Thursday 21st April 2022
The bus route between Birmingham, Bromsgrove, Droitwich Spa, Worcester and Great Malvern was first introduced by Midland Red in 1914 and although extended to Malvern Wells two years later and given route number 144 in 1928, it’s pretty much continued unchanged for the past hundred years or so, save for the section south of Worcester being hived off to a separate service (numbered 44) and recent frequency reductions as passenger numbers have declined, particularly on the section of route between Birmingham and Bromsgrove.
Now, while the route between Worcester and Bromsgrove enjoys a 20 minute frequency supplemented by additional school day only journeys, with two journeys each hour continuing to Catshill (just north of Bromsgrove off the A38), only an hourly frequency runs through to Birmingham. And that’s not for much longer.
From 1st May this long standing route will cease to serve Birmingham as First Bus introduce changes to reflect reduced numbers of passengers travelling in the Worcester and surrounding area. Route 144 will only run between Worcester, Bromsgrove and Catshill on a 20 minute frequency and the historic link to Birmingham will end.
Inevitably these changes have been vividly reported in the local media with politicians jumping on a pre local election propaganda platform offering their take on the situation, particularly those in the area north of Bromsgrove, including Rubery, which will no longer be served by route 144’s buses, and crucially lies outside the West Midlands Combined Authority area.
Worcestershire County Councillor Peter McDonald representing Rubery told the Bromsgrove Standard “this is absolutely diabolical, it will cause so much disruption. This could see carers, healthcare staff, shop assistants and others losing their jobs if they cannot get to work”.
Although just over the border, Rubery enjoys a frequent link into Birmingham by National Express West Midlands route 63 currently running every 12 minutes but the link south to Bromsgrove will be severed which will no doubt cause much consternation and inconvenience.
It had all looked so positive for the 144 just four years ago when the route was given its high profile makeover incorporating a new Salt Road branding with an attractive bright green livery and logo making the buses stand out from the more bland and insipid First Bus colours. Bus stops along the route (outside of Birmingham) also became on brand.
The Salt Road name was chosen with a nod to historic links to the extensive salt trade in Droitwich. Salt routes were used for transporting salt from the Iron Age, and throughout the Roman and medieval period. Salt appears naturally as Brine in Droitwich, bubbling up from the ground at a concentration twenty times stronger than sea water. The result, after boiling off the water, was a much cheaper, purer and more desirable salt making it a valuable and universally needed commodity.
As part of the brand makeover in 2018 the buses were given a refreshed look
That was then, and this is now, with the Salt Road about to be severed with buses no longer continuing into Birmingham. I took a ride out on the route on Tuesday to see how many passengers were travelling on the soon-to-be-withdrawn section.
I caught the 11:25 departure from Birmingham Smallbrook Queensway, a stone’s throw from New Street station.
The bus was already on stand from its incoming journey and the driver appeared at about 11:20 and five of us boarded.
We left slightly late at 11:29 but had made most of this up even by Selly Oak and were spot on time at Northfield at 11:53
The Salt Road took us along the A38 Bristol Road out of the city and we picked up one more passenger as we passed through Edgbaston with seven more boarding in the commercial area of Northfield, where two alighted giving us a total compliment of 11 on board.
We hit roadworks as we approached Longbridge at midday which delayed us for about seven or eight minutes and picked another passenger up when we got through the congestion.
The timetable allows a three minute pause in Rubery between 12:05 and 12:08 but we passed by at 12:12 and dropped one passenger off and picked two and a child up.
As we passed through Catshill, the soon-to-be northern terminus for all journeys we dropped five passengers off arriving into Bromsgrove with eight adults and a child. Fourteen passengers travelled who won’t be able to from the end of the month.
After a short break in Bromsgrove I returned to Birmingham on the 13:07 departure. This arrived from Worcester in good time with 10 passengers staying on board and 12 boarding.
22 passengers was an impressive number heading north from Bromsgrove for a soon-to-be-wthdrawn section of route, especially as only five had alighted by Catshill and one more had boarded making for 18 on board.
This was impressive all the more so as the previous bus (144A) from Worcester terminating in Catshill had arrived and left Bromsgrove twelve minutes later than it’s 12:45 scheduled time.
We picked up another passenger as we headed towards Rubery and two more in Rubery itself with five alighting. One more alighted in Longridge and six in Northfield with nine travelling all the way to Birmingham including five who’d been on the bus from south of Bromsgrove.
These loadings were more than I’d been expecting and I reckon there’s going to be quite a few shocked passengers when they find out the service is ending.
Obviously my two journeys are just a snapshot but by coicnidence my friends David and Stuart were also travelling on Tuesday and David contacted me to say “we had around a dozen on board over the short rural stretch between the West Midlands boundary and Worcestershire that is being lost”.
I’m sure First Bus has done its sums, and taken in the round, I can appreciate the two buses it takes to run the section of route north of Catshill may not be being fully remunerated by the numbers travelling. It was noteworthy how we passed many bus stops on the way into and out of Birmingham with no-one about.
Whether NatEx’s routes 61/63 which parallel the route, albeit stopping at more stops, every 6 minutes (reduced from a previous 5 minute combined frequency) are doing any better is a moot point – perhaps passengers have drifted to the parallel railway with stations at Longbridge and Northfields although that’s only on a 4 trains per hour frequency and not an even 15 minutes at that.
Maybe Councillor McDonald will persuade Worcestershire County Council to provide some last minute funding to keep the service going?
Although by the appalling state of the County’s presentation of timetables in the bus shelters in Bromsgrove I doubt they’ll be interested.
Mind you, I didn’t see any information on board the buses about the imminent service cut back either. Although there are nice posters about the Salt Road and goddesses.
I reckon there’ll be quite a few passengers surprised their bus isn’t running from 1st May.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS