Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it even a bus?

Bizarre stories have been cropping up in the Chinese press this week about a fleet of off-road buses sold to Kazakhstan by a Chinese manufacturer – and whether they are actually buses at all.

Stories have begun to appear in the press claiming that these buses are, in fact, "desert tanks" suitable for fighting terrorists in the desert on Kazakhstan's border with China.

The vehicles in question are Shaanxi SX6100 SPF, and are apparently nicknamed the ‘Desert Tank’ due to the fact that they are based on the mighty 6×6 Dongfeng truck chassis which is made for all-terrain duty in the desert.

It's been reported that Shaanxi sold twenty SX6100′s to the Kazakhstan security services for use in ‘anti-terrorism-patrol’ in the vast empty deserts near the border with China’s Xinjiang Province.

But as you can see from the photo above, even though the SX6100 looks a bit of a handful, its still more like of a bus than a tank. Don't be fooled, says the Chinese press – they can be upgraded, adding that Shanxi can easily fit a turret for a small machine gun on the roof.

Except they haven't, of course.

What makes the whole thing even more bizarre, however, is the fact that there really isn't a terror threat on the border with Xinjiang anyway. So why, I wonder, would the Kazakstanis want to arm their off-road buses - especially as they've all been fitted out as buses and they aren't even fitted with armour?

Paranoia, it seems, is alive and well in China...

Of course, I'm waiting for a London bus operator to acquire a couple of these. They look just about perfect for bludgeoning your way through the capital's traffic.

Not sure Boris would approve, though...

Brighton Bus Driver 'Babe' Ban

Hmm. I should probably file these two stories under a new section named “Carry On Clippie” or something, even if neither of them are actually really laughing matters.

The first involves bus drivers in Brighton who have been warned about being too familiar with their female passengers.

Brighton and Hove Buses have been forced to warn their drivers not to be over-friendly with female passengers after a recent complaint from a lady who said that she felt the language used by the driver was demeaning to her.

She said she felt insulted after being called 'babe' when she boarded a bus.

Now, the bus company has posted warnings to all its drivers warning them that they could face the sack if they call passengers 'love', 'darling' or ‘babe’.

Given that women make up approximately 50% of the population, the company are clearly concerned that their drivers might be alienating a significant portion of the customer base. The last thing they want is for their drivers to get a reputation for leering sexism.

Mind you, one driver reckoned the whole thing was ‘... just the height of political correctness’ so perhaps there’s still some work to do.

Still, you can’t criticise the company for failing to act on customer feedback.

Meanwhile, Translink in Belfast is investigating one of its drivers after he reportedly went off-route to make an impromptu call at an off-licence while driving a bus full of passengers across the city.

One of his passengers later said she couldn’t believe what was happening when the bus turned off its normal route to make an unscheduled stop at an off-licence on the Ormeau Road

According to operator Translink, the driver has now admitted briefly abandoning his passengers and disembarking to purchase a soft drink and has apologised for his actions. However, Translink have said they will be “…following the appropriate corrective measures with this employee.”

Blimey. Does that sound like it might involve electric cattle prods or something…?

Reality of Government Funding Cuts Begins to Dawn

It seems that the whole country is slowly beginning to appreciate the potential impact of the government’s public spending cuts.

I blogged about the situation in Cornwall recently and then immediately stumbled upon three more cases where cuts in public subsidy were leading to cuts in public services.

The first was a story which predicted that thousands of passengers in South Yorkshire could be stranded without a bus service in April as bus companies struggle to come to terms with reductions in their Bus Service Operators’ Grant.

The BSOG is an annual payment from the Government to subsidise the cost of fuel and is worth £12 million to South Yorkshire ’s transport companies each year – but the payment is being slashed by a fifth in April, which equates to a budget cut of £2.4 million.

South Yorkshire ’s Passenger Transport Executive has warned that a reduction on this scale would have a ‘big impact’ on services, and it seems they are right. First Group are already preparing for a 5% fare increase and Stagecoach have admitted that they’ll have to work hard to minimise the impact on passengers.

Things look no better in North Wales where passengers are facing the familiar double whammy of fare increases and service reductions.

Councils have been angered by the Welsh Government decision to impose a 27% reduction in subsidy for bus services from this April. That equates to cuts totalling £500,000 to the Local Transport Services Grant (LTG) and the Bus Service Operators Grant. The announcement of the cuts resulted in a rare show of unity as councillors, bus operators and passengers stood shoulder to shoulder to jointly blast the Welsh Government for its decision.

For its part, the Welsh Government said they’ve had to make some tough choices in what are increasingly harsh economic times. And there’s few that would deny that – including, one assumes, the good people of Preston who were no doubt upset to hear that their local bus operator Rotala, the owner of Preston Bus, is intending to review its fares in the Spring to tackle rising costs. And we all know what that means.

The stock market-listed company said that it needed to look again at its fare levels in April as it tries to cope with cuts in Government funding. Yes, you’ve guessed it, they’ve been hit by a reduction in Bus Services Operators’ Grant.

Rotala reflected the universal concern about the effects of the government’s cuts by admitting that bus operators all over the country are having to review their fares in light of their substantial rises in operating costs resulting from the subsidy reductions.

Fares on Rotala’s routes in the West Midlands rose 5.6% at the start of the year after a careful review and the company said it will be carrying out a similar review in Preston shortly.

The only glimmer of good news comes from Rotala’s acquisition of new hybrid buses which, it says, have been delivering improvements in fuel consumption of up to 50% on some routes. Eleven more hybrid vehicles are due to enter service soon and Rotala said they will be making a further application to the next round of the government’s Green Bus Fund to help buy more.

It’s doubtful whether any of the passengers will be see the benefits of the savings, though.

So – will there be any more stories about government subsidy cuts leading to bus service cuts? Oh, yes. I have a feeling that we're going to hear an awful lot more yet.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Villagers Complain About Too Many Buses

Sometimes, Arriva must think they just can't please anyone...

While the residents of several County Durham villages are complaining about bus services being cuts, the residents of Howden-le-Wear are complaining they have too many.

The village, which is part way between Crook and Bishop Auckland, say they will be blighted by congestion thanks to the launch of a new service which will mean that up to 20 buses are passing through their village (population: 1,234) every hour.

Arriva already operate their 1 and 1b services through the village, but now Go North East have resurrected the old OK Motor Services brand and launched their OK1 service which although it takes a slightly different route it still competes with the Arriva services and goes through the middle of the village.

This has prompted Arriva to fight back and in the next few weeks they will be launching a new X1 service that competes directly with the OK1 and... yes, goes right through the middle of the village.

Villagers say they've had enough, but can't find anyone to turn to who can sort it out. Local councillors are just as exasperated.

For his part, Martin Harris of Go North East says the OK1 service was a valuable new service for residents, and feedback had been very positive. Nigel Featham, managing director for Arriva North East, on the other hand, reckons their X1 will be "great news for the community."

Well, perhaps not every community... Howden-le-Wear, for example.

Anyway, one local councillor reckons that both bus companies should work together. But they won't, of course – that would be anti-competitive. Isn't that what the Competition Commission report was all about?

What a mess...

Nexus Takes The Slow Road to Un-Deregulation

Nexus, Tyne and Wear's passenger transport executive, is quietly going about the process of un-deregulating their local bus services.

Last year, it announced plans to introduce a Quality Contracts Scheme covering around 340 different bus routes in Tyne and Wear. This would transfer responsibility for almost everything - branding, fare structure, ticket prices - from the area's privately-owned bus companies to Nexus, and would be the biggest shake-up to the local bus market in 25 years.

Under a Quality Contracts Scheme (QCS), says Nexus, bus users would benefit from a high-frequency core of services which would be tied-in with Metro (as it was before deregulation), simplified fares, full and proper consultation on changes to routes, and a guaranteed standard of service.

Crucially, Nexus would determine where and when buses ran and how much they cost, with the private operators running the services under contract. Buses wouldn't be allowed to operate within Tyne and Wear except within the contract scheme, thus ending the deregulated market that has existed since 1986.

For the moment, Nexus are quietly and informally consulting people on their QCS proposals prior to making a formal start on its introduction. A number of other PTE's are also pursuing the QCS idea, with some either already part way down the road and others still considering them.

But here's the rub. Given that deregulation of local bus services was a major political landmark in Margaret Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister, and given that we have a Prime Minister of a remarkably similar hue today, isn't this all rather pointless? Surely Cameron would never allow one of Maggie's greatest triumphs - and the whole free market concept - to be abandoned in this way?

Well, not necessarily. To begin with, Cameron's Conservatives seem quite happy to let their Lib Dem colleagues loose on the transport portfolio – possibly on the basis that it has been the graveyard of many a parliamentary career in the past – especially it's an area which definitely interests the Lib Dems. Add to that the fact that legislation to unpick bus deregulation is already on the statue book, although it has never actually been used. That means no new bills taking up valuable parliamentary time.

A third point is that the current system isn't exactly flavour of the month anyway. The recent Competition Commission report into the deregulated bus industry made it pretty clear that, at best, there was virtually no competition and that this was clearly having a detrimental effect on passengers. The report, I think, stopped short of accusing bus companies of operating a virtual cartel aimed at extracting as much money as they could from passengers and local councils alike. But not far short.

Besides, Cameron's Conservatives wouldn't lose many votes on Tyneside if it all went pear-shaped. A Tory voter on the banks of the Tyne is about as rare as a taxi on a wet night.

All of which might suggest that this mad idea of de-constructing a piece of prime Thatcherite legislation is perhaps not quite as far-fetched as some might think.

How it will all be received on Tyneside is less certain. Obviously, passengers will like it as it will guarantee a better, more accountable and more reliable service, as will local councillors who currently pour around £62m of subsidies into the coffers of the local bus companies yet have absolutely no control over what they do with it. The bus companies themselves are likely to be hostile, even if the whole system is virtually identical to one most of them already operate under in London.

Of course, it might be that the threat of a Quality Contracts Scheme being imposed might just be enough to stimulate the bus companies to negotiate and come up something a little less than a full QCS but a lot more than the status quo.

Time will tell.

Friday, 27 January 2012

'Trainspotter' Facing Terror Charges Over Photographs

Pssst.! The next time you see a knot of slightly grubby men clutching notepads, cameras and thermos flasks outside of your local bus station, don’t just assume they are bus spotters. They may be (whisper it)… terrorists.

Witness the sorry case of Ryan Lavery, whose own solicitor describes as a ‘nerd, an anorak and a trainspotter’, who was arrested earlier this week near Downpatrick, Northern Ireland and promptly brought before the courts on terrorism charges.

Ryan, it seems, is accused of collecting information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. The Police’s subsequent discovery of photographs of vehicles coming in and out of Ballykinlar Army Base on his computer seemed, to them, to endorse their action.

He is also charged with having a document likely to be of use to terrorists – to it, a list of vehicle registration numbers found at a house he used to live in overlooking the entrance to the barracks.

In court, Mr Lavery's defence solicitor argued that his client was "a trainspotter, a loner, an anorak, a nerd with no friends" and said that if he was put beside an airport "he would take pictures of planes". All of which sounds a bit harsh, frankly. I mean, he’s meant to be on Ryan’s side, isn’t he?

He added that Ryan's father works at Ballykinlar – no shortage of inside information there, I’d assume - and his client had visited an open day at the base last year where he had photographs taken of him holding a machine gun. So. Not exactly deep-cover, then….

Unfortunately, the District Judge refused him bail due to the risk of him committing further trainspotting offences and said it would have to be up to a High Court judge to decide if Mr Lavery really was a trainspotter or not.

I’ve heard plenty of cases of bus enthusiasts and other people innocently taking photos of buses being questioned – hassled, even - by the police, but this one seems a bit strong.

Mind you, it probably reflects the heightened awareness to such things in Northern Ireland, but it also brings to mind the case of the party of British aeroplane spotters in Greece who were imprisoned after being convicted of spying – all because the Greeks simply could not comprehend why anyone would want to collect aeroplane registration numbers for fun.

Let’s hope Ryan really is a dangerous terrorist otherwise the courts and the Police Service of Northern Ireland are going to look very silly indeed.

Council Seeks To Charge 50p Fare For Free Bus Trips

There seems to be good news in Cornwall where the county council there has agreed a budget of £2.4m over the next two years to protect rural bus services.

Ninety-five of the county's services had been threatened because of a cut in government subsidy for bus services.

It's not all good news, though.

Cornwall County Council admitted that despite the new funding, it couldn't guarantee fares wouldn't go up. It is also going to ask the government if it can trial a 50p charge to free pass holders to further prop up the threatened routes - which seems to be an admission that the £2.4m is probably not enough.

It's a controversial step. One local councillor said that charging the neediest in society for bus journeys was a worrying move. "The bus passes are for people who can't, by and large, afford to pay,” he said. “How can they now afford to pay for buses which had been free?"

At the moment there are 126,000 free bus pass holders in Cornwall, plus thousands more visitors, who will all be affected if the Department of Transport allows the county to become a national pilot area for the 50p charge.

Councillors lay the blame for the threat to bus services squarely on the Government for shaving £2.3 million from the money the council needs to reimburse bus companies for concessionary bus journeys. At the moment the council reimburses almost three-quarters of the normal single adult fare on concessionary journeys - but this figure will tumble to just half in April.

Neither can the council guarantee that fares on ordinary commercial bus services, which are operated without subsidy, won't go up too.

Mark Howarth, managing director of Western Greyhound, reckoned that the extra funding was good news for the public.

"We've been saying all along the importance of bus services to the people of Cornwall, and I think that has been recognised by virtually all the councillors that they voted for extra money,” he told local media.

"We will only put fares up if we have to. But with the reduction in fuel duty rebate, with the cost of fuel going up, tyres, insurance, all these things are escalating beyond belief. We will keep our fares as low as possible, but inevitably they will have to rise."

Howarth also said that he didn't believe the Government would support the council's plans to make concessionary card holders pay a 50p charge for what is essentially a free journey.

He may very well be right. If so, Cornwall County Council could find itself in an even tighter financial spot before the year is out.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

India Invests in Buses - Big Time

Bus manufacturers with a keen eye for an export market will no doubt be interested to hear that big things may be happening in India.

Dipak K Dash of The Times of India reported this week that the Indian government is planning to roll out at least 85,000 new buses in rural areas... over the next five years!

I make that 17,000 new buses a year, every year, for the next five years.

The reason behind the proposal is a strikingly familiar one – the government wants to improve the quality and availability of public transport in a bid to shift people away from their personal vehicles and back onto public transport.

Experts from India's road transport and highways ministry have been concerned by the reductions in the numbers of people switching from bus to personal motor transport. Most Western observers would probably point to the growing wealth and aspiration of the country's population as the principal reason. However, the ministry believes that the gradual degeneration in the quality of public transport services is also a major reason why people are switching from public topersonal transport.

Introducing many, many more new buses, they feel, will reverse the trend.

Now, whether they are right or wrong in their assumptions, you have to admit that its certainly a bold plan.

More to the point, that's an awful lot of buses... and an awful lot of business for someone!

Buses Are Wrong Size For New Bus Stop

A bus stop outside a hospital in Stoke on Trent can no longer being used - because it presents a danger to the public.
Health and safety experts have said that the bus stop can't be used safely because the road layout caters for the wrong size of bus.

Despite its convenience – it was built but a few feet from the main entrance to Haywood Hospital in Burslem - the stop and its shelters are now off-limits to traditional buses because drivers were putting pedestrians at risk by having to reverse into the stop.

One patient described the situation as 'almost laughable'.

“A bus stop with no buses is up there with a pub with no beer – totally pointless,” he said.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case, the bus stop and shelter were moved to just outside the main entrance so that patients and visitors wouldn't have to struggle across the sloping site from the next nearest bus stop 400 yards away.

A £36 million revamp of the hospital two years ago seemed to offer the opportnity to make things better for passengers, so the new bus stop and shelter was introduced.

At the time, the hospital was served by mini-buses operated by Wardle Transport – but then they introduced bigger single-deckers which couldn't pull up at the bus stop without reversing. And they couldn't do that without causing a danger to pedestrians.

Now local NHS officials are pleading with ther bus companies to use smaller buses again so they can re-introduce the half-hourly hospital service.

Wardle Transport, however, told their local paper "We have no plans to change local bus services there at this stage."

Oh, dear....

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Yorkshire Passenger Group Urges Friday Bus Boycott

Passengers in West Yorkshire are being urged to boycott their buses this Friday to show operators that the people are not to be messed with.

The boycott call comes less than a month after two of the largest bus companies in West Yorkshire angered customers by putting up the price of their tickets.

First, who are the main operators in Leeds, increased their fares on January 2 by an average of seven per cent, blaming soaring fuel costs and the fact that they hadn't raised their prices for almost a year and a half.

On the same day, Arriva put 20p on the the price of their £2.10, £2.30, £2.60 and £2.80 tickets, saying that the current economic pressures were forcing them to increase income just to maintain service levels.

Now, the local campaign group Better Bus is urging passengers to boycott buses on Friday and walk to work, cycle or car share instead. They suggest that the money people save on bus tickets could be sent to one of four local charities, providing a welcome boost for them as well as an unwelcome raspberry to the bus operators.

Campaigners reckon that the latest price increases simply underline the need for Metro, West Yorkshire's passenger transport authority, to move forward with plans for a whole new system of ‘quality contracts’. This would take all decisions about fares and levels of service away from the bus operators – who are driven by the need to make profits - and hand them over to the PTE, who are driven by the need to provide a public service.

Under this system, operators would bid for contracts issued by the PTE to provide bus services, with service levels, fare prices and even the type of vehicle used being pre-determined by the contract. The move would effectively reverse the de-regulation of bus services introduced by then Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley during the 1980's.

Metro are by no means the only PTE who are thinking about de-deregulating the bus industry in their area. This is a subject I expect I'll be returning to in the near future.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on West Yorkshire on Friday.

The Return of Bus Building in Blackburn?

Rumours of the death of bus building in Blackburn may, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated.

Hot on the heels of Optare’s announcement that they are withdrawing from Blackburn to concentrate production at their splendid new Sherburn factory, ending eighty years of bus manufacture in Blackburn in the process, a local bus refurbishment business says that they might begin manufacturing themselves.

And it just so happens that they have a rather familiar name they could use!

Father and son team of Philip and Robert Hilton set up a bus refurbishment business called Bus and Coach World in 2006. It was a logical step, given the amount of experience with buses and coaches tey both had - Philip had just retired as joint managing director of Optare’s predecessor East Lancashire Coachbuilders at the same that son Robert was made redundant.

In fact, Philip had started as an apprentice at East Lancashire Coachbuilders in 1960 rising to become joint managing director in 1990, so he knew the business inside out. He clearly didn’t want an easy retirement on the golf course, so Bus and Coach World was the result

Now, with the company positively thriving - they now employ 35 mostly ex-East Lancs Coachbuilders workers – they are ready to move to the next level by building their own buses. And by great good fortune, they just happen to own the famous old trade name East Lancashire Coachbuilders which they bought with the intention of starting manufacturing.

“We are looking at building from scratch again in Blackburn ,” Philip told his local newspaper. “The vehicles would be specialist, perhaps open-top.”

“At the moment we need to make sure we don’t run out of cash and we have to look for investment.”

If all goes well, then bus building might remain a Blackburn trade for a little bit longer. And there'll be many who will be genuinely delighted to welcome back a familiar name onto the streets of Britain.

Transport Chiefs Oppose Means-Testing of Pensioners

The deputy prime minister's suggestion that pensioners should have their benefits means-tested look set to be opposed by Transport for Greater Manchester.

TfGM reckons that means-testing the over-60's and withholding concessionary bus passes from people who has income above a certain level would discourage elderly people from using public transport.

More to the point, they say the move could leave pensioners isolated and not reduce costs as expected as administration costs would increase.

So, councillors on the TfGM committee are being asked to oppose any introduction of means testing, and to ask their chairman to write to local MPs, Integrated Transport Authorities and the Local Government Association to press them to back the continuation of a national scheme that is fully funded by central Government, and oppose the introduction of means-testing.

A recent study by the Transport Action Group — Manchester said: “The variety of pursuits for which bus passes are used demonstrates it is a key tool for supporting national, regional and local policy objectives of promoting active and sustainable travel.”

“It also improves levels of mental and physical health and well-being through keeping pass-holders mobile and socially connected.

“Continued support for the current arrangements should therefore be considered a high priority, when allocating funding.”

In Greater Manchester there were 540,100 people aged over 60 last year, with some 467,500 of them having a concessionary pass.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A Question of Damage Limitation

I came across an interesting story in Bus and Coach magazine the other day which must have slightly chilled the hearts of our bus manufacturers.

The author reckoned that bus operators are adapting to our brave new age of austerity, stagnant business growth and public sector cuts by putting off vehicle replacements and instead making do and mending wherever possible.

He quoted numerous examples of the lengths that operators are now going to to reduce costs – such as using repair techniques more familiar to car repair shops to, for example, remove dents in a body panel whilst its still attached to the vehicle instead of just taking it off and fitting a new one.

Instead of replacing broken plastic parts, some are being welded back together and given a new life with the benefit of a hot glue gun.

Of course, one of the upsides of this is that operators don’t have to keep their vehicles out of revenue-earning service for days on end whilst they wait for new parts to arrive. More worrying for the big bus manufacturers, however, is the growing interest in refurbishment over replacement.

Companies who specialise in such work are reporting a lot of interest from operators, with new seats and seat coverings apparently a popular way of giving an older vehicle a timely refresh. Other refurbishment work typically includes replacing the passenger saloon’s headlining, re-trimming the side panels and replacing or renewing floor coverings.

Of course, this is only putting off the inevitable and operators are only too well aware of the diminishing returns they get from hanging onto older, less reliable, less efficient and less popular vehicles. But many of them can probably suspend their replacement programme for longer than most manufacturers would like, and that will hurt them.

Quite how long the can bear the hurt remains to be seen.

Burnley Bus Station ‘One of the Safest in Britain’

Let's hear it for Burnley Bus Station, which last week was declared one of the safest bus stations in Britain.

Opened in 2002, Burnley's modern bus interchange has just received the SafeMark award which assures its users that this is an area in which they can genuinely feel safe.

Apparently, this is not an easy award to win. It involves ‘mystery shoppers' carrying out secret visits and marking it against a set of strict criteria including health and safety, CCTV coverage, and measures to tackle anti-social behaviour.

The judges want to be sure there were no dark corners where people could lurk, and that the design and monitoring of the toilets headed off any illegal activities.

In fact, the station boasts a lot more than that. Like a fully enclosed passenger waiting area, for example, with departure bays accessed by automatic doors. There's also a newsagent, a staffed information centre, there's even a cafe.

Receiving the SafeMark award has been described as a bit like getting a Michelin star, but just like the Michelin judges the 'mystery shoppers' will be back next year to check that Burnley has let its standards slip and that the £3m bus station warrants retaining its honour.

There are obviously a well-sorted lot in Lancashire, though, as Nelson and Chorley have also achieved the award in the past.

But perhaps its not that surprising given that the station’s architects, RoC Consulting, previously received a Bus Industry award for the station's design.

Bus Firm Wants Park and Ride Site For Staff Car Park

The death knell for one of Poole's park and ride schemes appears to have sounded with the news that the town's under-used Creekmoor site could soon have a new lease of life – ironically, as a car park for bus company staff.

Local bus operator Wilts & Dorset has asked permission to use the Creekmoor park and ride site as a private car park for 50 of their employees.

According to a report to Poole Borough Council, the site has never been fully used for a public service and costs around £15,000 a year to maintain.

Wilts & Dorset's interest appears to have prompted the council to seek to modify some of the site's planning conditions to allow other temporary uses on the site, presumably including parking for bus company staff.

I understand the council's head of transportation services Julian McLaughlin says in a report to the council’s transportation advisory group that conditions were 'not currently favourable' for a public park and ride, and that in the meantime it would make sense to encourage other uses on the site either for community use or commercial gain.

I say 'understand' because I couldn't actually find the report on the Council's website, so I haven't been able to confirm these remarks.

So I dipped further into the Poole Borough Council website to see what I could find out about the Creekmoor Park and Ride, but I found it all rather confusing. From what I could see, it seems to be mostly hospital and council parking anyway, and if there is a public service it only operates on Saturday's before Christmas.

Is that right?

If not, then might this not explain why the whole thing is so under-used?

Monday, 23 January 2012

If You Don't Have The Full Fare, Just Punch The Driver

An alarming story came my way, ironically just moments after I'd blogged about Thamesdown's exact fares policy.

There was I thinking about the frustrations of getting on a bus and finding that you don't have the correct change when I came across a news report about someone getting on a bus to find that they didn't have the correct fare.

Under similar circumstances, any one of us might be tempted to ask the driver to let us off that last 20p, or ask a kindly fellow passenger for a sub, or if you are like me then you just get off, find a cash machine and a newsagent, buy a tube of mints and wait for the next bus (as I did last time I travelled between Coventry and Birmingham).

Unfortunately for the driver of a bus in Seattle's University district recently, his frustrated passenger decided to treat him as a punchbag.

According to SeattlePI.com, the passenger had boarded the bus with only $1.50 of the $2.50 needed to get to his workplace. Angry that he'd be late for work, the man allegedly lost his temper and began beating up the driver, who promptly lost control of his bus on the icy road and ended up in a tree.

The poor driver was carried off to hospital with bruises, a swollen face and a broken leg while his assailant, bizarrely, was still sitting impatiently on the bus when the police arrived to find out why a bus was parked up a tree. He was quickly taken into custody.

Apparently, this particular bus was equipped with a video camera, so not only will it make the prosecution straightforward, it should also mean we'll be able to enoy the full horror of the incident on one of those police caught-on-camera TV shows I'm so addicted to.

Blackburn's 80-Year History Comes To An End

This year will see the end of an era as eighty years of bus manufacturing comes to an end in Blackburn, Lancashire.

Optare have announced that from March 31 its Blackburn factory will close and all of its vehicle manufacturing will be consolidated at its new purpose-built factory in Sherburn, near Leeds (pictured).

The former East Lancs Coachworks site in Blackburn will remain as a storage and specialist conversion facility, but the company says it will only need around 40 of its current 99-strong workforce there.

All staff have been offered the opportunity to transfer to the new Sherburn works, but redundancies seem inevitable.

Buses have been manufactured in Blackburn since 1934, originally by East Lancashire Coach-builders. In 2008, East Lancs merged with Optare and the local engineering business Darwen Group and at that time more than 300 people were employed in building buses at the Blackburn site. However, the growing economic downturn soon led to job cuts.

Now, the factory itself has been cut and all manufacturing will now being concentrated at Sherburn. The company has already announced the closure of the former Roe works in Leeds with all work, and workers, transferring to nearby Sherburn.

Optare itself was recently bought-out by Indian-owned Ashok Leyland, who announced earlier this month that they had secured a majority shareholding in the company – see my blog of 11 January. However, in truth the future of the Blackburn factory had been in doubt for some time.

Jack Straw, MP for Blackburn said: “It is obviously a sad day to see an East Lancashire tradition go.

"I understand the commercial logic which has faced the company and I’m glad they are making every effort to relocate staff or provide them with a redundancy package.

“There’s no question the bus industry is a highly competitive market. I just hope some jobs can be retained on this side of the Pennines and on an individual level I’ll help any employees as they face difficulties.”

Yet More Dissatisfied Customers

Two more stories about service cuts and the anger they cause came my way last week.

The first involves the good people of Skegness, where the people running the town's Ex-Servicemen’s Club fear they may have to lay-off staff because of lack of trade caused, they say, by cuts in local bus services.

Stagecoach introduced a winter timetable in October which reduced the frequency of a number of services, with the result that club members are no longer able to get into Skegness at night, says the club.

Stagecoach say they can't run more services than they currently do because Lincolnshire County Council has cut the subsidies which would have been used to support those very winter bus services. The result is that no buses now run between Skegness and Mablethorpe on a Sunday, and the last bus between Skegness and Chapel St Leonards leaves at 7.15pm every weekday evening.

There's been no job losses yet, but...

Meanwhile, in Swindon passengers are equally incensed by the cuts which Thamesdown Transport has made to their local services – especially as they have now discovered that they have been massively over-charged by them in the first place.

A request for information under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed that Thamesdown trousered £78,955 in overpayments during 2011 alone as a result of its exact fare policy, which means that bus drivers cannot give change.

Not surprisingly, passengers feel just a little bit cheated by this and believe that some of this windfall should be spent on re-instating the discontinued services. Local councillors and the town's MP agree.

Thamesdown introduced its exact fare policy in 2005 and and has enjoyed a certain amount of over-payment ever since, though never on this scale. The extra money, it says, helps them to meet their operating costs - though apparently not enough to insure them against having to trim their services from time to time.

The reason for their recent service changes? Simple. They were 'not commercially viable'.

You don't have to be a transport genius to spot that there's something fundamentally wrong with the way we are doing things. However, finding an answer that will a) provide passengers with a reliable and usable service whilst b) delivering reasonable profits to the operator without c) bringing the Treasury to its knees seems at present beyond us.

Meanwhile, passengers will complain and stay away, and operators will shrug their shoulders and complain about lack of passengers. And the government will complain about how much it all costs. Madness.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Bus Cuts Cut Off Durham Village, say Villagers

Villagers in County Durham are claiming that their community has been ‘cut off’ after Arriva changed their local bus services.

More than 50 residents of Quarrington Hill, a small village a few miles south-east of Durham City, turned out for a hastily-convened public meeting to voice their anger after Arriva imposed changes which left them with only one bus service – and even that misses out most of the village.

They left their local MP in no doubt about the depth of their disgust. "It’s the worst bus service in living memory,” said one. "It’s disgraceful,” said another. “We’re the forgotten village.”

Though not exactly confronted by a baying mob, Roberta Blackman-Woods MP still felt compelled to agree. She described the way Arriva treated communities as ‘shocking’ and ‘absolutely disgraceful’.

"With no thought and no consultation, they have cut off this village. People can’t get to the doctor’s, the shops or to and from work”, she said.

"I understand they might have to make cuts, but they should be consulting with local communities about how to make those cuts in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily inconvenience people."

The MP now plans to hold meetings with Durham County Council and Arriva to discuss the issue.

It’s a familiar story, of course. And Arriva’s reasons for withdrawing the service are equally familiar – low passenger numbers, increased fuel prices and a cut in fuel duty rebate meant it had ceased to be commercially viable, they said.

But people seem as upset about the lack of consultation as they are with the lack of a bus service. And that’s a familiar one, too.

I don’t suppose anyone is keeping count of the number of sudden changes or service reductions imposed by operators nationally, but there must be hundreds during the course of a year. The amount of copy they generate in the local press is enormous, too.

Bus companies clearly make people very, very angry when they do this, and it makes you wonder if there isn’t somehow a better way of doing this, some way which will keep the customer on-side and still deliver the savings they need.

As they say on all the best A-level exam paper’s, discuss…

What is obvious, though, is that with many bus operators feeling the pinch at the moment - much like their passengers – I’m sure there’ll be many more stories like this one.

Free Wi-Fi Boosts Bus Ridership

News from across the pond suggests that the internet is leading to a ressurgence in bus use – and not just from online bookings.

Researchers at De Paul University in Chicago have discovered that more and more people in the US are ditching their cars and going by bus – and they cite the ability to surf the internet as they travel as a major reason.

Higher fuel prices have made driving a car less attractive at the same time as buses have begun to offer access to free Wi-Fi, though mostly on long distance routes.

As a result, though buses were once viewed as the transport choice of last resort in the US, bus travel is now beginning to attract more affluent riders, students and women travelling alone.

School boards in some parts of America are already ahead of the game, though. Several began to offer free wi-fi on board their yellow school buses last year and have transformed pupil behaviour. Instead of the usual end-of-school boisterous riot at the back of the bus, kids sit and quietly surf the net. It’s unnerving, says one driver.

Bus companies in the UK have looked at mobile wi-fi, too, and one or two operators – Reading Buses, for example, and Greyhound services from Southampton to London - have even introduced it on some select services. There’s even talk of free wi-fi being available on all London buses in the near future (we’ll keep you posted).

However, so far nobody has rushed to offer free wi-fi on ordinary bus routes. Installation and operating costs are obviously as issue, but these will certainly decline in time so I reckon its only a question of who jumps first, and when.

The signs in the US look positive, though.

“Bus travel is suddenly cool,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development who lead the research. “There’s a fatigue over driving combined with a revitalized image of the bus.”

No wonder Megabus, which is owned by Stagecoach, and BoltBus, which is owned by First Group, have seen a 32% boost in passenger numbers in the past year year, though to be fair the switch from bus station to curbside pick-up has proved popular, too. Nonetheless, DePaul’s report that bus traffic grew in 2011 at the fastest pace since 2008 and fares are rising, too, with routes where fares of $20 or less were once common now seeing tickets priced at $35 or more.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Snatching the Bus

Travelling by bus may be one of the safest ways of getting from A to B, but perhaps its beginning to attract the wrong kind of passenger.

According to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, police are warning that around one in five of all pickpocket crimes and bag snatches now take place on public transport .

Buses, trains and tubes have become the target of choice for thieves, they say, overtaking shops and supermarkets or bag snatches in the street, which had all previously been the more popular.

Last year there were 563,000 such thefts reported, with 20 per cent of them occurring on public transport, 18 per cent in shops and 16 per cent in the street.

Not surprisingly, the most common items to be stolen are wallets, cash and mobile phones, though I was surprised to find that the average value of goods taken per person was around £153, which seems high.

However, senior police officers warn that criminals see bag snatches and pocket-picking as increasingly lucrative ways to earn a living, given that people now routinely carry hundreds of pounds worth of gadgets like mobile phones and personal stereos with them.

Add to that the UK's economic downturn which they reckon is fuelling an increase in acquisitive crime generally, and you have a growing problem with crime of public transport.

Police advice is for passengers to do their bit and protect their belongings by ensuring that valuable items are not visible. Rucksacks and hand bags should be carried in front of you and phones and wallets not stowed in the outer pockets of bags where they can be easily lifted.

Bus Driver Suspended for Using Phone While Driving

Nobody much likes drivers who wantonly put other peoples' lives at risk by using their phones whilst on the move. So you can imagine the anger when a school bus driver was caught doing precisely that.

Greig Elrick, a driver for Kineil Coaches of Fraserburgh, was taking pupils home from Old Meldrum Academy to the north of Aberdeen on September 22 last year when he was spotted talking into his phone whilst driving.

Elrick later explained that he was using the phone to talk to his depot manager who had phoned him to tell him where he wanted the vehicle returned to after his school run. This wasn't an excuse which cut any ice at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, however.

Elrick was fined £500 and given three penalty points on his driving licence at Aberdeen Sheriff Court. The Traffic Commissioner for Scotland Joan Aitken also took the opportunity to suspend his bus driver licence for eight weeks, adding that the suspension took account of Elrick's previous good record during a a long career as a driver and that he appeared to recognise the seriousness of his action.

Kineil Coaches are not exactly off the hook, though. The commissioner has said she is now to ask the company to explain just why they were phoning one of their drivers when they knew him to be driving his bus.

Don't Let Google Drive You Round The Bend

If you are trying to find your way around Tyneside, then frankly it probably best not to rely on Google.

Nexus, which is Tyne and Wear's local PTE, have been moved to make this warning to passengers looking for accurate travel advice on North East bus services and the Metro and who might be tempted to give a new ‘public transport’ route finder launched through Google Maps a try.

In fact, staff at Nexus were just as keen to try this latest addition to the Google stable, but they quickly discovered that the advice on offer was, well... variable to say the least.

For example, when asked for advice for a journey from Newcastle to Tynemouth, Google chose to completely ignore the many, many buses which run the nine miles between the two and instead rather bizarrely advised that you catch a National Express coach leaving seven hours later as far as North Shields, then walking the remaining mile. In the rain, presumably.

And for the short journey from Newcastle to Blaydon, home of the historic Blaydon races and barely six miles distant, Google advised that you catch one of only two trains a day to call at Blaydon railway station - and wait five hours to do so – rather than catching any one of the 10 buses an hour which Go North East operate between the two.

And anyone unlucky enough to want to travel from Gateshead to the nearby Team Valley Trading Estate, which is one of the UK's biggest industrial estates and home to literally thousands of jobs, is even more unlucky because Google will tel you that there is no public transport at all. In fact, it's one of Go North East's busiest routes with up to ten buses an hour. I mean, how do they think people get to work?

In fact, Google Maps successfully provided the right travel information on only one out of every seven journeys entered into it. The only journey which it did seem to get right was from Newcastle city centre to Sunderland railway station, which it correctly said could be made by Metro from Central station. Or train.

Ever get the feeling there's something missing?

Yep. Google has somehow entirely omitted every single bus service on Tyneside and most Metro journeys from its journey planner. From this you might assume that Google's employees don't travel by bus or Metro, or frankly even recognise their existence.

Or could it be that local bus operators have chosen not to advertise on Google?

However, every cloud has a silver lining and Google's ignominious failings have given Nexus the perfect excuse to plug the excellent journey planning tools their have on their own splendid website.

“This now includes MyTravel – a new service where you can find your nearest bus or Metro stop on a local map and see the next departures from it, as well as a journey planner where you can enter start and end points,” says Tobyn Hughes, Director of Customer Services, who also happened to mention that nexus.org.uk has both a conventional and mobile-adapted website for people on the go, and that people can also call North East Traveline on 0871 200 22 33 to speak to an operator if they prefer the human touch.

Yes, yes, thank you Tobyn...

I think you could say that was Nexus 1, Google nil....

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

B&H Put the Squeeze on The Big Lemon

Brighton's The Big Lemon Bus Company has claimed it has been driven off the road by unfair competition.

The company, which was set up as a social enterprise in 2007, operates a fleet of eight distinctive yellow buses fuelled purely by waste cooking oil from restaurants in Brighton. Now, however, they say they have been forced to quit one of their main routes between Brighton's two universities because of a 'predatory pricing policy' introduced by their bigger local rivals, Brighton and Hove.

Big Lemon founder Tom Druitt claims Brighton and Hove deliberately reduced the price of a day saver ticket on services which directly compete with The Big Lemon by a third but left all their other fares unchanged. Foul play, he cries.

Not so, says Brighton and Hove, who claim not to be deliberately squeezing The Big Lemon out of business. They say they are merely doing what they have done ever since buses were deregulated – introduced promotional prices on different routes in different parts of the city. Pricing, they say, is determined by market.

Whatever the truth, what is certainly true is that the market which Brighton and Hove say dictates their fares is now a little less crowded. The traffic commissioner has decided that The Big Lemon's route 42 will stop running from 6 February, a decision which will no doubt please Brighton and Hove but which will directly affect some 10,000 weekly Big Lemon passengers, among them several hundred students who pay an annual subscription for unlimited travel.

And not just passengers. The Big Lemon Bus Company started small but now employs 18 full- and part-time staff. Losing route 42 means that some of those full-timers will now have to become part-timers.

It's estimated that the closure of route 42 will rob The Big Lemon of about 30% of its total income, but fortunately it has other growth areas. The shorter 44 route between Brighton and Sussex universities in the evenings and weekends is still profitable, and private hire which now represent around 50% of its revenue is blossoming.

Once Brighton & Hove City Council's supported bus service contracts go out to tender later this year, The Big Lemon hope to add a few more services to their portfolio, especially as they now have a more modern fleet – when they started four years ago, the average age of their vehicles was 26, whereas now it more like 16.

Is competition between bus operators a good thing? Well, we'll see. But with The Big Lemon off route 42, everyone in the city will now be watching for the much-reduced Day Saver fares on Brighton and Hove buses to suddenly start going up again...

Government Announces £2m For Green Buses in Scotland

A few more Scottish buses may soon be belching out a little less carbon dioxide after the government announced it had set aside £2m to help Scottish bus operators to buy low-carbon vehicles for their fleets.

Transport Minister Keith Brown made the announced the funding as the latest round of the Scottish Green Bus Fund during his keynote address to the 2012 Transport Conference in Glasgow this week.

The Scottish Green Bus Fund operates as a Challenge Fund with grants offered to successful bidders for up to 100% of the price difference between a low-carbon vehicle and its diesel equivalent.

Last year's fund totalled £4.4m and enabled five operators – Lothian Buses, Stagecoach, First Glasgow, Stagecoach Bluebird and Colchri – to purchase 48 new low-carbon vehicles, with grants of between £66,000 and £131,000 per bus.

The government says it hopes that the next round of applications for the Scottish Green Bus Fund will continue to make bus services "greener, more efficient and easier to use".

On the face of it, the government's announcement will lead to perhaps another 20 low-carbon buses entering service in Scotland, which is not a lot. But let's not be churlish - it's better than nothing.

Bus operators, local authorities and regional transport partnerships will now be invited to apply to the Scottish Green Bus Fund for help with the up-front costs of buying new low-carbon buses for their fleets.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Public Transport is Definitely Not Pants

People travelling on the Minneapolis Light Rail system got something of a shock this month when a group of fellow commuters suddenly all began taking off their trousers.

The pant-less passengers had boarded specifically to take part in a trouser-less demonstration as a part of the city's fourth annual No-Pants Light Rail Ride.

After unpopping their flies and unzipping their zippers, the pant-less participants then just acted as they would normally do on any normal commute - talking on their mobile phones, chatting to fellow passengers and enjoying the odd game of Angry Birds. Only without any trousers on.

The organisers said it was all meant to bring a little strangeness into the routine and tedium of the day, and there's no doubt that it did. They also said that the display was not meant to be indecent or offensive or anything and that thongs and banana hammocks were therefore strictly forbidden.

I understand the idea for the demonstration came orginally from the brilliant New York mass improvisation group Improv Everywhere, who have been doing No Pants Subway rides (and much else besides) for some time.

It's mad, of course, but essentially harmless - which is possibly more than can be said for some of the activities on Minneapolis's Light Rail system at times.

However, one crucial question remains.

What exactly is a banana hammock?

Scarlet Band Brings A Touch of Glamour to the Dales

Bus passengers in Teesdale don’t seem to be mourning the loss of their Arriva bus service – as they are now being driven around the dale by a close friend of the stars.

Local independent Scarlet Band took over a number of services previously operated by Arriva, who had been subject to criticism from local residents over its poor timekeeping and who eventually walked away from the services saying they couldn’t operate them profitably.

Scarlet Band's replacement service has been greeted with praise – especially as one of its driver’s appears have brought a touch of glamour to the Dale.

Driver Andy Pounder, who hails originally from the East End on London, turns out to be a long-term friend of comedian Paul O’Grady, the man behind the loud and lairy drag queen Lily Savage.

My partner is a singer but used to be a very successful drag queen and performed with Paul as Lily Savage,” he recently disclosed to his local paper, the Teesdale Mercury.

Paul is a great friend, and his partner works with the EastEnders cast and crew so we are friends with a lot of them. June Brown, who plays Dot Cotton, and Jessie Wallace, who play Kat Moon, are brilliant fun.

Paul recently rang us and said, ‘Get the kettle on girls!’ I asked him where he was and he told me he had just landed his helicopter at Durham Tees Valley airport!”

Scarlet Band stepped in when Arriva abandoned its services in Teesdale and are hoping to have their contract made permanent when Durham County Council conducts a review of bus services in the spring.

In the meantime, they appear to be winning lots of new friends by going that extra mile for their customers.

Andy gives an example of a woman who used to catch the bus each morning from her home, which is near the company’s depot in West Cornforth, each morning into Darlington but who complained that she had to get three buses.

Scarlet Band’s owner told her that if she came into the depot early enough in a morning, she could get a lift into Darlington on one of their empty buses. She is now a regular customer and enjoys her very own personal bus service every morning.

Now I doubt I whether Arriva would be able to offer a service quite as personal as that…

Monday, 16 January 2012

Abellio Shows High Opinion Of Poles

Bus operator Abellio seems to have ignited the fury of several of the tabloids after it was revealed that the company had flown bosses all the way to Poland in search of drivers for its London buses.

The Daily Mail criticised the company – which, it pointed out, is subsidiary of the Dutch state rail operator – for turning to Poland to recruit 51 London bus drivers when almost two and a half million Britons are currently on the dole.

Abellio claimed it could find no suitable candidates in Britain – though an insider at the firm reckoned to have known several fellow drivers who had been interviewed and turned down for the jobs.

And another anonymous driver told The Sun, “The Routemaster will soon be back in the capital. What a shame if British drivers miss out on the chance to drive it.”

The combination of much-loved British transport icon and 'migrant steals British job' story was one the tabloids obviously couldn't resist and poor old Abellio took a bit of pasting. For it's part, the company said that it's trip to Poland was simply to '... supplement recruitment in the UK' and they successfully recruited 51 experienced bus drivers there.

'We are not aware of any occasion where a suitable candidate has been turned away,' they added, suggesting that they'd felt the British candidates they'd previously turned away had simply not been up to scratch.

All of which prompted the usual inflammatory statements about migrants 'stealing' jobs from British workers. The Daily Mail seized the opportunity to quote figures suggesting that 160,000 Britons have missed out on paid employment because the work was taken by 'foreigners', and that according to 'experts' every four migrant workers who come to the Britain from outside the EU leads to one British job being lost.

As ever, the truth in one form or other will be in there somewhere, though I suspect this probably says more about the challenge of living in London on a relatively low wage and little affordable housing. How anyone manages to live there I just can't understand – but I can understand how a British family might baulk at the kind of sacrifices they'd be required to make just to allow their husbands or wives to drive a London bus.

And I doubt whether even the Daily Mail has an answer to that one.

Friday, 13 January 2012

First Reveals A Worrying North-South Divide

We may not quite be in economic recession, but these are still troubling times for many of Britain's bus operators.

First Group are the latest to broadcast their woes after they announced this week that they are to withdraw all their bus services in Bury St Edmunds from March this year.

The bus operator announced its intention to cease running all services in the town because they have not been 'commercially viable' for some time. The company points to a reduction in their Bus Service Operators Grant as one reason for their decision.

First's Bury St Edmunds depot will close at the end of March and staff will be offered alternative employment at First’s Ipswich depot.

Its problems in the south of England are nothing to the challenges the Aberdeen-based company says it is facing in Scotland and Northern England – where 60% of the company's non-London revenue comes from. This week, First Group blamed a weak economy and lower consumer spending in the north for what it says is growing evidence of a north-south divide.

As well as falling consumer spending, the company has also been hampered by poor market conditions which have made the sale of major assets such as bus depot sites much more difficult.

First will no doubt be cheered by the view across the Atlantic, though, where their American school bus business continues to show promise and where their Greyhound inter-city coach operation is continuing to show modest growth.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Chinese Whispers As Arriva Turns East

Arriva’s announcement that it was intending to work alongside Chinese bus builder King Long to develop new buses must have come as a bit of a shock to British manufacturers.

Competition between the three main British bus builders is already intense, so the propsect of an existing major client helping a new foreign rival to enter their market must have made unwelcome news.

It’s also a slightly odd decision, according to some. Chinese buses have tended to be a less sophisticated than their European counterparts, they say, and while the Chinese seem to use all the right bits, they somehow still manage to produce vehicles which are a shade less than the sum of their parts.

Mind you, they said exactly the same about the Japanese back in the early 1970’s, and about Skoda a lot more recently than that. And look where they are now.

So what’s in it for Arriva? Well, their explanation is that while most of their fleet currently comes from British and European manufacturers, they are keen to evaluate the potential of King Long in other markets. The company seems anxious not to alienate British and European manufacturers – but the sub-text is clearly that Arriva is looking for cheaper buses and they might not be averse to going all the way to China to get them.

King Long have clearly spotted an opportunity, too. This is a massive bus manufacturer but one that is well aware of its limitations. They understand that to support any expansion into the European market, they would need to improve both build quality and mechanical reliability to meet European expectations. A working relationship with Arriva would give King Long some valuable insights into what a European bus operator was looking for and, potentially, enable them to substantially raise their game.

So will we see Chinese buses bearing the Arriva livery on British roads anytime soon, as they already do in Malta? Well, probably not - not unless King Long find a way of producing Euro-quality buses cheaper than the Europeans.

But whose to say that, in time, they won’t…