I’ve long thought bus and train owning Groups are missing a trick by not upselling travel in the way savvy retailers would (‘people who bought this also bought this’) so I was encouraged in May last year when Arriva announced they were putting matters right with an exciting modal integration project in North Wales.
Arriva has long been the largest bus operator along the North Wales coast and since 2003 has run the train franchise in Wales so there’s been plenty of scope for joined up initiatives to benefit passengers. It’s a pity this exciting initiative had to wait until the last full year of the franchise but hey-ho, like a GTR train, better late than never.
Whereas trains from the east only get as far as Bangor before heading over to Holyhead on Anglesey, Arriva’s buses continue to the popular tourist hotspot of Caernarfon. Route 5C is a busy four-bus-an-hour route and with no other public transport option available (other than a pricey taxi) unsurprisingly there are always lots of visitors getting off trains at Bangor seeking out the bus to continue their journey to Caernarfon.
The interchange at Bangor leaves a lot to be desired. There are two bus stops conveniently right outside the station’s pedestrian exit, one of which is unused, but Caernarfon bound buses stay on the main road stopping around a corner unseen from the station as they climb up a steep hill. Passengers who eventually find where to go are greeted by a shoddy shelter, a duff real time sign that’s probably never worked and a confusing array of bus numbers worthy of a drawn out Bingo game adorning the worn bus stop flag on a narrow pavement. It’s crying out for investment and a revamp. My guess is it’s one of the busiest stops for train/bus interchange in North Wales.
So I was a bit surprised to hear Arriva had chosen Rhyl for it’s integration trailblazer rather than Bangor. This decision no doubt influenced by Denbighshire County Council upgrading the five bay bus station immediately outside the train station offering a great opportunity for Arriva to join the bandwagon and show what can be done to make buses and trains seamlessly work together.
I was intrigued to visit this week, just over a year since the launch in May 2017, to see what’s occurring.
As you get off westbound trains at Rhyl and cross the footbridge to the exit on the eastbound platform you’re met with an impressive plethora of posters explaining the route and frequencies of the six onward bus services from the bus station outside. Someone’s certainly been diligent at utilising every opportunity to catch your eye as you leave the station.
And that’s not all. Impressively by the station exit there’s a leaflet rack dedicated to Arriva bus timetables while outside there are more posters including one for the ‘One Arriva’ ticket.
Aside from the posters and leaflet rack the ‘One Arriva’ ticket seems to be the main integration initiative. It’s basically Plusbus but includes travel along the full length of the six Arriva bus routes from Rhyl station. It costs £4 whereas the smaller Plusbus area costs £2.60 (or just £1.70 with a Railcard). There’s a 7-day ‘One Arriva’ for just £11 (a great value 2.75 time’s the daily price) and an intriguing ‘Group of 5 people’ ticket valid after 0930 for just £10 (half price compared to buying individual tickets which would be £20) and a 7-day version of that for £50 (5 times the daily price so only a measly fiver saving compared to buying five individual 7-day tickets for £55).
The thing is though, the two main bus routes from Rhyl station, the 11 to Prestatyn continuing on to Flint and Chester and the 12 to Llandudno pretty much parallel the train so most passengers would presumably stay on the train if they’re Prestatyn, Flint or Llandudno bound and in a Catch 22 classic they’d not be able to buy a ‘One Arriva’ ticket to travel on the same bus from those stations as the information implies it’s only valid from Rhyl.
Well, that’s if you can find any information about the ‘One Arriva’ ticket. Other than the aforementioned posters at Rhyl station you’ll be hard pressed to find anything about ‘One Arriva’ anywhere. There’s no mention of it at all on the Arriva Trains Wales website and it’s buried so deep in the Arriva Bus website, you have to be an extreme keyboard warrior to click through and find it. I eventually found the details shown here under the ‘Latest’ tab on the Wales region page where you’d have to know to scroll down two pages of the last fourteen month’s PR puff to find the launch announcement back in May 2017. There’s no mention of it under Tickets or anywhere else I could find; strange as I thought it was a ground breaking integration innovation!
Even more odd, no-one at Arriva Bus seems to know about ‘One Arriva’. I tried telephoning, live chatting and fares enquiries form filling to find out about it, but no-one could help me. But I’ll tell you more about these experiences another time, as they’re a classic in their own futility.
When you eventually find the information you’re told you can “simply buy your ‘One Arriva’ ticket from your train conductor or from Rhyl station”. Now that’s strange as surely you’d want to buy the combined ‘One Arriva’ ticket at your origin station as you do Plusbus? With gateline barriers at many stations it’s not really practical to buy from the conductor so I tested the system by asking at Chester station (probably the largest Arriva Trains Wales station in the area) for a ‘One Arriva’ ticket to Rhyl. To be helpful I explained it included bus travel (I’m not that cruel) and impressively the very helpful staff there had heard of ‘One Arriva’ and could remember selling one “months ago” but inevitably for such a sales rarity had forgotten the relevant code the ticket machine computer needed to make a sale. I give them full credit for perseverance and helpfulness as after many unsuccessful attempts they were determined to see it through and thought it best to phone colleagues at Rhyl who were able to help and a £4 ticket was issued called ‘BUS DAY ROVER’ showing it as issued at Chester in addition to a standard train ticket to Rhyl.
When I arrived at Rhyl, I’m pleased to report the driver of the 51 bus to Denbigh allowed me on without comment after an initial quizzical look at the ticket, presumably helped by the words ‘BUS’ and ‘DAY ROVER’. I don’t think either he or I, or probably anyone knows exactly how far a ‘One Arriva’ ticket could take me as the bus continues all the way to Wrexham as the 51 becomes an X51 at Denbigh, nor if I’d chosen to ride the 11 back towards Flint, whether I could have stayed on the bus through to Chester.
The Council’s revamp of Rhyl bus station is welcome with some excellent maps and clear information displayed but attention to detail is sadly lacking, particularly keeping things up to date.
It’s the same old story ad nauseam. Introduce something supposedly innovative in a blaze of hype, bask in the glory of favourable launch headlines and media stories then forget all about it. But the world doesn’t work like that. You have to keep on top of these things; nothing stands still. Yesterday’s hyperbole is today’s stale, unattractive initiative going distinctly off the boil for all to see. Someone like me comes along and it’s all too easy to find fault and criticise whereas continued effort at keeping the pot boiling would reap rich rewards.
Here are a few observations and suggestions:
1. An old architects drawing for the revamped bus station (probably used in the consultation) was still on display in a prominent position fourteen months on – it has numbered bays instead of lettered bays and buses now depart from different stands to the original plan. Take it down and replace with the helpful network route map, assuming that is up to date!
2. One of Arriva’s routes – the 51 to Denbigh and on to Wrexham – is no longer branded as MAX but the branding appears on the departure information. Remove it. Confusingly the through journeys to Wrexham are operated by Sapphire branded double deckers and the short journeys by standard single decks! A complete brand mishmash.
3. Keep Rhyl station regularly supplied with bus timetable leaflets for all Arriva bus routes (and the excellent Denbigh County Council produced comprehensive timetable book) and instruct staff based there to ensure the leaflet rack is topped up as required. The rack was bereft of leaflets when I visited sporting just one route, the local Rhyl town routes better known as the 83/83A/84/84A/85.
4. ‘One Arriva’ needs proper and sustained marketing all along the North Wales coast not just at Rhyl as the ticket could be used from any of the stations along the 11 and 12 bus routes from Flint to Llandudno as all the ticket states is ‘BUS DAY ROVER’ with no reference to Rhyl on it.
5. Indeed ‘One Arriva’ should be available at every station between Chester and Holyhead where there’s an Arriva bus passing by. The £4 price and sales message would then be much more compelling and attractive.
6. Drop the inconsistent ‘Group of 5’ pricing and have a more usual range of family ticket options including children which would be much more useful for the families who holiday in this area.
7. Have leaflets promoting it at every station along the North Wales coast and make information easy to access on websites for both Arriva Bus and Arriva Trains Wales.
8. Display posters at all stations about bus routes that serve them as per the Rhyl exemplar.
9. Install leaflet racks at every station with supplies of bus timetables as per Rhyl.
10. Put a lot of effort into improving the interchange at Bangor including routing the Caernarfon bound 5C journeys around the station building with much improved signage. This really is a priority.
Sadly none of this will happen and the Rhyl initiative will fizzle out. Firstly managers will observe ticket sales are far too low; not surprising with the lack of high profile promotion, lack of any information, staff unfamiliarity and it only involves one station – a drop in an ocean of possibilities. Secondly Arriva’s involvement in running trains in Wales ends in October as Keolis-Amey start their new franchise. A ‘One Arriva’ ticket suddenly becomes somewhat inappropriately named.
But as luck would have it there’s a ready made alternative already available. The North Wales Rover. It’s been around for some years quietly offering combined bus and train travel for various zonal areas across North Wales. The trouble is you need to be a ticket officianado to know about the options. They’re buried on the National Rail website page on Rangers and Rovers, and even then you have to interrogate a full alphabetical list of every Rover ticket in the country to find the one you want, but at least it does confirm it’s available on both trains and ‘most’ buses. Astonishingly availability on buses doesn’t get a mention at all on the Arriva Trains Wales website. Bizarrely for a bus and train company, you’d think the ticket was only for train passengers, yet one of its unique selling points is you can travel all over North Wales on buses too! Suffice to say there’s absolutely no mention of the ticket at all on the Arriva Bus website!
Commendably the North Wales Rover is promoted in the excellent Conwy and Denbighshire timetable books I was pleased to recently acquire. And when I bought an all-zones North Wales ticket at Chester station the staff member issued it efficiently and confidentially. I asked if there was a leaflet available to confirm exactly which bus routes it was valid on, or perhaps which are excluded – all you’re told is ‘all trains and most bus routes’ – but sadly there’s no leaflet and nothing to reassure wary passengers.
I’ve long learned most bus drivers are as unsure as you whether tickets like this are valid so if you present it with a false assured air of confidence you’ll easily win the battle of ticket acceptance wariness. But what a way to run a railway and bus network! Come on; be bold and just state ‘Valid On All Trains And ALL Buses’. And guess what, if you really really promote it properly it just might actually become a big seller and grow the market. After all, Wales could do with a bit of that!
Roger French 26th July 2018
As a postscript, I was intrigued to come across this item in Arriva Group’s update of all that’s happening around the Group.
“A seamless service”; the writer has obviously not tried to buy a ‘One Arriva’ ticket!