Monday 19th April 2021
As the deregulated era of free market bus operation draws towards a close it’s not surprising head-to-head bus competition is pretty rare nowadays. Not least currently because Covid has reduced passenger numbers to (at best) less than two-thirds of normal times, and no one is making a profit in the current circumstances.
But over in Buckinghamshire the High Wycombe to Aylesbury corridor has seen intensified competition over the last few months with Arriva ditching its hourly direct route X30 between the towns in favour of increasing its alternative route 300 from a three-per-hour 15-15-30 timetable pattern to a regular 15 minute frequency throughout the route to up its defences against Redline’s incursive route 130 now running every 20 minutes on the direct route.
Route 300 takes a slightly longer route between High Wycombe and Princes Risborough to serve a cluster of linear communities (Naphill, Walter’s Ash and Lacey Green) rather than heading out on the A40 Oxford Road and then north along the more sparsely populated A4010 towards Princes Risborough.
Both Arriva’s route 300 and Redline’s 130 parallel each other from Princes Risborough north via Stoke Mandeville and its hospital to Aylesbury.
There’s definitely more passenger potential on Arriva’s route 300 through the three villages but it does come with a time penalty taking eight minutes longer (30 minutes versus 22 minutes via the direct A40/4010) between High Wycombe and Princes Risborough.
North of Princes Risborough Arriva allow 27 minutes while Redline give 23 minutes for the like for like journey to Aylesbury.
Redline are also under cutting Arriva on fares offering an end to end single for £3.50 with a £5 return while Arriva are £4.20 single and £6 return. But you’d never know, unless like me, you asked the drivers. Bus companies like to keep ticket prices secret even in a competitive environment.
You’d also be lucky to find up to date bus times from the Buckinghamshire Council controlled bus stop displays. They haven’t caught up with Arriva’s latest changes so confusingly display the old times, all the more so, at Princes Risborough where buses in both directions serve the same Market Square bus stop.
There’s a stop mounted mini so called ‘real time’ display also at Princes Risborough Market Square but sadly it wasn’t readable due to a combination of being very faint and the sun shining.
And the bus stop flag only has a faded reference to the High Wycombe direction and no reference to Aylesbury.
No wonder passengers looked confused but stoically wait in between the adjacent departure bays which routes 130 and 300 use to see which driver turns up first when both buses coincidentally leave at 30 minutes past each hour (with Redline then at 50 and 10 and Arriva at 45-00-15). In the event the Redline driver was more prompt while I was there so all six of us boarded that bus just as the Arriva driver turned up.
As well as a complete lack of any promotional collateral to support the increased competition as well as attractive and relevant pricing and timetable information there was a distinct lack of any competitive spirit with drivers showing the same disinterest the bus companies seem to extol.
Both operators use a motley collection of different vehicle types in varying liveries meaning there’s no consistent branding which would attract potential passengers.
At one time Arriva used its MAX brand for the route which at least gave it a bit of a profile, but following the central corporate diktat all such brands must go in favour of bland website branding, the vinyls are in the process of being removed. Making for a rather scruffy appearance.
Even the new bland brand is uncared for.
Redline’s fleet also come in different liveries as well as at least one ex London bus with its centre doors still in place.
Aylesbury’s subterranean bus station is best avoided even in non-Covid times, and in an effort to limit passengers wandering around, buses are stopping outside to set down passengers before proceeding into the bus station, which makes it less convenient to access the shopping centre above the bus station.
Still, at least the Portacabin which was used by control staff and used to display unfriendly notices is now closed.
As too, sadly is the Travel Shop in High Wycombe bus station which Arriva only reopened not so long ago.
Staff control obviously takes precedence over providing customer information.
Sadly the same applies at Carousel too.
Obviously it’s not a good time to make judgments on bus loadings with travel still impacted by Covid wariness but I observed about a dozen to 20 journeys on the 130/300 today from mid morning to early afternoon along the full length of both routes and never saw more than six passengers on board, and usually less.
Redline are also competing with Arriva’s route 280 (Aylesbury to Oxford) running hourly as route 120 between Aylesbury and Haddingham against Arriva’s three buses an hour.
It’s a very strange time to be competing head to head when the Government are underwriting the costs incurred by bus companies operating timetables. In effect we taxpayers are funding this set up.
In normal free market conditions such competition would soon dissipate, it being a case of far too many buses chasing far too few passengers along with no marketing effort to attract any new customers.
It will presumably get sorted as part of a Buckinghamshire Council Enhanced Partnership later this year when Bus Back Better becomes the thing.
Just as well.