Life after Stagecoach East

Saturday 5th November 2022

I wrote about Stagecoach East’s service cuts back in September and suggested at that time there’ll be other bus companies based in the area that’ll likely come forward to take over the bus routes being withdrawn.

Sure enough Grant Palmer, Stephensons and Vectare stepped forward and contracts have also gone to Centrebus, Whippet, Dews Coaches, A2B Travel and FACT.

The changes came in last weekend so I’ve been out and about this past week to see if the new order has made a difference.

First up, commercially operated routes 72 and 73. Stagecoach hitherto operated these two routes between Bedford, Sandy and Biggleswade twice an hour taking four buses to run the timetable with route 72 taking a slightly longer route between Sandy and Biggleswade via Potton.

I’d taken a ride on route 73 at the end of last month while it was still in the hands of Stagecoach, or should I say I tried to take a ride on route 73 for although the electronic signs in Bedford bus station were advertising the 11:15 departure…

…. and it wasn’t listed in Stagecoach East’s tweet linking to an online list of daily cancellations ….

…. with no bus in sight as 11:15 I checked Stagecoach’s App just in time to see it showing the journey was cancelled (before it disappeared from the screen).

I let an elderly passenger also waiting know and wandered off for half an hour returning to catch the next departure (a 72) at 11:45.

An undated notice had been posted warning of “considerable disruption/delays …. in the upcoming days” so I can’t say I wasn’t warned and giving up routes 72/73 seemed to be part of Stagecoach East’s recovery plan for its driver shortage.

It’s all part of the hazards of bus travelling in Autumn 2022.

The next incoming bus arrived just before 11:45 with 20 passengers alighting and we left the bus station at 11:47 with 16 on board and two more boarding as we passed through the town centre.

Some temporary traffic lights on the road to Sandy caused a few minutes delay but otherwise it was a smooth run.

The route in Sandy includes an eleven minute circuit of the residential area north of the town which saw two alight and five board offset by 13 passengers who travelled through and enjoyed (endured) the detour.

I returned to Bedford using Grant Palmer’s route 74 which runs between Hitchin, Biggleswade and Bedford taking a quicker route by missing out Sandy and serving villages including Ickwell, Cople and Cardington instead, taking just 35 minutes instead of 54 minutes on route 73 and even longer on the 72. The downside was the lower patronage with just three on board and picking up one during the journey.

I returned to Bedford on Wednesday this week to see how Grant Palmer’s new broom was sweeping clean on route 72/73. I mentioned in the last Seen Around blog that it had been impressive to see posters along the route promoting the new service in advance of its introduction and full marks to Thomas at Grant Palmer for doing an excellent job of providing information.

The new Grant Palmer timetable reduces the vehicle requirement by half with one bus on a two-hourly route 73 (Bedford – Sandy – Biggleswade) and one bus on a two-hourly route 72 (Bedford – Sandy – Potton) making for an hourly Bedford to Sandy link instead of half hourly.

I arrived in Bedford’s bus station to catch the 11:38 departure on route 73 to Biggleswade and saw from the electronic signs it was departing from stand H. There didn’t seem to be any other information about the route, only a timetable for Stagecoach route 6 which also uses the stand.

I reassured another passenger unfamiliar with the area despite the Stagecoach poster saying it “will no longer operate” the routes…

… it was still running and sure enough at around 11:45 having seen a bus approaching the bus station on the Bus Times tracker website it duly appeared and passengers alighted at the alighting point.

But, then the bus drove off without pulling on to stand H which was disconcerting especially as the next departure for Biggleswade via route 73 was not for another two hours.

I gave Grant Palmer’s telephone number a ring and was answered by a helpful person who reassured me the bus would soon be back and the journey would definitely run. I’d also contacted Thomas and he assured me he had displayed timetables himself but at stand F …

… and when the bus did reappear it went to stand F where there was a whole gang of passengers patiently waiting as that is the stand the routes use. Obviously you have to be a regular to know to ignore the electronic signs.

To cut a long story short, we left at 12:00, 22 minutes late having got all 17 waiting on board including a mobility scooter, shopping trolleys and wheelie/walking frames.

It turned out to be one of those journeys where everything goes against you.

As we embarked on our tour of Sandy we had to wait for a large artic to reverse into an industrial area….

…. and we just got later and later as the driver had to contend with more wheelie/walking frames – their owners almost came to blows due to lack of space on board …

… and lots of enquiries from passengers as we got later and later. For example in Sandy passengers were waiting for our return from Biggleswade to Bedford as almost at the time we should have been going towards Bedford we were still heading to Biggleswade so the driver had to explain this causing more delays. The tour of Sandy took a whole 16 minutes due to the aforementioned issues with passenger congestion.

The driver also took time at many stops to tell passengers quite firmly they must put their hand out for the bus otherwise he won’t stop – telling one passenger he’d told her earlier in the week already. Quite why he was wasting time doing this I don’t know especially as it’s the only bus route picking up at the bus stops concerned. It just wasted more time and came across as very customer unfriendly. However he also showed enormous patience dealing with all the other challenges the journey threw at him and I told him so.

We eventually arrived into Biggleswade at 13:02, 30 minutes late, and by the time everyone had alighted with their shopping trolleys, wheelie/walking frames etc and a new contingent of 13 were on board for the return journey to Bedford it was 13:07 – half an hour later than the scheduled departure of 12:37. Not very good for a two-hour frequency service.

We’d passed the bus on route 72 heading to Bedford in Sandy which I’d noticed was also late – by around 13 minutes which makes me wonder whether the timetable is going to work with such tight turnaround times (7 minutes in Bedford, 5 minutes in Biggleswade and 3 minutes in Potton). It’ll be a shame if it doesn’t as the reduced provision has inevitably led to busier buses and almost certainly a more commercially sustainable arrangement than applied for Stagecoach.

Despite the unreliability, I’m sure routes 72/73 are in safe hands with locally based Grant Palmer. It was good to see posters and leaflets on board the bus …

… although unfortunately the timetable booklet in the rack didn’t contain routes 72/73 (rendering it irrelevant for passengers on this route) and it was also good to see the poster frame at Biggleswade bus station had been updated from the rather useless and outdated Stagecoach display…

… to something far more useful and helpful….

…. and good to see departure times had been updated by Central Bedfordshire Council in Biggleswade.

Full marks for the publicity efforts but the overall impression of my journeys with both operators was one of unreliability and frustration.

Both Stagecoach East and Grant Palmer are shortlisted for a UK Bus Award (to be announced in ten days) in the Shire and Independent categories respectively for Bus Operator of the Year. I can imagine long suffering passengers on routes 72/73 are understandably puzzled about that.

I didn’t return to Bedford on route 73 on Wednesday but instead popped down to the station and headed up to Peterborough to try out another replacement Stagecoach bus route, this time operated by Vectare.

As this tale has already been a little on the verbose side, I’ll tell you about that as well as yesterday’s ride with Stephensons in Cambridge and Newmarket in a Sunday blog extra tomorrow.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS and some Su including tomorrow.

32 thoughts on “Life after Stagecoach East

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  1. The Stagecoach 72 seems surprisingly busy for a route just about to be withdrawn. One does wonder whether the route was sacrificed to help the driver shortage…

    What I don’t understand in all this is why Stagecoach themselves didn’t look at reducing frequencies rather than withdrawal? The hourly 915 between Royston and Cambridge required three buses because it served all points in Royston and yet the core Royston to Cambridge route can easily be operated with 2 buses to the same frequency, or one bus for every 2 hours as Centrebus is currently operating on the 26.

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      1. Actions too have consequences. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Stagecoach East weren’t the first to adopt a policy to close local outstations/depots. Nor the First to suffer the consequences. Sensible economics. Irrespective of national economics (which can’t be ignored either), it affects driver morale.

        Loyalty is local. Not so much institutional. Sorry.

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    1. “easily be operated” um, no, especially with the regular congestion nothing is that easy, except on a spreadsheet. Buses can be nearly an hour late. They may recover, eventually. But, and it affects viability, sooner or later; it’s touch and go. And as for modal transfer…

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  2. Frustrating to say the least. Is there not an app that shows buses on route realtime? ‘MY Trip’ app works well for most other services in York along with the ‘First Bus’ app. I don’t leave home til I see the bus five minutes from my stop.

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    1. Recent article on MyBristol berating First West of England’s “real time” bus tracker which it turns out displays buses as per the timetable, which disappear when they’re cancelled. Unfortunately you have to click on each bus to see if it is actually real!

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      1. But if they’re like the Essex Buses, they can disappear from the app tracking map for a myriad of other reasons too, leaving the passengers guessing.
        Which, if we think about it, isn’t so very different from what we were used to, in the days before smartphones.

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  3. The biggest problem in and around Cambridge (far from unique) is the traffic congestion, usually exacerbated by every public body whose responsibility is to manage it.

    The Mayor wants a congestion charge but has made it a necessity to improve the bus service first. So this is his first attempt, basically to cut back and halve the number of existing buses on the network,
    to promote modal change. What I don’t get, is how he is going to get from here to there.

    It’s good practise I suppose, waiting for the bus that never comes.

    Someone please enlighten me. Or what’s the alternative?

    Or is it all just a pipedream?

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  4. Stagecoach being shortlisted for an award when their response to their ongoing driver shortage was to send drivers to operate Commonwealth Games services is disappointing.

    Stagecoach really need a strong sense of where they are going otherwise they could emulate Arriva.

    None of this is to belittle those working hard to keep services going though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stagecoach is turning into what First Group was 15 or so years ago: a monolithic corporation ruling by diktat from HQ with no interest in, let alone understanding of, their local markets.

      It doesn’t help that, like so many other companies, they’re into management by tick-boxers regularly rotating through roles rather than management by training and experience in specific functions.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Well I’d have thought that if you were stood at the bus stop the chances are you a catching a bus so you don’t need to put your arm out however it does make you more visible.

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    1. Locally, the bigger problem seems to be what when the intending passengers do put their arm out in time, and the (right) bus still goes flying past.

      That’s what Ubers are for, is apparently the answer.

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    2. While you’d think that’s obvious, from my own bus riding experiences around the country this year you’d be amazed how many people think a bus stop is a place to stop and gossip, or check something on their smartphone, or (more understandably) stop for a breather if there’s a seat.

      I’ve lost count of the number of times a bus I’ve been on has pulled up at a stop with someone stood there only for that person (or those people) to look blankly at the bus as if it’s some sort of strange apparition and the bus driver’s being unreasonable for stopping and interrupting them.

      Sometimes those apparently standing gossiping or gazing off into nowhere do get on the bus, so bus drivers are clearly expected to be psychic so they are able to identify which are intending passengers and which are just enjoying the “facilities” provided by a bus stop sign!

      You can understand bus drivers getting a bit frustrated if it’s happening regularly, especially if they’re running over-tightly-timed routes.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to see no politicians wanting to solve the problem. Far easier to blame the Government, Local Authority, Mayor or bus operator.

      Perhaps a little bit of leadership and an honest conversation about the economics of bus operation might help. Or just put in a DRT service and pretend it solves the problem.

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  6. Where I live (near Peterborough) it is not the practice for potential passengers to signal to drivers. Instead, drivers stop at every stop with anyone near it who might conceivably want to board – rather like the old compulsory stops in London, though not if the stop is deserted. Occasionally people gesture to a driver to indicate it’s not the right bus for them, which draws an acknowledgement from the driver as the bus accelerates away.

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  7. Interesting – the various comments above above how to stop (or not stop) a bus at a bus stop; it all adds to the factors putting off car-drivers from even attempting to use public transport. Do Bus Users UK have a policy suggestion on this?

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    1. If you are waiting as a bus stop and a bus other than the one you want to catch comes along I always nod my head and step back.

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      1. So do I.

        There is a poorly-lit stop near my church which I quite often use in the evening; drivers can’t easily see people waiting (occasionaly they’ve driven past despite my vigorous hand-waving) so I shine a tiny torch to show that I’m there.

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  8. We haven’t, I think, moved that far from the attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s. If we choose to use the bus, we have to adapt our lifestyle to the bus. The bus has never adapted to what the passenger expects, and never will. It’s another one of those myths, in which our politicians seem to excel. The sooner we start to face reality, the better.

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  9. In Hertfordshire, all bus stop flags are marked ‘please signal for bus to stop’ lettering and ‘Stick it out!’ at-stop posters. There’s little more frustrating for both driver and passengers to pull into a lay-by for no-takers and have to battle into the traffic flow again…

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  10. There is a problem in London when drivers don’t stop at “compulsory” stops, either because no-one at the stop has raised their hand or no-one on the bus has rung the bell.

    There’s also the problem (not just in London) of a bus on one route being at a stop and one on another roaring past without the driver checking if there are passengers waiting for ‘their’ bus. Not always easy, I grant you.

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  11. I agree Andrew; I’ve been left at a stop more than once when the bus I want has gone past another which was blocking its line of sight to me. The solution is for the waiting passenger either to be alert and see the bus coming, then be brave and step out in front of the stationary bus and hail the driver; or move to Edinburgh where buses always pull in behind one on a different route waiting at a stop if it’s also a designated stop for the one behind. (This can make for slow journeys there, though.)

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  12. Can anyone enlighten me why Stephensons run a one journey a day each way route 8A? It appears to be some sort of depot working but I cannot see what the bus does next or previously.

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    1. It’s the last remnant of the Stagecoach 8 between March and Cambridge. The Solo that works it seems to be outstationed at Wichford near Ely, runs light to March, then does the 8A to Cottenham, then spends the bulk of the day in Ely on the 9A. In the evening it does the reverse. The 8A is now the only bus route in Chatteris, which is probably why it’s tendered.

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  13. I’m response to IAN,
    I’ve noticed in Edinburgh that a 2nd bus arriving at a stop will not allow you on even though it has arrived and is stationary behind the first bus, but will wait and then move up to the actual stop before allowing people on… is this a Lothian policy or just one of those Scottish habits that us from the south find weird? I couldn’t find any details about it on the Lothian web site but had it happen to me a couple of times up there when I moved forward to board buses arriving behind another like one would almost everywhere in England and was refused entry….

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  14. You say the Stagecoach 72/73 needed 4 buses, but in fact it was 5, as don’t forget both 72 and 73 ran to Biggleswade. Buses always went out on one route and returned as the other.

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