Swindon. A place I’d never visited in all of my 40-something years. Famous for it’s railway connections, the UK’s first lending library and Billie Piper (Doctor Who fans will know who she is, as well as hapless DJs like me, who played her tunes around the turn of the Century). It’s then Local Authority-owned bus operator Thamesdown scooped the prestigious “Operator of the Year” gong at the UK Bus Awards in 2011.
My fellow bus nut pal Mark and I decided on a visit. It had actually centred around a last trip on Oxford Bus Company’s short-lived Oxford – Birmingham Airport service – “short-lived” because it’s facing the axe less than a year after being introduced. A trip between Oxford and Swindon on Stagecoach’s 66 Gold service would fit nicely in between.
To the City of Dreaming Spires…
We join the coach at Birmingham International station, and it’s spot on time. £20 for a day return – maybe it seems a tad steep, but that’s the way with premium airport services. After looping around Birmingham Airport, we leave for the Warwickshire countryside with 8 on board. It’s a nice ride towards the City of Dreaming Spires and we arrive, uneventfully, into Gloucester Green bus station where Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach are doing battle for the lucrative London market. All the dollar is to made by folk heading south, it seems.
Gold…and The Magic Roundabout
Also in the mix here are some Stagecoach Gold services. They are impressive beasts. We’re hunting a 66 to Swindon, but less impressive is the lack of departure. Our more-diminished beast rolls in almost 15 minutes down, and the incoming man on the upper deck front seat is fast asleep. Everyone piles off and the new takers immediately board, our man away with the fairies suddenly leaping up and making a sharp exit.
An Adult Explorer is £7.00, and once relieved of our coinage, we’re off on the upper deck and away. Soon, we’re out of the City and into the greenery of a glorious English springtime. The service passes through Faringdon, a delightful location including The Old Crown – a 16th Century coaching Inn, where the original stagecoaches (in an era known as pre-Souter) plied their trade. The modern-day ones stop right outside.
But that’s a stop for another day, as Swindon beckons. The basic 30-minute frequency on route 66 takes around an hour an twenty minutes end-to-end but if the views en route delight, the end result is far-less salubrious. After negotiating Swindon’s almost-novelty “magic roundabout” (five mini-roundabouts that surround one big one in the middle – a scary moment for the more nervous driver), the arrival into the bus station is one of the biggest let-downs since the aforementioned Billie Piper’s second album (“Walk of Life” – hey, I knew my DJ stuff years ago, y’know…)
A very bad 70s Nightmare…
You can imagine Piper reminiscing in some TV documentary about her school days, spending Saturday afternoons singing into the end of a hair brush in Swindon bus station before becoming famous. Or maybe she avoided it completely. Given the choice, most people probably would. If first impressions count, this one certainly isn’t getting a second date. After leaving the luxurious surroundings of the Gold offering, this is like a very bad 1970s nightmare. I wander up and down, taking in the utter despair this place emits. It shouts out that bus travel is the very last resort. I feel a heady mix of sadness, frustration and absolute despondency. Pigeons and their excrement loom large. Threatening notices about the right to confiscate your alcohol are fastened to fences. Information is poor, although Stagecoach does have an office here (no 66 timetables are on offer though). If you’re new to buses here, a lack of an index to places served doesn’t help – the nearest thing is a very basic list of services on each stand. Concrete walkways abound, it looks threatening enough in the middle of the day, so goodness only knows what a young Billie Piper might have felt like hanging around here after dark.
It looks like the longer-distance services go from here. But if you follow the concrete maze away from this transport hell, you come to an equally 70s-inspired flyover-type arrangement called Fleming Way. Here, Thamesdown has an enquiry office, and we run in like excited kids into a record shop (remember them?), about to get our hands on the new Billie Piper album (the first one – it was better). There’s real-time information on offer at the on-street stands too.
A Zone Too Many…?
Thamesdown’s information is good – although my first impression of the ticketing zones was one of confusion. There are 4 – inner, outer, plus and network. Is this really necessary? In fact, the more I scrutinise the leaflet as an outsider, the more baffling it becomes. We settle for a £4 Day Rider, as we’ve only got a couple of hours and drop our fare into another 70s phenomenon – the exact fare box. But at least this will soon be history, as since the company has been taken over by Go Ahead, customer-friendly change will soon be given.
Actually, there is nothing yet to suggest Go Ahead ownership. It’s early days, but I’d half-expected something subtle like some “we’re part of the Go Ahead Group” stickers somewhere, as appeared quite quickly on the Plymouth Citybus takeover. The Dayrider appears to be valid on Stagecoach buses in the area as well. The beachball-liveried challengers have long-existed here too, but it seems that they’re upping the ante now that Thamesdown are in private hands. One to watch for the bus-observers in the coming months and years, methinks.
A Trip to Sparcells…
We’ve randomly chosen a 19 to somewhere called Sparcells, as it’s a Scania double decker. I bound upstairs and claim the front seat, like maybe a young Billie Piper might and we’re off around the outskirts of the town, past the ghosts of Swindon’s railway heritage. Ex-engine sheds are everywhere.
The bus is decent enough, but unexciting. It’s getting on in age and ground-in dirt inevitably shows. Me and Mark contemplate possible reasons as to why the Council has flogged the company to private hands. For all the successes of Council-owned operations such as Nottingham and Reading, this is a sobering reminder that not all of this genre glitters. Is it inevitable politics that leads to Councils concluding that other parts of their empire are further up the pecking order? Or has bus industry stagnation hit this part of Wiltshire?
We have no idea where the 19 terminus is. The service traverses a posh-looking new build housing estate and stops for a few moments just beyond this. The bus stop pole contains good information and prices. We expect to be kicked off, as we suspect it’s the end of the line, but we’re soon on our way back through the posh estate, so we think we’re heading back into Town. The driving itself is a bit on the “urgent” side, but our bus takes it well, and we pass an “extreme trampoline park” and further reminders of steam trains in the form of “Brunel Dental Practice”. I’m slightly disappointed to see no cashing in on Billie Piper’s fame.
A Quick Trip to Hospital…
Back in Fleming Way, an awaiting driver puffs on his vape. Information on stand here is better than the disastrous bus station. Next up, a move to Great Western Hospital on route 1. It’s every 10 minutes, so plenty of buses on this one. Within moments, an elderly single deck Dennis Dart has appeared, and our electric fag-puffing man has vaped his last for a while and takes over our steed.
Ah, driver changeovers. There’s only one place I’ve seen a fast, efficient driver changeover – TrentBarton in Nottingham. I don’t know what they do, but they have it far better than most other bus operation I experience around the country. This one is no different, and seems to take an age. Intending passengers shuffle in boredom. Eventually, we’re allowed on and take off hospital-bound. It’s another uneventful trip. The bus is 15 years old, but is unremarkable. Our now vape-less driver negotiates the Magic Roundabout like he’s done it thousands of times before (I dare say he has), and soon enough, we’re at the Hospital. Just across the way, we spot a 12 on-stand, which is heading back into town via a different route. We decide on immediate action but our sprint reveals how a lifestyle bereft of regular exercise is no good at all when it comes to running for buses. It’s a surprise that no one from the Hospital comes out and drags us in as we board our next Dart with our faces a deeper shade than that of a passing Salisbury Reds service. We needn’t have rushed as our driver is out of the cab deep in conversation on the phone.
The 12 returns to Town via the Old Town and provides a contrast to the more direct and frequent 1. Again, the bus is well-presented for it’s age.
Nothing to See Here (out of the windows…)
We’re back in the Town Centre, and evening peak is rapidly advancing. We’re aware of the time of our last coach back up to the Midlands from Oxford, so it’s time to hop back on Stagecoach’s 66. A sensible use of the toilet facilities back in the bus station is thwarted by the fact that they appear to close at 4.45pm (do the vandals start early here?). The 66 is on stand for a 5pm departure, and it has a decent take-up. But it’s disappointing to find the upper deck windows are absolutely filthy – and I’m inclined to believe that this isn’t one day’s worth of filth, either. It isn’t becoming of such a premium offering.
The journey itself is a fine one. The dying embers of daylight across the gorgeous countryside is a simple but lovely pleasure as we head Oxford-bound. Back in the City, we partake in a ridiculously-priced pint of real ale and then make our way across to Gloucester Green for our evening trip back up to Birmingham International, where we are the only two takers for the entire journey – a sobering reminder as to perhaps why this very useful facility simply hasn’t been able to pay it’s way as a going concern. Full marks to Oxford Bus Company for giving it a try though. I’ll miss it more than Swindon’s bus station…
- Good Thamesdown info in a good old fashioned Travelshop, staffed by real people
- Decent presentation of Thamesdown buses
- Decent core network of services
- Swindon bus station truly appalling
- Confusing amount of fare zones
- Some drivers a bit on the “urgent” side
Design Guru Ray Stenning has subsequently taken me to task, by reminding me of the fact that Swindon’s most famous star is the irreplaceable Diana Dors. Just imagine her admiring the classic lines of half-cabs in the days when buses were real buses! Sigh…..