Go-Coach trailblazing in Sevenoaks

Wednesday 23rd October 2019

Small independently owned bus companies are a vital part of the industry. They serve small size towns and rural areas which other plc group companies cannot reach.

They’re becoming increasingly important as the Groups try and reverse falling margins. These small businesses are usually run by dedicated passionate individuals working very long hours for minimal reward. That’s why I was relieved to hear good sense has at last prevailed in Guildford with Arriva Surrey deregistering its competitive routes which were destabilising the long established and much admired Safeguard company, which has been in business for over ninety years.

Go-Coach Hire based in Sevenoaks is another such bus company, although much younger than Safeguard – it was set up by owner Austin Blackburn in 2008 – but over the ensuing eleven years has established itself as a much respected player on the bus scene. This is undoubtedly due to the dedication, enthusiasm and passion that Austin has brought to the business.

I had the pleasure to spend some time with Austin this morning as he wanted to share his innovative ideas to embrace a new style of taxi-bus operation for introduction next Spring.

It was very impressive to see behind the scenes at Go-Coach’s base in Sevenoaks. Austin is an engineer by profession and has worked for a myriad of bus companies during his long career which led to him establishing his own ‘Bus Doctor’ business in 2001. This led to an interest in the school contract market and acquiring a coach in 2008; then three coaches and soon after the bus business was born in 2009. It’s now a sizeable operation with over fifty vehicles and a PVR of 42.

Austin works a seventy-two hour week starting very early each morning to oversee the runout from the company’s Swanley outstation, then driving a school bus himself before taking the bus on to the Sevenoaks base to begin his day job of attending to the fleet’s engineering needs with his six fitters and two apprentices, purchasing the necessary spare parts, checking in with the operational and administrative team then taking the school bus back out in service in the afternoon.

It’s a busy day but you soon realise Austin’s engineering experience is a vital ingredient to the success of the business. He proudly showed me a 58 plate Optare Versa he’d purchased from RATP for an absolute bargain price which he’d made look as new (both on the outside and ‘under the bonnet’) together with another being cannibalised for spares.

But what was equally impressive for someone with an engineering pedigree was Austin proudly showing me the large sized maps he displays at all the main bus shelters in the town showing his Sevenoaks bus network and fares information as well as describing to me the changes being introduced next month and the positive reasons for each one. And that these had been discussed at a public meeting he’d arranged for passengers to come along to and give their feedback and comments.

Go-Coach’s branding is certainly bright and stands out, not least in Sevenoaks bus station which the company manages and where the information is presented clearly, including a manned travel office with one of the most friendly and helpful members of staff you’ll find anywhere.

IMG_0656.jpgSevenoaks is not an easy town in which to run buses. Austin explains his business is roughly two-thirds commercial and one-third tendered/contracted which is commendable for this part of prosperous England. Key to success is that every vehicle has busy peak school journeys in its schedule.

IMG_4083.jpgThere was a bit of a skirmish between Go-Coach and Arriva a couple of years ago on local routes and ironically just as Go-Coach backed down, Arriva made the mistake of introducing the completely inappropriate Mercedes Sprinter minibuses on the two routes ending in them abandoning the routes altogether which Go-Coach have now picked up and will shortly be marketing as part of a revitalised town network with routes numbered 1 to 8.

As if all this wasn’t impressive enough, it’s Austin’s plans for a Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) operation for Sevenoaks and part of its hinterland which are really capturing the imagination.

Whilst the Government hints it will be dangling inducement finance for swanky DRT trials and Arriva invest goodness knows how much in Click’s flawed business model, Austin has been quietly beavering away in his ‘spare time’ (in between school runs, engineering, stores, bus stop displays and other duties) to come up with a credible plan to replace an infrequent rural route; add new Special Education Needs (SEN) peak hour transport; take over off-peak commitments for Age UK; and introduce a new bespoke service for wealthy City bound commuters using Sevenoaks station with a fleet of four brand new seven-(leather)-seater taxis under a Private Hire licence rather than an O licence.

It’s an ingenious plan which he’s already in advanced stages of discussions with Kent County Council and Sevenoaks District Council with a view to phasing it in from next May.

The secret financial ingredient to its business success is packaging together statutory and publicly funded work (the SEN contracts), off peak work funded by the third sector (Age UK), replacing a full sized bus with smaller vehicles more appropriate for sparsely loaded subsidised rural routes but running more frequently and taking a commercial risk in developing growth from the commuter market. What a brilliant example of entrepreneurial flare.

The plan for the ‘DRT’ style rural routes is to serve five segments of the hinterland on just one day of the week each thereby being able to run a more intensive service with the three taxis (one spare) than if the whole area was covered each day. That seems like a good compromise to me as it gives a better quality of service but admittedly on a reduced number of days.

It’s also possible this model will be ideal for taking over the Sevenoaks Taxi Bus to East Hill Farm currently funded by Kent County Council as part of a trial for a number of rural services across the County which I reviewed when it was introduced back in June, following the withdrawal of the once a week route 405 which Go-Coach used to operate.

IMG_0806There are still lots of refinements yet to come to get the model right such as how much to rely on app based, phone based or turn-up-in-person-in-the-bus-station requests for the DRT elements or whether to use a fixed timetable as well as implications of what fares to charge to keep within taxi type regulations which requires everything to be pre-booked …. but that was the joy of my visit this morning to brainstorm ideas with someone as passionate and committed to delivering a good service as Austin.

As he said you have to adapt to keep ahead of the game and it’s good to see a small independently owned bus company innovating just as impressively, if not more so, as the big Groups. And just after I left him to travel home via Edenbridge on the Wednesday only single journey rural route 238 via Chartwell and Cowden to Holtye Common (coincidentally it carried a taxi load of just seven passengers), Austin was back in engineering mode changing a fuel return pipe on a Mercedes Solo – “a fairly miserable job” he observed.

Roger French

Two penultimate bus journeys

Friday 5th April 2019

IMG_3585.jpgIt’s that time of year when local authorities begin a fresh financial twelve months which with dindling Government funding often means less money to spend than the year just ended. For subsidised bus routes that can only mean one thing … another round of cuts and withdrawals. I’ve been out over the last fortnight taking a ride on rural routes facing the axe.

Following a public outcry at the scale of proposed cuts to seventy bus routes announced by Kent County Council in November 2017 the local authority embarked on a consultation exercise branded as the ‘Big Convesation’ along with an inevitable ‘Bus Summit’ or two. This led to a very positive outcome with savings in the bus support budget for 2019/20 scalled back from a reported whopping £2.25m to a more modest £455,000. Stagecoach and Go-Coach Hire had made suggestions for sensible economies in the Thanet and Sevenoaks/Edenbridge areas which are being implemented this weekend. I took a ride on the routes and journeys disappearing around Sevenoaks to see what will be missed.

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Go-Coach Hire operated route 404 is a route of two halves. It connects Edenbridge, Four Elms and Ide Hill to Sevenoaks from the south west with a journey at 0725 (principally for school children) and back again at 1555 as well as a later journey back at 1735 which only continues beyond Four Elms if needed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 14.35.17.pngSecondly it links the villages of Godden Green, Stone Street, Ivy Hatch, Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol to Sevenoaks from the east also with a school timed journey at 0740 and return at 1526 as well as three off peak journeys for shoppers two of which continue through to Ide Hill to the west of Sevenoaks (on the way towards Edenbridge). There’s a late afternoon journey at 1735 but this only continues beyond Ivy Hatch if needed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 14.36.18.pngThe new timetable from next Monday removes the off peak circuit serving Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol furthest east (but these villages are also served by route 222 operated by Autocar runing north-south between Borough Green and Tonbridge) and reduces the number off peak journeys from three to two as far as Ivy Hatch. However, in a positive development these journeys will continue all the way through to Edenbridge rather than Ide Hill as previously together with an extra new morning journey from Edenbridge as far as Sevenoaks.

What’s being taken away from the east, opens up new journey opportunities to the west of Sevenoaks.

IMG_3564.jpgYesterday was the penultimate day of the current timetable and I took a ride heading east on the 1415 journey from Sevenoaks to Plaxtol and back again. There were just two passengers besides me. The female passenger got off after a delightful twenty minute ride through Godden Green, Bitchet Common and Bitchet Green at the lovely village of Ivy Hatch while a man took the bus around the soon to be abandoned circular route including Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol (which was well worth it too, as can be seen in the photgraph below, taken while we waited time at Shipbourne Church) and he alighted at the National Trust property of Ightham Mote, where he had an hour and a half to explore before the bus would take him back on the return journey after the school trip.

IMG_3566.jpgIn the new timetable it’s good to see Ightham Mote (a medieval moated manor house) will still be served by bus with an arrival at 1043 and a departure at 1340. Not that the National Trust will be bothered, as their priority sadly seems to be to attract motorists more than anyone else as the notice on the driveway to Ightham Mote captured below confirmed.

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IMG_3569.jpgWe didn’t carry anyone else on the outward journey or anyone coming back into Sevenoaks on the return journey at all, so it’s unlikely this bus is going to be missed by many actual passengers and frankly it makes for a sensible economy. Mind you, when you see the large mansion style exclusive properties we passed on the journey it’s perhaps not surprising –  one private road even had a barrier to restrict entry, it was that exclusive!

IMG_3577.jpgReturning to Sevenoaks, this bus left again at 1526 for its next journey to Plaxtol but with no-one on board although it undoubtedly picks up school children returning home from the nearby academy.

The same thing happened on the next journey I took, heading west, the 1555 to Edenbridge, which had been to the nearby Knowle Academy first and picked up 27 school kids going home to Ide Hill, Four Elms and Edenbridge. I was the only non school kid travelling – and it was quite an experience too.

IMG_3595.jpgOn yesterday’s showing of such sparse loadings, rural residents around Sevenoaks are doing well to still be receiving a bus service running each day Monday to Friday, albeit limited in frequency. It’s a shame more journeys can’t be justified, as it really is a lovely rural ride and well worth seeking out if you’re ever in Sevenoaks.

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Service 405 is a Wednesday only bus route linking West Kingsdown (to the north east of Sevenoaks) and the hamlets of Woodlands and East Hill through Otford to Sevenoaks. Aside from the positioning journeys from and to Sevenoaks which avoid the circuitous routing, there’s just one return journey a week operated by Go-Coach Hire. It leaves West Kingsdown at 0935 arriving in Sevenoaks at 1017 and returns at 1230. It ran for the very last time this week on Wednesday, 3rd April as it’s now been completely withdrawn. I travelled on its penultimate journey last week.

IMG_2806.jpgThe main purpose of the route seems to be to serve the mobile home community, many of whom are of pensionable age, at East Hill Farm which is located at the end of a very long and extremely narrow, winding dead end road. These residents really are isolated and rely on their one Wednesday journey a week to travel into Sevenoaks for shopping.

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The report to Kent County Council’s Environment and Transport Cabinet Committee meeting on 17th January which approved the withdrawal reckoned “no more than two passengers use it weekly”. When I travelled last week there were twelve regular passengers returning on the 1230 bus (as well as another six taking a final ride like me, just out of interest before the route ends).

IMG_2864.jpgSeven got off at East Hill who all seemed to be regulars with two others alighting in the Hillingdon Rise residential area in Sevenoaks, exclusively served by the 405, and another in Otford, while two others continued into West Kingsdown.

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I saw a similar number boarding the journey in Sevenoaks bus station a few weeks ago. I do feel sorry for these people, who’ll now be completely cut off from a bus route to their nearest town.

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Kent County Council have committed to pilot a “Taxi-bus” as a part replacement for the 405, but this doesn’t seem to be starting until June. No wonder they all had overfull shopping trolleys last week.

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 20.56.45.pngHowever, all is not lost as I spotted a notice in the bus shelter in West Kingsdown explaining that Buses4U (a Community Bus Operator) runs a Thursday journey to Bluewater and Gravesend on route 422 but it would seem you have to be a “member” at East Hill to travel, so that rules me out.

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I’m indebted to fellow 405 passenger and blog reader, Terrence, who told me about the quirky history of route 405, explaining it has its origins in an initiative by Dr H Nesbitt Heffernan who started the Thames Weald Travel Society in the mid 1960s to provide services to villages left isolated when London Transport withdrew routes as well as running a route through the Dartford Tunnel to Romford and one to Crawley for a time. It’s done well to continue for so many years and it will be interesting to see whether the Taxi-bus proves to be a sensible alternative.

Kent County Council will save a modest sum from withdrawing the 405 but it’s not clear how much the taxibus initiative will be costing.

Go-Coach Hire may generate some extra business by switching resouces on the 404 from the Shipbourne and Plaxtol end of the route for a more regular link between Sevenoaks and Edenbridge which itself is a lovely ride with a great view of Bough Beech Reservoir leaving Ide Hill towards Edenbridge.

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Finally another positive shout out to Go-Coach Hire for their presentational skills. It was good to see timetables on display in Sevenoaks bus station ready for the new routes and their new numbers (the 404 becomes the 4) starting on Monday and bus stop plates had been updated with new numbers to reflect routes taken over from Arriva.

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Meanwhile Arriva still don’t know what year we’re in on their website despite being advised …..!

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As a postscript I also travelled on the aforementioned Autocar operated route 222 between Tonbridge and Borough Green yesterday, and as I tweeted while travelling, was somewhat appalled by the condition of the vehicle.

IMG_3519.jpgWhile it was nice to ride this pictureseque route on a double decker, the filthy condition of the interior and the cracked upper deck front window presented a terrible image for bus travel.

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IMG_3488.jpgI sat upstairs with two regular passengers who commented how busy the journey was yet we only had eight on board from Tonbridge at 1222 and only me and two others travelled the whole journey to Borough Green. We dropped one passenger off in Ightham, just before Borough Green, where it meets the Arriva route 308 from Sevenoaks via Borough Green to Gravesend at exactly the same arrival time, 1258. Luckily he made the connection, but he’d been worrying the whole journey whether he’d miss it and have an hour to wait for the next bus. Strikes me a small retiming of the 222 would make all the difference … as would a decent bus to travel on too.

Suffice to say we picked no-one up along the journey nor dropped anyone off in the Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol villages we passed through and being abandoned by the 404.

Roger French

 

A great Deal in Kent

Sunday 10th March 2019

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Garden of England. My journeys on two days last week included visits to both ends of Kent – to Dover and Deal on the Channel coast in the south east and to Sevenoaks close to the County’s western border with Greater London.

Both Stagecoach South East and Go-Coach Hire, the dominant bus companies in these two areas, are excellent bus operators for the following reasons…..

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.27.51.pngStagecoach’s attractive bus network in Kent is an excellent example offering comprehensive coverage for passengers as well as ‘behind-the-scenes’ operating efficiency for the company. It includes well used inter-urban links between main urban areas at good frequencies despite some recent reductions (and competition from Southeastern trains), as well as small bespoke town networks and a few great rural routes, some operated by double deck buses due to school peak requirements, which offer fantastic views across the Kent countryside.

Notable among these are the 11 (five journeys Canterbury – Westwood and Broadstairs via the delightfully named Plucks Gutter with its timing point The Dog & Duck), and 17 (hourly Folkestone – Canterbury via the lovely Elham Valley). There’s also the 18 (five journeys Canterbury – Hythe via Wheelbarrow Town) but this is scheduled for single decks. Still a great route though.

IMG_9552.jpgStagecoach South East also craftily link one route with another to provide helpful ‘cross-terminal’ journey opportunities. Southeastern Trains also do this with the rail network such you can get on a High Speed Train at St Pancras and travel via Ashford and Folkestone to Dover round to Deal and Sandwich where the train continues on to Ramsgate and Margate and back via Faversham to St Pancras where it arrives after a 3 hour and 33 minute round trip.

IMG_0722.jpgStagecoach run a ‘circular route’ called the Triangle from Canterbury to Whitstable and Herne Bay which is marketed as Triangle in addition to linking routes 4 and 6 which run similarly between Canterbury and Herne Bay via two different routes and where they link up to also provide a circular ‘triangle’.

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IMG_0797.jpgAnother good example of timetabled through working providing great travel opportunities are the routes I travelled on last Friday – the 80 and 81 which run two buses an hour between Dover and Deal (via slightly different routes – but both giving great views of Dover and its castle) and on to Sandwich (via Hacklinge or Eastry) where they turn into a 43 and continue westwards to Canterbury.

IMG_0860.jpgIMG_0863.jpgBetween Sandwich and Canterbury the 43 runs at an attractive twenty minute frequency with the extra bus an hour commencing in Ramsgate to provide a Ramsgate, Sandwich Canterbury service. It all fits together very nicely, and Sandwich is well worth a visit.

IMG_0942.jpgIMG_0939.jpgAnd best of all Stagecoach South East must be commended for their excellent colour coordinated marketing and publicity for these and the other bus routes they run throughout Kent. It really is a treat to find a colourful network map together with individual leaflets (almost as good as a book!) each with an individual clear map of the route in a geographic context and, where appropriate an extract from the network map to show other routes in the area. They really are exemplars of good timetable leaflet practice.

IMG_0728.jpgI also spotted the network map on display in major points such as Dover’s Pencester Road (albeit inside the now rather worn information office) and at Canterbury in a display case on the bus station’s concourse alongside the travel office with its display of timetables and other tourist leaflets inside.

IMG_0856.jpgAnd the icing on the cake is the colour coding follows through to large easy-to-see bus stop numbers on virtually every bus stop flag. They really were impressive to see and showed a level of attention to detail and excellent intent to provide clear information.

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Bus stop timetable displays are also easy to follow and understand and appeared at every stop.

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It’s so refreshing to see such excellent clear information and just goes to show it can be done.

As is the case around fifty miles over at the western end of the county in Sevenoaks. Here it’s interesting to see Go-Coach Hire Ltd go from strength to strength as they move from being a small time tender operator when they first began in the bus market just over ten years ago to now taking over from Arriva Kent as the network operator in this area.

IMG_0546.jpgOn previous visits to Sevenoaks I’ve been impressed with how Go-Coach have taken over the town’s bus station and proudly emblazoned their bright yellow and purple branding to brighten up what would otherwise be a rather dull wind tunnel of two departure bays.

IMG_0541.jpgThere’s a small travel office with an amazingly friendly and helpful member of staff and an excellent full display of timetable leaflets including those services operated by Arriva thereby providing a much welcome comprehensive coverage of routes operated in the area.

IMG_0656.jpgIMG_0658.jpgI was particularly impressed to see that the out-of-date no-longer-issued maps from Kent County Council which used to be on display in the bus station on previous visits have been replaced by up to date maps of Go-Coach’s network. I spotted them on bus shelters elsewhere in the town too.

IMG_0537.jpgThe bus stop plates also feature both Arriva and Go-Coach’s serves and all clearly presented to appropriate corporate style.

IMG_0572.jpgInterestingly from early next month Arriva Kent are throwing in the towel on local routes 1 and 2 from Sevenoaks to Dunton Green and Kemsing.

IMG_0550.jpgThey’re the routes Arriva converted to the horribly cramped Mercedes Sprinter minibuses a year ago. I had a ride in the first week and knew within a few minutes it would be a complete failure.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.15.47.pngCompletely unsuitable for the market and what a shame passenger numbers have obviously plummeted in response to such unattractive vehicles. On Wednesday when I visited larger buses had already supplanted the minibuses on route 2.

IMG_0649.jpgGo-Coach are taking over these routes as part of their expanding network and I hope their local connections and attention to detail in getting things right for passengers will attract enough passengers back to the routes to make it a commercial success for them.

IMG_4118.jpgIt’s interesting, nearly fifty years on from London Country Bus Services being formed in 1970 just how many bus companies now operate in what was the polo mint around London, and increasingly successfully too, after some traumatic times after deregulation and privatisation in the late 1980s. Metrobus in Crawley and Ensignbus in Grays come to mind as top class acts, but Go-Coach are making great strides to make this corner of Kent a great exemplar of how a small network operator can succeed.IMG_0585.jpgSadly, they often say, a bus company’s reputation is only as good as the last journey taken and my attempted journey with Go-Coach didn’t quite work out as planned on Wednesday; but company boss Austin Blackburn was on the case straight away as soon as he saw my tweet and made sure appropriate action was taken and apologies made – and that was impressive and just showed a caring owner giving attention to detail, which is what it’s all about. I’m already looking forward to a return trip and hopefully next time be successful in catching the Wednesday only tendered rural route 405 to West Kingsdown before it ends very soon!

Roger French

PS I spotted the information about Arriva Kent giving up routes 1 and 2 on their website and commendably they refer to the replacements being operated by Go-Coach Hire but a slip of the year shows the date in the headline as 2018 rather than 2019. It seems even when this is pointed out by tweet to Arriva last Wednesday, it still isn’t corrected on their website today. Attention to detail and reacting to feedback and all that…not!

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