Slip ‘n Slide

Thursday 21st November 2019

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Following last Friday’s try out of TfL’s latest Demand Responsive Transport trial in Ealing, I found myself back in the Borough with two bus industry colleague friends to give it another try yesterday afternoon.

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There was a Slide vehicle parked up waiting for custom as we came out of Ealing Broadway station so to give the system a proper try we caught the next bus on route E1 along to Drayton Green station where we alighted and ordered a Slide from there to Greenford Broadway.

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We made two bookings using apps on two separate smartphones at pretty much the same time, so not surprisingly the software combined us all on to the same vehicle which was indeed the one we saw parked up and arrived with us within the estimated seven minutes.

I booked for two people and paid £2 for that second booking rather than the standard £3.50 fare.

When the minibus arrived it seems the driver wasn’t expecting three of us but on checking his in-cab tablet he then noticed the second booking had come through, and it then appeared on the monitor behind the driver – but oddly with a slightly later arrival time at the same destination.

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Off we set and it then became obvious there was a problem – the driver’s SstNav on the tablet kept reverting to recalculating the journey and wouldn’t show the driver where to go. No route appeared ahead of where he currently was.

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Luckily he knew our destination and the route to take so used his initiative and got us to Greenford Broadway in spite of, rather than helped by, the SatNav software.

Our next journey about half an hour later began with me booking for two passengers from Greenford Broadway to Northfields station which after acceptance and being advised a minibus would be with us in six minutes, my friend, a few minutes later, booked his journey from Greenford Broadway to South Ealing station (not far from Northfields). The software duly allocated us the same shared ride on the same minibus and it soon appeared at the designated pick up point by Lidl.

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This proved to be a tricky point to pick us up with peak afternoon-post-school turn out time traffic and cars trying to get into Lidl’s car park; but our driver managed to reverse back into the main road and turn the minibus round and pick us up. I wasn’t sure about that manoeuvre as we were now pointing in the wrong direction.

Our second driver, like the first, also wasn’t aware there would be three of us but then spotted my booking was for two people so was reassured. But the biggest consternation was the SatNav taking us off in a north-westerly direction rather than south-eastwards towards Northfields and South Ealing.

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After struggling in the wrong direction through Greenford’s congested traffic and ending up doing a complete circuit around residential roads in north west Greenford, after ten minutes we were back at Greenford Broadway and Lidl where we’d started the journey.IMG_3050.jpg

Our driver valiantly struggled on using his local knowledge to get us on our way, as it seems the routing software had once again packed up not being able to cope with more than one booked passenger on board.

It’s a bit of a fundamental problem for a ride sharing operation not being able to cope with ride sharing; but hopefully it’s just teething problems and will soon be sorted out.

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The monitor behind the driver (still using unfriendly destination names rather than Northfields and South Ealing stations) gave worsening predicted arrival times as our journey included off route deviations and worsening traffic congestion.

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At one point during the journey the monitor turned itself off but my friend Phil managed to find the on/off switch at the back and turned it back on again.

In the event the journey to Northfields took 45 minutes instead of the originally expected range of 17-29 minutes.

I emailed the ‘SlideEaling’ Hello address during our prolonged journey to pass on feedback about the loss of SatNav and to explain how well the driver was coping as he was gutted and embarrassed about the problems – especially as we were his first and only passengers all day. I also asked for a refund of the £2 I’d paid!

James at SlideEaling has replied this evening to say:

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Hopefully ‘a fix’ is now implemented and there’ll be no more slips on Slide.

Roger French

Another Gatwick Express rip-off

Friday 25th October 2019

Spoiler alert: the postman delivered a National Rail Voucher for £6.70 this morning.

IMG_1565.jpgI wrote about the outrageous rip-off fares policy on the Gatwick Express back in May, but the other day I came across another pricing scandal from this past-its-sell-by-date train brand.

I was buying a ticket in the Gatwick Express run ticket office in the station at the Airport and was astounded to see not only was I being compulsorily overcharged by 50% for my journey but a member of staff gave me incorrect information that that overcharge was correct.

It was back on Friday 4th October and I was heading down to Cornwall for the weekend having already purchased an advanced ticket online from GWR between Reading and Bodmin Parkway returning from Truro to Paddington on Sunday 6th October.

Due to no trains running south of Three Bridges on the Sunday (so much for February’s 9-day Brighton Main Line blockade meaning no further major closures for weekend engineering works this year) I decided to drive to, and park at, Gatwick Airport for the weekend and take the train from there to Reading.

IMG_1547.jpgSo I arrived in the very busy ticket hall at about 08:30 in good time to catch the 09:03 GWR operated departure via Guildford to Reading. As always there was a long queue at the ticket office windows, but there’s a whole bank of ticket vending machines (TVMs) available and I soon reached the head of the queue for those and began my screen pressing.

IMG_1564.jpgThere were two options for an off-peak single ticket to Reading; an “any permitted” which would allow travel via London costing £34.50 and the much cheaper “via Gomshall” option I wanted for £19.70. This tallied with my research before leaving home, and that the latter with my Senior Railcard discount would cost a reasonable £13.

I wonder how many passengers are flummoxed by the use of Gomshall as the via point on the TVM screen especially as the 09:03 doesn’t stop there and it’s a somewhat obscure station especially for non local travellers to know about.

IMG_1574.jpgWhen I came to select the tab for Senior Railcard on the screen, it was faded out meaning it was unavailable. I caught the attention of the “floor walking” here-to-help-you-high-vis-wearing GatEx member of staff nearby and asked him how I could get the Senior Railcard tab to be “live” for my journey to Reading via Guildford to which he told me “Senior Railcards aren’t valid until 09:30”.

IMG_1578.jpgWhen I protested this was not the case – Senior Railcards are valid for journeys within the London & South East area at the time when an Off Peak Day Return becomes available rather than a blanket rule.  He was quite adamant: “from Gatwick the start time is 09:30 and you’ll have to catch the next train to Reading at 10:00” for my Railcard discount to be available.

IMG_1573.jpgThere was no alternative but to pay the £19.70 as I had to catch the 09:03 to make my Cornwall bound connection in Reading. Still mystified by the “computer says no” attitude of the TVM as well as what I felt was wrong advice from the floorwalking GatEx ticket expert, I asked the on board GWR guard/train manager when he came round to check tickets on the 09:03 journey when my Senior Railcard was valid from and he gave the even more incorrect reply “from 10:00”.

All this advice is of course complete bunkum. Senior Railcards are available for travel after 09:00 (for travel wholly within the London and South East area – for journeys to, and completely, outside of that area, they’re valid at any time) but there are restrictions from Gatwick into London (and within the London area) where the peak hour is deemed to continue until 09:30; but crucially there is no restriction for journeys such as Gatwick to Reading via Guildford.

IMG_1571.jpgTVMs are programmed to overcharge passengers like me buying tickets before 09:30 – in my case £19.70 instead of £13. This is a right royal rip off; not helped by completely false information being given out by staff members, wrongly claiming the TVM is correct, and whose job it is to know the rules and regulations. What hope have passengers got?

I took the matter up with Gatwick Express when I returned home after the weekend on Monday 7th October explaining the whole experience in writing and asking for a refund of the additional £6.70 I’d been forced to pay.

I received the following email back by return:

Dear Sir/Madam

We appreciate you taking the time to contact us. 

Please accept this acknowledgement as confirmation that we have received your query. We have received a large number of enquiries as a result of the national power outage which occurred on August 9th and so you may experience a delay in receiving a response. We thank our customers for their patience.

There is no need to chase us for a reply as we will get back to you as soon as we can and our aim is to provide a full response within 20 working days. Please do not reply to this email.

You may also refer to our FAQs at https://www.gatwickexpress.com/help-and-support/contact-us/faq

Kind regards

Gatwick Express Customer Relations

Bearing in mind the power outage had no impact on Gatwick Express back in August, it seemed strange two months on to still be using this as an excuse for tardy responses, but of course, passengers in the know, know that GatEx is the same company as Thameslink (which did suffer major disruption from the loss of power) when it comes to Customer Relations, but when it comes to ticket pricing the official line is they’re completely different operators to justify the extortionate fare differentials and restrictive ticket inter-availability.

In the event, notwithstanding the untimely lowering of expectations of a timely reply, I received a fuller email reply from Linda A nine days later on 16th October when she wrote:

Dear Mr French,

Thank you for contacting us regarding your recent purchase at Gatwick Station. I am sorry that you were unable to apply your Railcard discount to your tickets.

As the Off Peak times vary on different routes, the Ticket Machines are set up in such a a way that you are unable to  purchase and Off Peak ticket prior to 09:30. This is to avoid passengers being able to purchase the incorrect ticket for their journey and incurring a penalty fare.

I can see that the 09:03 service is Off Peak and therefore I would be happy to send you 6.70 in National Rail Vouchers .Before I am able to do this could you also please send us a screenshot of your Railcard?

For future journeys if you need an Off Peak Ticket prior to 09:30 we would advise you to purchase the ticket in advance online for collection at the station. This will avoid any additional costs for yourself.

We look forward to hearing from you, and once again please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused.

Kind regards,

Linda A

Linda’s advice to buy online is a standard get out used by GTR to complaints of this kind. I’ve received the same reply when I’ve pointed out the TVM at Hassocks doesn’t allow Senior Railcard discounts for journeys to stations outside London and the South East leaving before 09:00.

It’s an even more ridiculous retort with regard to an airport station where many passengers are returning from a holiday abroad … imagine the scene in the hotel on the Costa Del Sol at the end of a holiday – “have we got all our bags packed dear?”; “yes, all packed but I must just go on line and buy our tickets for the train home to Reading for when we land at Gatwick as GTR’s computer programmers are too lazy to amend the software so it can enable a Railcard discount by destination chosen in addition to time of day”; “right oh dear, I’ll wait while you do that, no rush as we’re on holiday.”

It also says a lot about GTR’s lack of trust in its passengers that (a) it sets ticket machines up “to avoid passengers being able to purchase the incorrect ticket for their journey and incurring a penalty fare”…… so it’s perfectly OK that I have to purchase an incorrect HIGHER PRICED ticket for my journey but not OK for passengers to be able to buy a cheaper price; (b) the implications of Linda’s admission I need to purchase my ticket in advance online to “avoid any additional costs for yourself” is that if I don’t buy in that way I will incur additional costs; (c) if I purchase online I don’t have to show my Senior Railcard to anyone, yet Linda wants me to go to further trouble and inconvenience by sending a screenshot of it before she’ll trust me enough to send me a refund of the money her Company wilfully and knowingly set up a system to overcharge me; (d) Linda makes no reference to the member of staff misleading passengers with incorrect information – best to let him continue giving out incorrect advice to passengers, I assume.

I sent a screenshot of my Senior Railcard back to Linda when I returned home from Edinburgh the next day after receipt of her email, on 17th October.

On 20th October Linda’s colleague Corrie Simmonds replied more informally to advise:

Dear Roger, 

Thank you for taking the time to provide a copy of your Railcard.

I can confirm that I have requested for £6.70 cashable National Rail Vouchers to be sent to you. Please allow up to 10 working days for these to arrive.

I hope that this information is helpful. 

 Kind regards,

 Corrie Summers

And, the reason I’m relating this to you today, is that exactly three weeks since I was overcharged I’ve now received the recompensing £6.70 in National Rail Vouchers so finally resolving the matter. What a way to run a railway.

This whole franchise really is misselling at its worst and even more scandalous, the DfT knows it and allows it.

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Roger French

New sleeper turns into a bad dream

Tuesday 25th June 2019

IMG_6371There’s something seriously amiss with Caledonian Sleeper’s train service.

I’ve blogged about the new Mark 5 coaches a couple of times recently (here and here) highlighting the teething problems I encountered, in particular no water in the en-suite shower in my supposedly swanky new ‘Club’ room on two of the three journeys as well as a number of other niggles.

These included an emergency stop and losing all the electrics when heading south around Preston in the early hours of Tuesday 4th June. The sharpness of the braking followed by an eerie silence and two or three attempts to reboot the train’s control systems over the next ten minutes was enough to wake most of us up and a consequential disturbed night.

We got going again on that occasion and thankfully arrived into Euston with no further incidents. Not that trip anyway, but a much more serious fault necessitating another emergency stop happened a week later on Tuesday 11th June as the Lowlander service headed north to Glasgow and Edinburgh coming to a sudden halt in Stafford. This resulted in serious damage to the train’s wheels such the train couldn’t continue and coaches had to be summoned in the early hours to take passengers on to Glasgow and Edinburgh by road. Not a particularly edifying or attractive proposition when you’re probably already dressed for bed and maybe even nodding off.

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Every night since that incident two weeks ago Caledonian Sleeper have been cancelling one of the journeys, either northbound or southbound between either Glasgow or Edinburgh and London. Alternative options for booked passengers offered by Caledonian Sleeper are either taking a daytime Virgin Trains journey or a replacement overnight coach on the motorway; neither option being particularly acceptable when it’s likely you’ve already made onward travel plans or have other commitments necessitating overnight travel.

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An overnight coach on the motorway is hardly an acceptable alternative when you might have paid £230 for a new en-suite single room or even £335 for a double room, albeit Caledonian Sleeper are giving full refunds, but it’s likely many passengers would prefer flying as an alternative with a night in a hotel, I know I would, but that doesn’t seem to be on offer as a alternative.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.42.26.pngCaledonian Sleeper have been making much of the luxury offered by their new deluxe sleeper coaches, offering a “timeless experience”; it’s just a pity “timeless” is turning out to be “trainless”. The problem being expectations have been seriously raised with Caledonian Sleeper hyping up their new ‘hotel-on-wheels’ at five star prices – it’s £395 for a Club double room on the Highlander between London and Fort William/Aberdeen/Inverness for a single night journey (and no Railcard discounts are available), that’s just shy of £800 for a return journey or ‘two nights stay’ – and for that you expect five star service, not ‘replacement road transport’.

Even if everything is running smoothly you’d think paying £395 for a night’s sleep, albeit coupled with a 570 mile journey, would include more than just one complimentary hot drink with a measly breakfast. I was taken aback to find a few coffee granules, a cup of hot water and UHT milk sachets came at a charge of £2.70 on top of that £395 fare – what an absolute rip-off. You even get unlimited complimentary coffee in the cheapest Travelodge deal.

With the ongoing teething problems it obviously made sense for Caledonian Sleeper to pull the planned introduction of Mark 5 coaches on to the Highlander service which had been scheduled for the beginning of this month (and which was already well delayed from the planned 2018 launch). It’s now been pushed back to “early July”, (update… Wednesday 26th June – just announced now put back to September) but for some time passengers have been booking their journeys assuming new en-suite rooms at the significantly enhanced prices as advertised on the glossy Caledonian Sleeper website only to later receive a refund on the difference between new and old pricing as disappointed passengers are told it’s the old coaches for them, for now.

Mind you that’s better than having the disaster that is the new rolling stock at the moment, but even those trusty old coaches are showing signs of age and lack of investment making it feel like very poor value for money as well as unreliable.

On my LEJOG trip with Geoff and Vicki last week our Inverness train had standard toilets out of action while the accessible toilet next to the lounge coach had no water making it unhygienic and unacceptable. At about 6pm prior to the train leaving Euston a text was received advising there’d be no lounge car that evening thereby meaning no refreshments available, but when we got wind from other sources that may not be the case, I rang Caledonian Sleeper to query it only to be told the email had been sent out in error and there would be a lounge coach after all. There was no explanation when I asked why a corrected email hadn’t been sent leaving a feeling of shambolic incompetence.

Even worse the Fort William section of the train that evening developed an engine fault in the West Highlands meaning passengers arrived into Fort William over three and a half hours late after 13:30.

There was then a hiatus for Friday night’s southbound journey from Fort William when it was announced the train was cancelled due to “staff having insufficient rest” following the late arrival that morning so “guests” (Caledonian Sleeper’s corporate spin is still insisting on calling us all ‘guests’ despite clearly not being able to run a hotel) were told on social media they’d have to travel by coach (“replacement road transport”) over to Edinburgh, arriving in the middle of the night, with a transfer on to the train from there.

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A further tweet advised arrangements had been made for refreshments to be available at the Jury’s Inn in Edinburgh where “guests” could also wait before boarding the train, but twitter was awash with disgruntled passengers saying coach drivers dropped them off at Edinburgh Waverley station with no mention of hotel refreshments.

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Meanwhile it wasn’t much better on the southbound service on Friday night either with new coaches on the Lowlander service coming to a halt at Acton Bridge just south of Crewe with passengers having to make their way down to London once Virgin Trains and West Midlands Trains got going in the morning.

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Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.07.16.pngThese latest disasters on Friday came just twenty hour hours after there was confidence on Thursday wheel problems on the damaged train from 11th June would finally be fixed for the weekend …

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…. with Caledonian Sleeper tweeting things “are due to return to normal”.

It’s turned out not to be the case with the Glasgow bound journey cancelled last night yet again.

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This raises the question of why other sets of new coaches are not being introduced into service. Somewhere sidings must be full of new coaches bearing in mind the new trains were due into service on both the Lowlander and Highlander services from 2nd June. This implies there are still issues with the new trains yet to be resolved beyond problems with wheels damaged on 11th June.

I can’t help thinking Serco – the company running the Caledonian Sleeper franchise – are completely out of their outsourcing depth running this specialist type of train service. It’s all very well hyping up running a luxury ‘hotel on wheels’ but is it practical? Is the business model charging exhorbitant five star prices, raising expectations for a high standard of service, achievable on an overnight train between London and Scotland? Sadly Caledonian Sleeper is rapidly gaining a reputation worse than Fawlty Towers.

Serco must be losing a fortune over the present shenanigans (although I’m sure there’ll be some contingent liability passed on to the Spanish manufacturer CAF too) but it shouldn’t be forgotten the sleeper service attracts massive public subsidy to keep it going. OK, there are far fewer passengers impacted than in the GTR or Northern Rail fiasco last May but proportionately the disruption per journey is far worse. A 25% failure rate on the Lowlander service at the moment.

Yet taking a look at the Caledonian Sleeper website it’s as though nothing is wrong and it’s all sweetness and light. Where’s the contrite apology from the managing director at what has become a complete shambles of a service? Not a word, just the same continued hype. Quite extraordinary head-in-the-sand PR.

I feel sorry for the stressed out staff on the trains and in customer service, sorry, “Guest Service Centre” where “Guest Ambassadors” work. Word of advice Serco. Ditch the ridiculous corporate hype and get back to basics of delivering a proper service. And you really have got to do much better at letting passengers know what’s happening more in advance than you’re doing; it’s not like catching a commuter train home; canacelling an overnight sleeper means huge distruption to people’s travel plans possibly including ruined holidays.

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Unsurprisingly Caledonian Sleeper’s reputation is currently being trashed every day on Twitter.

Tuesday 25th June, midday update: as I publish this blog, there’s no word from Caledonian Sleeper whether tonight’s Lowlander service will run as normal or which of the four portions (Glasgow/Edinburgh – northbound/southbound) will once again be cancelled. A quite extraordinary way to run a train service, let alone a sleeper service.

Roger French

Colin Dale’s secret bus route

Wednesday 29th May 2019

It’s all happening in Colindale. That’s the area in north west London with a station almost at the end of the Edgware branch of the Northern Line; the one before Burnt Oak, before you get to Edgware itself.

Colindale’s in the London Borough of Barnet and is one of the largest growth and regeneration areas in the Borough including over 10,000 new homes being built across various sites, new schools, a relocated library, a health centre “reprovision” and “improvements to public realm” and parks among the many improvements including brand new offices for the London Borough of Barnet itself.

There are plans for a brand new London Underground station with a greatly enlarged ticket hall extended eastwards over the tracks with work expected to start on that project in 2021 with completion the following year.

Before then TfL are making changes to bus routes in the area including combining two routes into one as well as another being rerouted to better serve the new housing developments. But the main change, the extension of route 125 from its erstwhile western terminus at Finchley Central over to Colindale via Hendon was introduced last Saturday.

But you’d be hard pressed to find out about it. It’s currently a top secret bus route extension. Not only are buses leaving route 125’s Winchmore Hill terminus at the eastern end of the route still showing Finchley Central in the destination blind….

….but bus stops all along the route are still displaying timetables showing the route ending at Finchley Central. Of buses now continuing for another 18 minutes on to Hendon and Colindale, there is no mention.

I did spot two buses while travelling the route yesterday displaying a makeshift attempt to let curious passengers know they were heading on to the Colindale growth area (along with, in one case, the vital internal information it was bus running number 110), but others I saw didn’t show anything.

Bus stop flags beyond the old Finchley Central terminus on the new section of route to Colindale are devoid of any reference to the 125, nor do the timetable cases attached to the bus stop poles contain route 125 timetables. You simply wouldn’t know a 125 came that way.

Even the brand new terminal bus stop for route 125 outside Colindale Station makes no mention of the new ten minute frequency departing there either on the bus stop flag….

…. or a timetable below…..

….but there is an explanation of the merger of local routes 303 and 305 introduced almost nine months ago.

TfL provide helpful updates on their website about upcoming bus route changes (if you know where to look) but these are notoriously late in posting and often contain inaccuracies. And guess what, the latest issue for the period 29 March to 7 June 2019 currently online contains no reference to route 125 at all. It’s as if even TfL were caught out by surprise by it’s own decision to introduce the extension to route 125 last Saturday.

No-one in TfL’s Spider map department seems to be aware of the change either as the maps for Colindale and other areas along the route extension make no reference to the 125, and those for the original end of the route east of Finchley Central show no reference to the extension.

If online maps aren’t updated, you wouldn’t expect maps displayed on the roadside in bus shelters and at Underground stations to be updated would you? Quite right; they’re not.

However, there is one part of TfL which does seem to know about the change and that’s the iBus department which has updated the bus stop displays to show Colindale ……

….. and on board buses, every so often, comes a scrolling message to let you know that despite the destination blind telling you the bus you’ve boarded is only going to Finchley Central, once you’re on the bus, you’re reassuringly told it is continuing to Colindale.

But there really cannot be any excuse for all those other key points of information not being updated in time. It’s not as though there hasn’t been months to organise things. This is no emergency closure of Hammersmith Bridge. TfL’s obligatory public consultation about extending the 125, along with other changes in the Colindale area, was way back in October and November 2017.

TfL issued a report on that consultation in June 2018 and confirmed many of the proposals including the extended route 125 and the merger of local routes 303 and 305 in the Edgware and Colindale area would be implemented on 1 September 2018.

While the 303 and 305 merger went ahead on 1 September, for some reason the extended 125 got postponed. The June 2018 report was followed on 12 September 2018 with a further update report which confirmed the extension of route 125 would happen in “winter 2018/19”. You’d have thought bus stop E-plates, timetable inserts for bus stops and destination blinds would have been ordered and spider maps updated ready for September 2018 let alone for the back stop introduction of “winter 2018/19”. And not forgetting ordering three new bus stop poles for those three new bus stops along Greyhound Hill being served by buses for the very first time as shown on the map above …. except, er, no they’re not quite ready yet either …. still, at least the yellow line painters had done their bit.

After all that forewarning, it surely couldn’t have come as a surprise that last Saturday, 25th May 2019, Metroline’s bus garage at Potters Bar, which runs route 125, finally began the long consulted upon change and started extending buses on to Colindale.

You might well wonder why there’s obviously a complete lack of coordination within TfL where a major route extension is introduced necessitating a significant increase in resources twenty months after first being publicly proposed. This extended route must involve an additional four buses to maintain the 10 minute frequency on an 18 minute journey time extension. That’s not a minor change. Resource wise it’s about 70% of the GoSutton scheme with its six minibuses introduced yesterday.

This tardy response to route changes is becoming an unfortunate habit at TfL. There are now regular reports across social media, online forums and other feedback about consistently poor presentation of information by TfL which was once regarded as the bastion of good practice for information.

I was recently chatting to a former (now retired) senior manager who used to look after roadside information amongst other responsibilities at TfL and he was unequivocal about the reason for the plummeting quality: clearing out all the experienced staff through voluntary redundancy programmes to save costs; replacing them with people lacking any experience of bus operation; hacking back vital budgets; and contracting out to third parties who have no interest in quality or what they’re doing. I used to report inconsistencies I found while travelling around London to a good contact in TfL who made sure they were followed up and sorted. It made my efforts valued and worthwhile doing. Sadly he was made redundant and no one with any interest replaced him, so I gave up. Route 125’s extension is just the latest example of what I see all over London. Frankly, it’s simply appalling for a Capital City’s transport organisation which purports to be “world class” and an “exemplar of integrated transport”.

No wonder the westbound bus I travelled on yesterday afternoon emptied out at Finchley Central and I continued to Colindale alone.

I just hope TfL do better when it comes to opening their new Colindale station in 2022.

Roger French

Friendly feedback for ManFred

Saturday 20th October 2018

Monday’s ‘Business Announcement’ outlining proposals to centralise even more of Arriva’s UK bus business mysteriously landed anonymously in my inbox. I’m told it’s a legacy plan left over from recently departed UK Bus MD Kevin O’Connor (formerly Regional MD of G4S) who’s now moved on to pastures new.

I thought I’d give some friendly feedback about the plan to Arriva Chief Executive Manfred Rudhart……

Dear Manfred

In a nutshell DON’T DO IT!

I know it’s tough running buses at the moment with ‘fewer people in the UK choosing to travel by bus every year and the overall bus market shrinking’ as Iain Jago, Interim Managing Director UK Bus explains in his letter to Arriva’s staff announcing the proposals. But when you’ve mistakingly got your foot on the accelerator heading towards a brick wall you don’t press down even harder; you realise what’s causing the problem and switch to the brake pedal for an emergency stop.

Here are three reasons why Arriva needs to hit the brakes on another bout of centralisation which will do nothing to halt the decline in passengers and only disconnect Arriva further from that elusive market growth you’re seeking.

1. The most successful bus companies in the UK realise the local bus market needs locally based management teams engaged and embedded in their communities, impassioned and empowered to make decisions. Commercial, marketing and operations (all key components of a successful bus company which your proposals aim to centralise) can only be effectively managed locally in the bus market.

The market for bus travel in North Wales is completely different to the Medway Towns and different again from Teeside. Locally based managers understand this best; centralisation may well ‘eliminate duplication’ (as the proposal boasts) and therefore save costs but it will be a classic false economy with unintended consequences. Far from ‘improving efficiencies’ as proposed it will lead to waste and inefficiencies.

Look at your Group’s introduction of a fleet of Mercedes Sprinter minibuses to Hemel Hempstead’s bus routes last November. It might have looked a sensible innovation to a remotely based central commercial ‘expert’ but anyone in tune with the local market should have pointed out it’ll never work and would end in tears, as it did.

The Go-Ahead Group’s companies, Transdev Blazefield, Wellglade Group, Nottingham City Transport, Reading Buses, Lothian Buses, Ensign Bus to name some of the UK’s most renowned bus companies have one thing in common: they all have locally based autonomous commercial, marketing and operational teams. Imagine if Arriva was lucky enough to acquire all those award winning companies into the Group portfolio, the absolute last thing that should be done is eliminate all that management ‘duplication’ in the name of corporate efficiency. You’d destroy those companies within months; just like Hemel’s bus routes.

The history of centralisation/mega-regionalisation in the bus industry is not a happy one. Stagecoach tried it many years ago (creating a massive south east region stretching from Margate to Andover and along the south coast) as did First Group (their infamous 3 Ps Region: Porthcawl to Portsmouth to Penzance). Both hair-brained schemes designed by Directors parachuted into the bus industry from outside thinking they knew out to save costs and introduce efficiencies; both unmitigated disasters and thankfully put back to more sensible locally managed arrangements as soon as the scheme architect had left to cause mayhem in another industry.

2. You want Arriva to be the ‘mobility partner of choice’ but meaningful partnerships for the local bus market are with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, locally based business groups and local community groups. The clue is in the word ‘local’. Centralisation in the pursuit of eliminating duplication will not endear Arriva to influential locally based politicians, executives and community leaders.

Giving buses priority is often about a whole host of small schemes such as traffic light phasing at key junctions, maybe just by a few seconds; extending yellow lines by a few yards; improving roadworks coordination etc. These are the stuff of local detailed knowledge which locally based bus managers pick up, not from remote regionally or centrally based staff hundreds of miles away.

I was shocked to hear a local authority traffic engineer tell how he’d called a meeting of all the major bus operators in his county to draw up a list of congestion hotspots which would benefit from small scale improvement schemes. Guess the only operator which failed to attend?

3. The track record of centralised customer facing activities already in place at Arriva is not particularly encouraging. Customer Services taking a week to reply to a fares enquiry; inappropriate tweet replies with no knowledge of local issues; no helpline phone numbers promoted online; a clunky website which calls for a region to be specified only to ignore it when delivering timetables, with maps (where they exist) hidden under tickets, and no fares information by journey …. to highlight just a few shortcomings.

In summary, increasing centralisation is simply the wrong way to go. You’re blessed with some first class managers and great up and coming young people in the business with passion for the industry – give them the authority and autonomy to make decisions locally and you’ll find any costly management duplication will soon be more than compensated by achieving the very market growth you’re seeking.

Good luck

Best wishes

Roger French

20th October 2018

A peek into my inbox

I’ve received some interesting promotional emails from the new breed of ride sharers recently.

Arriva Click sent an enticing personalised message on Thursday proclaiming some ‘great news’ for me. It seems Click now accepts concessionary passes. Amazing. Arriva certainly know how to rub salt into the wound of being in that frustrating cohort having to wait well into their 66th year before getting the coveted pass. Thanks Arriva.

Still at least I’m much closer than a good friend in the industry who also got the email and has yet to reach 40!

Even though I knew I wouldn’t qualify, I couldn’t resist clicking the ‘Find out more!’ tab helpfully taking me straight to Section 16 of Click’s Terms and Conditions.

Turns out it’s only a Sittingbourne initiative (Scousers not eligible) and by a complicated process of emailing a photo of your pass, receiving and registering a personalised discount code you’ll receive a third off future bookings. Not exactly headline grabbing.

While we’re talking Click bait, did you spot their interesting tweet last week encouraging school kids to use Click for the school run particularly to enjoy the on board wi-fi and air conditioning?

I was intrigued as I thought I must have missed the ‘great news’ email promoting discounts now available for school kids riding Click (even if rides can only be booked with their credit card). So I made an enquiry and it seems I hadn’t missed the news. No discounts! It’s going to be an expensive school run; wi-fi and air conditioning notwithstanding.

Still all’s not lost as if you’re a regular Click user taking advantage of onboard wi-fi you’d have missed the tweet anyway – Twitter is blocked on Click!

Meanwhile the marketing team at Ford’s Chariot have come up with an enticing wheeze for me. It seems there’s a whole crowd of ride sharers itching to hone their home cooking skills. They also emailed me last week offering £20 off Mindful Chef recipe boxes (and spread over the first two box deliveries at that).

Even more exciting a prize draw might give me a completely free box. Right let’s get riding Chariot straight away can’t wait to start cooking.

While I’m on a sharing recent tweets kick, here’s my Most Inappropriate Tweet of last month from the guys at First Essex ….

it started innocently enough with an enquiry about fares ….

Straight forward enough enquiry but it managed to fox the First Essex tweeters …

Taken aback our enquirer persisted …..

…. only to be fobbed off with an incorrect referral to Traveline. Still at least Traveline will earn some income from its premium rate phone charge if Callum took up Tannita’s advice.

Just what is the point of centralising Twitter posting? If you’re going to centralise at least have comprehensive information systems available. What a completely Open Data Own Goal and, importantly, a missed sales opportunity.

Still at least if you centralise tweeting you’re confident queries on policy issues can be professionally and effectively handled.

Here’s one such example from last month to a multitude of recipients…

No surprises that one switched on Bus Boss replied quickly and succinctly …

Whereas the main recipient replied…

Sadly this has fast become a standard fob off official corporate Twitter response for a number of companies.

Last time I filled a form in (for a fare query) it took seven days for the response.

Roger French 16th September 2018

I Didn’t Get Gett

Having been plagued for some weeks by marketing emails from the London black cab App organisation called Gett, I finally relented yesterday and headed up to London to use up the £10 credit (with an expiry of 31st August) they’d recently added to my account in a last ditch attempt to entice my return custom. It wasn’t as if I’d been much of a customer, having made one solitary journey back in October 2017 to try out the new peak hours only ride-sharing Black Bus 1 route between Highbury & Islington and Waterloo they’d just introduced amid much fanfare with partners Citymapper who’d worked out there was latent demand on that corridor from the enquiries they’d been monitoring on their Journey Planner App.

I thought I’d replicate my Black Bus 1 journey and see if once again I’d be sharing the intimacy of a black cab with other riders for the bargain fare of £3. I’d not been able to do my usual trip research beforehand as all the Gett App would tell me was I’m in an unsupported area down in Sussex where I live. I’d had a look at the Gett website, but that hadn’t mentioned anything about Black Bus 1 either. So it wasn’t until I came out of Highbury & Islington station at 0842 I could sus out the travel options.

I trotted along to nearby Compton Terrace on the main road just south of the station where I’d waited before and sure enough having entered Waterloo as “where I want to go” at 0844 the Citymapper App listed a taxi icon among the options (as it had done before) showing an arrival in 5 minutes and with a journey time of 45 minutes (taking 50% longer than the tube options).

I clicked it, got an encouraging ‘Book & Go’ clickable icon over a map with reassuring reference to my Smart Ride not costing the expected £3 but would be a freebie at £0.

I clicked that only to be stumped by payment options of Apple Pay or “Add Credit Card”.

I decided to add my credit card details despite that £3 fare being reassuringly struck through and then received confirmation at 0845 it was “Using £3 from your credit” and the “Driver arrives in 16 min”.

As a bit of a novice at this game I had wrongly assumed with those messages I’d done all I needed to do. It turns out I hadn’t; and despite not wanting to use Apple Pay, I needed to find another icon to “pay’; even though I had a fare of £0.

But there was I thinking I was all good to go, especially when I rechecked at 0847, as within only those two minutes the screen had updated to “Driver arrives in 2 min” and what looked like a fellow passenger appeared alongside me also staring intently at her phone.

She confirmed she’d also booked a ride and within a minute an anonymously branded black Mercedes people carrier appeared.

The driver was a bit perplexed to find two of us, and establishing we weren’t a couple he confirmed I wasn’t booked with him and needed to wait for another driver.

Clicking back on the Citymapper App showed a wait for another driver of another 15 minutes so I decided to interrogate the Gett App instead; after all they were the people who’d gifted £10 credit to me and were so keen for my return custom. In fact it puzzled me how Citymapper knew I had credit as I’d had no communication from them.

The trouble was the Gett App, like the website made no mention of Black Bus 1, and I appeared to be booking a standard black cab to take me to Waterloo.

Even more consternation as there was no mention of my credit and instead wanted me to pay with my credit card; although it did make reference to me getting “£10 off this ride” with my “coupon”.

Not being a black cab user I feared for my bank balance for such a long journey if I went through with the transaction, but decided to give it a go, only to be told the expected arrival time of a driver was another 15 minute wait and with an expected arrival time in Waterloo not until 0953 which was 57 minutes away.

As by then it was 0856, this seemed a very long time away, so after a three minute cogitation, at 0859 I decided to abandon this smart ride-share gig altogether and instead plump for a traditional ride-share gig, the humble TfL red bus to take me to Waterloo.

Despite battling with some of London’s usual peak hour congestion, we arrived in Waterloo at 0941 comfortably ahead of Gett’s prediction had I used them, and it only cost me £1.50.

I still have no idea what the relationship is between Gett and Citymapper  and how my £10 credit appeared on Citymapper. It would seem Gett no longer run a BlackBus 1 for £3  and just run traditional black cabs but Citymapper contract an anonymous ride share company to do so instead but not marketed under that Black Bus 1 brand. The whole experience was confusing and I was reassured traditional bus, tube and train are still the modes of choice for me and I won’t be disrupted.

Roger French                           1st September 2018

I Gave the Bus A Chance

I arrived in Liverpool yesterday lunchtime to try out Arriva’s new Click service and soon spotted the awful ‘Say Yes To Bus’ bus with its gaudy contravision vinyl, passing by on route 53.

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‘Say Yes To Bus’ is a campaign funded by partners in the ‘Liverpool Alliance’ with the laudable objective of encouraging bus travel across the Liverpool City Region.

A marketing agency called Agent Marketing is running the campaign. They tweet under the Better_By_Bus handle and as well as ‘Say Yes To Bus’ have come up with the ‘Give Bus A Chance’ slogan.

Agent Marketing boast they ‘help develop brands through insight and collaboration’. They ‘connect people through a unique, united, multidisciplinary approach to marketing. In this era of constant change we do whatever’s absolutely necessary to help you transform and unleash potential.’

Sounds impressive; so I thought I’d test how the potential for bus route 53 is being unleashed at Liverpool’s Queen Square bus station during last night’s peak period.

In the event I whiled away a happy 90 minutes from around 4.30pm to 6pm observing and waiting. Here’s what I saw. I was also hoping THAT bus would come along to test out those ‘clear views’ from the interior!

Route 53 is jointly operated by Arriva and Stagecoach running every 7-8 minutes between Liverpool’s Queen Square bus station, Bootle  and Crosby. The timetable has alternate journeys provided by Arriva and Stagecoach.

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It’s a busy route. Arriva run 9 year old single decks while Stagecoach run a mixture of single and double decks, the latter being almost new Enviro 400 vehicles. They look impressive.

It didn’t take long to notice queues building up at the Queen Square boarding point and to realise the Arriva journeys were consistently running late and pretty much on the Stagecoach timings effectively providing two buses every 15 minutes and double the expected wait for passengers. Not really Saying Yes To Bus.

On the first occasion this happened, the Stagecoach bus had hung back at the setting down point at the top end of the bus station but regulars were obviously used to the phenomenon, saw the Arriva single decker getting uncomfortably crowded as it loaded, waited for it to depart and sure enough within a minute the nice gleaming Stagecoach double deck drew up and departed on the tail of the Arriva bus with a handful of happy passengers on board.

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Around fifteen minutes later and a hefty crowd has built up who were visibly relieved to see the single deck Arriva bus arrive at the setting down point further up the bus station closely followed by the next Stagecoach double decker but this time that driver decided the best thing was to head straight off without waiting for the Arriva leftovers at the departure stand.

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Another fifteen minutes; another hefty queue; another Arriva single deck pulls up; another Stagecoach bus immediately behind, this time a single deck too. The Arriva driver decides to share the load and closes the doors after taking around half the waiting crowd leaving the rest to hop aboard the Stagecoach bus.

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Another fifteen minutes; another hefty queue; and this time no sign of an Arriva bus as a Stagecoach single deck pulls up to greet the waiting crowd. Except sure enough it’s almost immediately followed by the Arriva single deck which has a curtailment at Waterloo Interchange just short of the scheduled Crosby destination to try and get back on time. The tables are turned as the Stagecoach driver sets off leaving some of the waiting crowd for Arriva.

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And guess what? Another fifteen minutes and another Stagecoach bus comes first and it’s another smart looking double decker. The crowds are slimming down as we’re approaching 6pm and the main peak is over.

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But where is that Arriva ‘SAY YES TO BUS’ single decker? I’d worked out from my sighting earlier in the day it was due about now.

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And sure enough it came gliding down the bus station but seeing the Stagecoach bus had just pulled away from the stand drove straight by without stopping wrongly assuming no one would be waiting.

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I looked at the man who’d just arrived at the stop and wanting to catch it too. He looked at me with a resigned look. I reckon he was thinking twice about Giving The Bus A Chance. I don’t blame him.

It might make it ‘Better By Bus’ if Arriva paid some attention to the timekeeping of route 53 so the route’s potential really can be unleashed. A full fleet of double deckers would come in handy.

Finally, on a more positive note, I hear Stagecoach sensibly have had no truck with the awful contravision for the ‘Say Yes To Bus’ campaign and instead settled for a more modest single deck side.

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Shame they’ve blocked the view out of the windows with other vinyl!

Roger French 29th August 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French      1st August 2018

Update – 3rd August 2018 …….

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Don’t ask!

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

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

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

Now read on, if you can stomach it….

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

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

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

Click on the ‘Bus fares information’ tab….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two more options to find your fare.

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French         30 July 2018