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

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.