Saturday, 31 July 2010

Unusual Destination

“Despite its arduous birth, Gravelly Hill generated a certain amount of giddy excitement, even if it didn’t quite match the febrile reaction to the M1 in 1959. By May 1970 the junction was complete enough for curious members of the public to be found upon it. Two months before the grand opening, in a late example of motorway-spotting, a Burton-upon-Trent coach firm, Victory Motors, ran trips here for 65p return. A spokesman for the West Midlands Tourist Board reasoned, ‘Four thousand years ago people would probably have gone to see the Pyramids for the same reason’.”
MORAN, J., On Roads: a hidden history, (London, Profile, 2010) (p.46)

Coach tours to Spaghetti Junction must surely be one of the most bizarre destinations advertised by an English coach operator. You can perhaps understand the trips made from both sides of the Bristol Channel in 1966 to the Severn Bridge viewing area. Here was an elegant piece of engineering in an age of luxury coaching excursions. But the M6/A38(M), six years later?

Friday, 30 July 2010

A Shok Announcement

If it wasn’t so ridiculous, it would be fun to think that the acquisition by India’s Ashok Leyland of a 26 per cent stake in Optare might result in the resurrection in Britain of the “Leyland” name or at least the roundel. After all, Leyland bus & truck always had a good reputation, till the near enough enforced marriage in the late 1960s with the ailing British Motor Corporation.

Ashok Leyland is the second biggest bus manufacturer in India. It also produces a ton of trucks. This is the 2516 Super, in looks a kind of cross between a Scammell and a 1960s Leyland Ergonomic Cab

And Optare owes much to the Leyland rationalisation that saw the closure of Charles H Roe bodybuilders and thereafter the phoenix like emergence of Optare. Except the original Optare is, of course, technically East Lancs (Darwen) in disguise, following a reverse take-over.

What do we know about Optare?
  • In recent years, it’s been the subject of countless rumours, including take-over speculation.

  • It’s been through recent troublesome and tiresome changes, including slimming down.

  • It hasn’t always been profitable.

  • The East Lancs/Optare changes appeared to have no material impact on the business save for the rationalisation out of the East Lancs’ single deck.

  • It’s come up with mistakes such as the Solo+ and the Rapta.
And we also know that:
  • The UK market for buses is no longer strong, even though Optare claims a full order book.

  • The Versa and established Solo will be subject to pressure from the midibus Streetlite, especially from Wrightbus customers of conventionally sized buses.

  • Solos haven’t always been selling in quite the numbers as they once were.

  • Low carbon buses will shape the future. Optare leads this particular field in the mini- and midi-bus sectors.
And what might be the result of the Ashok Leyland changes?
  • A transfer of production to India, perhaps, to take advantage of cheaper labour? The press release talks of seeking to improve competitiveness “through access to Ashok Leyland’s lower-cost supply chain”.

  • Enable Ashok Leyland to develop instantly some more modern products, including access to Optare’s low floor, low carbon and eco-drive technologies.

  • The emergence of the Optare name beyond England, Europe and North America?

Ashok also produces buses with Leyland heritage names of Viking, Stag and, above, Lynx

Thursday, 29 July 2010

On Low Floors & Wheelchairs

This is a guest post by regular commenter and reader RC169. If you want to write a guest post for this blog, check here.

Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the incident with the First Manchester driver who apparently refused to operate his ramp for a wheelchair using passenger, it is opportune to look at the broader issues raised by the incident, and the manner in which it was made public.

The Technology

The possibility for wheelchair users to travel on buses has developed over the last 15 or 20 years, with the introduction of the current generation of ‘low floor’ buses, although buses with step-free floors were available more than 50 years ago. The Bristol Lodekka F-Series; and the Daimler Fleetline offered this type of layout, generally for lowheight buses. Some operators, however, took advantage of the flat floor potential to provided increased headroom on highbridge vehicles (e.g. Bournemouth Corporation); and, perhaps, also because they saw value in the absence of steps. In 1962, a vehicle purpose designed as a single decker also offered this layout—the Daimler Roadlinerbut it was plagued by reliability problems and therefore sold poorly and never achieved its potential.

All of the rear-engined designs offering a step-free floor did nonetheless require an incline to enable the floor to clear the front axle, and during the later 1960s and early 1970s, this design seemed to fall out of favour, and a layout involving a small extra step to a level floor which incorporated the area where a passenger stood to pay their fare, and the gangway, gained greater acceptance. The BristolVRT/ECW combination, which replaced the Lodekka, incorporated such a small step; and the Leyland National single decker had a similar layout with a slightly deeper step. One is drawn to the conclusion that the inclines of the step-free floors were not so satisfactory from a passenger comfort and safety perspective; and there does not seem to have been any attempt to exploit the potential of the step-free floors to enable the carriage of wheelchairs. The successor generation vehicles (such as the Leyland Lynx and Olympian) did not, as far as I am aware, offer the step-free floor.

The stepped layout of vehicles such as the Leyland National or Bristol VRT can in fact be modified with the addition of a lifting mechanism to allow carriage of wheelchairs. Southampton City Transport converted a couple of Leyland Atlanteans in this way to provide vehicles for a service specially designed for wheelchair users in the mid 1980s; while similar conversions were carried out to some Mercedes-Benz O405 single deckers in the south west German city of Heidelberg for use on normal services. Some coaches and other current generation buses still use lifts of this nature to facilitate the carriage of wheelchairs.

The current generation of ‘low floor’ buses are not so very different in layout from their predecessors, but this time the potential to enable carriage of wheelchairs has been exploited, in particular in the late 1980s by manufacturers in Germany such as Neoplan. This was probably as much a result of political pressure as the availability of technology. The idea spread to other countries, including the UK, where politicians saw an opportunity to grant some ‘wishes’, and enshrined the requirement to provide facilities for wheelchairs on bus services in law, given that the necessary technology was (apparently) now available.

From my perspective, as I reported almost two years ago following a visit to London with my wife (who is a wheelchair user), the reality is rather different. The politicians in London have tried to go one better than their national counterparts, and bring in a universally wheelchair accessible network of buses several years before the national deadline. Unfortunately the technology does not seem to be mature or reliable enough – this includes wider aspects such as the suspension and general ride quality of the vehicles in intensive urban service. In contrast, our experience with the human elements of the system was largely satisfactory. My wife considers that buses are satisfactory for short journeys, but the situation in London meant that some quite lengthy journeys were necessary. If the investment had been redistributed in favour of the Underground, so that (for example) every second or third station was made wheelchair accessible, a far more satisfactory result would have been achieved; but, at the time of our visit (Autumn 2008), very few stations were accessible, particularly on the older lines in the suburbs.

It is not sensible to think that the clock might be turned back, so it is essential that the suppliers of the technology work to improve it, in particular the suspension systems of buses, although I accept that it is almost inevitable that a road vehicle will subject its passengers to more vertical and sideways motion than a rail-borne vehicle.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Shuffling the Deck(er)

First cunningly chose my absence from the country to announce the latest in its series of management reshuffles. This one will effectively see the end of management at Stoke on Trent, present in the city since the erstwhile Potteries Motor Traction days.

First Potteries is soon to split into two. Chester and Rock Ferry (Merseyside) operations pass to Soper’s First Manchester. If the distance from Chester or Birkenhead to Manchester seems a large one, remember that Arriva’s Aintree regional managing director still looks after its Manchester area operations.

Staffordshire and Stoke area operations move under Leicester’s control within the so-called First Midlands group. This creates an interesting geographical area, encompassing the rich pickings of the former Leicester municipal operation; the former Worcester-based Midland Red West; the once quite profitable rump of the former Northampton municipal; and now Stoke and Staffordshire. It’s quite an eclectic mix of seemingly diverse operations, in fact.

These changes run somewhat counter-cultural to moves at the other major UK industry players. Only First is consistently applying management and back office changes of this nature, with others (notably Stagecoach) opting for a different business model. Arriva has settled on a regional/area structure; Stagecoach has opted for smaller and often split-down regional operations; and Go Ahead has chosen rather more locally devolved management.

What may happen next at First? If it’s of any interest, I need to be out of the country for a few days towards the end of August…

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Is it Worth it?

The premium for a hybrid over a conventionally engineered double deck is said to be £110,000. This puts the price of a hybrid decker in the region of £295,000 and more. Research published by TfL suggests that the saving on fuel amounts to £5,000 per annum. To pay for itself, this will take 22 years, some seven years beyond the expected life of a *standard* bus in front line duty. Routemasters aside, London’s diesel buses thus far don’t seem to last even that long, before being cascaded. And who knows the life expectancy of the hybrid equipment and what refurbishment or renewals will be required. Or whether there’s a second hand market, outside London.

Is it worth it? Only if:

  • The government’s green bus fund covers the difference between conventional and hybrid technology. The doubling of London’s hybrid fleet by 56 buses to be delivered this year is part funded by the government.

  • It allows both the manufacturing and operating industries to understand and improve upon the technology.

  • This helps build volume that will eventually reduce the otherwise high unit costs.

  • Leasing companies begin to understand hybrid vehicles’ residual values. They are currently ultra-conservative about RVs, as they don’t yet see whether there’s any after market in or beyond London.
When hybrids were originally mooted, there were claims that fuel economy might improve by as much as 30 per cent. TfL trials indicate that this is optimistic. Its double decks achieve 1.1mpg above the diesel benchmark of 5mpg. This equates to 22 per cent, a third lower than anticipated. And for single decks, TfL states the very best performance is 1.9mpg above the 8mpg benchmark—or 24 per cent. There are commensurate reductions in carbon, again lower than anticipated.

Meanwhile, Arriva has cut its fleet carbon emissions by 1¾ ounces per mile, not on its bus fleet but the cars it runs for bus & rail managers. 400 cars travelling, say, 15,000 each saves 1,050,000 oz or about 30 tons of CO2. E&OE.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Green with Envy

In spite of being not that far by Network SouthEast South West Trains from London, I missed the Green Line 80th anniversary cavalcade, a week ago. I had a poor excuse. I’ve been out of the country for a couple of days and a few days more, not that readers will have noticed (I hope). There is, as a consequence, something of a backlog of email through which to trawl, so that might explain why you haven’t yet received a response. I have over 80 left, plus over 270 in Spam.

First has experienced ridership increases on its 70n service from Legoland and Windsor, re-introducing in 2008 double decks onto Green Line services. So-called Rainbow Fares help identify cheaper journeys. Bracknell journeys operate as “connections”, under domestic hours regulations

I don’t wish too add much to all the stuff already written on Green Line other than to say that it’s an altogether enduring brand, even if it’s as far removed from its origins as is Curry’s the retailer. Curry’s, very old readers will recall, started life selling ironmongery and bicycles.

For, in spite of it all, Green Line is a survivor. It’s the bus equivalent of Teflon. None of the mud strewn at the bus industry over the last 80 years has seemed to stick. What other bus brand these days can claim to be as old as Green Line? What other older bus brand is still a household name in its core market area *and* recognised beyond? I can recall no other similar limited stop/express coach brand operating for *80* years. Unless you know differently.

Fitting though the 80th birthday celebrations are, Green Line is very much a shadow of its former self. The glory years of the late 1950s are unlikely ever to return. Then, London Transport Green Line coaches spanned almost the entire home counties, touching the lives of everyone within 30 miles of Charing Cross. Now, the routes that remain are just six plus one:
  • All bar two operated by London Country Bus Services agglomerate successor Arriva

  • One in agreement with First

  • The sixth by Arriva but in collaboration with National Express, Terravision and easyBus.

  • Also, a seventh: TfL’s X26, the sort-of truncated successor to Green Line 726, the last remaining Green Line orbital.
Green Line: an 80-year microcosm of the British bus & coach scene:
  • The London General Omnibus Company began limited stop stage routes in the late 1920s, before the need outside London to regulate.

  • It steadily bought out competitors before incorporating the lot in 1930 into Green Line Coaches Ltd, followed quickly by the first branded routes.

  • Early services were often operated by others, under agreements.

  • In 1933, Green Line passed with LGOC to the new London Passenger Transport Board (i.e. London Transport).

  • Post war changes resulted in a network recast that lasted till the early 1970s. Population growth & suburban movement ensured a 20 per cent cut did not deter initial growth.

  • From the early 1950s, orbitals supplemented the traditional cross-London radials.

  • Routemaster coaches began to appear from 1962, increasing capacity but also often reducing frequency.

  • Neither the RMs nor one man operation from 1966 managed to restore what was becoming an ailing brand.

  • In 1970, Green Line passed to nationalised London Country Bus Services. It adopted bog-standard dual purpose Leyland Nationals.

  • Under the Derek Fytche LCBS recovery plan, Plaxton bodied AECs improved matters considerably, from 1977.

  • A more market driven LCBS then developed Green Line Jetlink services. Air transfers were later developed in the early 1980s.

  • Coach deregulation saw Green Line briefly appear in the likes of Brighton, Cambridge and Northampton. Peak commuter coaches proliferated.

  • Bus deregulation and privatisation saw market fragmentation and these killed all but a handful of Green Line routes.

  • Arriva gradually gained control of the quartered London County and, as such, has successfully re-established the Green Line name. Concentrating on core, profitable routes, it remains a shadow of its 1950s self, though.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Misguided?

The recent post on the current position regarding the Cambridgeshire guided busway attracted the attention of a site entitled, "The World’s Longest Disused Guided Busway". That site chronicles & collects published articles on the busway, back to 2004. "Disused" is slightly in the invective, for "disused" it is not, as this pertained to the former Cambridge-St Ives railway that the busway will eventually replace. "Unused" would be a better term, though we take the site’s point.

That site considers "The longer that the Guided Bus is delayed, the more the penalty charges rack up against [BAM Nuttall] so despite what it says, is the council really bothered about delays? Furthermore, if the busway will then be loss making when actually running due to lack of passengers and fewer buses, what is the incentive to open it?"

i Noguidedbus.com

Saturday, 24 July 2010

On the Beat

Ask anyone in your local community about the police service and they’ll all say they wish to see more constables on the beat. They forget that it’s more efficient to use cars, to speed up response times. But, policing is not all about rapid responses.

The chief constable of Greater Manchester wants to see fewer car journey and more police on the bus (and train & tram). What a brilliant idea. He should be applauded. There are so many wins, because the plan:

  • Saves money as in Greater Manchester. The idea is that this plan will save 10 per cent of mileage.

  • Takes the police nearer to a significant slice of the community that might otherwise not see a police officer.

  • Helps prevent anti-social behaviour on buses, gives comfort & reassurance to passengers and acts as a significant determent.
This is precisely what the industry has been asking for (and it gets, in some parts of the country, though usually these are community support officers).

Get the police out of their cars & vans and among the people. The bus industry should encourage these sorts of decisions by offering officers in uniform free travel at all times. A reciprocal response that in these difficult times will make a double saving to the public purse: no car mileage and no bus fare.

Mind you, many routes in Greater Manchester are frequent. Can you imagine an officer waiting at a bus stop for an infrequent service, in the rain or cold?

Friday, 23 July 2010

TUPE or not TUPE

That’s pronounced chew-pea and that really is the question. Arriva (and possibly others) has recently raised the issue of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006, or TUPE for short.

Industry watchers will be most familiar with TUPE when operator A buys operator B. In such circumstances, employees are said to “TUPE across” from one employer to the other, until such time as the new employer can issue 90 day redundancy notices.

Operator A must continue granting B’s employees the same employment rights & benefits as they were used to, until changed under a statutory notice period or until B buys out the previous rights accrued under A’s employment.

Arriva has raised the issue as regards the transfer not of companies, but local transport authority *contracts*. When company X wins at tender a contract previously operated by company Y, should TUPE apply to the employees of company Y? In other words, should they (a) transfer at all and if so (b) on their existing terms of employment?

Arriva seems to think they should but this, of course, raises a number of questions, such as:

  1. *If* TUPE applies to the transfer of contracts, presumably this is easiest where there is a block of drivers who operate solely on the contract or contracts in question. What happens if the new contract requires slightly fewer resources (drivers, vehicles) than the old one? Who gets to transfer and who does not?

  2. What happens when drivers are not substantially employed on the old contract but form part of a rota with other routes?

  3. Though the regulations are about the transfer of employment rights, some interpret TUPE as including other resources, such as vehicles themselves. I’m not persuaded by this argument but, if it’s so, this will have interesting implications for operators. What happens, for example, where a LTA specifics more or fewer vehicles than currently? Or a different specification? Or brand new?

  4. Say a LTA sacked a contractor for significant breaches of contract that revolved around driver problems. Say, as a result, the LTA tendered for a replacement for a route and timetable completely as is. Would the new operator have to take on under TUPE the existing, troublesome workforce?

  5. Though TUPE seems to involve the old and new operators, what role does the LTA have in bringing employee information to the attention of all bidders? How easy would it be for the LTA to gather this information and how could it ensue that existing contractors complied?

  6. Finally, will this be another piece of bureaucracy that will dissuade, in particular, smaller operators from bidding?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

A Wise Old Hand Once Said…

It’s rare indeed for Transdev Yellow Buses to find itself at the mercy of the Daily Echo’s sharp tongue but the driver who apparently asked two passengers to leave because they proffered a £20 note managed to get TYB into the limelight for the wrong reasons—because one of the passengers was disabled.

I don’t now about you, but this is another case of passengers going to the (Echo) paper before even considering approaching the company. This national trend is alarming and may be a sign of our so-called “compo culture”.

Back in the days of peaked caps, ties and long trousers, a lesson I learnt from a wise old industry hand was that a complaint isn’t a complaint till it gets to head office: deal with it locally and you kill it. Now, people seem to by-pass the garage or even the company and go straight to the local newspaper. And the papers love it! We manage to keep feeding the local media with story after story.

This would never happen in Sainsbury’s. One reason is that there’s always a supervisor on hand to deal with such a problem. It’s different out on the road but there are (or should be) procedures to follow, no matter how dubious a driver thinks the passenger may be. So, once again, no excuses.

No excuses? Well, passengers should know that it’s best to have the correct change available and, if not, a small denomination note. 99 customers out of 100 will do their level best before foisting a Twenty on a driver. And, drivers can and do run out of their silver float, for example, on a Monday morning with notes across the counter for weekly tickets.

Would it have been so hard to change the note in a shop (as the couple eventually did) *before* the trip rather than after? With 25 buses an hour in each direction through Winton, where they were waiting, the delay would’ve been minimal.

Roll on smartcards. Actually, TYB has them. So, roll on their “compulsory” use, like in London. We need a change of culture along European lines by paying before you travel, but that’s actually easier said than done and easier, too, in a regulated environment.

As for the couple awaiting TYB’s 431 service (according to the Echo), the highest core service number TYB uses is 6 (yes, through Winton); the highest community/lower frequency route number is 40 (36 through Winton); and its White Bus operation, mainly for students, goes as far as 94. May be the 431 was a bus allocation card.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Part of the Problem?

We all know that they’re part of the solution. It’s madness to suggest that buses are part of the problem of traffic congestion but it does happen. In London, for example, bendy buses are blamed for junction blocking and road space hogging.

Outside London, I’ve come across communities with very frequent services where people think that the bus is the vehicle holding up the traffic. Explain that in reality that the bus keeps additional cars off the road and these complainants look at you as if you’re from Mars or somewhere.

If buses were the case of congestion, they’d be nicely at the head of the queue. The reality is somewhat different. Indeed, if a bus pulls up at a stop in urban traffic, it creates a small gap, enough for cars at downstream junctions to join the flow. The bus is therefore providing a service and not just to its passengers!

What does cause urban traffic congestion?

  1. Volume of traffic, especially cars. We live in an age where the car allows us to live almost anywhere, well away from where we work. This mobility is a blessing but also a curse. Add this to the centralisation of many of or daily needs—hospitals, supermarkets, retail parks—and we’re increasingly travelling more to do the same.

  2. Junctions. Wherever two or more urban roads meet, you are going to get congestion. Capacity is often such that junctions can’t cope. Major junctions will need some means of rationing and rotating access, normally by lights, roundabouts or, increasingly, both. Buses don’t add to this problem, unless their stops are located right on a junction. Invariably, few are and stops are well back.

  3. Inconsiderate parking. Cars are increasingly abandoned all over the place. “Won’t be a minute” is the chant from a million private motorists and white van men, as they pull up for cigarettes, a newspaper, the lottery, a cash machine or a loaf. A poorly or illegally parked car might not impede another private car but it could halt a bus, causing a tailback. And then who’s blamed?

  4. Roadworks. Whether planned or like mushrooms after summer rain, necessary though they are, they cause havoc.
Mind you, it must be said that a significant reason for a delay with a bus is because a passenger pays. True, many people now travel free of charge but paying a fare, without the correct money to hand, can slow the journey itself considerably. So there’s the solution to one problem, at least. Run buses empty.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

From the Report

“Delivering on our promises is one of our core values. We seek to continually improve (sic) our services to promote high levels of customer satisfaction and encourage greater use of public transport”
So says First Group’s 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility report, published earlier this month. Though First show what appears to be volatile satisfaction levels for its four rail franchisees, specific bus passenger figures are missing. It’s therefore difficult to see whether there’s been an improvement or not. One wonders why the figures are absent and perhaps that’s because it’s inevitable that a year of bus cuts will have a negative impact.

What First does publish, unlike the other Big Five operators, is punctuality and reliability statistics*.

There’s usually an item on each of First’s subsidiary’s websites, though few now seem up-to-date or as regularly refreshed as they used to be. Some are over a year old and others, more so, in spite of promises on some sites to publish monthly. Some nevertheless were uploaded as recently as last month.

In the CSR report, First aggregates the total, so that we know punctuality has improved by one per cent to 91 per cent, comparing 2007/08 with 2009/10. It’s a brave operator indeed who publishes information four percentage points below the traffic commissioners’ expectations.

Reliability slipped marginally in 2009/10. It dropped from 98.8 to 98.6 per cent, attributable to the poor start to the year’s weather. Still, that’s a good result and, rounding up to 99 per cent, it’s the only statistic in which the public is interested, other than 100 per cent itself. Even if the government expects 99.5 per cent.

Perhaps people get bored with meaningless statistics and may be that is why they are no longer so prominent on First sies. Perhaps passengers show an intolerance to figures whose decimal points don’t move. Perhaps they think, “yeah yeah, if you say so”. Yet, operators do take KPIs very seriously.

* And why don’t the others? Information available to the public would go a long way in countering prevailing perceptions

SUBSIDIARY—latest stats (E&OE)PunctualityReliability
Aberdeen 90.095.0
Berkshire & Thames Valley 91.499.4
BradfordNo info foundNo info found
Bristol91.099.2
Somerset93.599.6
Calderdale92.899.5
Huddersfield94.399.5
Chester/WirralNo info foundNo info found
Devon & Cornwall91.199.7
DorsetNo info foundNo info found
Eastern Counties86.499.0
Essex88.393.8
Glasgow94.099.1
Manchester89.099.0
Hampshire90.199.4
LeedsNo info foundNo info found
Leicester96.099.5
Northampton96.099.5
South WalesNo info foundNo info found
EdinburghNo info foundNo info found
South Yorkshire92.599.4
Hereford & Worcester96.099.5
York87.098.8

Monday, 19 July 2010

Strain

There’s always the potential for strained relationships where there’s a contract between two organisations in place. One, for example, might have higher expectations than the other.

One of 10 once brand-new, environmentally-friendlier Scania double decks for Stagecoach, purchased specifically for guided busway services (though not the entire busway is guided)

With small contracts, the potential for problems can be tiny. And problems there certainly are for the Cambridgeshire guided busway. Six fairly big ones. Contracts don’t get much bigger than this, at £115mil plus contractor over-run payments believed to be £14,000 per day. Indeed, had it still been on the drawing board, my guess is that the new government would consider it very seriously for the chop. As it is, the thing’s almost complete. And that’s the key work: “almost”.

The original spring 2009 opening was put back to the summer. Then the winter. Then summer 2010, next month in fact. Then mid-December 2010. Now, England and the world’s longest busway probably won’t be open at all in 2010, thanks to the six sticking points—owing to flooding, subsidence and heave. Indeed, it looks increasingly likely that Cambridgeshire will need to complete the snags itself, charging contractor BAM Nuttall accordingly. Another source of conflict.

This is rather a blow for Stagecoach and Whippet who, between them, have invested more than £4mil. But there’s a bigger blow. The planned busway trackside new town of Northstowe is now less likely to go ahead. The operators’ business plans had assumed it would and they had based their revenue assumptions upon it, well into the future of the five-year deal. Cambridgeshire and the operators were planing on doing exactly the right thing: introducing quality services ahead of a major development. A lack of new housing now threatens to water down operators’ frequency and both are considering what negative changes they will need to make to ensure profitability.

Operators have a five-year deal with Cambridgeshire for exclusive use of the busway. This will start when it opens. Operators are, however, able to renegotiate if the bus way hasn’t opened by January 2011. And the chances of that are? Slim.

Stagecoach as already tried to distance itselfand its specifically purchased buses—from the contract fiasco.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Weighty Subject

An owner of a small minibus company emailed to share his issue of overloading. No, not overloading a vehicle’s seating capacity, but its weight.

The correspondent was taking a small group of disabled people on an outing when he was asked on to a weighbridge. To his horror, he was marginally over his Iveco’s gross vehicle weight (GVW). And, his vehicle was nowhere near at full seating capacity but instead had sundry wheelchair & clamping equipment alongside passengers. There was no formal action, on this occasion.

Those of us who operate big buses or coaches will probably not think twice about this sort of thing. We’re all familiar that the seating (and where appropriate, standing) capacity should never be exceeded. On a large bus or coach, this will cause no real problem, in terms of the maximum permitted GVW. It’s a different story on a minibus, here defined as a vehicle with between nine and 16 passenger seats.

Let’s assume a typical 16-seat minibus has an unladen weight of 3,000 kgs, or three tons. This accounts for the vehicle fully fuelled as it left the factory. Its GVW might be a little over 4,000 kgs. The 1,000 kg difference needs to take account of driver, passengers and luggage. The rule of thumb is that, on average, for every 15 passengers, the vehicle weight increases by 1,000 kgs. In this hypothetical example, we have 16 passengers plus a driver, plus luggage. Depending upon people’s builds, it’s therefore easy to get into trouble without knowing it. You might be within the seating capacity but you could exceed he GVW. The driver could therefore inadvertently be breaking the law. It’s possible that no one would ever know… except in a serious accident… or a VOSA check.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

An Urgent Appeal

The age of free travel to extend to 65? Well, blogging on *that* would be predictable. Instead, I wish to consider something else.

Other than genuine reader emails, the Omnibuses inbox receives some odd requests, most of which find their way into the bin. But not this one. The BBC is seeking help in the making of a documentary on the changing style of UK coach travel. It’s going right back in history… all the way to the formation of the National Bus Company, in fact. In particular, the BBC is hunting down:

  • Coach drivers who’ve enjoyed a varied career, can tell a good anecdote or two, and who worked in the 1970s & 1980s and, preferably, at the time NBC was formed.

  • Footage of early National Express work (and even passenger interviews) at the birth of the NBC (by that I actually take it they mean 1972) at the time the new white livery was, well, new.

Quite a tall order. Many express drivers in 1972 are likely to be in their eighties now and many will sadly be dead. If you can help, please email andy.mosse@bbc.co.uk direct. May be you can’t help directly but you may have leads. Please don’t delay. Omnibuses readers are nothing if not resourceful.

More on coaching heritage:

End of the Double N
British Coachways
Black & White
National, 35(+) years old

Friday, 16 July 2010

Top Marks for Cornwall

How Passenger Focus could deduce from the figures that “passengers give bus services a mixed reception” I’m not sure. Looking through the press releases published yesterday, following surveys in 14 areas of England, I’d say the industry was pretty much in good shape. But that’s not to say there aren’t issues.

Following significant passenger surveys, the winner with the highest overall customer satisfaction was Brighton city (92%) and Brighton & Hove (92%). This seems a vindication of the private monopoly/public partnership approach now almost legendary in the city. Brighton also had the highest rating for satisfaction with punctuality (82%).

Click on this link to see the full table

In my view, though, fourth-rated Cornwall should take the crown. Between First & Western Greyhound, Cornwall achieved an overall satisfaction of 90% and 80% in terms of punctuality. The difference in Cornwall, though, was that only 21% were dissatisfied with the fares charged, compared to 28% in Brighton and generally elsewhere between 27 and 32%. Add the fact that individually, Western Greyhound came in at a whopping 95% overall satisfaction (and First wasn’t too far behind at 87%) and in my view Cornwall tops the lot.

Why should Cornwall be so high? The survey didn’t consider *potential* passengers or those who have recently lost service. And, following First cutbacks, with Western Greyhound coming to the rescue, perhaps Cornish folk really appreciate what they have.

Smoothness of ride varied from 74% satisfaction (Manchester) to 85% (again, Cornwall). Brighton came in at 82%. Why do the country roads and lanes of Cornwall rate higher than anywhere else surveyed? Given that Western Greyhound still uses significant numbers of Mercedes Varios, what impact does that have on the figures? Is driver training different in Cornwall? And are schedules more realistic? And with little urban stop-start?

West Yorkshire was an interesting case study. In spite of the views of the Integrated Transport Authority, which wishes to move towards quality contracts because of the perceived system weaknesses, West Yorkshire scored a 91% satisfaction level overall, up there with Brighton. And dissatisfaction with fares was only 23%. This information seems at odds with WYITA thinking and, as far as I know, the public generally of West Yorkshire. How does one account for this sort of gulf?

I must also mention the high satisfaction rate in Plymouth (90%) and the lower dissatisfaction with fares (22%). How will things change as the competition between First and Plymouth Citybus develops, as each considers its networks?

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Not (Quite) What they Seem

Merseytravel continues with its love of electric buses. Its new hybrid fleet of diminutive, 59-plate, 24-seat Opatre Solos for the City Link C1-C5 Liverpool city centre routes are, however, not quite all they seem. The vehicles, new from February 2010, are actually operating under diesel. This is while MPTE and the city council sort out a city centre docking station to give the vehicles a midday boost.

The 10 vehicles are understood to have been purchased with assistance from the Green Bus Fund, something the Conservative Liberal government this month confirmed will enjoy a fillip from £10mil to £15mil. This is addition to Scotland’s version, at £3½mil.

Liverpool’s green buses still rattle to the (considerable) clatter of diesel. It’s understood, though, that once a charging point is agreed, it’s an easy conversion from conventional fuel to hybrid, almost as simply as slotting in a cassette. The best charging location is probably Canada Boulevard, where many terminate, but this is also on the historic waterfront and, as such, may be viewed as somewhat controversial.

The 100 plus vehicle operator is the playfully named Cumfy Bus, a specialist in the minibus sector but also expanding into other sizes. To think that Cumfy has grown into a significant player from a one-vehicle operation by a former bus driver, once specialising in transport for disabled people.

The routes themselves are somewhat tortuous, having to negotiate the complicated one way systems in the city centre. As such, it isn’t always easy for the vehicles to keep to time under diesel. Will this be magnified under hybrid running? Will there be sufficient power to weight to ensure the Solos glide along the tune of the timetable? At least batteries are suited to the type of low gear acceleration required of a city centre loop such as this.

Additional information and photo: Omnibuses’ Northern Correspondent

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Infamy

You can always rationalise things by saying that the disabled woman in a wheelchair was a campaigner spoiling for a fight; or that her son would’ve been better helping his mother than videoing the bus driver; or that the driver had a bad back; or the gap between the kerb and low floor bus was bridgeable without the ramp.

It all happened when the 135 arrived in Manchester and a wheelchair users wished to alight. The driver offered no ramp. But, how did the passenger board?

But, in the end, if a driver refuses to use the bus’ ramp for a disabled passenger, these days he’s acting discriminatorily. End of. And so, in the media this week, we have another bus driver who’s found his 15 minutes of infamy, with the now expected polarised black-and-white views. In the public’s eye, he could be responsible for reinforcing an impression that bus drivers in general and First drivers in particular don’t care. First is investigating and it may yet be that the driver is largely innocent or partly so. Like previous cases (mother in Bristol and boy in football shirt), there may be more than meets the eye, though the video evidence here seems incontrovertible. The public will no doubt jump to conclusions and it now doesn’t really matter whether the driver was right, wrong or in the middle. The damage is done.

Yet, without taking sides, let’s consider areas the media ignore.

  1. Disabled passengers are all too quick to criticise bus drivers when, in fact, the major impediment by far in getting a wheelchair from pavement to bus tends to be thoughtless motorists parked on or in bus stops or across dropped kerbs. Disabled people don’t tend to video such occurrences and neither do the media seem to champion them.

  2. Manual ramps are not easy for drivers to use. They’re often dirty, stubborn, heavy and there’s a risk of trapping fingers. There must be a better way. Raised kerbs and kneeling buses were designed to do the job adequately (provided the bus can reach the kerb: see 1. above), leaving the ramp for use at other sites.

  3. The deliberate videoing of a driver is a very threatening act. It’s little wonder he’s hiding. It’s clear that when someone gets in the way of a street photograph, there’s nothing they can do. Intentional videoing has a more sinister air about it and drivers can expect more of this, in the future, thanks to the mobile phone.

  4. First indeed *does* care, according to its Corporate Social Responsibility Report 2010, published just last week. It states First regularly monitors its service (but doesn’t publish the UK Bus scores).

  5. What First does publish is that 82 per cent of its “in-service” UK fleet “now has low floor access”. This is higher than many industry watchers might imagine and is a significant step forward for disabled people. It’s a good indicator for the future, too. Leon Daniels on this very blog has stated that First will meet its 2016/17 DDA obligations (though the 2010 figure may include older low floors without full DDA compliance).

  6. Drivers have to tackle a bewildering array of wheelchair sizes, shapes and designs, some of which are unsuitable for the bus. They’re at the sharp end and training in this area is almost impossible. There needs to be more work in making suitable chairs easily identifiable. Disabled people have largely conquered the myths about carrying batteries, though.

  7. Parents with buggies often block bays designed specifically for wheelchairs, making life difficult for disabled people and drivers alike.
But the real problem here is that no matter the issues a driver or the industry face, they can ill afford to ignore disabled people who now have the same rights as all passengers, where the bus technology exists. To refuse is discriminatory.

And you have to hand it to the videoing son who records the route number, bus number and states the time.

i See the YouTube video

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Beeching of the Buses

So, the national media’s caught up with possible changes to BSOG, and they’re calling it the Beeching of the Buses. Seasoned industry watchers will know we’ve been there before: 1974, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1983 and then, of course, deregulation.

Why Beeching, why now? Because the truth is, today, bus services have never been better. This is in spite of the popular myth. Just compare a 1970s or early 1980s timetable with today’s. Where once frequencies were all over the place, operators tend to run clockface timetables. The number of services with an improved offer or frequency is high. Simplified services tend to give even higher corridor frequencies. There are more services running later…

And this means there’s more to lose. If we believe the reports, the government is *considering* withdrawing BSOG altogether. This is a step removed from possible reforms that might see a different approach e.g. passenger incentives, something operators dislike. Could talk of a blanket withdrawal be a way of softening everyone up?

Fuel accounts for about 15 per cent of the industry’s costs. Not insignificant. Driver costs, for example, account for 50 per cent. CPT figures suggest that over the 12 months to 31st December 2009, fuel costs have increased by 20 per cent. Hedging on the wrong side hasn’t helped this figure.

Depending upon operator type, size and location, the cost of fuel excluding BSOG & VAT tends to be around 60p per litre. Buses tend to achieve 10mpg or less. BSOG’s elimination will at a stroke add about 43ppl. This will increase fuel costs by about 75 per cent. And this is above any changes in the volatile stock price of diesel itself.

Fuelling a bus over, say, its 40,000 annual mileage will increase costs form about £11,000 to over £18,000. There are only two ways to recoup this: subsidy or fares. Since local authorities will not doubt be cutting rather than increasing and that leaves fares. When you consider the likely resistance to the resultant fares hikes, you can begin to see the likely impact of between 20 and 30 per cent on fares, setting of an unproductive, 1970s-style downward spiral in demand. And so it is that the bus industry joins the queue of so-called “special interests” that are currently pleading for no negative change. Some will be unsuccessful in their campaigns.

As fares rise, presumably so will the government’s own free travel reimbursement, if linked to average fares. With free travellers in some areas accounting for a minimum of 40 per cent of passengers, the treasury may well be in for a surprise… unless by some means the government is able to cap payments or renegotiate terms.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Still on the subject of the shorts controversy, I notice that, yesterday, Leon Daniels argued cogently for the retention of long pants. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer and Tesco are both allowing customer-facing staff to chose between (a) uniform trousers, (b) jeans, (c) pyjamas, and (c) shorts. Oh, and did I misjudge the mood of Omnibuses readers? See comments at 1856, 2102 and 2130.

Growing Pains

Or rather, developmental pains. Later this month, recently privatised Plymouth Citybus is making some cost-saving network changes aimed at protecting daytime frequencies. As part of this, a few evening services begin to become a thing of the past, though this is but round one of further changes likely to come in September.

There are at least three reasons for this:

  • Gone are the niceties of an arms-length municipal operator when it felt obliged to run marginal services. Citybus is now a PLC operator and its shareholders have far different expectations

  • Plymouth, as elsewhere, is being visited by recession. The growth Citybus once saw is now static

  • And then there’s the competition. How things might be different were there nothing in parallel from First Devon & Cornwall.
The Citybus changes all makes perfect business sense but Citybus’ decisions will nevertheless be challenging and challenged.

No more is this exemplified than by a recent comment on Citybus’ Facebook page. The evening situation has resulted in one Brian Robson imploring Citybus passengers to travel by First instead. Here’s an example of the negative side of Facebook and it’s perhaps unfortunate that Citybus has left such comments unchallenged, more so because First itself provides few, if any, evening services on its newest Ugobus routes. Indeed, some industry watchers might argue that its newest Ugobus services are a classic daytime revenue creaming operation, without providing anything marginal or socially necessary at all.

Furthermore, First is whittling way at Ugobus, too. New Ugobus 13 (Ernesettle) goes down from every 10 to every 12 minutes, in a fortnight. The established 6 (Plymstock) sees nothing after 2020. And, come September, two of First’s prime, new Ugobus routes face the chop altogether, the 13 and 17 (Southway).

But that’s all OK because evening services in particular are neither operator’s responsibility and it now falls upon the public authority to determine what, if any, replacements it should contract. But will the council get the flack? Or Citybus?

Also c/o Facebook is one of the recent former London Citybus SLF deckers, newly converted to single door status. The conversion may not be pretty but will passengers care of even notice?

Sunday, 11 July 2010

What Might’ve Been


An Ingerland-less world cup final today. Some operators have spent time and money on showing their support for “our lads” or “our boys”. After Ingerland’s disappointing performance, I wonder whether this Blueline coach has reverted to plain white. On its side was an optimistic reference to 2010 replicating the success of 1966.

Things were very much different back in 1966, when “West Ham” took England to victory. Vinyl technology would’ve precluded treatment of such a vehicle. Few buses or coaches were in dealer stock white. And, of course, rather than this Scania, coaches in Britain would’ve been indigenous AECs, Bedfords, Bristols, Fords and Leylands.

Images courtesy Omnibuses’ Northern Correspondent

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Omnibuses Controversy

There’s rarely been so controversial a post as the one a week ago on drivers wearing short trouser in hot weather. Most commenters felt shorts were acceptable and some said so fairly robustly!

So, we challenged readers to find out whether shorts could ever be favoured, as part of a uniform policy. And a report on this issue couldn’t be more timely, with the hottest day of the year yesterday, at least down south. 96 per cent of those who voted felt that shorts were *unacceptable*, three per cent said they were acceptable and the remainder were unsure.

OK, I’m lying. The actual figures were:

A little under 70 per cent of those who expressed an opinion felt that shorts were *acceptable*. As no one was unsure on this seemingly black-and-white subject, there was a majority in favour of shorts of over two to one.

This ratio of 70:30 applied to those who stated that they were drivers.

Nearly 85 per cent of those who stated they were passengers felt that shorts were acceptable.

On the other hand, of those who declared they were supervisors or managers (and, indeed, those who under the “other” category said they were directors, retired managers, retired directors, a local authority officer and several others), and the response was almost exactly 50:50.

Passengers were therefore far more relaxed about shorts than managers. Is it therefore right for managers to cite passenger reaction when trying to assert a non-shorts policy? There would certainly appear to be a clear divergence between managers and passengers on this, in terms of expectations.

Over the years, there have been some rather quaint rules and regulations about uniforms in hot weather. Some companies stated in their driver regs that peaked uniform caps must be worn at all town & city termini and bus stations but may be removed thereafter. When being allowed to remove a tie in hot weather, it was common for operators in the 1950s to insist that drivers carry on wearing their lightweight summer jacket. Drivers were instructed to fold their open neck shirt collar over the jacket collar.

One lady commenter stated that she had an aversion to male drivers wearing shorts because of the obviousness of the close fitting garment. In November 2005, we blogged on the dangers of drivers wearing miniskirts. Whether it’s better for passengers hovering over the cab to see a hairy man’s knee in shorts or a smooth woman’s knee thanks to a miniskirt, I leave it to readers to judge.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Misplaced Icon?

There can be no greater icon for the British bus industry than the legendary London Routemaster. Can’t there? Or is it a little overdone?

So celebrated is the RM, in fact, that it has a special place on the Competition Commission’s bus market inquiry webpage.

There it is, in all its splendour. No matter that it:

  • Was first manufactured in 1956.

  • Played virtually no part in provincial English bus operations, save perhaps under Northern General.

  • Was used in the provinces only sporadically over the last 20 or so years, as a fleeting counter- or competitive tool.

  • Was withdrawn by TfL in 2005, as unacceptably inaccessible.

  • Was confined to London, where the Competition Commission isn’t even looking.
This isn’t the only example of an inappropriate use of a life-expired Routemaster. Remember the Marks & Spencer window stickers? May be readers have their own examples.

May be, too, the Competition Commission has chosen the RM wisely as something completely unidentifiable with any English region or operator. It just shows that the RM continues to be part of our collective culture. Either that, or the PR people at the Competition Commission need to reconsider the source of their stock photos.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

In Search of Unnecessary Regulations

Said Nick Clegg at the very beginning of this month, “We want to… free our society of unnecessary laws and regulations, both for individuals and businesses.”

What unnecessary laws and regulations that currently apply to the bus industry, given the chance, would you clear out?

The bus & coach industries are already deregulated. “Deregulated” means having removed governmental regulatory controls. Time was when you had to apply to the traffic commissioners to change your fares. Parish & district councils and others were often aghast and would force a public inquiry. All that was cleared out following the Transport Act 1980. Not to mention the main areas we take for granted: being able to operate tours, excursions, express and local services without the restrictions of licenses.

Yet, when smaller operators leave the industry, they often cite in particular the amount of “petty bureaucracy” and “red tape” either tying or tripping them up. There’s VOSA. Local authority tender conditions & pre-qualification questionnaires. There’s domestic and European hours regs. And the working time directive. Tachograph regs. Employment law. Health & safety. CRB for school bus drivers. The traffic commissioners’ 1/5 minute window. Quality contracts. And more besides.

How many rules are necessary? Does there need to be a balance between regulations fit for purpose and public protection? Do you have any views on what should go?

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Click for the short post I wrote one year after the London bombing of 7/7/2005. It was aimed at remembering those who suffered injury and the front line staff who carried on under extreme pressure.

Volunteering

Asking better off free travellers to volunteer a bus fare is like willingly paying extra taxes because it’s the patriotic thing to do. It ain’t gonna happen. Yet, the desperate economic reality we face has forced the transport minister to suggest wealthier passengers intentionally choose to pay a fare, to make a contribution towards saving public money.

Where local transport authorities are under-funding reimbursements operators, at the 45 per cent end of the spectrum, might actually benefit from a full adult fare. How many older people will have sympathy with their hard done by bus company? Few.

Interesting thought, though. A fortnight ago, at the time of the budget, in a popular post, I ruefully suggested that the chancellor of the exchequer had announced that free travellers would in future need to pay a 50p flat fare per previously free journey. That has a number of advantages, not least in reducing expenditure. We did make it clear, though, that the government actually wished to safeguard the £1bil per annum scheme. And so it does. But anyone paying a fare would be gratefully received.

Could it be that anyone over 60 paying a fare will somehow have some sort of social cachet or snobbery value? A bit like joining the Land Army or Red Cross during the war, doing one’s bit? Probably not. Older people feel that they’ve “earned” the right to free travel. Some may actually be happy to pay a modest *contribution* but in the age of fares look-up electronic ticket machines, how does someone offer, say, a token 50p, when the options open are nothing or all? Perhaps this should apply in those areas where the authority allows free travel before the 0930 watershed for, here, it's often older *workers* who are using free travel. Such people must surely be better off.

So, will most older people take a jaundiced view of the request to contribute? To them, free travel’s now a matter of right. And there will be those who increasingly will have to await the arrival of their bus pass, owing to the new entitlement rules that start delaying eligibility. And some older people are still smarting from the decision a year ago to prevent their using tourist services and park & rides, etc. Not to mention those parts of the express network that are unregistered.

We suspect that wealthier people probably go by car rather than bus, which means they are already indirectly contributing to the national debt by (a) keeping their free travel pass in their wallets and (b) buying petrol with all its attendant taxes and duties. The fact that this also contributes to congestion, noise pollution, carbon emissions and increases safety concerns as motorists get older is probably of secondary importance in times like these.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Attendants

In yet another innovation from do-no-wrong Stagecoach (and in partnership with ComfortDelGro), from 12th July new Citylink Gold will offer Scottish travellers what amounts to the antithesis of Stagecoach’s own Megabus brand. Aimed squarely at the rail market, the concept offers non-stop “first class” at-seat coach travel at prices considerably cheaper than Scot Rail, though with fewer departures.

Will this ever arrive south of the border, to add to the competitive express market mix? To a degree it already has, in the shape of Greyhound, the Oxford Tube, Oxford Espress, the King’s Ferry and many a National Express operation—all without the one key ingredient that marks out Citylink Gold: what Citylink is calling a “coach attendant”.

Attendants welcoming passengers and serving snacks & beverages are new. Yet, they’ve also been tried before. In 1981, NatEx responded to both market deregulation and particularly actual competition by introducing Rapide. For 20 years, in addition to food & drink and what was termed a “hostess” (in airline style uniform), Rapide was first to feature a lavatory, crude video system and early air-con. Food options were initially poor.

The first Rapides were between London & Exeter/Plymouth, in response to an earlier launch of a Rapide-style product by Trathen’s. Soon, NatEx and Trathen’s were to collaborate and by 1983, the 500-series Rapide routes expanded between London and major cities, some less expected destinations such as North Devon, and a smattering of cross-country routes.

It proved that the nationalised industry wasn’t so slow in responding to new markets, after all. Just like today, in fact, though today life moves quickly on. With leather and wi-fi now increasingly common, Citylink Gold’s USP reverts back to the attendant. No doubt, one of their duties will be to clear up the free on-board ice cream should it find its way to the leather seats.

Reflecting the additional crew member, Citylink Gold fares are at a premium. Indeed, standard adult return tickets between Glasgow & Aberdeen at £45.10 are just 70p shy of Scot Rail’s, though yield management comes into play for online bookable Citylink Gold single fares, starting at £4. A return trip on Megabus will cost no more than about £22, comparable to NatEx’s own three return journey fares between Glasgow & Aberdeen.

With Scottish Citylink, Megabus and now Citylink Gold products all available via Stagecoach, plus NatEx, passengers might be forgiven for getting confused.

Monday, 5 July 2010

I knew the post on shorts would stimulate debate. I just wasn’t prepared for the extent of the controversy. As to whether the post was deliberately controversial, tongue-in-cheek or serious (or all three?), I’ll let you decide. In attempting to find our all readers’ views, we asked a two-question survey on uniform shorts. This has now closed and we will report the results very, erm, shortly

At the Coal Face?

Is this the exploitation of a new frontier in passenger service? Or an unrepeatable one-off? Pontypridd, Wales, is the only place I know where an operator has taken seriously the use of now permissible private hire vehicles (PHVs) in providing bus services.

Clayton Jones’s Heart of Wales/St David’s Travel operation is using a number of relatively new eight seater Renault Masters, licensed by the local authority as PHVs. They appear on services 13A (The Common), 14 (Maesycoed), 14A (Penycoedcae & Beddau), 15A (Pantgraigwen) and 16A (Penygraigwen).

Not only is this service somewhat redolent of the vision of the architects of deregulation, it’s reminiscent of the minibus revolution of the mid-1980s. Then, though, it was as much about marketing as it was frequency and penetration. Jones’s eight seaters have adopted no swish marketing name, are liveried in plain white rather than something unique and, usually at 20 minute intervals, they do not provide the sort of headway associated with the original minibus product. The frequency of service is nonetheless generally superior to the level of service offered by Veolia.

The advantages of PHVs appear to be no requirement to:

  1. Have a PCV-licensed driver (though a local authority badged driver with a B car licence is required). Badged divers are easier to get and require less training, including an exemption from the driver CPC.

  2. Comply with domestic drivers’ hours regulations (though the working time directive applies).
There are a number of drawbacks, though:
  1. Policing is in the hands of the local authority, not VOSA (though VOSA can intervene). This is not bad in itself but, *if* adopted widely, we will start to see a fragmentation of standards as each local authority tends to adopt differing conditions.

  2. Accessible PHVs tend to offer rear, not side, entry, via a tail lift. This will slow boarding of wheelchair passengers, may deter such people from travelling and means they need to wheel into the road to gain access, something that will require careful risk assessment.

  3. Ambulant disabled people will need to join all other passengers in boarding via a sliding door with stepped entrance. Is this slower and more difficult than access via a conventional step-entrance bus? In fairness to Jones’s drivers, they seem willing to compensate for the lack of direct driver control by leaving the cab and walking round to assist passengers, though this again also takes time.
And, lastly, the local hackney carriage (taxi) trade is outraged. There’s usually no love lost between hackneys and PHVs at the best of times, though the public see no real difference. With PHVs legitimately potentially poaching trade, matters have become acute. Add the fact that Jones uses stops outside the Taff Vale Shopping Centre (“The Precinct”), which just happens to be across the road from a taxi rank, and matters have erupted. It’s rare, these days, to see direct conflict between taxis and the bus industry, though Gen 1 minibuses did bring the two into conflict. That’s largely history, now. But not in Ponty.

Whenever might buses materialise there’s usually some taxi opposition. And who knows where entrepreneur Jones may strike next.

Additional information and pictures by “Gerralt Cymro”

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Half-yearly Statement

Significant Growth

Comparing January-June 2010 with the same period in 2009, the number of visitors to this blog increased by 73 per cent. And, yes, I had to rub my eyes and then double-check that particular figure. Three times. Growth between Jan-June 2008 & 2009 was 49 per cent, by the way.

Yes, it’s that Time of Year Again

At this time of year, here on what is probably Britain’s premier transport blog, we give a half-yearly statement so that readers get a feel of what’s going on. This report is for the period January-June 2010. Can we therefore begin by thanking all those who support the Omnibuses Blog, by visiting, commenting and contributing.

KPIs

In spite of our best endeavours to slow down a little, we can still report RELIABILITY at 100% (a new blog post each and every day). This remains unchanged. Indeed, today’s the 565th consecutive day of blogging (since 15th December 2008). Can I keep this up?

PUNCTUALITY has slipped a little, though, from 98.89 to 97.22 per cent. The aim always is to get something up before 0700 weekdays and 0800 weekends & bank holidays. As before, the vast majority of weekend posts go live ahead of 0700. The figure isn’t helped when I missed the deadline on one occasion by a solitary minute (and I doubt that the traffic commissioners would complain).

Searches

46 per cent of visitors arrive here direct. 31 per cent do so following a referral from another site. 23 per cent arrive by search engine (over 90 per cent of whom chose Google). The top 20 search engine keywords/phrases were as follows, with the top four accounting for about a third of all search term arrivals:

Omnibuses
Omnibuses Blog
Omnibuses 2.0
Omnibuses Blogspot
Cheltenham District FSF
Dorset Sprinter
Rotala AIM market
Omnibus (sic) 2.0
Erica Roe
Free bus Torquay Stagecoach
Bedford JJL
Stagecoach East Lancashire
Mercedes 608
Tanat Valley Coaches
Omnibuses.blogspot
Leon Daniels blog
Purbeck Breezer
Your Bus Nottingham
Optare
Wayfarer TGX200

Erica Roe was still up there, as was the Mercedes 608 and Optare. We’re not sure why Cheltenham District FSF was so popular. Of the Big Three operators, Stagecoach appears in three per cent of search terms; First Group in fewer than one per cent; and Arriva is very under-represented.

When you add together those arriving here by searching on Omnibuses etc to those arriving direct by typing in the URL, most visitors come here not by accident but because they wish to.

Referrals

Referrals other than from search engines were from other blogs; groups and fora; more general websites; and an eclectic mix of others. 30 blogs were sending visitors here relatively regularly, chief of which was Plymothian Transit, followed by Leon Daniels. Other blogs offered far fewer visitors but among them were the moribund Manchester Buses; Bumpy Highway; Loades.net; Bus Driving; and Bus World Photography. Even the defunct London Bus Page in Exile managed some traffic in this direction. By volume, others don’t get a mention, yet.

Spikes

Particular spikes occurred on 4th January, 18th March, 1st April, 6th April, 27th April, 29th April, 5th May, 17th May, 18th May, 20th May, 7th June, 8th June, 9th June and 17th June.

The biggest single spike ever was on 8th June 2010.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Shorts or Even Less

I’m sorry but bus drivers and shorts do *not* go well together.

No matter the state of dress (or undress) of our passengers, we should be drawing a line on this, even though there are various calls from unions & drivers in several locations to be allowed to wear so-called “tailored” shorts. Yes, the weather’s been hot. Yes, the Royal Mail’s relaxed its attitude to this more informal attire, but what next? Police constables wearing them?

The bus industry should have no truck with shorts, whether of the paying-in variety or the lower body garment. Managers who quote health & safety as the reason against short trousers are probably pushing matters (so far as drivers rather than fitters are concerned). The real reason should be maintaining a professional standard of appearance. It’s what the public expects. And, I have some experience of this. A driver at a relatively nearby lower cost operator would always turn up wearing summer knee-length trousers. You can imagine the impression this gave: scruffiness and uncaring.

A uniform’s a uniform. It distinguishes a bus driver from other professional drivers such as truckers. Business-to-business heavy drivers have limited contact with the public. Things are very different in the bus industry.

And what of passengers? What state of dress is appropriate on a bus?

Probably not someone in their birthday suit. This is what happened on a bus in St Helen’s. A man who’d been “skinny dipping”, and who has subsequently been sectioned, caught a bus home, while still in the buff. Laughable as this sounds, since the bus had at least two schoolchildren aboard, you can guess who got the flack for this: the operator, of course. Since it was the improved-via-Kickstart 89 (Liverpool Airport-St Helen’s), that would be Arriva Merseyside.

As an aggrieved parent delicately put it, while carefully avoiding any unpleasant details, “anything could’ve happened”. In all honesty, there probably was no difference in boarding a bus than wandering around the town centre, expect that the bus is a somewhat confined space. As a nation, we simply don’t tolerate this sort of behaviour and it’s hard to imagine why a driver let the passenger board other than it could’ve probably been difficult to do otherwise.

Though the press report was very much (and unfairly) anti-operator, the driver did what he had to do and reported the matter to the police, who came to the rescue and looked into it. And that just leaves the awkward question as to where did the man secret his bus fare?

Friday, 2 July 2010

You only get one chance…

… to make a first impression.

This is a post by regular commenter Metroman. If you wish to make a contribution, see the guidelines here

Recently I have had occasion to visit a music festival. The buses for the general public were provided by one of the national groups. I have little experience of this group and so this gave me the chance to sample their wares.

The vehicles that they provided, and sourced from other operators, were a collection of generally old service buses, with a few coaches in use as well. These buses had a variety of fleetnames, liveries and destination displays. Personnel wise, the company faired better. There was no shortage of staff on hand to manage the festival buses. Some were uniformed, some were not. Again, the standards varied and I was amused to see one attempting to guide a reversing bus standing out of view of the mirrors and without any hi-vis.

Fares on the festival shuttles were at a premium compared to those charged normally, but were not unreasonable. The problem was that fares were at a premium for a low quality service.

Apart from the festival shuttles, there was the small matter of running the normal service. This is where the wheels started to come off. At a time of extra delays owing to predictable but abnormal traffic flows, there seemed to be little supervision to manage the service. The gaps in service added to buses running full and diversions led to a sub-optimal level. The extra revenue from running special services appears to have led to resources not being available to maintain the normal timetable at a time when this was most needed.

Overall, at a time when the operator has a chance to put itself in the shop window, the product that it provides was below the normal standard. This detracted from the image of the bus and is an opportunity wasted.

The trouble is, I suppose, that the question for those of us who are or have been in the business would be to do the same.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Street Light or Street Cred?

Yesterday, Wrightbus officially revealed its new midi, christened the Streetlite. “Lite” because it promises to be lighter because:

  1. It’s an integral

  2. It comes with a higher than usual proportion of composites for this size of vehicle and

  3. It offers more seats per metre than competitors.
When Wrightbus first poked the then unnamed midi’s nose into the public domain, the builder revealed little. We had to guess based on the careful statements made by Wrightbus sales people. Now, importantly, we know that Streetlite will:
  • Come as a Solo competitor, with the expected forward control layout, with the service door set behind the front axle. We expected this.

  • Also be available in a more conventional service door forward of the front axle, competing against the Versa. This was unexpected.

  • Offer class leading accommodation for its length, no matter that length. The 8.8m Streetlite will carry 33 passengers when compared to equivalent lengths of Solo (29 passengers) and E200 (typically 24).

  • Similarly, the 9.5m version offers four more seats than the equivalent Solo.

  • The conventionally laid out front overhang 10.2m length Streetlite seats one passenger more than the 10.4m Versa; and the 10.8m Streetlite seat an additional capacity when compared to the 11.1m Versa. You need to stretch the E200 to 11.3m to get 40 passengers seated.
And what about street cred? We’re still not sure about the vehicle’s looks and its curved profile, though. The waistline step is however nowhere near as bad as first imaged.

We’re still awaiting details of the vehicle’s weight and the therefore its critical power/weight ratio. Of the existing moels, the PWR is typically more impressive on the Solo than Versa and E200. Streetlite seems to come with a smaller engine as standard but there’s a bigger option available. It all depends upon the Streetlite’s supposedly class-leading weight.

Now all we need is an upturn in the bus manufacturing market. Loss-making Optare has predicted such a change of fortune towards the end of the year but that was before Wrightbus introduced the Streetlite to compete in the midibus sector in which Optare is currently strong. As you might expect of a vehicle of this size, Mistral has ordered 60 for onward speculative sale to the independent sector, while the Isle of Man has ordered 12. Much to the relief of lower cost, smaller operators, the often unpopular exclusivity deal between Optare & Mistral has ceased, with Optare trumpeting that it has cut out the middleman.