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

Bristol’s latest metrobus m2 begins

The second of the three new metrobus routes began operating in Bristol yesterday. The m2 links the Long Ashton Park & Ride site (south west of the city) via some impressive newly constructed exclusive busway road to the city centre where the bus does a large anti-clockwise circuit.

It’s been controversial and way behind schedule. This route’s £50 million budget is part of an overall £200 million scheme being overseen by Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucester Councils.

I’m not complaining about the high cost though; compared to rail schemes or roads it’s virtually petty cash and it’s good to see buses receiving impressive infrastructure investment.

First West of England has bravely taken the route on as a commercial proposition and I reckon they’re going to have their work cut out to achieve the elusive double digit margins City analysts demand of PLCs.

Unlike route m3 which began in May serving the busy University of West of England campus at the route’s southern end (north of the Uni is a bit barren) the m2’s main objective is bringing Long Ashton Park and Riders into the city centre. There’s not really much else to it.

Helped by well over a mile of new exclusive busway buses bypass any traffic congestion until they’re close to the city centre. That’s good for journey time and timekeeping (28 mins to Broadmead/22 mins back again) but not so good for picking up other revenue potential.

The circular city centre route has proved controversial as many commuters have complained the new circuit means a much longer walk to their workplace than the previous 903 service, but I’m sure such criticism will die down once the new arrangements become familiar. There are always winners and losers and a circular routing does make sense for Bristol’s central road layout.

The £4 First Bus day ticket is good value and can be used across their network with longer period tickets also available as are First’s M-ticket range. Despite this it’s surprising there’s only one ‘iPoint’ ticket machine at the Park & Ride terminus. As metrobus drivers don’t handle fares that’s surely a recipe for frustration with queues building up at busy times with a bus about to leave. Considering the investment in these ‘iPoint’ totems along the routes, even at quiet stops (on both sides of the road) this seems very shortsighted and penny pinching.

I also see the frequency is only every 20 minutes before 10am on Saturdays and would have thought that’ll be unpopular in the busy weekends leading up to Christmas. Otherwise it runs every 10 minutes at peak times. 12 minutes off peak and 20 minutes in the evenings.

Astonishingly the Park & Ride is closed on Sundays and route m2 doesn’t run! That is a bizarre omission.

The busway has sections of guided track which, just like in Leigh in Greater Manchester, are completely unnecessary. I suspect it may be to do with getting grant funding from the DfT that required a certain percentage of route to be ‘guided’, if so it’s bureaucracy gone bonkers as it slows the bus down, costs more to build and operate when there’s no issue with available road width.

The route serves Ashton Gate stadium but buses won’t stop on Bristol City home game days as capacity is a problem.

It’s also advertised as serving Temple Meads Station but not via the bus stops right outside nor on Temple Gate at the bottom of the access road but to the side in Temple Way accessed through the station’s side entrance/exit. In the event the connection to the station is a bit tenuous as, other than people like myself, few arriving by train would want a bus to a Park & Ride site on the city’s fringe and there are plenty of other buses to the city centre from right outside the station or on Temple Gate. It’s a shame the m2 bus stop in Temple Way hadn’t yet been updated from the former 903.

Despite these shortcomings Ashton Gate stadium and Temple Meads are highlighted in the route’s inflation leaflet.

There were copious supplies of the leaflet available at the impressive Park and Ride kiosk along with other facilities.

The buses are functional and comfortable rather than luxurious and are clean and well presented. The livery is a bit drab and doesn’t really excite.

The bus stop facilities along the route are excellent, if anything, a little over the top but better to over provide than under.

If I didn’t fancy using First West of England’s smart newly branded Excel excellent bus routes but instead was an ardent motorist living in North Somerset with commitments in central Bristol I’d definitely use Long Ashton’s Park and Ride car park and hop on an m2 bus into the city centre. It beats sitting in Bristol’s notorious congestion.

It remains to be seen whether sufficient people will do likewise to make it viable. Certainly every effort’s been made to make it an attractive option and well done to all concerned.

If you’re down Bristol way soon give it a try – it’s free on the last two Saturdays this month.

Roger French 4th September 2018