12 September 2007

The Humber Flyer

Stagecoach was the first of the 'big three' bus companies here in the UK to adopt a uniform livery irrespective of the local identity they may have removed from their latest acquisition's home turf. My former boss and manager of one of their depots said that in his opinion this was the 'big downer' of the firm, though went on to praise other aspects of their business such as their market-leading pension scheme and the possibilities for promotion.

Now, Stagecoach, despite retaining their policy of a uniformed corporate livery throughout its UK bus business, are arguably the least draconian of the 'big three' with Arriva and First ridding their vehicles with local fleet descriptors; Stagecoach retain these and made them an integral part of their livery re-branding in 2001.

But all three bus companies have seen the benefits of route branding; after all, it's nothing new, though with all three firms' liveries being so different and contrasting, the skill in applying the right branding to match the corporate 'swirls' or shading, is what makes it either work or an expensive advert gone wrong.

In 2003 Stagecoach's Hull depot cut their losses with the once half-hourly express coach service 909 linking North-East Lincolnshire and the City of Hull with North Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, showing the restraint that was to herald alterations en mass over the past few years with consolidation of core bus businesses, seeing much more emphasis on no-nonsense, simplistic corridor routes that could arguably not require a timetable for they run so frequently without exceptions throughout the day.

They commenced operation of service X1, linking Grimsby town and Hull city centres hourly with fast, non-stop journeys. Coaches departed the terminal points at the same times past each hour throughout the day and never deviated; the fare was simple too: single £4, return £5. A new name was given to the service: Humber Flyer, and although it was applied rather subtly, the name still lives on today on the side of one vehicle - Volvo B10M/Plaxton Premiere Interurban C51F, 52357 - P157 ASA.

The problem with applying this new thinking in terms of frequency and simplicity to a coach service is that fuel subsidy was lost as the distance between bus stops was so lengthy it wasn't classed as a local stopping service; crossing the Humber Bridge required £10 per crossing, too; and coaches are more costly to maintain than super low-floor Darts, for example. Hull depot were particularly short of drivers during 2004 and it was decided to pass the operation to Grimsby depot and to alter the route so that Humberside International Airport was taken in and the 'back route' to/from Grimsby was used via the A18 & A46.

The service was then classified a local stopping service and fuel subsidy was eligible. The additional time taken meant a rather odd 1:10 frequency occurred, meaning a very strange, non-repeating timetable was produced; passengers simply didn't get the hang of such an odd frequency - done specifically to placate the need for a third vehicle. This also called into question the name - Humber Flyer was now anything but.

A stand-off between Stagecoach and the Humber Bridge Board finally came good for the UK's third largest bus operator, seeing reduction in tolls for all PCVs operating stage-carriage services across the Bridge at the end of 2006, securing the financial future of the service. In the spring of 2007, service X1 saw further alteration in that it merged with local bus service 12 within North-East Lincolnshire, to stop duplication between Laceby-Grimsby; the Interurban coaches were taken off the route and Volvo B10M-55 buses with Plaxton Paladin bodies were used (ironically from Hull's fleet).

This alteration saw the frequency return to hourly for the vast majority of the day (the last two departures from Hull leave 20 minutes later to make them more attractive to commuters). In so doing, and despite my reservations about downgrading an express service and then merging it with a very intricate local bus service, two things have happened, both fitting into the current ethos of consolidation:

  1. No further vehicles were required so no additional outlay; however around 300% more bus stops are called at within North-East Lincolnshire, and with Hull being the largest city in a 60 mile radius, it has big pulling power. This has seen the route become more accessible in the traditional sense of the word to thousands more people, who can catch the service without the need of changing buses in Grimsby town centre. The villages of Laceby and Keelby have been added to the journey which had been by-passed before - around 7,000 people in these villages alone now have an hourly service direct to Hull (or Cleethorpes/New Waltham) - not bad for around an extra 1 mile per journey!

  2. In hand with this, the hourly frequency is maintained. Without exception for example, college goers in Grimsby know that shortly after half-past each hour from 0630 until 1730 there will be a direct bus from opposite Grimsby College to Hull. No odd 1:10 frequency. No missing runs around 1500 for school contracts.

Of course, now it's adopted the full ethos of the consolidated bus market, it's certainly nothing of a flyer, meanwhile P157 ASA proudly continues to boast its fleet name in its more recent, down-graded role as a vehicle used to transport children in Laceby to Healing School and to transport workers to/from the Millennium Inorganic Chemicals factory on the Humber Bank.