Tuesday 24 July 2018

Just Give Us A Ruddy Timetable

I was intending to ride the Yu-Tong electric single decker currently on loan to Reading Buses today, but not even my insanity lets me ride for hours on buses in London in temperatures of 90 degrees plus, so that trip was postponed. Instead, as someone once said, now for something completely different...

Cue the Hovis music - eh up when I were't lad etc - I used to lay on the floor, surrounded by timetables, planning my days out. No complicated websites wanting to know your location, only showing you times from where you leave and where you're going to - never mind if you want to know how it gets there. Or demanding to be allowed to send you "exciting offers and news" or bombarding you with stuff you just don't want to know. Quickly checking up on a bus time is almost impossible these days. It seems I'm not alone in thinking this.

One of the people I've been able to get to know through this blog is Roger French OBE, former MD of Brighton & Hove, which he reigned supreme over for 25 years. Now he spends his (very happy) retirement travelling the length and breath of the UK enjoying and commenting on public transport. He is one of the most respected people in the industry, and he just happens to be a bloody nice bloke too. Going under his trade name of Bus and Train User he has also started his own brilliant blog, which is linked to in the sidebar, but you can see by clicking here. Last week Roger posted on the desire of some operators to be seen to be embracing modern technology but forgetting the basics, such as simple timetables and route maps. I liked the post so much I asked Roger if I could reproduce the post here, and I'm delighted he said yes.

It's pleasing when respected members of the industry like Roger think along the same channels as myself, so enjoy his post, and I'm sure he'll be interested in any comments. Thanks, Roger!

Open data? Let’s get the basics right first.

We want a mobility ecosystem that delivers seamless intermodal transportation faster, cheaper, cleaner, more responsive and safer than today. This will be enabled by open data on fares and journeys across all modes – data that is available to everyone to access, use and share’.

No, they’re not my words; it’s the “putting passengers first” vision spearheading the DfT’s grand Bus Open Data consultation launched at four roadshows around the country over the last couple of weeks. I just hope this latest craze for all things open and techy is going to be a lot easier to understand than that gobbledegook of a vision the two consultants, Deloitte and ODI, have cobbled together with DfT mandarins. It might sound good to wordsmiths, but it’s totally meaningless to me. They might want a ‘mobility ecosystem delivering seamless internal transportation’; I just want a bus map that shows me where all the buses go and easy access to timetables.

In the old days you could pick up a bus timetable which would include lovely clear maps making it easy to work out how to get from A to B and maybe wander on to C too. There’d even be town plans showing bus stop locations and information about market days and other stuff. In the not-so-old days you could go online and find all that information even easier. Now vast bus map deserts are opening up across the country making it impossible to work out where buses go. London, Kent, Dorset, Somerset, North Yorkshire… the bus map desert list is getting ever larger. How ironic at a time when Open Data has become the latest fad!

Those ever helpful timetable books are getting more and more hard to find too. I spotted Conwy Council still produce a lovely clear and helpful book so as I’m planning a few days in that lovely county next week I gave the public transport team there a ring and asked if they could send me one in the post. They weren’t sure if they could do that; nor whether they had any available. “They’re like gold dust” I was told on the phone, “everyone wants one but we only produce a few now”. Agggghhhhhhhhh! (I’m pleased to say one arrived in the post yesterday. Gold dust definitely).
Everyone uses journey planners these days, I’m told. Well, that might work fine if you know there’s a bus from your A to your B and you have a pretty good idea approximately how often it runs; but what if you don’t know anything? What if you’ve just moved into a new area? What if you’re wanting to be helpful to an environmentally friendly mobility ecosystem and take a car-free holiday using public transport for a week (having been convinced by Catch the Bus Week and all that)?

Using a Journey Planner in such circumstances is like a game of Battleships. Try square B7 – has that hit a battleship or a cruiser? No, neither; you need square C6 for that, which if you’d had a map showing where they all were, would have been obvious.

And come on guys, journey planners are totally robotic in their travel advice. Take my plans tomorrow. One of the routes I’m catching is split due to the ridiculous bureaucratic 50Km rule; it’s not actually split, just technically split, so Traveline thinks it’s two separate services instead of one through bus, and because the ‘connection time’ between the ‘two’ journeys at the split point is too tight it insists I need to catch a bus half an hour earlier to change on to the one I could have got at the technical ‘connection point’. A human being reading a timetable can work that out; a journey planner following pre-set algorithms can’t.

There’s a classic in the Scottish Highlands where a once a day connection leaves Lairg station four minutes after one of the four a day trains arrives. Our helpful journey planner reckons such a seamless modal transfer needs more than four minutes so ignores it, instead insisting you have to make a two day adventure of a journey, yet there’s a footnote on the timetable that buses will wait for late running trains!

But my biggest beef about journey planners is this. Suppose an infrequent bus departs at 8.50am and then at 11.30am. You optimistically put in your origin and destination and a desired start time of 9am. Assuming you’ve managed to pair up precisely the correct originating bus stop from a menu which can stretch to many alternative options (and the same with the destination) then it’ll tell you the only option available is a departure at 11.30am rather than suggesting starting out just 10 minutes earlier. You’re denied that option.

It’s the greatest irony to see techy people salivating at the idea of soaking up data on bus fares and real time journey planners to develop Apps we never knew we needed when the basic rudiments of maps are being ditched by local authorities. Some bus companies are just as bad, by either not producing network maps or burying them so deep on their websites it’s like that illusive one square submarine yet to be found on the grid.

But hang on a minute. What on earth has happened to get us to the point where the DfT are employing consultants to carry out a massive consultation with hackathons, live streamings and all the techy gizmos you can muster so that I, as a customer, can work out what the fare is for my journey. Err, shouldn’t commercially orientated bus companies in a competitive travel marketplace be telling me the great value prices on offer anyway? Why do we need legislation and regulation for what should be one of the basic propositions of selling a product? Frankly the industry needs to hold its head in shame that for far too long it’s made information about prices and ticket options opaque at best and non existent at worse. It’s like we’ve not grown up from the days when the Road Service Licence conditions pre 1986 stipulated every bus driver or conductor must carry a fare table for inspection by the passenger on demand. (It was usually kept hidden away in their bag although London’s buses always displayed a fare chart on an RM  or RT for the particular route the capital’s restrictive operating practices designated it to be operating on that day). That requirement disappeared in the mists of time so bus companies breathed a sigh of relief and decided the best thing was to pretty much forget about telling anyone about fares information at all. Even in those areas where you are required to have the correct fare with no change; and there’s a fare box. And it’s not a flat fare. Glasgow – I’m looking at you (as I recall my no-change fare of £1.88 for a journey in that city; unhelpfully it needs one of each coin, admittedly some time back now!)

Mind you, I’m not convinced clever Apps developed in all-night pizza-eating Hackathon sessions in geeky-novetly-warehouse type settings which tell me all the fare options, day tickets, capping, weekly variants et al for my journey will make an iota of difference to modal shift. Unless pricing is made a whole lot simpler and attractive as part of the purchase offer the reverse may happen. “Blimey, now I’ve got all this information through the Holy Grail of Open Data, I never knew it was all so complicated. I’ll stick with the car. So much easier. You just fill up every so often and it’s one price.”

The DfT’s grand consultation has a second strand to it; and that’s Accessible Information. ‘Talking Buses’ to use the more colloquial term. In her forward to the consultation document the Minister says “I think every passenger, regardless of where they travel in Great Britain should be able to do so confident they have boarded the correct vehicle and are travelling to the right place”.

Well, hear hear to that. But hang on, why are we having to consider regulating bus companies to be doing something that is just so basic and should have been done as standard many years ago when the technology first became available. It’s not as though it’s expensive in the overall scheme of buying a bus which is going to last for the best part of 15 years and maybe more.  Instead we’ve had boasts about virtually impossible to log-on to WiFi provision, faux leather seats that aren’t any more comfortable and splashes of silver or gold in the external livery from most Groups but a complete block on spending a couple of grand or so on something that really is useful and welcomed by all passengers as the Minister observes.

She continues “with Regulations which focus on the information needs of passengers rather than the means of providing it, I believe we can encourage the change which is so desperately needed”. Commercial bus companies – change desperately needed by passengers – information needs ………………… Regulations.

What a terrible indictment of a so called commercial industry which aspires to entrepreneurial freedom and baulks at regulation and franchising that we need Government to regulate for something passengers “desperately need” (and she’s right, us passengers do desperately need it …. and maps too please!).



  1. Isn't it the fear of "giving out information which is helpful to competitors"? Which is why fare information can't be found (except for smaller operators who publish their fare tables along with their timetables). Presumably they don't fear the competition.

    Perhaps the office wallahs, who don't get out much, obviously; have trouble telling the difference between competitors and passengers? I do see a few maps though, as well as timetables, and quite enjoy spotting the errors! Perhaps they have trouble with reading, too?

    As well as the obvious one that bus companies can't put information at bus stops because they're not their property. The law of trespass has a lot to answer for, apparently; though it never used to! It doesn't seem to cause any problems for our traveling friends though, or car users!

    But Steve, I seriously worry about you sometimes: whoever told you that the transport industry "aspire to entrepreneurial freedom"? That one had me in stitches!!!

    1. Not my words, old bean, but Roger's!!! All words from headline down are his!

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  2. Andrew Kleissner25 July 2018 at 08:26

    I know I go on a lot about CardiffBus. But their information is excellent. On their website there are easily navigable pages for each route, complete with maps, full timetables and fare information; there is an interactive map of the city with every stop shown, complete with live departure information; there is what looks like a sensible journey planner. They respond quickly to email enquiries, sometimes within minutes. They have just launched a new phone app (including tickets) which I haven't used, but a lot of folk use it. They have a dedicated, staffed information point at the Central Library with maps (available at other libraries too) and, I think, season ticket sales. It's all pretty good (although what they don't tell you are other operators' services). Might all this have anything to do with the fact that the company is still owned by the Council?

    1. Probably! But how easy is it to get information if you don't have access to the internet, as many older people still don't?

    2. Quite possibly.

      But I think it may be more to do with history. I'm often amazed how little things seem to change, despite all the noise. It seems hard to acquire customer service if you've never had it and, fortunately, harder to lose it altogether.

      First in Essex do promptly publish good "leaflets" on their website with timetables (including the supported evening extensions even when provided by others)and route maps, and (even though a bit out of date) comprehensive maps (with stops) showing fare zone information. I assume they're also available in their two still-functioning shops. And it appears that sister company Eastern Counties are now doing so too, athough I'm not sure they used to. Generally it seems to be one thing First are getting better at. Go to neighbours like Arriva/Stagecoach and it seems to depend on the depot! Some do, when they used to in NBC days, and others it seems never have!

      Now if only they could work out a way to run the timetabled buses . . . But it requires more than a keyboard! Either fitting the resources to the timetables or, more likely, the other way around! Beware the technology though: we got contactless and lost tracking! Still a bit hit and miss a couple of months on. As ever with First, everything takes an age.

  3. Andrew Kleissner25 July 2018 at 13:33

    To answer Steve's question (and a made a typo in my original comment): printed timetables are available at the central library information point (and, I think, at other libraries too though I'm not sure). Departure lists of all services (including other operators) are posted at all stops, with basic maps at some. Some services changed last Sunday but the new timetables went up a couple of days early on our local stop. I suppose you can't do them all on a single Saturday night!

  4. In general I haven't found a website that gives me the timetables I require without a few swear words having to be used . It is even worse if you attempt to use a mobile phone to gleen the required information . With rail times I only use the National Rail Enquiries site as TOC sites never manage to do what they say on the tin . I asked at a Greater Anglia station for an East Midlands printed timetable a few weeks ago , although EM services stop at the station no times are available . The reason is they no longer print timetable leaflets . Also the First Eastern Counties website with the grouping of services can have various timetables hidden from general view . Unfortunately joined up thinking is a thing of the passed .

  5. You often have a "critique" of Go-Ahead, but out of the big 5, they are the only ones who I've seen across the country have timetables on their buses.

    First in Norwich has colour coded buses, so why can't they have the corresponding timetables on their buses? They can't even use the excuse that they don't know which route the buses will be on.

    I know Konect have timetables on their buses for the route the bus usually does plus timetables for connections I.e. buses doing 3/6 will also have timetables for 11.

    1. Totally agree about First, but it's no good having timetables on buses if they are as rare as a hen's tooth off them. People want to know the times of the bus BEFORE they get on it, not after. Apart from Norwich Bus Station where else can you pick up a Konect timetable if you don't have access to the internet/Are they in local libraries, newsagents, holiday parks etc? If not why not!

  6. Indeed they do (outside of Norwich centre anyway). The local/ independent shops in Watton/ Dereham/ Wymondham have them - they are the places I've seen them anyway.

    I also know that they are more than willing to post them if you call them (contact them any other way also, but this way without the internet).

    Also I know that Konect drivers have to carry them with them also. Therefore if somebody asks a driver on the street or on the bus, they can get them.

    I'm not saying they are the best, it's just what I know. I know Sanders are also good at having them in local shops too.

  7. It makes you wonder if the cost and hassle of the route branding in Norwich is really worth it . Perhaps making journey information available should be higher up the list .

    1. It is quite costly and less flexible as they have to try to keep buses to a particular route. The same end could be achieved by cheaper vinyl's

      Go ahead are even worse with each business unit having its own livery

  8. Arriva have confirmed that they will be closing Garston Bus Garage

    It seems very strange that a large town such as Watford will have no bus garage. It can only be a further step in the rapid decline of bus services outside of London

    1. Garston has recently been a "funny" garage serving both tfl franchised routes and a smaller number of local routes. And urban locations as with all businesses have to face the competing pressure of housing need. Who wants to live with a bus garage on their doorstep? I tend to prefer living creatures that adapt and anticipate to the barely-often living fossils!

      I like the Arriva SE apparent business model. They limit what they do, but seem to then try to do it well. As far as I can see it serves them well. in East Herts/West Essex they are returning to underserved areas they formerly abandoned, where the independents could not make a go of it. Bully for them.

      So a "further step in the rapid decline of services outside London"? Hertforshire has to my mind a good network, not least thanks to an activist Council. It doesn't have a monopolistic major operator though. So it depends where, and how you look at it; I suppose.

    2. And, as far as I recall Garston shares its inter-urban routes with other local garages notably Hemel Hempstead (less than 10 miles away) and Luton. It has few town routes, simply due to geography. I think we've rightly given up on formulaic business models, like painting-by-numbers.

  9. Paper timetables are fine when the timetables stay the same, but when they change often how do you know you're using the lastest? And that's the problem: "fings ain't wot they used to be" in any walk of life. Sorry, we can't turn the clock back, however hard we wish. We could help though if we know an elderly person who is struggling by printing a timetable for them. As indeed with helping them on or off the bus. Why do we always have to leave it to someone else?

    Similarly if we move from our mythical old person into the real world, I suspect that more elderly and disabled people worry if their bus will turn up at all, or when; or whether they will have the assistance they need to board or alight. Trying to address reliability is why timetables change so frequently, very often.

    And that's the problem, the world is complex (and always has been, however selective our memory). The complaints haven't changed, either.

    We can all have a bee in our bonnet. It doesn't make it right, or the whole story. I'm as guilty of that one as the next person!

    In the modern world if you want business you need to entertain people. That's what the branding is about. It isn't an alternative to accessible timetables, but a supplement. You need both to capture the different segments of the market. You won't get anywhere if you don't get noticed.

  10. Part 2: If we focus on rural buses, I suspect that part of the reason they are rare is the resources taken in the efforts to improve the poor performance of many urban routes, and their correspondingly low income. Not as low as the rural routes admittely, though, but that is poor comfort. The urban and interurban routes are where the companies make their money, and they need to make money to spend it. The only exception is us pensioners, and don't we know it!

    I mentioned earlier in the thread that we have new developments with dedicated bus routes, fast and frequent seven day services into the late evening into town, with new buses, free 12 month season tickets pp and timetables delivered to every household. Yet for most of the day, the buses run empty, even 12 months on once the routes are established. Come on then all you clever clogs, what else are we supposed to do?

    Compare that incidentally to the old service running through established areas, with dilapidated buses, unreliable services, miserable staff who have to put up with it all, and heavily congested, but with much higher patronage; buses (even packed) with passengers all the day, and a frequent timetabled service (and with both hard and soft copy timetables freely available, for both services).

    If the companies don't get the patronage on urban routes, they certainly can't afford to invest in the rural ones, and even less so when the income is the local authority fees for concessions, which hardly cover costs, if they do at all.

    I live in a street barely 100 yards from a quarter-hourly bus service. Of 22 houses, all but 4 are retired. Number of them regularly using (or ever using) the bus: 1 (no, not me; well very occasionally). When I once had a discussion with my neighbour, who with his wife each has a large jeep-style vehicle, they explained "we need it for golf". What, at Sainsbury's (on the bus route)? They must have a facility I never realised they had!

    We've put up car park charges. All it did was "drive" people to go further afield, even with the cost and delays or to go shopping "out of town". That doesn't help the car-less. There's been an embargo on creating additional car park spaces for public use, even as the town (sorry City) has expanded. It seems some of us will do anything to avoid using the bus.

    That's the problem the companies have to deal with every day. Perhaps we could help them? I suspect the issues go well beyond paper timetables and the type of ticket-machine, which seem to so obsess the enthusiast community though.

    A poster earlier suggested it's the difference between a metropolis and a (largish) town. I suspect it it. Perhaps it's why people moved out of the metropolis? It makes them feel good. That's the dragon we are all chasing. The bus companies have to pander to that sentiment, too.

    1. Bus companies in my view are failing totally to meet their customers needs so they stop using the services. Bus management is at an abysmally low standard as are most of the services. Many of the issues have been highlighted by the various posts here. The companies fail to carry our market research and fail to advertise and market their services. The days when bus companies had a captive market are long gone

      What we have now is endless retrenchment by the bus companies leading to fewer services and less reliable services as they try to operate them from bases several miles away. They are now pulling out of quite large towns such as Watford. Clacton and possibly even Harlow

    2. I dunno. We've had this discussion before.

      That is, I think, the problem. Are bus managements incompetent and don't care? No, I don't believe so; but if they don't communicate then, make no mistake, passengers will be left with that impression.

      This communication lark is difficult, no doubt. When I post I read the replies and it is quite clear that people are read something different from what I thought I wrote. Not their fault, but mine. i haven't got the hang of it yet. But that's no excuse for not trying; practice makes perfect. At least I hope so.

      From time to time I show my exasperation. I am only human after all, despite rumours to the contrary. But save for GreenLine (retired), all credit, no-one from the industry has ever bothered to respond. If it was my industry I'd be concerned my customers were thinking such things, and I'd want to reassure them. But it looks as though they don't bother to read what their customers are saying and couldn't care less. It's a conclusion I, and others, are entitled to make. In modern business if you don't communicate your message you might as well not bother, however hard you try, whether in Government or commerce. We act on what we believe. Demonstrated whenever I get into an argument with Steve!

      It tells me everything I need to know that after 12 months the new MD of first Essex hasn't bothered to update the bland temporary MD message on First's website. Clearly he doesn't care less about his Essex passengers, or he wouldn't ignore the opportunity to communicate with them, would he?

      I always remember an early poster put it so well on here "If [I believe] they don't care about their buses why should I care about them?". Exactly.

  11. Interesting. Times business (about the most reliable bit of the group) whilst reporting NatEx's excellent results reports the CE (an ex-First man) whilst commenting his board have put him under a prohibition notice from talking about a bid for the whole of First Bus is still saying they might be interested in some of First's bus operations.

    Just wondering if the East might be a good candidate - First reaffirmed yet again for the upteenth time their future investment is in the met operations? I believe NatEX have done a decent job with their bus ops in the West Midlands so may be a bit of synergy, used to operate the local rail franchise so they know the area, and by golly couldn't we do with some growth from a growing company? They might at least, being NatEx know how to run (even expand?) the Xcel/X1 and the X30???

    Who says buses are boring?

    1. Oh sorry, I've gone into the world of fantasy again! FEx are such a basket case that no-one could operate them as a viable enterprise, and NatEx certainly aren't stupid enough to try. The management effort required would be so much that the light would not be worth the candle. So anyone give me odds that the hapless Chelmsford network (sorry, I mean mess) will be the next domino to fall?

  12. Is it time that buses were consigned to history?

    This thread and its comments perhaps illustrate that trying to bring buses up to date is like a mission to resuscitate a corpse. Put "bus" into any internet search and what you'll come up with is people in armchairs, reminiscing. I suspect hardly any of them actually use the bus as day to day transport. In the same way OAP passes are mainly a benefit to those that have cars anyway. What a misuse of public funds, subsidising leisure for the rich! There are more worthwhile causes. They're not even spending their money, helping the economy (though if they did they'd probably be helping foreign economies rather than our own anyway).

    For people that need transport; the car-less, the disabled and young people, buses are just about the worst form of transport ever invented. Inflexible, bureaucratic and not customer friendly in the slightest. The wheelchair v pushchair argument that ended up in the Supreme Court, with no reolution, shows just how useless they are. Absent (or inaccessible) timetables, poor (or no) publicity and rotten management aren't a cause; they're a symptom of something that is well beyond its expiry date.

    Perhaps we should, for once, look at the future not at the past. What do we need? Transport that, as with everything else, is designed around the customer. Why should we have personalised services as the mission in everything, except the misnamed public transport; run for the benefit of the providers? Well-illustrated by the trains, which serve the management and the unions, not the public. Where were the public in the drawing up of "improved" timetables, or the arguments over the role of guards for that matter? Nowhere in sight.

    As public transport has declined, taxi services have grown. Why? Because they are what people want. They don't want to stand around for the bus that never comes. They have better things to do with their time (well most of them, anyway). So why should they, just because a few fanatics, who given the choice travel about in their own cars anyway, think they should? Perhaps Uber and the like is the future, and we should welcome and encourage it. Even support it. Money well-spent on something people want, for a change.

    When the answer to the problem of buses is more Regulation, we should know that we've gone off the tracks. People won't be told what to do. That was what the fall of communism was all about. We shouldn't be trying to reinvent it.

    Who knows, getting rid of the buses clogging up our streets might actually make for less congestion! People can exercise choice and travel to meet their needs, not someone else's. And we might choose to make less congestion, something the bureaucrats despite decades of "trying" have singularly failed to do.

  13. Did you run out of pills before collecting your prescription? Remove buses that can carry 70+ people to reduce congestion? I think you need a long lie down, mate - you've been thinking too much recently!

  14. Devil's advocate, mate! But what proportion of buses actually carry 70+, or even half that number of passengers?

  15. Yes look at the X2/22 buses with 70 plus seats and less than a dozen passengers on board between the peaks .

  16. Andrew Kleissner1 August 2018 at 14:33

    So what do you do?
    1. Not run at all off-peak (but what if some folk want to travel in one direction at those times?)

    2. Replace the off-peak buses with little ones (lower fuel costs but higher capital, maintenance and depreciation costs, and you're still paying a driver's wage. And what happens if a group of people arrives at a bus-stop unannounced?)

    3. Replace the off-peak service with Dial-a-Ride or a taxi service (the former hard to do, latter much more expensive for the user).

    4. Offer special cheap off-peak bus fares to entice passengers? (The increased number of journeys may not compensate for the lower income).

    These things aren't obvious!

  17. Well personal I'd say a bus every 15 minutes is very wasteful and is only to compete with Border Bus . Every have an hour off peak is enough .

    1. I don't know the details of of course . . . but neither the X2/X22 nor any other route for that matter exists in a vacuum. In any walk of life we have to be creative if we want to get anywhere.

      All the major bus companies have problems with running advertised services due to driver shortages and vehicle faults apart from the ubiquitous congestion; and, of course, Steve and others bemoan the lack of rural services. In that context, running urban and interurban services unnecessarily hot in the off-peak, may not help. Though perhaps it looks good on paper to the bean counters at HQ, and makes an easier life for the schedulers. Business is, and has to be, risk adverse, but why make it worse than it has to be? Much easier to blame someone or something else and offer some pat excuse. Why is competition such a bad thing, there used to be a saying that a problem shared is a problem halved? Not any more, apparently.

      But in a world dominated by a shortage of resources, maybe we can't afford an easy life? And buses wouldn't be the first or only industry, where ALL management could benefit from getting out on the ground regularly, and seeing what is actually going on! I know some of them do it, but what about the rest?

      And no, it isn't about control. There is as much crap in the public sector as in the private sector, if not more. The devil, as always, is in the detail. Which is why the temptation is to ignore it, always.

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