Think of the “Northern Powerhouse”. Think of Manchester, the great bustling City which is meant to epitomise the North’s renaissance. Whilst Metro Mayor Burnham ponders control of Mancunian’s buses, one great thrusting private operator is pushing ahead with some smart innovation.
Whether Transdev’s new CityZap Manchester – Leeds service is “smart innovation” or a return to inter-urban limited stop service commonly seen donkey’s years ago isn’t really the point. However you see it, it’s an attempt to gee up demand between one Northern Powerhouse and another.
You can, of course, do it on the train already. But rail’s spectacular growth in recent times also comes at a cost – literally if you rock up at the booking office just before boarding your train. Is there room for a road-based alternative that is cheaper and – dare I suggest – sexier?
If anyone can pull this off, it’s the famous bus industry tag-team partnership of Alex Hornby, CEO of Transdev’s Blazefield operation and the irreplaceable Ray Stenning of Best Impressions. And from the moment you clap eyes on CityZap on the streets of Manchester, you know there’s been a fair bit of thought gone into this.
It’s no mean feat to get excited over a refurbished single decker, and to be fair yours truly is more likely to than most. But it’s an attractive sight as it sits on the side of the street, just up from Chorlton Street coach station, flashing it’s provocative sleek red and silver lines at nearby white National Express coaches. The destination display is also teasing me, with “Leeds” departing in a few minutes as it counts down in minute interludes, an innovation Hornby first employed on his other darling of the North – the 36 from Leeds to Harrogate and Ripon.
I’m all over it like a rash, snapping pictures from in the middle of the road, dodging white van man in a sort of road version of whack-a-mole. The CityZap driver looks on, unperturbed. Then I join the throngs of intending passengers at the nearby stop. But the crowds are actually waiting for another, more established Transdev interurban offering – the “Witchway” up to Burnley and points further north. CityZap has started barely three weeks previous, but there are six of us in total who are intending to Zap across to Leeds. I take more pics of the more mundane TfGM bus stop and flag, which allows very little scope for excitement. Our CityZap driver pulls up behind the Witchway and another Transdev employee kindly informs us that CityZap will be ready in a moment. A further Transdev man (at least I’m presuming he’s employed by them) asks if I want this service. It feels good and helpful that there’s interest in me (although he’s probably curious about my taking pics of bus stop flags, if I’m being honest…)
CityZap is on stand. I whip out my phone, as I’m being ultra tech-savvy here, and have already purchased a mobile “Daytripper” ticket. It also happens to be “Black Friday”, that appalling American import event whereby everyone stamps on each other’s head in shops for a half-price telly. But I’m incredibly impressed that Transdev has got a half price offer on Daytrippers just for today – reduced from £9.50 to £4.75 for most of Transdev’s services across the north (apart from the coastal route) – what an absolute bargain! CityZap itself is £9 return normally.
Our driver looks impeccable in his smart red and white uniform, and you get a real sense of professionalism as you board. There’s also a bit of fun involved – “Greetings Zappers” is the phrase you first read on the driver’s cab door. There are paper timetable available next to the driver.
The plush red leather-effect seats are to die for! Hornby has previously used this design on the aforementioned 36, but they are a real winner. They look and feel immensely posh. It’s a classy interior. These aren’t new buses, but to all intents and purposes they are. The personalised “ZAP” reg plates, plush seats and tasteful interior are all designed to make you feel that this is a classy experience. Yes, this is still a bus, but it somehow feels a bit more “posh bus” like…
We depart spot on time, and loop around to expose the brand at Piccadilly Gardens, where a lot more people will see CityZap. No one boards here, but you wonder if Hornby and co had access to the stand, whether a bit of Stenning magic might catch the eyes of a whole lot more. I get the need for TfGM to have uniform information, and present it as such, but a bit of tasteful additional colour and branding might catch the eye of random passers-by.
Internally, the vehicle uses the cove panels to feed more information about the service. The hourly departures are explained in a simple fashion – there’s no complicated timetable here. “ZapNav” is explained also – although this whole concept might be a throwback to interurban services of days of yore, there is a thoroughly modern element; CityZap can change route according to traffic delays. “Your driver can choose the quickest route, just like the car – only better”. Brilliant. If I was a motorist trying this out, I’d be thinking “this isn’t so bad after all. My preconceptions of bus travel might just be turning”…
Sprawling Towns and Distant Hillsides…
We’re soon on the M62. The vehicle copes easily. No noisy engine to trouble us. We hop off the motorway briefly to serve Ainley Top for connections to Halifax and Huddersfield (where I again resolve to visit the railway station in order to catch a glimpse of the famous Felix the Cat) before rejoining the run to Leeds.
You can see why Transdev took the decision to operate this service mainly with single deckers – it is a very exposed section of motorway. But another joy of letting someone else do the driving is the ability to sit back and enjoy the view! For a motorway journey, there are some gorgeous scenic views of rural northern England, with sprawling towns spilling out over distant hillsides. Also on view, in much near proximity, are roadside adverts for CityZap – telling motorists what they are missing!
I’ve also used the USB power to top up my phone charge, and as we arrive into Leeds on time, the only blemish on this journey has been the attempted logon to the free wi-fi, which showed me a dire warning that the service was “not to be trusted” due to a lack of safety certificate, or something…
I’m in Leeds. And as far as bus stations go, this one is very pleasant. The facilities are supposedly 30p, but judging by the regular stampede, it appears they are currently free. A Black Friday offer, maybe….
I invade the travel information office, where CityZap leaflets for Manchester are prominent, but nothing whatsoever for the other CityZap emanating from here towards York. My plot is to head towards Keighley (which I live-tweet as “Keithley” and immediately get picked up on, by some irate local, to which I reply I understand – I’m from Dudley; universally spelt and pronounced as “Duddlaaay”). I’m looking for another Hornby innovation here – the “Aireline” 60 service. I spot the departure board, digitally declaring a 60 is due, but the printed information shows it to be a 760.
Riding The Aireline…with robot Yorkshireman…
Undeterred, I hop on board the 60 – a locally-built Optare single decker, which also has a very welcoming green theme. We depart here on time also, and I settle down to tweet “Metro” – the local transport authority – about the 60/760 discrepancy. Then a pre-recorded voice of a Yorkshireman booms across the bus, informing us of next stop information in a witty format! I’m sure he’s about to tell me about whippet racing shortly too, in order to conform to my northern stereotype image. Metro commendably tweet back very quickly to tell me they’re in the process of changing the information (although another industry source tells me it’s been like it for months…)
Another joy of social media is the instant communication element. Alex Hornby has picked up on the fact I’m mooching across his network, and asks how things are going. He’s interested in my view on the robot Yorkshireman doing the announcements. As a newbie, I love them, and they are the perfect antidote to the soulless computer-generated voices you so often hear elsewhere. But I also guess that the locals may well get a sense of overkill if they’re on this bus several times a week. It’s one of those where you’ll either love it or hate it.
The interior is extremely pleasant. This is a fairly new vehicle, but it’s presentation is welcoming. The cove panels are full of information on services local and further afield. There’s not an advert for a local car dealer or a terrible warning of what to do if you’ve had a cough for more than two weeks in sight. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a mode of last resort – in fact, you feel quite privileged to be on this vehicle! Also noticeable are paper timetables on the bus, next to the driver as you board. It all feels right – and the almost damning verdict is that this is mind-bogglingly simple. Why many other bus operations across the country can’t do this, I have no idea. I accept hardcore inner city ones are a different kettle of fish, but this concept – although maybe not this high standard – could be copied in many other areas.
There’s also a fair bit of bus priority. We hop along with a local First service, which looks positively bland in its corporate “Barbie” compared to our explosion of colour. We wind our way through some great northern-sounding towns – Kirkstall, Calverley and Thackley, into Shipley, where the traffic starts to worsen and another Aireline appears and runs in tandem. Whether this is a duplicate for busy school services or something running very late is unclear, but the school element is clear, with several “My Bus” school buses evident. We avoid the flock of uniformed kids in the main, with just a handful boarding our bus – although inevitably they can’t keep still for five minutes – one banging the side window in an attempt to capture the attention of a fellow scholar (in vain, I should add – said kid ignored the window-basher…)
The traffic congestion worsens considerably on the approach to Keighley and we arrive into the town’s bus station twenty minutes late. You can give people star-studded buses, but it appears the ever-increasing problem of traffic congestion is problematic all over the place.
Piped Music & Proper Persons…
One thing Metro appears good at is bus stations. My first ever time in Keighley is met by agreeable piped music in the agreeable bus station. It’s not large, but it’s quite bright and attractive. Timetables adorn the wall of one end of the facility, and a gaggle of drivers watch with only slight interest as I help myself to one of each of the brightly-coloured productions. Also present is a proper enquiry office with a proper person inside. I’m a fan of this – you can put everything online, save a fortune, tell people that it’s “what they want” and have the bean-counters pat you on the back, but nothing is more helpful than a proper person with proper local knowledge.
But actually, I miss a trick. Despite being convinced I’ve picked up a timetable for my next journey – the M4 to Burnley – I haven’t. And there isn’t one in sight, both on the wall or in the office. Not to worry. I consult the timetable on the departure stand, but there is conflict between that and what is shown on the digital departure screen. I suspect the traffic has put paid to any timetable normality, and despite having difficulty in fathoming out what might be going on, I conclude that we’re thirteen minutes late as we depart.
Across The Great Divide…Hearing Voices…
It’s another very well-appointed Optare, in a similar scheme to the previous Keighley bus, but in the orange of the Burnley Mainline network. This is the service that crosses the great divide – Yorkshire into Lancashire. I can imagine some Geoffrey Boycott-like character barking out orders that nothing in Keighley bus station of a printed type should refer to Lancashire, such is the historic rivalry. And talking of hearing voices in my head, I definitely can. It’s “the voices of Mainline” – David & Emma – who have won a competition to voice the next-stop announcements. On-board publicity shows their beaming faces. It’s a lovely touch, and further ingrains the idea that the local bus service really is part of the local community here.
Frightful Weather, Half-Cut Men…and Witches…
Not so lovely is the weather. Darkness falls early on this November Friday teatime, and our bus faces the double-whammy of appalling traffic and snow flurries to arrive twenty minutes down at Colne. The original idea was to go through to Burnley to connect with an X43 “Witchway” back to Manchester, but at this time of the day, all X43s are running through Colne, so it’s bail-out time here in an attempt to ride the Witchway all the way back to the big City. The Transdev app has realtime info, but it’s clear here that the X43 is suffering with traffic too. Two of them are running within five minutes of each other and both are a good forty minutes away. The weather is frightful, and my debut in Colne bus station couldn’t be more unwelcoming. It’s a small affair, with just bus shelters. Maybe a town centre pub might help pass the time and help avoid the drowned rat look. One is duly found, but it’s not particularly a place I’d like to spend my hard-earned all evening. It’ll do.
One pint later, and a trip to the Gents accompanied by some half-cut gentleman who “recognises the Brummie accent” (cheers – but I won’t bother explaining the nuances between that and my Black Country one) I’m back in the bus station under the cover of darkness. A Lancashire County Council information board displays details of service changes in the Blackpool area – which must be a good thirty-odd miles away. Very helpful for the good people of Colne. I can’t help feeling that, whilst Council information is of course welcome, Hornby and his team might have been able to produce a more eye-catching and more locally-focussed effort.
There’s no let up in the rain/sleet/snow. Huddled in the shelter with a few more condemned individuals, I play with the Transdev app once more. The two Witchways are still more or less running together, and indeed they both appear. One is fifteen minutes down, the other eighteen. The first ones pulls onto stand, whilst the other – a single decker – sneaks up behind. It’s driver decants and politely begs our excuse me to ask the driver of the decker if he’ll take his passengers, which makes eminent sense. We’re off, out of Colne, towards first Burnley, then Manchester. I’ve acquired my favourite seat upstairs at the front. But it’s fruitless trying to play my childhood game of driving the bus as the heavens open once again and not a jot can be seen from my lofty position. Our driver is a true professional as he battles the conditions and drives carefully as the snow is beginning to lightly settle in hilly areas. Through Rawtenstall then onto the M66, as the wet conditions pound our glamorous witch. At Prestwich, the clouds ease somewhat, and we head in on the approach to the City, past Strangeways prison to what is fast-becoming the blight of our City Centres – more congestion.
It’s early evening. OK, it’s Friday evening, so I suspect it’s probably one of the worst times to arrive here, but it’s a failing of some significance. Hardly anything is moving. Let’s hope the new Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham can get some sort of grip on this. Whilst he may ponder whether or not to take control of Manchester’s bus network, there’s something much more fundamental to address. We’re barely moving at a snail’s pace as we wind around the streets of this great City. I don’t even consider how late this service is now – rather I contemplate how on earth you even begin to schedule bus services faced with ridiculous amounts of traffic of this magnitude.
We eventually reach Chorlton Street, where the adventure had begun some hours earlier. Our driver flicks the switch to change the destination and he’s off almost immediately again. I’m left to wander the streets around to Piccadilly Station for the delights of a Cross Country train back to Wolverhampton, and my Black Country homeland.
• Real attention to detail makes Transdev’s operations a delight.
• Bargain day ticket (even more so with half-price “Black Friday” offer!)
• Superb driving from true professionals.
• Traffic Congestion! Transdev has made its local operations some of the best I’ve experienced anywhere. But that attractiveness is tempered by the fact that reliability – the number one concern of most bus users – is taking a hit. Political it may well be, but the politicians have got to get a grip on this and give the bus a fighting chance.