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Bus Travel,  Go North East

Are our buses really ‘Better than Ever’ for commuters?

So this week I decided to have a couple of days in the office and have a commuter experience. I had already had a day in the workplace last week for a ‘re-introduction’ session, which after 18 months of working from home, felt like somewhat of a novelty. Not just the prospect with sharing a workplace with people and actually seeing colleagues face to face, but also ‘the dreaded commute’, as it would be referred to in years gone by.

With no real demands on me to do so, I’d always intended to voluntarily work the odd day in the office. I used to love being able to experience Durham City every day; it’s a real gem in the North East, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the development work completed on Milburngate.

A poster on the North East Buses forum tried a commute this week on Go North East’s flagship Angel 21 service. Their comments, following their experience, is that they’d “rather pay an Uber premium”.

Now I’m not knocking Uber, as I’ve used their services myself previously and found them really good, but it got me wondering whether things are really that bad as a commuter, that you’d rather pay more than double the fare? Surely not, at a time when we’re told buses are ‘Better than Ever’

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Based on my experience last Wednesday, I’d quickly say ‘No’ to that. I had used the Little Pinks 85 just after 7am into the Galleries, where I’d connected on to the 07.23 service 50 to Durham. On paper this is a really simple connection to make.

Go North East have done a really good job on re-packaging their Washington Minibus services as the ‘Little Pinks’ prior to service changes next month, but their service 50 is really a ‘no frills’ offering for a 10 mile trip into Durham. Operated by a fleet of elderly Scania Omnicity buses painted in the new corporate livery, and offering little to no leg room. Like most Go North East buses, they do offer free WiFi with a 100mb daily limit, but no other features that we’ve come to expect, e.g. USB charging points or next stop announcements.

On the return leg, I used the 17.55 X20 service to Houghton, getting me in around 18.18, where I’d be getting picked up from. I do like the Xlines X20 service, and since the upgrade to Mercedes Citaro buses, I try and use it into Durham when I can. Maybe one day the 50 will get the same treatment.

The only negative across both legs of this commute was that the X20 was a couple of minutes late coming from the temporary bus station station. Having used this service a couple of times on weekends, I’ve noticed that this seems to be a regular occurrence when the Prince Bishops 20 service in front of it is running late. Whilst it probably makes sense on paper for the X20 not to take all of the ‘stopping traffic’, it’s not exactly great for the customers standing waiting. It’s little things like this that put people off using buses…

Of course, this was only one day, so I was hoping the two days I had planned would give me a better overall commuter experience in 2021.

Day one started out much like last Wednesday. One of Go North East’s Little Pinks 85 services not long after 7am, followed by their service 50. Unlike last week, there were a handful of customers already on the 85, which I was surprised about. The bus turned up on time, and clean in presentation, but a simple and unremarkable 5 minute journey otherwise. Next up was the 50.

According to the timetable, I have around 12 minutes to kill at the Galleries Bus Station, prior to the 50 departing. For a relatively new bus station, it isn’t half starting to show it’s age. It looks grim and dirty, and in some desperate need of TLC. The escalators or some departure stand doors are often out of use, but both appeared to be working during my visit that morning.

COVID-19 restrictions seemed to still be semi-present, with signage up enforcing face-coverings, and seating covered in red and white tape, marking them out of use. The departure boards also hosted messages about ‘buses not running to timetable’. This was the first of many experiences of conflicting messaging over these two days, when supposedly all restrictions were removed on July 19th

In the meantime, I had noticed the service 50 had been ‘stuck’ on 11 minutes on my Go North East app for sometime now, so I decided to have a quick look on Go North East’s facebook page. Nothing had been posted there yet, so I decided to check the fantastic resource that is bustimes.org. I could see straight away that Scania Omnicity 5254 had been stood still on Washington Road for 12 minutes.

A refresh of the Go North East Facebook page showed a new post regarding the 50 & 56 service, but only stating they’d be unable to serve Nissan. No mention of delay, cancellation or impact elsewhere on the route.

Screenshot showing a Facebook post from Go North East at 07.20 on the 12th August.

A further 20 minutes had passed, with my app still showing the 07.23 50 service stuck on 11 minutes until due. Nothing in the app suggested that there was an issue on the service, there had been any kind of delay or otherwise. My only knowledge of this was that I could see the bus stood still on bustimes.org, but this is not what your average customer is going to do (or even know how to do)…

At 07.40 Go North East finally posted on their Facebook page that the 07.21 journey from Washington to Durham is not operating. OK – where in Washington? The 50 serves 15 stops in Washington during the day, and none of them are scheduled a 07.21 departure.

Screenshot showing a Facebook post from Go North East at 07.40 on the 12th August.

This kind of messaging is blunt and to the point I guess, but there’s nothing highlighting the options available, or even reiterating that there’s a short 50 from Washington to Durham only at 07.40. This of course would not be impacted by the issues on Washington road, which I know as an enthusiast, but it is the sort of information that you need to give to your customers. There’s also the question that if the call was made earlier, customers from Concord could have also been advised to connect to the Galleries.

Communication is key – and in my opinion is something that bus operators and local authorities, certainly in the North East of England, massively fail at. It is so fragmented, the technology is not used correctly and the onus is put onto customers to work out for themselves if there are delays or cancellations to services. It’s a major cause of anxiety to those less familiar with public transport. It should not have to be this difficult…

After the best part of 40 minutes waiting at Washington Galleries, my short 50 to Durham turned up a couple of minutes late, operated by an Optare Versa (8294) from Go North East’s Chester-le-Street depot. A handful of customers boarded at the Galleries and some along the route into Durham, but the service wasn’t too busy, making up plenty of time and arriving into Durham about 5 minutes earlier than timetabled.

One of Go North East's Optare Versa buses standing at Chester-le-Street
One of Go North East’s Optare Versa buses standing at Chester-le-Street

This short 50 service appears to start it’s day as a short 21 from Chester-le-Street into Newcastle, before running light into Washington to pick up that 50 to Durham. From there running light to Langley Park, to have a day working service 25.

As I was in no real rush, I had time to have a walk through Durham and into the Market Place, before embarking on a day in work.

Once I finished work, I decided to walk to North Road and go for the 21, as I knew I’d just miss the 50. Instead of opting to change at Chester-le-Street, I continued to Birtley and then picked up a Little Pinks 82 from there.

I was surprised just how many passengers were on the 21 I boarded – an Angel branded Wright Streetdeck (6319), given that the When2Travel service (that Go North East promote) had predicted the journey to be ‘Quiet’. Along the route, the service picked up passengers at pretty much every stop, leaving the lower deck almost full at the point of leaving Chester-le-Street, with many others heading upstairs. Out of interest at this point I checked the Go North East app, which reported that the bus was ‘Quiet’ – I beg to differ!

Arriving at Birtley around 5 minutes late, and the bus still busy, I waited a short amount of time for the Little Pinks 82 to turn up. It arrived on time and I had the bus to myself for the journey around Birtley, Portobello and Washington, before arriving at the Galleries Bus Station. I really like the Optare Solos that Go North East use on this route and they make for a comfortable journey.

So how do I rate day one? Overall, I was delayed by about 13 getting into Durham, but the delay on the 21 just offset the time I would have been stood waiting for the 82. That short time doesn’t bother me as such, as a regular bus user, but it’s the lack of information that I find so frustrating. So 2 out of 5 stars overall.

Day two begins similar to the first, but given my frustrations with the 50 yesterday, I opted for Go North East’s Little Pinks 83 service to the Galleries. This gets me in there for 07.25, with a short wait for the 07.40 service 50 to Durham. I had deliberately went for this service, as I thought with it being a short run, it would minimise any delay of it turning up. Oh how wrong was I…

Looking at the Go North East app once again, I could see that my bus was tracking and on time, however at 07.41 it had dropped off the list. I gave it a couple of minutes and then checked again, but still no bus on the list and nothing on the Go North East Facebook page. This 50 did eventually turn up though, 10 minutes late, operated by Optare Versa 8301.

I was the only passenger to board, so we quickly departed the Galleries and only picked up one other customer all the way to Framwellgate Moor, where we’d picked up another. Eventually arriving into Durham 5 minutes earlier than timetabled.

Comparable to my experience with this 07.40 service 50 yesterday, you could argue that the time spent waiting for the bus to turn up is offset by the early arrival into Durham, but again it is the lack of information that is frustrating.

After a day at work, tonight’s evening commute would be combined with a social commute, as I was heading out straight from work. I had intended to go for the same 21 as the evening previous, but distracted by a quick detour of Durham’s new Riverwalk development, I instead caught an X21 to Chester-le-Street followed by a 21 to Low Fell.

The X21 was operated by Volvo-engined Wright Eclipse Gemini 3, recently repainted into the striking blue Xlines livery for the service. The vehicles were originally purchased for their engines and used on the Newcastle to Teesside X9/X10 services, prior to it’s upgrade to the Plaxton Elitei coaches.

X21 Xlines branded Volvo B5TL/Wright Eclipse Gemini 3

I’ve previously written about the Xlines product, but I’ll not get tired of saying how good I think it is. It’s a real advert for bus travel, but when banding slogans around like ‘Better than Ever’, you really need to be better than ever. Xlines is a small part of the Go North East offering, and there’s a danger that if you try and promote all of your services this way, your customers are left disappointed with ‘no frills’ services like the 50.

My X21 journey itself wasn’t too busy and we arrived in Chester-le-Street in good time. I had just missed the 21, so had a couple of minutes to wait for another to turn up, concluding in a straight forward journey to Low Fell.

The Angel Streetdecks are relatively new still, and they come with the features that we’re coming to expect on buses these days: USB power sockets, tables, next stop announcements. The Streetdecks allocated to this service have also been given a bit of a ‘tidy up’ as of late, with the awful branding covering the windows removed. This is an improvement in my opinion.

Go North East Wright Eclipse Gemini 3 and a Wright Streetdeck parked with the Transporter Bridge in the background.
Go North East Wright Eclipse Gemini 3 and a Wright Streetdeck parked with the Transporter Bridge in the background.

A couple of hours later, and the next journey I’d be making is from Low Fell back to Washington. Now there’s no direct bus here, so I had planned to take a 94 from Chowdene Bank up to Heworth, followed by a 4 into Washington. I arrived at my stop in good time for the 21.50 service, but I had noticed it was not tracking on the Go North East app, and showing as ‘scheduled’ instead. Now this could be due to technology issues or it could be that the bus is not running.

I continued to refresh the app, along with checking for service disruption in the app and on Go North East’s Facebook page, but nothing appeared. I had worked out an alternative using the Angel 21 to Birtley, followed by the Little Pinks 82 to Washington, so that plan was enacted come 22.00. This journey worked out to plan with no real delay. A couple of customers were on the 21 when it arrived at Low Fell, but again I had an 82 to myself from Birtley.

Out of curiosity, I continued to follow both the app and Go North East Facebook page, but nothing was posted in relation to that missing 94. Again, it’s a good job that I have knowledge of the bus network, as most journey planners were routing me via Newcastle. Not really somewhere that I want to go on a Friday night…

I’d rate day two slightly higher at 2.5 out of 5, as I didn’t have the frustration of the morning commute, but working out alternative travel plans isn’t really something that you want to do tired, after a long day.

In conclusion, let’s look at the original question: “are things are really that bad as a commuter, that you’d rather pay more than double the fare?

The answer is more complex than a straight forward yes or no. If I were someone who would normally take their car to work, but had opted to give the bus a try, then I’d instantly revert back to the car. Not only because of the delays and lateness, but also because the quality of service on the 50 doesn’t exactly scream ‘Better than Ever’ at me. Uncomfortable, cramped and not exactly leaving you begging for more.

If I was an irregular commuter, maybe a couple of journeys into the office a month, then yes – I think I would rather pay the Uber premium for the convenience.

Finally, I think those who do need to use buses regularly, and for whom driving is not an option, will sadly continue to ‘put up with it’. As a regular bus commuter myself before the pandemic, although largely with Arriva, it almost felt a bit like being constantly kicked whilst down.

Now I completely understand and accept that services don’t run for a variety of reasons, including vehicle faults, accidents and driver sickness. What I don’t accept is that information is not relayed to customers to make them aware, or to help them make alternative plans.

This isn’t one operator, nor is it one local authority. There needs to be greater partnership working, right across the region, to ensure that we start to get the basics right. Basics like passenger information, customer service, infrastructure and minimising delays.

As I said above, communication is key, but even the most basic of messages are inconsistent and confusing. We have Go North East telling us that everything is back to normal and encouraging us back on board, buses are back up to capacity and so on, but then a number of them still have posters telling us to do the opposite.

Go North East - 'Stay safe when you travel' on board poster
Go North East – ‘Stay safe when you travel’ on board poster

Some Arriva buses are still running with seats behind the driver still taped off, which is hardly a welcoming you want when boarding a bus, and doesn’t exactly convince you that it is then safe to sit next to others. You then have Nexus placing ‘buses not running to timetable’ on all of their electronic displays, which again isn’t exactly welcoming to those unfamiliar with bus services.

Slogans and gimmicks like ‘Better than Ever’ or the Government’s ‘Bus Back Better’ have to be more than words. They have to be a culture and an an ethos.

You cannot fix things with a lick of paint or a glossy brochure. You need to understand the barriers to buses, the frustrations for customers, and then work up a plan to fix them.

In my opinion, Go North East are doing by far the most out of all operators in the region, when it comes to trying to make bus travel more attractive. Some operators are doing next to nothing.

After listening to their MD give an update recently, I actually found it refreshing to hear how forward thinking he spoke about bus travel. After hearing that, I really wish I could have written this blog more positively, but I feel it is too important to remember that the reality is still much different.

I’ll finish on this – customers, and especially your potential customers, need to experience you at your best – always. First impressions are everything, and if they’re not good impressions, they may well prove to also be the last impressions.

Adrian

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