Bus Stations,  Bus Travel,  Go North East

Communication is the key

You may have picked up from my earlier posts that I’m passionate about good communication. It should always be the number one consideration in any business, yet it remains something that I feel public transport operators still struggle to get right. It doesn’t have to, and it shouldn’t be complicated; it’s about giving customers the information that they require, in a format that is suitable for the audience.

Go North East are running a huge network-wide programme of service changes, commencing from the 5th September. The changes were first published four weeks ago now, and although we’re told the changes have gone through stakeholder consultation, it appears that the largest stakeholder of the business – the customer – has not had the same opportunity to provide meaningful input at a design stage. This is disappointing.

I don’t want to write too much about this today, as I plan on doing a ‘first look’ style blog on Sunday, following the first day of operation, but I find it astonishing that public transport changes are still taking place without proper consultation. These changes are not the odd retiming here and there, they’re network-wide changes to services, including the withdrawal of some and re-routing of many more.

Consultation is not difficult, and I would suggest the benefits always outweigh the cost. Not that it has to be costly in the first place.

We need to start getting this right, and I hope it forms part of the customer charter in any future Enhanced Partnership.

Anyhow, the purpose of today’s post. Today I decided to have a trip out. I wanted to see how the message was getting out on the ground, in what is the last weekday operation before the service changes. I also wanted to visit a couple of bus stations in the area, to see what communication (if any!) was present there.

I wanted to rule out it being the luck of the draw, so I decided to sample various services from a range of depots. I used 10 buses in total, based at either Chester-le-Street, Deptford, Riverside or Washington, which I felt gave me a pretty good sample.

An image of a Go North East Versa

I started off the day by using one of Washington’s local Little Pinks services towards Washington Town Centre, where from here I’d board a Coast & Country 8 to Sunderland. As I had spent the best part of the last two weeks looking, I decided to continue to check whether there are any service changes booklets available on the buses I used today. I also intended on picking up a few timetables for the changes, if they were available.

Sadly it wasn’t my lucky day on both counts, with empty timetable holders becoming somewhat a trend of the day.

Empty timetable holders
Example of an empty timetable holder – taken on 6088 today (3rd September 2021)
Panoramic shot of 5396 interior.
More empty timetable holders on 5396, accompanied by an empty clip frame. A missed opportunity? (3rd September 2021)

Once I reached Sunderland, I had a good look around the bus station, to see if I could see any information about the service changes. Park Lane, from my experience, is usually an attended bus station; even into the evening. Today however, there didn’t appear to be any staff presence, and on the most part, it felt that we were still in lockdown.

The Travel Shop at Park Lane was also one of the six that was victim of closure in October 2020. A poster advises of everything that you can do online, on the presumption that you have Internet access, but of course you cannot pick up a physical timetable.

Closed Travel Shop at Park Lane
The now-closed Nexus Travel Shop at Park Lane
Closed waiting room sign at Park Lane
Closed waiting room at Park Lane Interchange

Bus operators are quite rightly trying their best to get the message out there that their services are safe to use, and in line with current Government guidelines, and it is encouraging to see buses carrying people for both work and leisure again, rather than the key workers or fresh air that we’ve been used to in the last 18 months.

With that in mind, I cannot help but think that the mixed messaging from Nexus is one hell of an own goal. We multiple posters about social distancing (which no longer applies) and that face coverings are still compulsory (which was dropped in July). There’s also a rather bizarre poster about not eating or drinking local purchases…

I have made my views clear on this previously, that I find it incredible that some operators are going to many lengths to encourage people back onto public transport (kudos Go North East), yet the Passenger Transport Executive (Nexus, in this case) are in my view, actively discouraging.

This space, especially the designated information board, could be better used to advertise the service changes. Some of which pass through Park Lane bus station…

My next journey was a return trip on the 700 to Roker. I had wanted to do this before the Summer season finishes, but I could also use the two buses that I travel on as part of my sample. Sadly neither were displaying a service changes poster, none had a service changes booklet, but hurrah! My fourth bus of the day finally had some physical literature on it, in the form of a Summer Fares leaflet for the City of Sunderland area… it’s a start!

From Sunderland, I decided to head across to Concord Bus Station in Washington. It’s a relatively short trip, and although Concord isn’t a major bus station, I was interested if there was any information present. Further disappointment; only the standard A-Z index published earlier this year, and yet more mixed messages from Nexus – informing customers that buses are running less frequently 🤦‍♂️🙄

Concord Bus Station information stand, showing outdated posters.
More mixed messaging

I briefly checked a couple of the shelters at Concord whilst I was there, but all were still displaying the current timetable, with no notice of service changes to supplement.

Next on my list is Gateshead, which means another journey on the 56. This bus was advertising the Big Bus Conversation, but nothing about service changes. Still no timetables or service changes booklets.

Arriving at Gateshead Interchange, I wanted to have a bit of a look around, and see if there was any evidence of service changes yet. I had briefly been through on Saturday gone, but without a proper chance to look around.

Having been a bit puzzled last time I was here, as Nexus had appeared to have removed all the seating, I am pleased to report that they have been put back in their rightful place. The toilets however, remain closed.

Image showing seats at Gateshead Interchange
Seating returns to Gateshead!

Gateshead Interchange, much like Park Lane, felt very much like we were still in lockdown. Although there were evidently more people there, the mixed messages remain, and the narrative seems to be to still discourage public transport use.

Again, much like Park Lane, there were no staff present today, and we have another of the six Travel Shops that fell victim to the axe.

Former Travel Shop building at Gateshead Interchange.
Axed Travel Shop at Gateshead Interchange

Despite the glazed enclosure of the travel shop, there was not a single poster to advertise of any service changes. The posters present were all Nexus produced, relating to either the travel shop closure, or old information from when we were under lockdown.

I had hoped, as we embark on a world of partnership between Operators and the Passenger Transport Executive, the place would be flooded with customer information advising of the changes. I was sadly mistaken.

I decided to head for a 93 to Low Fell next, which given my intended bus was running late, I’d split my journey half way to try a second bus. Whilst sat waiting at Stand C, I noticed an A4 sized poster stuck to the window, with extremely vague information on the upcoming service change. I had almost missed it, for what use it is.

Although this correctly states the Q1 no longer exists and that there’ll be some other stand changes, it fails to mention what the actual changes are. For example, the 28A is being curtailed before Chester-le-Street, yet this is not even mentioned.

A4 poster stuck to the window of Stand C at Gateshead
A4 poster stuck to the window of Stand C at Gateshead

Helpfully, customers are advised to speak to one of their Customer Services team. Whether that be the staff that aren’t here, or those in the Travel Shop that they’ve closed…

Now that my 93 had arrived, I was further disappointed to find no timetables or service changes booklets. I did however find that 6157 was equipped with its own misinformation. We’re still in a local lockdown, apparently… 😳

Face coverings must be worn local lockdown poster.

I get that in a fleet the size of Go North East’s, that the odd poster will be missed, but we haven’t been in a local lockdown since at least Spring-time. For the amount of workers that must have passed through this bus since then, I am extremely surprised that no-one has spotted how out of date this is, and removed it at once…

A journey split later and I’m on another 93, this time completing the trip to Low Fell. Although I’m still yet to find a timetable, 6156 proved to be my second bus of the day with any kind of on-board literature. This time in the form of the Gateshead version of the Summer Fares leaflet.

A short wait in Low Fell, and my penultimate bus of the day was to be one of Chester-le-Street’s Angel branded Streetdecks. I’d be taking this to Birtley, where I’d be changing on to an 82, after a quick shop.

It was good to see a decent load on this 21 service, similar to the one I’d just missed some 7 minutes earlier. It was even better to finally! see a timetable! However, on closer inspection and to my disappointment, this appeared to be an October 2020 edition…

This bus was another that I’d experienced throughout the day displaying the ‘Big Bus Conversation’ poster, rather than anything about service changes.

'Big Bus Conversation' poster on board one of the Angel Streetdecks
‘Big Bus Conversation’ poster on board one of the Angel Streetdecks

I ended up finishing my day as it started, on board one of Washington’s Little Pinks Solos. This time for the journey between Birtley and Washington Galleries, which is due to be extended to Waterview Park from next week; and much like the start of the day, this was another Washington Solo without any service changes information…

Final bus station of the day was Washington Galleries. Although this one is not managed by Nexus (or Go North East, for that matter), the result was much the same. Information boards not used to their potential, and nothing to advertise of service changes.

Broken information board holdings at Washington Galleries bus station
Broken information board holdings at Washington Galleries bus station

In conclusion, I’ve tried to use this blog post to write about my findings during a day of using these service, prior to any changes taking place. I’m aware that it’s a very small sample of the network, compared to the daily mileage that is covered and the amount of buses on the road, but I’m also aware that the vast majority of customers will use no-where near 10 buses in a day. If I’m finding this lack of information across my sample, then I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I repeatedly come back to the fact that communication is key. It has to be, as it speaks volumes as a promoter in terms of customer satisfaction and confidence.

I wanted to avoid commenting on the service changes themselves, as that is for another post, but I think we can agree that any service changes can have a knock-on impact to people’s routines and even their likelihood of using public transport in the future.

I’ve touched upon consultation earlier in the design stages, but I cannot help but feel there’s been a whole bunch of missed opportunities in the four weeks since these changes have been published. At the very least, to ensure that the large information boards at bus stations have big glossy posters in place. Operators and the PTE/Local Authorities should in partnership, ensure that there’s a workable plan to get timetables at bus stops updated, and at the very least, a notice to state that times/services are changing.

There should have also been a series of roadshows across the network, at various times of days, and especially in some of the areas experiencing more change than others. This presents an opportunity for proper two-way communication; an operator’s opportunity to reassure customers over any changes, or to help them plan their future journeys.

Then there’s on board information. I understand that there can be issues in producing information (or printing it), at least to this scale, but it is vital that this is done correctly. Retail seem to manage this without hiccup, for example in time for Boxing Day sales, and some companies have hundreds of stores to provide POS material for.

Whilst this information is all online, and that is great for those who have Internet access or are technically-able to make use of that access, it does not take into account the many customers that can’t. Facebook posts and tweets do not reach these people, which is why it’s so important to make sure communication is accessible to all of your customers.

Finally, growing public transport use has to be more than buzzwords and snappy slogans. It has to be meaningful and you have to take your customers, and your potential customers with you. This disjointed approach between operators and the PTE, which appears to be resulting in very little customer information, just isn’t good enough.

'East Gateshead Orbit' 5442 at Heworth
‘East Gateshead Orbit’ 5442 at Heworth

One Comment

%d bloggers like this: