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.
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.
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.
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