Working together

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Jon Hayes, Head of Network Delivery at Transport for West Midlands, gives Angela Youngman an insight into the creation and operation of the West Midlands Bus Alliance

The West Midlands conurbation is one of the most densely inhabited within the UK, covering major centres such as Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry, West Bromwich and Walsall.

Maintaining an effective public transport network across such a wide area has resulted in the creation of a partnership that has attracted attention worldwide – and has won considerable acclaim including two UK Coach & Bus Awards. The most recent was a Silver Award for Making Buses a Better Choice.

Bus services have always been important within the West Midlands, forming the backbone of the integrated transport system. Four in every five journeys by public transport within the region are undertaken by bus, and the mode accounts for 260 million trips per year. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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Founded in 2015, the West Midlands Bus Alliance was the first of its kind in the UK. Jon Hayes, Head of Network Delivery at Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), said: “We set up an alliance with National Express West Midlands, Stagecoach Midlands, Diamond Buses and other local operators who run buses in the West Midlands. We created a space where we could all challenge each other to improve the network. We involved stakeholders who have a responsibility to bus passengers, such as the Safer Travel Partnership, highways authorities, Transport Focus and local politicians. It has expanded over the years and now includes the Mayor of the West Midlands, the cabinet member for Transport in Birmingham, and the DfT. Linda McCord (from Transport Focus) acts as the independent chair of the Forum.”

From the beginning this Alliance was designed to be more than just a talking shop. “Once we had got people around the table, we could discuss objectives, make plans and deliver significant improvements for bus passengers in the West Midlands,” Jon explained.

Clear objectives were laid down such as dealing with congestion, making travel easier, encouraging bus use among young people. It quickly proved very successful and in 2016, won the partnership of the year award at the UK Bus Awards, followed quickly by the Local Authority Bus Partnership of the Year.

“Having proved that it could work, we wanted to move forward. In October 2017, we brought everyone together and established a commitment to move forward. We developed 50 new objectives across eight workstreams, which included tackling congestion and improving journey speeds, improving bus emission standards and shaping the bus network to meet the needs of the growing local economy,” Jon indicated.

Tackling congestion issues was an overriding priority. With a population of almost three million people, the majority of whom need to travel regularly for employment, educational, shopping and leisure purposes, roads can quickly become very congested, contributing to poor local air quality.

Investment in time and money was essential to achieve the aims of the Alliance. “We looked at ways to speed up the bus, improve bus facilities and deal with emissions so as to ensure better air quality. Since the partnership was set up, there has been over £18m of investment in highways schemes such as bus only lanes and bus priority at traffic signals to create bus services that more closely match customer requirements. £80m has been invested by bus operators in new vehicles; for example, National Express has introduced top-specification vehicles for its Platinum services running across the region, Stagecoach Midlands has added its Gold-branded vehicles to the 48 service between Coventry, Bedworth, Nuneaton, Atherstone and Leicester and Diamond has introduced new vehicles to a number of services in the region including those entering Birmingham City Centre.

“Even the smaller operators such as Walsall Community Transport, which operates just a couple of bus routes, has bought into the concept and upgraded its buses. Further investment has been secured due to successful funding bids to central government and a financial commitment from TfWM to improve vehicle standards,” Jon stated.

“We have made a commitment that every bus in the West Midlands will meet Euro VI standards by April 2021, and this will ensure we have clean air in every city and town, not just Birmingham. 675 buses will have been retrofitted to Euro VI standard by the end of this year, and there are plans for a further 300 buses to be retrofitted.”

At Merry Hill shopping centre, Dudley, the centre owners Intu invested £550,000 to modernise the bus station. Similar plans are in place to create a new hub in Perry Barr, funded by the LEP, with the support of and on land owned by the One-Stop Shopping Centre.

Such commitments proved that the West Midlands Bus Alliance was totally committed to its aims, and prepared to back long term plans with hard investment.

“We have got very proactive operators willing to invest in the services and vehicles. As a result, we can use that investment to encourage further investment from other sources and obtain support from central government. We have proved we can work together. It is all about partnership, making sure that we get the best possible passenger transport systems together with the funding packages required to bring it about,” said Jon.

Travel costs can be a big deterrent for potential customers, especially younger people attending colleges and universities, or just starting work. Given that Birmingham alone has several major universities and further education establishments catering for thousands of students, it is an issue of great concern to the West Midlands Bus Alliance.

“We are working with bus operators to implement reduced price, low fare zones in many areas and have come up with several new products such as the use of mobile apps for payment purposes.

Our Swift card is the equivalent of the London Oyster card and is very popular. It has got the same transport objectives and has made it easier for people to use more than one type of transport such as bus, metro and rail in their journey,” said Jon.

He continued: “The West Midlands has the highest population of young people of any city in Europe and we are mindful that we need to influence the way they travel at this stage, so that they will maintain their use of public transport in the future. We have made bus transport affordable and acceptable for younger people, encouraging them to look at bus transport in a new light. Half price fares for 16-18-year-olds including apprentices and trainees have been introduced across the bus network. There are initiatives offered by local operators whereby students and staff at the universities in our area can have discounted ticket prices.”

Establishing positive relationships with all customers is essential when it comes to encouraging bus usage and encouraging people to use public transport. Since the foundation of the West Midlands Bus Alliance, commercial patronage has rebuffed the national trend and is showing signs of increasing. Research carried out by the Alliance has shown that customers were impressed by the transport provision. People who had not previously used bus transport or who had not done so for many years had tried it and had been impressed. Such customers had indicated that they would continue to use it in future, as it was proving to be a better experience than they had anticipated.

“Our chair, Linda McCord believes strongly we need to make it very clear what we stand for. We have worked with Transport Focus to create a customer charter, which people can see on buses, at bus stops, bus stations and on websites. We believe this is the first of its kind in the industry covering multiple partners. We are now looking at how we can communicate this charter at garages and with local authorities. It is important to get every employee of every transport business involved and aware of the charter’s requirements. It is a big project and a massive challenge since there are thousands of employees among all our members,” said Jon.

The momentum generated by such proactive attitudes has been maintained, enabling the Alliance to plan ahead for future challenges. In 2021, Coventry will become the City of Culture with major events taking place all year round throughout the city. The following year, the Commonwealth Games will be held in the region, and the new HS2 high speed railway line between London and Birmingham is due to be completed in the future.

“We are bringing together all the different transport options, creating a coordinated network. A Regional Transport Co-ordination Centre involving all the different transport operators, highways authorities and police is being created, for launch later this year, to create a common space where we can work together to commonly manage our transport networks.

“We are currently testing out the concept and have stood the RTCC up during the cricket World Cup games at Edgbaston and also recent major road closures so as to ensure there was sufficient transport to avoid any congestion in these areas. We are also planning to mobilise the RTCC in October when Birmingham holds its half marathon event in the city centre.

“From December the RTCC will be fully established and ready to deal with any congestion problems, allowing us to cope effectively with day-to-day operations and major events such as the Coventry City of Culture and the Commonwealth Games,” said Jon.

Another expression of the strength of the bus alliance has been the increasingly close partnership work developing between the TfWM and the bus operators enabling the creation of a unified brand, routes, timetables and ticketing on a small number of corridors. This makes it easier for bus users, giving them access to an easily identifiable, much more comprehensive bus service.

Achieving this has not been easy, since operators naturally wanted to maintain their individual corporate identities.

Jon explained how this has been achieved: “We have worked closely with National Express and Diamond Bus to initially create two partnership routes where the operators had previously been operating independently. We got them to work together to create a unified timetable and ticket products so that it became easier for people to use the service, help reduce congestion and improve air quality along the corridor. The success of these routes has led to other operators in similar circumstances expressing interest in creating unified routes.”

A new brand has been developed, West Midlands Bus, to enable bus passengers to instantly identify which buses are involved in such unified routes. TfWM is now looking at how this branding can be extended throughout the West Midlands, to improve the identity and feeling of local ownership of the network.

“Companies wanted their individuality maintained within the overall brand, so the buses bear both brands. The West Midlands Bus logo is instantly recognisable, and makes it easier for customers across the entire integrated network since it creates instant clarity,” Jon said.

The success of this innovative transport partnership has not gone unnoticed. Apart from winning awards, it hosts groups from all over the UK and worldwide wanting to see how the Alliance operates. Within the past few months, there have been groups visiting from Japan and various Eastern European countries. TfWM is also an active participant in the Urban Transport Group to share good practice and learn from other city regions within the UK undertaking similar initiatives.

And what of the future? Plans are already being laid for the next stage in the development of the West Midlands Bus Alliance, as Jon indicated: “Our strength is that we have an agreed strategic vision for bus, and what we want bus to do within the West Midlands. This has enabled us to consider partnerships, projects and how we develop the network as part of a wider integrated system.

Our latest objectives take us through to April 2020, and we are working with our partners on how we take it forward beyond this. It is a wonderful opportunity to show what can be achieved across the board.

“We are now looking at what needs to be done in the future and how the Alliance is going to develop. There are a lot of opportunities coming up such as the Coventry City of Culture, implementation of the Birmingham Clean Air Zone, the construction and operation of the extended metro and massive housing developments are planned. Hundreds of acres of industrial brownfield land are being brought back into residential use. It is important to provide the transport infrastructure and services at the beginning of such processes, so as to create the facilities and links residents will need. Bus has a got a strong role to play in that process, and we are working with seven different local authorities to make this happen.”