Wednesday 14th October 2020
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t completely scotched new initiatives launching into the bus and coach market. Recent blogposts have highlighted the Bracknell Express, Flixbus entering the UK market, TfL extending bus routes to new destinations, new DRT schemes in Sevenoaks, Newport, Watford and north Lincolnshire and new rural bus routes in Oxfordshire, all launching since Covid struck (and not all survived – eg Bracknell Express and Flixbus’s Portsmouth venture).
This month has seen another newcomer to the market – ember – they like their lower case ‘e’.
“Ember was started by Keith and Pierce in 2019 as the world’s first all-electric bus operator” explains the FAQ page on ember’s website although it wasn’t until 1st October this year that ember’s owning partners, Keith Bradbury and Pierce Glennie, got operations underway on their very first route between Dundee and Edinburgh using two smart brand new Yutong TCe12 electric coaches.
Covid-19 delayed their planned start ealier in the year with the coaches originally due for delivery in March but Keith and Pierce are nothing but positive as they explain ‘’the Covid delay gave us additional time to build more of our technology platform and partner with Triodos, a leading sustainable bank …. allowing us to launch with two coaches reather than one.”
I’m not sure how that original plan using just one coach would have worked out, but the two coach operation means the timetable comprises eight journeys a day with southbound departures from Dundee as early as 05:30 and as late as 00:30 with a roughly three hour frequency in between with journeys at 08:00, 10:50, 13:32, 16:34, 19:20 and 22:03. Return journeys from Edinnburgh are 02:19, 07:26, 10:13, 12:53, 15:32, 18:45, 21:16 and 23:54. A slightly reduced timetable with seven journeys operates on Sundays.
Two things immediately strike me: the rather peculiar precision of many of the terminal departure times as well as that provision of journeys through the night in addition to very early morning and late evening departures.
Journey time is scheduled for an hour and 53 minutes on a peak time journey reducing to an hour and 33 minutes for the night time journey. An hour is needed at Dundee to recharge the coaches’ battery with a single journey using roughly 30% of the charge.
Keith and Pierce are very passionate about their green credentials. “The transition to electric vehicles is essential to combating global warming and reducing air pollution. We want to accelerate this transition so all our vehicles will be electric from day one”, their website proclaims.
“For our first route, the coaches can go 200 miles on a single charge and we’ll be fast charging them multiple times per day in Dundee. By using the coaches this intensively, we ensure that the lifetime emissions (including manufacturing the battery and so on) are a tiny fraction of a diesel vehicle.”
It srikes me as a very courageous business venture, particularly launching in these Covid impacted restricted travel times, so with the new venture approaching the end of its second week it seemed a good time to give it a try.
My journey up to Edinburgh yesterday didn’t go according to plan due to overhead line problems (yet again) blocking the East Coast Main Line at Berwick-upon-Tweed. All trains were terminating at Newcastle with ‘replacement road transport’ for Edinburgh laid on.
Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long and a ‘Group10’ operated ‘vanilla branded’ coach soon arrived – which was just as well as we were queuing outside the station in the rain.
It whisked the first 25 of us (to allow for on board social distancing) to Edinburgh with a non-stop ride taking exactly two and a half hours up the A1 – about an hour longer than by train.
The upshot was I missed my booked coach ride on ember’s 15:32 departure from Edinburgh but it was very easy to cancel and rebook on the next departure at 18:45.
Keith and Pierce’s background is tech experts and they’ve certainly made their website and booking arrangements simple and straightforward. I gave the telephone number listed on the website a call as I was leaving Newcastle. No ‘we’re experiencing high call volumes’ message nor put in a never ending queue with irritating music; I was answered straight away by a very helpful man who explained how I could cancel my original booking online, rceive a credit and simply rebook at no extra cost on to the next journey using that credit. It was all done in a just a few clicks, new tickets downloaded, and I was confident I’d be expected on the next departure. What a difference to the hassle that would have been involved with most transport companies (whether bus, coach, train, air or ferry).
Another great and reassuring feature on ember’s website is a live easily zoomable map showing where the two coaches are in real time.
Vehicles layover in Edinburgh outside St Andrews House; a spot also used by Lothian Country and First Bus. The southbound route from Dundee to Edinburgh is given route number E1 with E2 for the northbound route.
I was impressed to see the bus stop plates on both sides of the road had been updated with these additions.
Although there was no timetable information displayed, probably because there isn’t a traditional timetable as such, as departures (with arrival times) are clearly shown as options for each stop when booking on line.
You can pay the driver as you board but every encouragement is given to book online including a price discount – which for my end to end journey was £2 – I paid £7.50 single instead of £9.50 if paying on board. Drivers have a bank card reader and can take cash but I suspect as a last resort. Scottish concessionary passes are accepted to give free travel.
There are two stops in Edinburgh (Princes Street and Blackhall Library) and stops are also in Rosyth, Kinross, Perth (on its outskirts), Inchture and in west Dundee with the terminus at Dundee’s Greenmarket.
Fares from these intermediate stops also give good value – a local trip in Edinburgh, if anyone ever made it, matches Lothian at £1.50 and from Kinross, where there’s a small Park and Ride car park the online fare to Edinburgh is just £4.40.
Bus stops for these intermediate places are very close to the A90/M90 – it reminds me of Stagecoach’s South West Falcon where ‘edge of town’ stops to save losing time going into town centres are the name of the game.
The stop on the southern edge of Perth is a good example of this genre forlornly situated on a slip road gyratory with no shelter.
I’m not sure it’s really an ideal spot for a bus stop as it’s virtually inaccessible other than being dropped off by a car, but it saves the coach making a detour into Perth.
With daylight rapidly fading as the evening set in, my driver Hugh pulled round to the westbound departure stop at St Andrews House at exactly 18:45 and we headed off.
Hugh is a great ambassador for ember and we had an interesting chat. He’d previously worked for NatEx owned Xplore Dundee and was delighted to now be working for this new start-up company.
He has high hopes for the new service and knew Keith and Pierce had researched the market well. I queried the viability of the very early, late and night time journeys but Hugh thought there was a market for people living in Dundee enjoying evening entertainment in Edinburgh but not necessarily wanting the high cost of an overnight stay in the city and would like a late night journey home at a good price. He thought after the pandemic this market will pick up again.
On the coach itself you certainly notice the quietness of the ride and Hugh’s driving gave a very smooth and comfortable journey.
There’s good legroom, the seats recline and have a small fold down seat back table and usb socket. 5G Wi-fi is fitted which really is fast, and even better, there’s no logging in required – just an automatic connection.
Access for wheelchair users is through middle doors and, if needed, social distancing arrows on the floor show this as the exit for all passengers.
The middle door and wheelchair arrangement is very similar to the Volvos Lothian introduced on its Green Arrow buses in June 2019 before withdrawing the routes.
The driver’s dashboard is impressively laid out with a clear indication of battery range as well as other indicators.
There are 22 seats in the forward section and 21 in the rear.
At the moment ember is limiting capacity to 20 to allow for social distancing and the front pairs of seats are taped off with tape that looks rather out of keeping with the otherwise plush interior. Perhaps a cover around the seat back à la Chiltern Railways methodology would look better.
Hand sanitiser is provided by the front entrance.
We arrived in Dundee exactly on time at 20:23 and Hugh set about plugging the coach into the charging point Dundee City Council have installed at the Greenmarket terminal point. Battery range was down to 38% after the Edinburgh and back trips the coach had just performed.
It takes about an hour to fully recharge after a return trip. Hugh is also responsible for giving the coach a clean although I’d been careful not to make any mess!
Hugh also showed me ‘under the bonnet’ – it was the first tine I’d seen an electric ‘engine’ except of course there was no engine. It was self evident you need a laptop rather than a spanner to do any running repairs.
Hugh was then going to do another rounder to Edinburgh but I was off to my hotel for the night before returning to catch the 08:00 departure back to Edinburgh in the morning.
The Greenmarket departure point is not far from Dundee’s rail station but a fair walk from the city centre’s main local bus stops. I guess it’s an ideal spot to recharge the coach and indeed when I arrived at 07:45 the coach was on charge.
We left spot on 08:00 and had a good run down the A90/M90 keeping well to time as we passed the intermediate timing points although we paused for eight minutes at Blackhall Library in west Edinburgh having arrived early, even though the chances of picking anyone up from there to the city centre were zero.
My driver this morning was Robert, another great ambassador for ember and we had a great chat about all things buses and coaches. He’d previously worked for Stagecoach in Arbroath before spending the summer working for Go Cornwall based in Penzance, arranged through an agency. When the chance came up to return north and work for ember he jumped at the opportunity and was pleased to be one of six drivers for the service selected from a hundred applicants – six being the current establishment along with a supervisor.
Robert also took the option of using the old Forth Road Bridge now converted into a bus only road with its great views.
I wondered what arrangements there are for a back up vehicle in the event of a failure or maintenance and Robert explained a diesel coach is hired in if necessary.
We arrived in Edinburgh on time and I left Robert in Princes Street having had a very pleasant and enjoyable journey.
Readers may have gathered in the absence of any reference so far to fellow passengers that indeed there weren’t any. It was just me on both journeys.
But both Hugh and Robert were not down hearted. They displayed full faith in Keith and Pierce’s entrepreneurship and that these early weeks were being spent ‘proving the concept’ and ensuing the coaches are properly bedded in.
Despite the first fortnight’s operation not yet complete, there’s already talk of significant future expansion with further electric vehicles – plans for between 30 and 50 more buses and coaches have been quoted. There’s no doubting Keith and Pierce’s passion for the environment and both of them coming afresh to the bus and coach industry enables them to think differently from established operators. Having plenty of start up funding from a sympathetic ‘leading sustainable bank’ no doubt helps too.
Existing long standing operators encumbered with shareholders, overheads and traditional working practices, of necessity, look to maintain profitability so passenger numbers are all important to them.
I’m sure Citylink and Megabus, both in which Stagecoach are closely involved, and which operate similar services between Dundee and Edinburgh will be closely watching developments. They’ve a reputation for not letting their market share be eroded.
I was a bit surprised to see the single fare for a Dundee to Edinburgh journey at 08:45 tomorrow on Citylink’s route M92 priced as high as £18.60 (although an ‘Advanced Single’ is available for £11.20 on the 12:15 departure). As Robert observed, ember’s passenger numbers may be small but word will soon pass round about their great value fares. It could even spread pandemic like.
The next few months on the A90/M90 corridor should prove interesting.
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.