Tuesday 3rd January 2023
I visited Devon at the end of last week and after all the negative media coverage of Stagecoach’s driver shortage last summer it was heartening to see some positive developments, particularly in Exeter.
I hadn’t been back to the city’s new bus station since it opened in July 2021 so it was a delight to see the Travel Shop open for business and well stocked with timetables.
Commendably Stagecoach produce three guides for its operations in Devon; for Plymouth, Torquay and Exeter.
Each contains a colourful network map and frequency guide for the routes operating in each area. I know that’s not as comprehensive as a full timetable but it’s better than many areas of the country which have nothing in print.
Three of Devon County Council’s six excellent area timetable books were also available – North Devon and Torridge, South Hams and Teignmouth.
It’s a shame the full set weren’t available as they really are a beacon of good practice with network maps for each area and local town plans showing individual bus routes in colours as well as full timetables including rail as well as bus.
The bus station itself wasn’t particularly busy and much less frenetic than when I visited on its first weekday in 2021. In fact there looked to be room for some of the routes operated by other bus companies now exiled to on street bus stops nearby.
This may partly be because at the end of October Stagecoach implemented one of its rationalisations removing marginal or loss making routes and better matching operations with available drivers.
This has seen Stagecoach no longer running long distance routes from Exeter to towns and villages in north Devon. For example aside from a peak hour journey or two, route 5 now only runs every 20 minutes between Exeter and Crediton whereas journeys used to continue as far as Barnstaple.
Similarly routes 6/6A from Exeter no longer continue beyond Okehampton to Bude and Launceston respectively as following the reopening of the railway line to Okehampton these routes have been split with four/five journeys a day numbered 6a between Exeter and Okehampton, with the number 6 used for connecting journeys from Okehampton to Bude every three hours. There’s also a 306 linking Okehampton with Launceston four times a day (operated by Go Cornwall Bus) and a five times a day 317 Okehampton (but not the station) to Bideford (operated by Stagecoach).
Another change has seen route 155 (Barnstaple to Exeter via South Molton and Tiverton) split into three separate routes – 155/346/355.
Stagecoach route 5 reductions have been replaced by new tendered routes funded by Devon County Council won by Go-Ahead owned Go South West which runs them from a unit adopting a new Go Devon Bus brand using cascaded Enviro200 buses.
The new routes are using former route numbers and provide a coordinated half hourly frequency between Exeter and Crediton which together with the 20 minute Stagecoach route 5 and the hourly train service gives a best ever frequency for many years, maybe even ever.
The three new routes are: the 315 running two-hourly between Exeter, Bideford and Barnstaple, route 345 two-hourly between Exeter, Hatherleigh and Okehampton and hourly route 377 between Exeter and Chumleigh.
The 315/345/377 take eight Go Devon Bus buses and are currently operated from a haulage company’s base in Winkleigh which is on the 315 route but not the other two.
Stagecoach also made changes to Exeter’s city network last October as well as bus routes to Exmouth and Exeter Airport with routes 56/A/B/E withdrawn and replaced to the Airport by new route 4A every 20 minutes (coordinated with route 4 every 20 minutes to Cranbrook). The airport is also served by new route 43 providing a link 5/6 times a day from Pinhoe rail station which “is financially supported by South Western Railway”.
One to try out some time this year maybe, although the eight hour gap between journeys might make it tricky to catch – presumably something to do with activity at the airport?
On this visit I decided to take a ride on new route 315 from Exeter all the way to Barnstaple, formerly Stagecoach route 5B. It’s a two and a half hour journey offering some great scenery along the way.
As you can see from the timetable shown earlier, buses on this and other Go Devon Bus routes depart from stop 40 in Sidwell Street which is a northern continuation of the city’s main shopping street and a short walk from the new bus station.
I was a bit worried where to find stop 40 but each bus shelter throughout the main shopping area displays large posters showing not only the Stagecoach city bus route network ….
…. but a useful diagram showing the location of all the numbered bus stops giving reassurance and confidence to use the bus.
I arrived in good time for the 14:05 departure and the bus was already there with the driver sitting in the saloon of the bus, probably having his break.
There were other interesting departures to see while waiting including the one journey a week (on Fridays) route 647 to Hatherliegh operated by MD Buses. It was good to see five passengers boarding the smart minibus for a deep rural ride home and I made a mental note to return some time this year to take a ride on it.
Also spotted was a Dartline bus on city route T. This company of course is also now owned by the expansionist Go South West but run separately from the Go Devon Bus brand, maintaining its long established stand alone company structure (for now at any rate).
It’s interesting to note how far the Go-Ahead Group has now encroached into the Exeter area.
At 14:00 the driver of the 315 opened the door and myself and another passenger boarded who it turned out would, like me, be the only one to ride the full length of the route to Barnstaple presumably wanting to save the rail fare and forgo the train which does the journey in 83 minutes, less than half what the bus takes.
We picked six more passengers up as we passed through the city centre and Exeter St David’s rail station and made our way to Crediton where four of those alighted; the other two went on to Bow and Bideford. We also picked two up in Crediton who stayed on for just a short while to Copplestone and Winkleigh.
At Winkleigh, exactly half way along the route at 15:15 we pulled into the rough entrance to the yard where the buses are parked up overnight and changed drivers.
The route from there onwards via Torrington to Bideford takes 50 minutes with just the three of us left on board for what is the most glorious part of the journey especially as the road follows the valley of the meandering River Torridge making for lots of twists and turns through forestry and fields.
Between Bideford and Barnstaple the bus takes the slow route via Instow, Fremington and Bickington where we picked up seven passengers making local journeys. This section of route is also covered by Stagecoach’s routes 21/21A every 15 minutes.
We arrived in Barnstaple on time at 16:36 having carried 16 passengers but just one, along with me, travelled the whole way.
After a night in Barnstaple my next excursion was back to Bideford then along the coast into Cornwall taking in Bude, Boscastle and Wadebridge but I’ll tell you about that in Thursday’s blog.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS