Friday 14th February 2020
Three different bus routes link Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire, with the county’s former largest town, Milton Keynes (once in Bucks but elevated to its own Unitary status in April 1997).
Taking the train between the two towns isn’t really a viable option as you have to go via London, so for public transport devotees, bus it is.
I took a ride on all three bus route options today to see how they compare.
First up was Arriva’s route 150, as it conveniently begins its cross-Bucks-route right outside Milton Keynes Central Station on the hour, every hour – giving a handy connection off the fast Manchester train from Euston which arrives at 50 minutes past the hour.
If only more stations had the luxury of a huge open space outside their frontages. MKC will never win any architectural awards but at a practical level there’s plenty of room for buses, bikes, taxis, drop offs and the odd autonomous pod trial out the front.
Despite originally being built around the car, Milton Keynes Council does a good job providing bus stop information including real time screens, maps, departure lists and where to catch your bus diagrams.
I soon found the stop for the 150 and we left on time at 11:00 with two others on board, picking up seven more at The Point (by MK’s cavernous shopping centre) and a few other bus stops as we headed out of town in a kind of south easterly direction to head down the A5 towards Dunstable.
After a while we changed trajectory to westerly towards Leighton Buzzard; our main staging post halfway along the journey after 45 minutes on board. We’d dropped four of our nine passengers off heading out of Milton Keynes and picked another six up heading into Leighton Buzzard where eight got off leaving us with three on board, two of whom soon left us but we picked two more up in the villages of Wing and Bierton arriving into Aylesbury on time at 12:25 with just three on board.
Aylesbury is one of England’s worst bus stations. It desperately needs a chunk of the Government’s millions now being splashed around for a ‘better deal for bus users’. You need to be quite desperate to catch a bus from Aylesbury bus station. It’s a disgrace.
It’s only saving grace is Buckinghamshire County Council’s comprehensive display of timetables and departure listings in the subterranean waiting area with electronic departure displays (including from the nearby rail station) and also at the bus stands.
The problem this morning was those bus stands being blocked by buses laying over for an indeterminate time. You certainly need your wits about you waiting on the exceptionally narrow ‘concourse’ watching out for where your bus might be departing from. In one case I saw it leaving four bays away from the scheduled bay and luckily spotted by well worn passengers.
There are some exceptions but generally buses around the town give a down-at-heel air. Even some of Arriva’s former upmarket Sapphire branded buses have been debranded on the outside, but not internally, giving a confusing result.
My return trip to Milton Keynes was on the 13:00 Red Rose Travel route 100. This is billed as ‘Aylesbury Express’ or ‘Milton Keynes Express’. It follows the same route taken by Arriva’s 150 for 25 minutes as far as Wing but then instead of heading into Leighton Buzzard it turns north and runs non stop along the A4146, which acts as a by-pass for about five miles, bringing us to Fenny Stratford on the edge of Milton Keynes from where we head into the town centre arriving at The Point at 13:52 making the ‘Express’ just over half an hour quicker than the 150.
The 100 runs hourly until around 19:00 with afternoon peak journeys given extra running time so widening the frequency. Red Rose Travel introduced the route at the beginning of December replicating a route with the same number Arriva withdrew in 2013.
Five passengers left Aylesbury with me on the 13:00 journey and one more who seemed to be a good friend of the driver: a cab-hanger-on. We lost one passenger but gained a replacement heading out of Aylesbury with another alighting in Bierton and another in Wing where three boarded meaning six (and the driver’s friend) went through to Milton Keynes. We picked up one more heading into Milton Keynes.
The bus was one of the former Welsh operator GHA’s vehicles with leather seats and even a table. Wi-fi was also available – unusual for a small operator.
Back in Milton Keynes at The Point I boarded my third route variant to head back to Aylesbury: Arriva’s route X60 which is the most frequent of the three routes running half hourly. From The Point it operates via the station then heads north westwards out of the town before turning westwards over to Buckingham – its principal mid route objective after forty minutes journey time – and a rather nice market town it is too – a good traffic objective with no rail station.
We had five passengers on board as we left MK (having dropped a short rider at the station) with four alighting and two boarding in Buckingham who both alighted not far on in Winslow, leaving just one on board for the last 27 minutes of the journey, and who like me, travelled the full hour and twenty-three minute journey through to Aylesbury. I’m not sure why he didn’t catch the quicker route 100 – perhaps he was blogging too – or maybe he was seduced by Arriva using the X letter for the route ‘number’ and promoting the route as a fast journey option.
I can vouch that although it’s not the quickest journey between the two towns it IS timed fast. Our driver kept up a fair pace along the many stretches of road where there’s no cause to stop. I definitely held on tight. We arrived into Aylesbury eight minutes early!
Oddly the X60 runs longer into the evening (around 21:30) but doesn’t run on Sundays whereas the 150 packs up earlier in the evening (around 19:30-20:30) but does run on Sundays. Maybe some of the new money that has to be spent on service enhancements such as evening and Sunday services could be used to regularise that situation, but sadly on the strength of today’s observations there are hardly enough passengers warranting the existing off-peak daytime timetables let alone enhancements.
Improving Aylesbury bus station would be top of my action list if we are serious about ‘a better deal for bus users’.
And please Arriva, sort out your branding. Both the bus on the 150 and X60 were claiming it was on route 6 on the interior cove panels.
And online both routes are branded as MAX; but the bus on the 150 still had Sapphire branded seats.
great to think what people think of different bus stations
Agree re Aylesbury bus station – visibility seems to be a problem too, it can be hard to work out which route any given bus is on (especially given Arriva in the area have the irritating habit of mixing up route brandings so a bus might say 150 on the side but actually be a 280). Worst time it happened for me was the last bus of the night home – I thought I’d left plenty of time between leaving the pub and getting to the bus station, but my service left a few minutes early and was on the way out as I arrived! Luckily the bus driver must have realised and drove back around to pick me up.
On the Buckingham to MK corridor you also have the half hourly X5, which seems preferable to the 150 in every way barring price (being a very premium service) and possibly accessibility. But the X5 runs basically non stop on it’s way towards Oxford.
It is in doubt if any passenger can tell the difference between unbranded, Max and Sapphire, so what’s the purpose to maintain these brand?! A short contrast against the Stagecoach ordinary service vs Stagecoach Gold..
Aylesbury bus station is certainly a difficult place to board buses. The outside queue area is ridiculously small, thus when trying to streak from one departure stand to another as “wrong” stands are the norm here, you are blocked in by adjacent queues! However, the waiting room, wall timetable information (although now never copies of the printed version available either here or in the nearby Library), toilets and coffee bar, with covered access to the shopping centre and central location are good. But there is certainly more buses than required now running to/from Milton Keynes, and I guess the Red Rose 100 express is merely another attempt to chip away at Arriva dominance in this region. Something Arriva certainly deserve, as pointed out, route branding throughout their southern England operations is farcical. I have never been a fan of route branding unless applied to something specific and possibly for limited periods to gain public attention. It is often operationally difficult and inefficient to keep buses route-bound outside urban areas where vehicles can be deployed to the same service group (think Brighton, Reading, Trent Barton etc), so why do Arriva in particular bother? Even where odd pockets exist of vehicles working on the same service all day, little attempt is made to keep them on their branded route. Together with constantly providing under the capacity required vehicles, 25/29 seat Darts and Streetlites in place of 40+ seats required, something I see every time I venture into unfortunate Arriva territory, I remain disappointed that their German masters now seem reluctant to sell.
Of course in 5 years’ time you will be able to get a train from Aylesbury to Milton Keynes, which should thin out these services a bit…!
I believe the Aylesbury leg of the “East-West” rail route has dropped a considerable way down the priority list, and I fear it will be somewhat longer than 5 years until the buses find competition from trains !