Saturday 26th February 2022
It’s time for my fortnightly visit to a small to mid sized town and for D I selected one of England’s most beautiful and iconic cities which I hadn’t explored for many months.
The city of Durham’s population is around 50,000. It’s the administrative centre of its namesake Durham County Council which became a unitary council in 2009 absorbing the former District Councils within its purview including Durham city which saw a new City of Durham Parish Council formed to deal with localised matters.
Located 18 miles south of Newcastle, 13 miles south-west of Sunderland and 24 miles north of Darlington the River Wear flows north through the city including a giant meander forming a peninsula bounded on three sides and characterised by very steep hills where the famous and spectacular cathedral, castle and university are located.
Durham’s railway station is also high up in an elevated position not far from the city centre (if you don’t mind an energetic hill climb). Situated on the East Coast Main Line it sees trains operated by LNER, Cross Country and TransPennine Express to Newcastle and Edinburgh as well as to York, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, Derby, Birmingham and the south west and Peterborough and London, among many other destinations.
The station buildings were given a revamp a few years ago with empathetic restoration of original features including a new enclosed waiting area on the southbound platform as well as the installation of lifts to facilitate full accessibility.
I visited the city at the weekend on the first Saturday of this month when engineering works had closed the line between York and Newcastle causing widespread disruption and a huge fleet of replacement coaches to supplement a diverted hourly train service via Sunderland and the coastal line.
There was no Three Bridges style marquee to be found and it was more the usual chaotic rail replacement arrangements with long queues forming and the minimum of information about where to wait or how long the wait would be. I’m sure Go North East and Arriva’s inter-urban bus routes must suffer on weekends like this as it’s widely known such replacement coaches have no ticket checks and most passengers I’m sure are travelling for free.
In the event, the coach managed to complete the journeys I made between Newcastle and Durham (and return later in the day) in the timetabled 35 minutes, which wasn’t bad going but nowhere near as quick as the usual 13 minutes (18 minutes if stopping at Chester le Street) by train.
I arrived for an early start to my exploration of the bus network in Durham which is largely run within the city by Arriva with Go North East joining in with a couple of contracted routes and a handful of frequent inter-urban routes to surrounding towns many of which have high profile branding.
Whereas Andover and Bracknell had a paucity of (and not much of a need for) inter-urban connections and Carlisle offered a few, it struck me Durham sees much more travel between communities in its wider travel catchment area. In fact Durham must enjoy one of the best inter-urban networks for a city of its size in the country.
Durham’s bus station was closed a year ago for demolition and a complete rebuild.
The demolition and ground investigations have happened (along with a culvert diversion/replacement and utility diversions) but the rebuild is yet to start.
An update on Durham County Council’s website reports construction should start next month or possibly April with final completion expected in Spring 2023.
The new bus station promises increased space for passengers “in a light and airy setting, with increased visibility and safety for buses leaving the station”.
Although the old bus station only dated from 1970 it hadn’t aged well and was very much in need of improvements so well done Durham County Council for going the whole hog and securing £3.6 million from the Transforming Cities Fund towards the £10.4 million overall cost of the project. I look forward to visiting the new bus station when it opens next year.
During the closure extra stops have been added to the adjacent North Road and Milburngate with twelve stops lettered from A to M (there’s no I).
Signs indicate which bus routes leave from which bus stop and considering the limitations of space it all seemed to be working remarkably well during my visit, .
The Council have also added temporary ‘humps’ on the footpath in North Road to assist with level boarding.
Arriva’s website includes a network map of its city bus routes as well as an indication of longer distance routes continuing outside the city – bizarrely the page can be found under tickets.
I took a ride on circular routes 49/49A (coloured red) which serve Langley Moor in the south west every 15 minutes (alternating the direction around the circular route around the residential area); route 48 (blue) to New Brancepeth in the west every 20 minutes; route 64 (purple) from the Arnison Centre in the north (every 10 minutes) cross city to Sherburn Village in the east (every 20 minutes); together with route 62 (green) every hour which also serves the Arnison Centre via a more direct route and Adventure Valley. As you can see the frequencies are quite good for the city’s size.
The Arnison Centre to the north of the city opened in 1989 and offers a wide selection of national retail names in bespoke warehouse style units and lots of free car parking. It looked busy on my lunch time visit.
Not surprisingly route 64, which serves the Centre and is the most frequent route, had the busiest buses I travelled on with 15 passengers mid morning and the same number at lunch time too.
The route operates with a mixture of double and single deck buses. At one time it used the brand name “frequenta” and one or two buses still display that name.
I was particularly struck by severe congestion impacting the eastern side of the route along the Sherburn Road heading back into the city centre. This was particularly bad around lunch time and the early afternoon with delays of around 15 minutes as buses crawled along.
There was a short stretch of bus lane but it only saved us a couple of minutes, being so short in length.
On the other hand as my rail replacement coach entered the city along the dual carriageway A690 (from the A1M) I noticed a long stretch of bus lane taking over one of the two lanes which must be a godsend for buses on the Belmont Park & Ride from junction 62 on the A1M and Go North East’s X-lines branded X20 which links Sunderland and Durham every half hour.
Route 49, the next most frequent Arriva route after the 64, took 13 passengers home carried one more locally in the Langley Moor area and brought six back into the city.
Route 48 took two home (although that was as early as 10:20) and brought 14 back into the city ….
….. while the hourly route 62 had just three on board coming into the city.
Arriva also operate route 43 every 20 minutes between Durham and Esh Winning west of the city which looked very similar to route 48 and route X46 every 20 minutes to Crook south west of the city.
Inter-urban routes looked busy too, particularly Go North East’s route 21 (half hourly Brandon-Durham-Chester-le-Street-Gateshead-Newcastle) and the X21 (also half hourly but limited stop West Auckland-Bishop Auckland-Durham-Chester-le-Street-Gateshead-Newcastle). Route 21 takes 72 minutes for a Durham to Newcastle journey while route X21 does it in 54 minutes.
Arriva also operate on the same route between Durham, Chester-le-Street, Gateshead and Newcastle with its hourly X12 journeys taking 55 minutes.
These journeys are extensions of a half hourly service which starts in Middlesbrough via Stockton-on-Tees to Durham. This used to use the MAX branding and one or two buses still carry it.
X-lines branded routes operated by Go North East also run half hourly to Consett (and Shotley Bridge) (X5 and X15) while ‘Prince Bishops’ branded route 20 connects Durham with Sunderland and South Shields every 15 minutes with a 90 minute journey time.
The Durham Diamond branded route 16/16A runs very 15 minutes to Stanley and half hourly on to Consett with an 81 minute journey time.
A nice East Durham Explorer livery is applied to buses on Go North East’s route 65 which runs half hourly from Durham over to Seaham (south of Sunderland) on the coast.
Meanwhile Arriva’s other longer distance routes connect Durham with Sunderland (routes 22 half-hourly with an 87 minutes journey time); Hartlepool (routes 57/57A half-hourly with a 74 minutes journey time and route 24 half-hourly with an 81 minutes journey time); Darlington (route 7 every 20 minutes with a 73 minutes journey time); Cockfield (route 6 every 20 minutes with a 73 minutes running time); and Bishop Aukland (route 56 half hourly with a 71 minutes journey time).
As you can see from those last few paragraphs Durham really is a city at the epicentre of a whole range of decent frequent inter-urban routes operated by both Arriva and Go North East and with some quite lengthy journey times. Other than the main north south corridor (Darlington – Durham – Newcastle) these routes are not served by rail so not surprisingly do well with good numbers of passengers observed on board.
The rationale behind Go North East’s X-lines branding is to highlight the opportunities available across the region particularly where there are no rail connections. The liveries certainly stand out and look attractive.
Characteristically Arriva’s showing was not so attractive. The remnants of Sapphire branding which used to be applied to routes 6 and 7 were still evident as was remnants of MAX and frequenta as I’ve highlighted.
The interiors of some Arriva buses I rode on were in a disgraceful state with grimed in dirt indicating interiors hadn’t seen a mop for many a week, or even months.
Other vehicles were in a similar deplorable state.
Quite frankly the cavalier approach to branding and maintaining decent standards makes Arriva look a down-at-heel low cost operator on the verge of going out of business rather than the pan European transport giant it is.
Arriva’s corporate messaging so beloved of the out-of-touch directors running the business is at complete odds with what’s happening on the ground. Do they never travel by bus or see the appalling state their company is in?
Maybe bloomreach will reach out and sort it for them?
Before leaving Durham there are a few other oddity routes worthy of mention. Firstly route 47 which operates hourly between Ushaw Moor, Langley Moor and New Brancepeth (to the west and south west of the city but not serving the city centre) by a bus company called Scarlet Band. I assume this two bus route is a tendered service and when I saw both buses on my travels they weren’t carrying many, if any, passengers.
And secondly the Cathedral Bus (route 40) operated by Go North East which links the railway station with the Cathedral via the Market Square and is particularly handy for those who can’t face the steep hill climbs to and from both the railway station and Cathedral.
Two minibuses provide the half hourly service with a £1 flat fare and is unique in that it’s the only bus route serving the peninsular where there’s a road pricing scheme which charges £2 per day. This was introduced in October 2002, predating London’s more famous scheme by four months.
Go North East also operate two other short city routes from the railway station. One to the University Science Park (route 41 with three morning and evening peak journeys) and the other to Mount Oswald Links Estate (route 42 every half hour).
There are also three Park and Ride sites serving the city. In addition to the already mentioned one at Belmont to the north east of the city by the A1M, there’s another to the north west at Sniperley with buses running between the two sites via the city centre every 15 minutes (10 minutes at peak times). The third site is to the south at Howlands Farm. Motorists and their passengers pay £2 per person at the car parks with services running between 07:00 and 19:00 on Mondays to Saturdays.
Information at bus stops is overseen by the County Council, and like in Cumbria consists of a listing of departure times. All the bus stops I saw had up to date information and were pleasingly free of graffiti.
One anomaly I came across in the village of Ushaw Moor was this timetable case frustratingly pointing the wrong way.
Until I managed to lean round and see the contents.
The County Council commendably have bus maps available on its website including both a countywide map and town maps in pdf format and a countywide “interactive map” which shows clickable individual routes . Oddly the pdf map for Durham city omits routes to the west and southwest.
Durham’s a lovely city.
It’s got a good bus service but sadly Arriva’s local and longer distance routes are lacking the standards of presentation which is so obviously evident in Go North East’s operation. And just to show how on the ball Go North East are, I did spot one flaw – a missing vinyl on a Durham Explorer branded bus and tweeted a photo of it.
Within 20 minutes came a response from Dan Graham, the company’s Commercial Projects Coordinator to advise a replacement vinyl was on order and would be fitted the following weekend. Now that’s impressive.
Had I tweeted one of the many Arriva wrongly branded buses I’d seen I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have received a reply and if I had the response some time on the following Monday would almost certainly either have been “what city are you in?” or “we’ve passed this to the relevant department”.
I had a great day in Durham and concluded residents and visitors are certainly well served with long distance travel options by both bus and train.
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Next blog, Sunday 27th February 2022: A rail replacement ride round.