Thursday, 27 August 2009

In Praise of Conductors

Outside London, you will need to be over 40 to remember the bus conductor, a breed progressively culled from the mid-1960s, sacrificed on the altar of efficiencies. Younger people in Swansea may therefore take to the designation ‘customer service host’ but the rest of us will view the staff aboard the Metro as conductors.

My recent brief encounter with Swansea Metro reminded me just how important conductors were. And how things have changed. Conductors had time to spend with their passengers. As was evident on Metro, they were happily chatting, passing the time of day, working up relationships, engaging. It was clear that conductors were beginning to know their regulars. You can easily put a financial price on the conductor as an overhead but it’s difficult to put an economic value on them. By this I mean it’s hard to estimate their worth in attracting and retaining passengers, for they must do so owing to the positive interaction they generate.

I witnessed this repeatedly on Metro. People were asking questions about their journey, about changing buses, even about their destinations. I’m sure bus drivers would want to answer all these questions but time forbids it. So often, a casual enquiry to a driver gets either short shrift or minimal information. Metro conductors seemed knowledgeable, responsive and excellent ambassadors. Some were even calling out the destinations just as they used to do which, given that the automated on board announcements were virtually inaudible (especially at the rear by the inboard engine), this is as well.

They retain the leather cash-bag of old but instead of the strap & plate for a Setright, there’s a handheld computerised ticket system. It’s a lot slower than the Setright used to be. A decent conductor could bang off a Setright ticket literally in a second. On a busy Metro run, one conductor still had difficulty in remembering who got on, where. There are four features of a good conductor: a pleasant manner, mental arithmetic, balance when on the move (the so-called ‘conductors legs’) and knowing where passengers boarded. All but arithmetic are still required today.

The other noticeable effect was the speed of the journey. Perhaps it was the Streetcar’s size because it seemed ponderously slow when compared to the E300s also on the Metro service at that time. But the Streetcar kept to time in spite of passengers at most stops, thanks to boarding & alighting via two doors and a driver who didn’t need to take fares. It was an absolute pleasure not to have to wait for a for the driver to deal with a passenger who wasn’t sure where he wanted to go and then be given change for a £1.50 fare from a tenner.

Unlike conductors of old, it was the Metro driver and not the conductor controlling the doors. Metro conductors didn’t signal via two bells when passengers had finished alighting and boarding.

And if a clippie’s good enough for the Swansea Bay road train, conductors are good enough on Metro. Such a pity that the economics of bus operations mean that we’ll never see their likes on anything other than special services. Those under 40 will never be confused about wondering why they needn’t pay the driver.

7 comments:

tony said...

And of course, some of the tram systems also use conductors, e.g. West Midlands, Nottingham and Sheffield.

The other Tony in Walsall

Anonymous said...

So the FTR is really the PST then ?

Martin Hooper said...

Tony - Blackpool Trams have conductors as well...

Anonymous said...

I was a conductor for seven good years, before going OMO(!). We were required to call out timing points en route. The one at a pub in Boreham gave us the opportunity to call out, enthusiastically, and with a straight face, "Anyone want the Cock Inn?"......

Stevie D said...

Of course, there's no reason why you can't have conductors on regular buses - especially double-door and bendibuses - no reason to muck the roads up with an oversized purple monster...

Anonymous said...

In April 2008 I took Stagecoach 73A from Dundee to Broughty Ferry and that service had conductors. The buses ran exactly to time and the journey was a lot faster than with OMO. Perhaps the cost of having conductors would be offset by a more intensive utilisation of both staff and vehicles?

Anonymous said...

Crew operation means the bus gets cancelled if you can't find a conductor, and the opportunity to fiddle is far greater. Most conductors were not able to drive the bus,and that would rather limit their value these days.

Roadside ones have value to queue-bust though...does this still take place anywhere ?