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time there’ll be other bus companies based in the area that’ll likely come forward to take over the bus routes being withdrawn.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.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS and some Su including tomorrow.