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

Trying out the ‘One Arriva’ ticket in Rhyl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few observations and suggestions:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French       26th July 2018

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

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

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