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Will Clacton be all at sea?

Wednesday 1st January 2020

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Head to head competition between First Essex and Go-Ahead owned Hedingham between Colchester and Clacton-on-Sea comes to an end on Saturday.

First Essex closed its Clacton-on-Sea base back in July 2018 with Hedingham taking over the town’s local bus routes leaving First running only the three-bus-an-hour inter-urban link from Colchester to Clacton and on to Walton-on-the-Naze via Frinton-on-Sea; routes 97 and 98.

Now First Essex are withdrawing these routes from this weekend completing a full exodus from the Clacton, Frinton and Walton area save for a few Essex County Council tendered evening journeys.

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Hedingham have announced they’ll be taking over the 97 and 98 from Sunday so passengers will not lose out, although through buses from Walton-on-the Naze to Colchester will be a thing of the past.

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Hedingham’s takeover doesn’t exude total confidence in a sustainable future for the routes advising passengers on its website “this move is a risk for our small business here in Clacton, after all First are withdrawing from these routes as they don’t cover their operating costs. However, we are already recruiting extra drivers to support these new routes and will be all ready to go on the 5th January 2020.”

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Hedingham are maintaining the same route numbers 97 and 98 for a truncated local route between Clacton and east to Walton at the same three buses per hour (two via the 97 and one via the 98) frequency. Between Clacton and west to Colchester Hedingham have been running a competitive half hourly route X76 via the 97 since the July 2018 shake up which must have surely underminded First’s finances as there simply isn’t enough custom for two competing routes on this corridor. The 97 will not be replaced and the X76 continues on more of a sounder financial footing.

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The hourly alternative route between Clacton and Colchester numbered 98 will be replaced by a new hourly route 74 run by Hedingham. Good luck with that one, as from my journey yesterday, albeit on a peculiar “in-between-Christmas-and-New-Year-Saturday-service-not-many-people-about-day” we struggled to get to double figures for passengers travelling throughout the route. Although the 97 which I also had a ride on wasn’t much better even though that runs at double the frequency through supposedly more populated parts.

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Both First Essex’s 97 and 98 are routed via the buses-only gated University of Essex campus on Colchester’s south east flank which looked to me as a good source of custom in busier term times, whereas Hedingham’s X76 doesn’t take that route option. Next week’s new timetable does include a token one peak hour commuter type journey via the Uni, and the new 74 will run via the campus, but First Essex have other more frequent buses that serve the University including four buses an hour on each of routes 61 to Wivenhoe and 62 to Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea.

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Route 62 to Brightlingsea follows much of the 98’s route albeit with a twiddly extra bit in Wivenhoe meaning the only section of route exclusively served by the replacement 74 is a rather sparsely inhabited section of the B1027 from Thorington to St Oysth.

The lovely village of St Oysth already has a bespoke Hedingham half-hourly route 6 into Clacton so if First diverted their route 62 around Thorington to serve it better on its way from Brightlinesea into Colchester it would pretty much be job done. Except St Osyth residents would lose their direct bus to Colchester.

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It’ll be interesting to see how the new arrangements work out for Hedingham. The elimination of competition between the X76 and 97 will no doubt help, but I wonder if this part of Essex really is the financial goldmine a PLC subsidiary needs for those elusive profit margins which impress City investors. It seems more the kind of territory suited to locally based independents such as Stephensons and Panther Travel to me but good luck Heders in 2020.

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Meanwhile Directors at First Group HQ will be pleased this weekend’s Essex cutback taking eleven peak vehicles out of Colchester will be “margin enhancing” albeit leaving that operating base with even less revenue towards its overheads.

Which brings me to why Colchester is struggling. The Borough’s population is approaching 200,000; it’s a commuting town for London with a good train service; it seems to have a vibrant commercial and attractive shopping centre with a large number of small independent quirky shops as well as the big national names; it’s got a university; and local employment opportunities. It seems to be doing alright to me.

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It’s even got a smart looking Travel Shop. Run by First Essex. But here lies a clue of one reason why all is not well.

Inside the shop is a large leaflet rack packed full of tempting colourful literature and leaflets. Except not one will tell you anything useful about the local bus network. Printed timetables and maps were regarded as old hat last year in a policy change by First Essex who announced they’d no longer be printed “as it’s all online”.

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The irony is the Company maintains a “High Street presence” distributing printed literature to entice visitors and residents to visit and frequent a whole range of other places and attractions – who also are “all online” – yet not for its own products.

It’s not just First Essex either, I asked in the Travel Shop if they had any details of the new Hedingham operated route 74 beginning this weekend which they obviously didn’t, but helpfully suggested I try the Visitor Information Centre.

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Which I did; but the frustrated staff there laughed at the idea of them being able to give out printed bus timetables (“if only” they remarked) indicating despite many requests, bus companies fail to give them a supply and they’ve given up asking.

And those same bus companies wonder why passenger numbers are not growing.

I find it completely baffling.

Meanwhile Essex County Council’s public transport team have been ahead of themselves updating roadside timetables (at least they still see the virtue in that unlike their neighbouring short sighted Suffolk who’ve abandoned that too – ”it’s all online”) even posting new times ready for next week by my visit yesterday (and my guess is they were there before Christmas) which could have caught me out if I hadn’t been ‘bus change aware’.

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I like the plethora of very helpful ‘where to catch your bus’ posters displayed all around the town centre which are a godsend to visitors like me and which many towns fail to produce.

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Although the old Essex real time information system (to the same specification as the successful Brighton & Hove system) has never worked and has pretty much been abandoned ….

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…. there are new electronic displays all around the quaintly named ‘Colchester Bus Station’ also known as a few bus stops but with a nice enclosed waiting area.

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That’s the bright spot in an otherwise rather uninspiring bus scene with both Arriva and First Bus not offering their finest image.

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I reckon Colchester’s got potential. Interestingly with both Arriva and First Bus up for sale it’s a pity there couldn’t be some coming together of ownership in this part of the country to better serve the population. That would really see things Go-Ahead!

Happy New Year to all readers.

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train.

9 thoughts on “Will Clacton be all at sea? Leave a comment

  1. Quelle surprise – First throwing in the towel! To be honest First seem to have diverted all their attention to where the profits can be made, and anything that smacks of rural or interurban and slim pickings will be part of the managed decline that First (and Arriva) are very good at. Before all the First defenders come crawling out of the woodwork and say what a marvellous job First are doing, then perhaps they should consider that even in Bristol with all their shiny new buses they are cutting off peak headways quite severely and they (First) have stated that in preparation for sale, they are looking to improve margins, but I don’t think that will be by a concentrated effort to improve services, but by the more familiar slash and burn methods.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the problems caused by First joining their Walton – Clacton service to the Colchester route was that double deckers could no longer be used due to the railway bridge at Kirby Cross. Historically, low height deckers could pass under the bridge but the road surface is now too high. Stephensons provide an hourly direct service (105) from Walton too Colchester.
    Incidentally, the owner of Stephensons is one William Hiron who, twenty years ago, was the Managing Director of First Essex Buses.

    One of the reasons for Hedingham introducing a competing service to Colchester was to give a quicker service by avoiding the University.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for the info re double deckers/lie bridge Nigel and good point about the X76 bring quicker by avoiding the Uni. Yes; I know Bill Hiron very well – an excellent bus manager and now bus company owner.

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  3. An interesting concept a bus company travel centre that does not provide the basic information ie timetables

    Could they not invest in a colour laser printer and print timetables off if requested

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A total mirror reflection of my own thoughts, thus further comment superfluous, except to say that matters are infinitely worse now that Essex County Council gave up producing the County bus map (not to mention the timetable which required heavy-lifting skills!). How on earth do you attract Customers if Nobody has a clue of what operates where? Thus passenger loadings are confined to the diminishing core group for whom the bus is an essential lifeline. A situation now reflected in so many non-urban parts of the UK.

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  5. Hedingham though have reduced the service to Colchester . First bus were running 3 buses and hour . Hedingham have also reverted to the Clacton to Walton service being a local service meaning it is operated more efficiently then First bus could operate it. There is still a fair amount of seasonal traffic to Clacton so the routes tend to be busier in the summer

    I wonder for how long First Bus will run the Clacton EEC contracts. It must be very inefficient for them they need to run buses out of service to Clacton and then back to Colchester just for a few evening journeys

    I have never understood why Arriva took on Colchester. They have never expanded there and with Clacton now in the hands of Hedingham there seems little scope to expand

    Mind you the GoAhead group companies in the East are all loss making. Possibly Hedingham may move to profit having taken on the Clacton operation from First. The next lot of accounts in March may give an indication

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Of course the “new” 74 number for the Colchester to Clacton via St Osyth service is simply the traditional number for the service being brought back into use. I do wonder how many customers are lost when routes are combined and renumbered in the name of efficiency, with established users no longer understanding where the new services run. Of course the lack of printed information hardly helps in that respect. Not many years ago, the 2 buses an hour between the two Clacton to Colchester routes were very busy, justifying the predominantly double deck provision. And whilst it is great that Essex continue to produce bus stop specific departures, these do little to explain the actual routeing, unless accompanied by a route or area map. Sadly a common fault with these stop specific timetables is the lack of human input, with them being produced straight off a data base without someone (who understands) going through them to make sure the information (and especially the notes against some journeys) actually make any sense to Joe Public. Another common failing is the reliance on colours to distinguish different routes, that then fade in the sunlight so that different routes become indistinguishable.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Re Bob’s comment, Arriva never actually bought Colchester. The Council sold it to British Bus for £1 and thus it passed to Cowie who became Arriva. They sold it to TGM but TGM were then acquired by Arriva so they got it back whether they wanted it or not. Robert MacGregor, late of Hedingham, said that it was offered to them at one point but they reckoned that the staff thought they were still living in the days of council owned monopoly and it would be too hard to turn the business around.

    Liked by 1 person

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