We were keen to try out the new ftr-Metro over at Swansea - largely because the same outfit is tipped to open up in Bristol before long.
ftr-metro is a new offering from the First chain, which already provides this more specialist choice to its customers in York, Leeds, and Swansea - to mixed reviews.
In Swansea, as in Bristol, First already has a near monopoly trading position, so for our starters we thought we'd try their basic buses, and as we expected there is little to choose between Swansea and Bristol. One difference, though, was that holders of concessionary fare passes had only to touch their cards on a reader to board the bus; no need to tell the driver their destination, so boarding and dwell times were marginally quicker.
Next came the eagerly anticipated main course of ftr-metro.
We'd done our homework and knew already that we should expect our existing perceptions of public travel to be challenged - making the terms bus, tram, and train redundant for this journey. The goftr website had told us.
As we waited for our neither-bus-tram-nor-train, we did note that perhaps there had been a bit of a cash shortfall in the preparatory phase; the raised kerbs offering easy boarding for buggies and wheelchairs had, here at least, been substituted by temporary rubber sloped steps on the low pavement. That seemed fairly typical of central Swansea; what isn't modern, anonymous, and cloned from other centres looks pretty seedy and uncared for.
Then we saw our 'new mode of public travel' approaching.
It comes presented in stylised blue and purple cladding, par for the course and straight out the First Colouring Book. The illusion that this is not a normal bus is further stressed by the lack of anyone called a driver. Instead, the vehicle is controlled by a 'pilot', who sits in a separate and spacious air-conditioned cabin. The more menial task of dealing with the passengers falls to a 'customer service host' - bringing nostalgic memories of the conductors who did the same job when I were a lad.
Fortunately, we'd had the foresight to buy a 'PlusBus' add-on to our rail tickets, so we didn't have to pay the usual First prices, which are much the same as here in Bristol.
No-one would deny that the interior of the ftr-metro was clean and reasonably comfortable. Possibly the presence of a customer service host discourages the jetsam of bottles and old newspapers that litter other buses. Otherwise, though, the ride quality wasn't much different from our local 54 bus in Bristol. And you get a better view from the upper deck of a 54.
Dwell time at stops was very short, thanks to the two entry/exit doors and the absence of any need to buy or show tickets on entry.
Outside, there's been extensive re-engineering of the road layouts to provide a clearer run for ftr-metro.
There's even a new section, isolated from the public roads by automatic gates. It doesn't really live up to its 'rapid' promise, though. If it's true that ftr-metro triggers green lights as it goes, it certainly didn't show up on our trip.
Swansea's modern central bus station can't accommodate the ftr-metro, because its layout requires buses to back out. Instead, this most central ftr stop, where drivers changeover, is on the road skirting the bus station. We noticed one would-be passenger racing dangerously (and illegally) across the busy bus apron in an effort to reach the ftr before it set off.
Remarkably, ftr-metro doesn't come packaged with real time information, which they don't seem to have heard of yet in Swansea's public transport system. Nor is there any expectation of prepayment of fares, as is the norm in London, and is planned for the Bristol BRT. No cross-ticketting either (except within the limits of First's own day and season tickets) and no smart cards.
As the flagship of Swansea's public transport provision, ftr-metro may be eye-catching to the visitor, but it really doesn't live up to the hype. It smells like a bus and it looks like a bus and it does what buses do.
Disappointed by our main course, we decided to complete the trip with an open-top ride around Swansea Bay to Mumbles Head. That made up for a lot!
Rapid transit (ftr-metro): 2
open-top bus: 4