Monday, 19 March 2012

Alabama May Ban Bus Drivers from Using Phones

We Brits are now more or less used to the idea that using a mobile phone when you are driving is a generally 'bad thing' and against the law.

So it might come as a considerable shock to discover that in America things are very, very different.

A story I picked up recently from US media demonstrated that in many states it is not only perfectly acceptable for a bus driver to chat to his wife on the phone whilst piloting a busload of children to school, it's perfectly legal.

But things seem to be slowly changing. The latest state to have had a long, hard think about the wisdom of letting bus drivers chat to their pals when they should be concentrating on the road ahead is Alabama. The southern state is now looking to join an increasing number of US states that prohibit school bus drivers from using mobile phones while transporting children around the state.

Alabama's House of Representatives passed a bill last Wednesday which will mean that school bus drivers can only use their phones in an emergency or if the bus is parked at the side of the road.

The bill was sponsored by Representative Joe Hubbard, who warned of accidents that could be caused by a bus driver calling his girlfriend or texting her pictures. He said the impetus for his bill was a phone he received from a constituent worried that her child's school bus driver was too distracted by talking on his cellphone to enough attention to the road.

Ironically, it would have been entirely legal for her to make that call while driving. Let's hope she didn't.

Some 19 states in America, and the District of Columbia, currently prohibit drivers of school buses from talking on their phones while transporting children. That's 19 out of 50 states, so you can see there's still some way to go.

On the face of it, a federal Department of Transportation rule seems to prevent any commercial vehicle driver from using a mobile electronic device whilst driving, but that applies only to vehicles that cross state lines or transport hazardous materials within a state, which seems a little arbitrary.

The Alabama bill still needs to be approved by the state Senate and then signed off by the Governor before it can become law.

I understand there were 260 reported accidents caused by Alabama school bus drivers during the last academic year, down from 301 the pervious school year. Of those in the most recent school year, 63 were cause by a distracted bus driver.

First Group Sell London Bus Depot

FirstGroup has sold its 130-vehicle Northumberland Park depot in north-east London.

The depot's 130 buses, 13 routes and around 400 staff will transfer to the North East-based Go Ahead.

Experts reckon that the sale should really suit Go-Ahead, whose bus operations are concentrated in London and the south-east and who should be able to use the depot to help it to increase its operating margins.

It makes economic sense to First Group, too. The £14m sale to Go-Ahead Group will go some way to meeting the £100m-£115m cash target FirstGroup has set itself for the current financial year.

However, things aren't gig as quickly as the company would like. Frst Group is concerned that regulatory concerns are slowing its disposal programme after last week's deal to sell its bus operations in north Devon to Stagecoach for £2.8m was only completed pending the approval of the Office of Fair Trading. The company reckons that previously a deal that size would probably never have come under such close scrutiny.

First Group are clearly working hard to reduce its eye-wateringly large debt of around £2bn which it built up after a series of acquisitions such as the takeover of Greyhound buses in the US. Industry insiders reckon that the company is trying to make itself more attractive in time for the next round of rail franchises after the government stated that it will be looking for companies to take longer contracts and who will therefore need to show that they can withstand difficult years.

FirstGroup currently operates the Great Western, TransPennine Express, Capital Connect and Hull train lines as well as ScotRail.

'Humanitarian' Bus Operator Secures Fare Cuts

For everyone who is presently wailing and gnashing their teeth over fare increases, and there are lots of you out there, here is evidence at last that there is somewhere in this world where bus operators seem prepared to think kindly of their passengers.

My sources in Manila tell me that despite rising fuel prices – yes, even in The Philippines – one bus operator has successfully applied to have its fares... reduced.

The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) – a sort of Philippino PTE, I suppose - agreed to a petition filed by Rural Transit, Inc to reduce its bus fares in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan by around a half.

And it won't just affect their own services – other operators serving the same route will also have to charge the same reduced fares. The fare reduction is effective immediately.

And the reason the bus operator asked to reduce its fares? Well, it was to provide humanitarian assistance to the residents of the two cities which were badly hit by tropical storm “Sendong” last year.

Needless to say, the LTFRB were deeply impressed by the operator’s public spirit in foregoing profit to provide humanitarian assistance to the riding public.

“In this time of crisis affecting the lives of our countrymen, every form of help and assistance, how little or big it is, that can mitigate the impact of the effect of disaster should be accepted, or at least be welcomed,” the LTFRB said.

“The petitioner should be commended for taking action for fare reduction in this time of crisis for it is not financially viable on their part on the business side,” the Board added.

Is that what they call 'caring capitalism', do you think? And if so, do you think we could have some?

Let's not all hold our breaths....

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Bus Drivers Fined for Using Wrong Side of the Road

I've previously blogged about motorists using bus lanes illegally and I'm sure we've all had a nice, self-satisfied 'tut-tut-tut' about it.

Take the bus lane in Stoke-on Trent, the abuse of which resulted in 5,600 car drivers receiving penalty tickets, and which was eventually scrapped by the council. I blogged about that one on 21 February, but I've come across others, too.

Like Leeds, where they've had to roll out special CCTV cameras to encourage motorists keep their cars out of the city's bus lanes.

Now, all of this might be construed as being slightly anti-motorist and I have to admit that it certainly looks that way. So I was slightly relieved – and tickled, frankly – to come across a tiny snippet on the This Is Nottingham news website.

If nothing else, it demonstrates that bus drivers are every bit as human as other motorists.

Local police, it seems, have had to warn the city's bus drivers about travelling up the wrong side of a street in the city centre. And it's clearly not a one-off incident.

Police officers were told about this particular problem by members of the public who presumably have witnessed it ad felt compelled to complain. The police have also been speaking to local businesses.

In fact, and this will probably bring a flush of pleasure to all you Jeremy Clarkson's out there, the police have even issued fixed penalty notices on two occasions to bus drivers using Friary Lane in an incorrect fashion.

They have now warned bus companies to make sure their drivers are using the correct side of the road. As if you'd normally have to!

Quite why these drivers are using the wrong side of the road is not mentioned, so I'm now watching out for a bus driver backlash. I'll keep you posted.

Minister Criticised at Bristol Bus Improvements Launch

He was meant to be coming to Bristol to signal the completion of a £79m project to revolutionise bus transport in the city. Instead, he found himself walking straight into some difficult questions about spending cuts.

Transport Minister Norman Baker MP was in Bristol today to help launch a major project which has provided new bus priority lanes, 120 new buses and almost 1,000 new and improved bus stops, many with electronic information displays. The scheme is intended to reduce congestion and improve services for commuters and shoppers.

His department had stumped up almost half the cash with local councils providing the rest, and he might have thought that today's little photo opportunity would be a good chance to show off something positive which the coalition government was doing.

But almost from the start he was having to fend off criticism that his government's cuts were pushing up prices. To be fair, his timing wasn't brilliant.

Next month, the cost which bus companies pay for their fuel will increase dramatically, principally because the government is cutting the Bus Service Operators Grant. The practical effect of that, reckons Justin Davies, regional managing director of First Bus (South West and Wales), is that their fuel costs will rise by 27% effectively overnight.

“We have to be able to recover an element of that price rise in the prices we charge,” he said, acknowledging that fares will inevitably rise.

"We have all seen the price of petrol and diesel going up at the pumps, all we are doing is reflecting those price changes. It's an economic commodity fuel, we have to pay as much as everybody else."

Mr Baker defence sounded familiar. His government, he said, had inherited "a very difficult economic situation from the previous administration", something which government ministers seem to announce frequently and with great regularity. It may be true, but it's beginning to sound lame and a little desperate.

He also said that they'd given 18 months notice of the bus service operators' grant being reduced which he reckoned, rather bizarrely, was sufficient notice to enable bus operators to incorporate the grant cut 'without putting up fares or cutting services'.

Quite how a bus company is meant to absorb a 27% increase in fuel costs without either putting up fares or reducing services wasn't outlined by Mr Baker – but I reckon most bus companies would absolutely love to know the answer to that one.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Bus Firm To Take Legal Action Against Passenger

A bus company has decided to take legal action against a teenage passenger after he was let off with a police caution after assaulting a ticket inspector.

Local press reported yesterday that Edward Cabot (67) was left with a severe black eye and a gash to his head after being punched by a 16-year old boy. His glasses were also smashed in the incident.

The assault happened while the former RAF Military Policeman, who is currently receiving treatment for leukaemia, was working on the Norfolk Green school service in Spalding earlier this month.

The incident started when a teacher travelling on the school service asked the teenager to stop swearing.The teenager carried on being abusive and the teacher told him to get off the bus. The boy then threw a punch which knocked Mr Cabot to the floor.

The boy has since been banned from travelling on all Norfolk Green buses.

The incident was reported to Lincolnshire Police who later decided to let the teenager off with a caution. However, this has so infuriated Norfolk Green that they say they are now planning a private prosecution against the teenager, and are also intending to contact the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Richard Pengelly, operations director for Norfolk Green, said: “We are disgusted by the police’s reaction to this.

“It seems like the boy has got off scot-free. There was 50 or 60 school children and a teacher who witnessed what happened.

“If a driver or inspector had shouted at a pupil, or assaulted someone, then they would rightly be suspended and action taken.”

“The other children on the bus were marvellous and have written cards to Mr Cabot asking him not to judge all the children like this one boy,” he added.

“When he is better we are hoping that Mr Cabot will be able to go on the school run again to see everyone who helped him.”

While normal Norfolk Green buses are fitted with CCTV cameras on board, the one used by Edward was not.

Lincolnshire Police declined to comment.

Firs Bus Manchester Hit With Massive Fine

After its mauling by traffic commissioner Beverley Bell last month, First Bus in Manchester has now been hit with a £285,000 fine because of its poor time-keeping.

I've previously blogged with the news that First Manchester was summoned to appear before the commissioner in February after an investigation by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) last year into the company's time-keeping.

It transpired that VOSA's inspectors had been monitoring more than 860 bus journeys in Eccles, Swinton, Worsley, Royton, Trafford and Stalybridge in January and February 2011, and they discovered that some 26 per cent of those buses turned up either late or early.

Bus operators are required to ensure that 95 per cent of their services are no more than one minute early or five minutes late. Under section 155 of the Transport Act 2000 a traffic commissioner is allowed to impose a fine of up to £550 per vehicle on firms that fail to hit that 95 per cent target.

Now, the region’s traffic commissioner has hit the firm with a fine of more than a quarter of a million pounds Beverley Bell after the company was a revealed to have one in five of its buses not running on time. Overall, the company's compliance rate across Greater Manchester was 82.5 per cent.

"The main reason I imposed the penalty was because the operator hadn't done enough to make sure these services ran on time," she said.

"This monitoring was over 12 months ago and yet, as at today's date, the operator was still trying to put measures in place and I didn't think that was enough done quickly enough."

The commissioner said that she could have fined First Bus up to £500,000 but had decided on £285,000 in view of the work it had already done to improve services.

She wanted First "to show over the next three to six months that it is operating properly - and if it isn't, it'll have to come back and see me again".

Clearly a lady not to be messed with....