Tuesday 19th October 2021
As regular readers will know I’m very partial to a lovely rural bus ride. The more infrequent and quirky the better. I always feel a sense of achievement by visiting picturesque isolated villages by bus so I thoroughly enjoyed an outing on Tuesday last week when I managed a trio of such bus rides across East Cheshire’s rural finest.
Two of the journeys were on traditional scheduled bus routes, the third was on East Cheshire’s new DRT operation. It was easy to spot a common theme to all three journeys.
Spoiler alert: it was a scarcity of passengers.
Rural buses are often characterised by being withdrawn leaving residents in villages cut off; my travel experiences are the complete opposite – its village residents who’ve withdrawn from using buses leaving them unloved and unused. East Cheshire is a classic of that genre.
This latest DRT operation started in East Cheshire the week before last, on 4th October, thanks to £1.26 million funding from the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund being paid over a three year period.
Two Fiat Mellor bodied minibuses using the brand name ‘go-too‘ are being run directly by East Cheshire Council themselves rather than contracted out to a bus company. The service runs on Mondays to Saturdays between 07:00 and 21:00 which is two hours later than most operations of this kind.
There’s a flat fare of £3 per journey reduced to £2 for under 16s and concessionary pass holders. After five journeys, the sixth journey is free. During October there’s an introductory offer of two free journeys per passenger. Taxi drivers in the area must be looking on aghast at this state subsidised competition but I expect they’ll soon realise with only two buses across a wide area there’s going to be plenty of times when availability won’t fit in with passengers’ travel needs.
The area served is south west of Nantwich and is very rural indeed. And, let’s put it this way, I didn’t come across much need for the area to be ‘levelled up’ as I travelled around. In fact I reckon there are many towns in the so called prosperous south east which could be candidates for being ‘levelled up’ to this part of East Cheshire.
You can’t use ‘go-too’ to travel within Nantwich itself, but otherwise journeys are possible throughout the area shown on the map above.
Nantwich itself is a relatively small town with a population of 18,000 and draws in shoppers and leisure seekers from the outlying villages, which are the main markets ‘go-too’ is aiming to serve. At the present time much of this market is car based and as you can see from the more detailed OS maps above, it is very rural and sparsely populated.
I travelled south from Nantwich’s small bus station to the village of Audlem on D&G Bus operated tendered route 73.
It’s a one directional circular route taking in a half a dozen villages on a 73 minute journey four times a day.
Departures from Nantwich are at 08:55, 11:45, 13:15 and 15:05.
I caught the 11:45 departure and was joined by just one other passenger as we set off from Nantwich.
The first fifteen minutes of the journey is spent wandering around residential streets in Nantwich, including one involving a reverse round a corner for the bus to turn around and head back to where we’d just come from.
After about ten minutes of this town tour the lady who’d boarded with me in the town centre alighted and it was just me left on board to enjoy the rural ride to Audlem which we reached about 25 minutes later at 12:22.
I’d pre-booked my DRT ride from Audlem the previous afternoon – I didn’t want to get stranded in such an isolated village, lovely though it was – and specified 12:45 as a desired pick up time. You can book up to 14 days ahead using the app but if using the phone line the booking must be made by 17:00 the previous day.
After receiving confirmation pf my booking for a half hour slot, a text came through on Tuesday morning advising of a pick up at 12:47 …
… which was just perfect giving me 25 minutes for a picnic lunch in the rather superb bus shelter in the centre of the village before the bus arrived.
I’d chosen my DRT destination as the village of Bunbury partly because it was an isolated village on the opposite side of the area served by ‘go-too’ and partly because in my research I noticed it seems to have just two scheduled bus journeys a day, on route 70, including one departing at 14:07 which would fit in superbly with my DRT arrival if everything worked out as planned.
Tech company Via are behind the software driving ‘go-too’ so you get to see your bus on its way to pick you up, which is always reassuring and something I miss when using DRT operations with software from other companies which don’t incorporate this feature – so well done Via for that.
Paul arrived with the smart new Fiat exactly as predicted at 12:47 and after introductions we were on our way.
Paul was pleased to be one of six drivers now employed on ‘go-too’ having had previous bus driving experience with both Arriva and First Bus as well as many years driving articulated buses on the Park and Ride service at East Midlands Airport.
We had a good chat on the 35 minute journey across to Bunbury which always adds to the enjoyment of these rural rides. Paul was very amiable and friendly.
The bus was similar to those being used on the East Leeds FelxiBus DRT I’d travelled on the previous week, except this bus was diesel powered rather than electric and the interior was less ‘welfare’ orientated with more comfortable seats and a much brighter moquette on the seats and the ceiling. It still had a somewhat clinical ambiance to it though.
The route across from Audlem to Bunbury was a wonderful wander through rural East Cheshire …
…including a rather lovely lift bridge over the Llangollen Canal in the village of Wrenbury.
Paul recommended I try the village coffee shop – Tilly’s – in Bunbury before catching my return bus to Nantwich on route 70. Arriving in the village at about 13:25 gave plenty of time to take up his suggestion, and I can endorse his recommendation if any readers ever find themselves in this delightful village.
Paul explained he was finishing his duty at 14:30 but expected to park up to await any further bookings before heading back to Nantwich for the shift changeover.
Sure enough on my wander around I found him in the village car park, with obviously no takers. He told me I was the second passenger of his shift, so it looks as though ‘go-too’ is having a slow start.
I’d noticed a poster for the new service stuck up in a bus shelter in Nantwich bus station but surprisingly saw nothing in either Audlem or Bunbury leaving me wondering how the service was being promoted after an initial flurry of ‘roadshows’.
There was a box of leaflets on board the minibus and Paul kindly gave me one which has details of how to book and a map.
Unsurprisingly we hadn’t picked any other passengers up along the route – I doubt anyone has ever travelled from Audlem to Bunbury by bus before, so personally I owe a lot to DRT for enabling me to make the journey. Many thanks to the DfT for its £1.26 million.
After a refreshing coffee in Tilley’s I made my way to the bus stop outside the Co-Op/Post Office in the centre of Bunbury for the 14:07 departure on route 70 back to Nantwich.
Route 70 is also operated by D&G Bus. There are just two journeys a day – one at 10:50 into Nantwich with a return from town at 13:30 which forms the 14:07 I caught going back to Nantwich.
There was no bus stop plate or road markings outside the Co-Op/Post Office …
….but I’ve come to trust Google Maps over many years of travelling in remote locations so didn’t worry too much the bus might take an alternative road that by-passed the stop instead of using the full length of School Lane and turning right into Vicarage Lane.
However, as I tracked the bus heading my way on the very useful website ‘bustimes.org’ I grew concerned that my confidence may be misplaced so I repositioned myself a few yards towards the road junction so I could cover both options.
It was just as well I did too, as the bus appeared on the road by-passing the Co-Op/Post Office and I frantically gave the driver a wave and thankfully he pulled up a little further along and fortunately had a passenger on board who was getting off the bus anyway.
The driver – the same one and bus who’d taken me out to Audlem on route 73 earlier – told me there was no bus stop outside the Co-Op/Post Office – which unusually means Google and ‘bustimes.org’ are allegedly both wrong. I got the feeling this inconsistency wouldn’t trouble many villagers as it came across to me that buses don’t feature in village life much – which, having just one return journey a day, is perhaps not surprising.
And that will be the challenge for this DRT – getting villagers out of their cars which they’ve become accustomed to using for their travel needs.
I did my usual trick while waiting for the bus on route 70 to try booking on the app for a ‘go-too’ bus to pick me up there and then, and interestingly received a rather unhelpful response there was “High demand”.
However, trying again just a minute later, I was offered a pick up in 51 minutes – presumably after Paul’s driver changeover had taken place in Nantwich at 14:30.
Such are the vagaries and pot luck of DRT riding.
Paul observed that he thought ‘go-too’ would appeal to young people wanting to travel from villages into and out of Nantwich rather than use Mum-&-Dad’s Taxis and he’s probably right, especially as they’ll coalesce around common travel times which is what DRT operations thrive on. But I’m not sure that 21:00 finishing time, good to see though it is, will be quite late enough for the young adult market.
It won’t be anywhere near viable though, but there again neither are routes 70 and 73 – suffice to say I was the only passenger travelling back into Nantwich on route 70 that afternoon.
Three rural rides; one passenger making a short journey within Nantwich on one; none on another, and none on the third. One passenger alighted from the outward journey before my third.
i doubt £1.26 million is going to change this situation. Sadly.