Bus battle Southampton style

Sunday 1st December 2019

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There was a time when Oxford was the oft quoted example of head-to-head quality competition between two major bus companies as each operator aimed for a high standard of service to attract custom.

Oxford’s bus market matured after a statutory partnership deal led to a coordinated network so its fallen to Southampton to take on the mantle of England’s most contested bus city.

Bus competition is nothing new to the south coast city – the upstart Solent Blue Line was an early newcomer taking on the mighty municipal owned Southampton City Transport in 1987 shortly after deregulation before it expanded significantly by taking over the Southampton based operations of Hampshire Bus enabling Stagecoach to famously make a financial killing on selling that Company’s former bus garage and bus station in the city.

The ensuing decades have seen Southampton City Transport sold to its employees in 1993 then on to First Bus in 1997 with consistent shedding of a traditionally complex municipally run route network into a slimmed down core now marketed under a modern brand of CityRed.

Meanwhile Solent Blue Line (part of Southern Vectis) sold out to Go-Ahead, rebranded certain routes, and then the whole network, as Bluestar and slowly expanded by taking on routes and parts of routes progressively given up by First Bus.

The consequence being many areas and bus corridors in Southampton now have both red and blue buses, sometimes via different route patterns, sometimes running head-to-head.

The twists and turns of route changes in recent years are too complex to record here but I was intrigued by announcements from both companies a couple of months ago of ‘exciting new services as a result of customer feedback’ (aka ‘we’re going to try and gain competitive market share in another area’).

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I decided to take a trip over to Southampton yesterday and see what’s occurring.

 

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As on previous visits I was impressed to see clear information for both companies provided at bus stops and in shelters with departure times and posters.

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Unlike other towns with bus competition, in Southampton information always appears very orderly and organised.

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Bus stop flags are also clear and well presented, which is not always the case in competitive situations.

However, there were some intriguing inconsistencies in route presentation …

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…. and I was puzzled by quite a number of missing flags around the city, replaced by temporary signs affixed to poles with cable ties.

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The new competitive incursions that caught my attention were introduced ten weeks ago on 22nd September and have all the hallmarks of ‘tit-for-tat’ spoilers.

As usual in such circumstances where areas and corridors end up being over bussed for the numbers travelling, neither operator can be experiencing improved margins; but meanwhile passengers are certainly enjoying higher frequencies – and for seniors like me who don’t have to worry about brand loyalty by having an operator specific ticket, it felt like a real luxury yesterday to hop from one operator to another checking out the product on offer.

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As befits these two operators, both equal each other on quality. Vehicles are clean and comfortable; well presented with smart attractive branding both outside and inside with pleasing decor and informative cove panels.

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Drivers were also all pleasant and helpful. The standard of driving was faultless.

Clear next stop announcements are made and displayed by both operators; wi-fi is available and Bluestar have usb sockets.

I couldn’t source a First Bus CityRed timetable book in the city – last time I picked one up from the main library – but I found all the information I needed easily online including a helpful network map before I left home.

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Commendably Bluestar have a city centre Travel Shop which is well stocked with timetable leaflets and books for neighbouring networks run by ‘more’ and Hampshire County Council produced books for Romsey and Eastleigh/Hedge End. There’s also a book for the rather strangely numbered route network Bluestar run on behalf of the University of Southampton branded as Unibus which is open to all passengers.

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Personally I’d prefer to see a timetable book rather than individual route leaflets for Bluestar’s network too, but perhaps it’s a reflection of the instability of the network due to the developing competition that’s a factor here. If so, it doesn’t inspire long term confidence.

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I’d also like to see a printed map for the Bluestar network combining the detailed route map of Southampton (above) and the extended area map showing fare zones as shown on the Travel Shop front window (below).

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This latest competitive spat involves Bluestar introducing a new route 19 into one of First Bus’s heartland areas in the east of the city – Thornhill – replicating First Bus CityRed route 3 which runs from there into the city centre and to the western suburbs.

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Thornhill already has high frequency Bluestar route 18 running ‘at frequent intervals’ (every 8 minutes) via Bitterne to the city centre and then out to Millbank in the west of the city. This route saw an investment in a fleet of smart new dual-door Enviro 200 buses a year ago making quite an impact. It turns round at Eastpoint – a sub-area of Thornhill relinquished by First Bus a few years ago.

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City Red 3 also runs ‘at frequent intervals’ (every 8 minutes Mondays to Fridays) with Volvo Wright bodied Eclipse single decks with 2+1 seating in the front half and leather seats, and operates from Thornhill Fairfax Court via Sholing and Woolston to the city centre before continuing cross-city to Lord’s Hill.

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Bluestar 19 runs every fifteen minutes with a promise of an increased ten minute frequency in the ‘New Year’. Rather than running cross-city, as CityRed 3 does, it turns round at the Central Station.

I took a ride on both a Bluestar 19 and a CityRed 3 and loadings were pretty much split according to which bus had arrived first along the route save for a minority of passengers who clearly had a loyalty branded ticket for one company or the other and waited for their favoured bus.

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In retaliation for the Bluestar 19 incursion into Thornhill, First Bus began running a new CityRed 1 between the city centre, Totton and the residential area of Calmore to the west of the city also from 22nd September.

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Totton had been exclusively served by Bluestar routes 11 and 12 as well as route 6 (on its way to Lymington) after First Bus withdrew from Totton some years ago. The 11 and 12 provide a combined 10 minute frequency to Totton with the 11 continuing every 20 minutes to West Totton and the 12 every 20 minutes to Calmore.

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New CityRed 1 runs every 10 minutes on Mondays to Fridays to Calmore significantly trouncing the Bluestar 12’s twenty minute frequency but CityRed 1 also drops to every 20 minutes on Saturdays albeit cynically timetabled to be 3 minutes ahead of the 12.

Interestingly First Bus drop frequencies on a number of CityRed routes on Saturdays compared to Mondays to Fridays.

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On my ride out to Totton and around Calmore on a CityRed 1 we picked up passengers waiting with no one hanging back for the Bluestar 12 running three minutes behind us but when I switched on to the 12 for the ride back from Calmore in the loop arrangement around the estate, we played cat and mouse for a while having caught up the 1 and split the load equally.

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From Totton back to the city the CityRed went ahead as the 12 waited its scheduled departure 3 minutes behind.

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Both Thornhill and Calmore are euphemistically called ‘good bus territories’ to describe their demographics but I doubt there’ll be enough new passenger generation to maintain margins at sustainably profitable levels as a result of the higher frequencies now provided following this latest upping of competition between these two bus company giants.

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I also took a ride on a frequent Bluestar 18 to Millbrook (another ‘good bus territory’ residential area in the west of Southampton) which is hotly contested by CityRed 2 running every 8 minutes Mondays to Fridays and every 10 minutes on Saturdays.

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It was much the same pattern as in Thornhill and Calmore with the first bus arriving picking up waiting passengers save for a few with loyalty tickets for one operator or the other.

Not surprisingly ticket prices offer good value, and are broadly comparable with inevitable “promotional” bargains. For example to Thornhill and Millbrook, which are in the ‘Southampton City’ zone for Bluestar a day ticket is £3.40, and to Calmore (in the ‘City Zone Plus”) it’s £3.70. A single from either Thornhill or Millbrook to the city centre is a bargain at just £2 and from Calmore it’s £3. A ‘Southampton City’ zone weekly is just £9.

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A Day ticket within the CityReds ‘Southampton Zone” is £3.50 and £9 for a week.

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There is an all operator SolentGo ticket (“from A to B to sea”) costing £5 for a day’s travel in the Southampton City zone, but a pricey £20 for a week – meaning it’s currently cheaper to buy a weekly ticket from both Bluestar and First Bus than the combined ticket, albeit you can also use the inter-urban routes within Southampton run by Xelabus using the latter.

As mentioned above, the presentation of buses is to a high standard – I only noticed two gremlins on yesterday’s visit (which is very good going compared to other places I visit)…

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… and these are more than made up for by the welcome abundance of positive messages about using buses at bus stops and on buses.

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Inevitably local media reports have woken up to what’s happening and as usual local politicians don’t really know what to make of it all.Screen Shot 2019-12-01 at 08.11.14.png

New Forest Councillor Harrison is downbeat about the new competition reckoning the extra route “adds nothing for passengers” but goes on to conclude “one bus company will be driven out of business, the other will have a monopoly and we all know what happens when customers don’t have a choice”.

So I’m not sure whether Councillor Harrison favours giving passengers a choice or not!

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Ironically Bluestar is part of Go SouthCoast which is well used to bus competition, experiencing it in both its main urban areas – Southampton and Bournemouth – while it also trades under a monopoly on the Isle of Wight – where, uniquely, passengers enjoy a comprehensive bus service throughout Christmas Day – so perhaps we don’t “all know what happens when customers don’t have a choice” after all.

Meanwhile back in Southampton recent years have brought many changes to bus competition in the city and 2019 has seen futher interesting developments. Riding around the network and seeing the numbers travelling yesterday, I suspect there’ll be more developments to come in 2020 if Go-Ahead and First Bus want to see those elusive sustainable margins.

Roger French

 

 

Battle for Bellfields begins as Guildford goes electric

Monday 7th January 2019

It’s all happening in Guildford this week. Stagecoach South introduced a fleet of nine ADL Enviro 200EV electric buses on the Guildford Park and Ride services today while, as predicted in my post on 16th November last year, the bus war between Arriva and Safeguard has escalated into Bellfields. I had a look at both developments this morning.

First the electrics and their high profile ‘glide’ brand. There are four Park & Ride sites in Guildford; they’re well used, being popular with both commuters and shoppers. The four car parks are all relatively close to the city centre with Artington, to the south on the Godalming road, only a seven minute journey from the bus station while Merrow on the Leatherhead road to the east has a twelve minute journey time. The other two car parks just off the A3 are equally close: Onslow in the west is ten minutes while Spectrum to the north is eight minutes. So I suspect these not particularly arduous journey times are ideal for the electric buses with their high capacity roof mounted batteries with overnight charging giving a reported 150 mile range.

Naturally the buses come with usb sockets and wifi, but on their current duties you’re hardly on the bus long enough to have time to sort out the plug-in lead from your bag, nor go through the logging in process for wifi. Handy facilities if the buses move on to other routes during their lifetime, I suppose.

The seat moquette is to Stagecoach’s brash “iron brew” colour specification or a cross between Aldi-meets-Tesco-meets-Sainsbury’s. I find it a bit overpowering in double deckers and much prefer the softer grey colour scheme used in the north west (on Service X2 – pictured below); but for the short ride, the seats are comfortable enough, and at least the colours brighten up a single deck interior, if a bit in your face.

Interior messages on the cove panels are thankfully large enough to actually be read and extol some of the virtues of the services as well as promoting Stagecoach’s longer distance routes from Guildford.

Most impressive of all is the quietness of the transmission/engine, the only noise coming from bumps in the road, which those aside, means the smoothness of the ride really does stand out. Quite a few passengers were commenting positively about the “new electric buses” and it was good to hear general positivity about the service. Well done Stagecoach and Surrey County Council – the buses have certainly raised the profile for Park and Ride – an essential ingredient in Guildford’s notorious traffic challenges.

Meanwhile, the residents of Guildford’s Bellfields estate woke up this morning to double the number of buses to take them on the 14-17 minute journey into the town centre. It was obvious to me that Safeguard were not going to take Arriva’s completely foolish incursion last November into the Park Barn estate and Royal Surrey County Hospital competing with their routes without reacting. They’ve been serving that area extremely well for decades so they’re not going to simply give up and allow Arriva to muscle in and take their business away.

A retaliatory competitive service against Arriva into Bellfields was therefore only to be expected. My view hasn’t changed since writing in November: “the only likely outcome” (of the incursion into Park Barn) “is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down route A) as it won’t be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ”.

I’ll go further now and suggest a likely outcome is Arriva will now capitulate, withdraw their Service 3 completely and cede Bellfields to Safeguard. There clearly aren’t enough passengers to support two twenty minute frequency services. There’ll be no generation. Of the two operators there’s no doubt Safeguard enjoy any brand loyalty such as it is, but in the main, passengers will catch the first bus that comes along, which by dint of timings is likely to be Safeguard (timetabled to run five minutes ahead of Arriva). On Saturdays Arriva only run half hourly to Safeguard’s new twenty minute frequency so one departure will have a Safeguard bus behind, and the other in front. Arriva run an hourly frequency on Sundays under contract to Surrey County Ciuncil.

Full marks once again to Surrey County Council who have displayed up to date timetables at all the bus stops along the route and in Guildford bus station – I doubt many local authorities would deliver up to date information so efficiently. Well done.

Today’s experience demonstrates once again how Safeguard, unsurprisingly, have that all important attention to detail spot on with new timetable leaflets for their 3S service on board both buses together with balloons and sweets for passengers as a novelty addition and friendly drivers, while Arriva were still running a “lumbering double deck” I mentioned last November (completely unsuitable for the route) and a branded single deck for MAX 34/35 routes! Hardly demonstrating commitment.

I’m beginning to wonder how long the entire Surrey outpost of the Arriva Kent operation controlled from Maidstone, will be sustainable. We’ve already seen Abellio Surrey give up and pull out …….

Roger French