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Three contrasting upgrades

Tuesday 21st January 2020

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It’s interesting to compare three recent launches of buses and brands in the last couple of weeks.

Highest profile was Blackburn Bus Company’s launch last weekend of 13 new ADL Enviro200 buses for route 1 running between Blackburn, Darwen and Bolton.

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This route runs at an impressive 7/8 minute frequency between Blackburn and Darwen with alternate journeys continuing every 15 minutes to Bolton.

What marks out these smart new buses is not only the careful thought given to how they look but the painstaking attention to detail that’s been given to finer points of their design. Encouragingly I understand manufacturer ADL has positively welcomed the suggestions from both Transdev Blazefield (who run Blackburn Bus Company) and designers Best Impressions.

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This is heartening as there was a time when manufacturers took a ‘take it or leave it’ approach to vehicle specifications. If one of the big Groups didn’t specify it there was little chance of success in getting it incorporated.

It’s good to see fresh ideas being built into new buses entering service – just like car manufacturers do every time they update a car model – there are new touches that make a real difference.

WiFi and usb sockets are pretty much old hat now with induction charge points a recent iteration for those with the latest smartphones with that facility enabled.

These buses for route 1 incorporate the whole at seat technology experience into one slick unit with a handy label indicating what’s available and where.

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The latest addition is a reading light which is a nice little extra to have for those shunning phone screen gazing to instead enjoy a book or even reading a newspaper during a journey.

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Next stop announcements and displays are pleasingly also becoming more common and Transdev Blazefield use someone with a local accent and variable phrases to describe the upcoming next stop and any attractions nearby which helps to relieve the tedium of robotic style announcements. The display screen is clearly visible above the centre of the gangway and shows the following stop as well as the one next up.

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I like the clear roof glass panels which provide welcome natural light and eliminate any sense of claustrophobia.

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I also particularly like the clear glass screen behind the driver making the forward view from offside seats as pleasant and interesting as the view from the nearside.

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There are recycle and landfill waste bins with a leaflet rack full of attractive timetable leaflets for the route immediately behind the front two offside seats.  Cove panels are bold and attractive not falling foul of that frustrating trend of including far too much detail that’s impossible to read.

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The all important seat comfort is impressive (train companies please note) with a bright coloured moquette offset by a nice two tone blue headrest and leather edging to the seat which match the external livery.

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Legroom is good except for the rearmost offside seats where it’s a bit tight but that might be an inevitable compromise of giving other seats ample room.

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The back row of seats has been sensibly reduced to four rather than trying to squeeze five in which always makes for an uncomfortable elbow brushing journey. This means the gangway two seats are offset slightly and there’s a handy divider between each of the four seats incorporating the usb socket.

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The first pair of seats in the raised section towards the rear have a console type slanted shelf which nicely breaks up the bus into two halves.

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I wonder whether the light grey colour of the material used to cover this is going to work as it was already well finger marked even on day two in service.

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Two small but very significant design features which I particularly liked are the way the step into the rear section of the bus has been given a lovely curved edge with mood lighting – making it welcoming rather than brutal….

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…. and that slick LED style blue strip mood lighting continues all along the side panels which really does make the interior look smart and modern looking. These little touches make a big difference to the ambiance.

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The buses are wearing a smart new Best Impressions designed livery which compliments the interior and makes them stand out along the route.

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I caught a bus in both Blackburn and Darwen yesterday and the bus stop display information included departures in the two tone blue designed for the route. It’s a shame that’s not incorporated into displays overseen by TfGM in Bolton but that’s TfGM for you.

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Which brings me to the second new brand launch in recent weeks … Go North West’s ‘orbits’ branding for routes 52 and 53 based on Salford shopping centre.

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Like the Blackburn Bus launch over the weekend, this new bright livery was all over social media a couple of weekends ago even though the unveiling of the new blue and orange livery was in central Manchester – a little way from the routes’ normal habitat in Salford’s suburbs.

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I’d been so captivated reading about the new ‘orbits’ I thought it involved a fleet of brand ‘new’ buses (rather than ‘newer’ – I’d not spotted the ‘er’!) but it seems Go-Ahead can’t stretch to that level of investment yet – perhaps not surprising with Mayor Burnham aspiring to confiscate control of bus routes when he announces the results of the recent consultation about franchising in upcoming weeks before the election this May.

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So Salfordites using Go North West’s busy routes 52 and 53 have to limit their excitement to £1 million worth of refreshed ‘newer’ buses, aka as three year old bog standard ADL Enviro 200 buses as spec’d to a rather basic level by previous owners. I’m not sure about all twelve buses which have been acquired, but some of the fleet I saw yesterday began their careers in late 2016 in Somerset including at least one with former local competitor to First West of England, Crosville, in Weston Super Mare.

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The comparison with Blackburn’s sparkly new route 1 buses is rather chalk and cheese as ‘orbits’ is not so much an all encompassing brand but a bold attempt at brightening up the rather bland bus scene which Go North West have inherited from First Manchester with last year’s acquisition of the Queens Road garage.

To that extent orbits is a success. The bright colours on the livery and the new logo are a huge improvement on what went before.

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But you won’t find WiFi or usb sockets or next stop announcements or added seat comfort and leg room. It’s very much an external makeover rather than internal.

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It’s fortuitous that the seat moquette matches nicely the blue and orange theme of the livery.

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It’s a taste of how things could be if TfGM could get themselves off their fixed ideology that ‘it can only be franchising’ and let quality owning bus companies like Go-Ahead and Transdev Blazefield introduce bold and bright initiatives.

Orbits currently comprises twelve refreshed buses operating on routes 52 and 53. These are busy routes running through Salford. The 52 runs every ten minutes on its busiest section while the ‘almost circular’ 53 is half hourly. I reckon it takes about 18 buses to run both routes and Go North West have said more refreshed buses are on the way to complete the transformation by the end of March.

There should be potential to increase passenger journeys with a proper marketing campaign and brand development which this project gives a good start to; except that relying on TfGM to produce the supporting publicity won’t inspire people to travel more as these extracts below demonstrate – no mention of ‘orbits’ here.

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Still at least there is a timetable leaflet AND it contains a route map. That’s more than you’ll find down in London.

And talking of London and franchising I took a ride on the Capital’s latest fleet of electric buses this morning; after all these are the future (so we’re told), making the third launch in as many weeks.

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Go Ahead London introduced a fleet of eleven BYD manufactured single deck buses with ADL Enviro 200MMC EV bodies on to route 100 between St Pauls and Shadwell last weekend.

There was no razzmatazz unveiling with a symbolic sheet being unfurled (as in Manchester for orbit) or a wall of orange and blue balloons with goody bags in a prime town centre location (as in Blackburn). In franchised London land you don’t need to make a fuss like that as marketing and selling bus travel isn’t on the radar.

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Instead the buses slipped quietly into service, literally, and converted the whole route to a silent operation that ticks the environment friendly box.

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Unlike Blackburn and Salford there’s no bright new livery to entice you on board; just plain red; because this is London. There is a modest reference to cleaner air but gone is the proliferation of green leaves which previous clean air friendly buses have worn to boost their credentials.

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Inside it’s a similar story. You can’t blame Go Ahead London for using their tried and tested formula for uninspiring seat moquette; after all, they have no interest in encouraging passengers to travel more; they’re just a contractor providing buses on a TfL specified bus route.

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However, in a revolutionary move for London, the seats do incorporate usb sockets a new and welcome trend on a number of recent bus deliveries to the Capital’s routes. Upgrade your ride London style.

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Meanwhile it’s bog standard bench style five seats across the rear …

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… and by dint of squeezing in a single seat immediately in front of the rear exit door there are actually five seats on board which are fully step free – amazing!

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Obviously it would be a revolution too far to do a ‘Blackburn upgrade’ and let passengers see through the glass behind the driver – still, at least there’s lots of small print for any passengers wanting something to look at during their journey.

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The buses are impressively quiet and give a smooth ride. There was no opportunity to test the acceleration since it was clear from departing the St Pauls terminus the off peak timetable for route 100 is to TfL’s standard of over generosity making for slow and frustrating progress through the City’s streets when they’re free flowing – as they were this morning.

Despite crawling along and enduring a three minute wait at one bus stop to “allow the service to be regulated” we still passed along the quaint cobbled streets of Wapping ten minutes ahead of our scheduled time. If it hadn’t been for a further three minute wait while a police escort to a flotilla of foreign embassy cars was allowed to zoom unimpeded along The Highway across our path I reckon we could have made it to the Shadwell terminus in half an hour rather than the 43 minutes the schedule allows.

No wonder passengers are deserting London’s buses; it’s just so frustrating. The journey I took was almost down to ‘ride-sharing DRT’ style appallingly low patronage with just four passengers making a short hop along part of the route. Other buses I saw looked equally forlorn.

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Route 100, like many TfL bus routes which enter the Square Mile has experienced a myriad of changes over the last few years. It wasn’t that long ago it ventured south of the river to Elephant & Castle; now cut back to a bus stand just north of St Pauls that became available last summer in the great Central London bus shake up when it’s previous occupant, route 242, was diverted over to Aldgate, which in turn displaced route 67 – cut all the way back north to Dalston.IMG_5207.jpg

Trouble is, the person who correctly updated the ‘unlettered’ bus stop at the terminus in King Edward Street and replaced the 242 number plate with a 100 one and added a new timetable for the 100 in the panel ….

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…. forgot to take down the notice forbidding passengers to board here (as applied to the 242) but as the bizarre spider maps at neighbouring bus stops confirm, boarding is possible for route 100 (see entry for Wapping) at the ‘unlettered’ bus stop!

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As a tourist having enjoyed a wander around St Paul’s Cathedral heading over to the delights of Wapping how would you possibly know that?

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No wonder passengers numbers continue to plummet downwards in London.

Route 100 currently runs every 10-12 minutes during the day but TfL only tell you the departure times for the hour before the frequency reduces to every 15 minutes in the evening. Quite why the minutes past the hour can’t be publicised for other hours has always been a TfL mystery.

I understand there are plans to use the electric buses on route 100 as the initial test bed to trial ‘added sounds’ as the vehicle drives along to warn other road users, particularly pedestrians and cyclists, of the approaching vehicle. I saw no evidence this morning of that being in place so that’s something to look forward to.

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Three upgrades; three very different approaches …. and not just to the welcome on board (or not)!

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. Currently social distancing at home.

9 thoughts on “Three contrasting upgrades Leave a comment

  1. Whilst much appreciating Go-Ahead’s aim of brightening up two services which serve some pretty unappealing parts of North Manchester, adding yet another livery to the existing confusing mix, may just give Mayor Burnham yet more ammunition. Clearly he no longer visits the great metropolis to observe both a much reduced Central London bus network, with passengers number reducing even faster as noted. And why is it necessary on an already small vehicle, to lose yet more seats with dual doors? Comparing Blackburn’s service 1 new vehicles, with their 40 seat capacity (certainly needed at times on a service once part double-deck) to half that on London’s 100, which presumably does have it’s peak moments, it is painfully clear that TfL Planners seem to have little idea about planning anything, particularly time schedules. It appears They merely process an agreed and over priced formula, and rubber stamp it on the network regardless.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In London, bus operators have to “maintain headway” above all else. Each route has an “Excess Waiting Time” target, which is contractually enforced.
    So . . . . a bus route with a (say) 12 minute frequency might have (say) an EWT of 1 minute 20 seconds. So, on the average, buses must not run more than 13 minutes 20 seconds apart. If that target is missed, then a financial penalty will apply.
    Bus routes will get delayed on occasion . . . it’s a truism. One way of dealing with this is to have reasonable running time and build in stand time at each terminus to allow for those occasional bad days . . . . it’s called a “robust” schedule.
    However, to have a robust schedule requires somewhere to stand the buses on a good day. TfL, as masters of the road network (except where the Boroughs are) could make more space for bus stands, but choose not to do so. So . . . . the operators will pad out the running time to allow for the worst delays, as that.s pretty much the only option available to avoid penalties.

    A little story to end with . . . . in the bad old days of the late Noughties, London Buses, with funding from the then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, were busy enhancing bus route frequencies to boost ridership. On Route 134, the peak headway was every 4-5 minutes . . . . terminating at Tottenham Court Road. The stand space available there was for just two buses, with a three bus stand available at North Finchley. The round trip time was (from memory) around 3 hours. So, just 8 minutes stand time at TCTR, and 12 minutes at NTFY, 20 minutes stand time on a rounder of 3 hours to deal with whatever Muswell Hill; Kentish Town; Camden Town and Warren Street could throw at the route!!! It wasn’t enough, so padding the running time was resorted to . . . . no other option. And yes, on a bad (good) day, the northbound service ran early, otherwise TCTR would’ve been gridlocked with parked buses.
    Still . . . I’m sure the latest generation of planners are (re) learning these lessons all over again . . . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Here in Cardiff the two main operators are Cardiff Buses and New Adventure Travel. According to the drivers the NAT schedules are quite tight, especially as they are cross-city services; they basically leave the termini and drive pretty quickly knowing that they’ll probably get delayed by the endless traffic lights through town. Cardiff Bus, on the other hand, are much stricter about running times, especially on inbound services. One gets to know the timing points where buses will pause; what’s particularly annoying is the one just two stops before Central Station where there is a convenient lay-by; the wait can be quite lengthy which is frustrating if one wants to catch a train! All this is partly down the the central bus station having been demolished five years ago; a new one (far too small!) keeps on being promised but we’re still waiting …

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I do wonder if the current insistence on every journey being timed at every possible stop, the official refusal to accept late running and a blanket failure to understand that varying traffic conditions can mean that a journey which takes 15 minutes today can take 30 tomorrow (and even 45 if there’s a minor issue causing delays) is utterly counterproductive as it now means that journeys are scheduled to allow for almost every potential delay and lead to buses crawling along (fuelling motorists complaints about buses causing delays to other traffic) and sitting at stops all to ensure they’re not early when traffic isn’t appallingly bad.
    There’s also little or no point advertising a timetable if it’s meaningless because unpredictable traffic kills it every day.

    For high frequency services (i.e. every 10 minutes or more frequently) I’d say there’s something to be said for the old Leicester City Transport practice of only scheduling departure times from the terminii (and city centre for cross-city routes), the buses simply keeping up with the traffic until they got to the other end of the route. Headways were only controlled at the outer terminii and city centre, too, so there was none of the current London thing of sitting every few stops to regulate the headway.

    I’m afraid I’m not always hugely sympathetic to certain operators complaints about lack of places to stand between journeys. Most major companies used to have such places but chose to sell them off, so for them it’s a self-inflicted wound…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I must admit to making very little use of buses in the UK these days, but from my experience of ADL Enviro 200s on the Wilts & Dorset service between Bournemouth and Poole about 18 months ago, the upgrade that they needed most would have been to the suspension system. I appreciate that there is not a lot of space for the suspension on a low floor bus, and even MB Citaros are not that good, but those E200s really deserve the title “bone shakers”.

    If ADL could get that right, I’ll happily forego the mood lighting and the USB sockets. As I am 6’3″ the extra knee room would be nice, but please ADL, concentrate on the basics first and give us a smoother ride!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Some thoughts:
    – If WiFi and USB points are now so mainstream, manufacturers ought to include them on their stock vehicles. Companies like us who will inevitably turn to the stock selection (as GNW have here) may never have these features otherwise, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair to criticise them for it.
    – That glass behind the driver might be nice for passengers but I do hope some design has been incorporated to disperse the extra reflections at night.
    – TFL not doing launches for their route upgrades does say something about their ‘just get on with it’ approach to buses. Most of us in the industry are aware of the pitfalls the TFL operation has, but their quick journey to Euro 6, hybrid and electric in an attempt to reduce emissions is commendable. If only they had more upcoming than the ULEZ and LEZ changes to reduce congestion at the same time. If the roads were clearer and the buses faster, there’d be no need to entice people with other features, instead it’d just be a tube with a view out of the window.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Roger,

    With reference to your comment about the glass panel’s in the Blazefield E200MMCs, have you ever sat in the back two rows on an E200 MMC on a bus route going east at about 16:30 on a very warm June afternoon in a traffic jam with the sun beating down?

    I have on a 235 from Sunbury to Brentford on the Metroline DELs and the back of the bus feels like a greenhouse with no air, just the sun.

    Did ADL not consider this when they put a curve rear screen in the design, or did ADL think that every bus would have air conditioning so it would not matter?

    Liked by 1 person

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