Monday, 30 November 2015

Cardiff in the rain

One of the more intriguing outbreaks of competition recently in the UK bus industry has been in Cardiff, where the large and growing independent NAT launched a new cross-city route X1 against incumbent Cardiff Bus in May 2015.

The new route was of particular note because NAT acquired ten brand new Optare MetroCity single deckers for its operation - a huge investment in such a speculative new project.  At the time, the Managing Director of NAT Kevyn Jones stated that the new project was a genuine attempt to grow the bus market in Cardiff by providing among other things quality vehicles, new cross-city links, a high frequency including on Sundays and a new link to the western retail area of Culverhouse Cross.

After Cardiff Bus got into rather a lot of trouble last time they tried to fend off competition, there was a great deal of interest in how they would respond to this challenge.  NAT then added further spice to the mixture with their infamous "ride me all day for £3" campaign promoting their day ticket.  And indeed most of the competitive sparring between them seems to have been around pricing and ticketing, with not much apparent sign of Cardiff Bus having made any network changes in response to the new offer.

Using the excuse of Luton Town's visit to Newport County as justification for a weekend in Wales, I braved gale force winds and torrential rain to sample the service today along with a couple of journeys on Cardiff Bus routes around the city.

The first point to note is the very attractive Sunday frequency.  With a 15 minute frequency during the week, for it only to drop to every 20 on Sundays is commendable indeed.  So having just missed the 1045 departure from Culverhouse Cross I didn't face too long a wait until the next one.  Interestingly, the bus for the 1105 was already present and shortly before we departed the 1103 arrival rolled in, with the bus that presumably forms the 1125 departure.  Assuming that such 'stepping back' is the norm, this is certainly a good way to achieve service reliability - especially on a cross-city route where there is no opportunity to take layover time in the city centre - but at a hefty cost.

All the more commendable was the fact that the driver let me board just after 1050, and indeed opened the doors to a few other passengers as the minutes passed.  So I was able to get warm, dry and comfortable and have a read of the timetable leaflet before we set off.  The driver seemed pleasant enough without necessarily being a star - although he was well in credit for letting his passengers aboard in such a timely fashion.

The bus was warm and comfortable.  I'm no expert when it comes to leather, but I'm not a massive fan of E-Leather.  In this case though it seemed quite inviting and comfortable, and the colourway worked quite well.  The cove panels contained some useful route maps, although the rest of the space was wasted, and the display on the back of the drivers' cab partition seemed a little underused.  But the leaflet rack was well stocked with timetables, and overall the impression was of a warm, inviting, modern interior.

One thing massively let down the interior however, which was the huge cross vinyl plastered across the window on both sides.  I have a big, big problem when operators show such disrespect to their customers by preventing them from looking out of the window, and for me it let down what was otherwise a very good first impression.

Departure was bang on time at 1105 and initially I was quite alarmed when we almost rammed a 4x4 off the road and then drove through a red light before we'd even left Culverhouse Cross.  But after a minute or two the driver remembered what the pedals and mirrors were for and the rest of the drive into the city was smooth, careful and progressive - a very good drive in fact - including waiting for time when we were a few minutes early at one point.

More encouragingly, by the time we arrived in the city the bus was more than half full.

I didn't have long in Cardiff but I wanted to sample a couple of Cardiff Bus vehicles just for the ride.  I think they are an extremely smart and well presented operator, and I have held them in high regard since my time in South Wales working for Stagecoach in 2000-2003, but amazingly I had never been on any of their buses.

While wandering round the city centre I was excited to spot a brand new Enviro 400 MMC - on which I know they've fitted a new design of lightweight seat - the Lazzerini 'Ethos' - initially pioneered in this country by Martijn Gilbert and the team at Reading Buses.  I'd had a sneak preview of the Reading seat at the Plaxton factory courtesy of Martijn while speccing the new Red Arrow coaches but hadn't sampled one in service.

Noticing that the bus was leaving on a 30 to Newport I resolved that I would find some food then take another bus out to meet it somewhere on its way back in.

I hadn't been to Cardiff for probably around ten years before today, and walking round I was really struck by the vibrancy of the city centre and the retail and food offer.  It definitely feels like a 'happening' energetic city, and once they sort out the building site in front of Central Station it will be even better.

Although I hope that when the hoardings are gone they find somewhere to hang this "queuing map", designed to deal with crowds after major events at the Millennium Stadium, but which is a work of art in itself.  I wonder how many rugby fans, staggering towards the station after an afternoon at the match with the beer flowing, really take the time to appreciate the creativity and devotion that has gone into this masterpiece.

In my view, the Mercedes Citaro is a class above any other bus currently available in the UK market.  Refined and smooth and incredibly quiet, it provides an ambience far removed from most other types.  It also shows off the Cardiff Bus colours and interior design extremely well.  I must admit, I find every aspect of their presentation and branding - not just on the vehicles but flowing also through the website and app and even the maps on the bus stops - extremely attractive, professional and welcoming.  The Citaro is a great canvas.

I can't like everything of course.  The exterior adverts spoil the livery, as the above picture shows.  Also I loathe with a passion the assault screens and exact fare boxes - both of which present an unwelcome face to boarding customers.  I'm sure there are good reasons why they have them, and in the case of fare collection I give them credit for making it easy to buy tickets via the app and PayPoint etc.  But the assault screens are such a barrier to good customer service, and if anyone wants to tell me that they are a necessity due to a small minority of unsavoury clientele, could they also please tell me why none of the shops I saw today felt the need to fit assault screens on their counter to place a barrier between staff and customers?

They've also taken to attaching this bizarre slogan to every flat surface - "we'll get you there".

Sorry guys but it's boring, generic and pointless.  For a transport company, "we'll get you there" is hardly an ambitious claim.  In fact it rather sounds like the minimum you'd expect from them, so quite why it's worth shouting about is beyond me.  How we'd laugh if we saw a shop proudly displaying a slogan in the front window, "we'll sell you stuff", yet here is its exact equivalent.  Cardiff Bus has some great people working there.  I know some of them - they might even read this.  Come on guys - you've got a really great product, you can do better than that!

And while you're there, please can you sort out your bus stops - some of them are looking decidedly careworn.

On a happier note, the Citaro driver was very friendly and jolly and she gave the impression of being genuinely pleased to see all of us, so no criticism there.

In due course, the Enviro loomed into view for the journey back into the city and I got to try the seats.

I'm no engineer but as I understand it the principle is that there is no foam involved and the cloth is wrapped directly around the seat frame, which is lightweight but designed for comfort.  This apparently has a measurable effect on fuel consumption, which is of course a laudable objective both for environmental and economic reasons.

The only trouble is I just don't find it comfortable.  I tried a few different seats just to ensure that I hadn't unwittingly chosen a bad example, but I found the back too upright, and the bit under my legs was unevenly contoured.

So I want to love it but I can't yet.  But I also understand that as with any new innovation it may take a bit of time and a few iterations of the design to get it exactly right and I applaud that likes of Cardiff and Reading for trying this stuff out.

Back in the city centre, and while waiting for my X1 back to Culverhouse Cross, all the positive impressions I'd previously gained of NAT from my ride into the city, could easily have been thrown in the bin when this absolute abomination passed by on the other side of the road:

How on earth are the poor customers supposed to see out?  Seriously, please, someone tell me?!  Given the many positive features of the X1 service it makes me so upset that they should show such complete contempt for their passengers in this way.

I can say that luckily my bus back was not like this, and in fact the female driver was absolutely superb - really warm and friendly, and showed incredible patience and kindness towards a passenger with clear mental health issues who became distressed and upset at the point when she needed to get off the bus, and moved the bus several times to make it easier for the passenger's travelling companions to coerce her to alight.  A real credit to the job and her company.

Overall, my perception of both NAT's X1 and the Cardiff Bus offer was extremely good.  There are detailed issues with both, but as those of us who live in glass houses know it is always easy to point out others' weaknesses, always acknowledging that we have plenty of our own.  In general, the citizens of Cardiff seem to have much they can be proud about with their bus services, and - subject only to NAT being willing willing to allow passengers to look out of the window - I would gladly recommend them both.   

South Wales is one of my favourite parts of the British Isles and I have been fortunate to spend two periods of my life there.  I spent three of the most enjoyable years of my career as Commercial Director for Stagecoach West and Wales, spending a large part of my time in Porth and Cwmbran.

They were the early days of the newly formed Welsh Assembly Government and there was a real sense of excitement about public transport in South Wales, and through strong partnerships and visionary thinking on all sides we were able to transform the quality of Stagecoach services throughout the Valleys.  Through numerous service initiatives we were able to reposition South Wales from the bottom to the top of the Stagecoach performance tables, and the group in turn supported us with newer and better quality vehicles, while the local authority consortia poured huge capital sums into new public transport facilities benefitting both bus and rail users.

But prior to that, between the ages of four and seven our family home was in Cowbridge, around ten miles west of Cardiff on the road to Bridgend.  I have fond memories of bus rides into Cardiff on red single deckers.  I've never quite worked out what they were, but the distinctive feature that I can remember was their curved rear windows, so if anyone can fill in the gaps for me please do so!  Now part of route X2, the service was today in the hands of First Cymru Optare Versas, branded for a complete different route in Porthcawl.

I did take a little trip out to Cowbridge, albeit not on the bus, and was impressed that I managed to drive straight to our old house in Clare Drive without looking at a map.  And here, for the record, is my old school, Y Bont Faen Primary:

Despite it being 35 years since we left, I remember vividly having a conversation with a dinner lady in the playground one day when I told her that we were moving away.  In my pedantic, earnest seven year old state of indignation, I was growing more and more frustrated that I couldn't get her to understand that we were moving to a small town in Bedfordshire called Shefford.  She wouldn't have it.  She was adamant that I was going to Sheffield.  Obviously more prophetic than I thought!


  1. A great blog as always Phil.

    I too had the experience of trying NAT out and I've been watching this operator with great interest. As you point out the investment was potentially risky and it seems it has paid off in the short-term at least and NAT should be applauded for thinking outside of the box. I understand they are doing a similar cross-city route for Newport.

    What did strike me is that Cardiff Bus have a great brand but NAT seem to rely heavily on Calibri typeface and everything appears a bit too DTP for my liking. I'm not suggesting they have the money to employ Mr Stenning but for me this would overcome a lot of issues. A good operator doesn't necessarily have a good marketing chap who has the eye of Best Impressions. Little things such as Sunday's with the greengrocer's apostrophe makes it seem more slapdash than Cardiff Bus which could afford the wrong impression.

    It's great to see someone doing something different but the experience these days is much more than a new, flashy bus. Everything has to be above the benchmark now and that isn't always a bad thing!

  2. Very thought provoking, thank you.

    I worry slightly that as an industry we sometimes judge the big operators by different standards to small operators (although in this case there can't be that much difference in size between NAT as a whole and Cardiff Bus) and because of this we allow small operators to get away with things that would be a matter of ridicule if perpetuated by larger companies.

    When I was running my own business I was always anxious to avoid falling into that trip and while particular aspects of the marketing might focus on the fact we were small, local and family run as a positive selling point, overall my view was and remains that there is a standard to which we must all aspire and that is the same regardless of size if we are to move our industry forward. I never had any time for fellow small operators making out that they should be viewed through rose tinted spectacles just because of their size.

    Certainly it is true that we can't all afford Best Impressions but that is only part of the solution, and there are ways of looking the part and being professional without laying out thousands on specialist designers. You don't need Best Impressions to tell you not to stick huge vinyls across the window for example.

    In a well-functioning market, I can see there is a case for an operator that has a clear view of its place at the 'value' end of the market to present a deliberately basic image, but that still has to be done in a professional way and I don't sense that this is the case here at all - it seems to me that NAT are trying to present themselves as a quality option and almost but not quite achieving it, but they have lots of the ingredients right and it wouldn't take much for them to really raise the bar. Especially if the competition thinks that "getting you there" is something to be proud of!

    1. I totally agree and it is fair to say that some smaller companies do execute branding better than some of the big boys. I've noted some horrendous schemes from First for example but some excellent examples from EYMS who do mostly everything in-house and deliver an almost timeless approach without sacrificing innovation.

      When I was following Velvet, that's the one thing that I could identify with was the balance between a local company but that wasn't to the detriment of the branding, vehicles or indeed the publicity. The website was beautifully turned out and I loved the cheeky image it portrayed and the use of social media long before the big four. Even now I think the Velvet approach is not matched by some whose Twitter staff don't fully understand what the customer is trying to say. How many times will a thread end with the passenger saying, "oh it doesn't matter" or less polite versions. The whole package has to be there I feel in this day and age.

      Vinyls and even contravision are both no-nos in my book. Buses are blessed with so much aluminium, you're not telling me that we really need our best advantage over the car - especially on a double decker! - covered up with a picture of something irrelevant. I do feel sometimes that the decision maker has never caught the bus as a customer which is where you benefit as you see things from the eye of the one who keeps you in business. A rare commodity these days in public transport.

      On a not completely separate note, I enjoyed your column in this month's Buses magazine and it does link in with the almost Tesco Value approach where AOT Coaches are competing against TrentBarton. Again AOT (awful acronym!) provide a good brand, not trying to be too cocky but are filling a niche which TrentBarton (a Waitrose in supermarket terms) really isn't able to capitalise on. It would, however, be nice to see the little bits there that we now expect from our buses such as a good brand which instills confidence in our corporate-loving world.