Bus Travel,  Go North East,  Nexus

Voltra: Zero-emissions buses in the North East

Finally, a bit more normality. Despite barely using a bus for most of 2020, service levels are now back to near enough normal. I’ve made the most of this last month or two, to make an effort of trying to catch up on the massive amount of change that seems to have happened in the past 12 months.

Despite the current pandemic, Go North East have continued with their progress to refresh and revitalise their fleet and network of services. Some of which I wrote about earlier this month in my post about Xlines. Arriva and Stagecoach have both continued with their respective repaint programmes, following corporate branding changes.

One of the changes that I really wanted to sample was Voltra. A brand-new fleet of electric buses for the 53/54 services, a pair of circular routes between Newcastle and Gateshead, via Saltwell Park and Bensham.

Voltra was launched on the 26th November 2020 using a promotional video, owing to restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time.

The fleet consists of nine zero-emission Yutong E10 electric buses, representing an investment of £3.7million. Jointly funded by Go Ahead and the Government’s Ultra-Low Emissions Bus Fund. It becomes the first fully-electric bus service operating in the North East, with a claim that they can operate an all-day service on an overnight charge.

The funding is said to help support some of the additional costs of electric vehicles over diesel equivalents and the charging infrastructure. The said infrastructure having been constructed at the Riverside depot in Gateshead.

Seven of the nine Yutong E10 buses ordered by Go North East
Photo credit – Go North East

As with most of my local write-ups, I try and sample the services a couple of times and put together my thoughts afterwards. In Voltra’s case, I made a couple of different journeys over the last month, doing the full route 53 clockwise route from Gateshead to Newcastle. Returning back (fast) to Gateshead via the Tyne Bridge, as well as a couple of short runs to and from Saltwell Park.

Go North East have put a lot of promotion into Voltra, and in addition to the launch video. This included a ‘teaser’ vinyl applied to the old Saltwell Park branded 53/54 Streetlites, lots of Social Media teasers and utilising some of the billboards along the route.

Go North East: 8801 / NK70AFA
Voltra 8801 passes one of the billboards on Cuthbert Street, Gateshead. Photo credit – Matthew Jimmison on Flickr (check his page out)

Quite rightly the company appear to have wanted to make a big deal about this being a first for the North East. The Best Impressions designed livery certainly catches the eye and gives a futuristic feel to these Yutongs.

The interior is well-designed and acknowledges the green credentials of the buses, without shouty messages all over the cove panelling.

The seats come upholstered in an electric blue moquette and are topped with a brightly-coloured headrest. The back of each headrest is equipped with phone holders, which also provide wireless and USB charging power. The ever-becoming standard Next Stop Announcement system and free customer Wi-Fi are also available.

Go North East appear to have gone for a different style of next stop announcement screen in this batch of Yutongs. I found the screens to be clear and easy to read from sitting further back. There is also a forward-facing screen above the wheelchair bay, which is a welcome improvement for wheelchair users.

Something else that is new to Voltra is a tap-on/tap-off card system by the door, using Contactless, Google Pay or Apple Pay. Go North East state that “The clever tech works out the best price over the day, or if you’re travelling a lot, over the week – you’ll pay no more than £3 a day or £13 a week.”

This is however unique to the Voltra 53/54 services at present, so you’ll be unable to combine this payment method with journeys on other services.

Overall, I was impressed with the journeys that I’ve made so far on Voltra. The buses are comfortable, spacious and really stand out. They handle the route effortlessly and its quite impressive at how quiet of journey they provide. Given that the infrastructure is now in place at Riverside, I’d hope to see some further investment in these electric buses in the future.

Now whilst I applaud the promotion that has gone into this commercially from Go North East, it’s disappointing that there still appears to be a distinct lack of partnership from the perspective of Nexus (trading name for Tyne and Wear PTE)

I can’t help but think that this would have made an ideal showcase for partnership working, similar to some of the examples I wrote about in my Harrogate Electrics post.

Arriving at the Gateshead Bus Interchange, there is nothing to point you towards the stands for Voltra. (or for any other services, for that matter) There were no timetables out on display, only the shell (still with branding) of the now-closed Gateshead Travelshop. Nexus had announced and consulted (during a pandemic!) that it was to close its remaining travel shops, meaning that the PTE now run no travel shops or customer service points, anywhere in the vast Tyne and Wear network.

Something that was however notable during my time in Gateshead Interchange, is that Nexus appear to have bizarrely removed all seating. Only the short benches at each stand remained and the public toilets also remain closed. At a time that operators are putting vast amounts of effort into encouraging people back onto buses, it almost feels that the PTE are doing the opposite…

It is only until you get to Stand B, at the far-side of the Interchange, that you see the first mention of Voltra. A printed board on one of the columns, that is partially obstructed by the lighting, until you’re right in front of it. There’s also a subtle mention of Voltra on the timetable board, randomly placing the logo under the X31 timetable.

Stops along the route also have the Voltra logo placed on the printed timetables, but again the placement of the logo bares no reference to the 53/54. Even on stops only served by Voltra services, they retain the dull red/grey Nexus Buses branding. A missed opportunity…

Nexus bus stop on the Voltra route

There’s a huge challenge ahead for operators and Local Transport Authorities/Passenger Transport Executives alike. Whilst passenger numbers appear to be on the rise again, there’s a big question over whether they’ll return to the pre-pandemic level. Even if they do, it’s still a return to managed decline, and we need more innovation like this to try and encourage people onto buses.

The Government’s ‘Bus Back Better‘ promises a lot, but doesn’t provide anywhere near enough funding as what is required. It does however require a lot of commitment from stakeholders. Forcing our region and others down the road of Enhanced Partnerships or greater, in order to increase bus patronage. It can’t continue to be one-sided and disjointed.

It’s going to be a big couple of years ahead…

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