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.