Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Boris's 'New Bus 4 London' Splits Opinion

The 'New Bus 4 London' – or the Borismaster as everyone seems intent on calling it - assumed centre stage in the media this week following its long-awaited introduction to London's streets.

So far, the jury seems split, and largely along political lines.

There was cautious praise for the new vehicle in Dave Hill's London blog in The Guardian on Monday, who mentioned its stylish though slightly cramped interior and its smooth ride. He also mentioned its struggling air conditioning, though this might have been less to do with the press of reporters and film crews thronging the huge double decker than the hordes of breathless bus enthusiasts mingling with them.

A piece on local BBC News carefully represented the views of both Transport for London, who as you would imagine are strongly pro, and everyone else, who it appear to be strongly against. The lines of argument are clear.

One is the sheer cost of the New Bus 4 London programme. One protester reckoned that 96 new low-carbon hybrid buses could have been acquired for the cost of just these eight new buses. And presumably they would not have been halted in Islington by a 'software hitch' as the bus the BBC was travelling on was. They had to lock down the open platform of the vehicle to get the thing running again.

By this time, of course, the new bus had been dogged every step of the way by an old-fashioned 1960's Routemaster hired by the protest group Sack Boris. They commanded a fair degree of media attention, too, especially as their bus seemed to be filled with people who were only too keen to let the media know just what a waste of money the whole New Bus 4 London was.

However, most had already been beaten to the punch. Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy had already written an open letter to the Mayor of London to complain that each new bus costs £1.4m compared to the roughly £190,000 cost of a conventional double-decker, leading him to an entertaining conclusion.

"With 62 seats at a cost of £1.4m, the cost per seat is £22,580, “ he said. “At £22,695, you can buy a brand new 3 series BMW!"

“Riding this bus is surely the most expensive bus ticket in history," he concluded.

Green Party mayoral candidate Jenny Jones raised the issue of vehicle cost in a different way, though, questioning whether London bus operators would refuse to buy such an expensive vehicle especially as there was serious doubt whether there was an after-market for second hand Borismasters either here or abroad.

Caroline Pidgeon, leader of the Lib Dems on the London Assembly, put it all into perspective when she said: "What Boris Johnson has managed to achieve is to hike up the cost of a single bus fare by 50% and ensure that buses on routes across London are far more crowded.

"A single new bus which has cost Londoners' a fortune will not cover up Boris Johnson's real record on bus services."

TfL admitted that the new bus cost a lot to develop but that subsequent vehicles would be much cheaper particularly if they were ordered in any quantity - which is probably true. However, that assumes there will be a great many of them ordered by bus operators, and so far that is uncertain.

Whatever you think of the new bus – and there's no denying its glamourous good looks and, if it works and continues to work, its practicality for London – there's every chance that it won't be Boris Johnson's delivering on a promise to rid the city of bendy-buses and resurrect the Routemaster that will determine whether Boris - or his 'Borismaster' - survives beyond this May's Mayoral elections.

It will be his record on public transport generally.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

San Francisco Enlists Buses For Traffic Enforcement

Our colleagues in America appear to have hit on a new way of keeping cars out of bus lanes.

I'm told that San Francisco's Muni bus system has recently equipped 30 of its buses with forward-facing cameras so they can take photos of vehicles illegally travelling along or parking in the city's bus lanes.

John Haley, transit director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, reckons that the new cameras have transformed driver behaviour. “When cars see a bus coming, they get the hell out of the way now,” he says.

“Fifteen months from now, all of Muni's 819 buses will be equipped with the cameras. Drivers caught on tape violating the bus lanes will be subject to fines of up to $115. “

That's going to concentrate a few Californian minds.

Of course, forward-facing cameras are certainly not new on British inner-city buses, but I'm not sure anyone has thought of using them as a traffic enforcement tool. You could see how they could be useful in Central London, for example, though I doubt whether evidence derived from a camera mounted on the front of a bus would be admissible in a British Magistrate's court.

This might be a good thing, however. John Haley freely admits that with all these cameras at his disposal, he's starting to get a lot of experience with cameras.

“With all the footage, I'm starting to feel a bit like Cecil B. Demille," he gloats.

Ready for your close up, Mr Mayor?

Huge Demand For Four-Hour 'Day Trip From Hell'

The Daily Mail rightly called it the 'day trip from hell' – but it seems coach tourists just can't get enough of it.

Now, such has been the demand for tickets that bus and coach operator Brighton and Hove have had to put more dates on what is possibly the oddest day trip of them all.

Described on the Brighton and Hove website as a day trip “...designed for lovers of modern coach travel”, their M25 coach tours have proved so popular that they had to add two further dates. That's right, a coach tour around the M25.

The company freely admits that London's infamous orbital motorway has been named the least entertaining and most boring road in Britain, and the most hated place in Britain as voted by BBC Radio 4 listeners, who presumably know a truly hateful road when they see one.

But, says the company's website, “Let us try to prove these judgements wrong with a “flight of fancy” around the London Orbital”. Oh, let's not...

It's a big ask. Highlights of the tour will include visits to Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five, the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex and the Dartford River Crossing. And then there's the new services being built at Cobham in Surrey complete with a McDonald’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and a Shell garage.

At £15-per-head, I'm amazed that Brighton and Hove are able to shift any tickets. Yet apparently they are having to beat customers off with sticks.

The obvious question, of course, is not 'will you be calling a South Mimms' but rather more simply – why?

I've been thinking about this and perhaps it's the all-pervading sense of mystery and suspense. For example, each trip is set to begin with the toss of a coin to determine exactly which way around the motorway the coach will travel, and hey, it doesn't come much more exciting than that.

In addition, although the trip is only meant to last four hours (only?), given the number of traffic jams and bottlenecks generally encountered en route, who knows how long it will take. See what I mean about suspense? I mean, is there a toilet on board?

And if that's not enough for you, then what about the nail-biting competition in which passengers are invited to 'guestimate' to the nearest mile the total distance the coach will travel around the M25, with a bottle of Champagne for the person guessing the closest. And, in the event of a tie, the winner will be drawn from a hat! Oh, still my beating heart!

There's even an entertaining commentary by the co-driver who will regularly regurgitate 'interesting facts' about the M25's evolution as you travel.

I've just checked today's date and no, it's not April 1, so I suppose all this must be true. Could this be the most ironic bus tour in history? Or was it just a bet which some transport manager got terribly, terribly wrong?

South Mimms, anyone?

Bus Lane Scrapped After 5,600 Motorists Fined

Fining motorists for illegally using bus lanes when they shouldn't clearly doesn't work, if the evidence of Stoke-on-Trent City Council is anything to go by.

Despite issuing a blizzard of £60 fines to errant motorists, the 20-metre bus lane in Huntbach Street in Hanley continues to be used as a shortcut to car parks on a regular basis.

Did I say blizzard? Let me be more precise – 5,600 tickets have so far been handed out to people, more than half of which have been issued since April 1.

What it lacks in stature – it's little more than 60 feet long - it clearly makes up for in sheer desirability. Using it gives prompt though illegal access to nearby car parks. Stay on the right side of the law, however, and you are rewarded with an epic 1.3-mile detour. You can see why some of the 5,600 motorists caught breaking the law were prepared to take the risk.

Now, it seems, everyone has become fed up with it all.

"We are currently consulting with the public on plans to amend bus routes in the city centre in preparation for the opening of the new bus station in the autumn,” explained Councillor Adrian Knapper, the city council's cabinet member for transport and planning.

"It is proposed that the amended bus routes will no longer be using Town Road, and as a consequence, will not be accessing Huntbach Street,” he told local reporters.

"With this in mind, it is proposed to remove the existing bus lane and open the street to all traffic.”

A blessed relief, then – and at least the town is getting a new bus station. But as ever it's not all good news for the motorist.

As part of the council's proposals, some roads will now be pedestrianised while others will become one-way, still more will remain one-way but have their direction reversed, and yet more roads will become two-way.

Now, some hapless motorist is bound to get that wrong.

Makes you wonder why they don't just all go by bus...

Monday, 20 February 2012

Bus Company Celebrates High Fuel Prices

And now, at long last, perhaps some good news for bus companies.

Amidst all the anger about service reductions, disquiet about subsidy cuts, deeply unpopular fare rises and the like, here's a sign that things might not be quite so bad after all.

Derbyshire-based operator Trent Barton reckons that the high cost of fuel is something to be pleased about after all because it's driving ever greater numbers of motorists out of their cars and onto public transport. Well, on to Trent Barton buses, anyway.

When the company carried out customer surveys recently they were delighted to discover that around three-quarters of those they questioned had said that travelling by bus is now cheaper than using a car. 

The company’s commercial director Alex Hornby believes the cost of motoring is troubling people more and more. On some routes, he said, 78 per cent of customers had said they had saved money by taking the bus rather than going by car.

Across their entire network, he added, some 70 per cent of those surveyed said that bus fares offered good value for money.

Good for Trent Barton, I say. On the evidence of this, I'd say they were definitely a 'Glass Half Full' company. The trick, of course, will be to hang onto those extra passengers once everyone has grown accustomed to paying £1.50 for a cup of diesel

Still, it's good to hear to someone being positive for a change.

Calls To Axe Free OAP Bus Travel

The variously centre-right and centre-left policy think tank The Social Market Foundation has said that pensioners should be stripped of their rights to free bus travel as part of a plan to save £15 billion and boost the economy.

The estimated £1 billion annual cost of concessionary travel passes for OAPs was a low-priority item of spending, they said, and it did nothing to improve the economy. It should be scrapped, they concluded.

The foundation – which was known to be John Major's favourite think tank - also suggested taking away winter fuel payments and free television licences from better-off pensioners.

This and other mildly inflammatory ideas – such as barring savers from keeping more than £15,000 of savings in ISAs, means-testing child benefits and halving tax relief for pensioners – would deliver, they said, the extra £15bn of savings the government have only just now realised they will have to find in 2016.

"Our plan would unambiguously strengthen the Government's deficit cutting credibility and increase economic output without borrowing a penny more,” they said. “That would go a long way towards reassuring the holders of UK Government debt.”

How lovely. I doubt whether the holders of UK personal debt would be terribly reassured, though, or their retired parents.

And am I the only person to spot that the Social Market Foundation's plans seem to be very much based on penalising elderly voters?

Honestly. Anyone would think that they were deliberately courting publicity...

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Boris' New Bus for London Delayed

Looks like we'll all have to wait a bit longer for the much-vaunted 'Borismaster' to hit the streets of London – it's introduction, I discover, has been delayed.

After announcing with much excitement two months ago that the Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s “Routemasters for the 21st Century” would enter service on Monday 20 February, Transport for London has announced that is has had to delay their introduction by a week.

Apparently, certification of the new vehicles has taken a bit longer than expected.

The first Borismasters, as they are widely referred to, are now due to enter service on 27 February at the hands of Arriva London on their route 38.

Dismissed as an irrelevant vanity project by the Mayor's political opponents, it is understood that the cost of the project so far - design and development, and the building of eight prototype vehicles by Wrightbus of Northern Ireland – stands at more than £11.3m even before a wheel has turned.

What distinguishes the Borismaster from other hybrid buses is that it has no less than three doors, which is a first for a British double-deck bus. It sounds complicated but its intended to allow people to board and dismount relatively quickly. However, the downside – and in cost terms, it's a serious one - is that the bus will generally need a two-person crew.

Of course, we don't yet know whether the Borismaster concept will actually work, but the first few months of trials should quickly establish that. Even if it does work, there's been no indication yet of the likely on-the-road cost of these elegant though slightly bizarre vehicles. My bet is that they will prove so expensive and uniquely-engineered that no other operator will touch them.

If that is the case, then this will be history repeating itself. The original Routemaster, remember, was only ever bought by London Transport (who also designed it) except for a small number of forward entrance vehicles sold to Northern General Transport. In later years, cast-off's found work throughout the country but the forecourt and running costs of the originals were just too high, I'm told, and they were never widely adopted.

And then, of course, there's the cost of that extra crew member to factor in...

I doubt whether we'll see huge numbers of Borismasters on Britain's streets in the years to come.

Foreign Ownership On The Increase

Almost a quarter of the UK's bus industry is now in foreign ownership, according to data compiled by passenger transport specialists The TAS Partnership.

The company analysed the accounts of over 120 British bus companies as part of their Bus Industry Monitor project and concluded that 24.4 per cent of British bus operators now had overseas owners – up on previous studies.

The increased overseas stake in Britain’s bus industry follows the German state railway company Deutsche Bahn's purchase of Arriva in 2010.

The TAS Partnership's figures also showed that almost 70 per cent of the British bus industry, when measured by turnover, is controlled by just five major groups - FirstGroup, Stagecoach, Arriva, Go-Ahead and National Express.

That figure has risen from 64 per cent since they last carried out an analysis, the rise is being put down to Stagecoach’s decision to re-enter the London market with their purchase of the East London Bus Group in 2010.

Perth-based Stagecoach now has a 19.2 per cent share of the British bus market, which is a fraction behind Aberdeen-based FirstGroup. Although the biggest in Britain, cuts in First's network of services – I've blogged about this recently - and falls in fare revenue mean that their 19.6 per cent market share is actually the lowest its been since 1996.

The increased overseas stake in Britain’s bus industry follows the German state railway company Deutsche Bahn's purchase of Arriva in 2010.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Buses May Be Pulled After Latest Vandal Attack

Parts of Bolton could be without a bus service after a local company threatened to pull its vehicles off the road after a violent attack.

A pair of youths threw bricks through the windows of a passing Maytree Travel bus and when the driver stopped to check his passengers were unhurt they attacked again, pinning a 71-year-old passenger to the side of the bus and raining blows onto him.

This is already the tenth attack by vandals on Maytree’s buses in 2012 — one more than they had in the whole of 2011. Police are investigating the attack and are urging anyone with information to get in touch.

Maytree’s managing director Gary Hawthorne said he was stunned by the latest incident and threatened to take all his Bolton drivers off the road if there is a repeat.

Mr Hawthorne said: “This is an horrific attack and I am staggered that they have done this to such an elderly man.

“Vandals are attacking our buses day in day out and things are worse now than they have ever been. We even had to divert one of our bus routes in Deane throughout January while the police dealt with the issue and who knows where it will end?

“If this keeps happening, we will have no option but

to take our buses off the road, to keep our drivers and passengers safe.”

Maytree was founded as a family-run firm in 2009 and has 25 buses serving 30 routes across Bolton .

Police are currently looking for the two youths aged between 18 and 22 years.

Train Operators To Lose Grant For Replacement Buses

The Government is planning to end an anomaly which allows train companies who also own bus companies to receive grants for providing replacement bus services when stretches of the rail network are closed.

A practice known as “bustitution” allows train operators to pocket millions of pounds from days of disruption while their passengers endure longer journeys. Not only do train firms receive compensation from Network Rail when their lines are unavailable, but they can also claim Bus Service Operators Grant when they one of their associated companies lays on a relief service.

Rail minister Norman Baker is expected to announce plans to end the practice of “double dipping” - whereby train operators receive Bus Service Operators Grant when they one of their associated companies lays on a relief service – later this week.

“I have been pushing train operating companies to reduce their reliance on decanting all their passengers onto buses at the weekend – I hope this will act as an extra push to make them think again," says the minister.

“Network Rail is happy to get possession of the track so they can do work and train operators are happy to receive the grant, the only person who loses out is the passenger.”

“I am not convinced that train companies are doing as much as they can to avoid replacement buses,” he added. He might have a point.

According to official figures quoted in the national media, First Group’s specialist rail replacement bus company received £2.5 million for running replacement buses in three years.

Other DfT figures showed that Stagecoach’s specialist rail replacement bus firm received more than £74,000 in the six months ending September 2009, whilst National Express received £280,000 in 2010 for providing buses and coaches for rail replacement duties.

However, some reckon the real figure is likely to be much higher once the grant paid to dozens of local offshoots of the big bus-train conglomerates is taken into account.

Anger As Council Spends £5,000 On Redundant Bus Stop

There's yet more trouble in County Durham, it seems, after it emerged today that the local council had demolished a bus shelter and erected a brand new one - only to discover that it wasn’t actually on a bus route.

A mix-up in communications was blamed for the £5,180 spent by Durham County Council on a shelter in Framwellgate Moor, Durham where, according to local residents, there hasn’t been a bus service for years.

The council, which is facing cuts in government funding of nearly £190m, said it had checked with bus company Arriva before the work started only to discover when it was finished that all bus services had been withdrawn.

Local residents are not impressed.

“How kind of Durham County Council to replace the old brick bus stop... with a nice bright glass one complete with rubbish bin and timetable board,” quipped one local resident. “The only problem is the bus stop has not been used for more than two years.”

The old bus shelter cost £1,800 to demolish with a further £2,800 spent building its replacement. Apparently, it will cost £580 to move the shelter to another location. But however angry local residents might be, Durham County Council clearly isn’t best pleased, neither.

“The work on the shelter was carried out after consultations with Arriva who, on two separate occasions, confirmed that their bus services would be using the stop,” says Durham County Council’s head of transport Adrian White, quite possibly through gritted teeth.

“Unfortunately, they have subsequently informed the council that they are now not planning to operate services on this route. We will be looking to relocate the shelter in the near future.”

Arriva suggested the mistake had been a misunderstanding.

You’ll have seen from previous blogs of mine that very few Durham folk seem to have a place in their hearts for Arriva. The company really does seem to attract widespread public criticism wherever it operates in the county. Looked at objectively, I’d say there is a serious public relations job for someone at Arriva North East HQ.

Mind you, its not that most passengers really have any choice but to use Arriva services. If they had, then perhaps might not everybody raise their game?

And isn’t that what bus deregulation was meant to do?

Free Wi-Fi for Dublin City Buses

Irish transport operators seem to be stealing something of a march on their British counterparts if news coming out of Dublin is anything to go by.

Dublin Bus has announced that it is about to help make its home city one of only cities in Europe to offer all its bus passengers free Wi-Fi whilst on the move.

The company says it is intending to install Wi-Fi technology to its fleet of 900 buses before the end of the year, allowing thousands of its passengers to surf the internet, tweet and send emails while on the move.

Dublin Bus will begin a two-month trial of the technology from next week on one of its city routes and if the trials are successful then it is planned to extend the service across the entire fleet.

Other public transport operators, including rail operator Iarnrod Eireann and Bus Eireann, have already started rolling out Wi-Fi technology. Many Irish coach firms already boast free Wi-Fi and the National Transport Authority says it hopes to install Wi-Fi on Luas trams later this year.

Iarnrod Eireann has free Wi-Fi on most trains between Dublin and Cork and they are rolling out the service onto 234 inter-city rail carriages as well as the DART and commuter fleet in Dublin this year. More than 40 buses in the Bus Eireann fleet also have free Wi-Fi.

The project is believed to be dependent on funding being made available.

The company said that Madrid is the only other city in Europe which currently provides a free Wi-Fi service to passengers on city buses.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Council Paints Bus Stop Around Cars Parked on Street

While plenty of people are bemoaning the loss of their treasured bus services, others it seems don’t want them – or at least, they don’t want bus stops.

Residents living on a busy road through a housing estate in Merstham, Surrey are furious after Surrey County Council arrived out of the blue one day and promptly began painting a bus stop on the road around their parked cars.

The bus stop, say the residents, is unwanted, it isn’t needed, and they weren’t consulted over the painting of it. And they are angry.

In fairness, the bus stop has always been there even if it is, according to residents, lightly used. It’s the marked bus stop bay on the road that they strongly object to.

"The first I knew was when the guys turned up in the lorry,” said one resident. “"They literally painted around my van and a car parked outside.

“I'm just confused. I've been here for 24 years and there has never been a need for this – one person per bus alights here, if that.

"There's another bus stop just up the road. And there's a far better site on the green which no households use for parking. I contacted the council but all they told me was 'it wasn't my road'."

Residents are now organising to thwart the council by taking it in turns to ensure that at least one vehicle is permanently parked in the bay. Not that it matters that much, as the bus stop bay is, according to the council, advisory only so legally there’s nothing to stop anyone from parking there anyway.

Still, you threaten someone’s parking space at your peril…

For it’s part, Surrey County Council explained that the council was under a duty to improve public transport and the markings were introduced after one local resident and the bus company told them that passengers were having trouble getting on and off the bus because of cars parked at the bus stop.

"There is no point in bus companies investing in the more accessible low-floor buses if they cannot get to the kerb,” they observed.

" Unfortunately the contractor did not notify us in advance as to when they would do the work, so we were unable to cone off the area or advise people to park elsewhere."

Perhaps this is one of those rare examples when (with apologies to Elvis Presley) what was really required was a little more consultation, a little less action…

There is an added irony here. I checked this out on Google Maps and, if I’ve got this right (and I think I have) then the newly-marked bus stop bay is slap-bang next to another marked bay on the road, only this one reserves a parking space for a disabled neighbour. Which might explain other people’s sensitivity over parking space for their cars. Is this a bay too far? Or is it a case of a marked bay is OK providing its for my car?

Mums Protest As Four Year Olds Forced to Travel Alone

I keep stumbling across new and obscure ways in which the government's austerity measures – at least, those in relation to local government funding – are having unforeseen and definitely unpleasant effects on the public.

I've already blogged about how the elderly and the young appear to be suffering the most from the various budget cuts, service cuts and reductions in service being implemented across the country. Now, however, its seems that the relatively affluent mums of leafy rural Warwickshire are suffering too. And they don't like it.

(Honestly, you wait for ages for a story about Warwickshire, then two come along together...)

A group of mums from a group of villages near Banbury claim that they will soon be forced to drive their children to school if Warwickshire Council Council presses ahead with their plans to end their bus escort service.

If the Conservative-run council gets its way, then from next week children as young as four will have to travel unsupervised on a 45-minute bus journey to school.

Drivers from a newly-contracted bus company will be required to look after up to 40 children from villages around Shotteswell unaided on the daily journey to school in Fenny Compton. The mums are not best pleased.

“I cannot put my four-year-old on the bus at 8.20am to get to school at 9am without an adult assistant,” says one. “I want to know the driver is concentrating on the roads rather than a child who is ill, upset or quarrelling.

“I will have to drive him, which is bad for the environment, for Fenny Compton in terms of traffic and for Jack’s independence.”

Local parish councillor Val Ingram asked: “Who will make sure the children do up their seat belts, or remember to take their lunches and bags with them?”

The council's decision to end bus escorts, which is expected to realise savings of about £700,000 a year by 2017, is part of a plan to save money – a plan that will also see bus passes going up in price. Four of Warwickshire's primary schools lost their bus escorts in September last year and seven more, including this one, are due to end this month.

So, none of us are immune from the government's cuts after all and we really are, as the Prime Minister once claimed, 'in it together'. Well, no. I'm a parent myself and can understand and sympathise with this group of worried and angry mums. But if you'd forgive me for sounding just a tad uncharitable, at least these mums have cars, whereas people in much less wealthy areas – as well as the elderly and the young – often don't.

What is interesting, though, is that this area is very much the epitome of the Tory shires, and I'm prepared to bet that those who did vote Tory at the last general election didn't think they were voting for cuts that would effect them quite so forcibly.

The Conservatives currently hold a sizeable majority on Warwickshire County Council – but I suspect there could be a number of councillors sleeping a lot less easy in their beds ahead of the next local elections on 4 May.

Restoration Refused for 'Historic' Wooden Bus Stop

When is a bus shelter not a bus shelter? Well, when it's a piece of local history, that's when.

At least, that what one former resident of the leafy village of Kingsbury, Warwickshire thinks. She's been kicking up a fuss about the removal of what she describes as an 'historic wooden bus shelter' in the village.

The shelter, which indeed is made of wood, was built during the 1950's and is now the only wooden shelter in the village, the others having been progressively replaced over the years with shiny new metal and perspex ones.

Now, rot and vandalism has finally caught up with the last remaining wooden shelter and it too is set to be replaced. All of which has come as a bit of a shock to former resident Lisa Hartle, who grew up in the village and says she is "disgusted" at the council's decision to demolish the shelter when she'd offered to help raise money to restore it.

"It's not just a bus shelter, it's a part of the village's history," she says. “It is a bit of history and culture that is being lost."

Yet despite emails to Kingsbury Parish Council begging them to give her time to "raise the necessary amount to have the parts replaced or a replica made", the council voted for demolition and replacement with a new shelter exactly matching the one on the opposite side of the road, with a transparent plastic rear panel.

Lisa is clearly upset. "It is such a lovely bus shelter, and so fitting for a village as opposed to the green metal type at the other end of the village," she says.

"I do not even live there and I was prepared to raise money to save the shelter.”

The council were not unsympathetic and even offered to make a grant of £100 to help with repairs. But it was in an advanced state of decomposition.

“The four main posts were absolutely rotted," claimed one councillor.

"When we went to see the shelter, one of the problems raised was that children misbehave in it. A plastic window would deter that.

"It is a much-loved shelter, but I really think it has come to the end of its days.

"It's very sad."

Sad, yes. But whether their bus shelters are modern or historic, at least they still have buses stopping at them. I suspect that's more than some people living in rural areas could say.

Friday, 10 February 2012

More Financial Worry For Passengers

I've come across three more examples of how funding cuts to Britain's public transport are causing worry and hardship.

In Cumbria, pensioners are claiming they are being 'ripped off 'by Cumbria County Council after they brought in a £10 charge for replacing a lost concessionary bus pass. The council introduced the charge after it took over responsibility for pass applications from borough and district councils last year.

Local councils used to charge only £5 for replacing lost or damaged cards, though in practice they often waived the charge completely.

Cumbria County Council defended its decision to introduced a £10 replacement charge by saying that £5 of it covers the administration of issuing a new card and its delivery, whilst the other £5 covers the overheads involved in issuing the replacement pass. Err.. isn't that the same thing?

They also reckon that a £10 charge will discourage fraudulent use. However, local pensioners suggest that it might discourage any use, as £10 is a fair old chunk out your weekly pension.

Meanwhile, and also in the North West, the member of parliament for Bolton North East David Crausby tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to retain the concessionary bus pass scheme for all pensioners.

He wanted to draw out a firm commitment from the government following a speech by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, in which he suggested that bus pass applications should be means-tested and that some pensioners should perhaps make a “sacrifice” to help the Government.

Supporters of the concessionary travel scheme believe that a system of means- testing would be pointless because of the expense of operating it would eat up any savings achieved by introducing it. Mr Crausby also reckons that excluding certain people from the scheme would be just the start.

“Once you set a threshold you encourage a ‘race to the bottom’, with increasing numbers of people excluded as time goes by,” he said “By limiting the scheme we could see it eliminated in years to come.”

The Transport for Greater Manchester Committee also plans to write to MPs to defend the concessionary bus pass scheme.

But it's not just the old who feel vulnerable. I've previously blogged about the effects that subsidy reductions, service cuts and fare increases can have on the young. So I was interested to find that one organisation was actually calling for bus fares to be reduced to help unemployed young people.

That was one of the initiatives contained in a report this week from the Commission on Youth Unemployment, which also asked if bus subsidies really gave value for money. Their report noted: “Local government spends large sums of public money on transport subsidies, and bus companies make significant profits partly based on these subsidies, but it is not clear to us that councils are getting maximum bang for the public buck.”

The Commission called for the Department for Transport, local authorities, bus companies and community transport organisations to agree deals which let councils give young people access to cheaper transport on condition that they are involved in education or work, or are looking for employment.

There is something of a theme developing here. I keep coming across stories like this all over the country, and time and again the principal complainants are either the young and the elderly. That's not surprising, given that these two sectors of the population rely on buses and other public transport the most. But its worrying that these two groups are also the least well represented in parliament.

Many now believe that the weight of evidence against the Government's austerity programme – that it is having a disproportionately damaging effect on those who are most vulnerable whilst leaving the affluent relatively unaffected – seems to be growing. The three stories above, plus the others I have blogged about over the past month, seem to lend weight to that argument.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Chinese Tourist Bus Attacked By Tigers

A driver in Chelmsford was attacked last week by two people armed with a handgun and knife, a cyclist committed a similar assault last year after getting angry with a driver for overtaking him, and groups of youths throw stones at passing buses with depressing regularity in some areas.

They are, thankfully, rare - but attacks on buses do happen.

But however bad it gets in Britain, it seems that driving a bus in China can be fraught with traumas of a wholly different order.

I learnt this week of a bus that was attacked in Shandong province not by restless natives and cash-hungry vagabonds… but by a pack of Bengal tigers.

The animals leapt on the bus and punctured its vehicles tyres, destroyed the windscreen and wipers, and broke other windows whilst the terrified passengers hid under their seats.

The incident took place in one of the enclosures at the Jinan Wildlife World but the driver was left helpless as the warden in charge of the enclosure was at lunch when the incident happened and it took officials 10 minutes to realise what was happening and open a gate so they could escape.

Terrified passengers tried desperately to summon help on mobiles phones which, they soon discovered, had no reception in the park.

Fortunately none of the 27 passengers were injured, but the driver's hand was hurt when the tigers jumped on the vehicle and broke the windscreen.

Apparently China has around 6,000 endangered tigers in captivity – compared to just 50 to 60 believed to be living in the wild. To conserve the species, China set up ‘tiger farms’ during the 1980’s with the intention of breeding them then releasing them into the wild.

However, the farms have recently come under the international scrutiny after conservation groups claimed that some were using the animals purely for their lucrative body parts for use in Chinese medicine.

Last year, a tour bus driver was mauled to death by a Siberian tiger at a breeding centre in the north eastern province of Heilongjiang after he got out of his bus to check on a mechanical problem.

Bus Shelters Boast The Sweet Smell Of… Potatoes?

Ever wondered what that smell was around your local bus shelter? Are you sure you want to know?

Well, if you live in York, Manchester, London, Nottingham and Glasgow then your bus shelter’s customary pong could soon be changing… to the alluring and mystifying scent of baked potatoes.

It’s all part of an elaborate advertising campaign which is taking the customary ‘adshel’ poster ad and making it part of a whole new multi-dimensional experience.

It’s all thanks to McCain Foods who have launched a series of adverts to promote their new McCain Ready Baked Jackets, but have taken the unusual step of adding an element of inter-activity to the whole thing.

Instead of just looking longingly at the poster, bus users will be able to press a button which will not only dispense a handy money-off voucher but also the subtle smell of slow oven-baked potatoes.

The bus shelter posters contain a hidden heating element which warms the 3D jacket potato on the poster and releases the scent when a button is pressed.

The company spent three months developing the baked potato smell with a specialist scent laboratory to ensure that it truly matched the scent of the real thing. And presumably another three months trying to fit a heating element to a bus shelter without causing the whole thing to burst into flames.

A spokesman for McCain Foods explained: "3D jacket potatoes will appear at bus shelters across York , Manchester , London , Nottingham and Glasgow to heat up the nation and set taste buds tingling, thanks to ground-breaking technology.

"When consumers press a button, a hidden heating element gently warms the potato and releases the mouth-watering aroma of a slow oven-baked jacket potato throughout the bus shelter."

Sound’s harmless enough. Unless…

If you are anything like me, then there is nothing quite as delicious as a baked potato after a night spent gently easing down the odd pint of beer. But think about this – you’re standing at a bus stop late at night, lightly topped up with ale and with a beer-induced hunger gently crawling up your throat. Suddenly, there is the gentle scent of freshly baked potatoes wafting all around you and absolutely nowhere to buy one... Hey, anybody fancy tearing this bus shelter apart to ease the frustration?

I hope McCain’s know what they’re doing…

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Bus Passengers Refuse Free Cash Hand-outs

Well, despite complaining about the ever-rising cost of bus fares, it seems that the majority of bus passengers will happily refuse the offer of free money.

In a unique -and, frankly, slightly bizarre - experiment, money was offered by attractive-looking women wearing sandwich boards that read "Ask me to pay your bus fare and I will" at bus stations in Newcastle, Medway, Manchester, Perth and Leicester - but they were mostly ignored by the public.

The experiment was run during the morning rush hour every day for a week, yet throughout the whole time only 38 people accepted their offer of free money. The company just couldn't give it away.

It seems that we, as a nation, are not very trusting. When questioned, those that did accept the cash admitted they were initially reluctant because they thought the offer was too good to be true. They were also mostly teenagers, suggesting that the older we get the more cynical we get.

Overall, more than two-thirds (69%) of travellers were too suspicious to accept offers of goodwill, saying that they felt rewards and freebies are often too good to be true. Only 23pc of people thought it was possible to get something for nothing. Bad news for the marketing executives, then.

The research was carried out on behalf of Ice, a loyalty scheme which rewards customers with Ice points for spending on eco-friendly goods and services. You can watch footage from the experiment in action in Manchester at: www.youtube.com/user/MyIceChannel/videos

It's a delightfully odd experiment which, if nothing else, demonstrates that you really can't take the travelling public for granted.

Transport Commissioner Slams into First Bus

Local press in Manchester have described what they call 'astonishing scenes' as the region's biggest bus operator First appeared before traffic commissioner Beverley Bell on Monday (6 February).

I'd previously blogged with the news that First Manchester had been summoned to appear before the commissioner after an investigation by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) last year into the company's time-keeping. You could sense that it was going to be difficult meeting.

But if a local reporter's version of the dialogue that took place at the hearing is accurate – and I have absolutely no reason to assume it isn't - then it would seem that the commissioner tore a row of hapless First directors to bits. I'm about to quote the interchanges just as they appeared in the Manchester Evening News, just to give you the full flavour of it all.

Firstly, 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 last year, and they discovered that some 26 per cent of those buses turned up either late or early.

As I explained last week, bus firms 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.

In mitigation, First explained that the company was operating in ‘difficult economic circumstances’ and they laid much of the blame for their poor time-keeping on roadworks. But this simply didn't wash with the commissioner.

“I don’t think I would be saying it’s difficult economic times if I made a profit of £14m,” she observed, pointedly.

“You are wasted in the bus industry. You should have gone into politics.”

Richard Soper, strategic development director north for First, admitted that services that were consistently unreliable would not survive. Ms Bell quickly - and forcibly - confirmed this.

“They damn well won’t survive,” she said. “Because I will take them off you.”

She asked the First directors when they thought action should be taken over late-running buses, and Mr Soper replied: “You should take action straight away.”

“That is a smooth answer, but it doesn’t answer my question,” retorted Ms Bell. “It is not a trick question. You’ve been running buses a very long time. You know you have a problem and when you haven’t. How long do you wait before you say we need to do something? You should be on Question Time, Mr Soper.”

He said: “It should be done in the shortest time. I am not trying to be evasive. 
I am trying to give you a straight answer.”

Asked why one particular service had not improved, the company's service delivery director Kenneth Poole, said: “They hadn’t got round to it.”

Ms Bell responsed: “So when I go out to get a bus, in the freezing fog, on my way to a doctor’s appointment, it is in the knowledge that First Group with £14m profits hasn’t got round to it.

“Were you not bothered about coming to a public inquiry and facing the wrath of the regulator? Don’t you think you should do something about it? This has been going on for a year. It is failing badly and you have done nothing about it.

“If you hadn’t got round to it when you are facing the regulator, when are you going to get round to it?”

The hearing was adjourned until March, no doubt much to First's relief. In the meantime, the company will be expected to produce a detailed schedule showing the punctuality of its services and a plan of action for dealing with those that were not on time. Ms Bell reckoned it should be more than sufficient time to get their act together, but I doubt if the directors at First will agree.

It's an astonishing show of force from a regional traffic commissioner who clearly is not to be messed with, but this is really quite serious for First. To begin with, they face fines of up to £550 per vehicle and given that they operate around 900 vehicles that is potentially a hefty fine by anyones standards.

Add to that the fact that the commissioner could indeed simply take away more than a quarter of the services they currently operate in Greater Manchester and, presumably, offer them to their rivals, you can see how their financial position could be seriously compromised.

I expect all the other bus operators under Ms Bell's purview will now be carefully scrutinising their own timesheets.

Interesting times in Manchester, then. Watch this space. In the meantime, you can read the full sorry tale as it appears in the Manchester Evening News right here: http://tinyurl.com/7ethkyk

Monday, 6 February 2012

Carlisle Bus Drivers 'The Safest In The Country'

A round of applause, if you please, for the Stagecoach drivers of Carlisle who this week were declared (albeit by their own company) to be the safest bus drivers in the country.

Stagecoach’s joyful revelation follows the introduction of a hi-tech driver-management system called GreenRoad, which means depot staff can now carefully monitor the performance and decision-making of all its drivers.

As well as giving bus drivers real-time feedback on their driving style, including speed, braking, acceleration, lane-handling and turning, the system records potentially risky manoeuvres like harsh braking or rapid acceleration, as well as other data about the way the vehicle is being driven.

The system was rolled out by Stagecoach bosses last year and when they checked the national figures they found that drivers at the company’s Carlisle depot were the best, with an average ‘event rate’ of 0.8 per hour – which means a risky manoeuvre was carried out on average 0.8 times every 60 minutes.

Now, call me picky but as a passenger I’d be perfectly happy with a risky manoeuvre rate of 0.0 times every 60 minutes. I don’t want to be part of a risky manoeuvre at all. To know that I can expect one at least every hour and fifteen minutes is scarcely reassuring.

Still, it seems to have pleased Stagecoach, which does makes you wonder what their other drivers must be like. White knuckle ride, anyone?

“I’m delighted that our drivers are displaying such high-quality driving skills through the use of this new technology,” said Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire managing director Nigel Winter.

“By driving more efficiently, we can reduce the amount of fuel we use which leads to environmental benefits as well as even more comfortable journeys for our customers.”

And saves you lots of money, of course. You forgot to mention that.

Seriously, though, GreenRoad is actually quite a cool system. It encourages drivers to stay within a so-called ‘green driving zone’ with the aid of dashboard-mounted lights, with the best drivers achieving a score closest to zero. Drivers need to score an average of less than two points an hour over every 10-hour block of driving to gain green points which they can then convert into bonus payments.

It's reckoned that bad driving decisions are responsible for up to 33 per cent of fuel usage, so anything which is aimed at improving driving standards by getting drivers to make better decisions about braking and accelerating could deliver real economies.

So, good news all round, then. Not sure how well this would work in London , though. The Old Kent Road alone must have a risky manoeuvre rate of several thousand per hour…

How To Get Arrested in a Bus Station Toilet

It's been said that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. To this I can now add that a little democracy can be equally perilous, too

Rail transport consultant (and fellow Twitter-er) Vernon Baseley of York has drawn my attention to the democracy website FixMyTransport.com and a request by them aimed directly at people who get angry about the condition of public toilets in bus and railway stations.

"We want to find the worst station loos in GB. Send us a photo," they said, which Vernon reckoned might be the worst ever competition to be launched in the UK. I wouldn't disagree. I mean, would you want to be on the judging panel of that one...?

They've got a point, though. Some of the public toilets it's been my own misfortune to encounter whilst waiting for a bus or train have been not far short of scandalous. Foul, faintly dangerous, dank and little more than enclosed open sewers, if that's not a contradiction in terms. The people at FixMyTransport.com have definitely touched a nerve.

And FixMyTransport isn't run by some mad geezer in his bedroom, neither. It is run by mySociety, which operates a number of well-known democracy and transparency websites in the UK - TheyWorkForYou, for example, as well as the Number 10 petition website.

However, I'm not sure if they have quite thought this one through.

I have absolutely nothing against FixMyTransport. They seem genuinely successful in sorting out the sort of public transport problems which really irritate people – things like persistently broken ticket machines, buses that always leave early, or silly rules that do nothing but inconvenience the traveller. Their website is designed specifically to help people to take positive action to counter and correct the problem.


I blogged recently about a man in Northern Ireland who had been locked up as a potential terrorist because he was caught taking photos of army vehicles going in and out of an army base. His solicitor described him as "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", but they still locked him up.

I also said at the time that I'd heard numerous cases of bus enthusiasts and other people innocently taking photos of buses being questioned – hassled, even - by the police.

So – consider, if you will, what you might say to a bus station inspector who had just stumbled upon you loitering in the public toilets... with a camera.

Did you feel that shiver just then? Yeh. Me too.

Look, it's fine to complain about dirty toilets, it's fine to write letters to your MP and your local paper about them, is even OK to go on local radio late at night and rant on drunkenly about the inconvenience of public conveniences. I suppose it's even OK to barricade them with like-minded militants, if you feel that strongly about it.

But please, please don't get caught lurking in the gents with a camera, because it's entirely possible that people just might misunderstand what you're trying to do.

Of course, you might feel totally fine about taking photographs of complete strangers with their todgers hanging out. And then uploading them to the internet. But however just and convincing your argument might sound to you now, believe me it will not sound nearly as convincing in front of that jury...

No Takers for Cambridge Minibus Scheme

Cambridgeshire County Council's attempt to find an alternative to the expensively-subsidised rural bus service appears to have gone off the road a bit.

More to the point, and excuse me while I use yet another bus-related analogy, the whole scheme has hardly left the garage.

It turns out that the first of what is meant to be a series of demand-responsive community minibus schemes in fact only carried just one passenger in its first month of operation - though to be fair that one person did account for three journeys.

It is an inauspicious start for a community minibus service which is meant to be the first of three pilot Local Link services, with the other two yet to get underway.

Not surprisingly, people from different sides of the political divide (even though their national leaders are meant to be in coalition) have been quick criticise. The transport spokeswoman for the Lib Democrats, who are in opposition, rounded on the Council's leaders. “The Conservatives claim their new project will be a model of efficiency, but in seven weeks it has transported one passenger at a cost of £120,000,” she fumes.

“The project has not been thought through: a year ago, the administration saw bus subsidies as an easy way of clawing back money to bolster finances. Council leaders didn’t want empty buses running round the county – and now they have used taxpayers’ money to buy new minibuses which are standing empty.”

Ian Bates, the council’s cabinet member for growth and planning, describes the scheme, with mild understatement ,as 'disappointing'.

“We have already learnt a lot from what we have done in Duxford. In particular, we need to be clearer on how we work with the local communities to scope new services.

“That said, it is disappointing how it has worked out and we need to look for future schemes to be better.”

I've no doubt the bus companies who were previously running the subsidised services which were replaced by the minibus scheme will be happy tell the council that it probably should have left the whole thing to the experts in the first place.

Still, at least the council is saving money on diesel.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

First Manchester to Face Transport Commissioner on Time-keeping

Local media in Manchester have reported that local operator First Manchester is being called before the region's traffic commissioner after an investigation by officers from the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) into the punctuality of their services last year.

I understand that senior managers for First, which is Greater Manchester’s biggest bus firm, will appear before the region’s traffic commissioner, Beverley Bell, at her office in Wigan on Monday.

Bus firms are required to ensure that 95 per cent of their services are no more than one minute early or five minutes late. If First are found to have missed this punctuality target, they could face a fine. Section 155 of the Transport Act 2000 allows a traffic commissioner to impose a fine of up to £550 per vehicle on firms that fail to hit the 95 per cent target.

Around 100million passengers a year are carried on First Manchester's 900 buses, which operate around 300 bus routes and cover about 35million miles a year

First are remaining fairly tight-lipped about Monday's meeting but confirmed that First were attending the Traffic Commissioner’s office on Monday and would be discussing “... factors affecting the punctuality of some of our buses in Manchester some 12 months ago.”

Coun Roger Jones, a vice-chairman of the Transport for Greater Manchester Committee, seemed to confirm that time-keeping may have been something of an issue in the past. “We have asked First to improve their reliability because the public are making too many complaints about services not keeping to their timetable,” he told reporters.

It remains to be seen what the outcome off First's meeting with the Traffic Commissioner will be. But if they receive a substantial fine then it will probably only put more pressure of the company to recoup their losses by raising fares. It already announced in January this year that it was intending to increase fares by an average of six per cent because of increases in costs.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Aberdeen Council Considers the Lothian Question

It sometimes pays to think the unthinkable – and councillors in the granite city of Aberdeen have certainly been doing that.

Impressed by the almost universal praise they hear for Edinburgh's Council-owned Lothian Buses, the good burghers of Aberdeen have been encouraged to consider the possibility of forming their very own municipal bus company.

The idea was planted in councillors heads during a debate which touched on the concerns many people felt about the rising bus fares in the city. Lothian Buses, which is supported by Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian Councils, is widely regarded as one of the UK's leading bus companies – at least in Aberdeen, anyway.

So, they pondered, why can't we have a municipal bus company, too. “If Edinburgh can do it,” remarked Council leader Callum McCaig, “I don't see why we can't”.

Ignoring the uncomfortable truth about how much it would actually cost to set up a municipal undertaking in today's economic climate, it's likely that at least one local organisation would probably oppose the move.

In case you didn't know, Aberdeen is the home of one of the UK's – and the world's – biggest bus company's – First Group. I doubt they'd be in favour.

Wonder how much First would consider for a buy-out...?

Bus Cuts 'Comparable To Beeching', says Tory Councillor

It seems that cuts to bus services are a bit like buses themselves. You wait for one to come along and....

I said a few days ago that we could expect more tales of anguish around proposed cuts to bus services. And sure enough, I came across no less than three more examples today.

In one of the most colourful descriptions I've heard so far, one local Tory councillor in South Somerset has compared proposed cuts to rural bus subsidies to the Beeching railway cuts of the 1960's.

Somerset County Council needs to reduce its public transport budget by approximately £1.5 million in April and is considering cutting a number of routes to achieve the savings. But it's a situation which has prompted the councillor to issue a warning about how the cuts might affect not just subsidised services but previously profitable bus services, too.

"The cuts to more rural routes could make the rest of the network unprofitable like the Beeching cuts did with railway lines,” warns Councillor Sue Osborne. "I don't know if the council realise the black hole they are opening up.”

A Lib Dem colleague of hers is also angry and is happy to break the party line to prove it.

"I am going against the Conservative county council but I was elected to represent the people of this ward and they want these services to stay,” says Kim Turner, Liberal Democrat councillor for Ilminster.

"I will work with anyone, regardless of political party, to best serve my ward."

Meanwhile, in a response typical of today's internet-savvy teenagers, one annoyed teenager in Leicester has gone to the trouble of setting up an internet group to protest at the bus services in his city and county.

Bruce Astill, 19, said he launched Protest Against Poor Services in Leicester because buses have been unreliable for a long time.

His online group is aimed at getting people to share stories about their worst experiences of using buses in Leicester and Leicestershire and has so far attracted more than 640 members since he launched it just over a month ago. An online petition he has started has so far been signed by 37 people.

It seems a fitting response, as young people are just as vulnerable as the elderly to fare increases and service cuts. In fact, Bruce's younger counterparts seem to be firmly in the sights of his Conservative-controlled county council who have announced their intentions to axe subsidies for school buses for students aged 16 and over, as well as those attending faith schools.

The council also wants to scrap free travel for disabled passengers before 9.30am and for both the over-60s and disabled people after 11pm from Monday to Friday. And it doesn't end there. The county council is also planning to withdraw transport vouchers worth £33 a year for residents with disabilities who cannot use conventional buses, and for residents who live over 800 metres from an hourly bus service.

Leicestershire County Council has said that these cuts would contribute some £1.3m a year towards the £74m savings it needs to make over the coming four years.

Mind you, I'm not sure that will come as any great relief to their residents...

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

National Express Reject Thousands for Driver Jobs

It appears that West Midlands bus operator National Express West Midlands might be pickier than most when it comes to selecting drivers for their buses.

Its been revealed that thousands of people who applied to drive West Midlands buses have been turned away by the company simply because of they have points on their driving licences.

Out of about 4,500 applicants last year, National Express apparently took on less than 10% and the company is carrying scores of driver vacancies as a result. And just to make things worse, they lost another 170 of their current drivers to retirement.

The company blames the failure rate on applicants having points on their licence, and this is where National Express West Midlands appears to diverge from the practices of other bus operators.

The bus industry standard is to accept drivers who have three points on their licence – the sort of penalty you can expect for one minor speeding offence – but no more. Not National Express, however - they don't allow anyone to pass the interview if they have any points.

The company also makes applicants undergo strict literacy and numeracy tests, and some applicants fail those as well.

Only those who pass all the tests and have a clean licence to show get through to become trainees who are then put through their paces at the company’s Walsall training centre. Then its more theory, more tests and more careful assessment before they are allowed out onto the road – and only then with a trained mentor.

But then National Express West Midlands aren't unique in demanding high standards from their drivers. I blogged last month about London-based bus company Abellio flying all the way to Poland to recruit drivers for their London buses because they couldn't find any which quite made the grade in Britain. At the time, I assumed it was because Polish drivers might be less demanding than British drivers – or cheaper, in other words – but perhaps that's not the case. Perhaps British drivers have just spent too long playing Grand Theft Auto for their own good.

At one time, people assumed that driving a bus was a dead easy, unskilled job. It's clearly not.