Arriva quits route 685

Saturday 21st January 2023

Tomorrow sees one of England’s seven jointly operated inter-urban bus routes change to be operated by just one company.

After today Arriva are quitting the long established route 685 between Newcastle and Carlisle with fellow operator Stagecoach taking over Arriva’s three bus workings increasing their commitment from two buses up to five for the end to end hourly service. Stagecoach also deploy two buses on hourly ‘shorts’ between Carlisle and Brampton making for a half hourly frequency at the western end of the route.

A Stagecoach bus in Hexham last week

I took a ride on Arriva’s departure from Newcastle’s Eldon Square bus station at 11:45 on Thursday morning last week to see how many passengers were around and try and establish why Arriva are throwing in the towel when Stagecoach obviously sees a commercial future.

As you can see the bus was in Arriva’s MAX branded livery for routes 306/308 between Newcastle and Whitley Bay which according to the rear and offside also uses a Coastliner branding. Except both brands have been dropped by Arriva.

On board there were cove panels explaining about zonal tickets available on Arriva’s network of bus routes heading north out of Newcastle and behind the driver there was a very detailed and wordy A4 notice which, if you had the time to read it, provided news about the changes to route 685 including the answer to why Arriva are quitting.

It explains “this decision has come about following the continued national bus driver shortage” adding the changes “allow Arriva to focus on stabilising existing network reliability within Tyne & Wear”. It’s not clear how Stagecoach are managing to expand its resources to take over the Arriva vehicle workings …. presumably the “national bus driver shortage” is not impacting Stagecoach so much.

Interestingly a news item in this month’s Buses magazine states the reason for Arriva’s decision is following the closure of its bus garage in Jesmond.

The bus appeared from its previous journey at Newcastle’s Eldon Square bus station just after the scheduled arrival of 11:35 and after parking up in a layover bay for a short while in the busy bus station the driver pulled on to stand A at 11:44 and got the 15 waiting passengers quickly on board and we were away at 11:47, just a couple of minutes late.

As often happens the departure had disappeared from the (not) real time display just before the bus appeared.

Altogether 42 passengers travelled on the journey with the most on board at any one time being 15 as we left Newcastle and we also took 13 into Carlisle. Only one passenger besides myself travelled right through and he was a fare payer obviously saving money by not using the train especially with the £2 capped single fare. The bus takes two hours and 20 minutes whereas many trains do it in an hour less. The driver explained to a few passengers asking for returns it was cheaper to buy two singles at £2 each way and each time they were obviously delighted to be saving money but mystified as to why. An A4 poster on the panel behind the driver promoted the £2 fare (next to the one featured above) but by then passengers are already on board.

Route 685 has four distinct segments reflecting passenger movements between the main towns along this cross Pennine corridor.

Most passengers travel from Newcastle to Hexham; Hexham to Haydon Bridge and Haltwhistle and Brampton to Carlisle with smaller numbers boarding or alighting at Throckley, Corbridge and Bardon Mill.

To serve these locations the route dives on and off the upgraded A69, taking the original, but now downgraded, road to reach the traditional locations. All told we spent a quarter of the journey – 40 minutes – bombing along the A69 in six separate sections with around 25 minutes spent leaving the urban area of Newcastle and 10 minutes entering Carlisle. The rest of the journey – around half – 65 minutes was spent on the former A69 roads serving the towns along the way.

The journey offers some wonderful views of Northumberland and Cumbria’s lovely scenery with most of the route following the course of the River Tyne as far as Haltwhistle as well as the railway line.

The new timetable from tomorrow seems to imply Stagecoach will operate the route with three Carlisle and two Newcastle based buses. It’s a very similar timetable to the one which has applied with minor changes to early morning and late evening journeys as a consequence of changes to the one vehicle working from Newcastle to Carlisle baaed.

It would be nice to think now Stagecoach have full control of the route it could resurrect the idea of route branding and make the 685 high profile in this popular area frequented with tourists discovering Hadrian’s Wall and the surrounding Pennine countryside.

Back in 2018 a lovely Cross Pennine branding was applied to the Arriva buses and marketing material, but this was never enthusiastically applied and I don’t think Stagecoach had many, if any, of its buses in the branded livery devised by Best Impressions.

Photo courtesy of and with thanks to David Jenkins

One can only hope the buses won’t sport the downbeat school bus/motorway maintenance all over yellow colour scheme Stagecoach have misguidedly adopted for inter-urban routes of this kind.

I can’t comment on route 685 without referencing its history as being a cause célèbre for split licences/registrations when differential regulations were introduced for drivers hours compliance and use of tachographs for bus routes over 50 km (31 miles) in length as well as qualification for what was known as fuel duty rebate. There was a famous court case in 1998 involving the route when operated by Northumbria.

This lead to what became common place in the industry of split registrations where operators register a route that’s over 50km as two (or in the 685’s case, three) separate routes but show it in timetables as “guaranteed connections” and sometimes “Passengers do not need to change buses” with buses and drivers travelling through.

This leads to confusing destination blind displays whereby the point where the route is split is shown as the main destination until the bus reaches that point where it’s changed to the ultimate destination. Sometimes, as in the case of route 685, operators show the ultimate destination in smaller type beneath the split destination.

Following Brexit, this bureaucratic unnecessary complication could be jettisoned and routes longer than 50km be subject to the less draconian Drivers’ Hours regulations known as “Domestic regulations”. There’ll be no consequences for safety since splitting the routes means bus companies use “Domestic regulations” anyway. I’m surprised Rees-Mogg hasn’t landed on this amazing benefit of Brexit, but there again he probably doesn’t know what a bus is.

Interestingly the topic came up at a Traffic Court hearing last year following an accident in 2019 involving a Stagecoach bus on the route between Plymouth and Torquay involving a 19 year old Stagecoach driver. Traffic Commissioner Kevin Rooney made the observation the split licence of the route involved was a sham pointing out it clearly was one route rather than two separate routes as implied by the split registration.

It was pointed out the DfT had sanctioned split registrations as a thing some years ago but, as just said, post Brexit this could finally be sorted once and for all and remove the need for confusing destination blinds and other timetable presentation.

Meantime the 685 will hopefully go from strength to strength offering double deck views and high profile marketing to raise awareness of its scenic delights.

Arriva’s loss is Stagecoach’s gain.

Finally here’s a link to my page listing the remaining six jointly operated inter-urban bus routes, as well as other urban/partnership routes, in case you’re wondering what they are.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

36 thoughts on “Arriva quits route 685

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  1. Look like we might be losing another one as well. Press reports say that no-one has tendered for route 585 linking Aberystwyth and Lampeter. It was the one I added to your original list and is currently run by Lloyds and Mid Wales Motorways, plus school journeys by Brodyr James. At the moment the suggestion is that only the school journies will continue.

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  2. Both Stagecoach & Arriva used the full Cross Pennine branding at the start including on the short working to Brampton. Then when Stagecoach upgraded from E300s to E400s Cross Pennine branding was retained, but the base was Stagecoach livery rather than green. This has now been lost since the E400s were repainted in Stagecoach’s new livery as shown in your photo.
    On your photo of the Arriva 685 notice, a poster advertising the £2 fare can be seen to the right, so there is advertising for it, but it’s after passengers have already got on the bus.

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  3. I doubt that the income from 42 passengers (even without the fare cap) would cover the 2023 operating costs of a journey taking 2 hours 20 minutes (plus 10 minutes layover).
    I see that Stagecoach are extending their Tyne and Wear Megarider to include Hexham so it will be just £5 a day/£19 a week to travel the 20 odd miles from Newcastle to Hexham.

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  4. Interesting read Rodger

    Arriva’s goal is unknown in the bus world at the moment with their branding and goals for the future…having some experience with them recently in Aylesbury which was pretty low…I can see other companies with higher ambitions pushing them out of the way…they have little customer service as well sadly and it’s a company that is now operating in the past and not the future…

    As for Stagecoach, they are looking firmly at the future and at the UK bus market as their sole bread and butter so expect to see more from them in the future with their fresh looks and new Management structures Stagecoach is back in business…

    As always a great read Rodger

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  5. Arriva have been axing routes across the country frequently at short notice . Quite how bus companies can walk away from contracts with no penalty baffles me

    We are nearing March now when the temporize Covid funding runs out and assuming no last minute new funding I am expecting a lot of bus companies to cut services

    The unknown I guess is how much new demand has the £2 fare created? Given the almost zero publicity of it to non bus users I doubt it is much. I did see something from Stagecoach claiming an extra 400,000 journeys. The exact period that covered was not defined. Given the size of Stagecoach operations 400,000 in England(minus London) does not sound much

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  6. Sadly, I’m old enough to remember when this was a single operator route previously. It was operated by United Automobile as route 334 from depots in Newcastle and Carlisle until around 1970. Following creation of the National Bus Company, the United depot operations in Carlisle were transferred to Ribble (a former BET company) and the 334 became a joint operation.

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  7. Over the last 50+ years I have heard the phrase “stabilising the service” many times. That’s worldwide code for “please leave us alone while we build up our pensions and do nothing to fix the service”.

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  8. The rot really set in for Arriva on this route when they sold their Hexham depot and operations, excluding the 685, to Go North East some years ago. The move of operation to Jesmond was shortly followed by the replacement of the high floor coaches used on the route by low floor buses and bus seats, the latter really lowering the comfort level for longer distance passengers. Not quite as basic as the offering Ribble once put out on the service as I took a photo of a Leyland National resting at the old Newcastle terminus of Marlborough Crescent back in NBC days.

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  9. The sooner the daft and misleading practice of split routes, but through buses, is consigned to history, the better. It has been really unhelpful to passengers and now, with Brexit, as you say Roger, it should be ditched forever.
    But I don’t see anybody championing the issue. The bus operators seem content with the status quo.
    Somebody really needs to start a campaign to get the politicians to act and get DfT’s ruling changed. Something for the bus operators associations, perhaps ? But, please, somebody, raise the issue and take the fight to parliament.

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  10. The major benefit for me, and providing the “new, exciting team” at Stagecoach don’t change things, is full double-deck operation of the 685 at last. Long, long overdue considering the tourist potential.
    And at least when sitting inside the bus, you don’t have to see the ghastly, impractical and mis-matched “Toytown” liveries the Company have now chosen to use.

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  11. When I went on that route it still a joint service run by Ribble and United so I’d guess about 1984/5?It was a Ribble one way(Newcastle to Carlisle) and a United back east.I expect that the real reasons Arriva NE are pulling out are the lose of their Hexham depot and the closure of the Jesmond one in Newcastle?It remains to be seen if Stagecoach Cumbia and North Lancs can cover the service alone maybe Go NE could do Arriva’s trips?Sir Jacob Rees Smog will never have been on a service bus but I expect he’s been on the Tories ‘battle bus’.He won’t know about buses saying things like Hexham for Carlisle or Whitby for Scarborough,two ANE examples.It does seem silly as the buses go right through with the same bus driver usually.

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  12. A bus operating Newcastle to Carlisle branded for “Coastliner” to Whitby. I think route branding isn’t worth the bother as hardly any operators seem capable of correct vehicle rostering. It’s misleading to passengers, and to casual observers.

    In February Buses Magazine there’s an article on travelling around Wales by bus. It describes Traws Cymru journeys operated by Optare Solos in Operator livery, and local routes operated by full specTraws Cymru branded buses. Given that Traws Cymru is supposed to be a high profile long distance network that makes up for lack of rail routes, this mis,-allocation of vehicles undermines the image. Solos are not suitable for long interurban journeys.

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  13. Buses.org for next week suggests that there will be 2 vehicles on the 685 from Stagecoach NE rather than outstationed C&NL buses. If this is so, will it be the first joint operation between different Stagecoach subsidiaries?

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    1. Depends on how the service is registered. I noticed that the latest north east Notices & Proceedings only has the application to register/amend the service from Busways Travel Services Ltd, t/a Stagecoach North East. No application from Stagecoach in Carlisle as yeti unless, of course, their part of the operation hasn’t changed.

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      1. Stagecoach already have the 685 registered from Carlisle depot that’s not changing, what has to happen is for Stagecoach to register the service from their Newcastle depot as it’s a separate Stagecoach district

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    2. No. For a while in the 1990s, the X75 between Dumfries and Carlisle was jointly operated by Stagecoach Western Scottish and Stagecoach Cumberland.

      Interestingly, Western we’re also summonsed to the same magistrates session as Northumbria. However, their prosecution was thrown out as VOSA did not produce evidence that the distance between Carlisle and Dumfries was more than 50km!

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    3. Stagecoach East and Stagecoach Midlands jointly operated the 23 between Peterborough and Lynch Wood for a number of years until COVID.

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  14. Another thought that I have had on this is what about Explorer North East?At the moment it’s not so relevant due to the £2 fares but normally it is.The present arrangements are the Explorer NE is valid on it but with the NE half of the operation pulling out will this continue?For some reason the Explorer NE is valid on buses in the Carlisle City Council boundary too which is quite a vast rural area and not to be confused with Carlisle itself.The North West Explorer would obviously remain valid and that one couldn’t technically be used for travel beyond Newcastle although I suspect that if you showed one at the Tyne and Wear Metro barriers they’d think it was an NE one and let you through?

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    1. Both Explorer tickets should still be valid, unless Stagecoach revamp their ticket offerings. The extension of Stagecoach Tyne & Wear tickets to Hexham is an interesting development as it provides competition with Go North East. It also allows one ticket to cover Sunderland to Hexham journeys by bus, thus also giving an alternative option to the Northern rail train service between the two points at a considerably lower cost.

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  15. To answer many of the points raised by Roger and others:

    Arriva kept their share of the 685 when they sold Hexham to Go North East. This was then relaunched in 2017 with the CrossCountry green livery – Stagecoach had two 2014 plate e300s whilst Arriva had 4 2007 Scania Omnicities. The Arriva vehicles were knackered and so were often replaced by an unbranded vehicle. More recently, the Scanias have gone, being replaced by any errant Pulsar that Jesmond had. NOTE: Coastliner goes to Whitley Bay (or it did when the branding was applied) and not to Whitby. Hard to say exactly when the rot did set in – the relocation to Jesmond was certainly a step change (down) but Arriva hadn’t invested in the route for years before that. Rolling stock has been mixed for years. The late 1970s/early 1980s were standard NBC fayre and among the Duple and Plaxton Leopards were some distinctly uncomfortable Willowbrooks. 1990s saw Stagecoach introduce PS (with high-backed seats) and Northumbria tried Optare Deltas but then relented and cascaded some older Tigers. Stagecoach introduced some Interurbans but they didn’t last that long, compared to Arriva’s equivalents which were run into the ground! The Omnicities arrived in 2013 to replace Arriva Plaxton Primas (not Primos!!) which were 14/15 years old by that time.

    The route has historically been single decked. This was because a) loadings didn’t warrant it and b) there was a low bridge at Gilsland. That part of the route was removed some years back and so deckers used but only because of schools loadings (think at Haydon Bridge). However, despite its proximity to Hadrians Wall, the route itself is not especially scenic nor touristy. From Newcastle, you grind along the West Road for 30 mins until you reach Heddon, and the next half hour is probably the best bit as you head to Corbridge and Hexham. Certainly, from Bardon Mill westwards, it’s a fairly pleasantly average run along a major trunk road, and whilst Haltwhistle and Brampton are nice towns, it isn’t what you’d say is bursting with tourist potential.

    Roger begs the question why Arriva haven’t the drivers to operate the 685 but Stagecoach do. It’s relatively straightforward. Arriva has closed Jesmond, and has a smaller outbase at Stagecoach’s Walkergate depot. Some work has already gone to Blyth, and building works will allow all the remaining work* (* – we will see) to move to Blyth. So they have already lost drivers to Stagecoach – why would you hang around unless you’re expecting a big redundancy? As the 685 is already a full driver shift (5 hours round trip), it’s untenable to operate it from Blyth so they have simply relinquished it. No back door deals – they’re giving it up.

    It is changing from 5 vehicles on the long runs (3 Newcastle, 2 Carlisle) with three from Carlisle depot. The two Newcastle ones coming from Slatyford rather than Walkergate – geographically and operationally, that makes sense.

    There are no changes to Explorer North East validity. It is already valid on all Stagecoach North East routes, and on Stagecoach Cumbria workings and including the Carlisle city services.

    As for Essex Smurf… I’m not certain what the never-ending cliches and phrases are supposed to mean? I think he needs to take more water with it.

    Anyhow, how this provides more 685 detail from a exile who has travelled on the route more times than they care (or can) remember

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    1. An excellent summary to add detail and context to Roger’s original blog.
      I used to use the 685 most weekdays as part of my daily commute from Newcastle to Hexham when I worked in rural transport development almost twenty years ago. The Hexham depot drivers became well known to me and they knew their passengers within the local communities, something lost after operations moved to Jesmond.
      Stagecoach North West Explorer tickets were sold on Arriva workings (one of the advantages of the service being jointly operated) which being issued from different ticket machines could take some explaining to drivers south of the Lake District as happened to me once making a one way trip from Newcastle to Blackpool by bus.

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  16. I remember in 1964/5 travelling on a United MW bus to Carlisle with my mates Sid and George when the service was numbered 34 before becoming 685 which came about in 1981.I was only about 14 and remember being sick before we got to Carlisle. We came back on the train!!!

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  17. Northumberland and Cumberland’s scenery from this year with the much awaited abolition of “Cumbria” and the restoration of the real county of Cumberland.

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  18. Yes there are 2 buses on the 685 this morning from Slatyford – but disappointingly they are single-decks (transferred from Stockton).

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  19. Thinking back Cumberland operated a Tyne Valley service that ran about once a day and came from either Whitehaven or Workington going to Newcastle via the Metro Centre obviously designed for shoppers.It was about the time that Ribble had it’s northern head cut off and transferred to Cumberland.At the time the normal Tyne Valley route will have been run by Cumberland and Northumbria as United had had it’s head and bottom cut off!I’ve also been that way on a National coach going Newcastle to Glasgow which I think was United even though it was about 1990 by then.

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    1. There was the 799 (a fast version of the 685, operated jointly by Ribble and United) until 1986; CMS ran it for the last few months to dereg.

      There was also a CMS Border Clipper route (which is what you’re alluding to) that was introduced in c.1984 as a once a day extension from Carlisle, predating the MetroCentre by a few years though.

      You wouldn’t have travelled by National Express using a United vehicle in 1990; they sold off their coaching arm to form Durham Travel Services in 1988.

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      1. Must have been earlier than 1990 but that stuck in my mind for some reason.I went to the Isle of Mull with my friend; can’t remember how we got to Newcastle but must have been United or Northern,then National Express, Scottish City Link,Cal Mac and Bowman’s and an hour and a half walk from Tobermory to Dervaig!

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      2. Memory might be failing me but didn’t the CMS Border Clipper extend to Sunderland at the eastern end for a short while, making it truly coast-to-coast?
        I seem to recall their route branded Willowbrook bodied Leopards parking up in Park Lane depot.

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      3. I don’t recall that but people liked going to Eldon Square to shop from further afield but I’ve never heard of them going to Sunderland and Jackie White’s Market!

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  20. Stagecoach South Wales are to close their Blackwood Depot. Services will be moved to Cwmbran and Caerphilly

    It does not seem a very sensible move as the Blackwood Garage is in pretty much an ideal location for the many services in the area

    I can only assume it is an attempt to cut costs but will result in a lot of dead running and more unreliable services particularly from, Cwmbran where the M4 can be problematic

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