Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Happy Birthday

Yesterday was a very important day - deregulation was 29 years old.

26th October 1986 was the day.  I'd love to say I remember it well but actually nothing much happened in my world.

I was a mere thirteen year old living in the sleepy Bedfordshire town of Shefford at the time.  I was certainly interested in Buses and just becoming a regular reader of BUSES magazine, so I was fascinated by all these stories about dramatic bus wars in other parts of the country, but in mid-Beds a kind of phoney war was underway.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The View Ahead

I caught up with the November issue of BUSES Magazine today.

In passing, I thoroughly enjoyed the article about how bus services are provided in Stockholm - of particular interest because I was in Sweden briefly earlier this summer, albeit in the very south of the country around Malmö and Helsingborg, and it's always fascinating to compare different approaches to service provision.  I might even write about that trip at some point.

However the best bit of the magazine was the 'Inside Track' article by Roger French.  Some people might know that I have the privilege of writing that column myself every three months, but in Roger and Julian Peddle I am flanked by two much more knowledgeable, experienced and lucid fellow columnists and I always go straight to their columns. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Introducing the Solar Road

Developments in technology are shaping every aspect of the transport world, but one application that hadn't even occurred to me as possible until today is this - the solar road.


Friday, 9 October 2015

Peak Performance

Exciting news today was the announcement that Peak Line 218 is a finalist for the Making Buses A Better Choice Award at the UK Bus Awards.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Time for Tees

It has been a long distance week for Luton Town fans.  A home win last Saturday was followed by a trip to Morecambe on Tuesday evening - rewarded by another win - and then an awayday at Hartlepool today.  Just a cool 800 miles or so of travelling.

To add a bit more interest, I decided to start my Hartlepool trip with an overnight stay in Middlesbrough and the chance to explore an area that I don't know well.  I have previously explored the delights of Redcar and Saltburn as well as the stunning North Yorkshire Moors, but the area north and west of the town was uncharted territory for me.

The most distinctive feature of Middlesbrough's transport scene is the Tees Transporter Bridge.  You really can't miss it - it dominates the skyline from all directions.

For the facts and figures about this very unusual piece of transport infrastructure, I can do no better than to refer you to Middlesbrough Council's very informative web page.  In operational terms, a framework running on rails across the top of the bridge is propelled backwards and forwards across the river, and a gondola suspended beneath carries cars and pedestrians.

It feels like a huge amount of civil engineering for something that can carry nine cars each way across the river every fifteen minutes or so.  Maybe that's why there aren't more of them around the world.  But that doesn't make it any less fun!

The bridge forms part of what might be called the 'old' road between Middlesbrough and Hartlepool.  These days most traffic thunders up and down the A19 so this is very much a minor route.  No doubt that's why the operating hours are pretty limited - no evening service at all and weekend crossings finish mid-afternoon on Saturdays with nothing on Sundays.

Nevertheless, with a capacity of only nine cars I was expecting it to be busy.  I needn't have worried.  I crossed from Middlesbrough at about 10.00 on a Saturday morning and I was the only car and passenger on the crossing.  Nobody at all was waiting to go back so it returned empty.  Doesn't bode well for its future I fear.

The low demand meant I had pole position at the front of the gondola as I waited for departure.

I was soon joined by the two members of staff - one to marshal the traffic and the other to drive.

Just as we were about to set off, a loud horn announced the arrival of an approaching ship, and the guys explained that the bridge gives way to ships.  They felt they could easily make it across before the ship reached us, but apparently once it has blasted its horn at us we are obliged to wait.

And wait.

And wait....

Eventually, the Heortnesse - a locally based dredger - made very sedate progress across the front of us and we were able to leave.

At this point I expected our driver (not sure that's the official term) to disappear into a cab bristling with levers and buttons and crank the gondola into action.  Instead, he stayed hanging over the rails and pressed a button on his chest.  Look at the guy in yellow in this picture.  The entire driving cab is on that little box hanging round his neck.

To be honest, I couldn't work out whether this was amazing or disappointing.  Technically of course it's hugely impressive to think that such a vast contraption can be controlled from such a tiny box.  But it does take away some of the sense of occasion!

The crew were actually very friendly and happy to indulge in conversation.  It turns out that many of their dramas would be familiar to bus drivers.  A car crossing costs £1.30 but the guy who collected the money told me that last Monday morning the first two car drivers gave him a £20 and £10 note.  I suppose bus drivers don't usually have to give way to dredgers.

Earlier in this post I described the bridge as fun.  It definitely is that and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience even if the morning murk meant there wasn't much to see.  But it seems that the council is finding enterprising ways to generate revenue from the bridge, and others see it as a source of fun in ways I would never have imagined...

I'll leave it to someone else to sample the bungee experience.

A short distance upstream is the Tees Newport Bridge.  I feel a bit sorry for this bridge.  If the Transporter Bridge weren't there it would probably attract rather more attention, but clearly size matters and the Transporter Bridge overshadows its smaller cousin.  The Newport Bridge can lift its main deck 37 metres in the air to allow ships to pass underneath - although it was last used in 1990 - and is architecturally distinctive in its own right.  So I drove over it twice to make it feel better.

After that I set off for a short tour of the region, but not before making a shocking discovery.

I don't know whether Teesside has air quality issues, but clearly if you want fresh air there's only one place you can go...

If I walked into the local hospital and said I couldn't breathe, I wonder whether a local doctor might respond, "sorry mate, there's not much call for breathing round here.  If you want that you'll have to go to Oxygen Corner".

Having caught my breath I headed for Durham Tees Valley Airport as I'd never been before, only to find that there were no flights due in or out and it was so foggy you couldn't see the runway or any taxiways in any case.  So I had a quick look round Stockton instead and then continued my tour with a drive round Billingham.

In Billingham, this block of flats caught my eye...

Now of course Birmingham is famous for its Rotunda, and as a student at Aston University in the early '90s the sight of the Rotunda from the train window was always the moment you knew you'd arrived in an important city.  Yet here is a similar architectural wonder, unknown and unloved beyond the Billingham city limits.

I feel sure they're missing a trick here.

It's easy to get from Birmingham to Billingham - you only have to change two letters - so now that the Birmingham Rotunda has been gentrified and modernised and absorbed into a new shopping development I reckon Billingham Tourist Board should advertise the 'Rotunda of the North' as a rival attraction.  I'm sure visitors would come flocking.

I love a nice bit of heavy industry.  You can't beat a good refinery or a power station to get the adrenaline flowing.  What they lack in natural beauty, they more than compensate in drama and occasion - as well of course as making a vital economic contribution - so my journey on to Hartlepool took in as much of Teesport and Seal Sands as I was able to see from the public roads which, with the fog still lingering, wasn't very much at all.  But very interesting nevertheless.

For a complete contrast my next stop was Seaton Carew, which I loved.  An old-fashioned seaside resort, featuring such attractions as the "Talk of the Town" amusement arcade, it enjoys miles of superbly attractive coastline and on a nicer day would be a terrific spot for a longer walk.

With time marching on however it was time to head to Hartlepool for the football.  As with Morecambe on Tuesday, this was a new ground for me and I was really looking forward to it.  It didn't disappoint - a very characterful ground with the fans close to the pitch and an excellent view of the action.

But the first treat came as the Luton team kindly and unexpectedly timed their arrival to coincide with my own.

Having noted that both goalkeepers were in the party, I had to sadly accept that there would be no vacancy on the subs bench so I wandered off to have a look round the town.  Clearly however my presence to welcome them must have proved an inspiration, as we dedicated travelling fans were treated to an outstanding (if slightly flattering) 4-1 away win.

I like Middlesbrough.  It is a town about which it is easy to hold preconceptions that might not be totally favourable, but it seems to me to have some life and personality about it.  And the Transporter Bridge is great fun if only for the fact that it is so over-engineered for the role that it actually performs.

Seaton Carew was a very nice surprise and Hartlepool was also quite a neat little town.

Wherever I went I was struck by how friendly people were, whether greeting me at my hotel, serving in shops or even driving a vast Transporter Bridge from a tiny pendant hung round the neck.

I look forward to my next visit!

Red Carpet Arrivals

In my post eulogising about the new Red Arrow coaches the other day, I mentioned the 'red carpet' marketing theme.  Sadly I'd forgotten to take a photograph of the way this theme is being applied to the coach rears.

Courtesy of Matt Harrison over at the superb TransportDesigned blog, here it is!

The 'red carpet' theme emerged as the result of a three hour brainstorming session at Best Impressions HQ in London back in August involving the trentbarton marketing team as well as the Best Impression team.

With a name like Red Arrow it's always tempting go for flying analogies, but our view was that we needed to emphasise the quality angle.  After all, research has shown that the brand is very well known among the target market, so it's not really a case of telling people what it is, as much as reminding them why they should use it.

The red carpet theme obviously draws analogies with VIP film premieres and such like, and opens up all sorts of film and theatre angles for future marketing projects.  Watch this space!

Or more specifically, this space...


Friday, 2 October 2015

Transport Shaker - qui est-ce?

Somewhere over on the right hand side of the screen (if you're looking at this on a desktop, which statistically you're probably not) you will see "My Blog List" features a French blog called Transport Shaker.

This is a blog written by a French consultancy, Solucom.  However, it's not the people that write it that interests me - I have no connection with them at all - it's the content.

They feature stories about innovative and exciting developments in the world of transport, with a particular emphasis on stuff that is a unusual, disruptive and off-the-wall, rather than the run-of-the-mill headline news stories that get reported right across the transport media.

Of course it's written in French, so unless you have a rudimentary knowledge of the language you might find it a bit frustrating, but it's well worth keeping an eye on even so.  The blog is very attractively presented and features lots of pictures and diagrams so it's often possible to get a sense of what a story is about even if you can't follow every word.

Sometimes either the blog itself or the equally interesting Twitter feed links to content in English, and this article offering some revolutionary ideas that could radically alter the experience of air travel is an example that particularly caught my eye today.

In general I feel we are too insular in this country and reluctant to look across the Channel for ideas and inspiration.  Yet there is a huge amount of innovation and excitement going on across the continent and especially in France at the moment, with giants such as Keolis and Transdev engaged in a supreme game of one-upmanship, continually upping the game with new and innovative projects.

Walking round the NEC this week, once I'd got over the excitement of the glorious Red Arrow coach, I was reminded that so much of what appears there each year is the same stuff that was there the year before, brought to you by the same old faces, and sometimes it is hard to find much that is truly exciting.  My previous visits to European trade shows such as Transports Publics and Busworld (which is the week after next by the way - see you there?) have been a real eye-opener, offering a wealth of new ideas, innovation and inspiration.  And yet a noticeable feature of both - especially Transports Publics - was the almost complete absence of UK delegates walking around.

So I make no apology for using this space to draw your attention to interesting material from around the world and Continental Europe in particular, and welcome any insights in return on things I may have missed.


New buses for TM Travel

It's not just trentbarton that has new toys to play with this week.

The exciting news at TM is that we have today received three new Optare Solos, for use on Line 6 in Sheffield.  With 37 seats they offer a good capacity in a tried and tested model.  The red moquette provides a warm and welcoming ambience, and indeed is now our 'standard' moquette, being gradually applied to vehicles when they have a need for retrim.  Indeed, seat trim enthusiasts may note that the Peak Line 218 buses have a moquette that is identical, just in blue.  The buses don't feature exicting gizmos such as USB and wi-fi because the average customer journey time is very short, but they are very smart and tidy and provide a very light, spacious environment for customers.


For those that care about such things, they are YJ65 EPC, EPD and EPE.  Notts & Derby are also taking one new Solo for University of Derby work, which I suspect will be EPF.

Since the relaunch of Sheffield's Line 30 with new Versas in early 2014, we have pursued a policy of identifying our key routes across the network with their own brand and colours.  Line 30 was followed by Rotherham's Line 31, Sheffield's Line 4, Peak Line 218 and latterly Spira.

I am occasionally asked why we do this, and why we don't just paint everything red.  The answer is quite straightforward.

The way the Partnership arrangements are developing in South Yorkshire mean that there is much greater emphasis on the overall public transport network, rather than individual operators' own networks.  The PTE rightly places a high value on network stability and giving customers access to the whole network, and as such the value of promoting the company brand diminishes.  Our portfolio of routes in Sheffield and Rotherham is quite disparate, and we are not really a network operator as such.  If you just looked at the TM Travel network in isolation, you would see lots of gaps.

Therefore, we perceive that it is more important for customers to be able to identify individual routes within the overall bus network rather than that a route is a TM Travel route as such.  Customers tend to like familiarity so if we can give them something that they recognise as being theirs, and to which they develop loyalty, that benefits them and it benefits us.

We have used orange, yellow, maroon, green and blue on various routes now, so when we discussed what colour to apply to the Line 6 buses when they were being ordered, the management team came up with purple.  I mention this because some scurrilous people might feel that the colour looks vaguely familiar, so I'm at pains to point out that the decision to go for purple wasn't mine.  Although that decision having been made, I might have influenced which shade to adopt....

The buses have come a little earlier than I was expecting, so we don't yet have the livery vinyls but they shouldn't be too far away.  One slight spanner in the works is that when we ordered the buses, Line 6 had a PVR of three (as it does now) hence why we have three buses.  However, the Sheffield network review has resulted in a welcome extension of the 6 from 1st November to Abbeydale Tesco via the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Hunters Bar and Carter Knowle Road.  This obviously increases the vehicle requirement so the route won't be run exclusively by new buses - we will have to repaint at least one existing Solo to complete the brand.

In other fleet news, we are in the process of restoring to service three MAN/Plaxton Centros 1197, 1199 and 1200 that have been seen in TM before and have wandered round the group looking for a loving home for a few years now.

MANs are an acquired taste but our Engineering Manager has a good track record of making them work in other places, and indeed is a brilliant investigative engineer who - when confronted with a troublesome bus - will stop at nothing until he identifies and cures the root of the problem.  I am therefore highly optimistic that we will make a success of these vehicles.

They are '08 registered, and with the three new Solos will make significant inroads into the non-DDA compliant W-reg Solos that need to leave the fleet by the end of the year, and in doing so will dramatically improve the fleet age profile.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Stealing the show

This beautiful beast was the centre of attention at Coach and Bus Live at the NEC today.

One of a fleet of nine acquired by trentbarton for the Red Arrow express Derby - Nottingham route.  This is a brand that has grown and grown over many years from a standing start, and now operates every ten minutes throughout the day with journeys into the early hours on Friday and Saturday nights, an incredible service level that stands as a tribute to the operating staff who operate it, the control and engineering staff who support it and the management team and directors who have invested in continual improvements in the fleet and service levels.

These coaches replace a mixed fleet of 2004 Scania/Irizar InterCentury and 2010 Scania/Irizar i4 and take the style and comfort of the brand to a new level.

In technical terms, these are Volvo B11R Plaxton Elites with 57 seats (or 55 plus a wheelchair).

For the comfort of customers they feature a Brusa seat of a kind normally used on touring coaches, incorporating fold-down seat-back tables which include a cup holder and even a slot to prop up one's tablet.

It has been my pleasure to work with trentbarton MD Jeff Counsell and his management team and the unparalleled creative team of Best Impressions, firstly to select the marque of coach to buy and secondly to specify the design.

The project to buy new coaches for Red Arrow was initiated before my involvement with trentbarton, with a decision made in principle around this time last year that 2015 would be the year for new coaches.

The existing coaches are very comfortable and smooth to ride on and have served the brand very well, but are now starting to show their age - especially the 2004 batch.  I don't have the figures to hand but I reckon those must have done over a million miles each since entering service, an incredible figure.

However, the challenge was to know what to buy to replace them.  Over last winter it was clear that there were times when we were struggling to carry the numbers of people wishing to travel with duplicate journeys often running at peak times.  A timetable change earlier this year which improved reliability has helped that somewhat by ensuring that coaches don't bunch and the interval between journeys is about right - especially for those waiting at QMC for example - but even so it was clear that more, rather than less, capacity was needed.  And of course since it's a brand that trades on quality, this capacity could not be provided at the expense of comfort.

The need for wheelchair access is of course a given, but again care was needed to ensure that the wheelchair could be accommodated in a way that was not detrimental to the journey quality for either the wheelchair user or other passengers and again without compromising too much on capacity.

A number of different types of 12 metre coach were tried, with varying degrees of success, and indeed some very good ones among them.  But none quite ticked all the boxes.  Either they weren't right mechanically, or they didn't have enough capacity, or they simply lacked the 'wow' factor that a brand like Red Arrow commands.

We got quite excited by the possibility of an 'interdeck' design, of a kind offered by Van Hool or in the form of the Plaxton Elite i in widespread use with Megabus, or Go-Ahead on their X90 Oxford - London route for example, .  This concept places the seats on a higher level than a conventional coach so that they occupy the full length of the coach, coming forward of the driver, but with only luggage space below without room for a conventional lower deck.

We felt that these would really turn heads and provide a stunning advert for the brand, as well as providing a highly attractive customer environment.  For a long time the interdeck concept seemed to be the way we'd go.

However, on a visit to Oxford to sample the Go-Ahead Elite i, we were stood in Gloucester Green Bus Station when a 14 metre Elite operated by Stagecoach rolled in on their X5 Cambridge - Oxford route.  The driver kindly allowed us to have a look round.  We were immediately struck by the spacious entrance and indeed the sense of space throughout the saloon.

We then stumbled across a major problem with the interdecks.  On both the Plaxton and Van Hool designs, the wheelchair position was right next to the driver at the front downstairs.  This posed a number of issues.  Firstly, it's hardly a very dignified experience for the wheelchair user, being isolated from the rest of the customers and having to sit awkwardly alongside the driver.  Secondly, even with no wheelchair present the support framework was positioned right where we would want a customer to be able to stand to interact with the driver and buy tickets.

As much of trentbarton's success hinges on the relationship between the driver and the customers, it was not really acceptable to have to work round this obstacle placed right where the customers would want to stand.

It's a different proposition on a longer distance express service where the ticketing is often taken care of at the kerbside, so there is nothing at all wrong with the concept, it just wasn't right for Red Arrow.  Finally, the low height of the bottom deck meant that taller customers would have to stoop to enter the vehicle, which again is hardly conducive to the kind of welcome we would wish to project.

Not only did the entrance to the conventional Elite strike as as much more spacious and welcoming, the ingenious wheelchair lift hidden behind the steps meant that a wheelchair passenger could be accommodated within the saloon on the same level as the rest of the passengers.

So the decision was made to proceed with nine Plaxton Elites, which meant it was time to start thinking about how they should look.

A number of visits to the Plaxton factory at Scarborough gave us the opportunity to specify the coaches to a high level of detail.  Volvo and Plaxton have been hugely accommodating in meeting our requirements and given my own limitations as an interior designer, the presence of Ray Stenning to provide the creative input always ensured that the coaches would look and feel stylish.

One decision we did make at an early stage was to include one less row of seats than is theoretically possible.  We sampled a 61 seat vehicle that was perfectly comfortable but for a long-legged passenger such as myself just felt slightly constrained, so with Plaxton's help we were able to redesign the interior to accommodate 57 seats - still an increase in capacity over the present coaches, but with noticeably more legroom.

We also tried a number of different seats from various manufacturers.  The Brusa seat struck us as offering a very high quality, luxurious appearance and comfortable shape, while also being robust and hard-wearing.  We rejected at least one seat that was very comfortable but had a higher back because we didn't want to unnecessarily limit people's ability to see forward.

A highly attractive feature of the Brusa seat is that seat-back table.  Research of existing Red Arrow customers was that they like the fixed tables on the existing coaches, but that they weren't a critical factor in people's decision to use Red Arrow and they would only sit at a table if one happened to be vacant, rather than actively looking for them.  We there felt that a better solution was to give everyone a smaller table that they could use if they wanted, and that tablet groove was a real winner for me.  Needless to say I forgot to take a photograph of it today, so you can take my word for it.

There is always a lively debate between the merits of leather and moquette for the seat coverings.  Some people argue that leather looks and feels to be of a higher quality.  Others - including me - argue that a moquette is more comfortable, less slippery and creates a warmer, more welcoming ambience.  However, Ray Stenning introduced us to a third possibility - a flat weave such as that typically used on car seats.

This retains the warm, welcoming ambience of a moquette while having a higher quality appearance and feel, much more akin to people's private cars.  We were happy to follow Ray's advice and we are absolutely delighted with the end product.  We think it is one of the first times a flat weave finish has been used on a seat used on regular scheduled bus services in the UK (as opposed to touring coaches) and we look forward to seeing customers' reactions.

Ray designed a wonderfully co-ordinated interior, mixing the bright red seat pattern with darker reds on the seat wings, headrests and luggage racks, and including such detail as red gangway lighting, which looks superb.  Existing Red Arrow coaches feature neutral colours such as grey and black and we wanted these new coaches to be bolder and noticeably different while retaining a quality feel, and Ray responded superbly to the requirement.  His attention to detail is incredible, even to the point of applying a leather finish to all the armrests for example.

The next crucial piece in the jigsaw was the livery, for which again Best Impressions came up trumps.  The livery went through several iterations in the design stage and there were some lively debates about the merits of various schemes.  But one of the nice things about working with trentbarton and indeed with Best Impressions is that everyone is totally focussed on getting the best possible end result, so it is perfectly possible to have heated discussions and robust exchanges of opinion, but all in a totally constructive spirit because we know we are all contributing to creating a better product.  The final livery is very much the result of that process and is all the better for it.

The final stage will be to introduce the new coaches to the drivers, engineers and general public.  There will be a number of launch events over the next few weeks, and we have already started to get the marketing messages out there.  Once again, I forgot to take a photo of the rear in all the excitement today, but much of the marketing will adopt a 'red carpet' theme to signify both high quality and a sense of arrival and this is reflected in the coach rear designs.

The new coaches are due to enter service on 25th October, and I can't wait to see them out there, turning heads and attracting new generations of users to Red Arrow.