Thursday 22nd September 2022
First comes surprise news last night TfL’s Transport Commissioner Andy Byford is quitting after just two years in the job. It’s somewhat ironic his mantra since arriving at TfL’s top job in June 2020 has been the need for long term funding and stability for the organisation yet he’s turned out to be the shortest term Transport Commissioner London has had since the new regime began in 2001 (Sir Peter Hendy completed nine years while Bob Kiley and Mike Brown both managed five years).
Andy Byford’s two big achievements, it’s said, are the opening of the Elizabeth Line (yes, well, only three and a half years late) and securing the “long term” funding deal (after 13 temporary/extension deals and this crowning glory lasts for, er, eighteen months). I’ve obviously missed an amendment to the definition of “long term” somewhere along the line.
Now on to todays scheduled post and another topical hot news item ….
Stagecoach caused a bit of a storm on Tuesday by announcing a revised bus network for its operations in Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and Bedfordshire commencing from Sunday 30th October.
It’s hailed as “a sustainable network” but the sting in the tale is nine key routes are described in the briefing “withdrawn as unsustainable” as well as a bunch of more minor routes in the St Ives area.
Inevitably this has led to a huge backlash from local politicians, councils and passengers rushing to tell the media about the hardship such withdrawals will undoubtedly cause. Opponents also point to the DfT’s recent updated commitment to continue Bus Recovery Grant (BRG) so a ‘cliff edge’ withdrawal of bus routes yet to fully recover from Covid inspired reductions in passengers can be avoided.
Against that background Stagecoach’s actions may look premature but as usual the DfT have not been very forthcoming about the detail of the extended BRG and let’s face it without certainty over long term funding a ‘cliff edge’ for some routes is inevitable so why keep putting it off?
Nevertheless Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority are particularly miffed issuing a terse statement on Tuesday…..
You can’t blame Stagecoach for acting commercially – after all it is a commercial business, not a charity or local authority. If the routes were viable (or to use the new parlance: “sustainable”) I’m sure the company would be only too pleased to carry on running them.
Two of the highest profile services Stagecoach are withdrawing are routes 11/X11 and 12 between Cambridge and Newmarket from where the former continues to Bury St Edmunds and the latter to Ely. Both routes run hourly on Mondays to Saturdays with no Sunday service.
I took a ride on them yesterday to see if all the fuss over their withdrawal is justified. The usual caveats apply in that my journeys are a mere micro experience which may be completely unrepresentative being off peak and in a strange week with an unexpected bank holiday at that.
I travelled late morning from Cambridge to Newmarket on route 11 which takes the slow route deviating to serve all the villages along the way. It takes a lengthy 77 minutes while route 12 follows a more direct route, albeit with less of a market to serve, but does the journey in just 35 minutes.
I’d show you the routes on a map; but obviously neither Stagecoach or the Combined Authority produce one these days.
We took six passengers from Cambridge four of whom alighted within the first 20 minutes at Stow-cum-Quay and Bottisham and picked six more up during the route, five of whom boarded as we took a tortuously circuitous route into Newmarket itself. It took getting on for 20 minutes to cover a myriad of residential roads in Newmarket along streets that I’m sure at one time would have had a dedicated local service. We’d also endured a tour of the village of Burwell which took at least five minutes to complete.
Obviously end-to-end passengers have the quicker route 12 to use but it can’t be very attractive for car owning village residents to face such a long winded route into Newmarket.
Arriving in Newmarket, the bus on route 11 which waits 17 minutes before continuing to Bury St Edmunds – not exactly attractive for through passengers either – misses connecting to a departing route 12 to Ely by just four minutes meaning a 56 minute wait if you want to travel from one of the villages served by the 11 on to Ely. Another rather unattractive proposition.
The bus I took on to Ely after my 56 minutes wait saw four passengers alight in Newmarket (as it arrived from Cambridge) and six travelled through with four boarding.
All the other buses I passed during the journeys and saw in Newmarket while waiting had similar loads.
Unless there’s a dramatic uplift of peak hour passengers – which also sees a few quicker X11 journeys – and/or there are large numbers of school children and students I would conclude Stagecoach are right that these routes are “unsustainable” as defined by being ‘uncommercial’.
The routes clearly are “sustainable” if some funding is made available or a lower cost operator really goes to town on some effective marketing.
Stagecoach have done a good job installing smart bus stop plates throughout the route with a local name identifying the location and I noticed timetable cases had timetable information displayed.
Except bus stops in the Newmarket area were not so smart and timetables were missing – is this something to do with Suffolk County Council policy, I wonder? It’s certainly not helping “sustainability”.
However, Newmarket’s small bus station had poster sized bus stop departure information….
…. but Stagecoach’s bus stop plate was showing an out of date route number (10).
Stagecoach’s approach to branding was also woeful with Gold branded buses dedicated to route 13 being used on both the 11 and 12 …
…. as well as ‘busway’ branded buses ….
…. and buses in an anonymous base Green livery.
Obviously there are no printed timetables to promote the service and the information on line for route 11/X11 is unattractively rudimentary stretching over 12 pages of pdf.
It’s not exactly inspiring.
Bearing in mind the talk of a desire to build a section of railway track north of Newmarket to allow a direct connection via Soham to Ely for trains to run between the two locations I’d have thought some high profile route branding for both the 11/X11 and 12 would be really effective. Trains currently run hourly between Cambridge and Newmarket taking 21 minutes but bus stations are located much more centrally in both locations compared to railway stations, particularly the former, so there really should be a good market here for an enterprising bus company in tune with local markets.
Other routes on Stagecoach’s hit list for next month include the six or so journey a day 39 Ely to March; hourly 18 and hourly 915 Cambridge to Great Cambourne and Royston (respectively); half hourly 25 shuttling between Trumpington and Addenbrooke’s; with three routes in Peterborough listed including 23/24 to Lynch Wood (which I can’t find a current timetable for) and off peak hourly 29 to Hampton; while over in Bedford hourly routes 72/73 to Biggleswade are also earmarked for withdrawal. I can think of one enterprising locally based bus company which I’m sure will snap that route up.
Although Stagecoach East are showing a link to the list of changes for its “sustainable network” in a ‘pinned tweet’ you need to look carefully to find details on its website. Bizarrely, they’re listed under “Promos and Offers” on the Cambridgeshire part of the website under an icon called “New East Bus Network”.
If this is the start of an inevitable trend by the large Groups like Stagecoach which seem to have lost its mojo for being in tune with locally based markets and branding then it could well herald new opportunities for truly locally based independent operators with closer ties to their local markets.
On the other hand, there have been calls by politicians in Cambridgeshire to bring in franchising and these route withdrawals may just hasten that outcome. I wonder if the new regime at Stagecoach might actually welcome that. Someone else taking the risk on struggling services, while earning the company a steady income from running them under contract.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS