A day in Lothian

Wednesday 31st July 2019

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Edinburgh’s a great city to visit and for those of us with an interest in public transport it’s always full of interesting developments, whether it be new low floor coaches on inter-urban express routes, mega-size tri-axle double deckers on city bus routes, buses which accommodate bicycles, new electric trains to Glasgow, new refurbished HSTs to Aberdeen, and growing competition between the regions two major bus operators – all of which I’ve blogged about in the last twelve months.

With more developments on that competitive front in recent weeks I thought it was time to spend a day travelling around West Lothian and see what’s occurring. It proved to be as fascinating as ever.

Route 600

IMG_5036.jpgI began at Edinburgh airport by taking First Bus route 600 which takes a circuitous route to Livingston and Whitburn. This has recently seen a frequency increase from hourly to half hourly and received eye catching branding.

IMG_4980.jpgThere’s a prominent bus stop immediately outside the terminal building dressed in promotional branding for the service despite it being shared with Xplore Dundee’s recently introduced Airport Xpress running every ninety minutes.

IMG_4979.jpgA branded double decker arrived from its previous journey about ten minutes before departure time.

IMG_4995.jpgOnly three or four passengers alighted and I was told by the driver as I boarded through the open door he wasn’t ready for me to board and wandered off into the terminal building closing the doors behind him. At the 10:40 departure time he reappeared.

IMG_5079.jpgI’d tried researching the best tickets to buy for my travels online at home. I never find the First Bus website easy to navigate but under the Tickets tab found some options for day tickets available for purchase on the smartphone app. It looked like I needed a Zone L and M day ticket which by reference to a map under the map tab showed me it would cover the geographic area I’d be in. At £7 this seemed good value so I bought one ready for use.

Nothing on those webpages indicated it wasn’t valid from Edinburgh Airport on route 600; but I spotted that restriction later in the small print on information about route 600. Undeterred I guessed the restriction was only for boarding at the Airport itself so asked the driver if the Zone LM day ticket I had was excluded from the whole length of the route and if not, could I buy a single ticket to where it does become valid.

His communication skills were not the most erudite I’ve encountered and he let it be known it wasn’t valid and that was that and insisted I buy a single to my destination, Livingston, for £7.

IMG_5080.jpgI wasn’t convinced but went along with his unhelpful approach to customer service and we set off with just me on board. As the journey progressed and the 600 took on the characteristics of a rural route through West Lothian my frustration increased as I found the promised usb sockets not working and Wi-fi not connecting.

As luck would have it an inspector boarded during the journey and he confirmed my supposition was right that I should have been sold a single ticket to the first stop after the Airport from where my Zone LM ticket was valid. I made it clear I wasn’t happy to have forked out an extra £7 unnecessarily and he advised me to contact the First Bus head office in Falkirk and they could tell me how to obtain a refund.

I’ve blogged about the impossibility of dealing with ticket enquiries on the phone to First Bus before but I gave it a try out of curiosity but my instinct was right; after navigating two ‘press 1 for etc etc’ menus which pretty much listed the same options twice and hanging on for about five minutes I gave up.

I decided to abandon this bus at Broxburn from where the Inspector told me I could get the hourly 29 to Bathgate, my intended destination after Livingston.

IMG_5103.jpgThe next bus to arrive was the Lothian half hourly X18 (stopping bus Edinburgh to Bathgate and Whitburn) so I jumped on board and activated my Lothian £9 Day Network Ticket on their App which I’d also bought last night and headed off to Bathgate.

Green Arrow

IMG_5116.jpgI wanted to try out Lothian’s latest competitive strike in West Lothian – their new EX1 (Bathgate) and EX2 (Linlithgow) express routes to Edinburgh.

IMG_5120.jpgThese are a significant investment by Lothian compromising eight new Volvo coaches to a unique specification with a centrally located lift for access for passengers using wheelchairs.

IMG_5135.jpgThey have 49 very comfortable seats and offer a very smooth ride. Naturally usb and Wi-fi are fitted.

IMG_5130.jpgBoth routes began on 30th June so it’s early days but I found loadings to be worryingly low for the fifth week. A half hourly frequency is provided on both routes across a 06:30 to 20:00 day (hourly to 18:00 on Sundays).

IMG_5226.jpgBoth routes use the motorway (EX1 on the M8 and EX2 on the M9) for about ten minutes of the approximate 45 minute journey time. Buses run pretty much non-stop into Haymarket and Edinburgh with just three stops observed east of the motorways. This gives an impressively quick journey into and out of the City but it does mean the catchment area is restricted to either Bathgate or Linlithgow.

I suspect the main competition the EX1 and EX2 are pitted against is ScotRail’s trains on both routes but with fast electric trains, comparable journey times are around twenty minutes, although the coach has greater penetration of residential areas particularly in Linlithgow where the route heads off the main road to serve a well-to-do housing area.

IMG_5187.jpgHowever at the City end of the routes Lothian have chosen to terminate the EX1 and EX2 in the West End rather than add resources by continuing through Princes Street to the east side.

The Exchange terminal point is not particularly prominent and even more odd was there being no timetable information for these high profile new routes in the timetable case…IMG_5139.jpg… although the bus stop flag had been updated.IMG_5140.jpgOver in Linlithgow I spotted one bus stop timetable referring to X2 rather than EX2.

IMG_5194.jpgThe coaches didn’t have supplies of timetables on board either and even more bizarre I couldn’t find the timetables on the Lothian Country website – only a dated reference to the new routes ‘being launched’. I’ve subsequently been advised there’s a bespoke Green Arrow website containing all the details, but it seems odd not to include information on the Lothian Country site too, or even a link across.

The new coaches are superb to travel on but I wonder why Lothian didn’t take up the more practical arrangement to incorporate low floor access as Stagecoach have done with their Plaxton built ‘semi coaches’ as I reckon it’ll take quite a time to get a wheelchair on and off through the centre door access and lift.

IMG_5123.jpgI also wonder about the Green Arrow branding as this doesn’t particularly stand out on the coaches and appears an added complication to the Lothian Country brand which is used to describe all the ticket options.

IMG_5121.jpgA tie up with CityLink is highlighted on the coach sides and rear but not mentioned in the timetable leaflet or online so I’m not sure what it actually is.

IMG_5136.jpgI caught the 12:08 EX1 from Bathgate to Edinburgh driven by a very nice driver called Gill who normally drives standard Lothian Country routes but was covering the EX1 and EX2 just for today. I was the only passenger.

Later I caught the 14:55 EX2 Edinburgh to Linlithgow and return at 15:51 but this time there were five other passengers including one who got on by RBS’s extensive offices on the outskirts of Edinburgh all travelling to Linlithgow. It was just me on the return journey though. From what I could see through tinted windows of coaches we passed, these loadings were pretty much typical.

We had a driver changeover in the residential part of Linlithgow at Springfield Primary School on the outward journey with the drivers using a Lothian van from the depot.

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This is certainly another bold expansionist investment by Lothian, and I appreciate its early days, but I reckon it’s going to take a lot of growth to get these two routes to a sustainable future.

Bright Bus Tours

IMG_5146.jpgIn between my EX1 and EX2 rides I sampled the First Bus competitive fight back in the heart of Edinburgh – their newly launched foray into the city sightseeing market under the new Bright Bus Tours brand.

IMG_5145.jpgWaverley Bridge has long been the centre of open top tour buses which until now have all been operated by Lothian despite the plethora of brands and tour variations.

IMG_5156.jpgNow First Bus are aiming for a slice of this lucrative market by offering a cut price (£10 instead of £16) tour of the City. Buses depart every ten minutes on a 75 minute circuit with a multi-language pre recorded commentary. It’s pretty standard open-top sightseeing stuff.IMG_5152.jpgIt was all very orderly and chummy on Waverley Bridge while I was there with both companies flooding the market with street sellers and handing out leaflets. IMG_5168.jpgIf anything I reckon Bright Bus Tours were more prominent in their on brand colours ….

IMG_5165.jpg…. but the established brands seemed to be the more popular with customers.

IMG_5159.jpgIt looks to me as though First Bus will easily capture a slice of this huge market and probably make a small contribution against the pure direct costs, especially as they start winding down around 16:00 with buses returning to the depot, which I assume is over at Livingston adding quite a bit of dead mileage and time.

It was noticeable that First Bus are emphasising price ….

IMG_5166.jpg… whereas this isn’t mentioned on Lothian’s buses…

IMG_5167.jpg… although they have the advantage of prominent comprehensive static displays …

IMG_5151.jpg… with Bright Bus Tours keeping it simple …

IMG_5153.jpgI’m not sure whether Bright Bus Tours will be a commercial proposition in the dead of winter; but by then the sustainability (or not) of the EX1 and EX2 might also be more apparent.

It’s certainly interesting times in Edinburgh and West Lothian.

More in the next blog.

Roger French