26 September 2007

Stockport via the East Midlands

On 29 May 2007, the Stagecoach Group announced that it had been awarded the contract to operate the Manchester Metrolink light-rail system from Serco, until July 2017. The Metrolink is certainly one of the busiest light rail systems in the UK, based on passenger numbers - around 20 million a year - per the number of tram units the operation has (32). Despite having taken over operation for almost two full months, I was a little unclear whether or not Stagecoach were to start applying their fleet identity or corporate livery to the trams, certainly this hasn't happened yet.

A trip was in order and testing my theoretical Day 1 of free travel to Scotland using Stagecoach vehicles, arranged with my LEYTR co-editor Peter to travel to the area cross country taking in a few places on the way.

A summary of the itinerary for Day 1 and the vehicles used is as follows:

0619 Home - Service 14 (Stagecoach Grimsby-Cleethorpes)
0630 Grimsby bus station

0640 Grimsby bus station - Service 3 (Stagecoach in Lincolnshire)
0832 Lincoln city bus station

0900 Lincoln city bus station - Service 46 (Stagecoach in Lincolnshire)
1018 Newark bus station

1030 Newark bus station - Service 29 (Stagecoach in Lincolnshire)
1050 Southwell Church Street

1121 Southwell Church Street - Service 29A (Stagecoach in Mansfield)
1204 Mansfield bus station

1230 Mansfield bus station - pronto (Stagecoach in Mansfield)
1300 Chesterfield bus station

1330 Chesterfield New Beetwell Street (Stagecoach in Chesterfield)
1404 Matlock bus station

1537 Matlock bus station - Transpeak (trent barton)
1628 Buxton Market Place

1745 Buxton Market Place - Skyline 199 (trent barton)
1840 Stockport Buxton Road

The first, early, leg of my journey was fairly straightforward with Grimsby-Cleethorpes' 1 year old ADL Dart 35142 (YN56 HBL) arriving 3 minutes late as the driver was new and being trained, but we still reached the bus station punctually at 0630.

The next service arrived 5 minutes before departure in the form of Lincolnshire's Volvo B7TL/East Lancs Vyking 16907 (FX53 TXA). It was particularly chilly this morning and I didn't really want to sit too far away from the heaters but still opted for a top-deck front seat (where there are no heaters). The timings and route on the Connect 3 service were altered in the Spring, which saw the Cleethorpes-Grimsby section of route withdrawn and vehicles terminating at Grimsby. This saw no reduction in vehicles (driver man hours not reduced) as the round trip journey time was still the same (2 hours, inclusive of layover periods).

Layover periods do not generate any revenue whatsoever for a company and yet more had been built into the Connect 3 while at the same time any ad hoc passenger journeys between Cleethorpes-Grimsby had been ruled out as the service no longer ran to this route. The service had suffered from reliability problems and the shortening of the route, plus the reduction in duplication of other Stagecoach routes to/from Cleethorpes, was seen as a good compromise to ensure the core section of the route, i.e. Lincoln-Grimsby was strengthened, especially since it is between these two points that competing rail services operate.

But, whoever was in charge of re-timing the service within Grimsby, and along its now meandering route out of the town along Hainton Avenue and Weelsby Road, has made the journey particularly frustrating with 17 minutes being given to cover 3.5 miles at 0640hrs! That's right, Nuns Corner roundabout is timed at 0657 and at 57 mins past almost all journeys - very welcome in peak hours I'd imagine but mind-numbingly slow and frustrating at all other times with drivers having to hang back - something my driver did. Better to make at least the first departure 0645 at the earliest, surely?

We ran into trouble soon after Nuns Corner, with the driver pulling over on Laceby Road by First Avenue and turned the engine and master switch on. She phoned the depot complaining of a symbol coming on the computer screen on the dash and thought it implied the engine was running hot and did they want to send an engineer with some coolant? I drive Volvo B12M coaches with a near identical dashboard and am well aware of the ridiculous "info" warnings that display on the computer screen, so I was more than willing to offer assistance when the driver came upstairs to say she had a problem with the bus.

The problem? The engine fans were on, or at least that was the symbol displaying on the dashboard. Clearly the engine fans weren't on and there was no coolant or other liquid leak, and after I explained how any other vehicles with any other non-computerised dashboard simply wouldn't make the driver aware of this "info", she phoned the depot, relayed my information and we continued, ironically now running late!

Over 25 people boarded in Market Rasen and both CallConnectplus minibuses (also operated by Stagecoach in Lincolnshire) were out and about. This didn't assist our punctuality as many were paying cash and additional loadings at Middle Rasen, Welton and Nettleham saw us enter Lincoln with a standing load. Progress within Lincoln was particularly awful and we arrived exactly 20 minutes late at 0852. Without my intervention on Laceby Road we were likely to have been much later waiting for an engineer to bring out unneeded coolant.

Optare M880/Optare Solo 47462 (FX07 LJA) was waiting to load on stand P by this time and on I got with 4 other people, opting for the last seat before the step at the back of the aisle, before the rear wheels. The reason? These seats have an unintentional headrest to prevent people sat behind accidentally kicking you in the head, such is the increase in height of seats behind. I looked around to see where the warm air was coming from and there were no heaters. More investigation showed air vents on either side of the rear wall. It was very welcome as the outside temperature was still rather chilly and to my eternal shame I fell asleep by Eagle, waking up on the outskirts of Newark!

I got a shock when I did wake up as the bus was two-thirds full of non fare paying passengers (over 60s). Coupled with my free pass, I suspect this journey took no cash whatsoever. The route is particularly meandering since it was created at the start of the month by merging Services 65 & 87B to form a logically numbered 46, following - and travelling along - the A46. 1:18 minutes to cover what the crow flies at 18 miles is one hell of a journey time, especially since the train can cover the same distance in a shade over 20 minutes, but it's clear this service has no intention of competing with anything. Subsidised by Lincolnshire County Council, the service calls at numerous villages with no rail station and as I mentioned earlier, is a conglomerate of two services, taking in North Scarle, Witham St. Hughs, Aubourn, Norton Disney to name but a few and then 'fast' to Newark via the A46 dual carriageway. We arrived 4 minutes ahead of schedule at 1014. Newark depot has an identical Optare Solo for their contribution to the service and both vehicles have been recently branded 'route 46' in pink but unfortunately the branding above the windows doesn't appear to have been measured correctly, as two words overlap the orange Stagecoach 'swoop' making it unreadable.

In the last decade before their purchase by Stagecoach, RoadCar services operating to the west of their Newark depot was limited: generally school services in the Southwell area and one of the first casualties of the Stagecoach takeover was a school service to Mansfield! Now, Newark depot operates short journeys on a route that has been an East Midland stronghold for many year: Service 29/29A (Newark-Mansfield), though utilising one vehicle between 1000-1530, i.e. in between school transport commitments, operating between Newark-Southwell, creating a 30 minute frequency between these points. Peter was to meet me in Southwell and suggested I board the short working as it was Newark-operated and then join the through Mansfield-operated journey once there. This I did and the vehicle provided was ex TWM MCW Metrobus 15954 (POG 490Y), almost certainly my last ever ride on a closed-top example within the Lincolnshire fleet as their continuation into October is looking very shady indeed.

A cleaner met the decker on stand 7 and swept it out as drivers were changing. One said that the vehicles is always cleaned here at this time as the school run he'd been operating carries "animals" and often items left behind can make things unpleasant for other fare paying passengers throughout the day. Typical with the MCW Metrobus, the ride was particularly loud, bumpy and rough but really enjoyable. I'm not usually one to get sentimental about old buses, but there is something about the sound and the rattle of a vehicle older than my brother (who graduated this summer!) which makes you appreciate it despite having no feeling in your bottom after a mere 20 minutes.

Southwell reminded me of Louth though with even more traffic passing through its narrow streets and finally, some 19 minutes late, Stagecoach in Mansfield's Volvo Olympian/Northern Counties 16169 (R169 HHK) arrived at 1140. This vehicle is unique to Mansfield in that it is their only ex London decker. They acquired the vehicle in 2003 and at the same time were running short of vehicles and it actually entered service prior to its re-paint and single door conversion. It had been intended for Hull, though operated for so long in Mansfield that others vehicles were cascaded from the Capital to Hull and this vehicles remained here.

Top-deck, front seats for us both again and I'd hoped we'd make good progress but the driver didn't seem to want to. I'd passed him en route to Newark as I was on the MCW heading to Southwell so I knew he'd be late, but his excuse that Newark Market was on causing him to be late was plainly false as he was late heading to the town. We sat at Farnsfield for a couple of minutes with nothing happening downstairs. Was he running deliberately late as he wanted an extended break once in Mansfield? Was there a problem with the bus? All I knew was that my 26 minute connection was reducing considerably. We arrived in Mansfield bus station at 1227.

Luckily there was no sign of the pronto service to Chesterfield. This route started in 2005 and was a branding amalgamation between Stagecoach and trent barton at the same time as alterations within Stagecoach's operation to the northern extremity. The routes had been known as Services 737 & 747, with Stagecoach and trent barton operating jointly on Service 737 between Chesterfield-Mansfield-Nottingham, taking in all stops en route particularly between Chesterfield-Mansfield where there service operated via Temple Normanton & Holmewood. Stagecoach operated the hourly Service 747 between Meadowhall-Sheffield-Chesterfield-Mansfield-Nottingham, a limited stop express service and trent barton ran shorts between Nottingham-Mansfield, all of which combined to provide a 20-min frequency between Mansfield-Nottingham.

Two years ago through Service 747 journeys between Meadowhall-Nottingham was withdrawn with the Chesterfield-Sheffield section remaining in tact though now numbered Service 727 and the Chesterfield-Nottingham section being amalgamated with the remaining services, which lost their 737/747 numbers in favour of the word pronto. A bright pink livery was designed by Ray Stenning's Best Impressions consultancy, and both Stagecoach and trent barton had vehicles painted in it. The timetable itself isn't complicated but the lack of route numbers means only regular passengers know which pronto services call at all stops between Mansfield-Chesterfield (former 747, now curtailed) and which call at all stops en route (former 737 joint between Stagecoach & trent barton). Sure, the destinations do display "pronto Chesterfield direct" and the timetable (a 31 page book) detail which is which, but so few people can understand a basic timetable let alone be willing to fathom a 31 page book in bright pink that I don't personally think as much is being made of the service as could have been if services were numbered P1 & P2, for example.

This also means that, as a result of the withdrawal of the Stagecoach Express Service 747, the non-stop journeys via the Hasland by-pass between Chesterfield-Mansfield are worked by aging Dart SLFs, ours was a particularly tatty ex AA Buses vehicle, 33765 (R465 LSO). 30 minutes journey time is given between the two towns and was the case in 1999 when vehicles capable of 62mph were the norm, so a non-stop, foot-to-the-floor journey meant we arrived in Chesterfield at exactly 1300. If we'd stopped to pick anyone up or drop anyone off we'd have been late.

pronto vehicles are certainly striking, more so than the liveries Stagecoach and trent barton operated the former 737/747 vehicles in, so perhaps the 'wow factor' attracted passengers despite the confusing timetable and lack of service numbers?

Our next service was one I used to drive: Service 17 between Chesterfield-Matlock. In 2000 the service was worked with Service 80 between Chesterfield-Brimington, when a round trip took 2 hours. Through fares between Brimington-Matlock were available, too. Stagecoach in Chesterfield have had a couple of shake-ups with services in the Chesterfield area since then seeing Service 80 disappear, so now the service is tied-in with Service 95 (nee 61) between Chesterfield-Wingerworth. There were a lot of people to board the 1330 departure so it was pleasing to see 16484 (N134 AET), an ex. Grimsby-Cleethorpes Volvo Olympian/Alexander RL decker arrive. I'd have driven this vehicle, too, though over 80 miles away. We left 3 minutes late and it wasn't long before we were passing through Walton and out towards Kelstedge.

The route is particularly scenic and every single stop is a fare stage (well it seemed like it!) resulting in a huge fare table and the driver needing to keep track of his ticket machine settings at all times. Kelstedge lies at the opposite side of a locally renowned gradient called Slack Hill. It's a 1:7 ascent towards Matlock with a crawler lane. After leaving Kelstedge we climbed Slack Hill, and I reminisced to Peter how I'd ran out of diesel once at a yellow grit box (which was still there!!!) in ex London Dart 815 (now 32426 (N426 MBW) - at Grimsby, another vehicle I'd driven at both Grimsby & Chesterfield depots!!) and that me and my passengers had remained there for around 35 minutes at a 1:7 angle until a replacement had arrived.

As you enter Matlock, there was/is a far stage called Bentley Bridge, but there seems to be no bridge. There are walled sections of the road that imply you are on a bridge, but it doesn't seem that you are. A Google search seems to imply Bentley Bridge is more of an area of Matlock than a specific structure. I'm still none the wiser. Lime Tree Hill is a 1:7 descent into Matlock with very well used stops along the decline that cause acceleration problems when travelling back to Chesterfield: I was once on a Bristol VR that physically couldn't pull away from the stop at Lily Bank Hydro and had to roll back to have another go.

Mid-September was the initial date for the opening of the new Transport Interchanges within Matlock town centre at the same time as the A6 by-pass was to be opened. This had been delayed once and now 4 October was the new opening date. I'd hoped to have visited when the new by-pass was opened, though it was plain to see that masses and masses of work has yet to be done. It meant that I could take many photos of my second home whilst working at Stagecoach in Chesterfield: Matlock bus station. 12 of the 13 duties came here at some point, some of which were based in the town all day when we operated the 4 town services to Cavendish Park (157), Hurst Farm (159), Hackney (160) & Tansley (164). We also ran services to Castleton (174), Elton (169), evening journeys Bakewell (172), Millers Green (61), Clay Cross (64) and evening journeys to Bonsall (158).
The current bus station will continue to house some services once the town centre alterations are complete, though will eventually be reduced to a shadow of its former self; other services will call at a new mini interchange by the rail station on the other side of the river. This isn't even buit yet, or wasn't when we visited, and the 4 October was looking very optomistic indeed in my eyes as an opening date. trent barton's Transpeak service was next to catch, taking us to Buxton. It arrived at 1552 (15 mins late) in the form of 109 (V109 LVH), an Optare L1180/Optare Excel, unusually wearing trent barton's standard red livery (the vast majority of the trent barton fleet being painted in individual liveries, tailored to each route). I was aghast to see interior trip torn and hanging from the side of the vehicle as I sat down! I've never, ever witnessed a tatty interior on any trent barton vehicle. Realistically, the 'damage' could have occured earlier today and would be seen to that evening. We were 20 minutes late by Bakewell, having been made to wait by Monyash Road as we entered for 5 Hulleys buses to pull out onto the main road from Lady Manners School (I used to drive two routes from there at this very time: Service 024 (to Tideswell) & Service 173 (to Castleton)).
A few years ago, the Transpeak journey we were travelling on wouldn't have operated. Additional funding by Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire County Councils, plus the Peak Park Authority and, I believe, the European Union, had seen the two-hourly frequency (with coaches) increased to hourly between Nottingham-Buxton using low-floor vehicles - this Excel being a good example. We arrived in Buxton (after some more reminiscing on my part to Peter about the steep hill I used to drive Service 193 (Taddington-Buxton Community School) up as we went through Taddington, still 20 minutes late at 1648.

Following the largest plate of fish and chips I've had for a very long time, we boarded the 1825 Skyline 199 service to Manchester Airport. Operated by trent barton, this route is branded at a third-party's request: Manchester Airport - most unusual for trent barton! The name Skyline is given to all regular services operating to/from Manchester Airport - a common brand name applied to many liveries belinging to many operators being something which has proven increased patronage. Our vehicle, another Optare L1180/Optare Excel, was 260 (Y272 DRC) and we made our way out of Buxton with only one final reminisce on my part - as you approach the boundary of Buxton rail station from the town centre you'll see a road go off to the left called Palace Road; this has a nice big bus stop attached to the first lamp post yet only one bus calls there: Service 193, a route I used to drive though now operated by TM Travel. When I drove it the service started at a school in the Fairfield Estate and then operated to Brownedge Road then went to the other side of town to pick up children at the Buxton Community School, the quickest way to get there was down Palace Road. This first section of Service 193 was fo school children only and so was never shown in the main 193 timetable; since TM Travel took over the service it is shown as a through service though in mornings only, with afternoons continuing to show this specific bus stop as the starting point.

There were two sets of major roadworks between New Mills and Disley which delayed us by around 5 minutes. The prospect of massive delays throughout the day must be so high that trent barton have thoughtfully produced a leaflet to inform passengers of the potential for delays. The trent barton uniform strikes me as not necessarily being a uniform that identifies those wearing it as being bus drivers; it has an air of office worker about it, a subtle undertone that their drivers are more than just people paid to drive their vehicles. Our driver pulled over at one point and asked the person sat at the back to kindly remove his dog from the seats as other people had to sit there. How many other drivers would have said something? Very few, most chosing to say nothing an ignore it. It was said in such a way that no offence was received by the bearded, tattooed, slightly drunk owner of the dog. Talking of drunks, the chap sat behind me smelt of parafin he was so drunk.

The Davenport Park Hotel is situated in Stockport (just) at 175 Buxton Road and offers rooms from £29 (single) or £36 (en suite). We've stayed here before and it is in a good location for the Manchester area with the reputed 'most frequent bus route in Europe' passing by: Service 192 (Hazel Grove-Stockport-Manchester). We actually got off 1 stop too early (it's actually the third stop after the Stepping Hill Hospital) at around 1922, three minutes later than the time we'd estimated we'd be passing.