Friday, 23 April 2021

The Big Cat That's Got The Cream

 On Monday I had my first proper day out since November, and ventured up to North Norfolk to sample the two newest double decker buses in East Anglia. Kings Lynn based Lynx (it has only just dawned on me how clever that name is) have splashed out on two ADL E400MMC's for their flagship Coastliner route between Kings Lynn and Fakenham. Always happy to publicise new vehicles in our area, with the exception of Streetlites, I decided to go and try them out. With help from Lynx driver and good friend Sam Larke - yes, he who used to make my life a misery when running Norwich Buses blog - I was able to plan a return trip to Hunstanton which would enable me to travel on both of the new buses. Indeed, I had a good natter with Sam before nipping up to the car park roof at Kings Lynn bus station to take a few videos, including Sam leaving on his own departure to Hunstanton. He's turned out ok!

By this time the first of the new deckers had arrived, taking a break before following Sam an hour behind. I have to say it looks superb. 

So I boarded, and was greeted with that lovely new smell. The interior is good, with a smart moquette and an attractive and very comfortable seat design. Luggage rack downstairs and tables upstairs. USB and wireless charging is available with bell pushes on the rear of every seat.

Off we went, and I was hoping ADL had improved the ride of the E400 as much as they have the E200. It was ok - quiet, smooth and little body noise, although it being only their 3rd day in services there shouldn't have been. However, it didn't feel that solid and I finally thought of the right analogy for riding a new E400MMC. It's like watching your child perform. You know how much effort has gone in to the preparations, be it practice, rehearsal, training etc. The costume/outfit/strip is pristine, no other child looks better than yours yet you watch them with your stomach tied in knots, knowing that everything could fall apart at any moment - the wrong note, forgotten line, open goal missed, the fall off the beam etc and you'll end up mopping up a tearful and distraught child. I had that feeling on Monday. The presentation is superb, both inside and out. Everything is pleasing on the eye, yet you have that sickly feeling inside that one large pothole and everything will start falling apart and rattling like a 1930's football crowd. That is a shame, but I never had that feeling with Olympians, and I don't with Metrodeckers or BCI's. It is so frustrating that 95% of the bus is excellent, yet that missing 5% makes all the difference - the 'that'll do' attitude. I was talking to a manager the other day who was totally exasperated that the new MMC he took out for a test run had a cab door that rattled. What I really can't understand is how ADL seem ok with this and keep churning them out. Where's their pride in their product?

Anyhow I'll go back in a few months and hope to be proved wrong - at least the roads in North Norfolk are better than most. If I was being cynical I'd say it was due to the proximity to Sandringham but surely not! 

Sam had told me if everything was running to time I'd get the chance to film the two new buses together at the soon to be demolished Hunstanton bus station, and he was right. Never mind my niggles about the ride, they look magnificent. By time you read this both should have their vinyls applied so to get the all red one before vinyls was good.

A word about the operator. Lynx are arguably the best operator for their size in East Anglia. Their buses, and staff, are always immaculately turned out, their network of routes is good, their fleet is good, and I would spend far more time over there if it wasn't for one thing. Even in my boyhood I wouldn't travel on routes operated by single deckers for fun, unless it was vital to link up with another route. If there was a way of getting where I wanted by double decker that is how I would go. It still is. Unless it's to review a new vehicle or unavoidable I don't like travelling by single decker - there are only a couple of decent seats on a single decker and they get taken quickly. One of the joys of double deckers is you see things you never see in a car, or single decker! The journey to Hunstanton and back on Monday was made so much more enjoyable because of the views - some of them stunning - from the top deck. I'll be back to do the full run to Fakenham, but only on a double decker, rattles or not! Nothing wrong with Tempos for commuting or shopping purposes, but for fun you cannot beat a top deck.

I also took the opportunity to see how the E400 Citys on First's Excel route were fearing, 14 months after their introduction. Well, the body noise was roughly what I expected, although there seemed to be a lot more coming up from the lower deck than there was on top. The CIS screens weren't working, neither was the WiFi, and the next stop announcement was spasmodic to say the least. The seats don't feel nearly as comfortable as they look, yet from the outside the buses still look seriously eye catching - an ADL trait!

Then to finish the day I travelled to Beccles on one of the predecessors of the E400 City on the Excel route, that are now plying their trade on the Coastlink X1/X2/22 services. Again they look great, but the buses are really showing their age (all of 8 years) and 33814 was drowning out its own engine in body noise. But it was a double decker, and on a glorious day like Monday, sometimes the wonder of the views can drown out even ADL rattles!

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

National Bus Strategy - My Thoughts

 Hi everyone! Yes, still here, just had precious little to write about over the last 6 months. Not being allowed on public transport has its disadvantages when it's what you write about, and since everything is currently on hold until things pick up again, like everyone else I'm in a state of limbo. 

However, yesterday the long awaited National Bus Strategy was published by Her Majesty's Government, setting out how buses are going to recover, expand and progress over the coming years. You can download the document by clicking here.

Now you'll have to forgive me for being a tad sceptical about the whole thing - after all it's designed and published by the same people who have wielded the axe on thousands of bus services over the last decade and more, not to mention promised us 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 more police, no hard borders, the elderly not having to sell their homes to cover care costs and so much more. Even the title of the strategy - Bus Back Better - made me wonder what that exactly means, it's not even proper english! 

It starts by proclaiming how wonderful and important bus services are, how vital to rural communities and how buses must be instrumental in modal shift from cars. Stopped laughing yet? It goes on to say how Local Transport Authorities (you know - the ones starved of cash for years) need to form partnerships with operators to develop a bus network that everyone will not only want to use, but will also be so convenient they'll be able to use it for just about anything, from getting to and from work, to going out weekends and evenings. Night buses in towns, Sunday and evening services in rural locations connecting with trains to get people home. Through ticketing, multi-operator ticketing, flat fares, capped fares, cameras at bus stops for security, timetables and info at every bus stop (except those on "turn up and go" routes that will be so frequent "passengers won't need timetables", looking forward to those springing up in Suffolk), more bus lanes and priority systems, even more guided busways (sorry, Tim).

There's more - all competing operators on the same route must have the same route number and include all other operators in the timetable. Lord knows how that would affect routes like Borderbus. 146, that competes with First's 99 for a third of the route and the X2/X22 for the other two thirds. Of course it doesn't say who would have to change their route number - it seems the new LTA/Operator partnership would have to sort it out themselves.

And sort it out they must, because without a partnership there won't be any money. So any Council who doesn't form one of these partnerships will not be eligible for any of the £3b allocated to the project. That is rather scary, as there are some councils who see buses as way down the list of priorities. 

Other jewels in the crown are 4,000 carbon neutral buses, major trunk routes with feeder services linking communities to them - sure I've mentioned that before - more publicity for tourist routes and so on. All sounds wonderful, but let's take a look at what wasn't mentioned. 

Ask any operator, and they will tell you the most expensive part of their operation is the staff, particularly drivers. Not just wages, but uniforms, pensions, NI contributions, CPC renewals, H&S courses etc. There is also a national shortage of bus drivers. Nowhere in the document is driver recruitment mentioned. On top of that, outside of the major towns shiftwork on buses has all but died. Services operate 7 - 7 and so do most of the drivers. Bringing back evening and Sunday buses will necessitate a huge increase in the number of drivers, who will all need training etc. Will the cost of that be included in the £3b? DRT is mooted for rural locations, especially to connect with trains - looking forward to a driver being paid to sit in a minibus outside Saxmundham station to connect with the last train on a Sunday! Yes, that's the same DRT that has been tried and failed in many areas, and here in Suffolk was cut back to the point of being useless 4 years ago. 

There was also no mention of how, exactly, car drivers were to be lured from their cars onto buses apart from pretty buses with usb charging and comfortable seating, although at least that's an improvement on new trains. So how are you going to encourage Mrs Smith to leave her car at home on a freezing February morning and walk half a mile to the nearest bus stop? Not an easy task when Mrs Smith forks out £1200 a year on car insurance, quite possibly £160+ a year on excise duty, MOT and service costs and can go door to door in comfort, warmth, with her favourite music playing. Ironically, you have to start by making running a car cheaper. If you spend that much running a car you're going to use it, and justifiably so. Nothing in the document to tackle that little problem, and there really is no easy solution. But not many people spending that much on a car will want to spend - or be able to afford to spend - hundreds more a year on bus fares. I was looking forward to reading in the document about enterprising schemes such as incentives for employers to cover a percentage of bus fares for employees willing to leave their cars at home. DRT buses serving industrial estates was mentioned - yeah right! Sorry, Jim, we've got an extra couple of users tonight so your journey home will be half hour longer than usual...

When I was growing up going into town for a shopping trip was an exciting event. Big supermarkets were still a thing of the future so grocery shopping was done locally. You went into town for clothes, to go to the bank, buy a record and have lunch in a cafe. You only shopped for as much as you could carry home on the bus. That has all changed so what incentives are there to do your shopping by bus these days? Would it be that difficult for the Government to link up with supermarkets and offer free same day delivery for customers shopping by bus? Iceland (the store) offers a you shop we deliver service so why not the big supermarkets? Many people don't like home delivery because they can't choose products themselves, or especially with the elderly get confused with online ordering. Get the bus to the supermarket, shop at your leisure, have a coffee, get the bus home and we'll deliver your shopping to you. Sounds good doesn't it. 

I was also looking forward to seeing how LTA's would engage with their communities to encourage growth of bus ridership. Nothing. Not a thing. Is it rocket science to have a competition among local primary schools to design the bus livery for the route serving them? After all they are the customers of the future - get them involved with their bus service early on and they'll feel part of it - something that the savvi operators have already sussed and are doing. If a community feels something belongs to them they will support it, be it a shop, village hall, school or bus service. Think I've mentioned that before too!

So all in all I'm not brimming with excitement. It seems they want an Oyster style system everywhere without the franchising which is crucial to Oyster's operation. Mini oysters, covering local areas, but who will set the boundaries. Having said that, they are right in saying contactless will soon replace smartcards, so seamless boundaries could be possible, but still tough if you live close to a boundary and live in one area but work in another.

To achieve what is set out in the strategy will cost far, far more than the £3b allocated in infrastructure changes alone, before the cost of recruitment, new vehicles, marketing etc is taken into account - and who will be responsible for marketing/bus stop info etc? The operator, in which case on a shared route who is responsible, and what if the other operator suddenly changes times, or the LTA, in which case which budget will it come out of? 

To conclude here is a very local example of what needs to change if public transport use is going to not only return to pre Covid levels, but exceed them. My nearest biggish town is Lowestoft. It costs around 7 quid in petrol to get there and back, If I had a partner and they came with me it would still cost around 7 quid. If we went by public transport, well there's no bus to the station and DRT is no use here now, so that's £15 for a taxi. A return from Darsham to Lowestoft is £11.20, if we want to go to Aldi or Morrison's that's another £3 return on the bus, and we can only shop what we can carry. Train back to Darsham then another taxi home - total cost for me alone £44.20, for two of us £58.40. Compared to £7 quid in the car which I've already paid tax, insurance and maintenance costs on, not to mention the cost of buying the car in the first place. 

It isn't a case of just putting pretty buses on the road, it's changing the way society thinks, and there is nothing to tackle that in the strategy. The lack of response yesterday from the bus industry was noticeable, and even those that did respond were predictable and used the same language they would for any announcement promising £3b for the industry. 

That's enough from me, stay safe, hopefully we can all start using public transport again soon, and that in 5 years time I can look at this post and say wow I got that wrong!

Bus Back Better - someone was paid to come up with that!