Public Transport Part Two – How Bad Can First Manchester Get?

You may remember some time ago, I did a little write-up of just how late my various forms of public transport were over a certain period of time. It was getting pretty ridiculous, so I decided to write the following to First Manchester just to try and find out why they offered such a consistently poor service and why they failed to deliver on offering service updates via social media:

Dear Sirs

I write to complain strongly about the quality, or lack thereof of the service you are providing.

I have been using the 408 route between Stalybridge and Oldham for about three years now, and in that time, I have witnessed a whole host of failures to provide what I would call a decent service and one which I would have no qualms about handing over £58 a month to be given in return.

Most recently, on Friday 2nd March, I got a train back from Manchester to Stalybridge and then stood at the bus stop outside the station waiting for the last 408 service of the day which is due at 2319 (although this isn’t strictly true as it is supposed to leave Stalybridge bus station at that time, so by the time it gets to the train station stop it is usually 2320 or 2321 at the earliest). Nevertheless I was there from 2316, and at 2340 after no bus had arrived, I had no choice but to get a taxi home, costing me an additional £10 on top of my monthly pass price. I was unable to phone your premium rate “helpline” as this had closed many hours previously, so there was really no other way to find out what was going on.

A few days before, on the 28th February I was waiting at Stalybridge bus station for the 1819 408 service but it didn’t turn up  pre-its usual driver change-over until 16 minutes over its departure time. When it did arrive, it only stopped to let the previous passengers off at a stop opposite the queue of us waiting to board, before disappearing again without letting anyone on. It was only by over-hearing a child laughing about someone being sick on the bus that we presumed it would be replaced shortly by another vehicle and had been taken off to be cleaned. Really though, it would have been far more preferable to receive some form of communication from the driver or alternatively from the driver in the pool car waiting to swap to that vehicle. Neither offered anything.

Presuming another bus would turn up as a replacement shortly, I waited. And waited, and continued to wait. Eventually it was 1919 and STILL no bus had turned up, and neither had the next one that should have departed at 1919. Eventually a bus arrived and let us on, but this was either ONE HOUR AND EIGHT MINUTES LATE if it was the 1819 or still eight minutes late if it was the 1919. Even better, no explanation or apology was offered by the driver.

These are just two recent (and in my view, inexcusable and avoidable) examples though. Last year during the heavy snow, I checked your website to confirm buses were running, which it said they were. I still ended up waiting an hour for one, which promptly drove straight past three of us waving at it. We then had to wait another hour for the next service in freezing temperatures. According to your phone helpline the bus was running normally which was obviously not true.

On another occasion, I was awaiting the bus at Stalybridge (where numerous First services pass through) and a bus approached the stop but had no number on the front. I assumed it was out of service, only to realise after it had passed by that it had 408 on the rear. I’m sure you’ll agree that it isn’t much use if your buses don’t publicise where they are going, unless you expect every passenger at every stop to flag down every service on the off-chance it is the one they need?

I am just really struggling to see how things are getting any better or how any efforts are being made to do so? The only improvement I can see is the new ticket machines installed recently which mean drivers no longer have to hit the things with a shovel to get them working, and in all honestly this should have been rectified years ago.

Your drivers frequently turn up with headphones in or listening to music through their phone on loudspeaker, and on more than one occasion I have seen them smoking in their cab, something which I believe carries a fine for passengers?

I would just appreciate a response as to a) how the service in general is being improved and b) how you intend to communicate better with your customers. I fully appreciate that there will be matters outside of your control that affect the running of your service such as traffic, and knowing how the general public can be at times, I also appreciate that the job your drivers do probably isn’t the easiest in the world. However if I can see some pretty basic flaws in the whole operation, surely you can? If a bus is going to be consistently late at busy times is it not better to amend your timetable rather than also disappointing your customers?

I note that you have a Twitter account, @FirstManchester, with the profile description: “Follow us for news, events & updates. For journey questions or comments ring us on 08457 88 11 55 or send your details via our Contact Us page on our website.” The last time I checked though, you don’t appear to have used it for over a month, the last tweet being back on 5th February. As it is 2012 I would strongly suggest that you look at your use of social media to better your service, rather than just setting up an account for the sake of it as appears to be the case currently. A cursory glance at Twitter shows the sort of shocking service you appear to be offering, not just to me but to hundreds of others, and by ignoring this first hand feedback, you are in real danger of irreparably damaging your company for good.

This letter was sent to First Manchester on Friday 16th March. It is now two months later and I have yet to receive a reply.

I had another “incident” with First Bus on 17th April. I had finished at an appointment early and so made it to Stalybridge bus station at 1615 ready for the 1619 bus home. I waited. And waited. And continued to wait. Eventually I telephoned the Traveline, supposedly for service updates. They confirmed that there were “no known disruptions to the 408 service”. As I didn’t want to be a victim of Mr Sod and his law, and witness a bus drive straight past me after I walked away from the stop, I waited a little longer. Eventually, nearly two hours later, I found an email contact form via the First website, and so I wrote:

Re: 408 service.

It is 1805 and I have been at Stalybridge bus station since 1615. Two buses should have arrived in this time, but none have. The advertised Traveline say they aren’t aware of any disruptions, so I want to know what on earth is going on?

I received an auto reply as follows:

I am writing following receipt of your recent comments. 

This incident is currently under investigation and the details of your complaint have been passed on to our Customer Service Team. 

We are looking into the matter and as soon as we have finished the investigation a response will be sent within 10 working days.

Thank you for your continued patience.

Kind Regards

First in Manchester
Website Team

A 408 bus eventually arrived at 1820, two hours after I had begun my wait. I asked the driver if this was a horrifically delayed service and he responded no, it was the 1819 service. Up until this point I had no idea that I resided in the North West version of the Bermuda Triangle where buses can simply disappear into the ether. To make matters worse on this occasion, the driver also got the route wrong and so the journey took an extra ten minutes than it should have.

In typical delayed First Manchester fashion, I received the following response to my email 11 working days later on 2nd May.

I write in response to your email recorded with us on 17 April 2012.

Firstly, may I say that I was sorry to read of the difficulties you encountered on the 17 April, and specifically as a result of the failure of the 408-bus service to operate as advertised from 16:10 hours. 

My enquiries into this matter have revealed that this problem resulted from traffic congestion that the services to run over 35 minutes late.

I can assure you that every effort is made to keep any delay and disruption to passengers to an absolute minimum but, unfortunately, in such situations, it is inevitable that some inconvenience will result and the inconvenience this has caused you is very much regretted. 

Please accept my apologies for this lapse in the quality of our service. I do hope that you will not be deterred from continuing to use our services and that your future journeys will be trouble free.

Yours sincerely
Miss M Shaw
Lead Customer Service Agent

So, not only do they get the bus time wrong, (it should be 1619 not 1610), their grammar is pretty poor, and apparently this bus was just running a bit late. So why didn’t it ever arrive? And why did the 1719 not arrive either? And why did it take them 11 days to tell me a load of old rubbish which I know for a fact is not true? To me, this sums up First’s attitude to customer service. I am in the process of drafting yet another letter mainly to try to get a response to my first one, but now to also ask why their email response was so incorrect.

Hands up if any of you think I will get any form of response…

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