Three days in Dorset and Somerset

Monday 5th August 2019

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My little trip on the GWR train between Taunton and Bishops Lydeard on Saturday was a good opportunity to sample some great bus rides across Dorset and around Somerset on my way there and back making for a lovely long weekend’s travels.

Planning bus journeys in Somerset is quite a challenge as the County Council has long given up on buses providing no printed or online information at all; no wonder passengers are scarce too. Luckily First Bus provide a very helpful map of their network and if you happen to know South West Coaches is big in the area, their website includes a helpful list of bus routes operated so it’s possible to scan down this and see if anything fits into a travel plan.Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 09.10.22.pngNeighbouring Dorset County Council isn’t any better with Go South Coast (‘more’) and First Wessex admirably filling the information gap but details of any smaller operators running tendered bus routes are almost impossible to find.

Experience on the road provides further interesting contrasts between approaches to bus stations and facilities to encourage or discourage bus travel as we’ll see.

FRIDAY

To begin my Taunton bound journey on Friday I took the train along the south coast via Southampton to Poole. Setting off before 09:00 and travelling via the Brighton Main Line changing at Clapham Junction would have set me back £53.10 whereas travelling via Barnham along the West Coastway line taking the same journey time is a bargain £27.80 peak hour price by comparison.

IMG_5302.jpgPoole bus station has a bright and welcoming ‘more shop’ where two helpful ‘Travel Advisors’ are on hand to help you and there’s a great selection of timetable books and leaflets to entice and encourage you to travel.

IMG_5300.jpgI particularly like the Purbeck Breezer booklet which promotes the growing band of brightly branded routes serving the Isle of Purbeck area operated by ‘more’ (nicely numbered 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70). No wonder all the buses I saw were extremely busy – this is how you successfully sell bus travel.

IMG_5304.jpgOnline just doesn’t cut it in the same way (First Essex, First West Yorkshire, Arriva Leicester, TfL take note). The standard ‘more’ timetable book is also excellent with some great maps both by route and for the whole network.

IMG_E6398.jpgIMG_E6399.jpgA shout out also to First Wessex who produce a similar excellent timetable book with some first class maps covering their routes and network in Dorset. And it was really good to see it available in the ‘more shop’ too. Pats on backs all round.

IMG_5338.jpgI caught the 11:50 route X8 from Poole to Blandford Forum. This ‘more’ operated double deck route runs hourly and pretty much operates north westerly the whole way via the A350 save for a small diversion around Sturminster Marshall. The journey takes 37 minutes to Blandford where the bus then does a circuit of this lovely market town’s northern residential area before arriving back at the Market Place 26 minutes later.

IMG_5345.jpgSister Go South Coast company Damory operates a minibus on an X8A which as the number implies, operates an anti-clockwise circuit twice every hour so Blandford is pretty well served.

IMG_5370.jpgIt’s a thing in this part of the country for bus routes to have an ‘X’ route number. South West Coaches operate a two-hourly X3 north to Shaftesbury, Damory operated a two-hourly X12 south to Dorchester and Weymouth and First Bus (Buses of Somerset) operate an X10 west to Yeovil (which was my next bus at 13:55). But none of these routes are limited stop in nature as is often implied by using an ‘X’.

IMG_5400.jpgThe X10 runs two-hourly and takes 1 hour 50 minutes for the journey to Yeovil with a four minute pause in Sturminster Newton after 43 minutes. From Stalbridge the more frequent hourly route 58 (Wincanton to Yeovil) joins the X10 for the final forty minutes of the journey on the A30 via Sherborne. This was the most used section of route particularly between Sherborne and Yeovil. Before that we had slim pickings and the route was distinctly rural in character passing through such delightful Dorset villages with unusual names such as Shillingstone, Okeford Fitzpaine and Child Okeford.

Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 14.30.54.pngOver the border in Somerset, Yeovil has a busy little bus station with South West Coaches the dominant operator.

IMG_5495.jpg The old order when First Bus reigned supreme can still be seen from the legacy Travel Shop, now closed…IMG_5448.jpg…..and a very traditional waiting room complete with a wall of old style (empty) timetable cases.IMG_5443.jpgHowever more positively the adjacent ‘office’ had boxes of the splendid Buses of Somerset timetable books and high-viz wearing staff were only too willing to hand over a copy …IMG_5533.jpg… and I spotted a supply in the kiosk selling magazines and sweets as well as printed A4 timetables for the South West Coaches Services looking very prominent alongside copies of this week’s TV Choice magazine – great product association!

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Although the bus station shelters were unattractively grubby creating a down-at-heel impression timetables are on display in most of them and there are signs showing which routes departs from each bay.IMG_5497.jpgThere was also a comprehensive timetable display for South West Coaches.

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My next bus was the 16:15 route 54 to Taunton. This route runs every 90 minutes taking just over an hour and a quarter heading northwards via the Roman Town of Ilchester and Somerton before continuing west via Langport to Taunton.

IMG_5574.jpgWe left with about a dozen passengers a few travelling all the way to Yeovil. The busiest of the three journeys I travelled on. You get some great views for many miles across the Somerset scenery along the way too.

IMG_5588.jpgIt had taken just over nine hours to reach Taunton after leaving Hassocks station including an enjoyable hours break in Blandford Forum for lunch and forty minutes to have a wander around both Poole and Yeovil. A very pleasant way to enjoy the scenery along the south coast and across Dorset and Somerset.

As a long serving Go-Ahead employee I enjoyed a complimentary ride on the X8 but for the X10 and 54 where the end to end single journey price was £6 on each route it was cheaper to buy the First Bus (Buses of Somerset) day ticket on their App for £11.

IMG_5699.jpgIt can’t be easy running buses in Taunton especially with a disinterested County Council but hats off to First Bus for giving the network a boost in 2014 with the bright Buses of Somerset brand. These brand makeovers often flag after a few years but five years on I was impressed it’s still going strong and looks cared for. You can tell there’s someone in charge who’s on top of their job, and in this case it’s Aled Williams a young, bright, enthusiastic and energetic manager who looks after Buses in Somerset as Operations Manager.

He’s so on top of things that my tweeted observations received courteous explanations about any minor shortcomings I’d observed which I much appreciated.

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I was very impressed to see not only supplies of the excellent Buses of Somerset timetable book on display in the waiting room (open until 18:30 hours on Mondays to Fridays too) …IMG_5736.jpg…but also GWR timetables and Devon County Council bus timetable books for neighbouring areas, and even the full county bus map which is hard to obtain in Devon!IMG_5645.jpg

There was even an Onward Travel poster for Taunton Station in the window…

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… and where else can you see large colour coded maps and summary departure times by route on a bus station wall? (Answer: nowhere I know of).

IMG_5649.jpgThe waiting room seats all conveniently point towards the departure bays, but I noticed no one was sharing one of the rather cosy seats with a stranger!

IMG_5648.jpgMargins are tight in Somerset so buses are often cascaded from other areas served by First Bus meaning it’s a challenge to keep buses on brand but I received an explanation from Buses of Somerset’s Twitter feed that the Atlantic Coaster brand (from Cornwall) I saw on one bus would soon be adapted as one had already been done; and very smart it looked too when I saw it shortly after.

IMG_5639.jpgIMG_5806.jpgA rather tatty interior on another bus transferred from its former life on the Glasgow Airport shuttle route 500 would soon be refurbished I was told, which again was an impressive exercise in communications, and interestingly the layout included extensive luggage racks which are ideal for route 28 linking Taunton rail station with the popular Butlins holiday centre at Minehead.IMG_6157.jpgIMG_6158.jpgIn contrast I very much liked the smart new Park and Ride livery which matches the branding used for on street directional signs around the town centre – a nice coordinated touch.IMG_5714.jpgIMG_5819.jpgAll this shows what can be achieved if you have a dedicated locally based motivated manager with a passion to do a good job. I experienced one or two unreliability issues while travelling around over the weekend but overall I was impressed with what’s been done in challenging bus territory. Well done Aled.

SATURDAY

After my train ride to Bishops Lydeard and back on Saturday I headed west from Taunton to Tiverton on the Buses of Somerset three-journeys-a-Saturday (five on Mondays to Fridays) seventy-minute long route 22 via Wellington. A more frequent service runs out of Taunton on the same route also numbered 22 (and 22A) as far as Wellington and just beyond.

Ironically my bus was one of the Park & Ride branded ones as that operation had been upgraded to double deck to help with the crowds expected to visit the Taunton Flower Show – another nugget I learnt from the Twitter feedback following my comments.

IMG_5938.jpgRoute 22 uses the A38 heading south west out of Taunton and makes good progress but picks up few passengers after Wellington. The route diverts off the main road to serve Uffculme using some very narrow lanes before reaching the outskirts of Cullompton where it’s joined by the more frequent Stagecoach route 1/1A from Exeter into Tiverton. Most passengers on this busier section of the route gravitate around the Stagecoach bus timings and probably aren’t aware of the 22’s sparse existence.

Tiverton bus station can be described as basic. There is a long bus shelter across the narrow passenger ‘concourse’ and the head-on stands are well used. There’s a timetable display in the shelter by each stand and a wooden perch bench. That’s about it. I didn’t see anywhere to obtain a timetable but I only had a few minutes to scout around.

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I’d been a bit worried about only having an eight minute connection in Tiverton arriving at 12:37 and aiming to catch the 12:45 departure on the three-journey-a day route 398 to Dulverton. I’d no need to fret; we arrived into Tiverton bus station on time and the Dartline driver of the 398 was enjoying a chat with other colleagues further up the bus station.

IMG_5952.jpgThere are only three departures from Tiverton which go all the way to Dulverton, taking an hour. Three others go as far as Brampton, about half way along the route.

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Just one journey a day, the one I was on, does an extended loop after Brampton to serve the villages of Shillingford, Claypits and Morebath along more narrow rural roads.

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We left Tiverton with ten passengers, five got off in Brampton, one in Shillingford and four alighted as we approached Dulverton. A fairly typical midday rural route.

IMG_6057.jpgDulverton is a beautiful village within the Exmoor National Park; sadly it’s off the beaten public transport track, but then this is subsidy-free Somerset.

IMG_6011.jpgIt enjoys the three-journeys-a-day route 398 from Tiverton in the south, the six-journeys-a-day route 25 from Taunton in the east operated by Buses of Somerset and the bus I was next catching, on the three-journeys-a-day route 198 to Minehead to the north operated by Atwest, a Community Bus charity.

IMG_6105.jpgThe 198 has all the hallmarks of once being a through service from Tiverton to Minehead straddling both Devon and Somerset council areas. An inevitable consequence of the divergent policies towards support for bus services between the two Counties has meant splitting the route with the southern end, numbered 398, largely in Devon, supported as a tendered bus route by that authority, whereas the northern end, numbered 198, in Somerset is left to a Community Bus charity to provide as best it can. The minibus used by Atwest is supplied by the County Council, albeit non wheelchair equipped, because priorities are elsewhere in Somerset.

I realised route 198 would be operated by a limited capacity minibus when checking the departure timetable posted on the bus stop in Dulverton and spotted this rather alarming and off putting notice.

IMG_5984.jpgFor a bus service running three times a day, and the last journey of the day leaving Dulverton at 15:01 this was somewhat disconcerting and does nothing for reassuring visitors they’ve made the right decision to travel by bus.

IMG_6086.jpgAs I had time on my hands and had explored Dulverton, ate my picnic lunch and it was starting to drizzle with rain I decided to catch the bus on its southbound journey from Dulverton to the village of Brushford at 14:45 and stay on the bus for the return journey through to Minehead and be sure of a seat.

This also gave me time to chat with the driver as we waited in Brushford for the return journey; he laughed at the thought of the bus overloading and couldn’t understand the notice, saying he’d never known it to be busy in the last three years since Atwest had been running it!

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I suspect this was a very old notice which has succeeded in putting off more passengers than it’s encouraged, particularly as I also spotted a notice above the timetable case advising of a diversion due to a road closure almost two years ago – I did my bit for community service and unfixed the notice and binned it.IMG_6085.jpg

Routes 398 and 198 pretty much head due north on the A396 from Tiverton to Minehead (the towns are geographically on the same line of longitude) by following the lovely Exe Valley. It’s a delightful route to take and highly recommended. Route 198, like the 398, makes some deviations off route, two journeys in each direction head west to serve the villages of Winsford and Exford but sadly not the journey I was on. I made a note to return another time and catch one of those journeys as it looks a spectacular ride.

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From Minehead I headed back to Taunton on Buses of Somerset’s busy route 28. As mentioned earlier it serves the popular Butlins complex at Minehead as well as the West Somerset Railway terminus.

IMG_6149.jpgIMG_6118.jpgIt’s a ninety minute busy journey and passes Dunster, Watchet and Bishops Lydeard stations on the West Somerset Railway on its route into Minehead.

I’d used another £11 Somerset day ticket for my two Buses of Somerset journeys (22 and 28) and paid separately for my journeys on the 398 (which was a bargain at just £3.50) and 198 (£4.50 + £2 for the ride down to Brushford).

SUNDAY

IMG_6167.jpgI’d been wanting to have a ride on the First West of England open top bus routes 20 from Burnham-on-Sea to Weston-Super-Mare and 1 from Weston-Super-Mare to Sand Bay for some time and never managed to fit it into a travel schedule so yesterday, Sunday, I caught the first departure on Buses of Somerset route 21 from Taunton to Burnham-on-Sea at 08:00 to connect with the first departure on route 20 at 09:20 to Weston-Super-Mare.

IMG_6214.jpgIMG_6227.jpgThe timing connection worked superbly, but annoyingly not the ticketing. You can use a Buses of Somerset Day Ticket on the 21 to Burnham-on-Sea (as First Bus Buses of Somerset operate that route) but you can’t use it on the 20 (as First Bus West of England operate that route). This is confusing and could do with sorting by allowing the Somerset day ticket to include West of England’s network too. Burnham-on-Sea is in Somerset after all. Indeed over half the route of the 20 is within Somerset County Council with the northern end in North Somerset, a unitary authority. It’s bad enough having restrictions between operators let alone between subsidiaries with similar branding and names of the same overall company.Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 09.10.46.png

Commendably Buses of Somerset include the 20 on their wonderful network map available online, in the printed timetable and on the wall of Taunton bus station, but there’s no indication the route falls outside the remit of the day ticket, compared to the other routes shown.

Route 20 is a lengthy route for an open-topper taking seventy minutes for the journey to Western-Super-Mare. It’s busy too, helped by the various holiday parks, caravan and camp sites as well as adventure parks along the seafront between Burnham-on-Sea and Brean before heading in land via Lympshaw and into Weston-Super-Mare.

IMG_6234.jpgIn Weston-Super-Mare I hopped on the shorter open-top route 1 which runs every half an hour to Sand Bay.

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This is a very spectacular ride around the coastline to the north of Weston-Super-Mare with some tricky narrow roads especially through the village of Kewstoke.

IMG_6361.jpgIt wasn’t so long ago that this route was operated by the competitor called Crosville which expanded in Weston-Super-Mare taking advantage of the period when First Bus lost their way. But now, as in Cornwall, the tables have turned and a resurgent First West of England has seen off the smaller competitor and is back with a vengance in Sand Bay.IMG_6331 (1).jpg

It’s a fantastic route, taking just over twenty minutes for the single journey and well recommended. The route back from Sand Bay provides a great view of the abandoned Birnbeck Pier (see in the distance in the photograph below)…

IMG_6350.jpgIMG_6372.jpg… (it’s not just Brighton with a ruined pier) and passes through the tree lined road also in the distance in the photograph above …IMG_6366.jpg… the yellow road in the map below. 

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A wonderful way to end a lovely three day travelling in Dorset and Somerset. This shop front spotted in Weston-Super-Mare summed up how I felt.

IMG_6391.jpgAll that was left was to head back to the station and home with GWR.

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Roger French

Go South Coast – a multi award winning exemplar

Tuesday 20th November 2018

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Photo courtesy © The Bus Industry Awards Limited

Many congratulations Andrew Wickham and all the team at Go South Coast.

They’ve only just gone and added yet another award to their bulging trophy cabinet this afternoon at London’s Troxy: the prestigous UK Bus Awards 2018 Bus Operator of the Year; having won top Shire Operator of the Year and pipped Nottingham (top City Operator) and Ensign Bus (top Independent) in the final play off.

It’s been an Award filled six weeks for Go South Coast; picking up David Begg’s National Transport Award for Bus Operator of the Year on 11th October, the magazine Route One Award for Large Bus Opeator of the Year on 31st October and climaxing today with the UK Bus Awards’ top accolade.

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Not only that, but Andrew and his team were also victorious in the same categories in both the Route One and UK Bus Awards last year making for a record breaking quintet of award winning trophies and, may I say, all richly deserved too.

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UK Bus Award Winners 2017 – photo courtesy © The Bus Industry Awards Limited

Unlike the usual crop of other worthy winners: Nottingham, Reading, Lothian, Brighton & Hove, Ensign Bus which all have a well defined geographic urban area at the heart of their business, Go South Coast is a very diverse company with a varied portfoilio of brands and operations within its remit which makes its award success all the more worthy of praise.

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A diverse portfolio includes buses running every 3 minutes between Poole and Bournemouth (m1 and m2 also winning the Sustained Marketing Award this afternoon)……..
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…… to one return journey three days a week from Lockerley to Romsey

These range from the original Wilts & Dorset core now branded as ‘more’ (based on Poole) and Salisbury Reds; urban operations in Southampton as Bluestar and Unilink, the infamous and much loved Southern Vectis on the Isle of Wight, the 2017 addition of Thamesdown Buses now branded Swindon’s bus company, not forgetting small coach and contract operations as well as tendered bus routes run by Damroy and Tourist Coaches in deepest Dorset as well as the former coach company Excelsior and some National Express contracts.

And to top off all of that there’s part of a former central engineering works which rose out of the ashes of the original failed Frountsource privatisation of National Bus Company’s southern engineering sites now successfully trading as part of Go South Coast as Hants & Dorset Trim, specialists in refurbishment, repairs, conversions, retrims and paint jobs. You don’t get much more diverse than that portfolio.

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Andrew (left) with former Opertations Director Ed Wills (now with Go-Ahead Ireland) and Alex Chutter, General Manager Swindon with the new look Swindon bus company

Andrew has led Go South Coast as managing director since 2011 having perviously been its operations director between 2003 and 2009. In 2009 he was promoted to managing director of Plymouth Citybus for two years on its aquisition by the Go-Ahead Group. Aside from that brief interlude, Andrew has therefore amassed fifteen years of continuity with Go South Coast overseeing many developments including the fall out from the original Dorset tender contract which didn’t quite work out as expected; more recently the aquisition of Thamesdown and it’s turnaround into a thriving urban operator and importantly, and key to any successful bus company, an evovlution of continuous improvements and investment in quality alongside nuturing excellent relationships with local authorities and other stakeholders.

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Damory – part of a multi-modal international transport group PLC but still ‘Dorset’s great local bus company’.

Andrew will modestly say this award success is down to having an excellent team. There’s no doubt Go South Coast has some highly motivated, top quality managers and a huge team of committed and enthusiastic staff providing excellent bus and coach operations in Wiltshire, Dorset and parts of Hampshire; but they’re motivation comes from being led by a passionate, energetic, committed leader who inspires his team and offers that all important encouragement to achieve the best.

Andrew exudes these qualities and well deserves the recognition that comes from this unprecedented award success. His dedication and commitment is infectious and I’m delighted to see his hard work being recognised.

At the launch of the latest buses for Bluestar in Southampton earlier this month

It’s not easy. I was chatting to Andrew a couple of weeks ago at the launch of Go South Coast’s latest £4 million investment in nineteen impressive ADL Enviro 400 double deckers for Bluestar route 18. I mentioned how important it is for a managing director to be able to ‘get his (or her) arms around a bus company’ (structurally and geographically). Andrew admitted it wasn’t as easy as it once was following recent expansions but these Award wins demonstrate his industry peers rightly have admiration in a job well executed despite the challenges from a growing business.

It’s not as if Go South Coast has the market to itself either. Competition with First Bus in Southampton and Yellow Buses in Bournemouth and Poole has actually raised the quality of bus provision rather like it has done in Oxford for many years, rather than go down market.

Go-Ahead’s readiness to invest in Swindon, which the Borough Council was unable or unwilling to do, has been to the benefit of bus provision in that town and competitive spats with Stagecoach have now subsided with each company concentrating on what it does best.

Where Go South Coast has a monopoly, particularly on the Isle of Wight, it continues to invest in quality improvements and provides a comprehensive network, including, uniquely, an intensive service on Christmas Day which must surely confound critics of the deregulated market which allegedly ‘leaves people isolated in their homes’.

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The popular Needles Breezer at Alum Bay – a must ride, if you haven’t done it
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The three New Forest Tours are an excellent way to explore the National Park

Go South Coast also knows all about the tourist and the leisure market with some great services on the Island as well as operating three extremely popular routes throughout the New Forest National Park during the high summer season and the year round Stonehenge tourist bus from Salisbury.

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The Stonehenge bus provides a popular public transport link from Salisbury

The Company’s network of inter-urban routes across parts of Dorset provides important connections between a range of destinations on impressive and comforable vehicles and are well marketed; not surprisingly they’re well used and popular. Travel Centres in Swindon, Salisbury, Southampton, Poole and Newport are well stocked with timetable leaflets and there’s a handy timetable book for the network of routes based on Poole and another for the Isle of Wight, produced twice each year.

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The popular X3 linking Salisbury with Bournemouth is just one in a network of inter-urban routes run by ‘more’

Every time I’ve travelled I’ve found Go South Coast staff to be courteous and friendly, not least when I’ve made bizarre requests for the bus to stop for a few minutes in the village of Nomansland so I could record I’d been there (another service with one return journey running just three days a week route!).

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In Romsey
In Nomansland

All in all a great example of how a company with a diverse portfolio of services in a challenging market in southern England can thrive when given the backing of investment from a Group plc and is led by a first rate managing director given the necessary autonomy and a great team.

A true exemplar for the bus industry to showcase. Congratulations once again.

Roger French