Looks Aren’t Everything…

…but inevitably they count for something.

The same is true of buses. Yes buses. Those big things on wheels that get in your way as a motorist and are about as devoid of style as…well…the bus that took you to school. Now THAT wasn’t a looker, was it?

But buses these days are getting makeovers. Gone are those square boxes of the 80s and 90s and now today’s buses are – whisper it slowly – getting rather cool designs.

Perhaps the biggest shock to the system of recent bus design is Wright’s Gemini 3 body. Gone are the rounded swoops that got it dubbed the “Nokia” bus (as it kind of resembled the mobile phone fascia of the day) – today’s flagship Wright body has hard angles to consider at the front. The side and rear are, to my eye, more pleasing. This looks a real classy beast from behind. As ever, the more daring the design, the more a talking point it becomes…(see previous blog “Eye Catcher…or does It Matter?” here)

For the technical amongst us, this bodywork is a Gemini 3 when coupled up to a Volvo chassis. Wright also offers it as an integral design, where it is known as a Streetdeck.

This is where you can spot the difference.

Recently, I tried out Transdev Harrogate & District’s new Volvo / Wright Gemini 3 combination on their route 36 between Leeds and Ripon. You can certainly believe the hype here. The spec is superb and the ride quality equally as impressive. The integral Streetdeck, however, loses a little something.

National Express West Midlands has bought one to trial. It is currently operating on route 9 from Stourbridge to Birmingham, and with a little help locating it via a helpful friend deep within the NXWM machine who knew it’s location, I managed to finally ride it.

I’ve tried Streetdecks already down the road in Worcester. First Worcester has 4 operating between the Cathedral City and The Malverns (see here), and I’ve had a whirl on the solitary Arriva Derby example too.

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One of the 4 First Worcester Streetdecks, seen in Great Malvern.

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Arriva Derby’s solitary Streetdeck

My impression is that the Streetdeck loses a little something in the ride quality department. It feels a little jerky and bouncy, compared to it’s sibling coupled up to a Volvo, and to it’s contemporary models, such as the ADL Enviro 400.  I’d also add that the bus had an annoying alarm going off every time the door was open – but I presume that is easily fixed….

It’s all about weight though. Like the imminent Optare Metrodecker (which was recently on trial in Reading, see “Is This Bus Slimmer Of The Year?” here) it is the potential cost savings from having less fuel-guzzling buses that is getting the bus industry excited.

I want to love the Streetdeck. I really do. Having initially gasped at the first pictures of the model, I’m now getting to like it, now I’ve seen it “in the flesh” and had a go on a good few examples. It’s certainly an eye-catcher and a talking point. It also provides a challenge to brand / livery designers like Ray Stenning, who is famous for swooping and swirling designs to complement the contours of buses. The hard edges of the Streetdeck / Gemini 3 requires a change of heart. Ray has managed this brilliantly with his design for Transdev’s revamped 36.

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Ray Stenning’s superb livery on Transdev’s 36 route

But…..

Whilst most bus users probably won’t consider certain nuances with how a bus rides around a corner, for me it’s all about the entire package of a bus ride, and whether people who have a choice will consider it again. Transdev’s 36 is right up there challenging the motorist seriously with all it’s pulling points. The others less so. National Express West Midlands’ new livery applied to their Streetdeck has a certain amount of classy “wow” factor – it does look really smart out in service – but it’s current users on the 9 route usually have a diet of recently-delivered ADL Enviro 400MMCs. And although most may not be interested enough to spot the difference, they’ll have a smoother ride on the Enviro.

But will the weight loss and the good looks trump other endearing qualities?

Looks aren’t everything. it’s often more subtle than that…..

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Diamond Bright

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I had a catch up with the management of Diamond today, at their base in Tividale, West Midlands. Plenty to talk about, as ever, and it’s always good to understand issues from a bus operator perspective.

Good also to see some brand new vehicles entering service into their Redditch operation – they’d very kindly held one back for me to have a look at. These vehicles – Wright Streetlite single deckers – have extra buggy space specified.

Diamond has had a difficult time in Redditch recently, with the local paper leading the charge on highlighting complaints in the town. How much of this is justified, I don’t know, but it was very disappointing to hear that one of the new buses had around a thousand pounds worth of damage done to it on it’s first day in service. I wonder if the paper will help to try and find those responsible?

On a brighter note, I picked up a stock of Diamond’s own timetable leaflets. Because Centro produces comprehensive timetable information in the urban West Midlands, there isn’t much of a need for bespoke operator information. Centro’s leaflets are basic, without any colour, and whilst you could argue that, because public money goes into these, they need to be as cheap as possible, Diamond’s publicity – particularly for it’s Worcestershire operation –  is bright, colourful, uplifting and informative. The picture shows the inside of the leaflet for the 2/2L service from Kidderminster to Ludlow. It shows a route map, stops and fare information – and it’s attractive presentation has already done it’s job – because it’s tempted me to have a ride on it!

Good publicity for bus services is so important, as it both attracts people and de-mystifies public transport, when you can easily see the route, times and know what to expect to pay.

There are a lot of bus companies that produce good information – but also a lot that don’t.

And whilst the internet is a great tool for researching bus journeys in advance, there really is still a large place for printed material – and the more attractive and informative it is, the better!

The Best Things In Life Are Free

So goes the song.

Today, I just went for a small ramble around my home patch on the buses. I do this quite often, and it helps just to be up to speed about what goes on in the bus world on your doorstep.

I thought I’d randomly start with a Diamond service 226. It arrived on time, an Optare Solo with more than a couple of years on the clock, but I was greeted by a “Good Afternoon, Sir” from our lady driver.

As I ordered my n-Bus ticket via the Swift Smartcard, I was thanked and sat down.

Why am I writing this? This should surely be the “norm” every time I get on the bus. We all know that it isn’t, and of course there are a million and one reasons why it isn’t. To somewhat “defend” drivers who don’t communicate in this way, let me just say that, as someone who works in front line public transport delivery in my “day job”, I know it can often be a challenge to greet the hundreds or even thousands of members of the public who use your service every day with a cheery greeting. I try to myself,much of the time.

But in a World that is fast losing it’s human interaction on so many levels, this was a pleasure to see. I witnessed a personal greeting for every passenger who boarded or left the bus. For some, this can often make a huge difference to their day. Then I watched as a full-blown conversation took place between our driver and a small toddler, who must have only been around 3 or 4 years old, and her Mum. Imagine the impact on her. It must have made a huge, bewildering bus journey seem just that bit nicer! I see a lot of small children who use the rail service I drive, many of them wide-eyed, making sense of the World. If they can get a sense of positiveness about public transport, who knows – it may stick with them. Public transport is the blood of the nation that binds communities together. For a small child, seeing buses trains and trams as good bits of life is so important. That little girl will be thinking good things about her bus journey tonight. Many parents tell me about their children’s love of the train I drive.

Public transport operators often take a lot of criticism. Like most things, sometimes it’s deserved, other times it isn’t. But it’s only right that when good things happen, they are commended. So I have contacted Diamond and told them about my positive public transport experience today. The public face of any transport operator are the staff. Manners still matter. The best things in life really are free.

**the picture, I know, is about as cheesy as it gets. I was trying to find an image to illustrate the blog with. I’m not suggesting us public transport workers dish out chocolates to our passengers, but this was actually the reverse – one of our lovely passengers on the line I drive bought us a box of chocolates at Christmas. And the rumour that I ate the lot and didn’t share them amongst the rest of my colleagues is a terrible lie……**

 

Is This Bus “Slimmer of the Year?”

The Optare Metrodecker is a long-awaited product that hopes to gain inroads into a market dominated by Alexander-Dennis’s Enviro 400 and Wrightbus’s Streetdeck/Gemini 3. Is this going to be a real challenger to the establishment? I went hunting around Reading, where it is on trial with Reading Buses, to have a go myself….

I haven’t been to Reading for quite a few years, but I remember it was a colourful scene back then, with the municipal operator – under the then guidance of James Freeman – colour-coding many of their routes, and leading the way in all sorts of quirky gas-powered buses and the like. So it’s long-been an interesting area with regard to bus operation.

Fast-forward to now, and Reading Buses are the current UK Bus Awards operator of the year – actually scooping 5 trophies in all. This is a seriously good operator. James Freeman is now waving his magic wand at First in Bristol, but his successor is Martijn Gilbert. I met up with him at Reading Buses depot in the town and his enthusiasm for the operation shines through. It isn’t surprising that the trial Metrodecker has found it’s way here.

What’s getting the bus industry all excited is fuel economy. That isn’t always the first thing that bus users think about (in fact, it probably doesn’t cross our minds at all), but, behind the scenes, it’s increasingly the buzz-phrase. The more fuel-efficient a bus is, the more money can be saved – and with so many routes now marginal in their operational costs, every penny saved means a greater chance of some routes continuing to operate.

But I’m no technical expert. When Clarkson used to grumble about miles-per-gallon on Top Gear, I used to stick my head into a good bus book. What’s it like for those of us at the bus stop?

Luckily, Martijn has printed a copy of the bus’s running board for the day, so rather than my usual stance of lurking suspiciously around bus stops hoping something might turn up, I know exactly where the Metrodecker is today. It’s doing routes 13/14 from Reading town centre to Woodley. And – bang on time – it appears onto stand EM opposite the railway station. There’s a brief driver changeover and a few people pile on, clutching bags of shopping. To them, a bus is a bus is a bus.

To me though, this isn’t any old bus. But actually, it might have been. Perhaps what is slightly surprising – to me at least – is a lack of a bit of “wow” factor of the Metrodecker. It’s more “functional” than “fwoooaa”. When I first saw an ADL Enviro 400, it looked like significant thought had been put into the look of the vehicle. Further back in time, Wright’s Gemini body – quickly nicknamed “The Nokia bus” because of it’s resemblance to the mobile phone fascia of the day – turned heads. Likewise the “New Routemaster” in London. Wrights Streetdeck / Gemini 3 is such a striking design, it creates a “marmite” feel – you either love it or hate it! Optare used to do this sort of thing. Remember the Solo midibus? When that first appeared it won awards for it’s design. Likewise I recall attending the launch of Optare’s Spectra double decker back in the late 1990s – the first low-floor double deckers for Travel West Midlands. It was a filthy wet day, but they stood out a mile against the square workhorses of the day – the MCW Metrobus.

The Metrodecker lacks a look that might create a double-take from passers by on the street. Perhaps that’s the point. Beneath it’s modest exterior lurks the fuel-efficiency that is getting bus folk hot under the collar. But I suspect that the likes of Ray Stenning will eventually get to work on the lines of the bus and create a livery to excite mere mortals like me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s smart and perfectly presentable, but it doesn’t scream at you.

It’s orange. Which fits in nicely on routes 13/14 as they too are orange. Which is probably why no one really bats an eyelid at the vehicle as they get on. I snap a few pictures and bring up the rear of the queue with my “Easysaver 10” smartcard. It bleeps happily, I’m thanked by the driver and I scurry off upstairs.

The staircase looks as if it might offer an option of a glazed look. This one had a frosted appearance, but it could offer a London-esque appearance, as the Boris Buses do, and the new ADL Enviro400 City variant – the Boris Bus lookalike.

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could the Metrodecker offer a glazed staircase appearance like the New Routemaster? 

Sitting on the front offside seats, the legroom is acceptable – even for a 6’7″ guy like me. Martijn was keen to stress that, should Reading Buses order any of these in the future, the internal specification might well be very different to what is on offer here. For me, legroom is an increasing aspect of may people’s bus journey. I accept I’m at the outer extremities of human height (I’ve been told I’m 1 inch off being an official “giant” – hey, what’s 1 inch? Size really does make a difference…) but I’m also aware that there are an awful lot of folk who hover around the 5’10” size – and they too seem to struggle with legroom. My local operator National Express West Midlands has really made a difference by adding extra legroom to it’s premium “Platinum” offering, so much so, that I look forward to any seat on a Platinum bus, rather than trying to dive for the one by the emergency exit. It’s all about little things…

There’s a decent view from my front seat. Both the ADL Enviro 400MMC and Wright Streetdeck/Gemini 3 have large corner units between the front and side windows. This isn’t really a huge issue, but the Metrodecker has hardly any in comparison. The best model of all for this is the New Routemaster. The glass is angled to wrap right around from front to side.

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decent view from front to side

But then I come across my first downside. The large panel under the front windscreen (which generations of kids have tried tampering with to try and gain access to the destination blinds) is usually flat on most buses I’ve ridden on. This one is gently curved, like a slight bubble effect. But it is obviously encouraged some people to put their dirty shoes on it, like a giant foot rest. Result: mud. It looks unsightly.

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the angled front panel appears to encourage people to use it as a footrest….

The grab rail below the front windscreen is angled in a way I haven’t seen before. It adds a nice touch.

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angled grab-rail

Other scribes have described the bus as “rattle free”. So of course I’m listening intently for any such misdemeanours. There come none. Reading’s roads are trying at times, with plenty of bumps and potholes observed, so it’ll be interesting to see if the bus continues to perform with out a squeak or rattle. It’s how buses should be anyway.

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upper deck….

Ride quality of any vehicle is subjective. I know car enthusiasts who argue about hard or soft suspension and the relative merits of both. I guess most bus passengers don’t naturally think too much about the actual ride quality, so long as their bus turns up in the first place, but it could also be a subconscious thing. A smooth bus ride isn’t something you’d necessarily talk about down the pub on a Saturday night (unless you’re me) but it could linger deep in the psyche…

For me, the best current smooth ride offering is ADL’s Enviro 400 MMC. In comparison, I find Wright’s Streetdeck integral more bumpy and jerky in comparison. I’ve even taken myself off for rides on examples in Worcester and Derby on several occasions to challenge my own preconceptions, but I end up with those same thoughts. The Wright body on a Volvo chassis (“Gemini 3”) in another comparison is a much smoother ride, in my view. But others may disagree. A friend actually prefers the Streetdeck as it “hugs the road better”, he says. Subjective, the topic is. Where does the Metrodecker rank? Actually, I think, in between the two! It isn’t the smooth sophisticated ride of the Enviro 400 MMC, but it isn’t the sharpness of the Streetdeck either.

As mentioned, I’m no technical expert, but I’ve read suggestions elsewhere that both the Metrodecker and the Streetdeck appear to struggle for power on gradients. They share the same fuel-efficient Mercedes engine. I haven’t seen much evidence for this on the admittedly limited experience I have riding both vehicle types. The run from Reading to Woodley was pretty much on the flat, and the bus seemed perfectly capable of handling the route OK.

At what I assumed was the outer terminus (Our driver sat at a bus stop on an unassuming estate street for a few minutes), I ventured downstairs and sat at the rear. I expected it to be a bit quieter than it was. OK, I was sitting right over the engine, but it still seemed a tad noisier than I was expecting for a new bus. I wondered what it might be like to hold a conversation with someone, but as I was travelling on my own, I decided to avoid strange looks by not talking to myself.

Inevitably, I still got the funny looks though, when I started photographing the mud on the rear-facing seats.This is something I wish bus designers would find a way to factor out. I don’t know many people that actually use these seats, and in many cases, they are rendered unusable due to people using them as footrests and depositing mud and dirt all over them.

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the dreaded rear-facing seats / unofficial footrest….

Although the vehicle is a demonstrator, and Martijn was at pains to tell me that any future Metrodeckers may well look different internally to this one, I felt the blue plastic moulded panels around the seats and walls didn’t do it any favours. It gave it a very basic feel, compared to a more premium look on alternative vehicles.

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the moulded blue plastic doesn’t give the inside a “premium” feel….

The nearside emergency exit is quirky (it’s normally on the other side) and the front doors did actually sqeak – so my job of finding something that required a bit of WD40 is complete. The rear window or “porthole” I guess is a bit of a design feature, but it scarily reminded me of when I once had a hospital scan!

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rear window? Or hospital body scanner?

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the nearside emergency exit

Ultimately, in an age where “design” and aesthetics seem to have come back to external bus design, the Metrodecker has an almost “plain Jane” look to it. Whatever the Streetdeck’s ride quality, it is still a “head turner” in the street. Likewise, the ADL E400 & MMC have the look of class/quality about them. I’m not saying the Metrodecker doesn’t have potential as a lightweight bus with decent ride quality, but I’m just a little surprised that Optare – who once led the field in head-turning bus designs – has produced something that doesn’t make you think “wow” when it goes past you. Riding on it has a similar effect. Competent, decent, yes. But did my fellow passengers think they were on something mightily different to other orange buses on the route? I’m not sure they did. I suppose it’s all subjective, as ever. A bit of a better kit-out inside and a touch of the Stenning magic on the outside might well transform the product.

Optare reports that they have around 20 operators ready to trial the Metrodecker, and fuel efficiency is the big draw. Can it muscle in on the established players? If the industry is convinced that this bus is the “slimmer of the year” in weight loss terms, it could well appear on many more roads than Reading’s…

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rear view of the Optare Metrodecker

More Swift Woes….

Regular readers of OnThisBus will be aware of my, shall we say, apprehension about the West Midlands smartcard. I’ve blogged about Swift before here.

I’ve actually become a regular user of Swift, especially since the major operator National Express West Midlands came on board, and, since the most recent set of fare revisions, it is now cheaper to pay through Swift than a cash fare.

Despite the plethora of Swift card types, and fare offers, the hardware itself has seemed robust enough. Place your card on the reader, tell the driver what you want, and – hey presto – you have your cheaper ticket. I knew eventually something would go wrong – and yesterday it did.

I was off to see the Dad’s Army film with a friend – and thinking more about that then my bit of plastic in my hand. But placing it on the card reader of my Arriva bus brought a big, fat blank to both the screen and the driver’s face.

“You’ve got no credit” he mumbled. “Impossible”, says I, as I have it on auto top-up via my bank account. Indeed, it had only recently “auto topped up”, so I knew there was plenty on it.

We both play with it again, balancing it on the card reader, but to no avail. The screen was blank. And now I have an audience of fellow travellers all thinking I’m a con artist after a free ride.

I check my wallet in desperation and find that I -just about – have enough coins to pay for a single fare. Indeed I pay more, as Arriva has copied National Express West Midlands’ policy of exact fare vaults. “Do you want to ring them first?” suggests the driver. I’m not sure who he means by “them”. By this time, he’s already back out into the traffic flow and I’m doing the classic one-handed monkey-style grab handle claw with one hand, whilst trying to sift through my wallet with the other, with the audience now probably in stitches at my “Some Mothers Do ‘Av ‘Em” sketch.

“I’ll pay cash and sort it out” I tell my driver, who seems to have adopted a clever mix of slight embarrassment and not-really-bothered at my predicament.

So I pay over the odds for my ticket and take a seat at the rear for a journey of harrummphing at the system. As it happens, there is a phone number on the rear of my Swift card. “Customer support”. I ring it, but a recorded message tells me that it is open between 9am-5pm Monday to Friday. As I’m travelling on a Sunday, I’m on my own, mate.

I’m not convinced my card has suddenly packed up on it’s own accord. In Dudley, on my way down to the cinema, I check the card reader installed in a shelter on Castle Hill. It reads my card perfectly and shows I have plenty of credit on board.

The film is good, and my friend offers me a lift home – which is a good job as I don’t have enough coins for another bus journey – and I don’t fancy spending a mortgage-like amount on a hot dog to get enough change.

The next day I have a plan. I’ll try my Swiftcard on another bus. If it fails, I’ll head over to Centro House in Birmingham and get them to sort it out. But it works perfectly on a Diamond service. Then a National Express WM one. And then a Hansons. So I conclude that a faulty ticket machine/reader on the Arriva bus must have been the culprit. I email the aquamarine gang and Centro/Swift to tell them of my unfortunate experience.

Am I being harsh? We all know technology fails from time to time, and this is just another example. Another was my attempt to use NXWM’s usually effective app to tell me how long I have to wait at the bus stop this morning. That too was whirring around to infinity before eventually giving up and telling me that “no services were due”, which must have been a surprise to the several dozen who were on the bus in question when it arrived.

But it isn’t actually so much about the kit failing. it’s what happens when it does. My Arriva driver was friendly enough, but he either wasn’t overly bothered at my plight or didn’t have the authority to issue me a ticket due to his machine failure. Maybe he thought it wasn’t his machine (it bleeped happily away when concessionary passes were placed on it), and maybe I was a chancer with “no credit” looking for a free ride?

Swift encourages you to use it. No need for pockets full of change, they say. But I’m now going to have to revert to making doubly sure I now have ample change in case this happens again – therefore defeating the object in the first place!

And what if I hadn’t got the change? I certainly wasn’t putting a £20 note in without the prospect of any change. The driver, affable as he seemed, I guess would have been perfectly within his rights to refuse me travel if I hadn’t have coughed up with coins. Then what? My day out ruined? All because I’d listened to the Swift blurb about “travelling smarter” and it had let me down? And what if I wasn’t some bus-loving disciple? The experience of rolling around the platform in front of an audience of passengers might have been the prompt to leave the stage for good.

This is why it has to work, robustly, 99.9% of the time. And when it inevitably doesn’t, there needs to be a swift (sorry for the pun) policy that errs on the side of the passenger and gets them to their destination with the minimum of fuss.

Of course I’ll continue to use Swift, but was my experience an unfortunate one-off that I’m over-egging – or is it something that is a wider problem that needs addressing?

North West Freewheeling…

Sometimes it’s just nice to roam around where the next bus takes you. An appreciation of public transport, its place in day-to-day life, and just seeing new areas. You can’t appreciate any of that behind the wheel of a car!

My friend Mark Fitchew introduced me to the “freewheeling” term. Like me, he likes to ride around the highways and byways of Britain – even more perhaps surprising, as he drives buses for a living! My excuse relates to wanting to see a change of scenery after endless runs up and down the Stourbridge branch line in my “day job”!

I’ve known Mark for a while on Facebook, so it is perhaps inevitable that we should end up “freewheeling” together. His is an encyclopaedic brain full of bus information and the history of operations all over the place – a fascinating listen when he gets going!

We both had a day off, so decided to go roaming around Cheshire and Greater Manchester. Meeting at Wolverhampton rail station, we got the most important thing sorted out first – a bacon roll! Then we hopped on a train to get us to our first bus stop – outside Crewe station. My railway staff pass gets me there for free, but Crewe is somewhere I don’t normally visit.

On the odd occasion I’ve been here, Crewe station always strikes me as being bigger than I imagine it to be. It’s a real “railway” town, of course, but you get a real sense of history just by standing in it. I spot a Royal Mail carriage – surprising, as I was under the impression we didn’t do mail by rail any more. A quick poser on Twitter seems to result in the knowledge that we still do – but we don’t sort it on the move any more. I wonder if it’s still bringing “the cheque and the postal order” (can you still get “postal orders”?) as idolized in WH Auden’s legendary poem (here).

We’re after the Arriva 38 to Macclesfield. Mark reckons it’s been upgraded to Sapphire status, but once we’ve ascertained which direction the bus is heading from the (just about acceptable) council bus information outside the station and located the stop, a standard Arriva double deck Volvo/Wright appears. The bus shelter itself contained information on departures (and assumed you already knew the route of the bus you wanted) but the digital screen looked like it had long-since scrolled its last departure. I guess Cheshire has as little cash as any of its financially-challenged sister councils these days for such frivolities.

A lady boards and we follow, buying an Arriva North-West Day ticket for £5.20. This covers quite a large area, so it’s decently priced if you want to go riding like us!

The trip to Macclesfield is pleasant, if uneventful. The hourly service is actually a “Sapphire” service, as posher buses than ours pass by in the opposite direction.  Through Haslington and Sandbach, then plenty of green fields and quaint rows of houses, we await time for a few minutes at Congleton bus station – nothing more than a large lay-by today, but it seems to do it’s job. Mark mentally records the location of a passing chip shop – he’s quite an expert on such locations, as I suggest he pens a book about it. “Chippy By Bus”, we agree, is it’s provisional title.

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Macclesfield’s bus station

And soon we’re in Macclesfield. I haven’t stopped here for years, merely passing through as a train passenger from Manchester to Wolverhampton. The location of the bus station appears to have changed from Mark’s memories too. We go up a hill, then swing left into the “new” facility, which is quite small, but contains a plaque stating that it opened in 2004.

Macclesfield bus station is small and functional, but it seems a tad down-at-heel. It’s a bit dull inside. Passengers mill around the departure stands. A notice (half-ripped) warns intending passengers that Greater Manchester’s ticket range isn’t valid this far out.

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Macclesfield bus station feels a bit, well, “dull”…

We don’t have long to wait for our next leg – an Arriva 130 service to Manchester itself. In stark contrast to our dim-lit surroundings, the bus is light and welcoming. This route too has been “Sapphired”, but with single decks on a basic 30 minute frequency for the roughly hour-and-half trip into the northern powerhouse. Our driver is very friendly and welcoming – maybe he’s been one chosen “from our most trusted drivers” as the screen tells us on board – part of the Sapphire blurb, but one that I’m not sure I particularly like – if Sapphire drivers are the “most trusted”, what does that say about the rest of them?

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Arriva’s 130 Macclesfield-Manchester “Sapphire” service feels welcoming, with it’s “cool blue” feel…

There are funky USB chargers between the seats, next stop announcements and the screen tells us similar information (in between the trust level of their staff). These vehicles are actually refurbished buses, but the job has been superb, and you’d never guess they weren’t new. They’re comfortable and attractive.

“Posh” these buses need to be, if they are to attract new users. The route threads it’s way through tree-lined commuter-belt towns and villages. If Cheshire is the Manchester “overspill” for those with a few quid to spend on mini mansions and 2x 4x4s on the gated driveways, only the highest spec bus service will do.

The service is far from empty though. As Mark produces chicken sandwiches for us and waxes-lyrical about the history of the route, it is filling up quite nicely. Through Alderley Edge and Wilmslow, we eventually arrive into Greater Manchester-land  and East Didsbury. The Metrolink trams terminate here and we see buses from First and Stagecoach resting in between battle. The Wilmslow Road in Manchester is, of course, scene of some of the most incredible bus battles of recent times. The student population here is served by Stagecoach’s Magic Bus low-cost service (amongst others, but not by the plethora of independents in days gone by). We take the route parallel to the Wilmslow Road, but there are still plenty of students at bus stops heading into City. What is notable is that hardly any flag us down – the cheap deals on student travelcards – no doubt led by Stagecoach – is a triumph of competition. The hybrid buses on Stagecoach’s 50 route surround us from all directions – it’s clear who wears the bus trousers on this section of road.

Near the City, the Police have cordoned off a road, and we’re on a slight diversion. Now we’re up close and personal with Stagecoach’s Magic Buses. Myself and Mark muse the history of the “bargain basement”-type service. We agree that you don’t really see the “no frills” type of bus operation much any more around the rest of the country. The industry has instead looked at more upmarket offerings, such as Stagecoach Gold, Arriva’s Sapphire and National Express West Midlands’ Platinum to name but three. Indeed, with some Manchester Magic Buses now Enviro 400 double deckers, it doesn’t even look like a no-frills offering these days. There’s more yellow on the dark blue livery, and I think it looks rather attractive.

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Arriva’s “Sapphire” 130 in Manchester Piccadilly

We arrive into the throng of Piccadilly bus station and mix it with the Metrolink. The diversion has left our 130 slightly behind schedule and he’s quickly loaded up and back out towards the leafy Cheshire overspill. We instead head straight for the travel information office and fill our bags with maps and timetables – the equivalent of some kind of bank raid, as the staff watch partially open-mouthed as we rob the shelves and make off with our goodies.

First up in the big City is a ride on Metrolink. Manchester feels every bit a “European” City these days. The big yellow trams snake in from all corners, their jolly-sounding horns pipping away at errant pedestrians. Mark knows what he’s doing. We scurry through the Arndale Centre and emerge out of another exit at a new tram stop.

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The new “Exchange Square” Metrolink stop in Manchester

Exchange Square has only recently opened. Mark tells me there’s a bit of tram history here, as it opened the same day as the Midland Metro extension to Bull Street in Birmingham. You’d have to go way back in history to find a similar happening. We decide on a Bus/Tram off-peak day ticket for £6.70. Mark shovels a £20 into the machine, and it spits loads of coins out in return. I decide to use my debit card, but the new machine isn’t having any of it. I have to queue up at the other machine and we manage to miss the waiting tram. The other machine gladly takes my card and provides me a bright yellow ticket. We don’t have to wait long, as a few minutes later another yellow monster arrives.

Exchange Square is currently a terminus, but will eventually be linked onto the rest of the system as a through station. We watch and whip our cameras out to record the quick shunting movement to get the tram onto the other track for our outbound journey.

Manchester’s Metrolink trams are bright, airy and welcoming. They have a wide array of tickets, including a weekend version for one or two people. It feels like a real asset to the good people of Manchester, and plenty of them are using it. Mums with buggies, pensioners, guys clutching cans of beer. It soon fills up. The seats also feel marginally more comfortable than their new sisters on the Midland Metro – there’s a tad more padding.

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Manchester’s Metrolink trams are bright and welcoming…

Also evident is the lack of conductor. Mark tells me that, unlike their West Midlands counterparts, there aren’t any. But apparently a roving squad of Revenue Officers are riding the network and provide little mercy for ticketless travellers. Indeed, one stop along at Victoria, I spot a lot of uniformed Metrolink staff on an adjacent platform.

We whizz along, through Oldham and the Mancunian suburbs, with many grand old mill buildings evident, some used, some derelict. The skyline in parts is much like it might have been over 100 years ago. Metrolink has several Park & Ride sites along its routes, and we terminate at one such – Shaw & Crompton. The line, however, continues on to Rochdale, and we hot foot it to an adjacent platform for the rapidly arriving ongoing service. The route becomes slightly more rural and we can see green hills in the distance as we arrive into Rochdale, first at the Railway station, then a rapid descent into the town terminus.

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Metrolink terminates in Rochdale – home of Lisa Stansfield….

Here the route terminates, right next to a recently opened bus station, which is very attractive to users. Me and Mark grab pictures of our trusty stead, just before it’s driver emerges for a quick fag. We cross over into the bus station where we spot a First 471 loading to Bolton via Bury. Mark knows an excellent chippy in Bolton, and that seals the deal.

We soon depart.It’s a Wright bodied Volvo. Nothing overly special, a bit of litter rolls around the upper deck. Buses on this route are pushing the First day ticket – £4.20 since you ask – on their upper deck windows.

We pass through Heywood, prompting a hopeless comment from me about Nick Heywood from 80s band Haircut 100. Mark reminds me of Lisa Stansfield, the girl with the stupendous soul voice, who I once had a crush on (and, if I’m honest, I still do). Furthermore, Mark reminds me that Cannon & Ball met in Oldham, just down the road. He’s seen them twice, but prefers the Grumbleweeds.

Soon we’re in Bury, with it’s Interchange. First have several Mercedes Citaro single deckers operating here, amongst the brightly coloured vehicles from municipal “Rosso” (Rossendale). We both lament the shortening of the name to “Rosso”, although I guess “Rossendale Transport” is a bit of a mouthful for those who can’t be bothered with their syllables. It’s a bit like when we used to watch “Coronation Street” as kids. Now people watch “Corrie”.

The 471 takes just over an hour to go from Rochdale to Bolton. As we hit the town centre, Mark jumps up and bashes the bell. The stop is near the Olympus fish & chip shop, where we avail ourselves of the establishment’s primary offering. Mark knows where the bus station is, so we take shelter here from the ever-increasing winds.

It’s my first time in Bolton bus station. It’s rather large, but it is sorely in need of an upgrade. Stagecoach are here with their Gold service to Chorley and Preston. First has plenty of routes, and I also spot “Diamond”, where Rotala has instigated the name for it’s purchase last year of South Lancs Travel.

It’s getting dark and we think about heading back to central Manchester. The toilet facility here amounts to one of those “pods” where you insert 10p, then worry about the door sliding open once you’re inside. But Mark can’t even get inside. 2 lots of 10p attempts don’t work and we’re forced to go in search of alternatives in the town centre.

We decide on route 8 back to Manchester. It’s First again, with a similar Wrights bodied Volvo. Our driver must be feeling particularly stressed, as no sooner he arrives on the inbound journey, he barely lets his passengers off to quickly vacate the cab himself for a cigarette. Our gaggle passengers make our way on board, and we’re off.

The 8 has a a 10 minutes-or-less daytime frequency and takes just over an hour end-to-end. It also boasts a night service at weekends. Through Farnworth and Pendlebury, we arrive into Salford and Mark points out the Salford/Manchester border. Then we’re into Shudehill Interchange, where we hop on a Metrolink back to Piccadilly railway station. An “act of vandalism” is disrupting some part of the Metrolink network, but we instead hop on an Arriva Trains Wales service down to Crewe, then a London Midland offering back to Wolverhampton. Mark makes his way to the Midland Metro for some local tram riding, whereas I am in Wolverhampton’s rather smart (and never appreciated enough, to my mind) bus station for a National Express West Midlands run on the 256 back to my home village.

It’s been an excellent day “freewheeling” around the North West!

 

You can follow Mark Fitchew’s travels on his “Buses for Fun” blog here