Public Transport – An Investigation

Many of you reading this will know about my regular grumbles with public transport. I’ve been commuting in and out of Manchester for the best part of a decade now, hopping on and off buses, trains and trams to get to various destinations, but this year, I decided to look a little bit more scientifically at how bad things are rather than let my ranting get the better of me.

From 3rd January I’ve (rather tragically!) been noting down when my buses and trains should have been departing and at what time they actually do. I just wanted to see how much time, money and effort I waste each and every day hanging around for companies who seem largely disinterested in my custom. So what did I find? Well I’ll elaborate shortly, but please note Metrolink fans, I left our erstwhile tram operator friends out of this because I still fail to figure out what, if any, sort of timetable they run to. Needless to say over the course of the past few weeks, they’ve been their usual inconsistent mess of broken down units, overcrowding and lack of information about when the next one might bother turning up. But I digress…

As it's 2012 you'd have thought we'd be travelling around like this...

I tend to follow a similar routine each day, getting a bus to Stalybridge then a train into Manchester. If I drop lucky with times I can do this pretty quickly, although it currently costs me £160 a month to do so. My bus is a First Bus one (I don’t have a choice in this matter, it’s the only one that runs near me) and they’re one an hour. The trains are pretty frequent to Manchester Piccadilly and Victoria, but I need to get a tram back out of town so the First TransPennine Express Piccadilly ones tend to be preferable.

Over the course of 13 days, I have had the dubious pleasure of taking 22 trips via First Bus, 21 via First TransPennine Express, and two via Northern Rail. In this time I have spent a total of 164 minutes or two hours, 44 minutes waiting for late public transport.  And this is just in a two week period. That’s about 13 minutes per day on average. By far the worst offenders were First Bus who were late by 112 mins, averaging just over five minutes per bus (in fact, every single one of those were late by at least one minute, the worst one being delayed by 18 minutes). First TransPennine were a bit of a mixed bag averaging two and a half minutes of lateness per journey but this was largely due to the morning train being late 10 out of 11 times. The evening one seems generally okay with an on time percentage of about 70%.

So, rough maths time. If I take the bus, on average, 10 times a week over a year (taking off weekends) minus eight bank holidays (-16 trips) and my 25 days holiday (-50 trips)…we’re still looking at First Bus causing me to get angry because they’re not there for at least 38 hours over the course of a year. That to me is a hell of a lot. That’s a day and a half of me shuffling about on bus stops looking angry; not a sight I’d really wish upon anyone. TransPennine only make me lose 19 hours of my life per year, but in total, that is 57 hours between the two companies. That’s a lot of missed Call Of Duty time right there.

Northern Rail Train
...rather than in these 80s monstrosities.

I always give myself plenty (probably too much) time to get anywhere as I hate being late, so it’s one of the reasons why I really struggle to get on with public transport companies and their ideas of being on time. Surely, if their transport is consistently late by a certain amount of time (my morning TransPennine Express is nigh-on guaranteed to be bang on five minutes late every day; they probably blame the preceding Northern Rail), why not just change the timetable permanently? If the bus takes longer than expected in rush hour, why not stretch that timetable a little and then at least people will know what to expect? If I was that late that often for my job, well, I wouldn’t expect to still be employed.

But maybe that is the problem; that I do still employ them to take me to places. Many people ask me why I don’t just drive and there are six reasons for that: 1) It’d probably cost more. 2) Sometimes it would probably take longer. 3) I’d probably hate other drivers even more than other commuters. 4) I wouldn’t be able to have a drink. 5) I can’t tweet/play Word With Friends/arse around on my phone whilst driving. 6) I shouldn’t have to put myself out due to the failings of a crumbling public transport infrastructure.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if bus and train staff had a few more manners and a sense of common decency. Often, the bus I get in the evening has a driver change over before setting off and the other night, the driver got on to do his pre-flight checks whilst smoking a roll up INSIDE HIS CAB. Hang on, don’t passengers get fined for that? Double standards. Also, there’s never an apology or reason for lateness given, just a nod when you show your ticket, maybe a “morning” if you’re lucky. Come on guys, it’s not hard to acknowledge those who are paying your wages. If you don’t like your job that much, maybe get another one?

Going back to money, do I think that my £160 a month is well spent? Don’t get me wrong, there have been a few good improvements made since I started doing the public transport ‘thing’ all those years ago. Stalybridge and Manchester Piccadilly stations are now both great facilities, albeit ones run by TransPennine Express. Their newer trains are also brilliant, clean and bright compared to the purple muck wagons of a few years ago. Unfortunately, this investment is few and far between across the rest of the public transport network. First Buses tend to have a destination board and number on the front illuminated by what could only be a very bad at his job  firefly, with passengers often unable to see where on earth the thing is going until it’s nearly run you over. That is if they’ve bothered to put a destination up on the board at all. Once, I let one pass as I presumed it was out of service, only to see my bus number on the back of the thing after it had driven past. Needless to say, I wasn’t best pleased.

I’ve also witnessed bus drivers drive past people waving their hands at the roadside, and they’re pretty good at nattering to their driver chums whilst driving, hitting kerbs, or listening to music instead of focusing on the basics, such as getting from A to B, safely and on time.

As for Northern Rail, where do I start? I’ve written about them before, and fortunately I don’t have to use them that much anymore, but when I do, their supposed improvements (even more unreliable 1981 coaches!) simply isn’t good enough in the face of huge hikes in ticket prices. I hear from my Twitter chums (@Loupy2000, @roj_v, @martinsmith and the gang) that things on the commuter pile ups haven’t really improved, and I must admit I don’t miss Northern Rail one bit.

Speaking of Twitter, a cursory look across social media shows the anger that builds towards some of these companies for all manner of reasons. A PR department nightmare perhaps, but I have yet to see any public transport companies in this country actually use this information for the good of the customer. Why not get us in focus groups? You know, we the people who use these various transportation means every day? We may be biased but it’s a great idea-generating opportunity and it’s always better to face up to criticism than ignore it.

My Twitter feed is generally full of (admittedly very amusing) rants from various people talking about public transport. One chap even took it upon himself to set up a fake Northern Rail customer service account (@Not_hernRail) where he would reply to complainants and admit to having rubbish old trains that were never on time and staff that could do with a lesson or two in treating customers fairly. Other Twitter users such as @manc_metrolink, @NTFail, @FirstBusFail and @FarceBus all have accounts dedicated to aggregating public transport feedback, and needless to say, much of it is not very complimentary. To be fair to both @northernrailorg and @TPExpressTrains, they do their best to help in the face of adversity through social media, updating users with service updates and getting into conversations with frustrated commuters, but they can’t do much about the foundation issues: old and late rolling stock and not enough of it to cope with increased demand.

I also must admit that the general commuting public don’t do themselves any favours. People tend not to think about when and why they are travelling, getting the same busy commuter trains as usual on their days off but with loads of additional shopping bags. People get on the Metrolink to go two eminently walkable stops, thus increasing the time it takes to get people on and off and also taking up valuable room on busy vehicles. I’ve also seen some unnecessary abuse given to conductors and other public transport staff just because there is an issue and they’re there at the coalface. The vast majority of the general public are idiots, running late and with incorrect tickets, but even so, they are all there to use a service, and if the service isn’t up to scratch, they’ve still got every right to complain, as long as it goes through the right channels.

I also appreciate that sometimes there are unavoidable issues. Weather can be a problem (although some may argue that we should be more prepared). Copper wire thieves also cause the network to grind to a halt on occasion and I’m not going to hold that against the bus and train companies. I do think though that a lack of investment could have contributed to a lot of these challenges in the first place.

So what does all of this say? Does it just tell us what we already know? Maybe. But I think that it is a little more than that. We grumble and moan and whine on about the whole situation, but we are all probably late most days because of basic public transport infrastructure problems. Shouldn’t we, as their customers, be putting pressure on them to do something about it? Or should these companies actually face facts and admit their failings, promising to spend fare increases not on more services or additional destinations, but on getting the basics right instead? I for one would be happy to pay for that.

2 thoughts on “Public Transport – An Investigation

  1. Love the stats… I would hate to think how much more of your life would be wasted waiting for trams. I am sure you can work it out. Service is every 6 mins in rush hour, so in theory every minute over six you have to wait can be added to the tally. I am sure you will be shocked. In fact I might even do a bit of research myself :o)
    I once travelled on the Japanese rail network, if only ours was a quarter as good as theirs..

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