Wednesday 4th August 2021
This week has seen Stagecoach South East revamp its bus routes between Canterbury, Faversham and Sittingbourne and introduce an exciting new extension onwards to Maidstone.
Southeastern trains run regularly between Faversham and Sittingbourne but services to Maidstone are not so convenient with journeys taking well over an hour and involving a change of train. From Canterbury direct trains depart for Maidstone from Canterbury West station and take around 55 minutes.
Another factor which no doubt influenced Stagecoach to invest in this corridor was Arriva withdrawing route 333 between Faversham and Sittingbourne at the beginning of this year. Stagecoach was also running between the towns with an hourly route 3X (which had been extended onwards from Canterbury beyond Faversham in 2017).
Going back in time route 333 continued to Maidstone, and going back even further in history, East Kent and Maidstone & District (the forerunners of Stagecoach and Arriva in Kent today) ran a joint service between Canterbury and Maidstone.
Arriva continue to run a half hourly route 334 between Sittingbourne and Maidstone which starts in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, another part of Kent they’ve recently retrenched from.
Stagecoach’s previous timetable between Canterbury and Faversham ran every 20 minutes with an hourly 3 terminating in the village of Oare just beyond Faversham, an hourly 3X terminating in Kiln Court, Faversham and another hourly 3X, the one continuing beyond Faversham to Sittingbourne taking in a residential area to the west of Faversham called Bysing Wood.
The new timetable sees a half hourly X3 and X4 between Canterbury, Faversham, Sittingbourne and Maidstone with the former taking the route via Bysing Wood and the latter running direct on the A2 via Ospringe.
An unchanged hourly 3 continues to Oare and takes a slower route between Canterbury and Faversham via the villages on the old A2.
The upside of the new arrangement is Faversham to Sittingbourne is doubled from hourly to half hourly and there’s the new half hourly link to Maidstone.
Between Sittingbourne and Maidstone the X3 and X4 almost compliment Arriva’s 334 timetable with an approximate 10-20-10-20 frequency in both directions, which isn’t bad coordination considering they’re competing.
You can see the logic behind Stagecoach’s venture. Maidstone is Kent’s county town as well as having the area’s largest population so better connections from the A2 corridor must have some potential particularly with relatively poor train connections and Arriva appearing to be on a downward spiral.
The new X3/X4 take advantage of the fast dual carriageway A2 between Canterbury and Faversham (as the 3X did). The A249 between Sittingbourne and Maidstone is also another fast road giving an end to end journey time of 85 minutes.
A rather tight five minutes layover at both ends results in a 3 hour cycle for each of the six buses although journeys are given more time in the morning and afternoon peaks. At least a couple of the buses also do school journeys so the frequency is reduced on schooldays at these times.
Single deck Enviro200 buses are used on the X4 due to a low bridge just by Faversham rail station but double decks are allocated to the X3, currently those that would normally run services for the University of Canterbury – hence the green version of the livery (denoting ‘special services’).
I took a return ride across both routes on Monday to get a feel for how this new venture might pan out.
First day bus routes are always quiet as it takes time for potential passengers to become aware of the new opportunities so I wasn’t expecting to find many travel companions. In the event I bumped into fellow bus and train blogger Steve (always good for a catch up) on a mid morning departure from Canterbury on the X4 and we were indeed the only passengers travelling beyond Sittingbourne to Maidstone although we had carried four passengers travelling to various points between Canterbury, Faversham and Teynham and picked up one making a local journey into Maidstone.
As the bus left Maidstone to return to Canterbury, it picked up a couple of what looked like ‘genuine’ passengers and the following route X3 journey, on which I travelled, also picked up two passengers both looking like first day try-outs like myself. From Sittingbourne towards Canterbury we picked up more passengers who would previously have caught the 3X or 3 with up to a dozen on board.
The running time seemed rather generous, particularly on the X4. We paused a few times on the route to keep to the schedule. I’d estimate at least 8, if not 10 minutes could be saved, but that would impact the coordination (such as it is) with route 334 and place both routes on similar times into and out of Maidstone and I guess it was a good day for traffic in Canterbury and on the A2 on Monday and I’m sure it can snarl up badly and cause delays when all the running time possible is needed, especially as the layover is tight as already mentioned.
It was a shame to see Stagecoach’s travel shop closed in Canterbury bus station but good news that a timetable leaflet promoting the new X3 and X4 was available on board buses and from drivers. Indeed supplies had run out already on the X4.
In fact there are two versions of the timetable leaflet including a smaller size one, but containing more space for promotional messages which I picked up from an excited Stagecoach representative spreading the word about the new routes in Faversham town centre during Monday afternoon.
Sadly her urn had run out of hot water so there was no complimentary coffee.
Bus stops along the route with timetables managed by Stagecoach were commendably updated with departures for the new X3 and X4 showing.
Not surprisingly Kent County Council hadn’t updated their information where on display and nor had their bus stop plates been updated.
A display outside Faversham rail station was well out of date and sadly this seems to be the norm across Kent now with the County not having the resources it once had to keep information up to date. It was once one of the impressive counties for information, but that’s no longer the case.
Back in Canterbury, the departure stand in the bus station needs updating but I’m sure Stagecoach have that in hand.
There were howls of protest when Arriva withdrew route 333 in January and Stagecoach stepped in by extending route 3X to Sittingbourne, although this still left Ospringe unserved. Now the X4 has filled that gap and together with the X3 provides an excellent link all the way along the A2 between Canterbury and Sittingbourne and south to Maidstone.
It gives Stagecoach a second route into the county town, along with the 10X from Ashford. I wonder if it’ll be the last.
It’s good to see Stagecoach South East trying out new ventures. Not every initiative will work – their recent experience with new route M2 between Canterbury and North Greenwich was an example of something that didn’t work out – but unless you try these things you won’t know.
I hope the new X3 and X4 prove more successful and attract passengers back on to this historic route.