Thursday 29th October 2020
This week sees the start of a trial of BYD’s electric EMV200 single deck demonstrator bus in Slough. But this isn’t one of those short visit bus demonstrators slotted into an existing bus route for a few days enabling bus company managers to get a feel for what a new bus can do. This is an all-singing all-dancing 13 week trial lasting until the end of 2020. And what’s more, it’s on a special route devised by Slough Borough Council to further promote its vision for mass rapid transit across the Borough and make better use of recently installed bus lanes.
Temporary bus route 4a parallels part of First Berkshire’s commercial route 4 which runs every half an hour along the A4 Bath Road linking Heathrow, Slough and Maidenhead.
Slough Borough Council’s temporary 4a runs for 3 miles along the A4 from the Uxbridge Road roundabout just east of the town centre, via the town’s station and bus station, then west as far as St Andrews Way, down which it turns south for just under a mile to a handy turning circle in the south west corner of Slough’s Cippenham residential area.
An hourly timetable has been devised for route 4a running between 07:55 and 18:45 on Mondays to Saturdays. It’s operated for the Borough Council by Thames Valley Buses, aka Courtney Buses, aka (part of) Reading Buses. Manufacturer BYD is also providing support for the trial presumably hoping to pick up an order for a few new buses at the end of it.
Slough’s aspiration for what it calls the “12 km strategic public transport corridor that links Maidenhead, Slough and Heathrow” has the project name SMaRT which stands for ‘Slough Mass Rapid Transit’. The idea is “to improve this corridor by carrying out road widening in order to facilitate dedicated bus lanes along the A4”.
The project first surfaced in 2014 when a public consultation for SMaRT Phase 1 took place: “our vision for SMaRT is a scheme which will provide a high quality, fast and reliable public transport service along the A4 to link Slough Trading Estate, the town centre and the east of the borough, with the potential to provide a direct mass rapid transit connection to Heathrow.”
The Borough Council had noticed that along with peak hour traffic congestion on Bath Road, a number of the major employers sited along the road and in Slough Trading Estate were contracting their own dedicated shuttle buses for employees and visitors travelling to and from the town centre and station, presumably not satisfied that First Berkshire’s half hourly route 4 was attractive enough.
Following the Phase 1 consultation and completion of work to widen sections of Bath Road and add bus only access to service roads alongside ….
….. in 2017 a new frequent ‘Bath Road Central’ bus route operated by Woodley based Stewarts Coaches was introduced to replace the myriad of shuttle buses.
Employees of participating employers travel free and there’s a flat rate £6 day ticket for any members of the public wanting to travel.
Covid has impacted the timetable with the service curently reduced to run half hourly during the day and a ten minue service at peak times with the busiest journeys duplicated. Buses departs alongside the bus station, opposite the railway station, and only stop at the offices of O2 and UCB along Bath Road.
Meanwhile in 2019 Slough Borough Council held another public consultation to seek views on Phase 2 of SMaRT which would see bus lanes extend east to the borough boundary and eventually on to Heathrow.
Earlier this year a bus lane was introduced to the east of the town centre along Wellington Street by Sainsbury’s but then Covid hit, and during the summer DfT made funds available to local authorities too encourage them to install measures to boost ‘active travel’ and public transport. Slough Borough Council was awarded £200,000.
It used £50,000 to immediately install a bus lane in both directions along Bath Road from the Trading Estate to the town centre in addition to the arrangements already introduced on the service roads for the ‘Bath Road Central’ service under SMaRT Phase 1.
As in a number of towns and cities, these rapidly installed bus and cycle lanes have proved controversial. They’ve reduced Bath Road from two lanes in both directions to one lane for general traffic and one lane for buses, which, aside from the aforementioned Bath Road Central service, is only the half hourly First Berkshire route 4.
The Council have added signs to let cyclists know they can use the new bus lanes, but for most motorists it looks like a waste of money to allocate half the road space for a relatively infrequent bus service, especially when they find themselves stuck in a long queue of traffic.
It’s against this background Slough Borough Council have launched its trial “bus of the future” which will “use the A4 Bath Road experimental bus and cycle lanes along part of the route”.
The Council explain in its press release “the experimental lane was introduced to help residents socially distance during the ongoing pandemic alongside making road space available for active and sustainable travel”. Now I’m a great fan of bus lanes but it’s a bit of an odd justification for a bus lane – “to help residents socially distance” – especially as I doubt First’s route 4 was suffering from being overcrowded.
But Slough’s Councillor Rob Anderson is undaunted “we hope people will hop on and off this bus for the duration of the trial for no cost and we will see if this service is viable for the future”.
The problem Rob’s going to have in making that determination is there aren’t many residents able to take advantage of the new “hop on and off” trial. It’s really only those lucky residents living close to the three bus stops in St Andrews Way on the western fringe of Cippenham, currently served by the half hourly Thames Valley route 5. As you can see from the map below, the 5 (in green) meanders all round Cippenham taking about 40 minutes to reach the town centre whereas the hourly trial route 4a (in red) does it in half that time, and, of course, is free.
Along Bath Road passengers already have First Berkshire’s route 4 (orange) every half hour, and use of the hourly 4a will grow if word spreads it’s a freebie – which in turn could be a bit of a blow for First Berkshire and potentially undermine that route’s viability if too many passengers switch to save money. Commendably the hourly 4a journey has been slotted almost exactly in between the two departures each hour on the 4 so at least there’s been an attempt at even spacing, but increasing two buses an hour to three, on a 15-15-30 frequency, is hardly going to generate many, if any, extra passengers. Electric propulsion or not.
Which brings me to the bus itself, it’s always nice to take a ride on an electric bus and enjoy its quietness of ride from a lack of engine noise, as this demonstrator duly demonstrated, except in place of engine noise came a bad case of interior rattles which really was noticeable and distracting. I’m sure the road surface was partly to blame but I wouldn’t expect a two year old bus to be so rattle noisy.
Inevitably the demonstrator ticks all the boxes for the latest gizmos which I see are listed in an online questionnaire passengers are encouraged to complete via a QR code printed on a Thames Valley issued leaflet available from a cardboard box on board.
The questionnaire asks “which features of this bus did you most enjoy” and lists: wireless charging points; shelving units; tables; coffee-shop flooring; free wifi; mobile phone ‘pods’ with phone holders, usb ports, coat hook and reading light; glazed rear; comfortable leather effect seats; none of the above.
I love how coffee-shop flooring as opposed to ordinary bus flooring has now become something you can ‘most enjoy’ and I also wondered if I’d missed enjoying the ‘shelving unit’ as listed and then realised it must be referring to the rather large ‘double deck’ luggage rack at the front nearside.
I have to say I didn’t enjoy this one bit as it effectively obscures the front forward view for all passengers on board, so if any orders for the bus do come from the trial, please move this to the offside behind the driver, especially as that seat looks at a black blank and is currently Covid out-of-bounds anyway.
My sampling of the route yesterday was only the third day of the trial, so perhaps unsurprisingly there were few passengers – Kevin and Dave, like me were trying it out taking an interest in all things bus on the outward journey (good to meet you both, and thanks for being blog readers too!) along with one genuine passenger enjoying a quicker ride home in St Andrews Way than the circuitous 5 or a walk from Bath Road from the 4, while on the journey back into Slough one passenger in St Andrews Way thought we were a 5 to take her to Asda (“sorry, not this one”) and another couple on Bath Road thought we were a 4 to take them to Heathrow (“sorry, not this one”) but two more passengers came on board for the town centre rather than wait (and pay) for a ride on the 4.
Our driver Neilson patiently explained what it was all about, especially to those who needed their normal bus, and was very positive about the trial, and the bus itself, complimenting the layout and comfort of the cab and its ease and smoothness of driving, with no need to brake “as the retarder does all the work”. He’s going to be driving the route for the duration of the trial, so will certainly get to know the bus (and those rattles) and this stretch of the Bath Road (and its ‘controversial’ bus lanes) well.
It’ll be interesting to see what Slough Borough Council’s next move is for its ambitious and commendable vision for mass rapid transit across the Borough and to Heathrow, but it’s going to need a whole lot more to get those complaining motorists queuing on Bath Road to leave their cars at home and “hop on and off” the bus.