The battle for route 38

Thursday 1st December 2022

There aren’t many instances of head to head competition between bus companies these days, particularly not on inter urban corridors.

So I was a bit surprised to see Arriva and D&G Bus are battling it out between Crewe and Macclesfield with each company running an hourly service numbered 38.

The route goes via Sandbach and Congleton with journey time scheduled to take around 80-85 minutes meaning each company is using three buses.

D&G Bus route 38
Arriva route 38

The current timetable has a 15/45 frequency split with D&G Bus running 15 minutes ahead of Arriva.

I took a ride up and down the route on Tuesday last week to see how things were going, catching the 11:15 departure from Crewe operated by D&G Bus, returning on the 13:00 from Macclesfield operated by Arriva to compare the two.

Cheshire East Council has displayed helpful information in bus stations in both Crewe (which is about to be demolished as part of a major town centre redevelopment) and Macclesfield.

These include reference to both Arriva and D&G Bus route 38s as well as departure times at the bus stands.

To my surprise I spotted a few Arriva timetable leaflets in the window of the office used by staff at Crewe bus station so grabbed one by slipping in through the unlocked door …

… and then spotted some timetable brochures in the driver’s cab of the D&G Bus on the stand so asked for one of those too once the driver appeared.

Interestingly this contains perhaps a ‘Freudian slip’ by erroneously showing departures 30 minutes away from Arriva (rather than 15) but there’s an addendum inside showing the correct times.

The 11:15 wasn’t a prompt departure by any means with the driver not appearing until 11:21 but he soon got the eight waiting passengers and myself on board and we left at 11:23. There didn’t seem to be anyone left waiting for the 11:30 Arriva departure nor was that driver present.

We picked three more passengers up as we left Crewe via the railway station.

The 38 is a route in three thirds with Sandbach and Congleton acting as key intermediate staging posts along the way.

I soon realised the timetable includes slack in the running time with a scheduled five minutes pause in Sandbach and a generous eight minutes in Congleton, perhaps explaining our driver’s laissez faire approach to departing Crewe.

In the event we were scheduled to arrive Sandbach at 11:41 and leave at 11:46 but actually arrived at 11:48 and left at 11:49 while at Congleton instead of a scheduled arrival at 12:07 and a 12:15 departure we did a 12:09 arrival and departed 12:15 with a final arrival into Macclesfield at 12:36, three minutes ahead of the timetabled 12:39.

If my traffic free flowing journey was typical (I doubt it is, especially at peak times) you could lob 19 minutes off the end to end journey time.

The section of route between Crewe and Sandbach was the busiest carrying 14 passengers of whom 12 only travelled within that section and the other two went all the way to Macclesfield. Seven more travelled exclusively in the Sandbach to Congleton section with another two from Sandbach through to Macclesfield and finally three travelled exclusively between Congleton and Macclesfield making for a total headcount of 26.

Having arrived into Macclesfield with seven on board, the bus left for Crewe having picked up six passengers for the return journey…

… and I took a short break wondering how many passengers would arrive on the Arriva bus due in at 12:52.

It didn’t put in an appearance until 13:06 which I subsequently found out was due to the driver coming into Crewe to start his shift on a late running bus from Chester.

Eight passengers alighted, so very similar to the D&G Bus arrival.

The Arriva driver did a quick turnaround and swiftly got the 12 waiting passengers on board and we were away at 13:08. I was expecting fewer passengers than 12 would wait for the Arriva departure after six had boarded the D&G bus 15 minutes earlier.

However two of those 12 soon alighted in Macclesfield and seven more got off in Congleton where we arrived and departed the bus station at 13:28 just one minute down on the 13:27 scheduled departure having made up seven of the eight minutes late leaving Macclesfield.

Leaving Congleton we picked up one passenger at the next three consecutive stops giving five on board but we lost those three boarders after just a short ride at the West Heath shopping centre on the edge of Congleton which we left one minute early.

At the next stop the two from Macclesfield alighted leaving just me on board for the next 14 minutes until we picked one, then three then one up as we approached Sandbach where all five alighted and the cheery driver took a well deserved four minute breather and cigarette and told me about his frustrating late start from Crewe.

Arriva brand route 38 as Sapphire, but you’d never know it from the exterior of the vehicles. Inside the seats have the Sapphire name in the headrests….

… but the whole image is looking tired and a bit grubby and lacks that sparkle it once had when first introduced.

Although one passenger did remark to me “I like these seats”.

We left Sandbach at 13:52 (one minute down) having picked up four new passengers as well as five students shortly after that who all had Arriva tickets/passes. As we headed back towards Crewe we lost five but gained six at various bus stops making for a total headcount on the journey of 35.

Looking at numbers on board buses passing in the other direction on both journeys indicated these experiences seemed typical of off peak middle of the weekday times.

Whether it’s enough to sustain two buses per hour is a moot point. From a passenger perspective it’s a shame there’s not a truly joint operation with a half hourly frequency.

But recent history probably makes that unlikely. Some time ago Arriva deregistered route 38’s evening and Sunday journeys regaining the former on tender while D&G ran Sundays – which had good custom – as a commercial venture. Arriva also deregistered a local service in Crewe which gave D&G another opportunity to replace it commercially only to find, with understandable frustration, that after about six months Arriva reappeared on about two-thirds of the route.

D&G decided that wasn’t playing fair and retaliated by registering journeys on route 38 half an hour away from Arriva’s. Covid led to D&G abandoning Sundays and haven’t yet felt able to reinstate that day’s timetable and then last November Arriva introduced a network review which included a new timetable for its 38 journeys now running five minutes in front of D&Gs leading D&G to change their times to the current timetable which is now 15 minutes ahead of Arriva.

Julian Peddle, a director of D&G Bus, tells me he recalls running Macclesfield depot in 1990 when route 38 (ran from an outstation in Congleton) was the best performing route among the 58 vehicles based at the depot, half of which were double deckers. How times change with Arriva Macclesfield’s depot now on a peak vehicle requirement of five.

It’ll be interesting to see the next development in the battle for route 38.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

29 thoughts on “The battle for route 38

Add yours

  1. Very interesting. Is it the MMC who prevent two companies from negotiating in a civilised and passenger-friendly way how to co-ordinate timetables (and fares – yes, that’s probably the catch: the MMC would prefer two buses an hour leaving at the same time, to ensure perfect competition!)? Is that why bus and train companies (even the bus and train arms of the same big company) find it impossible even to talk to one another?

    B&H drove up custom on the 29 by running it half-hourly – that looks like a pretty similar route to the 38. I always feel uncomfortable when a bus manager – even such a knowledgeable and experienced one such as yourself – talks about a route only justifying (e.g,) ‘one bus an hour’, without there having been any proper attempt to see what might attract more passengers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Given the numbers travelling this route looks like it could sustain a 30 minute frequency (and should, given the geography), and it’s pleasing to see that Arriva still runs (supported?) a late evening service as even if not used much it gives confidence in the route overall and should sustain daytime travel.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Councils involved could quite easily step in and co-ordinate the service if they took a scintilla of interest in their local bus services other than at pre-election times. The 38, until fairly recent times, was a busy double-deck service amongst a sea of indifferent single-decks on all other routes, albeit only every 60′. As always with Arriva, unlike other groups, it was downgraded at the first possible opportunity.


  4. You need to come to Nottingham to appreciate the confusion that travellers can experience when using public transport. There, three different bus companies plus a separate tram company plus East Midlands Railway are running public transport services. The services appear to be completely uncoordinated and finding information about overall operations is something of a nightmare for passengers. This form of operation is very inefficient and confusing, clearly wastes money by duplication of services and ultimately discourages people from using public transport.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re wasting your breath complaining about Nottingham, Alan; both Notts City Transport and we’rereallygoodtrentbarton are past winners of the best bus company contest (awarded not by customers but by the bus industry) so any criticism – however valid – simply gets brushed aside.

      There is no coordination because it’s pretty much illegal to coordinate. That’s a lasting benefit of 1980s deregulation for you. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      1. At least Nottm City Transport have a real central public enquiry office (remember those?) where one can get a network map (remember those?) and full timetables for each of their routes (remember those?). They don’t mention the other operators though.


        1. The Nottingham public transport information office is in the middle of the pedestrianised city centre and nowhere near the two bus stations or the railway station. The tram information office is also well hidden hidden in the city centre. Unfortunately, Nottingham isn’t unusual in its lack of available information about public transport, resulting in great confusion for potential passengers.


  5. Thanks for the elevation of mundane Midlands town Crewe to city status! Although it doesn’t seem to mean much being a city these days.I wonder if King Charles and good Queen Camila know that they have made Crewe a city?


    1. Come to Nottingham to see five different public transport operators competing against each other and leaving potential passengers thoroughly confused.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do know what you are saying there. When in Nottingham a few months ago I noticed the tram stops weren’t even marked on the otherwise excellent NCT bus map


        1. The Nottingham City Transport bus map supposedly shows bus operations in the city, but only includes NCT buses. There are 2 other major bus operators in the city, that are completely ignored on the map and, in consequence, potential bus users have little or no idea of overall city public transport services.
          This again adds to my poor opinion of bus operators and the information they provide to the public.


  6. The Sapphire buses that look tired used to be branded for the 130 service from Macclesfield to Manchester. A route that Arriva ripped apart gradually. D&G now operate the 130.

    Regarding the 38, the route was better when Arriva Sapphire branded deckers operated it. These buses are now in Liverpool. I find it frustrating how a joint ticketing system between D&G and Arriva don’t exist on the 38. I find it frustrating how the timetable between them isn’t coordinated very well. They are just fighting each other to see who’ll pull out and don’t have any motivation or incentive to attract passengers to use public transport. Arriva are only slighter better as the buses are more decent and better size but both operators are extremely poor overall. Cheshire East themselves have no interest in helping to better public transport either. Which is a shame as I enjoy visiting the area.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Are you aware that, courtesy the 1985 Transport Act which deregulated bus services outside London, coordination between operators is pretty much illegal as it’s deemed anti-competitive?

      It *can* be done, generally as part of a quality scheme which is arbitrated by the transport authority (usually the county/unitary council), but there are comparatively few such schemes countrywide.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is an old North Western Road Car Company route which unless I am mistaken was only hourly in NWRCC days although Crosville also ran between Crewe & Sandbach.


  8. Unlike their neighbouring County Councils, the former Cheshire County Council & the current Unitary Authority’s, past & present, have long been noted for not providing any form of multi operator bus tickets.

    In fact, i think the only multi operator bus ticket valid in Cheshire is provided by Greater Manchester, in the form of the GM Wayfarer, which is only valid in parts of East Cheshire, & to Warrington Town Centre, otherwise the Cheshire councils leave it to the operators to sort out their ticketing, which can be pretty expensive if you have to use more than one operator


    1. The multiplicity of rival public transport operators and ticketing systems plus a general lack of information just adds to the confusion faced by those wanting to use public transport. Integration of systems and better information appear essential if the decline in public transport services is to be arrested.


  9. Some years ago D&G, with help from Cheshire East, produced an all operator bus timetable. For its second edition we asked for a contribution to the costs from both Arriva and First, who both refused. So that was the end of that.

    Both D&G and Cheshire East have pushed for an all operator Travelcard for Crewe and Macclesfield but again it’s Arriva who declined to join.

    Cheshire East, with the limited resources of a small unitary, do try to coordinate and promote public transport, but if one operator will not come to the table then their hands are tied


    1. Cheshire was a paradox, as i said non existent when it came to providing multi operator tickets, yet published great public transport timetable books, i still have a couple of sets from the mid 90s.

      In the 90s Cheshire used to publish the timetable books twice a year & had 8 different Cheshire districts, Cheshire stopped publishing Halton & Warrington books when they became Unitary Authorities, but Halton still published their own books until the early 00s

      The replacement councils still publish bus maps


  10. The decline of Arriva in Cheshire simply mirrors the rest of the business in 25 years. The outstation in Macc survives but how? The depot at Crewe went some years ago and Winsford (incl. Macc) has fewer than 40 vehicles. Tepid council support simply compounds the issue.

    The spat on the 38 was puzzling so thank you for the background on that. The comments about peace being established and a 30 min headway… I can’t recall it really justifying a 30 min service and the new deckers that Arriva did allocate on there did seem overkill at the time for a route that had been single decked for many a year.

    Sapphire is now a busted flush with Arriva – there’s no commitment and it’s just some battered paintwork and grubby headrests as you’ve experienced. What with that and the delights of Crewe bus station, you must have had a quite depressing day! You have suffered for our pleasure!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Most bus companies appear to do very little to promote their services and encourage passengers. Often, it is extremely difficult to obtain any information on bus routes and times, so it is hardly a surprise that bus usage is declining.


  11. The spat on the 38 is quite bizarre given it’s not a route you’d expect a bus war on, i think it stems from when D&G won the Sunday contract for the 38, which is tendered from Cheshire East, D&G/Arriva tickets are not interchangeable so D&G started a Monday to Saturday 38, so D&G only tickets are valid all week on the route.

    Also add in Arriva operate the 37 Crewe-Northwich via Sandbach & Winsford, in which operates every 60 minutes, but is every 30 minutes with the 38 between Crewe & Sandbach


  12. Services are being cut in Plymouth

    The 19 City Centre to Plympton Ridgeway via Merafield, 31 City Centre to Pennycross via Peverell & Beacon Park, 39 City Centre to Hartley Vale via Mannamead, 44A Holly Park & Ringmore Way, and 54 City Centre to Bovisand Beach via Plymstock & Jennycliff will all be axed.


  13. Great read as usual, Roger.
    It would be interesting for enthusiasts to know about the day tickets available, and their cost, in case we are tempted to follow in your footsteps. Thanks.
    Incidentally, Northwich, once a Crosville town in my schooldays, never gets a mention in any bus media. Probably because it’s a bus desert. Every 30 mins to our village then, now none at all (because it has a rail station). Sorry, I’m wrong, it’s a once a week service now.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. The Arriva single deckers appear to be those previously used on the 130 to Manchester before it’s drawn out demise. The 38 used to be Sapphire double deckers but they’ve obviously now moved out of the area.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Update to this

    Arriva have announced they’re closing their depots in Winsford & Macclesfield, & withdrawing all the services Arriva operate from those depots near the end of April

    D&G have registered Arriva routes 31, 37, & 84 as replacement

    Liked by 1 person

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