Go North East: "Getting buses fit for the future"
Bus Travel,  Go North East

Becoming Future Fit

From today (Sunday, September 5th), Go North East commence their first day of service following a programme of network-wide changes. These changes, which reach every part of the vast Go North East operating network, are probably the biggest set of changes for a decade, titled ‘getting our buses fit for the future’

When seeing that tagline, it was hard to not immediately think of the 80s Go-Ahead Northern: ‘The Bus company for the future’ adverts, which were carried on various members of the fleet around deregulation time.

'Go Ahead Northern: The bus company for the future' advert, as seen on the stunningly restored Leyland Olympian 3661.
‘Go Ahead Northern: The bus company for the future’ advert, as seen on the stunningly restored Leyland Olympian 3661.

In more recent times, Go North East had more or less moved to a system of rolling changes, whereby only one of the local networks would be changed on any one time, with changes usually taking place in either the Spring and/or Autumn. That practice has well and truly been ripped up with these changes, but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing.

So what’s all this about? In introducing these changes, Go North East state: “We pride ourselves on responding to the changing needs and demands of our customers and the communities we serve, whilst also providing an efficient operation.”, noting that the region (at least Tyne and Wear) saw an increase in bus use for the first time in a decade pre-pandemic, which was against the National trend at the time.

However, that was then, and this is now. Eighteen months and counting of a pandemic has had a devastating impact on local economies, and it saw Bus Operations rightly supported throughout by the Covid Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG). This allowed operators to carry on throughout the pandemic, making a sizeable contribution to keep Britain moving.

Without CBSSG, we’d have very likely seen the mass withdrawal of services, redundancies following furlough ending and even some depots permanently closing their doors. Public transport, and in particular buses, are a lifeline for people. The impact of not having this grant would have been unimaginable.

Go North East make reference to that there’ll be “some notable changes to travel patterns and demand”, following the impacts of the pandemic, and that the bus industry needs to “work to rebuild on a commercial footing.”

Of course, Go North East and other operators don’t just have the relative unknown of post-pandemic travel, they also have the impending new National Bus Strategy to look forward to, which requires operators and Local Authorities to work together more collaboratively than ever before, following NECA’s decision to take forward a formal Enhanced Partnership.

National Bus Strategy for England
National Bus Strategy for England

Whilst NEBus and the regions operators have come out in support of this decision, it’s likely due to it being the least worst option on the table. Going forward, BSOG will be subject to operators and Local Authorities agreeing to work in partnership, and the two options on the table were Enhanced Partnerships and Franchising. Given the failed attempt of Quality Contracts between 2014/15, the agreement to head down the EP route was probably met with a deep sigh of relief…

That being said, work is already underway on a Bus Service Improvement Plan for the region, which will start to deliver from April next year. It is claimed that this will deliver a stronger focus on highways infrastructure that can better support buses (such as bus lanes, park and ride schemes), as well as customer-focused benefits such as interchanges and waiting facilities – although I hope Nexus will ensure they’re open…!

Go North East conclude in saying that they “want this to be built upon a sound and efficient network that is focused on moving large numbers of people, the basic principle of what buses are all about.”, and I couldn’t agree more.

Go North East network map illustration
Extract of Go North East’s network map. Credit @Dan3942/Go North East on Twitter.

In announcing these network changes, Go North East have produced a handy customer booklet, which is available on their website. These were also produced for distribution onboard buses, but in my own experience, I’ve found three buses with them over that four-week period.

Following the introduction, the booklet contains a couple of pages of what I’d call ‘corporate presentation’. The type of information you’d be shown on slides at an Annual General Meeting, but it could also be argued that it serves a dual-purpose of trying to encourage potential new customers onto buses.

It’s not a route I’d have personally gone down, as I’m always sceptical about trying to put a positive spin on something that is announcing curtailment, re-routing or withdrawal of services, as this will always have an impact on people’s lives.

Illustration showing the corporate presentation style pages of the customer booklet.
Inside the customer booklet

The presentation of the changes however, is probably the best document I’ve seen produced in the region for years. Not only is it broken up by local network/area, the information is also repeated for each area that the service serves. It’s good to see something written in a way that you don’t need to have an expert knowledge to navigate, but it perhaps makes the issue of the distribution of these booklets more disappointing.

These changes are too big to cover in a single blog post, so I’ve spent the day looking at some of the Tyne and Wear area. I’ve tried not to cover communication in this post either, as I’ve already covered it on Friday. See: Communication is the Key.

I’m going to start with Washington today; a network I know very well, and one in my opinion that has positively benefitted from these changes. Following recent improvements, such as the 56 becoming a 24-hour service, the 4 serving Follingsby and later journeys on the 50, it sees a complete restructure of the Little Pinks services. Thankfully that includes the axing of the complicated system of splitting the 81/82/83/84 services at Washington Galleries.

A system devised up at Bensham a couple of years ago now, which was anything but customer-friendly. In addition to requirements from the DVSA meaning that the destination couldn’t show the ultimate destination (despite being possible to ‘ride through’), Nexus claimed it to be technically impossible to replicate this on bus stop timetables, as they use a ‘standard format’. So whilst that system may have provided some operational efficiencies, it was largely to the detriment of anyone trying to understand it.

In my opinion, the replacement 82 and 84 services feel like a better fit to covering the Town. The 82 operating between Birtley and Waterview Park, via the Village, and the 84 between Rickleton and Concord, largely to the combined ex-81/83 routes. The 82 operates every half hour, with the 84 every 20 minutes.

Little Pinks branded Optare Solo SR 684 in Washington Village
Little Pinks branded Optare Solo SR 684 in Washington Village

The 85/86 services have been merged into a single service with a 20 minute frequency, but curtailed to operate between Concord and Washington Galleries only.

The new 84 provides three minibuses an hour through Biddick, as oppose to four, with the Brady Square section being picked up half hourly by a diversion on the 8 service, now running during evenings and Sundays. Serving Teal Farm later in the evening, in place of the 86.

New links have been created between Washington and Peterlee & Dalton Park, with one X1 each hour continuing on to each new location. The Dalton Park link should create both a new commuting and leisure link, but it remains to see whether this latest attempt at a Peterlee link will work.

An Xlines X1 branded Streetdeck is seen departing Newcastle, with the new X1 link to Dalton Park
An Xlines X1 branded Streetdeck is seen departing Newcastle, with the new X1 link to Dalton Park

Over in Sunderland, another network that I know very well, we’ve been promised “new and revitalised route specific-coloured brands across the city to make it easier for you to identify your bus”

Now after more than a decade of route branding at Go North East, I’m yet to be convinced that the application results in organic growth (as oppose to moving existing journeys around), but it keeps the fleet looking fresh and eye-catching, which no one could accuse Go North East of not doing. The use of colours though, in creating a ‘tube style’ map for Sunderland and the surrounding area, is one that I found quite interesting.

Of course, those who follow the happenings further afield, will spot that this is an idea used during the MD’s time in Reading. Just because something has been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be replicated elsewhere. Why reinvent the wheel, if you don’t have to?

The seven different routes: Blonde, Graphite, Violet, Cherry, Blue, Berries and Silver, all come with their own eye-catching livery, in the now standard ‘road stripes’ format used by Go North East. Having managed to photograph a Violet Citaro and a Berries Versa on Friday, I certainly agree that this is a lot more distinctive than a service number.

I am really surprised though, having followed some of the services on bustimes.org earlier, to find out that the 2/2A and 61 services appear to interwork on a Sunday. Whilst I understand that this is likely to be for operational issues, I’m afraid that it makes a mockery of “new and revitalised route specific-coloured brands across the city to make it easier for you to identify your bus”

If you’re trying to drill into customers that they need a Berries to Washington/Chester Road, how do you then explain to your customers that this is except Sundays and Bank Holidays, where your bus may be a Berries but it may be a Blue?

To me, it is the equivalent of booking a click and collect shopping slot with Sainsburys, only to discover that for operational issues, you have to pick it up from Tesco instead. Disappointing, to an otherwise well-designed local network.

Whilst on the subject of branding and liveries, I have to say that I’m really impressed with some of the modern designs to fall out of the paint shop. The East Gateshead Orbit is a personal favourite, but I’m equally as impressed with the East Durham Explorer. I appreciate that branding, liveries, names and colours will always be subjective, but having gone through a phase of disliking the dullness for a number of years, I’m starting to be impressed again.

Streetlite 5442 in the East Gateshead Orbit Livery
Streetlite 5442 in the East Gateshead Orbit Livery

The repaints and branding seems to be an ongoing process though, having noticed some old brands and several corporate liveried spares out today. I think its far from ideal, and very unlikely what Go North East anticipated on day one of their new network, but this is undoubtedly a mammoth task for them. Most buses are still painted in-house, which not only has a capacity limit, but has to work around service delivery.

What about elsewhere? Like most changes, they benefit some more than others, and indeed some areas have been harder hit. There are also a number of surprises, some of which I’d say are of benefit and will hopefully encourage more people to use buses, but the picture is not so rosy everywhere.

The Derwentside Conundrum: Despite receiving heavy investment in recent years, amid one of the local MP’s desire to have the Metro extended to Consett, my first thoughts are that Consett and Stanley have been hit hardest.

The M6/M7/M8 previously combined to form a 20-minute frequency between Stanley and the Metrocentre during the day, and were originally part of a ‘Metrocentre Minis’ network. The 6 and a new X72 service are intended to replace the withdrawal of these services, with the 6 serving Watergate Estate, then operating via Burnopfield and Tanfield Lea, and the X72 picking up customers from Annfield Plain and Dipton.

These changes mean that customers in Flint Hill, Annfield Plain and Dipton lose their direct link to the Metrocentre, instead having to change at Gateshead Interchange onto the X66.

An Xlines Enviro 400MMC stands in Newcastle
An Xlines Enviro 400MMC stands in Newcastle

On the subject of losing, there’s also the partial withdrawal* of the 30 between Stanley and Lanchester, and also the full withdrawal of the 32 between Stanley and Fines Park.

The 30, since the time the service changes were published, has been secured by Durham County Council as a new service 730, ensuring that the small village of Burnhope continues to have a bus service. Although Google Maps doesn’t seem to have this data yet, recommending a 2+ mile walk…

Other changes in Derwentside include a restructuring of the V(enture) services, with a new 47/47A (ex-X47) and an extension to the X5/X15, picking up some of the slack. In an attempt to offer improved links to those in Chopwell and High Spen, the 47/47A is dropped from the Xlines network and extended from Blackhall Mill to Consett.

Further east, and almost another victim of the Grim Reaper, was the hourly 71 between Chester-le-Street and Seaham. The former ‘Lambton Worm’ service that has linked Chester-le-Street and Houghton for many years, was eventually extended out eastwards to Seaham. A valuable link for those heading to either Town Centre terminus, but largely suffered at the hands of the 78 running close in front between Woodstone and Chester-le-Street.

I’d recently made an eastbound journey on the 71, and was surprised it was up for the axe, given that we reached Seaham with a bus full of passengers. I’m pleased to see the support of Durham County Council has saved this service, but given the withdrawal was printed in the changes document, it felt like a bit of an ultimatum. Why isn’t this kind of issue resolved at the consultation stage?

An Optare Versa stands at Chester-le-Street
An Optare Versa stands at Chester-le-Street

In concluding, from my reading of the information made available by the operator and my observations on the ground today, I’d say the changes have went without major hiccup. Which is always a risk, when making changes so vast.

This has clearly been a mammoth challenge, both behind the scenes and on the front line. It’s often the things that you don’t think about, such as destinations needing to be updated, drivers needing to route-learn and the next stop announcement system understanding the new routes.

The changes, I feel, are largely positive. I think that they fit well with Go North East’s ambition to be future fit. Whilst its evident that they’ve aimed to reduce cost in some areas, it’s also clear that they’ve made positive strives forward in improving the offering at the same time.

The £1 evening fare and the Summer Fare offers are being hailed as a success, having been recently extended and further introduced to North Tyneside. My own experiences are that I’m finding more people travelling on an evening when I’ve been out, to some degree even more than pre-pandemic. This is all positive and forms part of a forward-thinking strategy.

Summer Fares offers by Go North East – Credit: @gonortheast/Go North East on Twitter.

You’re never going to be able to fix all of the problems in the world though, and the further requirement for Local Authorities to dig deep in some areas, is perhaps testament to a broken system. One that the Government appear to have now acknowledged, and we’ll wait to see what the future and ‘Bus Back Better’ (they love their three word slogans) brings.

As with everything, I do think there are a number of lessons to be learned.

It is absolutely key that local authorities are on board, and that there’s an agreed plan of action to distribute information, affix posters, update timetables and to generally promote awareness of service changes. There were far too many examples today of this not happening, including timetables out of date and digital displays showing old services.

There’s also the distribution of information that is in the operator’s control, such as ensuring buses are carrying timetables, that service changes posters haven’t been covered up and general availability of literature. As I wrote earlier, I don’t want to repeat myself on communication (see: Communication is the Key instead), but my experience was that these changes were some kind of rumour.

This was further backed up by the amount of mutterings I heard at stops or whilst on buses today, with people generally unaware of changes taking place. The Internet is great, if you have access to it or can use an Internet-enabled device, but even then it doesn’t reach everyone…

I’d have ensured that there was a presence from my own customer service team today, both over the phone and via live chat. Instead, there’s been no presence and posts have gone unanswered on Social Media. It feels a bit dated, when we’re ‘getting buses fit for the future’, that customer services only work 9am-5pm Mon-Fri. Do all the customers go home after 5pm on a Friday too?

Face to face communication is also important, and something that is often neglected. I feel it would have been beneficial for Go North East to hold ‘road shows’ at key spots throughout the four-week period, or even better, before it and as part of a consultation. I think this would have went a long way in alleviating some concerns, but clearly won’t have resolved everything.

Finally, I’d have ensured that floor-walkers were available in the major bus stations today, in order to help customers. We no longer have travel shops, and I think we forget how easy it was to pop in and ask for help. There was absolutely no help on the ground today, with most bus stations still going unstaffed.

Tomorrow is the first day of full service, with the added bonus of schools returning, so we’ll have to see what that brings… 🙂

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