The V shaped bus route that’s three routes in one.

Thursday 16th March 2023

The route as originally introduced last October

When Stagecoach East introduced its “sustainable bus network” last October it combined its route 81 between Bedford and Luton via the A6 with its route 99 between Luton Airport, Luton and Milton Keynes via the M1 to create one long through route. A new number MK1 was allocated for the service that now runs from Bedford to Milton Keynes via Luton.

Except no one would travel from one end to the other unless they’re writing a blog or they just like a quirky V shaped bus journey taking 2 hours and 35 minutes rather than less than a third of that time using Stagecoach’s direct route X5.

The “real time” sign at Milton Keynes Central displays Luton Airport as the destination as no-one would want to use the MK1 to travel from there to Bedford.

I’m guessing one reason for joining up the two routes is for operational purposes as the company’s Bedford depot operated both routes so it saves dead mileage by combining the two in Luton although the first two journeys from Milton Keynes and the last one terminating there in the evening look like they run dead to and from Bedford so it hasn’t saved a huge amount.

The big downside from combining the two routes is delays on one section have a knock on impact on the other not least as the former route 99 uses one of the busiest sections of the M1 for two or three junctions especially at peak times yet Milton Keynes bound journeys are all given the same running time throughout the day, although the first two journeys from Bedford have been given additional pause time at Luton Airport, albeit that’s prior to hitting the M1.

The hourly timetable takes six buses with Stagecoach allocating a motley collection of ageing double decks in various liveries and branding – yellow, new corporate, old corporate with ‘citi’ logos were all spotted.

I also noticed despite the service running for almost five months now there were old route numbers on bus stop plates, both Stagecoach’s own plates (eg here on the A6) …

…. and even in the busy Luton bus interchange the airport bound bus stop still showed route 99 …

…. while the Bedford bound bus stop didn’t display either the former 81 or MK1 but just Arriva’s two routes to Milton Keynes.

I would have thought a route like this was crying out for some high profile promotion linking communities, as it does, with many employment sites, railway stations, the airport and three major retail centres.

Indeed the route serves one distribution/warehouse style area on the outskirts of Bedford by doing a dog leg to better penetrate it and four passengers boarded at a bus stop with absolutely no markings at all. You’d need to be a mind reader to know about the bus service and where it stops.

The choice of MK1 as a route number strikes me as odd as for the majority of passengers (certainly on the journey I made) it’s link with Milton Keynes is irrelevant as most travelled between Luton and Bedford along the A6.

But if you’re going to use an odd ball route number separate from any other number sequences there’s even more reason to promote it.

I travelled on the 12:25 from Milton Keynes Central rail station on Monday. The bus had arrived on its previous journey on time at 11:40 giving it a substantial layover of 45 minutes.

When the service first started last October it was only given 10 minutes layover which with tight running times was hopelessly inadequate with consequential severe late running, reportedly on occasions up to 90 minutes, making the service extremely unreliable.

Stagecoach sensibly added at least one extra bus into the cycle and introduced a revised timetable with extended running times and layover as well as a complete rerouting in Luton by using junction 11 rather than junction 10 of the M1 (as far as I can tell). While these measures have restored reliability it’s made for a very strange route which passes through Luton’s bus interchange by the rail station twice on its journey, If you really like quirky routes, you can jump on at Luton interchange and buy a ticket to … Luton interchange and have a tour of the airport on the way for good measure.

We left Milton Keynes Central station on time with just two on board and we were soon at the large Midsummer Place shopping centre where we picked up five more.

As we headed out of Milton Keynes towards the M1 we picked two more passengers up at two bus stops on either an H or a V road – I lost track as Milton Keynes’ grid road network always leaves me in a daze wondering which direction I’m heading.

We then did a dog leg in and out to serve one of the massive distribution warehouses/fulfilment centres in this part of town …

… but there were no takers.

Even though we joined the M1 at junction 13 at 12:55 it was showing a 60 mph speed restriction which I think is pretty much a permanent daytime feature of this section down to junction 10 these days.

The driver was doing well to cope with the high cross winds but I was a bit surprised when after junction 12 he pulled off into Toddington service area stopping in the entrance slip road.

I heard him announce to those downstairs a red warning light had come on and it sounded like he was seeking advice on the phone.

After a while he got out of the bus and went to the rear before returning to announce the engine cover had come lose which he’d managed to fix shut and all was now well so with just a four minute delay we rejoined the motorway coming off at junction 11 for Luton at 13:14.

This is where I was again surprised as I hadn’t done my research and realised the route had changed. I’d expected us to continue down to junction 10, call into Luton Airport and then head back via the bus interchange at Luton rail station towards Bedford.

But following the change in November we carried on towards Luton town centre using Hatters Way which runs alongside the Guided Busway …

… until we reached the bus interchange by the station at 13:24 with five of our nine passengers from Milton Keynes alighting and having also lost one who alighted as we turned off the M1.

We then continued on via the bus only section of road (called a “Busway” but not part of the “Guided Busway”) heading further south and also therefore available for all buses (and NatEx coaches) to use ….

… continuing towards the airport, arriving there eight minutes later …

… and on time at 13:32 …

…. with two passengers alighting – having to be let out through the complicated gate system at each stand in the bus station by the driver.

We now had three minutes stand time and I noticed one lady who’d boarded at Milton Keynes shopping centre was still upstairs on the bus. It turned out she travelled all the way to Bedford making for two of us with concessionary passes enjoying a ride out that day.

We started to back off the stand at 13:35 but there’s an ultra safe system used in the bus station which requires drivers to press a button to request clearance to move off and wait for a green light.

We got away at 13:37 and headed back to the bus interchange for our journey north to Bedford having picked no one up at the airport.

But another surprise was that instead of retracing our outward route back we embarked on a circuitous route alongside the airport’s western perimeter …

…. before taking in an Asda supermarket and a residential area which is served by an Arriva local route as well as Centrebus.

We eventually arrived back into the bus interchange at 13:56 almost 20 minutes later and 32 minutes since we were last there. It felt like we’d undertaken a local circular route and picked up one passenger along the way who alighted at the bus interchange, so could have got Arriva’s bus.

Six passengers boarded at the interchange with two more picked up as we headed out of Luton up the A6.

The bus deviates off the A6 to serve various villages including Barton-le-Clay (photographed above), Silsoe, a loop around Clophill, Wilstead (all mostly on the original course of the A6) and then the new developments that have sprung up south of Bedford including Wixham …

…. and the already mentioned distribution centres.

It was good to see part of the new development has a bus only section preventing other traffic taking a short cut back to the A6.

Nearing Bedford, we also delved into the Elstow Park & Ride site which didn’t look particularly busy…

… and had an information devoid bus shelter.

Another nine passengers boarded at various points along the route between Luton and Bedford with a similar number alighting.

Three travelled right to the end of the route at Bedford bus station which we reached four minutes late at 15:04.

I noticed another bus was already on the departure stand for the next journey back to Milton Keynes at 15:15 …

… indicating a cautious approach to vehicle allocation, presumably in case the 15 minute stand time in Bedford is insufficient.

The route between Bedford and Luton is long established and unsurprisingly did well for passengers as were buses we passed in the other direction – the new housing developments and warehouse parks will also help boost passenger numbers but I’m surprised the section from Luton to Milton Keynes has formed part of the so called sustainable network – perhaps all those massive warehouses bring lots of passengers at shift change times.

Roger French

My grateful thanks to Ian McNeil for the information he kindly passed to me last October/November.

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

39 thoughts on “The V shaped bus route that’s three routes in one.

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  1. I was “camera’d” recently on the M25, and opted to undertake a speed awareness course and avoid the licence points!
    The “instructor” told us that the M1 speed restrictions around Luton are not because of traffic issues, but rather that air quality is very poor, partly due to aircraft emissions, and that restricting road traffic to 60mph is said to reduce said emissions!!

    That doesn’t seem to have reduced the residential housing alongside the motorway, though …..

    Getting back to the MK1 …. I’d love to know the before and after financials of the route(s) …. I just can’t see how the sums add up now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My family and I used it a few weeks ago from MK to Luton Airport and at 1652 on a Friday and returned on the very early last bus at 2010 on the Sunday. We actually found it very busy with it nearly 3/4s full. I think you just were just travelling at a quiet time in my experience. Using again at Easter so will report back.

    Yes strange it has been combined, and I have seen it running very late. I find it strange the 99 and X5/905 used to have high specification coaches but are now left with a very mixed fleet. One thing I will say is this is one of the best value airport buses, with its £2 fares at the moment!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bus operators seem the worst at not providing information at bus stops.
      Surely these are the best advertising of routes?
      Maybe it is assumed we are all technical savvy and use apps, etc?


      1. It’s a combination of “It’s all online, innit?” and the info provision at a lot of bus stops being controlled by local authorities giving the bus operators an excuse to opt out. Not producing timetables and not advertising is an easy way of cutting costs, even if one which may in the long run cost more than it saves.

        It was noticeable way back in the early deregulation days of 1987 that where local authorities showed a preference for providing timetables themselves, a lot of bus operators simply wouldn’t produce their own. Doe’s Directory of Bus Timetables for that era has lots of companies listed as “Uses X council/PTE publicity”.


  3. Thank you once again for an interesting article about bus operations in the Luton Bedford area.
    Once again this reinforces my view that most bus operators seem to have little idea of route planning to serve the public and are almost totally indifferent to providing information to potential bus users.
    I can’t think of any other organisation that operates in this way and expects to survive in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A very welcome review Roger. I would say you were lucky to arrive at Bedford only 4 minutes late, as the timekeeping on the MK1 is not generally that good; had you waited at Bedford you would have seen that the next trip that bus took was the 16:15 departure on the MK1 which left 21 minutes late (and was still 20 minutes down when it got back to Bedford, due at 22:00).

    The original timetable as you say only allowed 10 minutes at CMK which was extended to 45 minutes when the timetable was revised in November after 6 weeks (and the 06:00 journey from CMK was added). I suspect that the original timetable fell foul of drivers’ hours regulations which meant that any significant delay in the Bedford to CMK direction required the driver to take an un-timetabled break at Luton Airport on the return journey to Bedford.

    I expected the Toddington incident to have been rather more interesting! It appears that the route suffers 1 or 2 vehicle failures in service every week (or driver error, as when a bus became stuck under a railway bridge in Luton in February). There have been several recent appearances of single deck buses on the route – there was one day when only 4 of the 6 buses on the route were double-decked.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Has anyone heard of Transport for London ? A pathetic attempt at route branding on a few routes several years ago but that’s about it. Local area bus maps out of date and now replaced by posters asking you ‘have you tried walking and cycling as an alternative ‘ ? No Londonwide bus maps and little attempt to co-ordinate bus schedules on early morning and late journeys where multiple routes run. Shall I carry on ?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here Martin?Roger has illustrated failings with TfL’s publicity numerous times. The key thing here is that the MK1 is a commercial venture in a deregulated environment and not part of a tendered regime as in London, so there’s absolutely no excuse for a publicity ‘race to the bottom’.


  6. I’ve seen the lack of bus stop information akin to going to a restaurant and finding that there are no menus. Who is going to be tempted by that?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nothing worse than a U or V shaped bus route, especially in urban environments where there’s inevitably an alternative bus crossing the T. That said, O and 8 routes are pretty problematic 2.


    1. Depends whether you’re looking at the bus route as purely going from A to Z or understand that bus routes go from A to Z also serving B, C, D, etc. on the way.


  8. The route shape is odd, but as surmised, was merely a linking up two entirely different routes for operational convenience. The former 99, originally a Virgin trains “rail-link” (operated by Stagecoach with Virgin liveried coaches) and which ran close to empty on all journeys, is actually extremely busy at peak times and Saturdays in particular, and even high capacity single deckers (pre-Covid) had difficultly in coping. So, thankfully, now double-deck ensuring a more comfortable journey provided except when single-decks return……! The route change was certainly necessary as journey time to Luton Town for many on the 99 was an increase too far, and at least the route runs as per the original 81 and 99.


  9. I’ve never understood why the 81 and 99 were merged like this, unless on the unlikely chance a passenger is travelling from the A6 corridor to Luton Airport or Milton Keynes. The routing around Luton is ridiculously complex because these arrangements.

    If the old 99 had to be merged with another route, I think the X6 would’ve been better. There would still be a lot of negatives, but at least some new connections would be made. The X6 being run by Stagecoach Midlands rather than East might prevent that however.


    1. The routes were merged for operational convenience, as other people have noted. No other reason.

      It’s extremely unlikely the 99 would have merged with the X6 for the reason you note: they’re operated by two entirely different companies. Cambus and Midland Red South may trade as Stagecoach East and Stagecoach Midlands respectively, but they’re very much two different companies.


  10. That’s a really good shout, although those two routes are operated by different parts of Stagecoach. Would definitely help with huge service gaps there are on the X6, and provide a potentially useful North to South link.


  11. £2 bus fare reported in local press as being very popular in Wiltshire. Faresaver Director stated 70,000 journeys in January. Wiltshire operators participating – Beeline, Coachstyle, Damory, Faresaver, First, Frome Bus, Libra Travel, Morebus, Stagecoach, Salisbury Reds, SouthWest Coaches, Swindon’s Bus Company.


  12. Interesting article. Thank you.

    The timetable even seems to show the journeys in separate columns with them starting or ending at Luton Airport! Just with the same number MK1.

    This reminds me a little of London Transport practice in the 50s to 70s when union agreements meant that crews had to be rostered on the same route each day, meaning that joint compilation of schedules was not possible. As is well known, LT simply extended and truncated routes (including on different days of the week) to enable it to compile efficient schedules.

    The Stagecoach website shows no local maps or route listing that I could find for Bedford either. Stagecoach used to be pretty good at that type of thing but I fear they are in deep decline.


    1. Bedford timetable listing here:

      Tucked away in ‘Promos and Offers’, which is where they quite often hide things away these days. So at least if you know which bus you want you can find out when it’s supposed to run.

      Couldn’t find a map though – there’s a ‘Bedford Megarider Plus’ map (whatever that means) but the link to it is broken. Then I found a website called ‘Travel Bedford’ which looked promising – under ‘Routes and Maps’ it has a link to the council’s website. That link too is broken. So I went direct to the council site which – oh joy! – has a map. Dated July 2019. Oh well.

      I think I’d almost prefer them just to say “we don’t do maps anymore, you should use Google”. At least it’d save endless disappointment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You motivated me to search their website a little more. They do not even proof read timetables. This one for the 488 from Banbury to Chipping Norton is a route I traveled on last year. It wrongly (I think…) shows off peak Chipping Norton journeys running to the School not Cornish Road. Obviously it is wrong given that outbound journeys start at Cornish Road. Additionally, I think the departure time from Banbury is wrong too and the West Street timing point is omitted in Chipping Norton. The whole column has been transposed and been like that since August. This was the third timetable I found and I was not especially looking for errors.

        These unacceptable (to any professional business) errors are not necessarily obvious to everyone and the message Stagecoach sends of sloppiness ought to concern them. If they do not care about their business looking professional then why should anyone else?

        Click to access 488_489_current.pdf


        1. It looks as though the Banbury offpeak departure time which should be 40 has been omitted, and the subsequent timings have all been moved up one place leaving a gap at Cornish Road. This shows how just one error can make nonsense of the whole journey or in this all the offpeak journeys from Banbury.


    2. The timetable split at Luton Airport is a result of the farcical “maximum 50 miles” rules, which means the route is registered as two separate service: Bedford – Luton Airport and Luton Airport – Milton Keynes.

      If Stagecoach East provided a proper printed timetable in house style, the journeys would be shown with a linking “connection” symbol at Luton Airport.

      That’s also the real reason the buses are shown in Milton Keynes as going to Luton Airport rather than Bedford, and I’m surprised that Roger missed that.


      1. Right. They cannot be bothered to produce a proper timetable so they just have an automated print out. Sums up their attitude to be candid.


        1. All the big groups are like that. They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, to coin a phrase.


  13. The MK1 looks like the route that has it all – towns, villages, new housing, retail parks, industry, airport (is there any market it doesn’t serve?) plus a motorway run. And it’s a double deck route.

    The V shape is odd, but as an enthusiast what’s not to like?


    1. The problem is that “enthusiasts” seem to have little or no idea of how to run a commercial operation that is both profitable and serves the public well. The bus industry will have absolutely no future if it’s left in the hands of the “enthusiasts”. This can be seen in the state of bus operations today and the general indifference of many operators to the traveling public. Sorry!


      1. OK, but that’s not the point I’m making. I’m not making any comment or claims about running a commercial operation. I am simply saying that, regardless of its viability or usefulness, the route looks like a very interesting one to try out!


      2. There are almost no enthusiasts involved in bus operation today, which can be seen in, for example, the reduction of the number of buses in commemorative liveries.

        What the bus industry does have is a huge amount of people who are trained in general management and who have no understanding of the specialities of the bus business. That’s the same in all sectors today, of course; generalists have replaced specialists when to be successful any company needs a balance of both.

        The increasing indifference of public transport operators to the travelling public is a perfect example of this in action; the management don’t understand the industry they’re in, they don’t understand the customers needs and worse still they have no interest in learning and adapting to them. Why would they care? They’ll be in a different sector in their next job.

        But they’re great people if you want a tick-box proforma about the latest social media fad.


      3. You’re right that enthusiasm alone does not make for a successful business. It’s the same as how every football fan thinks they could run both their local club and the England team better than the those who actually do the job and often with no business skills whatsoever. In fact they often don’t even realise that football is a business at all! Same as some enthusiasts think it should be a service and any size gap in revenue should just be plugged by government. There are exceptions in the bus world where enthusiasm has translated to success at high levels in the bus world. Think Leon Daniels as one example, some of the early LRT tender operators and a couple of the Reading Buses MDs to name a few.


        1. I have a feeling as a bus user that, in many cases, those who plan and operate bus services never use a bus. If they did, they would not only find many bus services slow, but also unreliable, uncomfortable, often expensive and lacking in information regarding routes and times. I can’t think of any other industry that has such little regard for its customers. Can the bus industry survive if it continues in this manner? I expect not.


  14. The MK1 route number is because of the Amazon affect. Stagecoach in Bedford also operate a LTN1 and another Amazon route from Northampton to Amazon next to Ridgemont station ( no advertisement or timetables to be seen), Grant Palmer also operates to Amazon centres LTN1/4/5/7 and HI.


  15. A well-run bus network has several factors in its success. Route branding is only one of them. Sure, the promotion and information for London Buses is a bit dire, but that is more than cancelled out by the high frequency, late night and Sunday services, cheap fares and comprehensive network.


    1. Yes and so many companies introduce route branding on the buses, but nothing changes behind the scenes, so you get style over substance effect. Then some operators lose interest very quickly (probably coinciding with a change in manager), and the branded buses are allocated elsewhere, as per Arriva in the North East. This all makes buses appear ephemeral, and not something you can build your life around in terms of your transport needs.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I fully agree that any indirect route, where there is a more direct alternative, should come with a heavy warning sign, that’s if they really have to be operated that way at all. One of the negative perceptions of bus travel is that it’s slow. It some cases that’s very true. In some of those cases it’s avoidable. The last thing the industry needs is designing a route which could lead to a passenger error or lack of knowledge proving their worst fears right!

    I’ll go even further and say that operators should look very carefully at deviations for a handful of passengers through the day which inconvenience the majority. That routing is probably losing that route far more than it’s gaining.


  17. At the risk of stating the obvious, interworking buses between two (or more) routes can make a lot of scheduling sense if it makes for more efficient bus and crew scheduling. However, there is usually no necessity for advertising the interworking as a through service. Indeed, there are many good reasons for not advertising the through link:

    1. If running times change again in the future, the operator isn’t saddled with a few through passengers who have to be disappointed
    2. It allows for the flexing of running times by time of day appropriate to each route (which might indeed break the through working at quieter times of day
    3. When delays occur on one route, it provides the possibility of dropping replacement buses on time onto the second route (admittedly a bit harder when the link is at a location remote to the driver/bus base)

    I think when separate routes, both the 81 and 99 had running times of around 65 minutes and ran hourly, so clearly each used three buses inefficiently (the 81 did not reach the airport).

    I haven’t got the original MK1 timetable, but I assume it attempted to use five buses to cover both routes (and link Bedford with the airport). The slackened off timetable now uses six, and if buses are stepped back at Bedford, in fact uses seven – so I don’t understand the gain here!


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