Thursday 27 February 2014

Small and mighty

The Optare Solo will perhaps be regarded in the future as the iconic bus of the Noughties. The standard Solo design was the pioneer of its field, the first low floor wheel forward bus and offered unprecedented access to all, the name originating from the words ‘so low’ given the ease of access it offered to initially buggy pushers and in later examples wheelchair users. In the 15 years that the standard Solo was available, over 4,000 were sold and it is difficult to think of a town or city that isn’t routinely visited by a Solo. Its successor, the Solo SR, faces far more competition, with the Enviro 200 and Streetlite WF, however it continues to be popular. Brand new examples have very recently entered service with operators in York and Nottingham, including a fully electric one in York.

The standard Solo is a perfect example of a timeless design.  Car manufactures would not build the same model without any major modifications for 15 years as people would not buy them. Indeed most bus operators wouldn’t either because the operators would get bored and the orders would stop coming in. Trent Barton bought their first Optare Solo in early 2000, yet another two were added to the fleet 11 years later. Granted, the engines had been updated and the interiors were much improved but from the outside, to Joe public, it looked just the same. When Trent Barton started running the Royal Derby route, 4 brand new Solos were acquired for the service. When a 5th needed adding, it was sourced from within the fleet. A ‘W’ plate Solo was given new seat covers and a paint job and put out onto the road. It was indistinguishable from the others, bare a few minor details.

For Optare, this was perhaps a blessing and a curse. The fact that operators were still buying the product meant that money didn’t urgently have to be spent on R&D, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, operators may also have not been so inclined to invest significant amounts of money into a brand new bus that looks like a much older one. Or, indeed, a new bus that looks identical to the slightly older but much cheaper one available on the second hand market. In 2006, Trent Barton chose to refurbish their ‘51’ plate Solos on the H1 rather than buy new ones, as, from their perspective buying new buses would be simply “buying new number plates.” However, this was perhaps simply an excuse, given that three years later they bought a fleet of 13 Solos to replace existing ones on the Nines.

If you were to do a tour around “trentbarton land,” you’d be surprised to hear that the standard Solo has been out of production for 18 months now. You’d think that a mistake had been made, given that you were certain that you’d seen brand new ones darting around the place. What you’d actually seen was a number of the Solos, ranging from ‘X’ to ‘02’ plate that have been refurbished to a high standard. So high in fact that they look newer than some of the last examples of the standard Solo ever made. In that regard, the Solo was a fantastic investment for Trent Barton. To have buses that are over 12 years old looking so modern is fantastic for an image and cost point of view. They may be a bit noisy but they are very presentable and certainly give off the right impression, with the help of the new Trent Barton brand.

The Solo SR is a modern looking and popular replacement. It too is becoming a more common sight across the UK. Trent Barton’s latest examples are destined for a re-branded Radcliffe Line and their lime green livery will stand out around Nottingham and Rushcliffe. The ‘10’ plate standard Solos that they’ll replace are apparently destined for the Amberline (not confirmed) and will be the first of the ‘newer’ standard Solos in the new brand.

The new order: These brand new Solo SRs are helping out on the Bingham Xprss whilst the resident Tempos are being refurbished

The Solo has been one of Optare’s most successful products and continues to be the perfect vehicle for so many routes across the country. Its introduction came at a time when people were still a little sceptical about low floor buses, but it proved its case and really helped make public transport more accessible for so many people. It really is the icon of a decade.

All photos are courtesy of Matt

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Keeping it local

Growing up in the Peak District, I was largely unaware of the “big three” bus companies in the UK until I developed more of an interest in the industry.  With the exception of one route, Ashbourne was served by a group of independent operators, Trent buses running the main route to Derby with small firms such as Glovers and G&J Holmes operating the others. Slightly larger firms, from a bit further away also ran some services, such as D&G, TM Travel and Bowers. Arriva ran the 109 to Derby via the long route, but they seemed no different given their tiny presence in the town.

Ashbourne is now one of the few towns where the "big 3" operate no services at all. Services are mostly ran by High Peak, Trent Barton and Yourbus.

Derby was slightly different, Trent buses, then Trent Barton were the company providing the long distance services and some suburban ones, whilst the majority of inner city services were ran by the aquamarine buses of Arriva Derby in their generic colour scheme which could be seen all over the country. In contrast to the obviously local Trent Barton, they felt distant and impersonal. Too large a firm to care or be that bothered about issues in such a tiny part of their empire. This showed in the poor state of their fleet, very little was DDA compliant (whilst Trent Barton had managed an entirely low floor fleet) and the buses were old and tatty.

Up until 2008, this was one of the newest buses in the Arriva Derby fleet...

In 2008, it seems that someone in Sunderland remembered about Derby, and a lot of money was invested into new vehicles for the city. The network was re-examined and from my experience patronage has increased as a result. It took a long hard look at a specific area to realise and resolve the problems. This, to me seems testament to the fact that a local focus is vital to running a successful bus company, as opposed to a national strategy.

...however there has since been significant investment.

And it seems that bus companies are waking up to this fact. Whilst York does see a lot of independent operators, the services are dominated by First, and to a lesser extent Transdev. Both are multinational companies with operations all over Europe and in First’s case the world. But both operator’s standard liveried vehicles have “York” stuck on the side of the buses in huge letters. It lets passengers know that they matter to the company, and that, in this case York, is thought about on its own. It is its own place with its own issues which need to be looked at individually.

Both companies in York use the "York" name to promote their services

This is something that Transdev (and their predecessor Blazefield) have always been good at. Giles Fearnley and Stuart Wilde had a vast network across the North of England, from Whitby to Blackburn, but rather than rolling out one uniform brand, each area was ran individually with its own local name. As such, today we see names such as “Harrogate and District” and “Lancashire United.” It is seemingly an approach that Fernley has taken over to his new employment within First group. The first buses in the new First livery had the names of their operating area placed on the side and this has continued ever since. The buses operating in York in the new livery have (funnily enough) York written on the side, in purple writing with the silhouettes of landmarks on the side, such as the Minster and Millennium bridge. It is a trend repeated across the country and gives First a more personal feel.

More and more buses in the First York fleet are having the new fleetnames applied.

But in the South of England, one arm of the First group is taking things a little further. Those taking a look at “The buses of Somerset” would probably have no idea that it was  a First subsidy. The Stenning designed website seems more akin to Go-Ahead but it shows a whole new approach for Frist group. The website explains “Over the coming months we’ll be giving your local First buses a bit of a makeover, with smart new colours, a stylish new look and a name that means something locally.” A lot of investment is no doubt going into this new brand, which seems to show that a locally recognisable identity is becoming more and more essential in encouraging passengers onboard.

A whole new approach in Somerset from First group.

So will we see such a scheme in York? Unlikely at this stage I would presume (the Northern England First divisions don’t seem as adventurous as their Southern counterparts). However, locally recognisable and therefore accountable bus divisions do seem to be the way forward. Within the next six months or so, I will imagine all of First York’s buses will be in the new livery, complete with ‘York’ logo. Passengers will know that this is one of York’s buses and will only be used in York and is, in essence ‘theirs.’ I doubt this will have a dramatic effect on ridership, but it clearly comes with its benefits, as First’s investment in Somerset seems to suggest.

All York photos courtesy of Chris and all Derby photos courtesy of Matt.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

What I #Th1nk

It’s been a month now since Trent Barton’s H1 route between Derby and Heanor started using brand new Optare Versas. I wrote a blog post at the time (from York) about their arrival but this week is the first time I’ve been back in ‘Trent Barton land’ since, and I thought I’d give them a try to see what they were like, and how they compared to their predecessors.

My first bus of the day was a Swift. Regular driver Jo was fantastic, really friendly and she dealt with awful weather conditions and a full and standing bus superbly.
My initial plan was to change from my Swift service straight onto the H1 but torrential rain meant that my bus was delayed and I missed my planned bus. Instead I did my route in reverse, first heading on the Red Arrow to Nottingham Victoria before using the Rapid 1 to Heanor. My Red Arrow was busy, particularly for the time of day (and particularly in comparison to the competitive Citylink that left at a similar time) but fast as ever.

A high frequency and great quality coaches continues to be a winning formula on the Red Arrow

I had a short while to wait in Victoria for the Rapid 1, and I noticed that a lot of work has been done to it since the last time I was there. New screens make it easier to find the times for your bus and the whole place looks far more presentable. Given that the predominant user of the facility is Trent Barton, there’s plenty of their brand around the place which gives it a modern feel. Getting these sorts of facilities right is vital to ensuring that more people start to use to bus so it’s great to see that improvements have been made.
Yesterday was my second trip on the Rapid 1. Since my last trip, the route has seen success at the UK Bus awards, winning the prize for “Making Buses a Better Choice.” Anyone who takes a trip on the route can see exactly why. Prior to its 2011 introduction, the route between Langley Mill and Nottingham was “around the houses” and really time consuming. The Rapid 1 shaves around 25 minutes off journey times from Ripley, Heanor and Langley Mill into Nottingham which is a significant time saving. With the route being non-stop after Langley Mill, the driver also has the freedom to change route to avoid traffic. Upon leaving Victoria yesterday I was slightly concerned that the driver may have thought he was driving the Two, as we headed towards Wollaton. However, it soon became clear that the driver’s fantastic knowledge of Nottingham’s roads meant that we had avoided long queues and delays along the A610 before the M1 and before we knew it we were thundering up the dual carriageway with the journey to Heanor taking just 30 minutes.

The buses on the Rapid 1 proudly declare their UK Bus Award success inside and out
Whilst waiting for my H1 to arrive in Heanor, a competitive Y1 service pulled in. It was a Mercedes Benz Citaro; however it was branded for the Y5 service between Derby and Nottingham which drew a few confused looks. One person boarded the bus, using a student genie. Several other people waited for the H1 service that pulled in shortly afterwards.

Yourbus aren't as strict as Trent Barton when it comes to allocating branded bus to their correct routes, which can cause some confusion

It’s difficult to appreciate how eye-catching the new buses are by just looking at the photos. The green colour really stands out and this is helped by the bright, coloured LED destination screens. Heanor market place was dull and miserable at the time but it really did brighten it up. I was the first to board and after a friendly greet from my driver as I tapped on my student Mango card and I sat down.

The new Versas are really eye catching

Internally, the buses are state of the art. The seats are high backed and that combined with the extra soft padding makes them phenomenally comfortable. The wall coves have been redesigned and now reflect the “rolling hill” effect adopted for the new zigzag adverts. They work really well; they look modern, presentable whilst being really informative. They are a far cry from the peeling off third party adverts other operators insist on plastering inside their buses. The dark moquette and wall panels combine nicely with the cream ceiling and bright (but not dazzling) lighting to create an open and airy look (despite no rear window), whilst the H1 themed rear mural turns a normally unutilised and clinical looking section of the bus into something quite attractive.

The interiors are smart, bright and airy, and they still have the new bus smell!

 The free Wi-Fi was easy to connect to and was really quick. Thought had even been put into the “launch screen” which was also H1 themed. The bus was named “Brian,” thanks to the Namesake foundation, which allows people to name buses in exchange for a donation to the charity which supports the breast cancer unit at the Royal Derby Hospital. Next stop  screens announcements also allow people to know where to get off. This is obviously great from an accessibility point of view, in that it allows those unfamiliar with the area and those with sight disabilities to know where to get off. The problem with its use on the H1 is that there are around 40 stops along the route, and with the buses travelling quicker than other routes with the technology (such as Indigo), this can mean one announcement every minute. Whilst I personally began to ignore them fairly early on, they do seem to be one of the route’s biggest criticisms, by looking at the route’s unique hashtag (#tH1nk). This, and a faulty mango touch off reader, were the only drawbacks of the service in my opinion.

The Wi-Fi was quick and easy to connect to, and was fast as well. 
Trent Barton’s self-proclaimed title as “the really good bus company” is often disputed. However, after some time away from their services, coming back to them makes me realise that they are certainly better than your average company. All the drivers I encountered were polite and friendly and the vehicles were far better than others I’ve recently travelled on. Staff were on hand at all major terminals to assist and advise customers and information was readily available, both on bus and at the three “trent barton shops” I passed on my travels. The customer experience is the number one priority and it shows, the H1 versas may well be state of the art but all of the other routes I travelled on were of a much higher quality than is seen elsewhere in the country. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, operators could learn a lot from Trent Barton, and I urge them to take a trip on the new H1 to see how it is done.

All photos courtesy of Matt

Thursday 6 February 2014

The power of the refurbishment

My daily commute to University involves a free ride between York’s two campuses, occasionally on First York’s 4, however usually on the Transdev Unibus 44, simply because it drops me off closer to my department. Today was no exception and it was, by chance, one of the more recent additions to the Transdev York fleet that took me (halfway) home. I am referring to one of the ‘Y’ plate Plaxton Presidents, transferred in from Harrogate, mentioned in my last post.

The Presidents have been at York a while now, but today was the first time I've seen one venture onto the 44

As I also mentioned, the two new additions join two sister vehicles, which are part of the branded unibus fleet. Despite being the two oldest members of the 9 strong 44 fleet, they are, in my opinion the most comfortable. They have ample legroom and nicely padded seats. The only drawback is that their interior is a little dated, hardly surprising given their age.

The two former Harrogate Presidents join two Unibus branded sisters at York

I was therefore pleasantly surprised at how modern my offering this evening was in comparison. Unlike its sister vehicles, the Harrogate batch have had a full refurbishment, with new flooring, seat covers, wall panels and repainted grab rails. It looked like a new bus, and was many passengers were commenting on how much nicer this “new” bus was in comparison to the “old” ones (which are the same age if not newer).

Not the best photo (taken quickly on my iPhone) but it does demonstrate the modern looking interior on the refurbished buses

It just goes to show how much of an impact a refurbishment can make to a vehicle. Transdev are clearly good at this, but so are Trent Barton. The people of Hucknall and Belper would no doubt agree to that, as their designated vehicles come out of “dreamworks” (the affectionate nickname given to the Langley Mill refurb centre) looking like they’ve just come out of the box. The buses on Hucknall’s Connect certainly don’t look 14 years old, either on the inside or the outside, but the effort put into rejuvenating the Sixes fleet is like nothing seen before within Trent Barton.

The buses on Hucknall's Connect certainly don't look their 14 years

As well as a refresh to bring the brand in line with the new corporate style, plenty of thought and effort has been put into making the journeys more comfortable and enjoyable. A journey between Derby and Bakewell can take over an hour and a half so comfort is of paramount importance. It’s therefore to see that high backed seats have been retrofitted, alongside more padded bases, as seen on the 2012 Solo SRs and Versas. It’s difficult to describe in words but there is a notable difference in the comfort of these seats compared to those on the i4 Tempos. Free wifi will also allow passengers to keep themselves entertained, although you’d think the breathtaking views of the Peak District along the route would be entertainment enough…

The buses on the Sixes look as good as new inside and out thanks to their refurbishment

Thorough refurbishment is a cost efficient yet effective way of maintain an attractive fleet. Buses do age quickly, they get dirty and the volume of people using them can make the seats fade into nothing. Failing to act on a deteriorating environment inside a bus can lead to passengers being put off their use which can have a long term negative impact. Buses are expensive things to buy, and a good quality refurbishment is far from cheap, but the results are obvious. Neither Transdev nor Trent Barton would be investing the money that they are in refurbishing vehicles if they weren’t seeing results by way of increased passenger numbers and therefore increased profits. Other companies would only benefit if they took a look inside some of their buses, and engaged them in a programme of thorough refurbishment to make them as good as new once again. 

The two York President photos are from Chris whilst the Trent Barton photos are from Matt. The interior pic is mine, though I'm not so worried about anyone nicking that (photography's not my strong point!).

Monday 3 February 2014

Going against the current

As I mentioned in my last post, 2014 is the year of the bus in London. It is a year that is designed to encourage people into using London’s bus network. However, BBC 2’s programme, entitled “The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads” seems somewhat counter-productive to that notion. Sunday night’s episode, the sixth of six (admittedly I missed the first five, aired last year) focussed on crime taking part on London’s buses, and the teams trying to tackle it. To be frank, it portrayed the buses as dangerous places, where every other passenger is concealing a knife, or is trying to pickpocket you. Places where drunk people spent the night, and where ticket inspectors would publicly flog you if your ticket was incorrect.

Of course, the BBC is under no obligation to support tfl’s message with regards to buses and making good television that is enjoyed and watched by enough TV licence payers is more of a priority. Whilst I’ve never travelled on a London bus, I can’t imagine them being that much different to buses I’ve travelled on in other parts of the country, but when the aim of the programme was to fill an hour with people busting crime on London’s buses, it was always inevitable that it would appear as if all of Britain’s most unsavoury characters travel by bus.

The whole episode was a kick in the teeth for bus travel. It was an unfair portrayal. Of course some crime does take place on buses, but crime happens all over the place, on trains, in city centres and even in schools and hospitals. But buses do have high levels of CCTV on board which does seem to a fairly strong sense of security whilst travelling. I must have completed hundreds, if not thousands of journeys by bus and I can honestly say that I have never witnessed, or been aware of any crime on a bus on which I've been travelling. Here’s hoping the episode doesn't put people off bus travel too much and that tfl’s efforts haven’t been in vain.

In other London news, its been announced that cash fares are to be completely scrapped. Given the success of the multi modal and multi operator oyster card, fewer than 1% of journeys are paid for by cash. Given the cost of collecting cash fares (tfl estimates £130 million), in addition to the additional risk for drivers being in possession of cash, it does seem like a smart move, particularly considering the fact that more people are able to pay via contactless bank cards. It is, however hard to imagine a cashless system in either the East Midlands, or in York any time soon. Whilst smartcards are available for a lot of operators, often with financial savings, the general attitude towards them is not as positive as it is towards oyster. I predict two reasons for that, firstly, far fewer inter-operator tickets are available, and inter-modal tickets are near non-existent. Secondly, the network coverage is not as good, with greater distances to the nearest bus stop and less frequent buses. This makes the whole attitude to public transport less positive, meaning fewer occasional journeys and more cash payments. Will we eventually see cash fares being scrapped in the provinces? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, in York…

The past few weeks have seen quite a few fleet changes in York, worthy of a mention here!

Transdev have received two Plaxton Presidents from Harrogate. Both are from the ‘Y’ plate batch, joining two sisters already here and in the Unibus fleet, however these have benefited from a high quality refurbishment. Both are due repaints soon, though as to what livery remains a mystery!

One of the Volvo Wrightbus Eclipses that had left the York fleet has returned, but this time with rear vinyls! It had previously had nothing on the back at all and looked really bland. This seems to suggest that it might be around for a while, retaining a bit of class and modernity on the 844 Coastliner route.

After weeks of problems, the UB1 Optare Solo SR entered service on Monday. A recharging point has been installed (or is at least being installed) at the York Sport Village


A number of buses have arrived at York from Halifax, both Eclipses and Geminis. These are replacing some of the ALX 400s which are due to transfer to Manchester to cover the former Finglands routes. These seems to be getting a repaint before they go.


Arriva’s new Solo SRs have also entered service recently. They replace the plain white, loaned solos that have been used on the 24/6/7 series of routes over the past few months. Having become familiar to Arriva branded solos on the Mackworth routes in Derby, the ‘new’ buses don’t have quite the same appeal as some others do. 

All London photos courtesy of Matt, and all York ones courtesy of Chris