Trent Barton’s Red Arrow has always been the posh way to travel between Derby and Nottingham. Straight up the A52, it’s no-nonsense stuff, taking little over half an hour end to end. And the stonking great vehicles on the route are both eye-catching and luxurious. Historically, the coach link has been there for nearly 60 years.
Indeed, you might fancy a 14-day trek across Europe in one of these Volvo/Plaxton monsters, rather than a quick trip across the East Midlands.
But for happy shoppers of the concessionary pass variety, the free ride appears to be coming to an end…
More on that in a bit. First, I thought it pertinent to have a tootle on one, seeing as it’s been a while. The last time I had the pleasure, the vehicles were unusual, but nonetheless luxurious Scania / Irizar beasts. These were from batches bought in 2004 and 2010, so they were due a refresh. The service itself boasts a 10-minute frequency, and the bit that carried on to Chesterfield has been chopped off and made into a separate service. In recent years the independent operator YourBus took on the mighty Red Arrow with “normal” buses, but has since retreated, and sprung up on the longer Derby-Nottingham link.
So what’s all the fuss about?
I rocked up in Derby bus station just as a healthy crowd was piling onto a Red Arrow. The waiting area has posh red comfy seats to get you in the mood. But I wanted a bit of information about tickets first.
Derby bus station boasts a travel shop AND a TrentBarton “shop” (although it is merely a counter you can talk to a human behind). TrentBarton heavily plug their “Mango” smartcard, but I reckon this is for more regular travellers, not perhaps one-offs like me. So I ask the friendly assistant if there is a day ticket that will get me on the Red Arrow to Nottingham and perhaps any others I might fancy.
“Zigzag!” she replies, enthusiastically. £6 all day across “trentbartonland”, as it’s called. (After 0900 weekdays – although what’s on offer before then isn’t clear).
“I’ll have one” I respond, equally enthused, but although this is the “TrentBarton Shop”, she can’t sell me one. Strange, as the person in front of me in the queue has just bought something involving numerous ten-pound notes. I’m pointed in the direction of the man on the departure stand and called a “duck” or something.
The man on the stand is equally enthusiastic when I approach him with a wallet.
“Can I buy a zigzag off you please?” I enquire. “Yes Sir!” he beams. No ducks, but he relieves me quickly and efficiently of £6 and hands me a small paper ticket. This is great. Real personal human-being-based service, the like of which the bus industry (and most others where they can) have got rid of. I think I’ve only really seen this sort of thing in Oxford, where competition is rife for the market to London.
Red Arrow pocket timetable
I hop on the big red beast. It’s mid-morning, yet I struggle to find a seat and end up almost at the back. The vast majority are seemingly concessionary pass holders.
The trip is no fuss. The coach is super-luxurious, with USB ports to charge your gadgets and free wifi (which actually works – such is my disdain for such technological advances that often don’t). The legroom isn’t great (for a large 6’7″ beast like me) and the tables that used to adorn the older coaches have gone. These seat 57 (or 55 with wheelchair) and it’s almost full. There’s an announcement to put seatbelts on (which most haven’t, and then don’t) but other than that, not a lot happens, apart from a scrolling information screen pushing the delights of Mango.
In Nottingham, the service sets down in Upper Parliament Street (convenient for the tram and City Centre). Our driver grins at an outgoing Red Arrow, who returns the compliment. Then it’s a few moments to Victoria bus station, the smaller of Nottingham’s two bus stations, and tucked behind a large shopping centre. Here I grab some pictures as our mighty steed loads up and heads back to Derby, and within moments, another one has arrived on stand. I climb aboard for a swift return.
There’s only a handful of takers on this one, and I grab the seat next to the emergency exit which boasts extra legroom. Unfortunately, every time we stop, something on the door clicks rather loudly, as if I’m in a taxi and the driver doesn’t want me doing a runner. It’s perfectly acceptable for a 35 minute journey, but a fortnight on this to Switzerland might have seen me going ever-so-slightly clickity mad.
There’s nothing remotely interesting to report on this trip either. It’s all done with maximum efficiency and excellent driving.
Back in Derby bus station, I acquire a cheese sandwich with horrendous amounts of my daily allowance in almost everything on it, and decide to try the alternatives between these two East Midlands Cities.
First up, the i4. These run every 15 minutes end-to-end and take just over an hour. There are buses every 7/8 on the Sandiacre-Nottingham section.
These are “proper” buses, although extremely attractive Optare single deckers. Apparently, “i” can do all sorts of things on here, as the fine Trent Barton publicity machine informs me, but “i” choose to scoff my sandwich and worry about not eating for the rest of the week, given it’s fat content. “Only happy people” drive the i4, according to the timetable. Our particular driver, resplendent in his black woolly hat, doesn’t exactly look full of happiness, but then again, neither does he look miserable. Should I crack a joke and see if he laughs, for a “happiness” test? Perhaps not. Besides, I haven’t heard a decent joke for ages. And the ones I do know may not be acceptable to the Mum with small child / buggy in close earshot.
“only happy people drive our buses”!
TrentBarton buses carry large digital clocks at the front. Perhaps our driver is aware of this as he waits time at the White Lion pub in Sandiacre. Then we push on, via the “QMC” (“Queens Medical Centre” in English) into Nottingham, terminating at the City’s other – and bigger – bus station, in Broadmarsh.
Here, I invade the travelshop and avail myself of a pile of timetables, much to the amazement of a woman on a small car-sized mobility scooter, who appears to have dropped by simply for a chat. I scuttle out with my haul and jump on another service that will take me back to Derby – “Indigo”.
TrentBarton Indigo service
TrentBarton Indigo timetable booklet
Indigo is another well-presented TrentBarton offering. Comfy leather seats and wood laminate-effect floor, although there’s no sign of the “superfast wifi & USB chargers on board” the timetable promises. This one takes slightly longer end to end, taking around an hour and twenty minutes, weaving it’s way via Chilwell, Long Eaton and Borrowash, where a particularly irate meat-head in a black car tries totake on our bus, come face to face with a central reservation and somehow decide that it’s not his fault. At our next stop, he pulls up alongside our driver, sounding his horn. Our driver ignores him beautifully and issues a ticket to a boarding passenger. Meat-head man resembles a 5 year old who’s just dropped his ice cream and roars off into the distance, as if to demonstrate he’s the only driver in the World who knows what his right hand pedal does. Silly boy.
Indigo also faces another challenge – not only from meat-head car drivers, but from YourBus. The independent runs it’s Y5 service in competition along this corridor, on a 20 minute frequency, although all of their journeys run end to end (Indigo also runs on a 20 minute frequency, with extra journeys Nottingham – Briar Gate. From the Derby end, they are timed 5 minutes in front of TrentBarton departures, but TB is ahead of YourBus from the Nottingham side. Yourbus doesn’t use Broadmarsh bus station in Nottingham, starting from Friar Lane instead).
YourBus Y5 timetable leaflet
YourBus has “Genie” tickets, in response to TB’s “Mango”, and a £5 Daysaver, also available after 0900. I spot YourBus’s smart purple Mercedes interwoven between the Indigo’s. The whole corridor looks well used.
These alternative routes between Derby and Nottingham are potentially about to become even more patronised. From 1st April 2016, Nottingham City Council is withdrawing concessionary pass reimbursement for Red Arrow services from their end of the route. Those boarding in Derby will still travel free. A leaflet I picked up in Broadmarsh bus station explains that Nottingham City Council is having to make savings of £20.5m this year. They appear to be invoking a section of the regulations that refers to services “where the fare charged by the operator has a special amenity element”.
This is curious stuff, and it got me thinking.
Many moons ago, the more wily concessionary pass holders were finding out the nuts and bolts of “free travel”. some of them ended up on National Express coaches (as they were partly registered as local bus services in some areas) and other anomalies such as tour buses, etc. These loopholes were largely closed, but this development is a new one on me.
There’s no doubt the Red Arrow is distinct from a bus service. Or is it? It has a whopping 10 minute daytime frequency and the journey takes around 35 minutes. So from that perspective, it acts like a “normal” bus, in many respects. It doesn’t stop in many places, so maybe that’s the “special” thing about it. You don’t “pre-book” seats on it (although I did buy my Zigzag before boarding – I think the driver can also sell them.
So by shunting the pass holders onto the conventional services, Nottingham City Council looks set to save money. Fair enough, in many respects, I guess. The other services take longer, but thy are very decent alternatives. The Red Arrow is very much a “jewel in the crown” service, in terms of time taken and comfort. I’m sure the really good commercial team at TrentBarton will come up with something that will attract at least some of the pass holders back if they are prepared to pay. But there are significant numbers of them. Around a third of the Red Arrow customer base are concessionary pass holders, making around 350,000 passenger journeys per year. My outbound journey from Derby was packed with them.
There are other questions in my head. What if YourBus were still competing head-on with Red Arrow using conventional buses? Would they be subject to the “special amenity element”? What does that actually mean? The fast, non-stop element of the service? Or the luxury provided? Or both? What about other “posh” services? Is Transdev’s uber-cool 36 between Leeds and Ripon a “bus” service? It’s vehicles are “buses”, but they are easily comparable to Red Arrow’s interior for comfort.
It’s no good wondering. So I email the good people at Nottingham City Council for the lowdown.
To their credit, they reply very swiftly with a detailed response. It’s all about budgetary pressure. Nottingham has seen it’s grant reduced by half over the last three years. The Council’s “Locallink” services are seen as vital to preserve.
The decision to withdraw Red Arrow from concessionary scheme reimbursement is taken from the “Travel Concessions (Eligible Services Amendment) Order 2009” which states that certain services may be excluded from the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme, namely:
. Services where more than half of the accommodation on the vehicle can be reserved in advance;
. Services intended to operate for less than six consecutive weeks;
. Services operated primarily for the purposes of tourism or because of the historical interest of the vehicle;
. Bus substitution (rail replacement) services;
. Services where the fare for the service includes a special amenity element.
Red Arrow is seen to fall into the last category of the above, based on the fact that it has the following:
. Limited-stop express journey times comparable with rail.
. Large storage facility for luggage and buggies.
. Spacious seats with tray tables.
. Dedicated bike racks.
Other authorities have used the legislation before, but mainly for Park & Ride schemes.
TrentBarton has withdrawn Red Arrow from Nottingham’s multi-modal “Kangaroo” scheme, although the only really feasible use would have been from the City to QMC (Queens Medical Centre), of which there are plentiful alternatives. But we now have the somewhat strange scenario whereby Red Arrow is free for concessionary pass holders from the Derby end (as Derby City Council aren’t following suit) but chargeable from the Nottingham end.
Does all of this really matter?
My hunch is that TrentBarton will come up with a deal that will be attractive enough for concessionary pass holders to pay for the convenience of the fast service. The free alternatives are good, but take considerably longer. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. A stated above, around a third of Red Arrow users are of the concessionary pass variety.
It does, however, throw up the intriguing question of whether a competitor using “bog-standard” vehicles would also be exempted from concessionary pass reimbursement under the same criteria if it went on the same route. If not, TrentBarton would be being penalised for raising the standard of it’s service against a “basic” alternative.
All of this merely underlines the ongoing issues for the industry regarding concessionary pass reimbursement. A great idea, with undeniable social benefits for users, but an omnipresent issue for councils and operators when it comes to paying for use behind the scenes. The concessionary bus pass remains the political hot potato that no politician seems likely to touch – at least in the short term.
Nottingham City Council flyer