X-it innovation?

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Phil Tonks discusses the short-lived National Express West Midlands X7 service, and the risks of innovation

The withdrawal of a commercial bus service, with plenty of alternatives, shouldn’t really be a cause for much concern. But the removal of National Express West Midlands’ X7 brings with it a touch of mild despair, and a question mark about just what the bus industry in general can do to make services better, when all around them traffic congestion continues to asphyxiate the whole operation.

The X7 on its final day of operation. PHIL TONKS

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What was the X7, and why I am getting all half-glass-empty about its demise? After all, it had only been in existence for eight months. It ran between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, part of a rejig of services that, you guessed it, were suffering from unreliability as they approached Birmingham city centre.

The old 126 ran straight down the Birmingham New Road, a dual carriageway linking the two cities. The route’s history goes all the way back to Midland Red days, when half-cab D9s trundled along the route and conductors cranked their little handles for tickets. It crosses the M5 motorway island near Oldbury, and, as you can probably imagine, causes huge reliability problems.

There’s long been talk of remodelling the island, but the kitty is predictably empty. Bus priority is non-existent because car drivers and white van men have votes. Add to that the usual traffic malarkey around Birmingham city centre, and you can see why the 126 became the predictable basket case.

In the 1990s, a local independent – Metrowest – capitalised on this and ran only on the Wolverhampton to Dudley section of the route, avoiding all of the hotspots. They made a killing, and were promptly bought by West Midlands Travel, the predecessor to today’s National Express West Midlands.

But the 126 was – and remains – an important artery. It’s direct (when not snarled up in congestion) and used by thousands every day. So it remains, running only between Dudley and Birmingham city centre – and is about to see it’s frequency uplifted again now that the X7 is no more.

How do you solve a problem like the 126? The planners at NXWM had an idea. Run something new that, in theory, skirted around the motorway island problem, served a new area, and ran fast, by making part of the route limited stop. Sounds good? I liked the idea. But of course, you never know how these things will work in practice until you do them.

Kudos to National Express West Midlands for being brave. The bus industry is generally under the cosh these days. The money isn’t there anymore, congestion makes services unreliable and unattractive and the concessionary pass reimbursement continues to shrink, making the bean counters frown. To try a new service is to face the fear and do it anyway.

The 126 between Wolverhampton and Dudley was replaced in September 2018 by the new X7 and X8. The X7, as we shall see, was a new innovation, post Dudley, but the X8 was a direct replacement for another old Midland Red route, the 140, between Dudley and the city centre. It had a long-standing loyalty, so its success was more or less assured anyway. The only difference was that it missed a few stops to go fast along the Hagley Road into Birmingham. The X7 was a completely new kettle of fish.

Whilst the 126 continued in truncated form, the new X7 was innovative. Using smart Platinum ADL Enviro400 MMC ‘deckers moved from the 126 (and the 126 ‘downgraded’ to ‘normal’ kit), it followed the old 126 route down the New Road, then scurried off before the pesky motorway island around Oldbury, then down another dual carriageway through Smethwick, then down another road previously unserved by buses to emerge by the City Hospital, and then followed the 82/87 route into City. Clever, huh?

Almost immediately, it had issues. Inevitably, few knew what it was or where it went. The cut-through to Oldbury was plagued with day-trippers in cars to the local tip. The X7 – now free of folk queuing for the motorway – was now stuck behind a long line of cars with unwanted sun loungers and tat unsellable on eBay sticking out of the boot. ‘Fast’ it wasn’t.

Oldbury itself required a circuitous route around the town to face the right direction. The same circuit every other car and van does. Bus priority? You must be joking. Then the run to the City Hospital. This bit seemed to work OK, but then the drag into the city centre is what regular users and drivers on the 82/87 have already long known and experienced. The X7 wasn’t really ‘fast’ at all, and all of the delays faced by the old 126 were simply replicated elsewhere.

I wasn’t a regular X7 traveller, but I did use it on numerous occasions during its eight-month existence. It struck me that, whilst most buses leaving City were usually hauling decent loads, the X7 was fairly quiet. During the first few months, you’d expect that, but in recent weeks, close to the end, and on the final day, the loadings were pretty dismal for a route serving such important places on the network.

So there’s little surprise the chop has occurred. The X8 has a simpler, improved timetable, as does the 126 – although the problem of the motorway island looks as far away as ever from being resolved. And 126 and X8 passengers face more dismay.

The day after the X7 ran for the last time, the underpass at Five Ways was closed to facilitate work on the Midland Metro tram extension. Far from me to criticise any addition to the Metro – I welcome it with open arms – but the little bit of decent bus priority under the underpass buses had, entering the city from the west side, has now gone.

Bus users will face even more delays and unreliability as they now have to queue to go over the top of Five Ways Island. An opportunity here has been missed, as there could easily have been bus priority along Hagley Road right up to the island. Sadly, inevitably, the powers that be haven’t implemented this.

Why ‘X-it innovation’? The bus operator must wonder what to do. The X7 was a decent, innovative idea. It failed because the traffic congestion it was supposed to avoid merely presented itself in other areas. If you’re going to sit in traffic, a) you might as well sit in traffic on a route you’re familiar with, and b) you may as well sit in your own car. A friend tells me that the Five Ways issue will be the final straw for him, and he’ll be getting back in his car to get to work. He won’t be the only one.

Herein lies the issue. Until there is a strategy, a change of mindset, a long-term plan to give buses real, unhindered priority that seriously punishes offenders of that priority, we will simply carry on going nowhere fast, failing to unlock the potential buses have to be that real alternative, still polluting our air, curtailing lives early and bringing early onset asthma to our children. The exit of the X7 may not be the big news of the day, but if we exit the innovation of people who want to give us real alternatives to stifling traffic congestion, we’re in big trouble indeed.