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Since 2015 Transport Focus has carried out a wealth of research with road users to find out what they want when travelling on motorways and major ‘A’ roads. Covering a broad range of subjects such as experiences of smart motorways, road surface quality and tunnels, this has made a number of recommendations to influence positive change for users.
The Incidents and roadworks – a road user perspective research has provided a timely contribution that has helped encourage change that benefits thousands of drivers. Changing policies and procedures takes time, so it’s refreshing to see our recommendations being implemented on various routes around the country.
Take for example speed limits through roadworks. Transport Focus called for speed limits to be set no lower than is necessary to ensure safety, rather than a blanket 50mph regardless of what was happening. Roads are dangerous – for roadworkers and drivers alike, and often for reasons that may not be immediately obvious – and in some locations lower limits are needed. However, where there are significant stretches without a risk to roadworkers, for instance if there aren’t any there, then higher speed limits should be considered. That’s exactly what road users now find when travelling through the smart motorway roadworks between junctions 18 and 19 of the M6 in Cheshire.
This is a significant step, and one that will benefit road users. The speed limit has increased on one section of roadworks from 50mph to 60mph. This is where Highways England is now testing the signs and other equipment before full opening later this year, and fewer roadworkers are physically on the ground. As more of the scheme goes into the testing and commissioning phase then more sections will get an increase in speed limits. Transport Focus has also told Highways England that more needs to be done now to explain why there are different speed limits, so that drivers appreciate why some sections still need a 50mph limit.
Transport Focus continues to press Highways England to implement all of its recommendations as quickly as possible, so road users feel the benefit, as on the M6.
So, it’s encouraging to learn West Midlands Combined Authority has decided on more visible enforcement by bringing in specific byelaws dealing with this issue on the buses. This change will ensure rules for bus travel move into line with rail and tram. This should make it easier to enforce and deter poor behaviour on the bus network.
The Transport Focus national Bus Passenger Survey 2018 will be published in March and will include results for Scotland. It’s expected to show broadly good levels of satisfaction (with some very good!) but it’s a survey of those who are using the bus… or who have a bus to use.
We all know the bus network has contracted and bus ridership is under pressure in some parts of the country – congestion, among other factors, is slowly pushing more passengers into making different decisions about how they get around or travel at all.
However, it is not all gloom. There are some really great examples of investment, great bus services and really passenger-focused initiatives from around the country. Yet local authorities and the bus industry seem institutionally incapable of getting the message out about these successes.
Basic facts about the industry (that you would expect I could have at my fingertips) are hard to come by: accessible buses, fleet age, levels of contactless use, investment levels and other key statistics are buried. Maybe competition works against the industry here, but the time has long come to get the good messages out!
So, I am really pleased to be chairing a session at the forthcoming UK Bus Summit on Wednesday 6 February. This will look at how to remove the barriers to getting more passengers on the bus. There is a great panel: councillor Liam Robinson, chair of Merseytravel; Giles Fearnley, managing director at Bus FirstGroup; Pete Ferguson, chief executive at Prospective and Pete Bond, director of integrated network services, Transport for West Midlands / West Midlands Combined Authority.
Come and take part in this important debate on 6 February at the UK Bus Summit!
It is very rarely that, at a stroke, passengers lives are improved, but here we have another great example.
All off-peak tickets have time restrictions for when they can be used in the mornings – allegedly to avoid crowding on commuter trains, but also to help boost revenue on longer distance services. Many train companies also impose restrictions on when off-peak tickets can be used for the return part of the journey, as well as the outward part.
This causes immense frustration to anyone trying to get better value for money, or more flexible travel in the evening peaks. Passengers must dash for an earlier train or hang around waiting for the restrictions to lift.
So it’s really good news to hear that Great Northern has lifted afternoon/early evening peak restrictions on off-peak tickets on services to Cambridge and Peterborough. The increased capacity afforded by new and/or longer trains has no doubt helped.
Great Northern has joined Virgin in this type of move – Virgin’s easing of restrictions on off-peak tickets during the week has also helped thousands of passengers – see my previous blog on this.
So, come on train companies – you don’t need to wait for more fundamental fares reform to drive this change; more can be done now! Lift those restrictions and see passengers smile!
And make sure the more generous conditions are explained clearly to all. Regardless of how someone buys their ticket.
Last week the Oxford Bus Company made a very interesting new pitch: ‘make one promise’. This is built around fare cuts to support people taking the bus ‘to help ease congestion and pollution in the county’.
A really good example was highlighted in the publicity material – the City 5 service now takes 88 minutes to do the round trip from the railway station to Blackbird Leys – in 2012 it took 72 minutes. Congestion is making operating bus services less and less viable. The Transport Focus Bus Passenger Survey confirms that slower services (due to issues like congestion) are sapping satisfaction with waiting times and punctuality in many parts of the country and with journey times in others, such as Oxfordshire.
So, will car drivers respond? During years of work Transport Focus has seen that everyone will make transport choices based around the four ‘C’s’ – choice, cost, convenience and control. At different times and on different journeys we make different choices. Work done some years ago on rail passengers and the environment was brief. Environmental issues helped validate choice but did not drive choices. Most passengers were unaware if their train was electric or diesel. If the car made sense, then people take the car.
Transport Focus firmly believes in improving the quality of all transport modes so people simply have better journeys and lives. People will choose bus, train or tram because it is the best consumer choice, rarely because of an environmental concern. Usage of the on-demand service in Oxford based around the Pickmeup App seems to confirm this. For some it’s a cheaper taxi. For others it’s a better bus. Either way they are responding to the price, convenience, choice and control it offers.
So will things be different in Oxford? Maybe it has a local population that is more susceptible to these messages…but there are always lots of cars around when I go there, so I am not sure that is true. However, the price cuts up to January 26th may prove more tempting.
For example, the CityZone 12 trip ticket is down £3 to £12. Park & Ride 12 trips now £12 down from £14.50. South Oxfordshire Zone 12 trips reduced from £21 to £18.
Simply put, too many bus journeys are either too expensive or too inconvenient to take due to the slow speed of travel. An electric bus stuck in a traffic jam is still a bus going nowhere! The Government and local authorities must take the opportunity offered by a need to tackle quality issues, but the services must work for consumers.
Otherwise people will find other ways to travel or simply stay put.
As passengers huddle on platforms today waiting for their first trains of 2019 they might be wondering why rail fares continue their seemingly inexorable rise? The increases are also higher than they initially look as the outdated Retail Price Index measure is used to calculate regulated fare rises, rather than the more relevant and widely used Consumer Price Index measure.
The factors that drive up prices seem clear on first glance. The costs of labour, materials and fuel go up. There is a lot of investment taking place – some very visible in re-built stations such as London Bridge, but more much less visible in track and signals which should boost reliability and capacity.
However, the amount of fares revenue flowing into the industry now tops £10bn a year. Passenger numbers and revenue have started to pick up again. Government investment continues to pour in. Surely all this investment must start to produce a more reliable, better value for money railway? When is the tipping point where new technology and more reliable equipment start to drive costs down and the heat is taken out of fare rises? Or, is the historic backlog of work so big that point will never be reached?
As part of our role representing users of the Strategic Road Network, Transport Focus now does a lot of work with the road freight industry. A simpler industry in some ways, yes, but you cannot but help see that the combination of fierce competition and very demanding customers (delivering in a one hour time slot to a city centre supermarket is no mean feat!) drive measurable improvements. Technology is constantly deployed and uprated to reduce costs and help the environment. The industrial relations debate is not about resisting automation, but helping to ensure that new, higher quality jobs are created. Maybe there is something to learn from this.
The rail industry must be seen to be more than the sum of its parts. The industry must produce better value for money for the passenger and the taxpayer. The continual rise in costs must be capped somehow, at some point.
All this is what makes the Government’s Rail Review (including looking at fares and ticketing) so important. We need ticketing that matches the way we live and travel now. Part time season tickets. Filling those empty off-peak seats. Contactless, capped fares in urban areas – the spread of smart systems like Oyster across the South East must continue across the network and proceed at a much faster pace. We value simplicity in all areas of our lives, so why not travel as well?
Passenger anger during the summer timetable crisis was palpable and understandable. Passenger irritation at the dribble of poor performance erodes their most basic trust in the industry. Passenger frustration at the continual rise in fares saps confidence in the system to reform itself.
One of the eternal mysteries of the festive season is the roads getting busier as rail travel slackens off. This drives sensible behaviour – every year Highways England ‘lifts’ roadworks to help the surge of traffic get through, while Network Rail’s ‘orange army’ descends on the quieter railway.
So, it is good to see Highways England picking up on one of the recommendations in our 2016 report on roadworks and incidents:
Some speed limits in roadworks have been raised, where it can be done safely (for both workers and drivers). It will be interesting to see the driver reaction to this. Raising the speed limit is only part of the issue – lanes need to be wide enough for such changes to feel safe.
Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the railway as January 2nd when the return to work approaches. We seem to have come a long way from the Finsbury Park queues of some years ago, but passengers will want to rely on the promise that the railway will be fully back up and running.
Some buses continue to run on Christmas Day and Boxing Day and across the festive period. There is a clear demand for travel that makes you think that, one year when all the engineering work has been done (!), rail might find it has more of a market at this time of year than it thinks.
As rail engineering works bite hard this year – yes, most of the network is open, but there is a lot going on which will deter rail travellers or push them to travel at a different time – coach is picking up the slack. National Express and Megabus are putting on an extra 150,000 seats during the holidays making coach a good choice if you need to get around.
Coach still strikes me a transport mode that just doesn’t get enough attention paid to it. Lots of potential for flexible, value for money travel that can really supplement and compete with rail.
Transport Focus is working with Highways England to get coach travel built into the planning stages of projects so provision is made for future growth in coach services. It is also working with Heathrow and the Department for Transport on access to airports, with a particular focus on why passengers do – or don’t – choose coach. Look at Stansted, with its vibrant coach market.
Me? I will be staying mainly around Tooting during the holidays. Enough commuting and travel done for one year!
In all the blizzard of publicity around rail fare rises it often gets forgotten that bus fares move around as well! Not tied to particular dates, the bus industry can adjust fares when it wants.
That said, it seems odd that First Group – among others – is raising bus fares on January 2, the day when rail fares rise. I understand some local authorities want to see all public transport fares change on same day, but I am not sure really that this is the best day to pick! Could there be a worst day to do this on? Or, with greater attention on the cost of rail fares, is it considered a good day to bury bad news for bus users?
It’s also interesting to note that ‘mobile’ ticket prices are frozen while cash (and contactless?) fares are going up. Not a dramatic difference – for example, a Manchester FirstDay ticket costs £4.80 if bought via the App but £5 from the driver. A weekly is £16 via mTickets and £17 from the driver. The ability to pay with contactless is also spreading fast. All good news as it reduces the barriers to travel, although I can’t help thinking contactless will gradually spread more widely given how well it works in London.
The pursuit of cheaper methods for collecting fares is clearly a rational thing for any bus provider to do. It also pushes passengers gently towards the more value for money tickets not currently available for rail passengers. First Group claims nearly one in five bus passengers are now using mobile ticketing, but there has been little noise around this with regards to social (and digital) exclusion – not all sections of the travelling public have equal access to a smart phone.
Transport Focus will cover this issue, among others, at our forthcoming series of seminars around the country following up on our research:
“We’re sorry to announce that the 14:02 TransPennine Express service to Newcastle is delayed by approximately 24 minutes… TransPennine Express apologises for the delay and the inconvenience caused”.
Automated announcements like this one heard recently at Manchester Victoria are ever present at stations across northern England. Sorry seems to be the hardest word? Well, not it seems if you program a computer to say it for you!
In thirty minutes at Manchester Victoria station on 19 November, a colleague noted 51 separate automated announcements in 30 minutes. Of these, 33 offered an apology for a delay or cancellation, nine announced the next train at a platform and eight warned passengers to keep hold of their ticket, not to smoke, to leave luggage unattended et cetera. Just one announcement was made by a real live human voice, announcing a platform alteration – shortly after the computer had made exactly the same announcement.
Is this formulaic and almost continuous droning what passengers want? Is it helpful, and can any organisation be truly sorry if it uses a computer rather than a human to say so?
What passengers tell us is clear: computers cannot be sorry. If you are genuinely sorry, get a human to say so. Our 2014 research Passenger information when trains are disrupted recommended “To increase trust and believability the industry should make live announcements during disruption, whether at stations or on trains, in particular avoiding automated apologies”.
Some train companies have made incremental improvements: with a tweak of the software Southeastern responded to passenger feedback and cut out the second apology “for the delay and inconvenience caused”. This change also means that non-essential messages are now supressed during disruption and that Southeastern can automatically announce when a train is expected to be delayed beyond the Delay Repay threshold of 30 minutes – a helpful reminder to passengers that they are entitled to claim compensation. The rest of the industry needs to emulate this good practice, for instance Northern could do this to promote awareness of the Delay Repay for delays of 15 minutes or more that takes effect from this Sunday.
It is right the industry apologises to passengers when things go wrong. However, passengers don’t really want apologies – even from a human – they want a service they can rely on. Right now that is not happening, especially across the north of England where ongoing delays and ‘short-forming’ mean overcrowding and discomfort for many.
Last month, Transport Focus held a board meeting in public in Manchester where the chief executive of Transport for the North and the managing directors of both Northern and TransPennine Express faced searching questions about problems across the region that continue to disrupt the lives of far too many rail passengers. Nobody was able to promise big improvements to punctuality and reliability in the foreseeable future, so it’s clear the industry has a long journey ahead to win back passengers’ trust.
Sorry seems to be everywhere you look at the moment. South Western Railway passengers may have seen a notice like this one below, offering apologies from Network Rail and South Western for the serious disruption caused by overrunning engineering work on 19 November. Others may have seen something similar referring to the most recent round of signal problems near Woking on 11 December.
Passengers across the rail network look forward to a time when they don’t hear the word “sorry” quite so often.