A great Deal in Kent

Sunday 10th March 2019

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Garden of England. My journeys on two days last week included visits to both ends of Kent – to Dover and Deal on the Channel coast in the south east and to Sevenoaks close to the County’s western border with Greater London.

Both Stagecoach South East and Go-Coach Hire, the dominant bus companies in these two areas, are excellent bus operators for the following reasons…..

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.27.51.pngStagecoach’s attractive bus network in Kent is an excellent example offering comprehensive coverage for passengers as well as ‘behind-the-scenes’ operating efficiency for the company. It includes well used inter-urban links between main urban areas at good frequencies despite some recent reductions (and competition from Southeastern trains), as well as small bespoke town networks and a few great rural routes, some operated by double deck buses due to school peak requirements, which offer fantastic views across the Kent countryside.

Notable among these are the 11 (five journeys Canterbury – Westwood and Broadstairs via the delightfully named Plucks Gutter with its timing point The Dog & Duck), and 17 (hourly Folkestone – Canterbury via the lovely Elham Valley). There’s also the 18 (five journeys Canterbury – Hythe via Wheelbarrow Town) but this is scheduled for single decks. Still a great route though.

IMG_9552.jpgStagecoach South East also craftily link one route with another to provide helpful ‘cross-terminal’ journey opportunities. Southeastern Trains also do this with the rail network such you can get on a High Speed Train at St Pancras and travel via Ashford and Folkestone to Dover round to Deal and Sandwich where the train continues on to Ramsgate and Margate and back via Faversham to St Pancras where it arrives after a 3 hour and 33 minute round trip.

IMG_0722.jpgStagecoach run a ‘circular route’ called the Triangle from Canterbury to Whitstable and Herne Bay which is marketed as Triangle in addition to linking routes 4 and 6 which run similarly between Canterbury and Herne Bay via two different routes and where they link up to also provide a circular ‘triangle’.

IMG_9275 (1).jpg

IMG_0797.jpgAnother good example of timetabled through working providing great travel opportunities are the routes I travelled on last Friday – the 80 and 81 which run two buses an hour between Dover and Deal (via slightly different routes – but both giving great views of Dover and its castle) and on to Sandwich (via Hacklinge or Eastry) where they turn into a 43 and continue westwards to Canterbury.

IMG_0860.jpgIMG_0863.jpgBetween Sandwich and Canterbury the 43 runs at an attractive twenty minute frequency with the extra bus an hour commencing in Ramsgate to provide a Ramsgate, Sandwich Canterbury service. It all fits together very nicely, and Sandwich is well worth a visit.

IMG_0942.jpgIMG_0939.jpgAnd best of all Stagecoach South East must be commended for their excellent colour coordinated marketing and publicity for these and the other bus routes they run throughout Kent. It really is a treat to find a colourful network map together with individual leaflets (almost as good as a book!) each with an individual clear map of the route in a geographic context and, where appropriate an extract from the network map to show other routes in the area. They really are exemplars of good timetable leaflet practice.

IMG_0728.jpgI also spotted the network map on display in major points such as Dover’s Pencester Road (albeit inside the now rather worn information office) and at Canterbury in a display case on the bus station’s concourse alongside the travel office with its display of timetables and other tourist leaflets inside.

IMG_0856.jpgAnd the icing on the cake is the colour coding follows through to large easy-to-see bus stop numbers on virtually every bus stop flag. They really were impressive to see and showed a level of attention to detail and excellent intent to provide clear information.

IMG_0920.jpgIMG_0945.jpgIMG_0911.jpg

Bus stop timetable displays are also easy to follow and understand and appeared at every stop.

IMG_E0949.jpg

It’s so refreshing to see such excellent clear information and just goes to show it can be done.

As is the case around fifty miles over at the western end of the county in Sevenoaks. Here it’s interesting to see Go-Coach Hire Ltd go from strength to strength as they move from being a small time tender operator when they first began in the bus market just over ten years ago to now taking over from Arriva Kent as the network operator in this area.

IMG_0546.jpgOn previous visits to Sevenoaks I’ve been impressed with how Go-Coach have taken over the town’s bus station and proudly emblazoned their bright yellow and purple branding to brighten up what would otherwise be a rather dull wind tunnel of two departure bays.

IMG_0541.jpgThere’s a small travel office with an amazingly friendly and helpful member of staff and an excellent full display of timetable leaflets including those services operated by Arriva thereby providing a much welcome comprehensive coverage of routes operated in the area.

IMG_0656.jpgIMG_0658.jpgI was particularly impressed to see that the out-of-date no-longer-issued maps from Kent County Council which used to be on display in the bus station on previous visits have been replaced by up to date maps of Go-Coach’s network. I spotted them on bus shelters elsewhere in the town too.

IMG_0537.jpgThe bus stop plates also feature both Arriva and Go-Coach’s serves and all clearly presented to appropriate corporate style.

IMG_0572.jpgInterestingly from early next month Arriva Kent are throwing in the towel on local routes 1 and 2 from Sevenoaks to Dunton Green and Kemsing.

IMG_0550.jpgThey’re the routes Arriva converted to the horribly cramped Mercedes Sprinter minibuses a year ago. I had a ride in the first week and knew within a few minutes it would be a complete failure.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.15.47.pngCompletely unsuitable for the market and what a shame passenger numbers have obviously plummeted in response to such unattractive vehicles. On Wednesday when I visited larger buses had already supplanted the minibuses on route 2.

IMG_0649.jpgGo-Coach are taking over these routes as part of their expanding network and I hope their local connections and attention to detail in getting things right for passengers will attract enough passengers back to the routes to make it a commercial success for them.

IMG_4118.jpgIt’s interesting, nearly fifty years on from London Country Bus Services being formed in 1970 just how many bus companies now operate in what was the polo mint around London, and increasingly successfully too, after some traumatic times after deregulation and privatisation in the late 1980s. Metrobus in Crawley and Ensignbus in Grays come to mind as top class acts, but Go-Coach are making great strides to make this corner of Kent a great exemplar of how a small network operator can succeed.IMG_0585.jpgSadly, they often say, a bus company’s reputation is only as good as the last journey taken and my attempted journey with Go-Coach didn’t quite work out as planned on Wednesday; but company boss Austin Blackburn was on the case straight away as soon as he saw my tweet and made sure appropriate action was taken and apologies made – and that was impressive and just showed a caring owner giving attention to detail, which is what it’s all about. I’m already looking forward to a return trip and hopefully next time be successful in catching the Wednesday only tendered rural route 405 to West Kingsdown before it ends very soon!

Roger French

PS I spotted the information about Arriva Kent giving up routes 1 and 2 on their website and commendably they refer to the replacements being operated by Go-Coach Hire but a slip of the year shows the date in the headline as 2018 rather than 2019. It seems even when this is pointed out by tweet to Arriva last Wednesday, it still isn’t corrected on their website today. Attention to detail and reacting to feedback and all that…not!

IMG_E0536.jpg

Battle for Bellfields begins as Guildford goes electric

Monday 7th January 2019

It’s all happening in Guildford this week. Stagecoach South introduced a fleet of nine ADL Enviro 200EV electric buses on the Guildford Park and Ride services today while, as predicted in my post on 16th November last year, the bus war between Arriva and Safeguard has escalated into Bellfields. I had a look at both developments this morning.

First the electrics and their high profile ‘glide’ brand. There are four Park & Ride sites in Guildford; they’re well used, being popular with both commuters and shoppers. The four car parks are all relatively close to the city centre with Artington, to the south on the Godalming road, only a seven minute journey from the bus station while Merrow on the Leatherhead road to the east has a twelve minute journey time. The other two car parks just off the A3 are equally close: Onslow in the west is ten minutes while Spectrum to the north is eight minutes. So I suspect these not particularly arduous journey times are ideal for the electric buses with their high capacity roof mounted batteries with overnight charging giving a reported 150 mile range.

Naturally the buses come with usb sockets and wifi, but on their current duties you’re hardly on the bus long enough to have time to sort out the plug-in lead from your bag, nor go through the logging in process for wifi. Handy facilities if the buses move on to other routes during their lifetime, I suppose.

The seat moquette is to Stagecoach’s brash “iron brew” colour specification or a cross between Aldi-meets-Tesco-meets-Sainsbury’s. I find it a bit overpowering in double deckers and much prefer the softer grey colour scheme used in the north west (on Service X2 – pictured below); but for the short ride, the seats are comfortable enough, and at least the colours brighten up a single deck interior, if a bit in your face.

Interior messages on the cove panels are thankfully large enough to actually be read and extol some of the virtues of the services as well as promoting Stagecoach’s longer distance routes from Guildford.

Most impressive of all is the quietness of the transmission/engine, the only noise coming from bumps in the road, which those aside, means the smoothness of the ride really does stand out. Quite a few passengers were commenting positively about the “new electric buses” and it was good to hear general positivity about the service. Well done Stagecoach and Surrey County Council – the buses have certainly raised the profile for Park and Ride – an essential ingredient in Guildford’s notorious traffic challenges.

Meanwhile, the residents of Guildford’s Bellfields estate woke up this morning to double the number of buses to take them on the 14-17 minute journey into the town centre. It was obvious to me that Safeguard were not going to take Arriva’s completely foolish incursion last November into the Park Barn estate and Royal Surrey County Hospital competing with their routes without reacting. They’ve been serving that area extremely well for decades so they’re not going to simply give up and allow Arriva to muscle in and take their business away.

A retaliatory competitive service against Arriva into Bellfields was therefore only to be expected. My view hasn’t changed since writing in November: “the only likely outcome” (of the incursion into Park Barn) “is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down route A) as it won’t be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ”.

I’ll go further now and suggest a likely outcome is Arriva will now capitulate, withdraw their Service 3 completely and cede Bellfields to Safeguard. There clearly aren’t enough passengers to support two twenty minute frequency services. There’ll be no generation. Of the two operators there’s no doubt Safeguard enjoy any brand loyalty such as it is, but in the main, passengers will catch the first bus that comes along, which by dint of timings is likely to be Safeguard (timetabled to run five minutes ahead of Arriva). On Saturdays Arriva only run half hourly to Safeguard’s new twenty minute frequency so one departure will have a Safeguard bus behind, and the other in front. Arriva run an hourly frequency on Sundays under contract to Surrey County Ciuncil.

Full marks once again to Surrey County Council who have displayed up to date timetables at all the bus stops along the route and in Guildford bus station – I doubt many local authorities would deliver up to date information so efficiently. Well done.

Today’s experience demonstrates once again how Safeguard, unsurprisingly, have that all important attention to detail spot on with new timetable leaflets for their 3S service on board both buses together with balloons and sweets for passengers as a novelty addition and friendly drivers, while Arriva were still running a “lumbering double deck” I mentioned last November (completely unsuitable for the route) and a branded single deck for MAX 34/35 routes! Hardly demonstrating commitment.

I’m beginning to wonder how long the entire Surrey outpost of the Arriva Kent operation controlled from Maidstone, will be sustainable. We’ve already seen Abellio Surrey give up and pull out …….

Roger French

Three Counties Circular

There’s a great bus ride to be had in that part of England where Lancashire meets Cumbria meets North Yorkshire.

I recently took a circular trip from Lancaster (Lancashire) taking in Kirkby Lonsdale (Cumbria) and Ingleton (North Yorkshire). I highly recommend it.

The bottom right corner of Cumbria’s bus map showing a protrusion in the Lancashire boundary placing Ingleton and Kirby Lonsdale in two other counties.

Stagecoach run the 80/81 from Lancaster to Ingleton (80) and Kirkby Lonsdale (81). While Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire run the 581 filling in the gap on the map between the two towns.  In fact these 581 journeys continue on to Lancaster (confusingly numbered 582) via a slightly different route having started way back south in Skipton (as a 580). Three numbers, three counties, one bus route!

A Kirkby Lonsdale 581 arrives in Kirkby Lonsdale already screened for the next leg to Lancaster as a 582

You have to choose your travel times carefully for the circuit as the 581/2 is only two-hourly and there are only four journeys a day on the 80 with the last departure from Ingleton inconveniently early at 1325 (although see suggestions below). But it’s certainly worth the ride as the journeys offer splendid scenery and Ingleton is full of charm and delight while Kirkby Lonsdale’s well worth a stroll round.

The gorgeous Ingleton dominated by the long disused railway viaduct

I made a morning of it and went clockwise round taking the 0840 (81) from Lancaster to Kirkby Lonsdale, but if you want to make more of a day of it after a lie-in I’d recommend an anti-clockwise circuit with Ingleton visited first on the 1010 (80) from Lancaster.

Stagecoach 81 links Lancaster with Kirkby Lonsdale while…..

…. the less frequent 80 links Lancaster with Ingleton, but the last journey back is at 1325

Here are some suggestions for the bus companies and local authorities on what works and what could be improved. Consider it a free bit of consultancy to grow the market and earn a bit more revenue.

Hats off to Lancashire County Council for reinstating the Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire 582 journeys beyond Kirkby Lonsdale to Lancaster earlier this year in March. Quite contrary to the cuts happening elsewhere. It brought buses back to the villages of Arkholme and Gressingham (and every 2 hours at that). I travelled that route earlier in the year and especially remember the narrow Loyn Bridge crossing over the River Lune – it’s a definite ‘driver of the year moment’.

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 17.52.49

I mention this as point no 1 is there’s scope for some joined up promotion of the 80/81 with the 581/582 rather than the two separate leaflets produced by Stagecoach and Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire. It just seems obvious to me to cross reference these publicly funded bus routes and show a combined route map. Without this, and without a network map of either Lancashire or North Yorkshire prospective passengers will be oblivious to the possibilities.

The missing link in the Stagecoach 80/81 leaflet

Whch brings me to point no 2. Leaflets for the 80/81 and 580/581/582 (called the Craven Connection) are impressively available but only one place had both – well done Lancaster Visitor Information Centre (VIC). The 80/81 leaflet was available in the lovely Stagecoach Travel Shop in Lancaster bus station (and its very helpful staff member, Ann) but nothing for the 581/2 while the 581/2 leaflet was available in both Kirkby Lonsdale and Ingleton VICs but nothing for the 80/81.

A well stocked Lancaster VIC

A not so well stocked Ingleton VIC – no Stagecoach timetables, nor in Kirkby Lonsdale either

Thirdly the timetable case outside Ingleton Community Centre/VIC only has the 580/1/2 timetable displayed (as well as the Sunday Dalesbus 881) but crucially not the 80. I expect this might be because the former is a NYCC matter and the latter is funded by LCC.

The NYCC Ingleton bus stop missing the LCC funded 80

It’s good to see timetables stuck up in the window of the Ingleton VIC for every service – I’m sure that being an initiative of the very friendly and helpful lady who looks after the shop there.

Fourthly is the old chestnut of not having an all operator day ticket. Come on Lancashire/North Yorkshire if it can be done in the south east of England I’m sure you can organise something too. Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancs have various Dayrider/Explorer options for their routes and Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire has a day ticket for its routes so it shouldn’t be beyond the considerable skills of those highly regarded companies to get together to make it easy for passengers.

My fifth suggestion is to Lancashire County Council and Stagecoach regarding that rather unhelpful early last journey from Ingleton on the 80 at 1325. There’s a Stagecoach bus arriving Ingleton at 1521 which appears to go dead to Kirkby Lonsdale for one of the two schoolday 81 departures at 1541/1545 or just the one on non schooldays. Why not run this in service from Ingleton at 1525? Also promote the later journeys on the 581/2 at 1558, 1758, 1858 and 1958 in the 80/81 leaflet making it clear there are other options.

Finally I’d suggest promoting the 5/6 journey a day Stagecoach route 567 from Kirkby Lonsdale to Kendal in the mix as this, with the more frequent and infamous 555 (Kendal to Lancaster part) offers extended circular journey opportunities.

It’s all about making it easy for potential passengers and growing the market for leisure travel.

Roger French           6th September 2018