Thursday, 31 July 2014

Sapphire Simply Saddens [2]

The first Sapphire route between Wrexham and Chester was certainly a big step forward in buxury travel. Top deck seats were 2+1 and squishy ...
... bottom deck seats, although 2+2, were "leather" with high backs.
Roll on to the launch of Sapphire 31 and 31A in Leicester and you get refurbished buses, not new, ...
... with 2+2 non squishy blue "leather" and without high backs. Disappointing.

Then there was audio-visual without audio. Although, on both fbb's Oadby Sapphires, the screens were working adequately (but not perfectly; some stops were shown after departure), there was no audible audio.
Oadby town centre is being refurbished and the main shopping street is closed. Leicestershire council has provided some "dolly stops" ...
... on the diversions and there was an explanatory screen on-bus, if you were close enough to read it.
Having read it, the next stop announced on screen and in audio silence was  The Parade , a stop not served during this phase of the road works! Presumably the programers at the Arriva depot could insert an "alert", but changing the whole route gubbins to remove the missing stops would have involved a completely new GPS satellite launch. Perhaps the local space lads could help?
Nearly forgot. there was an explanation of the rerouting on a small poster on a lower deck bulkhead.
Correct but illegible unless you were sitting in the seats directly in front of it. Poor, especially for inexperienced visitors. This was fbb's first ever visit to the suburban solubriousness of Oadby, so even after prolific pre-expedition preparation, the chubby one struggled to understand.

fbb concluded that the Leicester Sapphire experience was somewhat less jewel encrusted than that between Wrecsam and Caer.

But what was really really depressing was the appalling state of the "route equipment", bus top flags and at-stop information. Here is a selection of stop flag pictures showing a steady deterioration as the bus left the opulence of the city centre and progressed to the depressed slums of Oadby. (?)

X7 stops here; that's Stagecoach every 30 minutes to Northampton continuing every hour to Milton Keynes.
But the only "operator" label is a tired and peeling Arriva. Presumably that company has gone bust?

This flag was, at least clean; but hardly informative with possibly helpful stickers removed.

Centrebus to Fosse Park stops here or did? But doesn't? Or does?

And an attractive mixture of white sticky vinyls and older patch-ups that have deteriorated to grey.

Oh, yes indeed, truly a bus service that sparkles.
The word "Sapphire" did not appear on any stop flag from London Road (Leicester Station) to fbb's alighting point at Sainsbury's on Glen Road.

There were departure lists at the stops but, of course, no timetables. From other operators and in other localities, these lists have at least a guide as to length of journey but no such minimalistic help from sparkling Arriva. Just a list.
Some stops, like this one on the estate in Oadby had a very useful map, NOT.
It is good to know that Arriva operates buses to Shrewsbury when you are hoping to get off at Sainsbury's in Oadby. There are perfectly adequate maps in the timetable leaflets and on-line.
Even a route diagram like the ones on the buses ...
... would be more helpful, (OK, less unhelpful) that a crude and meaningless network diagram.

The 1630 trip was well-loaded and the majority of those on board had alighted by Oadby not the Parade. Voyagers braving the wiggly estate were small in number.

But before we enjoy the untold excitements of the return journey, fbb repairs to Sainsbury's for a mugga and a meal. "Fish and chips, please", requested fbb, conscious, as always, of his dietary needs and dangers.
"Sorry, we've run out of fish." came the barely apologetic reply. Now, there's a thing. Downstairs is a huge supermarket with racks and racks of frozen food including loads and loads of fish products. But the caff has run out of fish. Strange are the ways of our supermarket managers? It'll be a different line on the cumputer.

So it was cottage pie.
Hardly a gourmet experience but an ideal opportunity to wonder how the cook manages to create translucent and totally tasteless carrots. It must take years of training.
Pud was a Belgian chocolate gooey thing plus an Eccles Cake inadequately stuffed with eccles. But the repast (?) filled a gap and prepared your tireless transport investigator for the return journey to central Leicester.

To recapitulate; whilst some of the Sapphire routes are equipped with new rolling stock, Oadby was allocated refurbished buses; but not refurbished to the same Sapphire standards as, for example, the first sparkler in Wales. Apart from a visual screen showing stop names, something that is becoming universal in London town, it is hard to see much difference between this and an "ordinary" route.

What is very much below par is the quality at the roadside. No doubt there will be the usual excuses; almost certainly the bus companies have devolved stop signs, shelters and timetable provision to Leicester City and Leicestershire county but, surely ...

... if you've got it, flaunt it!

At least nip out on a dark night with a step ladder and screw some proper signs on the poles. There's a pretty good chance that the local authorities will never notice!
fbb knows of at least one company that would have never allowed such a sloppy announcement of its presence on the road.
To add to the brand confusion (dilution?) you can now have single deck Sapphires ...
... as here on the 7 between Durham and Darlington.

 Next sparkling bus blog : Friday 1st August 


  1. For what it's worth, the latest Sapphire route in North Wales, No. 12 from Llandudno to Rhyl, really does sparkle!
    Comfortable seats, smooth ride, new Enviro 400 buses, working passenger information system. A real credit to Arriva.

  2. Does it have good-looking bus stop flags? Timetables at bus stops?

    1. No - there's no mention of "Sapphire" on the bus stops, but then most of them are shared by other routes.
      There are lists of times of services serving major bus stops, in chronicle order.
      I'm not trying to excuse Arriva - simply saying that the new buses are a big improvement on what went before.

  3. I notice that there is no mention of "Sapphirisation" for the 12 on Arriva's main web site. You have to look up "Sapphire" to know which services are Sapphired! North Wales 12 looks boringly ordinary unless you know where to look.

  4. When Arriva launched the Sapphire concept they clearly stated that each would use a different combination of attributes to test what worked well. So you had new single-deckers in Durham, heavily refurbished newish deckers in Wrexham & Aylesbury all on interurban routes & lesser refurbished older vehicles in Leicester on a more urban cycle, this would enable them to see what bits of the various concepts proved most useful rather than just do a straight copycat of one of the other big groups (was it the leather, the cushions, wif-fi, power points, AV systems, all some or one of these). Given that the latest launches that are rolling out elsewhere in the group are using more modern equipment with what appears to be a mid-level seat spec (higher backed but less coach like than the Wrexham vehicles) then we can see that they have looked at the initial results and decided on what bits to take from what, which was the point of the exercise. Whether that means we will be seeing an upgrade to the vehicles, a downgrade to the branding or leaving it as the status quo on the Leicester route in the future remains to be seen, though I suspect they don't consider the trials fully over yet as to all the attributes so as to change the less successful ones just yet.

    Roadside publicity provision in Leicestershire is largely down to the operators (the council do put up a departure list style display at town centre stops but elsewhere it is the operators) whilst Leicester City is slightly more complicated as the flags everywhere are owned by the city (who repeatedly promise to update the numbers/operators which are many years out of date but never quite get round to it) who also do roadside displays for the city centre & on certain corridors elsewhere (which they are slowly increasing), outside of this it is up to the operators. So for the 31s it is down to the operator at all stops once you get just beyond the station.

  5. Resetting tracking & AV systems for roadworks is actually a very difficult & time consuming problem, particularly where it affects a timing point (as Oadby Parade is) since it has to run off the scheduling system and removing timing points from that will cause other issues, just setting up normal schedules changes takes a lot of time (& need to be prepared for loading weeks in advance). Alongside this these systems rely on each stop having a set location so the bus can tell when it passes & none of the temporary stops will have one so they couldn't be added in as they won't have a location set (you can't just rename the existing stops temporarily as the locations will be wrong & the system won't track). London, who employ more people running their system than most operators employ to run their whole company, just switch off & say 'on diversion' and that is with a system much more complicated & expensive than the systems that can be afforded by provincial operators. It is one of the problems that currently exist with these systems that operators running them are working to solve but these issues only become clear in real world service & finding the solutions is best done with that experience, Oadby is particularly difficult as it is multi-phase with different diversions at different times & as with most roadworks the dates given are often 'slipped' as weather or complications delay or speed up works.

    On-bus notices are designed to inform regular passengers by getting them to read them as they alight to warn them of upcoming changes or disruptions (I always glance at the notices behind the driver as I alight to see if anything affects me as a matter of course). How you get to non-regular, & more pertinently in this case non-local, passengers is an issue that is still to be solved. The web is the primary means (not yet wholly universal which is a problem) but few operators have yet got their websites ideally set up to inform customers of disruptions like this. The only real alternative is to plaster notices on every bus stop on the route, it requires control of the stops (not available at the point fbb boarded I think) and from experience in big cities, particularly during the school holidays, rarely survive long due to weather or damage if not protected inside a case that is normally full with timetable info.

  6. Thanks all for your comments and excuses on behalf of Arriva. The Oadby diversions information conundrum looks, once again, like the IT tail wagging the necessary information dog. The on-bus screens appear to run on standard Microslop Windslow (watched mine reboot at Oadby "terminus") which should mean that day to day updating is not harder technically than writing a blog. There is another alternative to notices for repeatedly changing road works diversions. Once upon a time the conductor - even in recent times, the driver, would announce using that brilliant piece of technology, the human voice. I agree that dangly additives to bus stops will not survive, but an informative poster in a timetable frame is possible. I just takes effort and consideration for the passenger. On a premium service that sparkles this should be the norm. And it should on any service. Likewise if the local authority fail to update flags etc., the company should go out and do the job itself. As my boss used to sat to us all - I don't want excuses, I want you to tell me how you are going to solve it! We usually did!

  7. The screens that display the name may be based on something that appears like windows, the system that combines the schedules, GPS data & stop information to know what to show when certainly doesn't and requires specialist programs & time - my employers don't run AV systems (we did trial one with computer generated announcements but it got most of the stop name pronunciations wrong so it was switched off - which is the other issues with announcements you need someone to record them and then come back every time there is a diversion to re-record) but we do run the Real-time tracking that underlines it and it takes my colleagues several hours to set up a simple route (which has to be done in a specialist scheduling package & exported in a special file that holds all the data necessary for the bus to know what it is and where it is going) & needs to be submitted to the system a couple of weeks in advance to be sure of getting it in, Arriva being bigger may have a dedicated liaison which means lead time for submission is lessened but the rest wouldn't be. This doesn't get round the issue that temporary stops by their nature do not have a location (those can only be provided by the councils who don't react that quickly and can't be just made up the operators - we are having enough issues with them not telling us when the re-locate or re-name existing fixed stops to get on to temp ones) so either you remove the missing stops & go quiet for an extended period (which from what I have seen as a passenger elsewhere can appear to confuse the system that it never re-locates itself again), leave everything in as is in the knowledge that it will work elsewhere or switch the whole thing off for the duration - all have as many drawbacks as each other at the end and what works for one operators system may not work in the same way for anothers outwardly similar one.

    I've not been down to Oadby recently, we don't serve that bit of Leicester much so I haven't made a close survey of the roadside & I am avoiding the area until the roadworks are finished as a casual user, but the last time I used a service down there (a 31 as it happens) the timetable case had a timetable in it and no space for anything else, I accept that I may have been using one with a small case that was an anomaly but it seemed fairly standard. I'm sure if you had asked the driver would have explained but it seems a little unreasonable to expect a driver to call out repeatedly, just on the off-chance, information that was irrelevant to about half his passengers & already known to the vast majority of the rest (if you live, work or visit Oadby with any regularity you would know this was happening already) - particularly since most of your passengers are upstairs & can't hear you anyway. I suspect, but being of the age that I only remember the post-privatisation industry can't be certain, that you may be a bit guilty of rose tinted specs about how helpful most staff were in the past. Certainly the stories you get from talking to people who worked in these roles in the 60's & 70's is hardly a paragon of good customer service. It was probably better, life (& vehicles) were slower & staff and customer tended to live closer but I doubt it was all the great paragon of golden customer service you sometimes paint.

    1. Having worked for Leicester City Transport between 1974 and 1981 I completely disagree with this generalised last comment.

      At that time they had one of, if not the first, radio and CCTV control centres and also had Inspectors on duty at the city centre bus stops from first bus till last. A lot of effort was put into bus stop displays and the provision of up to date printed timetables.

      Some of this was down to the management who had been in place for many years and retained 'old style' standards.

      I found it a complete change from the two NBC bus companies I had previously worked for where they seemed to have lost their way regarding 'service'.

      Unfortunately things did alter later under 'newer' management'!

    2. Firstly, I was referring to driver customer service rather than publicity with that comment. Secondly, you yourself appear to admit that LCT was unusually good, my references come from a couple of NBC ops & London Transport, it will of course (as it still is now) vary from op to op depending on relationships, management & company ethos as to how each aspect of service is delivered. Additionally the company we are talking about is the inheritor of the Midland Red mantle not LCT (whoever ran to Oadby in the past it is the descendant of Midland Red now) so a discussion about LCT is only relevant in a tangential & comparative sense.