A recent trip led me to reflect on one of the key selling points of bus travel – interactions with people and the passing streetscape

We need to enthuse young people about bus travel benefits

On Tuesday, I had a meeting with probably the most senior person I ever met. It was in Northolt, of all places and I had spent a few days worrying about how to get there – only nine miles from home yet, for someone who can’t drive, a torturous trek. I even contemplated staying the night before as I was passing close by on the way back from Birmingham. As it was, I decided to place my trust not in Uber, but in a good-old-fashioned bus service, an hourly service as well for the longest leg of the journey.

This isn’t an ‘old school’ ‘Travel Test’ article, but rather some reflections on the future of the bus sector at a time when some might say it is confronting an existential crisis. Others, like me, feel the sector has the potential to reinvent itself while drawing on some of the strengths that have kept it together all these decades.

After much debate with ‘Er Indoors, what clinched the decision to travel by bus, traversing the outskirts of London, was that we agreed it was actually a relaxing experience. She had noted that generally the one time when I actually wind down, ignore my phone and all the noise of work and other stress, was when I sit for long periods on a bus watching the world go by. As customers come and go, I take in the scenery; all the trivial minutiae of daily life, cats sitting on rooftops or in front windows, folk huddling in coffee bars near bus stops keeping warm whilst waiting for their bus, Royal Mail posties emptying boxes. And on a journey from one slightly untidy part of North West Surrey to cluttered and sometimes chaotic Middlesex (my two favourite counties by a long shot), this bustling, meandering, partly quirky experience was heaven at a point in the working week when I’d ordinarily be ground down by the giddying intensity of Teams calls.

It’s the simplicity of bus travel that is indeed its biggest asset

It’s the simplicity of bus travel that is indeed its biggest asset. In updating the proposition to make it increasingly relevant, we shouldn’t lose sight of what made it so great in the first place. Such simplicity has at its core not just the landscape of everyday life that is visible from the window, but the on-board offer as well. On my return journey, firstly from Shepperton to Hatton Cross on the 555 run by Hallmark, I witnessed driver friendliness that was so good it was as if those at the wheel had just graduated from one of my ‘Delight the Customer’ training courses. At 07:21 when boarding the bus, there genuinely can be few more uplifting experiences to set you up for the day, than a beaming driver who asks with profound sincerity, including perfect eye contact, “Hi, how are you today? Everything okay with you?”. ‘Er Indoors was fast asleep when I left the house and the bus driver was, as I suspect for many others, the first person I set eyes on and interacted with that morning. He recycled my pleasantry with equal empathy and conviction to every single customer, as well as thanking them profusely when they alighted and turning his body 90 degrees as everyone boarded to check they had taken their seats safely.

So too, on my return journey later that evening, our driver turned round and announced each stop to customers, asking everyone if they wanted to alight – to which a rather enthusiastic customer kept repeating the location to others to double check they had heard him properly. Such simple acts of kindness and humanity touched my journey, including seeing customers saying ‘hello’ to each other and making polite conversation. When I alighted, home at the end of the journey, the driver said, “Was that okay, sir? Was the journey alright, hope it was a success. I do try my best?”.

It was a journey of convivial gaiety and a general upbeat spirit – one which had a tint of nostalgia, as I passed the office at Heathrow where the craziness of family life all began, when I first met my wife nearly 24 years ago. We often forget that for every journey from a customer, personal emotions are never far away. This was a trip that took place the day before I attended a funeral borne of appalling tragedy and the journey back home on the bus had ever mounting concern for me due to the sickness of my son. The driver’s pleasantness as I rushed off the bus to get indoors and discover his welfare was a small but significant and uplifting gesture.

Let’s not get too gushing though because this was a journey that also highlighted the strides that the bus sector still needs to make to ensure that it doesn’t just appeal in the future to converts like me, who actually welcome a meandering deviation from the stress of daily life and who have few other alternatives being a non-car driver. Where a trip involves Transport for London and ‘county’ services, it is still poorly connected. Unless you are aware of apps such as Moovit (and frankly I think most people aren’r), it’s nigh on impossible to decipher how to make a single journey, without ‘Googling’ 555 bus Shepperton and then looking at a TfL map to see whether once I’d got to Hatton Cross, if it was possible to then get to Northolt. Oh for an equivalent of National Rail Enquiries covering every bus trip in the UK. And then, when changing at Hatton Cross, it would be great to determine easily which stop to use. I spent some time confused waiting in the forecourt for a 90 which ran in the opposite direction before seeing that my stop was actually on the main road.

Then we have ‘network planning’. The 90 service seemed fairly direct from Hatton Cross to Northolt, whereas the 555 went round the block, so much so that on my way home and trying to get back as quickly as possible to tend for my son, I was tempted to phone my wife and ask her to drive and meet me halfway so I could speed things up. I’d like to think that copious demographic and customer insight has been undertaken to prove to me that the route taken is genuinely the most compelling and efficient for customers, though having lifted the bonnet of many bus companies I’m not entirely convinced. It doesn’t have the feel of scenarios such as the owner of our hugely successful local coffee shop, spending weeks before opening up standing in the street monitoring footfall, or Stagecoach co-founder Sir Brian Souter hanging round McDonald’s restaurants observing the behaviour of passers by.

But my biggest gripe is the lack of cross Heathrow services – it’s the same the other side of London – the City seems to be split into four quadrants with very few direct vertical services, such that customers travelling from Surrey to Middlesex or Kent to Essex find it easier to venture into Central London and out, or go by car, taxi or Uber or maybe not make a journey at all.

So too, integration in terms of fares is needed. It cost me £4.20 each way just on the 555. I didn’t know I was going to return by bus, so there would have been a cheaper version admittedly, but £8.40 seems steep. Then there was the bus fare to Northolt and subsequent tapping in and out on the Piccadilly line back to Hatton Cross via Acton Town later, because I was combining the trip with some mystery shopping assignments as part of my ‘day job’. I have no idea how much the TfL contactless element cost, but am confident it will have been capped, but if it could be consolidated with the 555 contactless payment made, then I would have gained confidence that the round trip had been good value, as opposed to having a nagging feeling that an Uber may have enjoyed not too far short of parity in terms of the fare.

There’s also the issue of journey information and reliability. I genuinely suspect (and I’m not trying to sound all elitist) that on the 555 or 90 bus that day, I was one of a tiny handful of people who was suited and booted. Please don’t take this as arrogance but when folk asked me how I had got there and I said I’d caught the bus, there was complete and utter incredulity and I genuinely for a fleeting second wondered whether I’d made myself look a bit silly in telling this to the VIP who was hosting the meeting. Being truthful, with an hourly frequency on my first journey, I left an hour earlier than I needed as a contingency, and I didn’t even trust the timetable information on the website or the bus stop (previous operators of that route have failed to provide consistent details across all their channels). It would have been easy again to locate a website that showed the real time running of my bus. I know one exists, but it would have been great to have seen this advertised at the bus stop – again, if there were a ‘one stop shop’ National Rail Enquiries equivalent for the bus then that would be an invaluable aid.

However, no complaints either on the 555 or 90 – the buses were on time and utterly spotless, the drivers faultless (including the lady on the 90 who, although she didn’t know the intricacies of how to proceed to my end destination when alighting, tried her best and was apologetic – before two ladies followed me down the street and gave me advice. Again, another reminder of the power of simple humanity!

My trip was a timely reminder of how much I love buses at a time when the sector is being let down on funding promises, struggling with driver shortages and a young generation that wants everything on-demand

My trip was a timely reminder of how much I love buses at a time when the sector is being let down on funding promises, struggling with driver shortages and a young generation that wants everything on-demand. My children are all great believers in the environment and sustainable living, but despite their Old Man working in the bus sector, they would not have the slightest clue what bus goes where or even where the bus stop is (diagonally outside our front door) or even how to board a bus. ‘I’ll get an Uber’ is their stock phrase if Mum can’t drive them to where they want to go, not that they go out of the house remotely as much as I did at their age – again, another societal issue that we’re up against in transport. They think travelling by bus is another one of those dying quirky concepts that Dad likes, such as model railways, trainspotting, county cricket and non-league football.

If we are to get them on-board, we must be fixated with presenting an integrated proposition – a one stop shop (and well known) operator, an agnostic source for information regarding their specific end-to-end journey, what ticket to purchase and determine the whereabouts of their bus. We must also celebrate the elements of bus travel that we think don’t matter to young people but actually do – like the kind of friendly bus drivers I discovered last week, or the fact that the bus was alive with convivial customers chatting to each other, or that it meandered relaxingly, allowing those customers who didn’t want to chat to retreat into their own world, and listen to music on their headphones (by Stanwell Moor, I was having the time of my life enjoying old Status Quo songs)! It’s not just the environmentally friendly aspects of bus travel that could appeal to youngsters of today.

The simplicity of human life can be uplifting – lockdown saw folk stop the clock and appreciate simple things like birds tweeting and walks in the park, as well as rekindle their hobbies of old and, of course, question the complexity of modern-day life, including the daily commute. An old-fashioned bus (providing it is clean and road-worthy), with a driver with similarly old-fashioned values, making a journey that might not be able to achieve the holy grail of going the most direct, fastest route from A to B so that it can serve as many customers as possible, isn’t something to feel ashamed about. This isn’t me being nostalgic or not moving with the times – after all, some tweaking is needed still – but it’s about not rushing to destroy what has served us so well for decades just because it feels less relevant now than before.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 28 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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