Xlines X84/X85 interior image showing one of the tables upstairs
Bus Travel,  Go North East

End of the Xline for Hexham

It’s Sunday 30th of January, and day one of another round of Go North East service changes.

Whilst in no way as significant as the changes I blogged about in September, most changes this time around appear to be technical changes to either improve reliability, even out the frequencies on corridors or sensibly avoiding stand clashes at bus stations.

There are however some big changes to the X84/X85 in Hexham and to the X9/X10 between Newcastle and Teesside. The X84/85 being the focus of this blog, so whilst I’m in no way a historian, I’ll try and start with a bit of history…

Back in September 2013, Go North East launched their new Tynedale Express services X84/X85 between Newcastle and Hexham, using a batch of Wright Solar bodied Scania L94UBs, presented in a striking orange livery. In addition to the high-back seating, WiFi was included, which was somewhat of a novelty on a bus nine years ago. How times have changed.

One of the original Tynedale Links Scania L94UB/Wright Solar buses used on the X84/X85

The X85 provided a more direct, 47 minute journey time, between Newcastle and Hexham via the A69, competing with the long-established joint operation between Arriva and Stagecoach on the 685. The X84 on the other hand served all stops between Lemington in Newcastle and Hexham, adding some 13 minutes onto the trip, and giving a total journey time of an hour. Though significantly quicker than the TEN service at the time.

Whilst the timetable allowed for an half-hourly service out of Newcastle, the difference in the journey times and interworking pattern resulted in both journeys leaving within 17 minutes of each other at Hexham.

A limited Sunday service of two runs in each direction per day was also available, although due to operational convenience at the time, was provided with a lower-spec mini bus in another livery. Sunday services were eventually cancelled, before a full hourly timetable introduced some some years later.

In 2017, the Tynedale Express X84/X85 fleet was upgraded by utilising a batch of recently-refurbished Mercedes Citaros, which had previously seen life in Sunderland on the 35 cross city services. The Citaros carried a revised version of the Tynedale Express livery.

Tynedale Express upgraded: in the form of a refurbished Mercedes Citaro

Fast-forward to December 2020, and the Tynedale Express received it’s biggest boost to date, with an upgrade to become part of the newly-introduced Xlines network.

New ADL Enviro400MMC buses for the Xlines X84/X85 under the Tyne Bridge
Photo credit: Go North East

In introducing the changes, the company added that the “further £1million investment is the latest part of an overall £8.5million upgrade in brand new, North British built, low-emission environmentally friendly double-deck buses introduced to the routes as part of the company’s premium interurban X-lines brand, providing a next-level service for its customers on longer distance routes across the North East.”

Always quick to promote new features, they added that “these state-of-the-art buses come with all the latest mod-cons, including free Wi-Fi, USB and wireless charging, seat back phone holders, next-stop audio-visual announcements, including live rail connection times, and tables on the upper-deck.” and that the “new X84 and X85 buses also feature bike racks and a dedicated space for up to two wheelchair users, a first for the continued improvements to the accessibility of buses in the North East.”

Xlines X84/X85 interior image showing one of the tables upstairs
Xlines X84/X85 interior

Fast‘, ‘Luxury‘ and ‘Green‘ was the name of the game, emphasised throughout the promotional video that accompanied the launch (see on Youtube here), and marked the final piece in the puzzle of the Xlines network.

Xlines network 2020

Back into the present-day, and the January 2022 service changes replace the X84 with a new 684 service, with the X85 becoming a peak-only commuter run. Not only that, the services are stripped from the Xlines network and have their brand-new ADL Enviro 400MMC buses removed.

So what went so badly wrong, for this to become the end of Xlines in Hexham?

The company argue that this is due to a poor recovery from the pandemic, and passenger numbers notably being down on 2019 levels. Whilst this is evident from using public transport as of late, to some it may feel somewhat premature, given that the Government’s ‘Plan B’ restrictions were only dropped three days prior.

Even if the service in its current form was no longer sustainable, there’s still the question of why the service has been so heavily downgraded, now utilising a fleet of ex-Citylink Optare Versas from Gateshead.

Those within the industry are quick to point out that state-of-the-art buses, with comfortable seating and all the latest mod cons, are supposedly a marketing tool to encourage people to make that modal shift from their private car. Xlines, promoted as a premium offering, is used to further encourage that shift.

So rather than talk about it, I decided to use some time off this week to make the trip over to Hexham and give it a try, on what would be my last X85 journey.

During December and very early January, the Enviro 400MMC deckers had been gradually removed from the X84/X85 and replaced with the Optare Versas in standard fleet livery. Presumably to allow the company to fully prepare the deckers for their new life on the Newcastle to Teesside X10, which was is part of this round of service changes.

An Optare Versa approaches Newcastle with an Xlines X84 from Hexham

So whilst I wasn’t going to get the premium service on offer, it would allow me to see what the future had in offer for this corridor.

Boarding in Eldon Square bus station, there was a notable absence of a queue. The X85 was scheduled to depart 15 minutes later than Arriva and Stagecoach’s joint 685 service, which has likely impacted passenger numbers for some time.

One of the changes proposed by Go North East is that the new 684 will be coordinated with the 685, providing a half-hourly service from Newcastle. In the new timetable, that results in the 684 leaving at xx.15 and the 685 at xx.45, which is a positive move for partnership working.

684/685 timetable extract

Sadly that arrangement isn’t replicated from Hexham, as the two services leave within 11 minutes of each other towards Newcastle, leaving a 49 minute gap each hour in the timetable.

Also noted in the timetable, is that although 685 journeys are printed as part of a joint timetable, there’s absolutely no ticket acceptance in place. Leaving the only option to use both services, outside of the Concessionary Travel scheme, the costly Explorer ticket.

At almost twice the price of Go North East’s equivalent day ticket, that is unlikely to be much of an option to fare-paying customers.

So back to my journey, and by the time of departure, I was joined by another 9 passengers, though still representing a pretty feeble load out of Newcastle and with little prospect of picking up further passengers.

Interior of an Optare Versa on my X85 trip

Looking at the interior of the Optare Versa, this could not be more chalk and cheese in comparison to the Xlines offering. A dull, cold blue interior, not helped by the uncomfortable seating that is better suited to it’s previous Citylink life.

The only visible sign of this being an Xlines service was the next-stop announcement screen.

Xlines branded next stop announcement screen.

I dread to think what some trying out Xlines for the first time would think, given that this early-downgrade was not advertised.

I’m perhaps lucky in that I carry a powerbank around with me to keep my phone charged, rather than relying on the bus or train I’m using to supply power, but someone intending to take a bike on board would have been left disappointed.

Bike Bays – advertised on the Xlines E400MMC deckers

If we do all of the above to encourage people to make a modal shift onto buses, you have to question what doing the opposite achieves. If this is the future of the now-684 route, I’d suggest there’s nothing to encourage new customers to give the bus a try.

Is this managed decline? Or at last an acceptance that route-branding is ineffective?

Whilst passenger recovery from the pandemic (which is very much still a pandemic!), is the publicised reason, it is very likely that the impending cliff-edge of the Bus Recovery Grant in April 2022 and the worry of a funding crisis for buses going forward, has also played a big part in the decision.

North East Bus Service Improvement Plan

The Bus Service Improvement Plan is also due to start in April 2022, but we know with a £5 billion funding-gap required to deliver the National Bus Strategy, the future looks extremely bleak.

The National Bus Strategy, written to all-but-admit defeat after 40 years of deregulation promises a lot but commits very little. The pandemic has rapidly-accelerated a managed decline that we’ve seen over decades, and now risks commercial operators matching that by having to choose between either cutting services or haemorrhaging money.

The Government’s National Bus Strategy for England – a pipe dream?

Joint-lobbying of the Government by Local Transport Authorities and operators will no doubt continue, but unless the Government stick their hand in their pocket, the Enhanced Partnership scheme could be dead before it even begins.

There’s a huge task ahead in not only rebuilding customer confidence and passenger numbers, to move forward in encouraging a true modal shift in the North East, but that may prove to be an impossible task if the Government don’t step in.

The X84/X85 may be one of the first casualties, but it certainly won’t be the last.

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