Wednesday 1st January 2020
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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’.
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.
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 ….
…. 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￼.
That’s the bright spot in an otherwise rather uninspiring bus scene with both Arriva and First Bus not offering their finest image.
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.