I was recently in the County town of Stafford. Not somewhere I visit that often, but I felt the need to mooch as National Express West Midlands has recently started a service to there from Wolverhampton (via the i54 Business Park) taking them out of their “comfort zone”.
Whilst there, I noticed something trundle into Gaol Square bus station that really needed to be in a museum. It turns out it was Select Bus Service’s 878 to Wolverhampton. I resolved to return and sample it…
Stafford’s Gaol Square is as close to a mini bus station as you’ll get. A collection of 5 stands at the top end of the main shopping street. It is overwhelmingly Arriva-populated, although others including First Potteries come here with their service to Hanley and National Express West Midlands back towards Wolverhampton. Most of the timetables and stop flags are Arriva-branded. If your bus happens to be operated by someone other than the aquamarine, it’s a bit of an afterthought. (In the case of NXWM’s 54 service, the timetable is so high, only someone of my height (6’7″) stands a half-decent chance of deciphering it..)
you need to be a giant to read the 54 timetable!
if your service isn’t Arriva-operated, it’s difficult to find…my 878 service wasn’t listed, and neither is NXWM’s 54…
Talking of timetable displays, this particular one was all too familiar. A mismash of presentation that would have a non-regular in despair, and remnants of old sticky tape (and other substances) which meant that you couldn’t actually clearly read the times. In comparison, Clear Channel’s advertising panel was spotless.
can you read what time the bus is due?
I already knew my bus was due at 13:35, so my squinting at the appalling timetable display wasn’t really needed.
At 2 minutes to departure time, our chariot appears. I snap a pic, then frantically hail the driver, as he appears to not want to get onto the stand. Perhaps not many people ever get on…
He stops out on the roadway, as another bus is on the stand in front. I shuffle across the road and hop on. There’s no hope if you’re a wheelchair user. The low-floor revolution hasn’t arrived on this service yet.
“I couldn’t get on the stand” protests the driver. He isn’t late, but seems in a hurry. He’s even more mildly bemused when I offer to pay a cash fare to Wolverhampton. A frantic mess with the ticket machine reveals it’s £3.40 for a single. I’m issued with a ticket that thanks me for travelling, but is an hour out with the time. Our driver, though, is a friendly sort. He might be dressed in jeans and a t-shirt but at least he seems human.
“Change at Bishops Wood” he tells me. I didn’t know this. “Oh”, says I. “Tell me when we get there, please”. “We won’t go any further” is his jokey response.
And we’re off. At the next stop, we pick up 4 passengers. They’re obviously regulars, and banter ensues. I can hear jokes and giggles from my lofty position upstairs. No one else attempts the stairs.
The interior is poor. The bus – a J-reg machine that a quick Google reveals used to ply its trade for Stagecoach South – still has it’s corporate moquette. But Sir Brian would be horrified if it was still representing Stagecoach now. The seats are well worn and litter sloshes around.
the bus has seen much better days…
Soon we begin to hit country lanes. Acton Trussell is a typical English “chocolate box” village. Plenty of high-performance cars on the drives of expensive houses here. Unsurprisingly, no one boards. I wonder if anyone has ever boarded here. It’s a delightful run. Sheep one side, hitch-hikers wandering down the canal on the other. The road narrows further, and there are plenty of meetings with other road users, who seem surprised to see a full-sized double decker coming at them!
sheep to the right, hikers to the left…
Onwards we travel, through Penkridge, Wheaton Aston and Lapley, places that appear mostly untouched over the last century.
Then, in the middle of nowhere, we pull up! I suspect this is Bishops Wood as I can see another bus with “878 Wolverhampton” on the front. I make my way downstairs. “He needs this bus for schools” says our driver “and there’s more headroom for you on that one”, pointing to the newer bus, accompanied by a slight nasal snigger.
everybody off in Bishops Wood…!
…onto this one!
Just me and an elderly lady make our way over to our new bus. This is an anonymous white single decker – an Enviro 200. It’s much newer than our old double decker, which roars off into the distance to gather it’s young gaggle of passengers from their studies. This one, like our previous, also has windows that appear to have rarely seen the bus wash.
“Do you know where to drop me?” enquires the lady. “Yes, I know. Outside the pub” comes the reply. I don’t know if that’s some sort of banter/joke. He tells the 2 of us that he’s been driving this route for 20 years, so it’s surprising he hasn’t come across our elderly passenger before. Then, a mild rebuking of an oncoming motorist, who has, admittedly, made a complete pigs ear of trying to pass a parked car on the other side of the road. It doesn’t seem to overly concern our man, who has now acquired a pair of 80s-style sunglasses. Cool.
He does indeed drop off our lady traveller – outside the pub. There’s much thanking and gratitude on both sides. I’m the only one left, dreading any attempt at conversation from our experienced driver. But he swiftly picks up 2 more passengers – an elderly couple. He presses a timetable leaflet into the man’s hand, who appears grateful. I notice a sign on the vehicle – “no dirty site clothing or boots on this bus. Thank you”. I dread to think of building site contractors stripping off to comply.
Luckily, I don’t spot any building sites. Or builders. Or anyone stripping off on the bus. There is, though, an annoying rattle / squeak on this bus that would probably drive me mad i I was on it for much longer.
The bright lights of Wolverhampton City Centre beckon. From country lane to City street, our driver has been spot on time throughout. As I get off, I ask him for a timetable. “Rare as rocking horse ****, these”, he quips, “keep it covered”. He grins. I thank him. It’s all a bit 1980s Cannon & Ball-ish. And with that, he’s off for a return trip around the great British countryside.
It did get me thinking though. Much of the best of British bus operation today – the Sapphires, the Stagecoach Golds, the Platinums, etc, are geared to passenger growth. It’s all about getting people out of their cars and onto the luxurious seats and free wifi. This service will do nothing of the sort. The double decker should have been long-retired, the presentation was close to awful, the driver’s attire was as far away from a smart, presentable uniform as you could get.
And yet…. this was the other side of bus operation. A vital service, penetrating deep into rural countryside, with faithful regulars, who would no doubt struggle to live their daily lives if it wasn’t there.
In it’s own way, this quirky, often comedy-like at times service is just as important as the shiny state-of-the-art offerings on our streets today. And it proves just how vital bus services still are to so many people.
the “rare” bus timetable…