among well-to-do local clubs and societies for those lucrative private hires and maybe run a small excursion programme.

Nowadays if you’re an aspiring travel entrepreneur you’ll get yourself some ‘angel investment’ backing, a friend who understands algorithms, a website and social media presence and a list of decent coach companies you can call on. You won’t be owning any coaches, renting a garage and employing drivers.

That’s exactly what Snap are doing to build a share of the express coach market which I tried out last October between London and Bristol and this morning I gave a try out of another new player in the ‘online-travel-with-no vehicles-of-their-own’ sector called Zeelo who’ve recently started a new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol.

According to their website Zeelo founders Sam Ryan and Barney Williams “didn’t understand why public transport options outside of cities were slow, crowded and too expensive”. Travelling to support their football team playing away matches turned out to be a right hassle.

So they teamed up with their friend Dani and “unlocked the power of data”. Dani built an algorithm for Sam and Barney “that understood when large groups of underserved people wanted to travel”.

Their travel-to-event business was born “transporting 750 like-minded fans to Wembley”. Unfortunately their team lost but that experience “was just the start” as the Zeelo website goes on to explain “that daily grind needed fixing, so they rolled out their commuting service, offering car users a viable stress free alternative to get to work”. Apparently “Zeelo is now loved by thousands of riders. By providing exceptional rider experience Zeelo has grown rapidly, but we’re just getting started. Join us on the journey.”

I couldn’t resist an invitation like that and was full of eager anticipation to join the growing band of happy commuters full of smiles over their laptops as they leave the daily grind behind.

All the more so as although the single ride fare of £7 for a peak hour trip from Newport to Bristol seemed reasonable enough I spotted on the Zeelo website a sign up offer of ten free rides by using the promotional codeword COMMUTE.

That was just as well as I then realised you’re not able to buy just one ride for £7, you have to spend a minimum of £70 on a ten-ride package which I wasn’t so keen on in the name of just a one-off research project for this blog, but I suppose it’s fair enough for a five-day a week regular commuter to buy a week’s travel in one hit and have the option of using any leftover rides with days missed in a following week.

This same bulk purchase of rides is the norm on Zeelo’s more bespoke commuter trips they’re promoting on their website to places like Jaguar Land Rover’s plant at Gaydon, Ocado’s head office in Hatfield or to three private schools in the Hampstead area London NW3. Those are just some of the journeys that come up when you hit the ‘Browse Rides’ button on Dani’s website masterpiece.

But unless I’m an employee of JLR or Aston Martin in Gaydon, Ocado in Hatfield or a student in Hampstead the options are not particularly attractive for me.

However, I did try entering ‘Brighton’ in the ‘Where are you going?’ box as encouraged and up came a ride option on each of the five days programme of horse racing at Goodwood at the end of July with pick ups in Hastings, Brighton or Portsmouth for £14.99. In the old days we’d list those trips in a colourful leaflet/brochure called Excursions now you have the fun of entering somewhere you might want to go in a blank box on a screen and see what comes back!

I spotted on the Zeelo twitter feed some excitement a week or so ago about the upcoming Tottenham Hotspur versus Liverpool Champions League final in Madrid. “No need to spend £1,000 on air fares” as it turns out Zeelo have arranged coaches from north London to the match for £299.99 leaving at 0530 and arriving 0600 (the next day obviously!). So far no coaches from Liverpool but you can register an interest and see what the algorithm comes up with.

Dani’s algorithm’s secret is to keep an eye on all sorts of events and monitor chitter chatter or expressions of interest on social media and then marry the two together when it looks as though a coach of paying punters can be mustered. Hire in a coach from a preferred supplier who’s happy to take a guaranteed price irrespective of how many may be on board and away you go.

In the old days you’d stick a chalkboard outside your physical shop window; now you have a virtual shop window available anywhere in the world – indeed Zeelo also have transport interests in South Africa.

Talking of anywhere in the world brings me to Newport and this morning’s commuter trip to Bristol. Apparently Sam and Barney reckon there’ve picked up vibes there’s a gap in the commuter market across the Severn and the Zeelo business model’s the way to fill it.

There’s a choice of two journeys from Newport at either 0645 or 0730 both scheduled to take an hour for the trip across to Bristol with return times offered at 1715 or 1815.

I booked a ride online yesterday morning for the 0730 journey this morning grabbing the first of my sign up ten free rides. I didn’t receive any electronic acknowledgment but could reassuringly see confirmation was recorded whenever I logged on to the website.

A confirmatory text arrived on my mobile phone at 0645 this morning including the driver’s name and registration number of the coach …

….and the coach was impressively already waiting at the departure bus stop alongside Newport station when I arrived at 0715.

It was an eight year old Mercedes Benz Tourismo operated by Creigiau Travel of Cardiff (formerly owned by Clarkes of Sydenham, London). Sadly not quite up to the luxury standards depicted on the Zeelo website but what did surprise me was being liveried in prominent Zeelo branding, something rival Snap doesn’t do, as they use companies with high quality coaches used on other prestigious work when not ‘snapping’.

There was no wi-if, nor usb sockets, no luxury seats, no tables and with 51 seats (albeit spaced in 12 metres) the leg room wasn’t generous. There was a hot water supply to enable free coffee and the usual toilet crammed under that by the centre emergency exit.

We were expecting six passengers but by our 0730 departure time only four of us were on board. Our friendly driver made a call to base and I guess was told to give it five minutes as we left spot on 0735 with two no shows (the problem of giving free rides presumably).

Whilst the quality of the coach interior may have been underwhelming the smooth congestion free ride was excellent and I was impressed as we joined the M4 just outside Newport after ten minutes at 0745…

…went over the second Severn Crossing five minutes later at 0755…

…the start of the M32 at 0805…

…Cabot Circus at 0815, just forty minutes after leaving Newport…

…and alongside the walkway through to Temple Meads at 0820: a ride time of 45 minutes.

Using the new bus lane on the M32 approach into Bristol probably saved us around 5-10 minutes but otherwise we encountered no congestion along the peak hour motorway journey at all.

GWR run an hourly train service between Newport and Bristol Temple Meads taking 38 minutes so there’s not much difference in journey time and Zeelo definitely wins if you work in the Cabot Circus area of Bristol which is a fair walk or bus ride from the station.

Zeelo’s ‘£70 for ten rides’ price is comparable with GWR’s weekly season price of £67.40 which of course doesn’t offer the flexibility of carrying forward rides not used.

If you’re a truly committed Zeelo fan and trust their longevity in the market you can grab yourself a 100 ride package for £540 working out at just £5.40 per ride.

Railcard holders can get discounts on the full whack GWR day return price of £15.80 which with my Senior Railcard would reduce to £10.45 so attractively cheaper than £14 with Zeelo. But most commuters aren’t Railcard holders so Zeelo have got good comparability on both price and journey time with rail.

GWR are upping their game on train quality as new trains cascade stock to other lines including the Cardiff-Bristol-Portsmouth route so it may be less of a squeeze on board in the future but with Zeelo you’re guaranteed a seat and so all the more reason I would suggest to make sure that’s a comfortable ‘luxury’ seat as promoted on the website.

Aside from myself, this morning’s three fellow passengers are obviously not going to make Sam, Barney and Dani a profitable future and their hope must be to build the business; and that, as always, is the hard part. Building a website and even an algorithm is one thing, finding a sustainable profitable market in the coach commuting business and building that up is quite another.

Creating product awareness and turning that into a committed purchase is as hard to achieve online as in the physical world of selling travel. It costs a lot of money.

For now, as explained on Zeelo’s website, after initial “angel investment” a recent injection of £4.25 million into the business by sustainability investor ETF Partners whose managing partner Patrick Sheehan has joined the Zeelo board is giving the team optimism and confidence.

Zeelo are on a mission to reduce car use for commuting. Whereas traditionally transport entrepreneurs would probably have splashed £4.25 million on some shiny new coaches the Zeelo team are investing it in ‘doubling down on our data led approach; investing in product and technology; investing in new vehicle technology including EVs and AVs; investing in the onboard experience; and continuing putting our customers first”.

Good luck Zeelo, hopefully this time your team won’t lose.

Roger French

Click for Leicester

Wednesday 1st May 2019

IMG_6344.jpgIt’s day three of Arriva’s latest Click venture introduced in Leicester on Monday, so I thought it was worth a trip to see how it’s panning out.

IMG_6210.jpgCorporates love to boast about being the first to do something; they salivate over ‘ground-breaking initiatives’ and associated hype reckoning it makes for a great PR story in the trade press. Only they think that of course; most readers just raises their eyes upwards, emoji style.

Sittingbourne was ArrivaClick’s DRT debut of course, so truly was a ‘first’; then came Liverpool which was cheekily promoted as the ‘first’ such DRT service in a city. When I pointed out Oxford Bus was up and running with their Pick-Me-Up service in a city the Click PR people countered their’s was the ‘first’ ‘Click’ in a city.

Now we have the ‘first’ Click to be funded by a Section 106 Agreement. This ‘ground breaking initiative’ has seen an organisation called Go Travel Solutions broker a deal between Arriva and Drummond Estate, the owners of a huge swathe of land on the western edge of Leicester on which developers have plans for a massive development of houses, two primary schools, a secondary school a “pioneering community centre” and employment park. The area is called New Lubbesthorpe; it’s south west of the Leicester Forest East service area west of the M1 as shown on the aerial view below.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.08.46.pngThe Developer’s brochures are full of all the essential buzzwords: “Arriva Click …. part of Drummond Estate’s drive to provide a sustainable way to work, live, learn and play for those living in New Lubbesthorpe’.

The area will naturally have “vibrant urban amenities, and it is important we provide sustainable transport options”.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.07.45.pngGo Travel Solutions reckon Click “will deliver shorter end-to-end journey times” (it doesn’t say shorter than what) and explains “customers request an executive minibus from their pick-up point at a time they want and to a destination of their choosing”. That’s the hype that’s consistently pedalled with these “innovative digitalised DRT services” but as I consistently find, the reality never quite matches up.

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Take this morning for example. My train was due to arrive in Leicester at 1006, so knowing you can only pre-book Click journeys in half hour segments, I fiddled around with the App as I was leaving St Pancras at around 0900 to schedule a journey in the 1015-1045 slot from outside the station to take me to Barrett’s show house on the fledgling New Lubbesthorpe estate.

IMG_6205.jpgIt’s not entirely clear whether your journey is booked – sometimes I checked on the App, and it showed a “(1)” alongside “Next Journeys” but with no details given; other times I checked and the “(1)” had disappeared. I’ve learnt not to worry about these things, being retired it doesn’t matter whether I have to wait or not, but for someone intent on making an appointment, firstly a half hour’s window with no indication of a precise arrival time is pretty useless and secondly I’d want more definitive confirmation.

IMG_6295.jpgI left the station to find a mass of roadworks outside preventing any bus pick-ups and then received a text at 1010 advising my pick up was 12 minutes away.

IMG_E6365.jpgKen arrived at 1028. It’s an algorithm mystery of why he couldn’t have been dispatched by the software to pick me up at 1015 (the start of my half hour booked window slot) rather than the middle of it. All it had done was kept me waiting unnecessarily for twenty minutes – I could have been in a taxi and away instantly on arrival.

It wasn’t that Ken had been busy with other passengers; I was his very first pick up (ever) since he’d begun work at 0600 this morning! I’ve had a similar experience when using the journey schedule option in Sittingbourne.

IMG_6179.jpgWe had a right old kerfuffle with the pick up too; with Ken passing the App’s designated pick up point in Campbell Street just before the station, and instead headed down narrow Station Street (there he goes pictured above) which is a dead-end and necessitated much skillful manoeuvring to turn round and get going.

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IMG_6180.jpgIt turns out this was Ken’s first day on Click and I was his first passenger. He’s based at Arriva’s Hinckley garage and drives on the big bus rota but had been asked to help out on Click, also based at Hinckley, for today and he was already enjoying the contrast; not least being directed by a SatNav on a tablet rather than a duty card and timetable. Even more interesting was the SatNav’s habit of routing him the wrong way down one-way streets in the centre of Leicester!

IMG_6192.jpg There’s no expense spared when it comes to transport access to New Lubbesthorpe. A brand new access road has been built over the M1 (we’re approaching the flyover pictured below) ….

IMG_6190.jpg…. which Ken pointed out includes twenty-two road humps to slow you down ….

IMG_6194.jpg…. as you approach the area’s planned central node where the first primary school is under construction, and due to open in September.

IMG_6195.jpgIMG_6207.jpgI also spotted the main roundabout on the new access road was sporting a Click advert as we passed by. Nice thought.

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Arriva have no doubt been canny in costing a ‘bells and whistles’ Click service that’s funded by the Developers. Apparently there are five vehicles out on the road seven days a week from 0600 to 2300 necessitating a rota of fifteen drivers’ jobs.

With such extensive vehicle availability and few homes currently built and occupied it’s not surprising my journeys today were soon fulfilled with drivers allocated strategic parking spots throughout the Click operating area just waiting for a booking.

As I’ve commented previously, the problem with these DRT services is, the moment they become more popular with more bookings, the more the risk is waiting time for a vehicle to arrive will increase. The luxury of having drivers like Ken hanging around for four and a half hours waiting for me to turn up is not what can be called “a sustainable transport solution”.

I picked up a leaflet aimed at new residents giving details of some hefty financial inducements to give Arriva Click a try. There’s “£10 free credit” for every adult moving in as well as two redemptions of “£100 credit for just £10” (or “£50 for £5”) and a permanent offer of 5% off weekly tickets. I tried to sign up but unsurprisingly needed to declare plot numbers and other information I was unable to blag!

IMG_E6366.jpgWhen these freebies run out it will be interesting to see how many residents opt to pay the £4.50 a ride it cost me for my travels today. And, of course, there are no concessions for seniors (although New Lubbesthorpe looks as though its target market is a younger generation and families) … but there aren’t child rate prices on ArrivaClick either.

The journey from Leicester station to the edge of New Lubbesthorpe took half an hour but my arrival was about an hour after I’d got off the train what with all the waiting time and I’m not convinced the algorithm routed us along the most direct journey. At one point Ken mistakingly went past a slip road we needed and we almost ended up on the M69 before turning back.

IMG_6198.jpgOn arrival Ken and I (and probably the algorithm too – if algorithms have yet been invented to experience feelings) were both surprised to find a resident who’d booked a ride was waiting our arrival and ready to be whisked away. Ken had his second passenger of the day.

IMG_6206.jpgMeanwhile I took a walk around the development so far, which is very much in its early stages, and noticed that Barrett Homes (one of the house builders involved) has a smart show home and reception area with ample “Visitor Parking”. Old habits die hard.

IMG_6209.jpgIt was time for my next trip. Down to Narborough in the extreme south of Click’s area and the nearest station to New Lubbesthorpe (on the Cross Country hourly route from Leicester to Nuneaton and Birmingham).

IMG_E6208.jpgThe App told me Paul would arrive in 9 minutes which was just as well as the designated pick up point was a good 7 minute walk away from where I’d wandered to. Yet again destroying the myth that DRT picks you up at your desired pick up point; oh no it doesn’t; it’s at the algorithm’s desired pick up point.

IMG_6212.jpgI made it to the designated spot only to see Paul disappearing where I hadn’t expected – but he did a ‘back double’ and reappeared down another dead-end. He explained the SatNav doesn’t think it’s a dead-end but as a local, he knows better and thwarted the algorithm.

IMG_6214.jpgLike Ken, Paul was a very friendly, normally Arriva big bus, driver who’s helping out in Click’s early days and he was clearly enjoying the change. He’d already had a passenger on board this morning and had carried three during yesterday’s shift, so not bad going. It took us just 12 minutes to reach Narborough but still cost £4.50, as my half hour journey from Leicester had done.

IMG_6283.jpgI was just in time to catch a late running Cross Country train back into Leicester and decided to give up on trying to find where buses for the city centre were picking up during the roadworks hiatus and walked instead.

IMG_6311.jpgIMG_6301.jpgA quick visit to both St Margaret’s and Haymarket bus stations observing the contrasting attitudes to timetable provision between Arriva ……IMG_6309.jpg

IMG_6310.jpgIMG_6304.jpgIMG_6307.jpg…..(the very helpful Arriva man in the Travel Centre seems to have thwarted official policy of not printing timetables [to save the planet], aside from the 44/44A, by printing a few of each to hand out from behind the counter – the contrast with yesterday in the Lake District couldn’t be more marked) …. and First Leicester who were displaying a colourful selection of all their city routes…..

IMG_6326.jpgIMG_6325.jpg….. and I thought I’d catch a standard Arriva bus out to the Fosse Shopping Park adjacent to the M1 and full of retail sheds that are popular with browsers before they go home to buy online. Still, browsing is good business for bus companies, thankfully, and I’m sure residents of New Lubbesthorpe will be taking a Click to ride over there as it’s within the designated area.

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Route 50 operates to Fosse Shopping Park on its way to Narborough every 20 minutes and as luck would have it I was just eight or nine minutes from the 1305 departure. The bus arrived in good time and we loaded up with around twenty passengers and headed off, taking around 25 minutes for the journey. I’d bought a Plusbus which, with Railcard discount, cost just £2.30 – just half the price of a Click journey – and of course would give me unlimited journeys around Leicester all day (but not as far as New Lubbesthorpe or Narborough). The contrast with Click couldn’t be more stark.

IMG_6327.jpgArriving at Fosse I was impressed to order my third Click journey to take me back to the station and be given a pick up point just around the corner from where I’d got off the 50, and a pick up time just five minutes away.

IMG_6336.jpgExcept when I walked round the corner I realised I’d stumbled upon one of the designated waiting areas for Click vehicles to hang out with two languishing in the lay-by opposite Asda.

IMG_6338.jpgI ascertained Darren, my driver, was one of the two and we were soon away heading back to Leicester city centre for the station.

Darren had been with Arriva and it’s predecessors for nineteen years and had taken up the offer of transferring permanently over to Click duties. He’d been with the service since Monday and I was his thirteenth passenger. He had high hopes for Click’s success and thought it an ideal compromise between a standard bus and a taxi, with the fare priced accordingly.

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Encouragingly I heard much positivity about Click from all three drivers today; they all cited Liverpool as being a rip roaring success with various figures being banded about: “500 passengers a day” “26 buses now on the road” and even “100 buses on the road”.

(I made a mental note to head up to Liverpool again soon and check out this “too good to be true” positivity.)

IMG_6341.jpgThere’s no doubt in New Lubbesthorpe and its Drummond Estate owner, Arriva have found a willing partner with a strong business interest in handing a large sum of money over in return for an “innovative sustainable transport solution” to help achieve their development objectives.

To that extent this must be considered a success. Whether it will actually meet the transport needs of New Lubbesthorpe’s new residents without frustrating waits and uncertainty over pick up times as well as potentially indirect journeys once more passengers come on board, only time will tell. I reckon once hundreds more houses are built five buses over such a large operating area isn’t going to work, but perhaps there are plans for expansion and higher funding.

However, I couldn’t help reflecting that deploying five buses on a conventional limited stop service between Leicester city centre and New Lubbesthorpe serving the key attractions (Fosse, Hospital, sporting venues etc) with an hour’s round trip time therefore providing a 12 minute frequency would probably fit the bill for residents – but then that wouldn’t be a ‘groundbreaking initiative’ and hardly make for a trade press story. Just saying.

As I’ve commented before, these new DRT services are nothing new by the way – indeed I spotted a Dial-a-Ride bus laying over in St Margaret’s bus station!

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Roger French

Three month Meridian countdown

Saturday 16th February 2019

There’s another rail construction project approaching its deadline for completion – the opening of a brand new train station in London.

Meridian Water is due to welcome its first passengers coinciding with the summer timetable change on 19th May. That’s just twelve weeks away so I thought I’d pop along for a sneak peep through the hoardings and see if it’s worth ordering the cupcakes and balloons for the opening ceremony.

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Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 20.56.32.pngMeridian Water is a huge long term (twenty years) £6bn regeneration scheme in the south east corner of the London Borough of Enfield, in an area east of the Edmonton to Tottenham corridor between the North Circular Road and Northumberland Park where a massive Tesco Extra, IKEA and other retail sheds dominate the landscape to the east of the rail line. The Master Plan boasts of 10,000 homes and “thousands of high quality new jobs” benefiting the local, regional and national economy.

Commendably the project has kicked off with construction of the new Meridian Water station which began in November 2017. It’s situated on the line from Liverpool Street and Stratford via Tottenham Hale to Bishops Stortford, Cambridge and Stansted Airport. The location of the new station can be seen under construction on the above satellite image just to the west of Tesco Extra which is in the centre.

The two track railway is being enhanced with a third track which will run from the south through Tottenham Hale and Northumberland Park stations (where London bound platforms are being widened into new island platforms) and ends in a new “turn back” facility at Meridian Water.

IMG_8475.jpgThe new station is just south of Angel Road station (as seen above and in the satellite image just north of the North Circular Road). Angel Road is famed for not only being London’s least used station but also having one of the most desolate and uninviting entrances. The station will shut when Meridian Water opens which is effectively a replacement station in a more convenient location for the development.

The extra track will enable a more frequent service with extra trains starting at Meridian Water to Stratford and Liverpool Street as the development builds over the next couple of decades.

IMG_8542.jpgIt’ll be a slow build though as construction of the first 725 homes on land to the west of the new station (see satellite image above and photograph below) in an area endearingly called Meridian Angel isn’t due to start until next year. These new homes will be in the shadow of Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground seen in the distance – another late running construction project!

IMG_8543.jpgMeanwhile those few passengers who currently use Angel Road (pictured below looking south) and wander off to their homes sited north west and west of the current station will have a much longer and circuitous walk to and from the new site.

IMG_8472.jpgI thought it was worth visiting Angel Road to savour the dying embers of London’s iconic least used station before it closes. It doesn’t inspire, being adjacent to various scrap metal dealers and assorted light industry. As you can see from the following photographs, even the Samaritans have given up presenting a decent image. Talk about down at heel. The only bright spot was a notice pointing the way to a telephone (goodness knows why in this smartphone era) but even that proved elusive – I couldn’t find it. It’s safe to say Angel Road won’t be missed for its ambience and Meridian Water can’t come soon enough.

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IMG_8474.jpgBut is three months soon enough for the work still left to do in finishing off? I know these things always look as though they’ll never be finished in time and all of a sudden, the last bit of tarmac is laid, the paint is touched up, the windows polished and it’s all fine for the opening, but when I visited this week, the site had the usual handful of hard-hat-industrial-boots-orange-high-viz wearing construction gang present but I didn’t detect any sense of urgency as they wandered around the site sauntering up and down the vast number of steps the new station will offer its new passengers who’ll certainly keep fit to and from the platforms on their daily commute.

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IMG_8540.jpgI may have missed it, but I didn’t spot any easy pedestrian access across from Tesco Extra and IKEA with no crossing facility at the very busy adjacent traffic light controlled junction. I also had to walk along a muddy grass verge with no footpath approaching the new site from the south. However the architects visionary mock up computer generated image shows a utopian world of just pedestrians and cyclists approaching the station and that busy junction has completely vanished.

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Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 20.45.05.pngThe mock up also shows the first 750 homes (as in blocks of flats) all fully built with lots of potential passengers flocking to the station but with construction of those homes not starting until next year I’m thinking it may take a year or two for Meridian Water to climb into a busier passenger usage league. There has to be a strong chance Meridian Water’s first year will see it retaining Angel Road’s crown as the least used station in London … but with the newest and most pristine facilities!

I’m far from an expert on construction projects but it looked to me as though there’s quite a lot of ‘finishing touches’ still to be done, and then there’ll be the usual rail bureaucracy hoops to go through before the station can open (think Kenilworth) so I wouldn’t put serious money on a 19th May opening judging by what I saw this week. Still at least Angel Road can live on a bit longer, if necessary.

Further south down the line, Northumberland Park is also wrapped in hoardings with a new footbridge access over the extra track looking ready to open as is Tottenham Hale, which is undergoing a complete transformation including a new and expanded ticket hall for the Victoria Line, which I can very confidently say won’t be ready for 19th May. As the photograph below shows, there’s quite a bit of fitting out yet to do!

IMG_8447.jpgIt will be good for the credibility of rail project deliverability if Meridian Water actually does meet its promised 19th May opening date, but it’s not looking hopeful.

Roger French

railair & you’re there

Thursday 24th January 2019

IMG_7489.jpgThe recent launch of First Bus’s nine brand new Scania Irizar i6 bodied K-series coaches for its prestigous RailAir nonstop service linking Reading Station with Heathrow Airport attracted a shoal of positive comments on Twitter and in the trade press so I thought I’d give it a road test today.

IMG_7509.jpgAll the more so as I realised I’d never actually travelled on this bespoke route before; living in Sussex I don’t have much need to reach Heathrow from Reading, although back in my student days at Reading University in the early 1970s I remember trips up to London on Thames Valley’s (sadly rebranded Alder Valley in its ill fated merger with Aldershot & District) infamous routes A and B which took an age to reach London; and I really can’t remember whether one of them nipped into Heathrow to serve the airport on the way.

 

IMG_7481.jpgThese new coaches do look very smart indeed in their attractive Best Impressions designed livery. Sleek lines, lovely blue and grey colours and an attractive no-fuss typeface and logo with the slogan ‘railair & you’re there’. The professional design’s a world away from the busy bus-crash style message overload which befits some of First’s bus fleet in metropolitan areas (Leeds I’m looking at you!).

 

IMG_7511.jpgThe step entrance is noticeably nice and wide, and, naturally the coaches are equipped for wheelchair accessibility, although sadly three days advance notice is required if you want to travel in a wheelchair. It looked like it’s much more than a five minute job to remove the seats that make way for a wheechair.

IMG_7532.jpgThe gorgeous interior design matches the exterior and really is very attractive and welcoming, as are the 47 seats including twelve arranged around three tables spread through the coach. USB sockets are available as is wi-fi, although I couldn’t get a connection on my journey.

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IMG_7529.jpgThe seats really are the most sumptuous and comfortable I’ve travelled in for a long time, and all the more so for passengers making the transition from a Class 800 IEP train and its rather unwelcoming seat comfort and transferring in Reading over to this luxury and comfort for the onward journey to Heathrow. It even beats First Class on an 800.

IMG_7530.jpgAs I showed on Twitter this afternoon, there was a rather disturbing amount of vibration on the table surface as the coach tackled the uneven road surfaces, especially on the M4 where long term roadworks are upgrading it to a ‘Smart Motorway’. That aside, the coach really did glide along and I found it a smooth enjoyable ride. The plaudits are well deserved.

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IMG_7482.jpgOne or two observations and suggestions about RailAir: we set off exactly on time at 1300 and after seven minutes in free flowing off-peak Reading traffic reached the A329(M) at 1307, joining the M4 five minutes later at 1312. The motorway’s temporary 50mph speed limit impacted our speed until we reached the end of the roadworks by Junction 7 for Slough at 1325 when we speeded up, reaching the M25 at 1333 with a smooth run round to Terminal 5, our first drop off two minutes early at 1338 where four passengers got off and we left on time at 1340. Four more alighted on time at Terminal 2 at 1352 with our final two passengers deposited at Terminal 3 at 1358, just two minutes down. We reached Heathrow’s bus station at 1402 (instead of 1400), and the coach got ready for its 1410 departure back to Reading.

IMG_7537.jpgTen passengers may not seem many, (around the same number took the previous journey from Reading at 1240 – the service runs every 20 minutes) but at a fare of around £20 (for both single and return) that’s not bad going for an hours work.

I booked online in advance last night, but there are a few inconsistencies with the booking arrangement. The RailAir website advises passengers must book online at the latest by 5pm the previous day, yet I found I was able to book at about 8pm without any difficulty, so that seems an unnecessary restriction. Once you receive your email confirmation and ticket, it contains the instruction “YOU MUST PRINT YOUR TICKET AND SHOW IT TO THE DRIVER”. Not only is this in block capitals but is repeated twice more and a similar warning is contained on the website.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 19.30.58The only problem for me was my email came with a large promotional graphic which didn’t fully download in any event, which took up so much of page 1 of the 3 page email I MUST PRINT OUT that what looked like the all important QR Code was split between page 1 and page 2! Not being a computer expert and knowing how to change the settings I was a bit befuddled!

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 20.28.11.pngIn the event, the railair representative in the lounge at Reading Station confirmed it’s quite in order to simply show the email to the driver on a smartphone, and indeed my driver was very happy to see it that way!

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The inevitable ‘wet floor’ (it wasn’t) bollard too!

The reception area at Reading Station has also been given a much welcome Best Impressions designed makeover and really looks quite splendid inside with its TV screen showing the latest news, complimentary newspapers (The Times at that too), complimentary hot drinks machine, comfortable seats as well as seats to sit and work at. It made up for the ineptness of the website booking arrangement to be honest.

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IMG_7506.jpgAnother small inconsistency is that the only benefit of booking online is for an ‘Early Bird’ ticket, defined as booking more than three months before travel; otherwise, despite the messages, despite the 5pm cut off, there didn’t seem to be any difference between online prices and just paying in the lounge or to the driver.

I was pleased to see the main Railcards are accepted for a third discount, which meant my fare for a single journey was £13.20; which I ranked as good value for the service provided.

IMG_7525.jpgBearing in mind railair is operated by First Bus and GWR has long been in the hands of First Group, you’d think there’d be close working between the two companies. There’s a lovely railair leaflet I spotted at Reading, but I’d be surprised if it was to be found at stations westwards to the West Country and South Wales. Although I did spot a GWR leaflet giving details of links to many airports from GWR’s network which included mention of RailAir.

IMG_7480 (1).jpgThere are signs for the RailAir coach inside Reading Station and commendably departures appear on screens and therefore on apps too. I was surprised there wasn’t better signage directing you to the departure lounge as you exit through the barriers and would suggest this would help those unfamiliar that this gem is hidden behind M&S Simply Food’s central outlet.

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IMG_7410.jpgI would also suggest ways be found to include the service on National Rail’s journey planner. I caught the 1158 from Newbury arriving Reading at 1220 giving a good connection with the 1240 railair departure (had I needed it) which would’ve got me to Terminal 5 at 1320. However, if you put Newbury to Terminal 5 in the Journey Planner it will take you into Paddington and out again on the overpriced and extortionately expensive Heathrow Express arriving Terminal 5 twelve minutes later at 1332. Pay more and arrive later; I don’t think so!

Screen Shot 2019-01-24 at 19.43.13.pngThe long term future of RailAir is in some doubt with talk getting louder about constructing a new western link into Heathrow from the Great Western main line. At the pace of change on the rail network it will be some time before we see such a development, so in the meantime these new coaches are indeed very welcome; well worth a ride and you’re there.

IMG_7535.jpgRoger French

The m1 arrives in Bristol

Sunday 6th January 2019

Today saw the launch of the third route in Bristol’s metrobus trilogy: the m1. And this is the biggy. Route m3 was first out of the blocks last May between Emersons Green and the city centre using a new bus only exit off the M32 for easy access to the University of West of England campus. This was followed in September by the former Long Ashton Park & Ride service rebranded and renumbered m2 and diverted to use some new fancy bus only roads and completely unnecessary guided busway sections (reviewed here).

In reverse number order, we now have the m1. From the gigantic leisure and retail park just off the M5 known as Cribbs Causeway in north west Bristol the m1 runs via Bradley Stoke in the north east and the University of West of England to the city centre then via Bedminster and Hengrove to terminate outside South Bristol Community Hospital having taken a whopping 85 peak minutes for an end to end journey. A Monday to Saturday 10 minute frequency impressively runs from 6am right through to 1am (20 minutely on Sundays). The extended peak running time means at least fifteen buses are needed to run the route.

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South Bristol Community Hospital, Hengrove

Uniquely the route is being operated by Bristol Community Transport (BCT) under a fixed cost contract to First West of England who are taking the revenue risk. BCT is part of CT Plus which in turn is part of the expansive HCT Group (a social enterpise formerly known as Hackney Community Transport) who specialise in fixed contract operations. This arrangement is a win-win for all concerned. BCT get an extensive contract with no risk; First West of England get to develop revenue on a high profile new route overlaying their extensive Bristol city network rather than competition from a third party, and I suspect First are paying CT Plus less than if they’d operated it directly, and the local authorities, who have backed the metrobus concept and funded all the infrastructure, get an integrated package and their vision of a better quality bus service to tempt motorists out of their cars. With First West of England’s recent difficulties with staff shortages it’s also a sensible arrangement to contract out a significant resource uplift such as the m1.

It all sounds like a sensible arrangement with local operators working pragmatically together playing to their strengths and local authorities putting they money where their vision is. And the evidence is metrobus is working too. Coinciding with the m1’s introduction this week, a new timetable is being introduced on the m3 with peak hour with-flow express journeys (numbered m3x) using more of the M32 and shaving eight minutes off the journey time, due to overloading from Emersons Green and the Science Park.

I had a ride up and down the m1 today; it was encouraging to see so many people giving the new route a try (many buses ran full), and noteworthy how many families with young children were travelling. Extra buses were drafted on to the route to cope with the numbers travelling, helped by a first day free travel promotion – just the kind of thing to get people trying a bus route. I overheard many positive comments about the bus interiors and the service in general and I’m sure this bodes well. The interiors are nothing plush, but very smart, very comfortable and very practical. The usual usb sockets and wifi are available but sadly no next stop announcements were working on the buses I travelled on although I’m told they were working on other buses – no doubt some teething issues.

I’m always puzzled why some bus companies still go for large screens which block the forward view and the ones I saw weren’t providing anything useful – other than a reminder to exit via the rear doors which was displayed only once the bus had stopped.

Overlaying fifteen buses on to an already comprehensive city network without damaging profit margins is risky, but James Freeman, the well experienced managing director of First West of England, told me initially no reductions are being made to routes which now face competition from metrobus until things settle down. This is a very wise strategy as the m1 takes a different route to existing First buses at both ends of the route as well as a different route into the city. In Hengrove confusingly, existing buses into the city centre serve the opposite side of the road, and in one case (the 50A) is quicker than the new m1, so it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to this new high profile entrant. I suspect there’ll be both abstraction and generation and hopefully the latter will exceed the former (and by some margin – to cover fifteen buses!).

Confusingly some bus stops in Hengrove are served by traditional First bus routes but not the m1; the lady photographed above was politely advised by our driver who stopped to explain the situation.

The m1 serves the University of West of England, including the exclusive access to and from the M32, so the northern section of the route has a ready market especially as the m3 has shown, students are a great market to attract and respond in large numbers to improvements to bus routes.

Despite extensive stretches of bus lanes, the m1 running time has been expanded at peak times to cope with Bristol’s notorious traffic congestion. This is sensible, as even today, albeit with first day teething problems as drivers and passengers got used to the new arrangements, on one journey I travelled on we lost fifteen minutes on the northbound journey between Bedminster and the city centre, not helped by a delayed five minute driver handover – and at a bus stop not served by metrobus (not good!).

As with the m2 and m3, no tickets are sold by the driver. Every stop has a pod with clear instructions how to buy a ticket or to use a smartphone or smartcard.

The fleet of buses on the m1 are powered by gas. A nice touch, but I’m not convinced many passengers notice, and even if they did, it would make a difference to their travel arrangements. But it’s good to see alternative propulsion sources continue to be trialled.

All in all an exciting development and congratulations to all involved. It’s certainly worth a trip to Bristol to take a look.

Roger French

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

Top 10 Show offs

Tuesday 30th October 2018

img_3601The Euro Bus Expo show opened at Birmingham’s NEC today for its biennial showcase of what’s hot in the bus and coach industry. I popped along for a stroll round the stands; here are ten exhibits that took my fancy.

1 Navaho Technologies Ltd’s displays

90C7BA04-C91A-46C8-89B2-36985B40D9C5These guys were demonstrating attractive bright new displays with built in gizmos which can provide useful information like how long until the next bus comes on a Bus Full destination sign and a live map showing where the bus is travelling when on a diversion.

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Some of their work is already being trialled by TfL on a range of vehicles and routes. They’ve also updated their ‘seats available’ gizmo which detects people as they pass a sensor to go upstairs. I’ve no idea how much all this techy stuff costs but it’s impressive.

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2 Mellor’s Strata

2B710F98-AAC2-48BF-9E4B-146538FB47DBi really like what Mellor have done with the Mercedes Sprinter – creating a practical and comfortable small bus for both urban and rural services.

9AD6802C-AC04-49D1-95DB-D19C2B5F9128This larger Strata Ultra takes minibuses to the next level. Very smart and swish. A million miles from that ‘riding in a welfare vehicle’ feeling.

3 Ticketer

CDFC1228-8631-4154-AF4C-DD6227531B9DIt seems to me like it was only a few years ago if you wanted to buy a ticket machine you had the choice of Almex or Wayfarer. Then Ticketer hit the industry by storm and now they’re everywhere.

They had by far the most imaginative stand in Hall 5 including an astronaut in full spaceman costume (seen here with Passenger Transport magazine’s Andrew Garnett).

As a passenger I like the simplicity and quickness of using contactless on Ticketer or reading a QR code on an m-Ticket or paper day ticket.

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4 McKenna Brothers electronic timetable

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We hear about the Internet of Things coming our way with new 5G signals enabling our fridge to automatically order a pint of milk and other exciting developments so surely it can’t be long before the humble bus stop paper timetable is replaced by an electronic version?

B0DC173A-81FB-4A9C-BDE3-28CD4F807A5ASo it was good to see McKenna Brothers leading the way with this innovation – be good if they can make it as bright as their super destination blinds too.

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5 Comfy seats

2255586D-D097-417C-827D-877EC81F0D42As well as on board the gleaming new buses on show there were some impressive displays of comfortable seats from a number of manufacturers.

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9E147CAD-CF50-40BC-B799-6C3518632645It’s encouraging to see such a step change in seat quality – passenger ergonomics are definitely taking centre stage as well as requirements for battery recharging and coat hanging. What a shame some train companies (or perhaps more accurately, their civil servant masters) don’t share the same thinking.

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6 Hanover Displays – now in colour

E3FDEE1B-7690-4BE5-9CC4-1475F43A3821Something else that’s come on leaps and bounds is the quality of electronic destination displays including the use of colour. Lewes based Hanover have had a long association with Brighton & Hove Bus Company and it’s good to see they’ve now got decent coloured displays available.

C08E596B-1194-40F6-AC0B-9CA2743CB7F2The latest bright LED destination displays really do make a bold statement as a bus approaches as well as standing out to non users on busy streets in town centres (TfL please note).

7 Electric; Gas; Hydrogen

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It wouldn’t be a bus and coach show in 2018 without some impressive alternative fuel powered buses on display. Optare were showing off their new Metrocity and Metrodecker EV vehicles bound for London – and now with an impressive 150 mile range (enough for a whole day’s operation) …..

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….while Scania had the 100th Enviro400 City biogas double deck bus bound for Nottingham …

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… as Wright’s had the very first Hydrogen powered double deck on their stand (including a very mini version of their ‘w’ logo on the front lower panel.

8 Schedules

One of my first jobs when joining West Riding in Wakefield 43 years ago as a management trainee was to spend a few weeks in the company’s schedules department. Four people spent all day, pencil in hand, pouring over huge graph paper (it seemed like at least A1 size) trying to get the best vehicle and crew utilisation.

It wasn’t long before clever people invented computer software to make the task so much easier. Now, companies such as Omnibus with its Omnitimes link schedules into many other systems and have now even launched cloud based software with interesting new functionality, but my eye was caught by these impressive screens showing ‘what ifs’ devised by Optibus and which impressively give you a resource and cost update as you make any changes. Made me quite nostalgic for doing a bit of scheduling again!

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9 Nostalgia corner

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Talking of nostalgia it was nice to be taken back in time on a couple of the stands and be reminded of launch vehicles of bygone times. They also remind us of just how far we’ve come.

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10 Best Impressions

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Ray with colleague Ed Cameron

I’ve saved the Best until last. You just can’t beat Ray Stenning and his team for creating desire and promoting the bus. It’s no coincidence that most, if not all, of the award winning renowned successful companies, brands and routes have the hand of Best Inpressions behind them. Long may that continue.

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One final thought. As I hopped on and off all the gleaming new buses on display with all their latest gizmos and comfort attributes and which will soon be out on Britain’s roads attracting and impressing passengers, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the most prominent message on entry on a few of them is a stark Exact Fare farebox. In this contactless, m-Ticket, smartcard world perhaps it’s time for a change and give change?

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Euro Bus Expo is on until Thursday 1st November at the NEC in Birmingham if you’re reading this when published. Wonder what they’ll call the next one in 2020!

Roger French     30th October 2018

10 years from now

Wednesday 24th October 2018

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Last week’s conference for Young Bus Managers in Bristol was another great success. A hundred people attended from across all five of the UK’s big bus Groups as well as ten smaller companies and even some transport students from Aston and Huddersfield Universities.

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The afternoon workshop session asked attendees what the bus industry will look like in ten years time. Everyone was randomly allocated to one of eight groups and given 45 minutes to come up with some pertinent highlights which were presented back with a time limit of no more than 3 minutes. Here are my notes of what these young, enthusiastic and energised bus managers foresaw……

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The first group reckoned there’d be a north/south split on payment for fares with no cash in the south but cash continuing in the north. They expected to see MaaS (Mobility as a Service) subscription type accounts for transport use becoming common. There’ll be new safety features on vehicles which will mainly be powered by electric and gas. Wi-Fi will have been and gone as a fad, and they thought more similar fads would come and go. Recruitment of driving staff will still be a challenge but they foresaw more part time and flexible rostering. There’ll be more flexible operation in timetables (like DRT). Congestion will continue to present a grim picture. Overall they saw the next ten years as evolution not revolution.

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Group two foresaw more car free zones as issues surrounding traffic and the environment increased. There’d be many more Park & Ride operations with buses having priority over cars. On ticketing there’ll be more integration across modes through the use of apps. Smartcard use would continue to supplement smartphone ticketing. They also foresaw more electric vehicles provided the challenge of smart charging can be sorted.

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Group three thought the regulatory structure for bus operation would be adapted in different places to suit political will (e.g. franchising). They felt DRT would not succeed as the market was too small but they saw the growth of feeder services connecting into frequent trunk routes. They had concerns about the future of the High Street.

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The fourth group didn’t foresee shock changes – more evolution. BSOG and Concessionary Fares will still be issues. Vehicles will emit 100% clean exhausts. There’d be limited use of autonomous vehicles for specific applications (e.g. airports). There’ll be more electric vehicles. They foresaw continued frustration with politicians who fail to tackle unfettered car use.  Cash would still be commonly accepted for fares payment. Access to information will be better, there’ll be more multimodal tickets and better real time information. Electronically imaged timetables will be displayed at bus stops making it easier to update when services change. There’ll be more useful apps as a consequence of new Bus Open Data arrangements. There’ll be no change to passenger demographics but there will be a national fares scheme for young people and there’ll be work to simplify fares.

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The fifth group thought the threat and opportunities presented by low emission zones will become more political – LEZs becoming the next revolution (previous one being low-floor buses). There’ll be greater partnership working with local authorities. Diesel will disappear as a fuel with cheaper alternatives but they thought grid supply challenges will make electric buses unlikely with gas becoming more common. Autonomous vehicles would be limited to garage shunting movements (freeing up depot space) and emergency braking on the move. Business will become less operational minded and more customer focused.

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Group six highlighted electric vehicles with ULEZ schemes becoming commonplace. Vehicle interiors will continue to improve with wireless charging as standard (aimed at young people). There’ll be more new business models such as Snap and Vamooz. Tackling congestion will continue to be a dominate theme. Franchising as a model might be in place in some areas but it was thought partnership working will remain the favoured option with politicians. Regulatory arrangements will be modified to allow for more on demand type services. Contactless will be the main form of payment in urban areas. Google services (e.g. journey planning) will be dominant. Bus companies will increasingly target growth hubs such as universities, hospitals and airports. Another group who foresaw evolution not revolution.

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Group seven went for some blue sky thinking. They thought bus companies would move beyond the farebox and look for alternative income streams like some airlines have done. Maybe mining and selling the vast range of data. There’d be much better utilisation of assets – Ryanair/easyJet style. They thought there’d be a Brexit effect on driver availability which may lead to bus companies concentrating on core corridors due to a shortage of staff. They wondered if bus companies will diversify more into other modes including ride sharing, cycle hire etc.

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And finally group eight saw electric vehicles along with changes to regulatory arrangements to allow buses a greater level of accessibility in new greener zones with environmental concerns increasing. Urban areas will have cashless buses while rural areas may have DRT type services (or left without buses). Fares will be much simplified; staffing will be more flexible with more part timers. Some thought fares will be halved as a radical step.

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It was a great end to a packed conference which included a frank and candid after dinner speech from Traffic Commissioner for the West of England, Kevin Rooney; a fascinating, and I must add, totally realistic presentation from Professor Graham Pankhurst (from the University of the West of England) on the impact of technology on public transport including smart and autonomous vehicles, propulsion and fuel options, managing congestion and ride sharing; presentations from James Freeman and Shalando Williams of First West of England including a site visit and ride on new metrobus route m2; and presentations from Claire Walters of Bus Users UK and Sarah Huntley of The TAS Partnership.

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The conferences are a great opportunity for young managers in the bus industry to learn, share experiences and network with their contemporaries across all the main companies. It must be a unique set up – I doubt any other industry brings young people together from competing companies in a commercial environment to share knowledge and network in this way. Long may this continue.

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More information about the Young Bus Managers Network can be found here. Conferences are administered by Transport Events Group and financially supported by the Chris Moyes Scholarship Trust set up in memory of the Go-Ahead Group’s Chief Executive Chris Moyes OBE DL, who left us far too early aged 57 in 2006.

Roger French     24th October 2018

Is Oxford’s Pick Me Up picking up?

Friday 5th October 2018

Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up is now over three months old so I thought it was time to see how it’s settling down after the introductory honeymoon.

My four criteria to judge these new ride share taxi-come-bus services are: waiting time for bus to arrive; direct or meandering route; solo ride or share with other pick ups/set downs; cost.

As I’ve observed previously, for the passenger the perfect experience would be: short wait; direct route; solo ride; cheap fare, while for the operator compromises on this perfection are essential for business success. The big question is how much compromise is necessary to make it viable without it becoming unattractive for the passenger?

Today’s experiences are just a snapshot and can hardly be regarded as considered research, but this is what happened….

Ride 1. I arrived Oxford station at 1120 and immediately booked a ride to John Radcliffe Hospital. Back came the offer of a pick up in 13 minutes from Frideswide Square just round the corner from the station. I was a bit surprised the major picking up point immediately outside the station wasn’t offered but it can be a congested area with terminating buses and a plethora of taxis so I wandered over to the nearby pick up point away from all that public transport hullabaloo ready for the pick up.

At 1136 (just slightly later than predicted) my Pick-Me-Up bus appeared but worryingly drove by and turned right into the station forecourt. I spotted a couple of passengers on board so guessed they were being dropped off and hotfooted it over to see.

It turned out the driver needed a pee-break so had parked up and a co-driver who was standing alongside welcomed me on board joining a mum and her two young children.

It also turned out a passenger had been dropped off at the station making my algorithm specified pick up location at Frideswide Square even more puzzling.

Our driver duly relieved reappeared after a few minutes and at 1140 we headed off towards the JRH. It turned out mum and offspring were also heading my way so top marks to Via’s algorithm for matching us up and taking advantage of this travel coincidence. I’d guess this added just 4-5 minutes to my journey to drop them off on London Road with a quick turnaround on a petrol station forecourt.

Just like my first ride with Pick-Me-Up in June there seems to be an aversion to enter the grounds of John Radcliffe Hospital where there’s a useful bus station area conveniently adjacent to the entrance to the hospital’s main building. Instead Via’s algorithm decided it was best to drop me off in a nearby street where there’s a short cut through a private road to the bus station area (assuming you know that – feigning ignorance, I was reassured by the on board co-driver it was a public right of way).

My short walks to both the pick up and set down points this morning were no problem for me but could have been extremely frustrating for someone with accessibility issues.

No grumbles about the cost of my journey which at £2.50 was only 20p more than if I’d got the standard bus, and would have got me to the hospital in the same journey time.

Ride 2. After some nourishment I booked another ride at 1234 from the JRH bus station to some way south along the Cowley Road.

A pick up in 7 minutes beat the Company target of ‘within ten minutes’ and what’s more was going to actually come and pick me up at the bus station in the hospital grounds. Yay!

Tracking progress of the bus coming towards me, it looked suspiciously like it was either dropping someone off or doing a pick up.

No matter, as the bus arrived pretty much as predicted at 1242 and sure enough a couple travelling together were already on board hopefully enjoying the detour through the hospital grounds and presumably they were also heading my way. Quite an extraordinary coincidence as I’d chosen Cowley Road as a destination completely at random!

We made good progress albeit along a traffic-calmed residential road with the usual humps and narrowed chicanes on part of the route ….

…. and I was dropped off at 1252 as predicted and another £2.50 charge. I’m not sure if my fellow riders were wanting to head south into Cowley but that’s the direction the bus continued in after it had dropped me off.

I nipped back to Oxford Station on a conventional bus and thought I’d try something a bit more adventurous – a ride to the Oxford Science Park in the south of the catchment area.

The algorithm wasn’t so keen on this idea though and stood me up.

Never mind, I thought. How about my favourite ride – another trip back to JRH?

Turned out that was just right for a minibus that was heading that way in only a minute; but strangely I’d need to sprint over to Frideswide Square again for the pick up!

I decided I’d turn that opportunity down, and tried again for a ride south – right to the extreme southern tip of the catchment area but no the algorithm wasn’t having any of that. It was towards JRH or no go.

So; once again I learnt these new fangled ride share schemes are inevitably a compromise between the passenger’s needs and the business model’s requirements. If a bus is going your way within a reasonable timeframe – you’re in luck. If not, it’s tough luck.

It’s good to see Pick Me Up carrying passengers but I’m yet to be convinced there’s a viable future; certainly at £2.50 a trip I reckon it’ll be impossible, but charge too much more and I’d think twice about paying that.

Roger French 5th October 2018

Gliding on Glider

Ever wondered what around £100 million will buy in the way of Bus Rapid Transit? I popped over to Belfast today to find out.

The idea of creating a metro style cross city transit route has been discussed in the City for some years and as always with projects of this kind, (like in Bristol), it’s way behind the original hoped for introduction. But on Monday last week it finally glided into action.

It’s very impressive to see; there’s no doubt about that. It looks exactly like the vision those pioneers at First Bus envisaged when introducing ftr back in 2006 – a tram-like-driver-isolated-in-the-cab vehicle with bespoke tram-like stops and lashings of bus priority measures.

The downfall for ftr was the onboard self-service ticket machine which was never going to work, as well as introducing those first vehicles on a completely unsuitable route in York. Further trials in Leeds and Swansea never worked either because of the unacceptably high cost of employing conductors.

Translink operated Glider has overcome that problem by using some of the £100 million to install easy to use ticket machines (including contactless cards accepted) at all 110 or so bus stops along the 15 mile Glider corridor and implementing a strictly buy before you board policy policed by two-person ticket checkers who were out in force when I visited today (costly in itself but a good deterrent).

There’s also a smartcard system and good value day tickets. I found it quick and easy to buy my ticket.

The high profile bus stops along the route are all impressively fitted out with seats/perches and information including real time.

There’s an abundance of bus lanes all along the route (operational 7am to 7pm), sometimes only in a city bound direction, but even in the off peak when I travelled we gained time by passing other traffic queuing at traffic lights.

The 46 seat (yes, only 46 but lots of standing!) Van Hool hybrid articulated buses look slick and are painted in a smart purple (similar to ftr). They give a very smooth quiet ride. The Glider brand and livery as well as the interior decor are however very much understated but in some ways that gives it a bit of class.

As befits a publicly owned undertaking there’s no promotion or marketing to be seen; you wouldn’t know the key points served by the route (quite a few), frequency (high), price (good value) or added benefits (Wi-fi + usb) from seeing the buses.

I picked up three different leaflets about the service. Only one had a timetable and also had a route diagram, one of the other two also showed the route and details of the smartcard while the third had general information. All a bit confusing. The timetable leaflet was available at the city centre Visit Belfast shop and Metro kiosk but not the main city Europa bus and coach station.

The two other leaflets (but not the timetable) were on display at the very impressive waiting area building at the eastern terminus of route G1 – the Dundonald Park & Ride – now called Park & Glide.

No leaflets were available on board the buses or at bus stops.

Buses had four screens showing next stop and the two following with clear audio announcements except both times I ventured over to West Belfast the system gave up a few stops past the city centre. Presumably some technical teething problems.

Other teething problems were impacting the cross city G1’s timekeeping big time. Buses are timetabled to run every 7-8 minutes with an end to end journey time of an hour. It was taking longer than that leading to inevitable gaps in service, bus bunching and some over crowding.

A service controller was kept busy at the central Wellington Place bus stop moving passengers from one delayed bus to another and there looked to be quite a bit of light running going on. It didn’t seem the service was being controlled remotely using GPS positioning and radio contact with drivers which surprised me.

I’m sure these initial timekeeping problems can be overcome with a quick fix timetable review but it’s unfortunate that in the meantime goodwill during the honeymoon period is being lost as adverse comments build up on social media (#gliderbelfast refers).

The much shorter route G2 shuttle service running ever 10 minutes between the City Centre and the Titanic Quarter was keeping time much better and proving very busy with a steady flow of visitors to this popular tourist attraction.

The scheme promotors have spent quite a bit of the marketing budget on high profile Glider branding around the city centre and you can’t fail to notice the name.

One interesting feature onboard are the three doors being push button operated by passengers once released by drivers which will keep warmth in the vehicle in the winter.

The G1 cross city route is very significant in linking the communities of East and West Belfast (Secretary of State Karen Bradley please note!). I was intrigued to see if other passengers would join me in making the cross city journey on my travels and interestingly on one trip a couple did travel from the heart of East Belfast right into the Falls Road area in the west.

Previously both sides of the city had separate routes – the 4 to the east and the 10 to the west. It’ll be fascinating to see if more cross city, cross culture and cross community travel develops as Glider becomes established.

The desire is to introduce more Glider routes if this initial foray is a success and more significantly if future funds allow especially as a sizeable chunk of the money for this first route came from the EU as part of the Regional Development Fund.

Another interesting and unique aspect is the competition buses and now Glider face from the well established Black Cab scheme in West Belfast and especially along the Falls Road where ride sharing has been in place for many years and was much in evidence today.

It’s a fascinating project which, aside from the initial timekeeping teething problems, has been well executed and just shows what you can do with around £100 million. I wish it well.

Roger French 11th September 2018