Border Hopping – X75 Shrewsbury – Llanidloes

I’ve got a rather smart model bus in my collection in the livery of Celtic Travel, the Llanidloes-based coach operator, which also operates a couple of bus services. One of the routes crosses into England – the X75 – running into Shrewsbury.

So what better on an autumnal day off to go border-hopping into the Welsh heartlands?

The X75 has it’s origins in Crosville’s D75. The erstwhile Welsh giant – which eventually morphed into Arriva Wales – ran the service from Shrewsbury, across the border into Welshpool, Newtown, and then Llanidloes. The same occurs today with Celtic’s X75, although a couple of trips extend to Llangurig and Rhayader.

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My journey from Shrewsbury to Llanidloes was on this Enviro 300

Guess Your Bus Times…

I’m here for the 0930 departure from Amwythig (Welsh for “Shrewsbury”). I spy a Celtic Travel single decker parked up in the layover area, across the road from the bus station. It isn’t one of the smart vehicles I have the model of. Instead, it’s an 11 year old Enviro 300. There is no on-stand timetable, seemingly the result of vandalism – or it has simply fell off….

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The lack of timetable inforation at Shrewsbury bus station doesn’t inspire confidence…

Spot-on 0930 it rolls out of its slumber and on to the stand. There are a handful of other takers, including a lady with an excitable dog. Predictably, I am the only one to offer cash.

After much punching of the ticket machine buttons, a Shrewsbury – Llanidloes return comes out at £12 for the 2-hours and a bit journey (although once across the border in Powys it becomes £8 for a day ticket).

We set off 5 minutes down, looping around some of Shrewsbury’s houses before we hit the open road. Our semi-old girl copes admirably with the speeds of the fast road. The excitable hound descends into a slumber under its owner’s seat.

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The excitable hound descends into a slumber….

We acquire a few more takers, but this is a huge mass of green fields, until, after three quarters of an hour, we arrive into Welshpool (or “Y Trallwng” in the native’s language). We’re running continuously around 5-7 minutes late, but this doesn’t seem to bother anyone. After a loop around the Town’s one-way system, we’ve lost some travellers and gained a few new ones, as we again run out through the gorgeous countryside, with mist covering the distant Welsh hills and fields of cows chewing the cud, watching us fly past with seemingly little interest.

We divert occasionally from the main drag to serve small settlements such as Berriew (Aberriw) where our driver obviously knows the location of the public conveniences, as he temporarily bolts out of the cab, returning moments later looking a much happier man.

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The X75 is very rural in parts! 

The Orange Brigade…

Then it’s back to the main drag of the A483 and Newtown (“Y Drenewydd”), where our approach is delayed into the tiny bus station by a gaggle of tabarded officials which show “GB Rally”. A quick conversation takes place between one such oranged-up official and our man at the wheel, before we serve our stand. Here, we gain 10 new folk.

There is a timetabled 10-minute recovery here, but we’re straight out and thus back on time.

Then we divert again from the main road into Caersws, where the streets are narrow, the parked cars are plentiful, and progress is, well, “demanding”. Our man has obviously done it plenty of times before, but there is much reversing from oncoming cars to avoid stalemate, especially at the picturesque bridge into the town, where there ain’t room in this town for our bus and anything else. Two fishermen, almost waist-deep in the River Severn with rods observe our progress.

We’re more or less on time into Llanidloes, where our service has a 6-minute layover, before carrying on for another 10 minutes to it’s ultimate destination of Llangurig. I bail out here for a few hours exploring, which inevitably ends up in a pub and faggots for lunch.

Austerity Hits – with gaffer-tape…

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The timetable information at Llanidloes is held together by gaffer-tape…

Back on the opposite side of the road, my return journey appears a couple of minutes down, but is one of the much posher Volvo/Wrights single-deckers, which my model depicts. It’s the same driver from earlier, whom I presume has also been suitably fed and watered for his over-4 hour round trip across the border. The at-stop information is held together by good old gaffer-tape.

The vehicle has nicely-finished leather green and white seating and a screen that tells us that the next stop is Newtown bus station – which patently isn’t the case.

The X75 is very scenic in parts, as hillsides, mountains and still-not-cleared mist is observed. Back in Caersws, we again do battle with motorists. The fishermen have disappeared.

As we approach Newtown, the traffic congestion becomes horrendous. Whether this is a direct result of the “GB Rally” is not clear, but after 9 users have joined us at the bus station, we’re 15 minutes down. The “next stop” info screen fails to change.

“Next Stop” fail…

We fail to make up much time on the approach into Welshpool, where, if anything, the congestion issue is even worse. As we sit in stationary traffic, the X75 running in the opposite direction passes us, running 40 minutes late. It’s driver looks beyond fed up and throws his hands up in despair at our man as some form of greeting. We perform another loop of the town, by which time we’re 30 minutes late ourselves. Our “next stop” screen still doggedly shows “Newtown”.

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The non-changing next stop information screen

Then a man boards with a sack which is the size of a small child. He tells the driver it’s dog feed, and wrestles it to the nearest seat. The driver doesn’t bat an eyelid, the rest of us are mildly bemused.

Back on the A483 we’re not really making back any time, and our progress is delayed further by a load of cows being crossed over the road, just past the English border. We eventually arrive back into Shrewsbury bus station 25 minutes down, where we pull on to the stand, I take pictures of the bus and it’s somewhat surprised new passengers, and our man makes a bolt for the bus station loo.

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Back in Shrewsbury for a very late departure…

 

The Verdict:

I presume that this service is subsidised by Powys Council, and it is indeed a lifeline to it’s users. The vehicles are decent, but the evening peak timetable – if my journey is typical – is a disaster. There is a bypass being built around Newtown, so maybe that will help when it finally opens.

 

The Good (“da”)

  • Smart buses
  • Friendly drivers
  • Lifeline service

The not-so-good (“ddim mor dda”)

  • No at-stop information in Shrewsbury bus station
  • Congestion in Newtown and Welshpool means the timetable goes to pot
  • Celtic Travel website has no fares information
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The model version…

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Simplicity

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Why can’t the evening & Sunday journeys on the 257, and the 657 journeys on the right, be added to the main timetable (which already includes evening & Sunday journeys on 256) to make it simple to use? 

Buses are all about bums on seats. Or, more specifically, getting a good commercial return from your services (seeing that, in theory, you could fill a bus full of “bums on seats”, but if all those bums belong to concessionary pass holders, the return may not be great…)

Making bus services simpler to understand is, of course, a large part of attracting new users. The look of bewilderment on the faces of potential new users can lead to the abandonment of the bus as an option before any “wooing” with posh seats and Wi-Fi has even begun.

What to make of the seemingly current trend to re-number services down to single or double-digit route numbers, in order to “simplify” matters? I’ve rambled on about this before. The enthusiast in me isn’t particularly keen – bits of history are eliminated for a start, and for those of us who DO understand the local bus network, the potential for a reverse-effect is very real – new users might well find it simpler – but us “old heads” have to learn it all again!

But if I remove the “enthusiast” cap, I’m fairly open-minded to what this “simplification” can achieve. Having a “Worzel Gummidge” approach (2 heads) is important.

Two recent observations, whilst just idling around my local Black Country network recently stand out. I like to arrogantly think I know my own patch, so I pretty much switch off when getting around my area.

However, standing in Dudley bus station awaiting an 87 the other day suddenly nudged my conscious state. The 87 stand is often used by incoming drivers to unload. On stand, just arriving was an 82, having weaved it’s way around several estates from Wolverhampton. Next up was my bus, about to load – an 87. But my 87 carries route branding for the 87 – and it’s sister route 82. But it isn’t the 82 that’s just come in from Wolverhampton. It’s the 82 from Birmingham to Bearwood, which the 87 shares out of the 2nd City to form a common headway before they go their separate ways. It’s attractive for the good folk of Birmingham – but if you’re trying to make sense of the Dudley network, you’re being exposed to two separate 82s!

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Users in Dudley see branded buses for the 82/87 – but confusingly, the 82 shown on this bus never comes as far as Dudley. Yet if you stand in Dudley bus station, you’ll see a completely different “82” bound for Wolverhampton….

I don’t know if this matters. Are people confident enough to know that the 82 coming in to Dudley from Wolverhampton is not the 82 they see plastered on the side of the 87 bus? Of course the regulars are, but what about newbies to bus travel?

The second bit of “simplification-that-may-not-be-simple” relates to at-stop information.

A recent round of evening tender changes has resulted in a few operator swap-arounds. So new at-stop timetables have been put up by what used to be Centro (now “Transport for West Midlands” or “West Midlands Combined Authority” or still “Network West Midlands” – too many “brands”?).

We now have the splitting off of the daytime and evening frequency on 2 routes, with the evening and Sundays put onto another timetable. A third timetable by a third operator during the day adds to the potential confusion.

Now, it may be that “computer says no” when it comes to the simple combination of all three routes into one timetable (after all, they’re all going to the same destination) but is it not beyond the wit of mankind to override the dreaded technology and make something dead-simple for passengers to refer to? Or is that a “resource” issue again?

Either way, it still isn’t as simple as it could possibly be for our intrepid new bus user. The chances are, they’ll probably shrug their shoulders and creep back to the certainty of their car, and if the likes of taxi and Uber-like entities reduce their fares by much more, how will buses attract new users?

Bells and whistles are great – but its that old chestnut the “jigsaw” that is undoubtedly key. Fit together the pieces of smart, attractive buses, proper meaningful priority in congested areas, good value fares and “simple to understand” nuts and bolts, and there’s a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, there are too little areas where all the ducks are lined up for this to happen. And frustratingly it’s the really simple things that still aren’t being done.