Posted in Updates on Tuesday 16th December 2014 at 9:09am
Regardless of how it might sometimes look, I'm not a public transport advocate. I really don’t worry too much about how other people get around, aside of course from wanting people generally to think about the effect they're having on the rest of the planet wherever they can. It’s true I love rail travel and railways, but that’s more of a passion and an interest than any serious political pursuit. It’s also true that I'll get involved in campaigns about things happening to transport locally, but that’s not really borne of a political agenda – more just a wish to ensure those of us who need transport, still have it to use. My relationship with public transport is far simpler than most people think in fact – I use it because I need it. But having done a stint on the fringes of the transport industry, I can sometimes see inside in ways perhaps others can’t, or where they just can’t be bothered to navigate the arcane syntax and traditions. I can sometimes see how the convoluted, contrary workings of the system misalign and cause unintended problems – most often for us, the users. Because I can generally see how the system has unintentionally conspired rather than been deliberately sabotaged, I'm usually a fairly good natured correspondent with the transport companies. I want people to see the problems I do, acknowledge them and fix them. I rarely want blame or redress. A working transport system is worth much, much more to me than a refund or a half-hearted apology after all.
So, this story begins in October. My wife had just landed an interesting job with huge potential for future developments. The only drawback was that it was on the Blackbrook Business Park in Taunton. It’s easy to get to Taunton from here. A short walk to the station, less than half an hour on the train, and aside from a walk or a quick bus into the centre, you’re pretty much there. Blackbrook is another matter. Situated near the M5 motorway on the eastern outskirts of the town, there is little else there. A strip of office buildings on a road which peters out in fields, where the recession is marked by the physical edge where development stopped in 2007. That said, there are a lot of people working out here now. Blackbrook is served by a fair number of bus routes, but the most frequent is the Park and Ride service which crosses Taunton and calls at the end of Blackbrook Park Avenue. We researched the travel options carefully. I do that sort of thing. Past experience and personal geekiness means that I have a pretty thorough grasp of rail ticketing. Bus ticketing though is a mess of local variations and schemes, and we wanted to be sure we were getting the best deal. The winner was PlusBus - the national scheme that bolts unlimited bus travel on to rail tickets in selected towns and cities. It can be added to a Season Ticket so in essence you need only one ticket to make your entire journey – even to an outpost like Blackbrook. For Londoners or other city-dwellers this might sound odd – they generally have a well-integrated ticketing product (such as Oyster or Orca) that makes all this possible – but out here in the provinces, this is a much more unusual prospect. Experience led me to be a little suspicious that PlusBus might not be accepted on the Park and Ride service – these services are often arranged or contracted via different means. But all seemed fine – no exclusions listed on the national PlusBus site, no mention of it on the Somerset County Council leaflet about the Park and Ride, and on the local First Group website the Park and Ride was treated as just another service. We’d found our solution – but even then I checked with First's customer service team. They agreed it was fine. All went well for the first day, but on day two my wife got the almost inevitable "you can’t use that on here" talk from the driver. I’d prepared her for this. Drivers get used to seeing the same tickets day after day, and are very risk-averse when it comes to accepting things they've not seen before. Ticket fraud is a real problem – and drivers have correctly been trained that the little bits of fraudulent travel here and there add up to more than the big fraudster. So they checked. She persisted and got to work. The next evening however, the driver had consulted with his manager who told him that they didn't accept the ticket. A ridiculous scene ensued where he was prepared to leave a female passenger stranded at a fairly remote, dark location which all but shuts down after 5:30pm. Naturally, we complained. Bitterly – at first to First Group. Their email service didn't even provide acknowledgement or the ever-necessary complaint reference number so I turned to Facebook and Twitter. I was persistent and irritating, continually pointing out how long things had drifted since the issue arose, and how much additional cost we'd racked up. They lost the complaint, asked me to send it again, wanted more details – endless delaying tactics. They always promised a response but none came. Eventually, one of the local Operations Managers messaged me. He had seen the situation developing and wanted to resolve it. Initially I think he was worried that customer services were getting the heat for someone else's problem. It was he said, a feature of the contract with Somerset County Council that they couldn't accept any concessions or special tickets. I pointed out that there were no exclusions listed and he agreed to check for us. I was impressed with this persistence – he really did seem to want to run a decent, integrated service which made sense to passengers. But, a few days later the response from the Council was that they did not want to accept PlusBus on the Park and Ride. He said he would try to get us a refund on the PlusBus part of the ticket as we’d been sold it under false pretences but that was the end of it.
But I was determined it wasn't. Firstly, PlusBus is clear – participating operators have to expressly explain any exceptions, and there were none listed. The Council's information was specific about OAP and Disabled Concessionary Passes not being accepted on the service, but nothing else. I figured that at very least I could get the information situation improved perhaps? I started with an email to Somerset County Council. Again, no response at all. So, I did the thing all disgruntled busybodies everywhere turn to in the end. A Freedom of Information request. I was very, very specific in my questions – a little experience in the Local Authority transport world has taught me that vagueness is the currency and obscurity is the ever-present excuse where FOIs are concerned. I asked a mix of general questions which drilled down to specifics, and I asked about the Council's commitment to sustainability and integration. At least if I couldn't immediately change the situation, I could make their policy look illogical. Most specifically, knowing this was a contracted service, I queried the ticket acceptance arrangements in the contract. You can see the FOI request here. The answer took a long time. They missed the statutory deadline and I was geared up to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner just for the hell of being annoying and persistent when a response rather unexpectedly arrived late on a December afternoon. It was a disarmingly simple response to the main question: the contract didn’t exclude any specific ticket types at all. I decided to make it personal and picked up the 'phone. After a long slog through the automation of the Council's new "improved" switchboard I was finally put through to the Assistant Director responsible for Public Transport. I explained the situation and he agreed they didn’t accept PlusBus tickets, but he'd gladly check on the FOI response for me. I was on hold for a long time. It was after 5pm. I thought I'd been left to hang up and likely not get through again that day... but then he returned. And for the first time in all this ridiculous saga he said “sorry.”
He had checked the contract and I’d been given the correct information in the FOI response. They hadn't ever excluded PlusBus at all. In fact, the Council had novated this contract in an emergency from an earlier one with a poorly performing Operator who didn't participate in the PlusBus scheme at all. Naturally, there had been no consideration of ticketing issues in the urgency of the switch over. Subsequently the contract had been won in competition by First under the same specification. It wasn't a deliberate exclusion – or even an accidental one – it was just a complete failure to have any regard to it. He conceded that they would in fact have to instruct First to accept the ticket. He was kind enough to send an apologetic email confirming this. I printed it and gave my wife a copy to take with her on her travels. Of course he stressed that ticketing is reviewed regularly, with the next such update in January and it "may not stay the same". I read this as Local Authority code for "fine, you caught us, so we'll make it official and stop accepting it." That change will have to be subject to a public consultation however, and I think it would look pretty poor to start refusing a ticket which is rarely used anyway, and which adds to the integration of the network in Taunton. Time will, of course, tell.
Since then, things haven’t been without incident. The message hasn't spread fast through the depot and drivers who have been on leave have continued to question the ticket. The email I supplied has been flashed, scrutinised and questioned on several occasions. One particular driver who had caught the beginning of this saga then been off work for a while tried to pick up where he left off with an aggressive and belligerent morning rant. It was swiftly addressed by our friendly local manager of course – but it shouldn't have happened. In fact, none of this should have happened. Public transport, if it is to be successful at all, needs to be easy to access. That’s not just about low floors and wheelchair spaces – it’s about simple, clear ticketing which makes it easy to know what to buy and when. It's about being able to complete whole journeys with one ticketing product, and it's about linking rail to bus and onwards to good walking environments. Of course, some ardent drivers will ask why they should care about any of this – well, I've some sympathy in the reverse of course, but an affordable, accessible and joined-up transport system will ease the flow and improve safety for everyone.
That's a huge claim for a little victory on ticket acceptance I know, but it's a start.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.