I is for Ipswich Buses

Saturday 22nd April 2023

Ipswich Buses is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year. Founded in 1903, it’s one of just five municipally owned bus companies left in England (along with Blackpool, Nottingham, Reading and Warrington) with two more in Wales (Cardiff and Newport) and not forgetting Lothian in Scotland.

The company’s head office and bus garage are located close to the town centre, just to the west of the football stadium – about a ten minute walk from the railway station and slightly less to walk to the town centre.

It’s a rather traditional looking workshop area fronting directly on to Constantine Road but there’s a large open air parking area to the rear with access from Sir Alf Ramsey Way.

Not surprisingly post pandemic the company’s finances are struggling with annual accounts for the year ended March 2022 showing a profit after tax of just £53K on a turnover of £8,936K. Accounts for year ended March 2020 showing turnover of £10,118K indicate the extent of post Covid recovery although that year also posted a loss after tax of £19K.

Most single decks are Enviro200s (20 in the fleet) although the company bought 13 eleven year old Optare Tempos from TrentBarton in 2019.

A former TrentBarton Optare Tempo on the busy route 13 running every 10 minutes.

Scania OmniCitys dominate the double deck fleet with some 23 acquired second hand from First Bus and Metroline.

A former First Bus Scania OmniCity

There are also seven Scania OmniDekkas and four VDL/DAF East Lancs double decks and three Mercedes Ciatro single decks. The various acquisitions make for a variety of seat moquettes…

…. including these rather uncomfortable ones First Bus used to like so much.

With a fleet total of around 75 vehicles Ipswich Buses is the smallest of the municipal octet but what it might lack in size it certainly makes up for in other areas, not least information provision.

When I began researching my visit to have a ride around the company’s network a couple of weeks ago on clicking open its website I was immediately struck by the ease to access colourful maps of the network(s) as well as timetables for each route along with information about tickets and fares – probably the three key pieces of information anyone wants to easily access.

I know it sounds odd to highlight such a basic attribute but it’s incredible how many operators hide their network map(s) deep into their websites, even if they deign to produce one at all, which, as we know, many don’t.

Ipswich has two maps available, both colour coded by route. One shows the town network and the other the small longer distance network the company operates south of Ipswich into Essex.

There are also two diagrams showing the departure stands and layouts of both bus stations in the town – Tower Ramparts for town routes and the Old Cattle Market for longer routes, historically the preserve of Eastern Counties then First Bus. These diagrams also show departure stands for other bus companies (First Bus and Beestons) as well as the one (tendered) town route from Tower Ramparts which First Bus operate – route 14, although the timetable isn’t shown.

Each of Ipswich’s town routes has a brand name – some of which are a bit cheesy – along with a route number and a colour coding which is carried through on the map, the timetables and, for those routes which are single deck operated, on the buses themselves.

I was very impressed to see every branded bus was operating on the correct route during my visit.

The timetables displayed on the website …

… are pdfs of what look like printed timetable leaflets with each containing a full colour map showing the featured route.

I was even more impressed when calling into the Travel Shop at Tower Ramparts bus station (it’s even open for four hours on Saturdays) to find a display of printed timetable leaflets available.

How good is that?

They’re great leaflets too, although there’s no ticket information which might be because while many leaflets are dated as from January the price of tickets increased in February.

There are three fares for journeys within the town with a £2.30 maximum, currently capped at £2. Returns offer a discount and a day ticket is £4.70.

Mobile tickets are available on the Ipswich Buses app (which also shows vehicle tracking) and the company also accepts contactless bank cards. Interestingly the day ticket isn’t available on the app, nor is there a version of its ticket for under 19s.

As is traditional with municipally owned companies cash is collected into a farebox/vault which avoids drivers needing to handle it but means no change is given to those who are cash dependent.

The notice states bank notes must be handed to the driver but on one of my journeys there was a £5 note in the glass section (see below) so maybe the driver checks the note isn’t a forgery before popping it through the slot. The positioning of the boxes is a bit intrusive and now most passengers presumably pay by contactless or use a concessionary pass on the Ticketer machine, the location is now far from ideal as you have to lean round it.

As befits its owner’s wider remit the bus network provides extensive coverage across the town with routes running at good frequencies, although evening frequencies seem a bit sparse (see route 13 in the table below, for example).

The most frequent routes are the 9/10 (yellow) both running every 20 minutes to make for a sort of 10 minute frequency although it depends whereabouts on the circular section of route you’re waiting as route 9 goes clockwise and route 10 anti-clockwise. Route 13 (pink) is also every 10 minutes with routes 3 (blue) and 8 (red) every 12 minutes.

As you can see from the map shown earlier the network falls into four distinct quadrants around the town centre. Routes 1, 2, and 3 are in the south east; routes 4, 5 and 6 in the north east; 7, 8, 9 and 10 in the north west; and 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 in the south west. Each quadrant has a mixture of circular routes and out-and-back ones with frequencies varying depending on the density of housing served and consequential demand. For a population of around 140,000 I reckon the Borough of Ipswich enjoys a good service.

On my visit I took a ride on one or two of the key routes in each quadrant and each area had reasonably well loaded buses throughout the routes, helped by key retail destinations at the outer ends of each route.

There’s a large Sainsbury’s as well as other retail units including Waitrose/John Lewis in the south east; Ipswich Hospital is in the north east; Asda and the Anglia Retail Park in the north west; and a Tesco Extra in the south west.

It’s unusual for these ‘out-of-town’ retail parks to be so well served by buses but in Ipswich at least one of the key routes terminates with others passing through making for a traffic objective at the outer end of the route and making the buses better used throughout the routes as a consequence.

Ipswich Buses has also been running longer distance out of town routes for some years following previous retrenchments by First Bus. Routes 118/119 head north to Framlingham (20 miles north of Ipswich) taking 50 minutes and running 2 hourly while routes 97 and 98 link Ipswich with Shotley every 90 minutes and route 93 runs two hourly taking 80 minutes for the 18 mile run south to Colchester.

On a previous visit to the area I took a ride on the route 94 variant between Ipswich and Colchester, but this route has now been cut back to one school journey to serve East Bergholf High School (see map above).

Flashback to 2018 and route 94 reached in Colchester

All the journeys I travelled on ran perfectly to time and I didn’t see any evidence of cancellations for lack of staff so hopefully the extensive advertising for new recruits has eased the previous shortage.

One minor niggle I noticed was the clocks on the Optare Tempos were still showing Greenwich Mean Time – not a good look for a time conscious bus company.

As I travelled around I noticed there didn’t seem to be an abundance of bus priority measures although those I did see were proving effective. This one is on the Princess Street bridge over the River Orwell just south of the railway station on the route into the town centre is in the centre of the road.

It was also noteworthy to see a bus only section of road has been incorporated into a new residential development in Ravenswood the south east corner of the town served by routes 1 and 2.

Wouldn’t large cars be able to pass through this easily?

Bus shelters, presumably provided by the Borough Council, varied in quality around the town. Here’s one of the better ones….

…. and bus stop plates looked as though they had all been updated recently to a new Suffolk County Council standard and created a good impression.

There are real time signs in rather large boxes at a number of locations around the town.

Back to Ipswich Buses and its information provision and the Tower Ramparts bus station has some excellent displays making it very easy to find out where to wait and what time to expect a bus.

Many of the bus shelters around the town also displayed the network map.

I asked in the Travel Shop if there was a printed copy of the map, but was advised it’s only online, which is a pity as that really would have been the cherry on top of a tasty cake of information provision. Well done Ipswich Buses for providing a high standard of service and best wishes to the shortly to retire managing director Heath Williams and good luck to Dan Bassett who is taking over.

Roger French

Previous AtoZ blogs: Avanti West Coast, Blackpool Transport, Chiltern Railways, Delaine Buses, Ensignbus, Faresaver, Grand Central, Hull Trains.

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

35 thoughts on “I is for Ipswich Buses

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  1. Ipswich looks like a good operator. Externally the buses look well presented although the interiors look a mixed bag.

    Looking at your photograph of the restrictions it is interesting that there are less onerous restrictions on the verge and footway than on the road.

    The ability of large cars to pass through the bus only road is not a massive issue. The police can still enforce and if vehicles neither delay buses nor endanger pedestrians it would be well down their list of priorities.


  2. Really interesting article.

    Fareboxes take me right back to my youth in Southend when the Corporation had exact fare OMO!


  3. It’s really refreshing to read of an operation getting so much right. The financial performance shows that, even when doing so, we do have to accept that post covid working practices and shopping habits do mean that demand is likely to stay at a lower level. Having said that, with there being so much to showcase in the way Ipswich does things, it would be interesting to see the impact of a major marketing campaign.

    You’re right to call out the farebox. Now I’d normally consider myself to be a voice of reason, but I’ll confess to a totally irrational hatred of these relics of the 70s. It’s not just based on some philosophical dislike, I had the pleasure of being a user of Reading Buses services in the pre-contactless era of 2007/8. Many times I walked my 2 mile journey rather than overpay or buy something I didn’t need just to get change. The box is ugly and intrusive as you say, but worse, it just sends the completely wrong message and is in total contrast to all the customer-focussed activities going on.


    1. It is in my view something Ipswich bus should review. It is not passenger friendly and does littler to attract new passengers

      Most people do not use cash now and most operators have a fare structure that discourages the use of cash

      If you are visitor or do not normally uses buses it will just put you off using them


  4. I went to see Ipswich Buses in1987 as part of PhD research on bus industry pricing. I thought they were a good operator then and it’s great they are still going strong. I even got involved in their April Fools joke, where they claimed to be introducing the world’s first triple decker bus!


  5. Having moved from Ipswich to Cardff 6 years ago it’s been interesting to compare the two operations. Both are good for information and are responsive to passengers, although Cardiff shut its Central Library information point about 5 years ago. I’m not sure if its replacement street inquiry office – in a less visible location – is still open. GoAhead were interesting in buying IB some years but eventually pulled back. Both companies have struggled financially and have had to cut back some services.

    One nice feature of IB was and possibly still is its naming of buses. The company went through something of a torrid time a few years ago, following the retirement of a much-liked MD. The bus depot is in fact the old tram depot, although they ceased in 1926! The former trolleybus depot to the east of the town is now an excellent transport museum – some of the exhibits (trolley-buses ancient and newer, superbly restored horse and electric trams etc) are magnificent.

    Oh yes – Cardiff still has fareboxes, I’d say perhaps 5-10% of passengers use them. And in both places notes just get stuffed down the slot – they aren’t examined by the driver. Incidentally no-change fareboxes are still one of the quickest ways of payment – more so than waiting for a debit card to register and much more so than the frequent times when a passenger doesn’t bring up the correct app on their phone until they are actually on the bus!


  6. Its easy to criticise operators using fareboxes but they do speed up boarding and slow buses caused by long boarding times probably put people off using buses more than the need to have the correct change, especially on high frequency services. Obviously the balance has changed now with mobile ticketing and contactless etc but the system also gives protection to drivers by not having to handle cash.

    It is interesting that some of the most successful urban operators, in areas with the highest bus use per head, have kept fareboxes, eg Lothian, Nottingham, NX West Midlands and Reading.


    1. Andrew, I’d suggest that the higher ridership in some of those farebox towns is for other reasons and my view is that it would be higher still if it wasn’t for the dreaded farebox, less so since the advent of contactless, fortunately.


  7. Really interesting article, and especially nice as it’s a municipal,
    civic pride and all that. I hadn’t realised that Ipswich Buses were so good.

    I particularly like the serving of edge of town retail parks at the outer end if routes. This is such an obvious thing to do and I can’t understand why others don’t. These are effectively duplicate town centres, and stay open later. You get a more balanced traffic flow in both directions. I also think that outer termini should be served by two routes where possible with through ticketing (or interworking), to cater for suburb to superb journeys as not everyone wants to travel into town.

    Regarding fare boxes, these were extreme sensible at the introduction of OMO, because they are quicker than paying cash and issuing change where operators kept multi fare stages which should’ve been scrapped with the conductors. They place the responsibility onto the passengers to be organised and have the correct change, rather than disrupt everyone else while they tender a large bank note and wait for change. Incidentally no one questions exact money car park machines.


    1. Peter, there is not one retail business and not one hospitality business anywhere in the country where the responsibility for having the correct money is placed on the customer. There is a good reason why not. It’s bad for business, all things considered.


      1. Martin, true, but buses aren’t retail, they’re transport. They’re on the move and need to minimise the time spent not moving to ensure those on board get where they want quickly, and the bus reaches those waiting for it without delay. Fumbling with banknotes and change is inefficient. OMO made buses slower and less attractive compared to crew operation.

        I remember childhood holidays in Bournemouth in the 1970s where they still used conductors. My dad was furious when they made the open tops OMO and we spent 20 minutes loading at Boscombe Pier due to the huge queue one morning.

        So, I still say that Fareboxes are the best for urban services, plus exit doors. I think it was West Midlands that combined the farebox with the ticket issue slot positioned behind the driver, making for very swift boarding indeed.


        1. I don’t think we’ll agree on fareboxes so we’ll have to each retain our own view. Taking your Bournemouth example of early OPO conversions though, keep in mind how few cash customers there are now. Not related to fareboxes, but in London, in many high-profile cases, revenue went up when routes were converted to OPO.


          1. Is that really true? The early conversions with turnstiles and graduated fares were awful, most people preferring to pay the driver. Of course it all took time! Things were perhaps OK on the Red Arrows as they were – I think – flat fare.

            BTW one of our other operators in Cardiff doesn’t use fareboxes but does offer the option of cash payment to the driver, who can give change.

            IMO the fastest methods of payment are Oyster card, Smartphone bus app (assuming people have set it ready before boarding) and farebox. Debit/credit card is slower, cash-with-change possibly slowest of all.


            1. PS Even slower were the Videmat machines used in the 70s – all that churning of coins to produce a ticket!


            2. I’m not an insider but I heard this quoted by a couple of senior officials in the London Buses Ltd days (actually just after the 18 was converted). It seems that conductors were just not 100% efficient at collecting every fare. Passengers were also more likely to try and avoid paying on crew routes but couldn’t really do so if they had to pass the driver on OPO routes. I think the exception to this was where there was a parallel crew route that could be chosen. In those situations passengers went for the crew route for the faster journey, but that was generally short-term.


  8. Over payments used to attract a credit voucher which could be exchanged for cash at the enquiry office. I can’t remember if it was also possible to use it in part payment on bus, but the website says these are no longer issued.

    The website also shows an under 20 day ticket at £3, available via smartcard or on bus.


  9. Interesting to compare this write up to the Blackpool one, why exactly the latter is operator ofthe year is a mystery to me.


  10. It’s Good to see that Ipswich buses are providing a good service and that the TT information , presentation of Route branded liveries are to a good standard, it’s mentioned that the fleet is a bit of a mixed bag with Second hand vehicles of various ages but I think that this point is not really that important when you see how well run the company seems to be. It’s said that the company is only just keeping its head above water financially but it seems that they put the value of service that they provide above making huge profits ,this in my opinion shows that a properly run Municipal does far better that the privatised players and is a lesson to the DfT to re-consider letting councils run bus services for the wider benefit of the travelling public, I just wish I had such running services in my neck of the woods in North Kent.


    1. I agree, there may be lower operating profits, but the borough benefits in other ways through a comprehensive network giving access to work, leisure, health care etc which will support the other objectives of the shareholders (the council).

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Enhanced Partnerships

    These seem to have failed to deliver. Hertfordshire has added a new route using BSIP funding but at the same time many routes have been added or had the frequency reduced

    Id there any area that has seen any real improvement in bus services as a result of an Enhanced Partnership


  12. Recall an amusing incident in the Travel Office one sunny Spring morning just last year. I was actually reaching forward to remove just two particular timetables (rural services) when a sharp voice from behind the counter barked that “I was only allowed two as they cost a lot of money to produce” (!). I said I fully appreciated that, and had no intention of taking any of which I didn’t need.

    He then told me in no uncertain terms that it was “quite clear that I didn’t ever use buses (presumably because I am not dressed head to toe in Primark), and was probably going to sell them on eBay”, both statements profoundly incorrect. A direct insult to a lifelong bus user and wouldn’t know how to use eBay if it came out and bit me.

    Amusingly, this incident was a glorious throwback reminder to the ’50s, when passengers generally were an inconvenience and treated as such. Keen to prolong hostilities, I also enquired if the Council still produced a map (I knew they had long given up on such luxuries)), only to be told, “of course not, as everyone knows where their bus goes”.

    No mistaking Ipswich buses is still under Council control.


    1. Interesting to read. A true bad egg. Some old local authority attitudes seem hard to kill off. Again from my Reading days, I took the RailAir to Heathrow and listened to a tirade of efffin and jeffin from the guy struggling to get a wifi connections to accept my credit card payment. Now this doesn’t bother me particularly, but you don’t hear it in retail. Even in Primark.


  13. Why is it some posting on this blog really can’t bring themselves to acknowledge a company in the public sector is actually doing things rather well?

    I find this stance really quite odd. Maybe it’s just free market prejudices?


    1. What Ipswich isn’t doing is generating sufficient profits to replace the fleet, invest in buildings and meet new capital requirements such as on-board information. Or unexpected changes in pension funding.

      Judicious secondhand purchases are all very well, but ultimately the fleet ages. See Halton for how this ends.


      1. In the rest of the world a public sector operator wouldn’t be expected to make profits, and asset renewal would be funded by taxation and seen as investment in a public service.


        1. I don’t think its unreasonable to expect a public sector operator to be making enough to cover depreciation (and replacement) of the fleet. Obviously big one-off costs like a rebuild of the depot for electric buses are a different issues.


      2. On revenues the profit is about 0.35%

        Looking at the accounts they have some loans that have to be repaid in about 2 years time

        They appear to be paying no dividend to the parent company (IBC)


    2. The public operators I know the best, Nottingham, Reading and Lothian are really good (within the U.K. context). Although “arms length” they at least are managed locally and within the law can be directed by the local community. Neither do they have shareholder value as their highest priority which means they are allowed to at least consider their employees and passengers.


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