Wednesday 26th May 2021
Following my hugely enjoyable ride across Dartmoor on the Dartmoor Explorer last Tuesday I made a return visit to the South West over the last couple of days to take a look at the many new bus routes aimed at the leisure market First Kernow are now running in Cornwall.
There are four groups of routes to explore.
Firstly the long established circular route in both directions based on Penzance via Lands End around the coast to St Ives and back to Penzance operated by open-top buses. This has been branded ‘Atlantic Coaster’ in recent years but is now called the ‘Lands End Coaster’.
As I’ve taken this route a few times over the last few years so gave it a miss this time but it’s well worth a ride and I’d recommend planning for at least one break along the way to switch to a bus behind otherwise it’s a long haul at 3 hours 50 minutes to do in one go.
The route’s hourly frequency is a great help in planning out a five or six hour day with St Ives definitely worth a stop off for at least an hour. It’s a lovely spot compared to Lands End which although iconic is far too commercialised as a destination. Other great stop off spots include Porthcurno, Sennen Cove or Carbis Bay – although the latter is well worth giving a wide berth in the middle of next month, unless you like G7 Conference security. Extensive road closures in that area will ensure you have to give it a wide berth; expect significant disruption to bus routes.
All these attractions are described in a colourful brochure currently available on First’s new “Adventures By Bus” website and hopefully soon in print.
The second route network is the one I tried out yesterday and which First Kernow are calling “The Lizard”. Because it serves the Lizard peninsula. First Kernow have reintroduced their route L1 which they’d branded with Lizard imagery on smart single deck Optare Solo SR buses back in 2019 running between Redruth, Helston and Lizard Point.
First lost that route in March 2020 as part of the tendered route shake up to the new Transport for Cornwall consortium. It’s now operated by Go-Ahead using its original route number 34 on an hourly frequency.
First Kernow’s latest 2021 version of route L1 runs between Helston and Lizard Point and will use open-top buses in another attractive Best Impressions designed livery, but these buses are only now being made ready for service so closed top double deckers have been pressed into service since the route began on 16th May.
Bearing in mind the wet weather in recent weeks that’s probably just as well. indeed it was raining for much of my travels yesterday too.
Route L1 runs hourly with the first bus from Helston at 09:30 and an hour’s gap mid afternoon as both buses operating the route, like a number of these new initiatives introduced by First Kernow, are used on college contracts at peak times. I’m wondering what the students will make of their college bus being open top, especially when it rains!
Three further routes feed into the Lizard network, two of which similarly run hourly beginning at 09:30 with a mid afternoon gap in the timetable. Route L3 operates from Truro and route L5 from St Ives both connecting with the L1 in Helston.
The established route U4 which links Penzance with Falmouth via Helston has been brought into the network with good connections into the Lizard network at Helston.
I took a ride on the L3 from Truro, connected with the L1 at Helston and continued down to the Lizard and back and completed the network by taking the L5 from Helston over to St Ives. It took just under four hours to do the four journey itinerary but would be longer if I’d broken my journey at Lizard Point or Helston.
The connections worked well, especially heading towards Lizard as the route taken by buses around Helston gives the opportunity for a leisurely 24 minute gap at the large Tesco (toilet facilities available) although this is not clear from the Lizard brochure – another really attractive design full of great information and colourful maps, but only with a brief timetable for each route.
Some connections though are just 5 or 10 minutes which might be challenging when Cornwall’s notorious summer traffic congestion inevitably returns.
I was a bit worried yesterday morning when we got stuck in Lizard due to a badly parked ambulance. Luckily the 14 minute layover at Lizard Green came to the rescue and got us back on time.
Route L1 competes directly with Transport for Cornwall’s route 34. Both operate hourly between Helston and Lizard. Both double run to serve the village of Kuggar although route L1 only does so in the southbound direction towards Lizard.
Leaving Helston route L1 departs Sainsbury’s bound for Lizard at 41 minutes past each hour, while route 34 leaves st 49 minutes past the hour. Due to different routes taken in Helston this situation is reversed from the Tesco bus stop with the 34 st 30 minutes past the hour and the L1 at 35 minutes past.
I wonder what locals make of all this. Passenger numbers were thin on the ground. Most journeys had just ones and twos on board. Not surprising perhaps with the weather being so wet and the holiday season not in full flow yet. I know from my previous visits the route down to the Lizard can get very busy and if the weather is good I can see First Kernow’s network proving very popular with tourists attracted to the open-tops while leaving Transport for Cornwall to cater for residents.
The hourly Truro route L3 duplicates some of Transport for Cornwall’s two-hourly route 36 but I noticed a half a dozen passengers forsaking the latter for the former heading back from Helston’s Tesco towards Truro yesterday morning no doubt attracted by the more direct route and shorter journey time. The outward southbound journey at 09:30 from Truro had only attracted one other passenger besides myself though.
Route L5 is a completely new initiative linking Helston with St Ives via Hayle for the first time. It’ll provide a great day out opportunity for tourists at both ends of the connection via Helston – St Ives and Lizard and could prove popular.
Both routes L3 and L5 (as well as the U4) are closed top double deck operated.
When planning my latest Cornish jaunt I’d looked at taking a ride on the third new initiative – the (still branded) Atlantic Coaster open-top route from Padstow to Newquay and newly extended through to St Ives on a more regular basis than has applied in recent years. Only four/five journeys a day run west of Newquay to St Ives.
It’s another 3 hours 40 minutes marathon ride, and I was a bit worried about only having a 10 minute connection for the St Ives departure at 13:25 with my L5 only arriving at 13:15 and anticipating the need for a comfort stop. My plan B was to get off the L5 on the road into St Ives and cross over for the Atlantic Coaster which takes the same route outbound via Carbis Bay.
In the event I made it all the way to St Ives but decided against an Atlantic Coaster trip this time as although the bus was closed top which would have meant a nice shelter from the rain, I also saw quite a few passengers boarding which would inevitably lead to steamed up windows, which for me is hugely frustrating when passing through such lovely scenery.
It was good to see passengers on board / no doubt thinking a bus ride being a great alternative to sitting on the beach in the rain.
St Ives Malakoff bus station has been given a makeover and now only serves as a supervised point for turning buses round. Buses now layover and depart from the bus stop on the adjacent road called The Terrace which makes for interesting traffic queues as St Ives regularly blocks up.
I headed down to the station and took the train via St Erth to Truro for my Plan B ‘Adventure By Bus’ which involved a ride to Bodmin on the hourly route 89 which I’ve dubbed the ‘Loneliest Bus Route in Britain’ for want of so few passengers ever spotted travelling on it.
I caught the 14:55 departure which continues on arrival in Bodmin to Callywith College to pick up students returning home.
One other passenger boarded in Truro bus station alighting in Tresillian, ten minutes away which is also served by three other Transport for Cornwall routes and one First Kernow. It was just me on board for the next the 65 minutes journey to Bodmin.
It’s a lovely route but the problem is it looks good on a map linking Truro direct with Bodmin (First Kernow’s route 27 goes via St Austell and takes much longer) but it doesn’t serve anywhere populous enough with unique journey options. And despite an inconveniently located Parkway station at Bodmin, the train is a quicker alternative.
i saw another empty bus leaving Bodmin this morning and the driver said few people do travel on it but he thought it was picking up a bit now.
After yesterday’s Adventures my aim this morning was to take a look at the extensive Daytripper network First Kernow has introduced under its “Adventures By Bus” branding.
This sees at least eight buses committed on peak hour college contracts utilised in between the peaks on a network of out and back routes connecting the main places tourists stay with the most popular visitor attractions.
All the buses rendezvous at 10:30 at the Eden Project where there’s a large bus station and on the outward trip passengers swap between buses with the same again at 14:30 on the homeward journey changing back on to the bus taking them to their original boarding point.
It’s a kind of Cheltenham Interchange arrangement for those with long memories of coach travel in the 1970s and earlier.
The bus stop departure information is to First’s traditional style which perhaps is not the most appropriate for this type of novel operation.
One slight worry must be if one attraction is proportionately much more popular than all the others and you get too many passengers overloading that one bus.
There seemed to be a spare Daytripper branded bus parked at the Eden Project this morning, and a man in an office, so perhaps that’s for that eventuality.
Buses duly arrived around 10:30 this morning but I only counted five arriving as well as a single deck displaying ‘Private’ which I had thought was on the St Austell hourly shuttle as I’d caught the same bus in that same blinded state on a journey arriving an hour earlier.
A small group of passengers alighted from the first double deck bus arriving (in the smart DayTripper livery too) but it soon became evident they were intending to stay and visit the Eden Project rather than head on to one of the other destinations. One other double deck brought in one other passenger but I didn’t see where they went to.
Otherwise it was just the drivers and myself.
You can’t fault the drivers for their enthusiasm. All the ones I spoke to were hoping passenger numbers will pick up next week, being half term, and on into the summer.
One long serving slightly cynical driver spoke of the four hour briefing he’d attended and expressed his concerns the whole idea was at risk as journey timings were very tight with the result everyone will be rushing to meet the set interchange time.
I noticed this morning one bus leaving as another was arriving which will obviously undermine the whole idea if it occurs when more passengers are travelling. And it’s a mystery what happened to the missing buses this morning.
I headed back to St Austell at 10:35 on a Mevagissey bound bus, and we did pick up one other passenger, so I can’t report whether the other passenger-less buses stayed at the Eden Project or continued on to their designated attraction.
Only two of the buses seen today were in Daytripper livery (including that spare) but the First Kernow paint shop has obviously been inundated with work due to introducing so many innovations at once.
The theory behind this initiative is a great one but I am worried the return times, like on the Dartmoor Explorer, of necessity to fit in with college times, are much too early for day trippers. But even that long serving slightly cynical driver acknowledged, when prompted, it would have been inconceivable to have seen First Bus try anything as adventurous as this ten years or so ago when Western Greyhound were cleaning up all over the south west and some were predicting the complete demise of First.
It’s certainly an Adventure compared to those days.
PS While in Cornwall this time I didn’t have time to try the new Falmouth Coaster and there’s the exciting Exmoor Explorer beginning this weekend so it looks as though the South West will be in my travel diary again very soon.