Chelmsford contrasts

Thursday 16th June 2022

Readers may recall when I tried the DigiGo DRT operation from Chelmsford’s Chelmer Valley Park & Ride site at Easter I spotted the temporary ‘dealer stock’ buses being used by Vectare on that route into the city pending delivery of a new fleet of buses as part of the company winning the contract from Essex County Council.

Nine ADL Enviro 200 buses were ordered for the operation (plus a tenth for other routes) and at least four have now arrived and are in service on Chelmsford’s other Park & Ride route – the 701 to Sandon where there’s been a substantial car park (1,377 spaces) sited conveniently to the east of the city next to the A12 since 2006.

It’s a very straightforward arrangement with buses using a lay-by alongside the entrance to the car park on the A1060 Maldon Road just west of its junction with the A12.

The service takes four buses in the peak with a 7-8 minute frequency from 06:30 to 09:25 and 16:00 to 17:30 while a 15 minute frequency taking just two buses operates during the off peak period with the last bus back from the city centre at 19:30 (19:00 Saturdays). The two peak buses layover during the off-peak in the lay-by, so it’s just as well it’s a long one.

It’s only a ten minute journey from the Park & Ride site to the beginning of the loop buses take around the city centre which takes a further four minutes and then a nine minute ride back again, so the buses won’t be tested to their extremes not least as the terrain is flat and helpful bus priority measures are in place on the city bound journey.

Back at the car park the reception building is well appointed with toilets and a bench seat for passengers to wait as well as an office and facilities for a supervisor – also manned by Vectare as part of the contract.

There’s clear information about upcoming departures and a large poster explains the extensive pricing options …

… including a fairly recent change (2020) whereby concessionary pass holders have been paying £1.50, which when I took a ride on Tuesday during the off peak made up the majority travelling.

It was impressive to see 14 passengers on one departure and in the low tens on others and the car park was looking fairly well occupied in contrast to experience of Park & Ride operations elsewhere – I’m thinking of Maidstone (now ceased) and Canterbury’s Sturry Road (in hibernation).

The new buses in their all black livery stand out from the First Bus old style insipid colours which otherwise dominate the local bus scene, although I did spot a couple of black liveried buses operated by First which presumably were the ones that company used to use on Park & Ride before losing the contract to Vectare.

Inside the buses, they’re not quite so dark, sporting a nice snazzy blue moquette with comfortable seats …

…. and adequate leg room.

There are usb sockets (one per pair of seats) and a little bizarrely a coat hook for each seat, which seemed a bit of a luxury for a ten minute journey.

Leaflets about the Park & Ride service are available on board all the buses and there’s a screen which could show the next stop, but didn’t seem to have been enabled yet.

Essex County Council have launched a whacky ‘Name the Bus’ stunt for not only the buses being introduced by Vectare in Chelmsford but also Arriva’s new fleet of similar buses which are heading to the Colchester Park & Ride operation.

I wonder how many Bus-y McBusface suggestions they’ll receive.

Park & Ride is a simple and easy to understand formula. The branding and straight forward frequency and ticket price offer attracts motorists. New buses with enthusiastic and welcoming staff add to the positive experience.

If only the same could be said for the rest of the bus network.

I’d been looking forward to visiting Chelmsford for a few weeks as it’s one of three Essex locations targeted by First Essex for a revamp and rebranding of its bus networks. Along with Colchester and Basildon, Chelmsford’s bus routes were given the full makeover treatment from 17th April to make them fit for purpose post pandemic. In the words of the joint Essex Bus Enthusiasts Group and Omnibus Society Eastern & Southern Branch special supplement to the Essex Bus Magazine the changes were “the most extensive and radical set of service revisions in the history of the operator and its predecessor Eastern National”.

The magazine supplement goes on to explain: “the most radical part of the changes is the creation of new networks in three key towns/cities – Basildon, Chelmsford and Colchester. All existing commercial local services have been cancelled and replaced with new shuttles, most only running from the estates to the town/city centre, although some cross-town routes remain in Colchester and Chelmsford and in practice, a number of routes interwork when they reach the centre. These routes all use a location-specific prefix, so Basildon routes are B1 etc, Chelmsford C1 etc and Colchester S1 etc – having two places both beginning with C is obviously a problem! We gather S was chosen for Shuttle”.

I was looking forward to seeing lots of publicity and high profile promotion for the new Shuttle branded routes now running around Chelmsford having seen bright new professionally designed logos and slogans online and in advance publicity.

Sadly I was disappointed. No timetable leaflets were available on board buses that I saw (indeed one driver told me there weren’t any and the classic “it’s all online”) and of course the Travel Centre in Chelmsford bus station has been closed for some time.

But, there was a route map and listing of routes next to the door which staff use to reach facilities.

It wasn’t easy to read let alone understand.

The Essex Bus Magazine reported that while Essex County Council had updated timetable departure lists, bus stop flags were still showing old route numbers but at least that potential confusion had been solved by my visit on Tuesday as someone had been round every stop to cover up the numbers with white blank labels. Problem solved!

Timetable departure lists have been updated but at busy stops, such as the Market photographed below, it’s a formidable list to navigate for a stranger unfamiliar with the new routes and network.

But more positively there are electronic displays showing upcoming departures from nearby stops in the pedestrianised shopping area which is good to see …

…. and I also found a route map behind the driver’s cab on board one bus …

…. and “shuttles” branding has been added to tickets.

So that’s all good.

I understand buses will be painted in a new brighter “shuttles” livery which will join what is already a welcome refreshing green First Essex branding used on longer distance routes.

But for now, the state of the buses doesn’t exactly inspire.

It’s back to Park & Ride for me.

Roger French

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26 thoughts on “Chelmsford contrasts

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  1. Thanks again for an interesting blog – and encouraging as far as the Park-and-Ride is concerned.

    I agree with your comment re the poor passenger info re ‘Chelmsford Shuttles’. It had looked as if First were actually going to do a proper ‘Total Passenger Experience’ revamp/upgrade – but sadly, not. It certainly won’t attract much extra custom if the only people who understand how/where the buses run are the locals – who will have been confused by the route changes anyway!

    The map – which is at least good and clear as to where the routes run – gives the impression of there being a usable network, like the London tube-lines, or like the Brighton Bus-Metro [what happened to that excellent scheme, by the way?]. But, when I checked the timetables, only one is 15-min frequency – the rest are 20/30/60 minutes, making changing bus inconvenient and probably time-consuming. And only one through route.

    May I make a plea for the benefits (to passengers and the operator) of cross-town routes? Obviously most passengers will travel from home to town centre, but ignoring the 5-10% who’d like to travel further is bad – after all, isn’t there a move to increase bus travel by 10%? – making cross-town travel easier might do that at a stroke! It would de-clutter the map – 6 routes instead of 12. If the frequencies of those six could be increased – ideally to minimum 8 buses/hour – there would be a real network, with journey possibilities and times attractive even to car-owners.

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  2. “It’s all online” might work for operators that have a functioning website, but First falls dismally short on that front.

    Apart from the problem that half the time when I try to do anything it keeps resetting to Bradford, the Essex page doesn’t seem to have any timetables for the new Shuttle services but only a selection of 8 longer distance routes. And from experience with First elsewhere, what timetables they do have are generally useless.

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    1. Rather like the bus turning up, the app showing the estimated delay for the next bus is something that has been (and still is) promised for ages. Everyone else seems able to do it.

      Meanwhile we are told to “use the map” to make our own estimate, but am I the only person to have missed the bus whilst distracted trying to negotiate my way around the map?

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  3. What it does show very clearly is the dramatic difference between the P&R facilities and buses and the normal bus network and bus station. They look run down and neglected and not an attractive offering

    Whether the P&R makes a profit might be another thing. Off Peak it does 2 return journeys an hour with 90% of passengers concessionary pass holders. Add on cost of staff at P&R and the cost of the car park and two buses sitting around doing nothing for most of the day

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  4. Well done, Vectare, BUT the thing is, ECC throw money at the Park & ride services – mostly down the plughole in the case of Colchester’s; and starve the local routes of ambition, expertise and resources.
    By doing this, they undermine their own stated desire to achieve modal shift, by encouraging people to travel all but the last 3 miles in polluting ICE vehicles, and cost their council tax payers through the roof, especially those – the vast majority – who live nowhere near the two Cs!

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  5. As a “local” my experience is that most of us will heartily endorse your final sentiment. The Park and Ride serves the passengers, often in contrast to the urban and even more so interurban routes, where the passengers have to try to serve the needs of First’s buses. It is good to see Vectare, who have had a somewhat difficult birth on rural low traffic routes with disgruntled passengers, “making a go” of a high profile, high traffic urban route. “Keep it simple”.

    As you say, what a contrast to the rest of the local First (which for good reason is commonly referred to as Wirst). It’s convoluted, if anyone can sort it out. A dozen years ago, another busman told me they had “by all accounts completely lost the plot”. I don’t think anything has changed recently, from local observation. Frequencies have been halved, and routes cut, but passengers, in decline for good reason, are still left waiting forlornly. Still, promises of “jam tomorrow”. Thankfully, at least we have Vectare and, away from Chelmsford, Stephensons, and even Arriva.

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  6. It’s the same everywhere.Upmarket buses and bus stops for the park n ride set but proper public transport users get the cast offs.

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    1. Although I’m slightly biased(!), I like to think it’s more to do with the operator in this case than the service / service type!

      Come and travel on our 22 / 47 in Cambridgeshire, our FlexiBus in Norfolk or our 93 / 833 in Nottinghamshire and you’ll find the same new buses, friendly drivers, USB charging and leaflets on board – its all about delivering a consistent standard of service across our business, whether it’s on a premium contract like P&R or a common and garden route elsewhere.

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    2. Would it be cynical to suggest that councils insist on new (or, occasionally, newly new but repainted) vehicles for P & R because they look good behind council leaders in photo-opportunities?

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  7. Running buses ‘through’ or ‘across’ city centres to create cross town links are fine, if the infrastructure allows for it to be done consistently, with journey times that are practicable. In the city where I am, also beginning with C, we haven’t a cat in hells chance – despite side-show attempts to do so, the reliability is awful. Designing a ‘simplified’ network shouldn’t be at the detriment to a reliable one.

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      1. If you are asking about the Park and Ride, the answer is yes. Although the last bus gets back to the site for 21:13, if you end up missing it and getting a taxi back or something you can still get out – the exit barriers are operational 24/7. At Sandon you can use First Essex services in the evening to get back to the site after the P&R stops running; at Chelmer you can’t (because no other buses pass the site).

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  8. As one who uses buses in Chelmsford once every two or three weeks, I have some experience of these changes. I agree that there ought to be lots of printed publicity and promotion but how do you actively promote it when all the changes are negative?

    I usually make a journey along the Broomfield Road into the City Centre which was previously well populated with services because of Broomfield Hospital.The changes mean I now find it quicker to walk rather than wait for a bus particularly in the evenings or Sunday.

    I think one of the issues is that First Essex were already making significant losses pre Covid and therefore they were forced to make cuts even if that could be self defeating.

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    1. That is the rub.

      The immediate comparison is with Stephensons, who manage to maintain routes and frequencies that First Essex cannot, and make a decent profit (pre-covid). Of course, they don’t have the legacy, or the size. But if FEx are too big for their boots, that is no one else’s fault.
      I’m not sure that a hefty dose of Arriva managerialism is the cure, though. As so often, the problems are longstanding and, I suspect, not so much a few “big” things, as the cumulative effect of lots of “little things”. It needs a lot of hard work, and I’m not sure First are ready for or up for it.

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  9. That is the rub.

    The immediate comparison is with Stephensons, who manage to maintain routes and frequencies that First Essex cannot, and make a decent profit (pre-covid). Of course, they don’t have the legacy, or the size. But if FEx are too big for their boots, that is no one else’s fault.
    I’m not sure that a hefty dose of Arriva managerialism is the cure, though. As so often, the problems are longstanding and, I suspect, not so much a few “big” things, as the cumulative effect of lots of “little things”. It needs a lot of hard work, and I’m not sure First are ready for or up to it.

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    1. It is part the Bus Companies and part County Councils and part Legislation

      In my view most of the large bus companies have no interest in running town services in the small and medium size towns and County Councils have little interest in supporting them but will throw money at P&R and even charge lower fares

      To successfully run town services you need a small local operator using suitably sized buses rather than large double decker’s. You also need only one operator otherwise the market is to small and it is this where legislation gets in the way

      Many of the large operator have closed most of their garages meaning small and medium sized town are service by buses operating out of remote garages leading to higher costs and reliability issues

      Chelmsford and Colchester should be large enough to support good town services but the cost base of the large bus companies is usually to high at least though both these towns have the garages in them. Mind you compared to other towns Colchester has good services. That though just shows how bad bus services are

      First Essex tried to operate the profitable Clacton to Walton service remotely when they closed the Clacton garage and that failed

      I

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      1. Maybe. But at the accusation of irrelevance, let me raise a few small things. FEx have new garages with outside bus washes, that with our east coast winds, are unusable for half the year. (Eastern Counties didn’t make the same mistake). The Walton service was increased from 2 to 3 buses an hour when the garage closed. And the recent changes have removed the weekday afternoon through buses from my local village, I suspect for numbering consistency. All good management, no doubt; but maybe, sometimes little things matter (a lot).

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      2. Well in my view the First Essex changes were primarily cost cutting dressed up as improvements. It will be interesting to see if the passenger numbers hold up after these change. I suspect they will fall

        The other looming issue is the axing of the Covid support from the beginning of October. Given passenger numbers are still typically about 20% down that will make many routes not financially viable

        First indication of what will happen will come in late July/Augusts as the LTA’s have to report to the government on there plans. The reason for that date is to allow notification to the Traffic Commissioners in time for October. A strange date to choose in my view ass a lot of LTA’s have a lot of changes in time for the new School term

        They have to report on each out in their area and put it into one of 3 categories

        a) Viable
        b) Marginal
        c) Not viable

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      3. Bob – you may feel that these are changes dressed up as improvements. There’s no getting away from service cuts but I think there’s a genuine desire to improve the quality of the service from First Essex. However, it didn’t become a problem child in a year or two and these are hardly the best times to try and turn things around with rampant inflation, driver shortages etc.

        Then you have the cuts in Covid funding that are extensive and therefore so are the service cuts that are accompanying them – sadly something we are seeing in many locations across the country. As a call back to an earlier Roger post, Evesham is slated to lose its direct link to Redditch – one of a raft of cuts being made by Rotala across Worcs, Warks and the West Midlands.

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  10. Another big issue is the unfairness of Bus funding by the government, To date TfL has had £4B. The rest of England about £1.4B in spite of London having a population of about 9M and the rest of the UK about 46M

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  11. Let’s have a bit of an alternative view….

    There’s no dispute that First Essex has been neglected and some very poor business decisions made. More noticeably, the transformational work that has yielded positive results in other First companies (e.g. First South West, First West of England, First Hampshire and Dorset) has not been seen in First Essex. They are just starting down the road whereas many other firms began that journey in 2015/6. That is enough to be criticised about and they certainly haven’t followed some of the good work that has been done elsewhere, arguably going backwards in some respects.

    However, these changes are the first manifestation of a new management team and the changes are not before time. The old Chelmsford network was an absolute mess; masses of service and route variations in an attempt to maintain every conceivable journey permutation but, in the end, just a confusing and unreliable melange. Note that whilst the P&R does benefit from some extensive bus priority, that isn’t the case on other arterial routes so cross city services were often impacted by traffic congestion. Reversing the previous managerial policy of exclusively online, there were leaflets provided when the changes were rolled out but clearly, that stock has now been exhausted if Roger couldn’t find them. And yes, there’s a lot to be done in terms of the provision of passenger facilities and marketing as the shuttered bus shop in Chelmsford illustrates (and is the same in Colchester). For the former, just making the facility look better (a big network map) would be an improvement, as would a walk-in, unmanned facility.

    I did chuckle at the comment about “thank god we still have…….even Arriva. I can only assume you refer to Southend because the Colchester operation is frankly not much other than bang average, and as for Arriva in Harlow, it is one of the poorest operations you’ll see in the UK.

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    1. I’m not sure it’s completely fair to criticise FEx for lack of effort. Misguided, perhaps.
      I wonder how well First West of England would have done without the tourist market? Mid-Essex has no tourist market (though one of First’s successes was co-ordinating the Hylands event services).
      Where are the passengers coming from? There is no ready market, although recently they’ve won Amazon contracts from Ensign in East London and South Essex. They did a good job in taking potential P&R traffic by direct rail connections, but they were operating both in those days!
      On my local services, the last ten years have been an era of constant change, in their search for the elusive passengers, rather in contrast to anywhere else I’ve lived. The new bus garages exhibit effort too.
      Yes I know the reputation of the local Arriva too, hence my tongue in cheek comment. The trouble is that my limited actual travelling experience doesn’t necessarily give me the same experience. But like another poster, I find walking usually a faster and more convenient alternative for local journeys. Longer journeys have overall become more difficult and inconvenient.

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      1. First West of England has relatively little tourist business. Aside from a bit around Weston, the major of part of the success has been growing the business in Bristol, major interurban links, and off the back of the universities in Bristol and notably in Bath.

        As for “where are the passengers going to come from?”, well you’ve answered your own question. The fact is that Ensign and Stephensons have managed to successfully carve out a very nice business, often in areas (in the case of Stephensons principally) that First have decided to vacate. Services like Maldon to Witham is a prime example of this where some attention to detail and service quality has done wonders.

        I confess that I haven’t experienced Arriva in Southend but have in Colchester (the dictionary definition of meh) whilst I can assure you that Arriva in Harlow is as bad as it looks.

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  12. I hope you’re wrong because if FEx are setting up separate urban and interurban networks, aren’t they following the example of Arriva in Harlow?

    Maybe as always, it’s a question of resources.

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    1. There’s no distinction between the local and what few interurban services are still run by Arriva in Harlow, except that Stansted pay for better buses for their 508-10 and the 724 needs something newer for the ULEZ at Heathrow.

      The new First Essex networks are slimmed and simplified – the former a consequence of Covid (though operating losses before that needed to be tackled) and the latter because they desperately needed it – Chelmsford had 9 routes but 17 different numbers because of various diversions. Clearly it was an untenable situation.

      Roger’s tatty Dart will soon be gone as some midlife e200s appear from Ensign and they are looking at clearing out the Tridents. Still a long way to go but as Ensign and Stevos have shown, there is money to be made in the area.

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  13. Well, looking at all those elderly people using the Park & Ride, it shows it’s not being used as intended. They don’t park a car and ride a bus into the city, they use because they have a free bud pass. Interestingly l, no mention of the disparity that Vectare have been shown favourably by ECC ? Vehicle overnight parking being allowed at the P&R site and near by fuelling at the Shell Garage. Not exactly environmentally fuel friendly.
    Give First Bus a chance regards change, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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