An Anglian Adventure

Thursday 14th March 2019

It began a month ago. A day out to Norwich to travel route 88 via Bungay and Halesworth to Southwold, where I’d catch the four-journey-a-day tendered route 90 which returns to Halesworth via a very circuitous route through some delightful Suffolk villages as well as the small town of Beccles. Both routes were formerly operated by Anglian Bus until the more recent decision by owners Go-Ahead to phase out that company name and brand in favour of neighbouring Konectbus. News had come that Konectbus had given notice to withdraw the 88 from 1st March following a resurgent First Bus competing on the route between Norwich and Bungay and “sustained losses of several million pounds on our Beccles based operations in the last few years”.

Evening and Sunday journeys are tendered by Norfolk County Council with the section of route between Halesworth and Southwold on the 88, as well as the entire 90, being Suffolk tenders so these needed longer notice periods and are continuing until the end of this month (the tendered bit of route 88) or Easter (route 90).

IMG_8602.jpgIntrigued by all this I headed off to Norwich to investigate. In the event things didn’t work out as planned. The journey I planned to catch on the 88 at 1205 from Norwich was cancelled at short notice due to staff sickness meaning an hours delay and a missed connection in Southwold to the infrequent route 90.

I quickly abandoned the idea of reaching Southwold, took the next 88 as far as Halesworth, and returned home by train from there. The enforced delay in Norwich gave me a chance to assess how Konectbus (and the former Anglian Bus) are doing some years on from Go-Ahead’s acquisitions in March 2010 and April 2012 respectively and inspired me to make plans for a longer return visit to further investigate bus operations in this part of East Anglia, which I was able to achieve this week.

This blog summarises my findings.

1. What are Go-Ahead doing in East Anglia anyway?

IMG_1666.jpgIt’s not surprising the wheels are coming off. The post deregulation history of PLC transport groups in East Anglia is not encouraging. First Bus have struggled for years throughout the region. Their Essex operations are down-at-heel befitting the struggling finances. Norwich based operations are looking better than for many a year (and amazingly now seeing off Go-Ahead on the 88) but they gave up on large parts of Suffolk and Norfolk years ago. Stagecoach tried its hand and failed spectacularly with Norfolk Green.

When the talk was a possible sale of municipally owned Ipswich Buses in the early 2010s it may have made sense for Go-Ahead to buy up a few small independents to build a presence in the region in preparation for a bid. A decade on it makes no sense to be running low margin tendered work at all. To be running substantial loss making operations in a largely rural area remote from other Go-Ahead operations is a complete nonsense.

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IMG_8584.jpgWhat’s more, the image doesn’t look good either. On the positive side the Travel Centre in Norwich bus station, staffed by Konectbus, looks smart and offers an impressive display of timetables covering all bus operators in the city, as does the Norwich Park and Ride operation but the state of the Company’s vehicles on other routes is anything but smart and leaves much to be desired.

IMG_8588.jpgWith one exception shown above (indicating the bus wash must have been working), buses were filthy and unattractive. Some were still in Bluestar livery which must look odd to passengers unaware of that award winning sister Go-Ahead company on the south coast. The image portrayed reminded me of a down-at-heel small time bus operator on the verge of going out of business rather than a subsidiary of a well regarded aspirational multi national transport group quoted on the stock market proud of its reputation. Shareholders wouldn’t be proud of this image nor should management.

IMG_8589.jpgIMG_8591.jpgIMG_8595.jpgMy next departure at 1305 on the 88 on my aborted day trip unimpressively left late because the driver failed to turn up on time meaning passengers experienced well over an hour to wait and of course there was a double load to load too, and for a route in its last couple of weeks operation was actually quite a decent load.IMG_8678.jpgIMG_8698.jpgDown in north Essex and south Suffolk Go-ahead owned Hedingham and Chambers (also both acquired in the 2012 Anglian buying spree) present a smarter image but there are odd inconsistencies in corporate livery. Despite my keen interest in these things I was confused what each brand/company was supposed to look like or whether they were supposed to look the same; goodness knows what passengers and potential passengers think. It’s a complete muddle.IMG_1385.jpgIMG_1221.jpgIMG_1103.jpgIMG_1239.jpgIMG_1092.jpgThe Chambers operated 753/754 trunk route between Colchester, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds seems well run as does the Hedingham run 88 (yes, another 88) between Colchester and Halstead (in a long standing joint operation with First Bus – from the days of Eastern Counties and Hedingham working together) and route 89 between Halstead and Braintree all of which I sampled, but these routes will never be double digit profit margin bankers for a PLC.IMG_1198.jpgMy advice to Go-Ahead is to get First Bus to agree a couple of hundred grand off the price of Manchester Queens Road and throw this lot in as part of a transfer deal. It would make for a sensible ‘Withdrawal Deal’ for Go-Ahead in Anglia. Another exit strategy would ironically be to sell the former independently operated routes back to, err, an independent operator (see below).

2. A mixed First Bus bag

IMG_1809.jpgI mentioned above that First Bus seem to have got their act together in Norwich now looking smarter and presentable. The high profile excel ‘X1’ route at one time from Peterborough to Lowestoft, now split into manageable sections, still brings quality looking buses into Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. While at one time Anglian Bus seemed to be running rings around First Bus on the Norwich, Beccles, Lowestoft corridor nowadays First’s X2 (fast) and X22 (via Loddon) provide four buses an hour (two on each route) making for a decent service which seemed well used on my travels.

IMG_1827.jpgLowestoft has always seemed to be low down the First Bus priority list whenever I’ve visited and this time was no exception.

IMG_1805.jpgIMG_1806.jpgThe hourly route 99 down to Kessingland and Southwold was characteristically operated by ‘W’ registration double deckers dating from 2000 giving a travel experience befitting of the east coast resort’s dated image.

IMG_1787.jpgThe bespoke livery variation used in Ipswich looks smarter than plain First Bus colours, if a bit dull, but with seat backs also branded for these operations I fail to understand the logic of where local branding fits into the First Bus strategy. There was a time Corporate HQ told us it was essential to have a nationwide corporate livery so that buses could easily and cost effectively be transferred around the country as needed (in addition to satisfying Aberdeen’s corporate ego). So what’s with the bespoke seats then?

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IMG_1605.jpgIt would be so much better if those Aberdeen control freaks just empowered managing directors to reintroduce proper local branding and really show what could be achieved in tune with the Anglian market.IMG_1599.jpgSadly First Bus still leave a lot to be desired when it comes to detail. I wasn’t impressed catching the early morning 0615 departure on route 64 from Ipswich to Aldeburgh after initially being reassured to find the bus already screened up and waiting on stand soon after 0600 only to find the driver saunter up to the bus at 0622 and load the six of us boarding, one of whom told me it happens every day. IMG_1590.jpgWe finally left ten minutes late at 0625 but by Woodbridge were already ahead of scheduled time so waited four minutes there, a further five minute wait at Wickham Market and finally arrived Southwold two minutes early.IMG_1610.jpgYou can easily take twenty minutes out of the scheduled time for that journey and stop regular passengers having to wait on a cold windy morning for the bus doors to open at the bus station. I tweeted this experience to First’s centralised tweeting operation; obviously didn’t receive any reply or apology, not even an acknowledgement. Frankly a contemptuous way to treat passengers.IMG_1165.jpgThe general impression of buses around Colchester is poor. Neither First Bus or Arriva’s presence in the town is particularly dynamic and enticing. IMG_1246.jpgThe bright spot is the First Bus run Travel Centre located fairly close to the main departure bus stops in Osborne Street. It contains an impressive display of timetable leaflets and even a network route map displayed on the wall (albeit requiring a minor updating, but at least this was admitted by way of a piece of paper stick to it).

IMG_1248.jpgIMG_1249.jpgWhat would really be helpful for passengers is timetables for routes run by other operators to also be displayed. I didn’t visit the First Bus Travel Centre in Norwich this time, but suspect the same policy holds good there too. It wouldn’t cost anything and would do a huge amount to promote public transport use overall, instead of making it so hard for passengers to obtain information.

First Bus are stepping in to cover the withdrawal of the tendered part of Konectbus 88 by extending their Lowestoft to Southwold route 99 (to be numbered 99A) on to Halesworth and Bungay where there will be connections to their commercial route to Norwich. The wheel really has turned full circle here with First Bus, or Eastern Counties, as it was, now regaining territory ceded to Anglian Bus, acquired by Go-Ahead and now throwing in the towel. Talking of Anglian Bus….

3. Active Anglian Independents

IMG_1075.jpgIMG_7003.jpgEast Anglia is fortunate in having a good selection of quality independently owned small bus companies providing key routes across the region. From the expanding Stephensons in the south of the region to Sanders Coaches in the north and many more in the middle.IMG_7107.jpgIMG_1844.jpgJulian Paterson, formerly of Konectbus now owns and runs the excellent Lynx in West Norfolk while Andrew Pursey formerly of Anglian Bus has started and runs Border Bus. I travelled on two of their three routes during my visit this week, the tendered four-journey-a day 521 between Aldburgh and Halesworth and the hourly (with extra morning journeys making for half hourly) 146 running fast between Norwich and Beccles where it competes with the already mentioned First Bus operated X2 and X22. It then continues to Carlton Coalville and Kessingland on the outskirts of Lowestoft before terminating in Southwold.IMG_1622.jpgThe lunch time journey I travelled on out of Norwich had a good seated load of twenty with around a third getting off in Beccles, half in Kessingland and just a smattering travelling all the way to Southwold. The 521 was less busy. In fact it was dire, which brings me to….

4. Suffolk County Council

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 10.29.51.pngI spent most of my time this week exploring Suffolk as well as in northern Essex with only shorter incursions into Norfolk. Suffolk is a delightfuly county but with many transport challenges not least the very low density of population. Aside from Ipswich and Lowestoft and their environs, and the smaller market towns of Beccles, Bungay, Bury St Edmunds, Halesworth, Saxmundham, Stowmarket, Sudbury and Wickham Market, away from the coastal communities of Aldeburgh and Southwold the county is characterised by hundreds of tiny hamlets connected only by circuitous narrow country roads. The rural transport challenge for the county is therefore huge, not helped by Suffolk deciding to save 20% of its £1.7million budget from April.

I read about discontentment with proposals to withdraw some off peak journeys on routes 112/113 which run from Diss (just over the border in Norfolk) to Ipswich operated by Galloway Travel Group (who run extensive coach tours and excursions as well as some local bus routes).IMG_1485.jpgApparently off peak journeys are at risk but I travelled on one of the few peak hour journeys leaving Diss at 1655 and arriving Ipswich at 1808. A deadly quiet Diss bus station is pictured above at 1645 approaching the evening peak. Three passengers boarded with me at Diss all travelling to the village of Eye just thirteen minutes south. For the next hour and four minutes until we reached Ipswich it was just me and the driver.IMG_1561.jpgIt’s not cuts to rural bus routes leaving passengers isolated, its passengers deserting buses leaving the buses isolated and running empty. My journey on the Border Bus operated tendered route 521 at 0855 from Aldeburgh to Halesworth was similarly sparsely loaded.

IMG_1631.jpgWe travelled empty all the way to the hamlet of Benhall Green where at 0929 we picked up four passengers and dropped them off five minutes later in Saxmundham picking a Mum and child up there and dropped her off seven minutes later in Yoxford. The rest of the journey taking around an hour was just me and the driver.

IMG_1857.jpgThe journey on the Konectbus 88 (soon to be a First Bus 99A) between Halesworth and Southwold at 1023 had just two passengers on board while the afternoon peak journey on route 90 leaving Southwold at 1638 travelled all the way to Halesworth via Beccles (a journey of 1 hour and 17 minutes) carried just two other passengers besides me and the driver and then only between the hamlet of Willingham and Beccles – a journey of around ten minutes. Border Bus have announced they’ll be stepping in to run partial replacements for the withdrawn 90 with new services 522 and 524 but with paucity of numbers travelling it’s a bleak future. Unsurprisingly a significant role is played by community transport in this region.

5 Community Transport

IMG_7310.jpgIt’s interesting to see up in West Norfolk one of the beneficiaries of the Stagecoach pull out in Kings Lynn has been West Norfolk Community Transport (WNCT) who’ve expanded their ‘Go to town’ branded bus routes, which now provide a significant part of the town’s bus network. It’s also interesting to see Ben Colson who owned and ran Norfolk Green heavily involved in WNCT who, with the already mentioned Julian Paterson and Andrew Pursey are three key people in making the Anglian bus scene a success. It also shows you can’t keep a good busman down; they just pop up in another exciting bus venture. Indeed Andrew also volunteers on the Committee of the Beccles and Bungay Community Transport who I had the pleasure of spending the whole of yesterday morning with travelling around their Wednesday only three rural bus routes between Halesworth and Beccles, all using the number 532.

IMG_1868.jpgI’d been recommended to travel on the routes by blogger Steve’s Bus & Train Page on Twitter (@busandtrainpage) and how right he was to encourage me to give them a try. I also found out another Twitter stalwart Tim Miller (@banditman59uk) is a relief driver for the route when regular Mick has a day off.

Driver Mick is a real gem. His knowledge of Suffolk is impressively huge. Being a local lad he regaled me with fascinating insights and information about the area as we travelled around.

IMG_1861.jpgThe Wednesday only route 532 really is a ‘lifeline bus service’. Yesterday around a dozen people travelled on the first journey from Laxfield, Heveningham and Huntingfield north into Halesworth for a morning’s shopping and other commitments. Two stayed on the bus for the next journey which runs via Brampton, Willingham, Sotterley, Wrentham, Rushmere and Mutford to Beccles which I joined. IMG_1865.jpgA lovely couple boarded along this part of the route with the husband helping Mick out to provide a commentary by adding historical background to the sights we passed – which were mainly churches – an amazing number too – all told, we passed 21 churches yesterday morning, some with just a few houses nearby. The one pictured below, a paticularly fine example, at the end of the route in Laxfield. As you can see, even the cars park in a colour coordinated way, the village is so pretty!IMG_1884.jpgAfter dropping our four shoppers off in Beccles from that trip it was time for Mick’s third run of the day back to Halesworth via even more tiny micro hamlets and churches (and the odd water tower) including Ilketshall St Andrew, Ilketshall St Margaret, St Peter South Elmham, All Saints South Elmham (you get the idea this used to be a very religously devout area!) and finally Rumburgh and Wissett; we picked up four regulars along the way who all had an hour and twenty minutes in Halesworth before return time, while we continued back to Laxfield to take ten passengers back home who’d come in on the first journey, bringing one regular back into Halesworth on the return.IMG_1875.jpgMick was off back to Beccles via the All Saints route but I left him there having completed the full circuit and having thoroughly enjoyed it too. One of the regulars who boarded in Wissett followed me into the library at Halesworth to find out more about why on earth someone from Brighton was riding around Suffolk’s rural countryside and we got chatting about the problems of rural buses and her concerns at being stranded if Suffolk County Council were to cut this vital once a week route. Apparently it’s up for review soon as the conract ends in the summer.

Encouragingly this minibus had carried the most passengers of all the tendered bus routes I’d travelled on during the last few days and I do hope her fears can be allayed. Suffolk County Council should be well pleased with the support the ‘BACT’ community transport receives from passengers as well as the great personal service Mick provides. Long may it continue. It’s a good example of how buses can continue to provide deep rural transport without the need to come up with new fangled ideas like app based DRT – just fund and run a scheduled low cost once or twice a week community minibus. Sorted.

Indeed the town route 511 in Halesworth is also operated by Community buses, this one by the locally based Halesworth Community Transport.IMG_1887.jpg

6. A couple of final thoughts

Firstly Suffolk County Council are reportedly considering saving £100,000 by ceasing to update and post bus stop timetables and information. This would be a huge mistake. Such information is vitally reassuring particularly for strangers like me to an area. Suffolk’s presentation is excellent – don’t change it.

IMG_1859.jpgSecondly there’s a vital need for East Anglia to follow Kent/Surrey/Sussex’s lead in establishing an all bus operator day ticket like the latter’s Discovery ticket. With a variety of small bus companies and a few larger ones (Ipswich Buses, First Bus and Arriva) it really would make for a passenger friendly way of travelling around rather than having restricted ticket availability to each operator. You need every passenger you can get – don’t make it hard. Perhaps Suffolk County Coiuncil could initiate discussions on such a proposal?

Roger French

 

 

 

 

 

The m1 arrives in Bristol

Sunday 6th January 2019

Today saw the launch of the third route in Bristol’s metrobus trilogy: the m1. And this is the biggy. Route m3 was first out of the blocks last May between Emersons Green and the city centre using a new bus only exit off the M32 for easy access to the University of West of England campus. This was followed in September by the former Long Ashton Park & Ride service rebranded and renumbered m2 and diverted to use some new fancy bus only roads and completely unnecessary guided busway sections (reviewed here).

In reverse number order, we now have the m1. From the gigantic leisure and retail park just off the M5 known as Cribbs Causeway in north west Bristol the m1 runs via Bradley Stoke in the north east and the University of West of England to the city centre then via Bedminster and Hengrove to terminate outside South Bristol Community Hospital having taken a whopping 85 peak minutes for an end to end journey. A Monday to Saturday 10 minute frequency impressively runs from 6am right through to 1am (20 minutely on Sundays). The extended peak running time means at least fifteen buses are needed to run the route.

Cribbs Causeway
South Bristol Community Hospital, Hengrove

Uniquely the route is being operated by Bristol Community Transport (BCT) under a fixed cost contract to First West of England who are taking the revenue risk. BCT is part of CT Plus which in turn is part of the expansive HCT Group (a social enterpise formerly known as Hackney Community Transport) who specialise in fixed contract operations. This arrangement is a win-win for all concerned. BCT get an extensive contract with no risk; First West of England get to develop revenue on a high profile new route overlaying their extensive Bristol city network rather than competition from a third party, and I suspect First are paying CT Plus less than if they’d operated it directly, and the local authorities, who have backed the metrobus concept and funded all the infrastructure, get an integrated package and their vision of a better quality bus service to tempt motorists out of their cars. With First West of England’s recent difficulties with staff shortages it’s also a sensible arrangement to contract out a significant resource uplift such as the m1.

It all sounds like a sensible arrangement with local operators working pragmatically together playing to their strengths and local authorities putting they money where their vision is. And the evidence is metrobus is working too. Coinciding with the m1’s introduction this week, a new timetable is being introduced on the m3 with peak hour with-flow express journeys (numbered m3x) using more of the M32 and shaving eight minutes off the journey time, due to overloading from Emersons Green and the Science Park.

I had a ride up and down the m1 today; it was encouraging to see so many people giving the new route a try (many buses ran full), and noteworthy how many families with young children were travelling. Extra buses were drafted on to the route to cope with the numbers travelling, helped by a first day free travel promotion – just the kind of thing to get people trying a bus route. I overheard many positive comments about the bus interiors and the service in general and I’m sure this bodes well. The interiors are nothing plush, but very smart, very comfortable and very practical. The usual usb sockets and wifi are available but sadly no next stop announcements were working on the buses I travelled on although I’m told they were working on other buses – no doubt some teething issues.

I’m always puzzled why some bus companies still go for large screens which block the forward view and the ones I saw weren’t providing anything useful – other than a reminder to exit via the rear doors which was displayed only once the bus had stopped.

Overlaying fifteen buses on to an already comprehensive city network without damaging profit margins is risky, but James Freeman, the well experienced managing director of First West of England, told me initially no reductions are being made to routes which now face competition from metrobus until things settle down. This is a very wise strategy as the m1 takes a different route to existing First buses at both ends of the route as well as a different route into the city. In Hengrove confusingly, existing buses into the city centre serve the opposite side of the road, and in one case (the 50A) is quicker than the new m1, so it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to this new high profile entrant. I suspect there’ll be both abstraction and generation and hopefully the latter will exceed the former (and by some margin – to cover fifteen buses!).

Confusingly some bus stops in Hengrove are served by traditional First bus routes but not the m1; the lady photographed above was politely advised by our driver who stopped to explain the situation.

The m1 serves the University of West of England, including the exclusive access to and from the M32, so the northern section of the route has a ready market especially as the m3 has shown, students are a great market to attract and respond in large numbers to improvements to bus routes.

Despite extensive stretches of bus lanes, the m1 running time has been expanded at peak times to cope with Bristol’s notorious traffic congestion. This is sensible, as even today, albeit with first day teething problems as drivers and passengers got used to the new arrangements, on one journey I travelled on we lost fifteen minutes on the northbound journey between Bedminster and the city centre, not helped by a delayed five minute driver handover – and at a bus stop not served by metrobus (not good!).

As with the m2 and m3, no tickets are sold by the driver. Every stop has a pod with clear instructions how to buy a ticket or to use a smartphone or smartcard.

The fleet of buses on the m1 are powered by gas. A nice touch, but I’m not convinced many passengers notice, and even if they did, it would make a difference to their travel arrangements. But it’s good to see alternative propulsion sources continue to be trialled.

All in all an exciting development and congratulations to all involved. It’s certainly worth a trip to Bristol to take a look.

Roger French

The battle for West Lothian

Wednesday 28th November 2018

A right royal bus battle is underway in West Lothian with more salvos being fired this weekend.

At the beginning of August First Bus gave their extensive network based on Livingston a good old sort out introducing a simplified route pattern offering quicker journeys and new links into Edinburgh’s city centre and airport. It left a few gaps but none, it was claimed, that were well used. Meanwhile Lothian Buses, under its Lothian Country brand, decided to not only fill those gaps but also expand its western flank into Livingston and onward to Bathgate, Armadale and Blackridge with new competitive routes challenging First’s new network.

I’d read all the PR spin from both companies about the changes so thought I’d pop up there yesterday and take a look to see what’s occurring. I sussed something was afoot earlier in the summer when I spotted the virtually anonymous branded bus pictured below outside Edinburgh Park station – the terminus of the former First Bus Service 21A – part of the convoluted network that’s now been much simplified.

This is no David and Goliath battle as I recently saw in Guildford; First Group may be a multi-national multi-modal giant but it has a huge financial debt burden round its neck from past follies meaning any network developments are forensically scrutinised while Lothian Buses is hardly a minnow – they’re in Scotland’s Premier League of bus operators by size as evidenced by recent phenomenal expansion…..taking over First Bus routes ceded in Mid and East Lothian; taking over a former Stagecoach route to Queensferry and quadrupling the number of airport services they run in addition to its long established extensive network throughout the city and significant sightseeing operations. This latest expansion has been introduced in three phases beginning in August with the latest route introduction commencing this weekend, with some new all night journeys on another route on Saturdays.

On Sunday the Lothian Country network will have grown within just fifteen weeks from nothing to operating five major routes with a peak requirement of thirty vehicles meaning additional annual costs looking for new revenue north of £3 million. Quite a task, particularly when, on the whole, First Bus do a good job in this area and the recently revised network has been a positive development. To use a TV quiz show analogy, this is not The Chase where the all conquering Beast or Governess trounce aspiring contestants, this competition is more akin to Pointless – in every meaning of the word.

IMG_4997First Bus may have retreated in recent years from many areas across Britain and still struggle in others but I detect renewed energy in Scotland under the leadership of the impressive and much experienced Andrew Jarvis. I don’t see First Bus waving the White Flag in West Lothian whatever Lothian Country may wish.

Many of First’s buses are branded with the long established West Lothian brand in a rather smart two tone dark blue livery but there’s evidence of work in progress to introduce a new brand for the two main Edinburgh corridor routes 23/X23 and 24/25 to a similar scheme now becoming familiar in many parts of the country.

It’s unfortunate that in the meantime, just when First should be making maximum impact, there’s a bit of a hotchpotch of double decks and single decks in various liveries on the network and route branding is far from effective, but I’m sure it’ll all look good when repaints are completed – as can now be seen in Bristol for example.

If there’s evidence of exciting initiatives locally, there’s the usual shortcomings from First’s all dominating centralised overhead operations including their usual unhelpful website and mobile app where you need a degree in computer software to find the information you need. For example prices of day tickets involves far too many clicks to work out zones and options – and after all my searching I couldn’t find the ticket I wanted to buy on the mobile app – the £7 day m-ticket for both Edinburgh and Livingston zones so I had to buy it from the driver at the higher price of £7.50. Not ideal when you’re dealing with intensive head to head competition where prices should be well promoted, never mind unavailable.

Lothian Country have more or less matched First’s headline ticket prices although this being Lothian there’s their usual inflexibility disallowing customers wanting to buy a single m-ticket (the only bus company that insists on a £10 minimum purchase) and while they’ve bundled the purchase of day tickets into attractively priced offers (eg their equivalent to First Bus £7.50 day ticket can be bought five for £25 or twenty for £95) their use is restricted: “m-ticket bundles can be used on any non-consecutive days within 180 days” – get your head round that one!

Both operators use an exact fare cash box system on board and Lothian are working hard to play catch up to First Bus who’ve offered contactless for a while – contactless readers are installed on Lothian’s buses but not yet activated. Not being able to buy the £9 all Lothian day ticket (including Airlink which I wanted to use later in the day) on my smartphone app and unable to use contactless on the bus, I ended up having to stuff a £10 note into the farebox for my £9 ticket (hence the inclusion of my wallet in the second photo below!). So for both operators I ended up paying over the odds for my ticket! So much for competition making for keener prices.

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I won’t bore you with describing all the competitive hot spots in detail but in summary there are three main markets – Edinburgh to Livingston by two different routes; within Livingston itself; and between Livingstone and westward to Bathgate, Armadale and Blackridge. There’s also a market for cross Livingston traffic – eg Bathgate to Edinburgh (and both First’s established and Lothian Country’s developing networks are designed to provide such journey options) but make no mistake rail dominates that market with frequent trains taking a fraction of the time on two electrified lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow (one via Bathgate through the north of Livingston and the other via Shotts, to the south of Livingston). I haven’t seen such a large car park at a station as at Bathgate for a long while and unlike when Google peered down on it, when I went by yesterday it looked very full.

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The epicentre of this competitive spat is Livingston. It lies 15 miles to the west of Edinburgh (30 miles east of Glasgow) and has a handy nearby access to the recently completed M8 linking both cities. It’s Milton Keynes on steroids; not least its ‘Town Centre’ which is a huge complex of shops, restaurants, cinema and ‘leisure’ options and over one hundred ‘Designer outlets’. Buses use the north/south road about a third of the way along in the aerial photograph below. Facilities for buses and passengers are basic and functional offering the usual contrast with the polished floors and commercial ambience inside the shopping centre. There are real time signs at each departure bay and an ability to wait under cover on the west side with smaller shelters at each stop on the east side.

Built in the early 1960s Livingston’s twelve residential districts surrounding this monolith of a ‘town centre’ have been commendably designed around cul-de-sac type roads with plenty of pedestrian walkways providing links to distributor roads (shown in yellow below) making for fairly sensible bus route options but the car inevitable dominates thanks to over-sized car parks around ‘The Centre’ offering cheap parking.

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.21.27First’s revamped and simplified network serving Livingston has retained long established route patterns which obviously reflect passenger travel patterns, so it’s a bit surprising Lothian have chosen to run different route patterns which while having the advantage of offering new journey opportunities, on the downside can seem somewhat circuitous and I have doubts whether the demand is really there for such links. For example my journey on the half hourly X27/X28 took around 45 minutes from Bathgate before reaching Livingston’s ‘bus station’ followed by a futher 55 minutes for the journey to Edinburgh.

As we toured around Livingston’s residential districts it was noticeable how many people were opting for the First Bus in front (in one district it was a 23, in another a 26) although Lothian Country seemed to do well picking up passengers from the huge St John’s Hospital complex.

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First Bus’s main 15-minutely route from Bathgate (Service 25) takes a quicker 33 minutes to reach Livingston and First runs an hourly X23 journey to Edinburgh taking 56 minutes while four buses an hour on the 23 or 24/25 take 64 or 66 minutes via two different routes.

For those that like maps, and who doesn’t, here’s the revamped network run by First Bus:

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 11.12.03and here’s the network run by Lothian Country (note the wiggly [light blue] route of the X27/X28 through Livingston mentioned above):

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.37.37to which the latest route, the half hourly X18 joins this weekend which interestingly bypasses Livingston completely and provides a direct link from Armadale and Bathgate into Edinburgh, something First Bus don’t provide:

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.40.11But the journey time from Armadale Station to Edinburgh is 90 minutes which compares unfavourably with the train’s 38 minutes, and I wonder if there’s enough demand for shorter hops along such a route. No doubt time will tell, as will the assessment of how this overall additional thirty buses on to the West Lothian bus network fairs. It’s certainly a bold move, and something the industry has not seen on this scale for many years.

As I observed in the case of Arriva’s challenge to Safeguard in Guildford last week, the incumbent operator has an advantage over any interloper if they’ve built up loyalty and familiarity. Admittedly I travelled off peak yesterday, but fifteen weeks on I would have expected to see buses busier than they were if this is going to be a financially sustainable operation for Lothian. I suspect it won’t be.

Roger French

PS Coming soon to this blog …. My Hundred Best Train Journreys 3 – don’t miss it – an amazing collection of another thirty fantastic journeys, these ranked 31-60.

Go Gower

I’ve fond memories of living in Swansea, working for South Wales Transport, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s a great part of the country and the Gower Peninsular is a spectacular area to visit with its secluded bays and picturesque scenery. In those days SWT had an outstation in the peninsular’s south west corner at Scurlage running principally two routes: one from Rhossili via the southern bays and road to Swansea, and the other from Llangennith, Llanmadoc and Llanrhidian in the north west along the northern route.

The Gower’s bus routes are now operated by New Adventure Travel, the company bought earlier this year by ComfortDelGro; I recently revisited to see how things are shaping up. It’s great to see a much improved bus network with a range of travel opportunities; but there are some snags, as I found out.

There’s an impressive website overseen by an organisation called BayTrans with lots of helpful information. http://www.swanseabaywithoutacar.com may be a bit wordy for a website, but it does what it says on the url; giving information about bus routes, tickets and best of all a map. Sadly it’s a bit short on detail, but that may be deliberate to avoid costly updating if things change.

Impressively copies of the colourful brochure ‘Adventures in Gower … without a car’, complete with colour map, are available at the high profile information desk as you arrive by train inside Swansea Station.

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Although no bus times are included in the brochure there is a separate A5 sheet listing departures  from Swansea’s impressive Quadrant Bus Station (revamped since my day – it originally opened soon after I arrived in 1979) to the main destinations in Gower, as well as along the Mumbles coast. Sadly it doesn’t show times for return journeys, so is somewhat limited in its usefulness, but on the plus side it was available both at the rail station and from the Travel Centre manned by First Cymru in the bus station.

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A handy departure list to get to the Gower, but not so helpful for returning.

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Swansea’s impressive Quadrant bus station with bus information counter

The brochure gives incomplete details about tickets including a day ticket for buses on Gower, an off-peak version available just on western parts of the routes and another one covering First’s buses all over Swansea city. Regretfully what looks like a new ticket, promoted on a poster I spotted in the bus station, covering buses in the city and the Gower isn’t included in the leaflet. Prices shown in the brochure as at April 2018 are now out of date, which is a shame, but there is a warning prices are “subject to alteration”. It also explains family tickets are available and there’s reference to the more extensive Explore Wales/South Wales passes but no further details of these are included.

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A poster advertising Explore Gower which is not in the brochure, but tickets options in the brochure aren’t mentioned on the poster.

The most useful page of the brochure is the coloured map depicting the routes operating on Gower including what must be a costly to operate, but highly useful, shuttle bus (route 115) which connects the southern (118 and 119) routes around Rhossili, Port Eynon and Horton with (route 116) the northern destinations of Llangennith, Llanmadoc and Llanrhidian (shown as brown on the map).

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The colourful map inside ‘Adventures in Gower without a car’ leaflet

It was also impressive to see little route maps posted at many bus stops along the route which also contained departure listings, although not full timetables.

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Bus stop flags within the Swansea city area could usefully include route numbers for the Gower routes – I understand, commendably, this is now in hand and will be very reassuring for visitors.

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Gower routes 118 and 119 also stop here but you’d not know from this flag.

Some careful thought has obviously gone into the timetable compilation; I reckon there are 28 connectional possibilities during a weekday on the Rhossili route alone as well as links to the northern hourly route at Llanrhidian. It means you can easily get from one part of Gower to another despite the limited number of buses; or see much of it within a few hours, which, after carefully studying the timetables on New Adventure Travel’s website  I managed to do in a morning, albeit after an early start.

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Boxes indicate connectional possibilities – by reference to other timetables

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Connection between the 115 and 118 at Scurlage

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A three bus connection between routes 115, 116 and 119 at Llanrhidian

It was a shame copies of the actual timetables are not more readily available; either at the rail station or the bus station; both seem an obvious distribution point for those of us without a car. Having travelled on an early morning bus from Swansea down to Rhossili and enjoying a bit of stand time at the terminus, I was pleased to spot a handful of rather damp inflicted timetables by the windscreen of the bus so grabbed one to help monitor journeys for the rest of the morning.

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Timetable leaflets spotted, but sadly rather damp from the windscreen

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The rather damp timetable leaflet with confusing valid from dates

This was just as well, as although two of the connections I observed worked perfectly, the third between route 115 and my returning 119 bus to Swansea fell apart with the former disappearing on time leaving two other passengers and myself with a distinctly disconcerted wait for twenty minutes for the late running 119, which the driver explained when he eventually arrived, had got delayed due to following a tractor which didn’t strike me as being entirely the cause. I’d tweeted N.A.T. enquiring whether the bus was on its way, but sadly no response was received.

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At last the 119 arrives, 20 minutes after the connection was due

The problem with connections that work on paper is that in practice, they may not work. Indeed, when we arrived back in Swansea still twenty minutes late and with only five minutes stand time before the next journey back to Rhossili and a good number of passengers waiting to board; the bus inevitably left even later and connections planned for that journey, and more, later in the day would also fail. That’s not good for encouraging passengers and giving confidence connections will work. I couldn’t help think that on a busy day with lots of traffic clogging up Gower’s narrow roads, it would be quite common for timekeeping to be disrupted and the knock on effect to these connections.

But, compared to forty years ago the journey possibilities are quite amazing. Sundays in particular has a greatly improved service compared to how I remember things. Even on a visit about five years ago, I recall there being only a limited number of departures on Sunday, albeit packed full of visitors.

This time, it was a little disappointing to see buses relatively lightly loaded on a sunny weekday morning in the school holidays in the middle of August, so perhaps a more effective distribution of New Adventure Travel’s timetables would help supplement the colourful brochure from BayTrans.

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I gave some feedback via Twitter to N.A.T. but despite their pledge (which you might just about be able to make out on this on board notice) I didn’t receive a reply.

Roger French       23rd August 2018