Thursday 5th November 2020
I thought I’d take my last trip out before ‘Lockdown 2.0’ to an area of the country that’s seen excellent positive bus developments in recent months. So I found myself in north east England taking a look at the continuing transformation of the region’s inter-urban bus links and other bus route brands operated by Go North East.
The ever energetic, enthusiastic and highly regarded Martijn Gilbert and his ‘TeamGNE’ are slowly revitalising and refreshing the myriad of route brands introduced by the late and much missed managing director Peter Huntley in the early 2000s. In particular this has seen those routes which fill gaps in the region’s rail network brought together under an X-lines brand to raise their profile and attract passengers.
It’s a work in progress as new buses are delivered and existing vehicles get a makeover and repaint and the network expands.
First route to be X-lined was the X20 between Durham and Sunderland via Houghton-le-Spring in May last year. I took a ride on this soon after the change which included speeding up part of the route. It was already evident the new livery featuring a gold coloured common branding, with different colours for each route, stood out extremely well and would be a winner.
At the X20 launch Martijn was quoted as explaining “this is just the start of us reinvigorating, improving and investing in our network of fast and direct commuter bus links to key towns and cities across our region”. He’s been true to his words in the ensuing 18 months.
The idea is an X-line route will pretty much take a direct trajectory much as you would if you drove a car between the communities across the region. Meandering routes are left for other bus services.
The X-lines branding is a Best Impressions production and comes with the usual attention to detail of every aspect from livery, to the specification of new and refurbished buses and supporting printed leaflets and maps. It’s a complete package and certainly creates desire, as Ray Stenning, and Martijn, are passionate to achieve.
The X20 is the only X-lines route operated by single deck buses with another difference from the otherwise double deck mainstay is routes X9/X10 between Middlesbrough and Newcastle via Peterlee which will soon be receiving some of the redundant coach fleet from sister Go-Ahead company Oxford Bus as used on the Oxford London service before its demise. These coaches are currently being refurbished and repainted at Hants & Dorset Trim, another Go-Ahead company, and should be on the road in the next few weeks.
In the meantime coaches once used on National Express services now resplendent in a variety of heritage liveries are providing temporary cover.
In more recent months Go North East has taken delivery of a significant number of Wright StreetDecks for X-lines, the very latest just introduced on to the X1 between Newcastle, Gateshead and Washington, Houghton-Le-Spring and Easington Lane in their very smart two tone red version of the X-lines livery.
The former ‘Pronto’ and ‘Castles Express’ branded route X21 running between West Auckland, Bishop Auckland, Durham and Gateshead and Newcastle has been brought into the X-lines family with upgraded and refurbished buses and much better the buses look for it too.
I always found the Castles Express livery and it’s application across windows on the lower deck highly annoying – almost an insult to passengers on the lower deck wanting to see out.
It almost brought on eye strain to look through the windows when sitting downstairs.
The new arrangement is a much welcomed development especailly as route X21 is a key south/north link in the X-lines network.
The brand now has its highest profile in Consett where no less than four route groups have been brought into the X-lines fold with both refurbished and brand new buses.
Three of these routes use two tone green shades of the livery and link Consett with Newcastle, each with a route variant along the way while the fourth route group links Consett across to Durham and takes a yellow/orange colour.
I took a ride on this route to begin my travels yesterday – the X5 from Durham to Consett. Together with sister route X15 the frequency is half-hourly with each route taking a different approach into Consett (the X5 via Delves and the X15 via Leadgate) with both routes continuing beyond Consett bus station to Shotley Bridge, north west of the town.
The buses have been given a refresh and very nice they look too. As with all X-lines branding the main destinations served by the route are listed on the sides.
It’s a very pleasant ride across County Durham and although we branched off the A691 to serve a couple of delightful villages (Witton Gilbert and Lanchester) it feels like you really are making good progress on the 44 minute journey (reduced to just 38 minutes towards Durham due to taking a more direct route into the city).
Consett bus station is rather basic, but gives a much better impression than Durham’s bus station which is looking more down-at-heel every time I visit. Whereas Consett’s has windows on both sides of the waiting area as well as a glass roof so is nice and light. Martijn tells me there are plans for improvements – a leaflet rack for timetables is imminent and he’s hoping the County Council will allow attractive vinyls to be put up. Let’s hope they do.
Consett has seen major investment in the town with significant regeneration measures while Go North East has introduced a great new local brand for the town routes – Venture – with another great Best Impressions designed livery. Venture Transport at one time was the largest independent bus company in the North East until it sold out to Northern General (the predecessor of Go North East) in 1970 so it’s great to see the name resurrected.
It really is a great idea to recreate a brand associated with fond memories locally, even fifty years on; and the smart livery really is superb.
Even better, Go North East have produced a timetable booklet for Consett containing copious maps as well as timetables for all the V numbered Venture branded local routes and the X-lines routes as well as other routes in the area.
Until that leaflet rack appears in Consett bus station, you can pick copies up from on board buses. I’m sure it’s a popular read and something other bus companies could do well to copy.
The three X-lines routes linking Consett with Newcastle comprise the X30; X45/46/47; and X70/71. They’ve seen £4.5 million investment in new buses by Go North East for the Consett to Newcastle corridor which followed £3.5 million invested in a new depot for Consett in 2019.
The X30 runs hourly from Consett taking a route via Stanley, Sunniside and Whickham. Between Stanley and Newcastle it’s joined by another hourly journey to make for a half hourly service, as well as another two buses an hour on an X31 variant which runs via Gateshead instead of Dunston (on the X30) making for a fifteen minute frequency between Stanley and Sunniside for Newcastle. End to end journey time from Consett to Newcastle is 61 minutes.
The X45, X46 and X47 provide a ten minute frequency between Newcastle and Rowlands Gill with two buses an hour on the X47 continuing to Blackhall Mill and the other four buses an hour on a 10/20/10/20 frequency continuing to Consett albeit two of these each hour (X45) and two (X46) take different routes into Consett making for even half hourly frequencies. End to end journey time is an hour.
These routes used to be branded ‘Red Kite’ in the old regime to reflect the importance and prevalence of these birds in the area. A red kite has been included on bus sides in the new livery….
…as well as inside too.
All three route groups between Consett and Newcastle have similar journey times but quickest by a smidgeon are routes X70 and X71. They provide a half hourly frequency and take 55 minutes (X71) or 57 minutes (X70) in the off-peak both taking a route via Gateshead, Sunniside and Burnopfield before splitting with the X70 via Leazes, Tantobie and Dipton and the X71 via Medomsley.
As you’d expect all the details including maps, timetables and ticket prices can be found in the aforementioned timetable book and very easy it is to follow and understand too. Even better there are leaflets for the routes with even more detailed maps. Here’s the one for the X70/71.
Buses on all these three route groups carry the X-lines green coloured branding. These include both refurbished as well as brand new buses.
These all offer the latest gizmos you’d expect from a new bus specified by Go North East, as well as the very latest batch being introduced on to the X70 and X71 having the facility to carry two bikes.
Regular readers will know from my previous commentary on similar buses recently introduced by sister company East Yorkshire, I’m a bit of a sceptic of bikes on buses, but I’ll be pleased to be proved wrong and hear that this innovation has been a great success, encouraging more passengers to take a bus and a bike ride along the scenic Derwent Valley that this route serves.
I understand there are plans to interwork buses on the X70/71 with the X30/31 which will include a significant expansion of bike bus facilities added to buses on the latter routes too. This will make for a significant increase in the availability of bike spaces over the common sections of route and no doubt raise the profile, and use, of the facility.
Even more positively, more new buses are on their way to upgrade the currently branded Tynedale Express routes X84 and X85 between Newcastle and Hexham (with the X85 continuing hourly to Newbrough) and bring them into the X-lines family. These new buses will also include bike racks.
Martijn tells me there’ll be a ‘bike guarantee’ in case someone is left behind due to the two bike spaces already being occupied or a non-bike bus having to be substituted.
While Arriva down grade or ditch their Sapphire and Max brands for key inter-urban routes, and Stagecoach abandon the high profile Gold brand, it’s good to see we still have forward looking bus companies developing excellent branding to encourage passengers to travel, and Go North East is up there leading the way.
As I commented earlier, Go North East’s X-lines is a work in progress, and very impressive it is too, with exciting developments ahead including those new buses for the X84/85 and refurbished coaches for the X9/10 on their way.
Also on their way is the introduction of the new Yutong electric buses mentioned in Tuesday’s blog, and which are now arriving in Gateshead to be prepared for service.
They’re to be used on the Saltwell Park routes 53/54 and are already being trailed with teaser branding on the sides and on Go- North East’s website.
Here’s one of some preview photos of the new buses Martijn tweeted out yesterday. They look mighty impressive, even before vinyl application.
I enjoyed my visit to the north east yesterday, albeit it was brief, with lots of positivity to last me through ‘Lockdown’, and with more exciting developments ahead, it hopefully won’t be too long before I can make a return visit.
Go North East. Better than ever. Definitely.