Alex Hornby took a ride on Eindhoven’s Phileas system. He envied some elements, but not all.

Having fixed ourselves up with the new OV Chipkaart – an amazing thing in itself, being a national, stored value smart card and allows use on all trains, trams and buses throughout the Netherlands – our touring party of UK transport ‘professionals’ exited Eindhoven station to be greeted by a bus station. With clear, huge electronic signage above each stand, buses moving off freely and bang on time, and a sheltered area backed by cafes. This was a showpiece and a typical Dutch design that is sympathetic to operators but a good place to be for customers. Certain locations in the UK could learn from it, but we’ll name no names.

And the vehicle right in front of us was a Phileas – with so much on-street charisma that we would likely be frowned upon for daring to call it – gasp! – a bus. We did know that it was a Phileas as it shouted the name out on the sides of it. We had no clue where it went, what it did and who ran it, until one of the other clever two on the trip discovered that it was actually running on the plain old 401 & 402 routes and you wouldn’t really know it. Turns out Phileas is just the name of the vehicle and not a brand for the service in the truest sense of the word. Phileas and the 401 & 402 were two separate entities that just managed to also be the same thing, but they didn’t really want to tell us that.

Let’s get one thing straight though – the Phileas is physically imposing on the street and grabs your attention. An articulated vehicle, with three-door boarding and alighting, it looks like a lean, mean, hungry passenger-eating machine. The metallic livery helps too. So, unable to resist, off we went, walking past the team of two drivers on board – one to drive, and – well – one to have a chat with him.

It did get a bit more interesting in that when the other driver did decide to do some work, he hopped in the cab just to have a go for a few stops. Our conclusion? That the other guy was a non-Phileas driver who just fancied a drive. And that this meant it was open season on accepting other volunteers, and I was about to join the queue but my sensible colleagues convinced me otherwise, luckily for the people and streetscape of Eindhoven.

The flat low floor throughout the whole vehicle was impressive. Sadly, though, the whole thing inside is feeling a little bit worn. The overall pastel-coloured spartan interior didn’t really help. And even the real time information screen (showing stops and connections along the way – to die for as far as we’re concerned!) was added to the bodyside like an afterthought. There was also some strange red diagonal bars across the windows inside the bus that looked like they were propping the roof up and the structure together. So, if Mr Stenning is reading this, the interior is certainly ready for a designer-led-not-an-engineering-solution style makeover.

We whizzed around some fantastic bus-only roads and then cut through a housing complex on our own road as if travelling around here was all about BRT. The planners scored maximum marks here and the stops, which felt more like stations, had real presence. Car-only roads didn’t get a look in – if you lived here, Phileas was the one for you, and the whole image in these parts made it just feel right.

The scene at Eindhoven Airport was a huge collection of waiting customers. So, to see Phileas really perform its job as a crowd-sucking machine, we thought we’d help this potential capacity problem by staying on to see it really put through its paces. And after no more than a minute, a standing load of over 60 people zoomed back to Eindhoven.

I would really like to be more charitable about Phileas. And, let’s face it, there was plenty about it that remains far, far out of reach to many of us in the UK. Excellent priorities, congestion-dodging, bus-only roads, smart ticketing, fast boarding and amazing real time systems, to name a few. Lest we forget, the whole project is around seven years old, but the overall impression was ever-so slightly under whelming, enabling our collective view of thinking how amazing it could be if they did it all again 2011-style. So, whilst there was lots to be jealous of, it did go to prove what can happen if you leave basics of branding, customer service and operational delivery go to rot a bit – that doesn’t go out of style anywhere. Not even in the Netherlands.

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