X21 Xlines branded Volvo B5TL/Wright Eclipse Gemini 3
Bus Travel,  Go North East

X-lines: an express network for the North East

Around two years ago, we started to see the foundations being set, for what we see today as Go North East’s X-lines network. An express network, described as “rapid bus links from Go North East”. This is something I have wanted to write about for some time now, but I was keen to see all the pieces fall together before I did.

The gradual easing of COVID-19 lockdown measures in England has allowed me to pick up in April 2021, where I had left off back in 2020, and have a real opportunity to sample some of the X-lines network.

So where did all of this start? Following the arrival of new Managing Director, Martijn Gilbert, in 2018, Go North East have been undergoing somewhat of a major overhaul of the way their network is presented. Not only have we seen the introduction of a fresh, brighter, 2019 version of a fleet livery, but many of the operator’s brands have either been discontinued or refreshed and revitalised.

Go North East have long been advocates for route branding, having started the practice in the early-2000s under the stewardship of former Managing Director, the late Peter Huntley, and gradually getting to a position of having faded out their old (and well recognised) ‘Red/Yellow/Blue’ livery. However, in more recent times, some of the branded routes had become tired-looking, lacking of ideas and the attention to detail was not always present (and let’s not get started on branded windows!) So this overhaul was not only long-overdue, as we now know, it could not have come at a better time.

One of the biggest elements of the overhaul, was the introduction of X-lines. An express network, showcasing the various inter-urban bus links that they provide, which is what I am writing about today.

X-lines was presented in a route map form, showing a list of services to be included, long before the network received its overhaul. The route map also listed a standard set of features, which we’d come to find in all X-lines services in the future – fast & direct, comfy high back seats, USB (charging) & WiFi, next stop audio-visual (announcements) and contactless payments.

Map showing the Go North East X-lines network.
Illustration credit – Go North East

The Region got it’s first got a taste of X-lines in April 2019, having seen the introduction of a new X20 service between Sunderland and Durham, and the first batch of buses – a batch of Optare Solos – repainted into a Gold base with a purple rear-end. Not too dissimilar to the previously scrapped ‘Pronto’ X20 from the early 2010s, the X-lines X20 provides a new faster link between Sunderland and Durham.

The X20 originally interworked with services X6/X7 upon launch, which operate between Sunderland and Peterlee, although the interworking was split around June 2020 with the removal of the X6 from X-lines and the withdrawal of the X7. The X-lines X20 was subsequently extended beyond Durham and to Langley Park, via the out-of-town Arnison Centre retail park, once served by the now withdrawn service 14. Providing a much-needed cross-city Go North East link in Durham.

X-lines X20 bus illustration
Illustration credit – Go North East

Next for the overhaul was the former ‘Castles Express’ X21 service between Bishop Auckland and Newcastle, although now extended at the South of the route to West Auckland. The X21 observes most stops between Bishop Auckland and Durham, then providing a limited stop service between Durham and Newcastle – a faster option to the long-established Angel 21.

The Castles Express ticked every box of what I wrote about tired-looking branding earlier. An almost-replica of the branding style used on the Angel, the two-tone dark blue buses with heavily-obscured windows, really did not provide the most inviting welcome to prospective customers. And certainly not a great showcase for the heavy investment the route had just received, utilising Go North East’s first order for the popular Wright Streetdeck double-decker bus. A huge upgrade from the 17-year old ex-London Volvo B7TL/Plaxton President deckers that they had replaced.

Castles Express branded Wright Streetdeck
The 2016 Castles Express launch in Durham Market Place
Photo credit – Buses and Beyond

With repainting starting in August 2019, the X21 allocated Streetdecks started to be rolled out in the X-lines gold base colour, with a blue rear.

The striking new X-lines livery, a Best Impressions design, is compromised of a two-tone gold base livery, with a different eye-catching rear colour, depending on route. The spare buses allocated to X-lines services also share this design, utilising a black rear. The buses are internally branded and printed timetables with maps are also standard. This feels a far-cry away from the same company back in 2017, who had discontinued printed timetables ‘because people have smartphones‘…

X-lines | X21 branded Wright Eclipse Gemini 3, seen departing Newcastle Autumn 2020.

Network investment continued throughout 2019/20, with £4.5 million pumped into Consett for 14 brand-new ADL Enviro 400MMC arriving for the Consett-based X30/X31/X70/X71 services, followed by 9 brand-new Wright Streetdeck buses for the former Red Kite branded X45/X46/X47. The latter being significantly delayed, likely due to the well-documented issues that Wright Bus were facing.

The new buses are equipped with the standard offering that we’ve come to expect from Go North East: Free customer WiFi, audio/visual ‘Next Stop’ announcements and USB charging points, but new innovations included an improved upper-saloon table setup, including cup holders and a wireless charger for your smartphone.

Xlines X84/X85 interior image showing one of the tables upstairs
Tables with laptop trays – journey improvements from Go North East

The investment in the West Durham services around Consett and Stanley was significant. Whilst hands may have been forced, due to the introduction of a ‘Clean Air Zone’ in Newcastle, the investment was still long-overdue. The X30/X31/X70/X71 investment for example, replaces an ageing fleet of Scania Omnicity buses and ex-London B9TLs, the latter which, with their rock-hard TfL spec seating, didn’t exactly scream comfort to you

Next up was the well-established ‘Red Arrows’ branded X1 route, running every 12 minutes between Easington Lane and Newcastle. The X1 is an amalgamation of several former express routes to Newcastle, via Washington Town Centre, the ‘Red Arrows’ services were some of the first to be route-branded in 2006, with the former Sunderland to Newcastle X2 route being branded and allocated some surplus ex-National Express coaches. The X1 and short-lived X3 service followed, with a fleet of new Mercedes Citaro buses in 2008, before a the service was gradually upgraded to Wright Eclipse Gemini 2 deckers from 2011.

For it’s X-lines upgrade in Autumn 2020, Go North East invested £3 million in a new batch of 12 Wright Streetdeck buses for the route.

X-lines | X1 branded Wright Streetdeck
Photo credit – Dan Graham/Go North East

Further re-allocations during the latter part of 2020 saw the ex-X9/X10 Volvo-powered Wright Eclipse Gemini 3 buses reallocated and re-branded for the X21, which allowed for the Consett-based Durham to Consett express service, the X5/X15, to be given the yellow/gold variant of the X-lines livery. This was followed by investment in 4 brand-new ADL Enviro 400MMC buses for the X84/X85 between Newcastle and Hexham, which arrived in an orange and gold variant of the X-lines livery.

Photo credit – Go North East

The final piece of the Jigsaw arrived in early 2021, when the Middlesbrough to Newcastle X9/X10 services finally joined the X-lines brand, with a violet and gold variant of the X-lines livery. Following the arrival of 7 ex-Oxford X90 Plaxton Elitei coaches in late 2020, which were subsequently repainted and prepared for use in the North East.

The X9/X10 has proved to be somewhat of a challenge to find suitable vehicles for, spanning some 15 years now. The X10 was originally branded in 2005 as an hourly service, with the X9 soon joining it, utilising former ex-National Express coaches, to form a half hourly service. The X10 ran a brand-new batch of Volvo B7TL/Wright Eclipse Gemini deckers in 2005, which by 2010 had become unreliable and feeling the pain of a hard-life, flat-out up and down the A19 all day. Investment followed in 2012, with a batch of new Volvo B9TL/Wright Eclipse Gemini 2 deckers, followed by a mere 5 years later by a batch of Volvo B5TL/Wright Eclipse Gemini 3 deckers.

Coaches are generally not a good fit for bus services. The steep-step arrangement for passengers, especially those with mobility difficulties, make them far from ideal for routes with frequent stops. However, this is what makes the X9/X10 different. Most of the journeys, from my experience, are either commuters travelling from end-to-end or customers making longer-distance journeys. This is a real rival to to an hourly train route, that has a longer end-to-end journey time. This is a really good move by Go North East.

In conclusion, and having spent some time travelling on various X-lines services in and around the region, I’ve been really impressed with the X-lines services. Not only do you spot the striking and colourful livery from a distance, you can’t help but notice how refreshing the interior looks. The introduction of a new lighter interior colour scheme, with red-moquette seating, doesn’t half brighten the bus up. A real move away from the unwelcoming, cold, multiple shades of blue that we previously had. The attention to detail with the internal branding, something that had been ditched in the past, completes the job.

I really think that this is a massive step forward. Not only for Go North East, but for bus travel in the region. Buses, for a long-time, have been seen as dirty and unwelcoming, a poor way to get around, and so on, but the introduction of X-lines is a big step in rubbishing that argument once and for all.

The bar has been set for other bus operators and Nexus.

Adrian

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