01 June 2009

A rising star?

Yesterday was the first day-proper for Nottingham's newest bus operator, Your Bus. They'd given the city a sneak peek at what they had to offer last Friday, when a free service was operated. The seven-strong Your Bus fleet attended the Wollaton Park bus rally in central Nottingham on Sunday before taking to the road yesterday.

Your Bus is particularly fascinating because its founder is Robert Dunn, the one-time owner of Dunn-Line Holdings Limited, a Nottingham-based bus and coach operator, that sold to Veolia Transport Services a couple of years ago. It's always telling of an individual's character when their re-emergence in the same industry takes place, despite initial claims that they were looking forward to either 'persuing other interests' or 'looking forward to an early, stress-free retirement'.

And what a time for the Dunn family to re-enter the bus business! Bus Service Operators' Grant is likely to drastically alter in the coming years, the ongoing furore over concessionary reimbursement rates by local councils to operators, the increases in fuel (more due in September), the economic downturn that is seeing rising unemployment, resulting in fewer commuters - not to mention increased car ownership and worsening congestion! Not only that, Your Bus has pitched its competition specifically against one of the most economically friendly, carbon-neutral forms of transport we have currently in the UK - the Nottingham tram network: Nottingham Express Transit (NET).

A polite dig at NET - the rear-ends of the Your Bus fleet all display different promotional adverts; this one shows that the bus is more convenient as it stops at more places.

We'd initially implied that Your Bus' services were ideally routed to attack NET head on. While both routes (Services 81 & 82) do mirror the existing tram line between the city centre and Bulwell/Phoenix Park, they do so having to share road space with a minimum of 6 Nottingham City Transport (NCT) bus services - all of which operate beyond Bulwell.

It was in glorious sunshine that myself and an LEYTR Associate convened in central Nottingham late yesterday morning with a plan to sample the new Your Bus network and also that of the tram. My dealings with NET have been made clear before: I don't doubt for a minute that it's a worthwhile scheme and much-needed indeed, but the interiors are not nice places to be, especially when compared to other examples up and down the country.

Your Bus' timetable states that buses depart from Friar Lane every 10 minutes. This is incorrect. Buses depart from Beastmarket Hill stop B1 - just round the corner from Friar Lane. Such a glaring inaccuracy is a pretty poor show for an operator who wants to try and attract new custom. There may well be a very good reason for this, such as Notts City Council re-allocating their pick-up point at short notice, but for the casual user, it's a needless hurdle.

The city centre stop is on Beastmarket Hill NOT Friar Lane as the timetable states.

Then there's the reliability issue. We were both stood on Friar Lane for well in excess of 10 minutes before the first Your Bus went past. Two followed in convoy - an 82 leading an 81. Time-keeping issues on the first day, when buses were likely to be very lightly loaded indeed? Things were not boarding well!

Publicity at stops only really extended to these small stickers on the flags. There was a timetable at the Hempshill Lane terminus but nothing at Phoenix Park.

Having witnessed both buses go past us and turn out of Friar Lane, the casual user would then walk to the Old Market Square NET stop and pay for a single to Phoenix Park on the tram. Having come to specifically travel on Your Bus' services, we chose to percivier and follow the direction the buses were heading, which is how we stumbled upon stop B1 in Beastmarket Hill. Here, the later of the two buses had already departed and the more punctual one was at the stop, the driver fielding questions from the curious public. A Your Bus official was also at the stop, clipboard in hand, ready to field questions. This element seemed very well set-up; indeed expected on the first day.

Your Bus' attack on NET is two-pronged from what I can gather. Firstly, they are cheaper and secondly they offer more seats. The latter is physically incorrect - their buses seat 36 while NET's tram's seat 64 with 127 standees - but I knew where they were coming from. They're operating along a route with more immediate choice in terms of buses and so will be proportionately lightly loaded in the early months/years. Certainly, this was true today - the most heavily loaded bus we travelled on carried 6 people; but of course no one was really expecting a full-standing load!

NET might call at fewer stops and, at peak periods, see large numbers of standees, but with room for 191 people, can Your Bus' vehicles with their 36 seats really match this?

With regard to the price, a short hop (one locality to the next, say city to Hyson Green; Bulwell to Phoenix Park) is £1, with all other singles being £1.60. The return fare is the Day Ticket costing £2. Children receive a straightforward 50% reduction. NET operates a frequency roughly double that of Your Bus and does so for greater periods during the day, not to mention at weekends and on Sundays when, from what we could tell, Your Bus does not operate. Its timetables state Monday to Saturday but have no mention of Sunday services - not even to state that one doesn't operate. Their weekly and four-weekly tickets have an asterisk against their prices to state "not all services operate on Sundays" - from what we could tell none of them do.

Your Bus' peak vehicle requirement is constant from 0730-1830, with a total of 6 buses needed. The routes are relatively short in length, so it's never long before you see one - you just hope it's coming in your direction!

Also from our observations, only one reference is made to NCT, and this is on the rear of one of their buses, which proclaims the advantage of their services over those of NCT: they offer change. They also offer an assault screen-free cab and from our experiences, very friendly drivers. I'm sure NCT boasts some excellent drivers, but the assault screen poses such a barrier.

Our first trip was aboard the 1157 Service 82 to Phoenix Park, which actually departed at 1202 - not bad considering it arrived with one one on and left with only four passengers!! The timetable is a worry to me: 4 minutes recovery time at the northerly termini. I said last week I feared this may not be enough and from my observations today, it appears I could be right. To have the edge on NET, they need to ensure their timetable is rigorously maintained; miss a Your Bus and the passenger has 10 minutes to wait; miss a tram and the passenger has only 5.

Your Bus makes a lot of local dialects. Their 'ey up me duck slogan has caught the media's attention. Here another relatively local phrase is used: Twirlybird - referring to OAPs who ask at 0929hrs if it's "too early" to use their bus passes.

The route out of the city centre is via Mount Street and Canning Circus and then right, heading through Hyson Green. Buses use fairly linear streets and run parallel with NET north of Hyson Green through Basford and David Lane and into Bulwell, where the road swings left in an arc over the shared tram/Robin Hood rail line. In Bulwell, buses share the main bus station with other operators here being NCT and Doyles. Here the 82 heads to Phoenix Park, following the road to Cinderhill Island (notoriously congested at peak periods!) to its terminus at the Park & Ride site built specifically for NET.

A fascinating shot: The Dunn family once owned the vehicle in front - it's still in their livery - but after a 3 year sabbatical, they now own the vehicle at the rear. Moments after both buses had departed, another Vario arrived on Service 555 still displaying Dunn-Line fleet names.

Importantly, the journey time between the city centre and Phoenix Park was identical to that of the NET. As we boarded the 82 in Beastmarket Hill, I saw NET tram 201 (Torvil & Dean) pull alongside us as it departed the Old Market Square stop. We board arrived at Phoenix Park together. Having left the city centre 5 minutes late, we'd made none of the time up by the end of the route.

We alighted and I took some photos as the bus departed and while we awaited the following service 20 minutes later, I got some shots of two trams at Phoenix Park. This is relatively unusual since only one is normally diagrammed to be here. The station is at the end of a very short spur off the main NET line, diverging at Highbury Vale.

Our next bus departed only 1 minute late at 1251 and we caught this to Radford Road/Shipstone Street. There's the opportunity for some decent street-running shots of the NET here and we paused for a few minutes with the sun in perfect position to capture a couple. We then boarded the NET for travel to its terminus at Hucknall. We bought a tram-only day ticket costing £2.70 (Your Bus £2) and travelled to Hucknall before a quick trip to Tesco and back on a subsequent service to Bulwell. Here we walked to the bus station and caught Your Bus Service 81 to its northern-most terminus at Hempshill Lane.

Two buses were running together again, though luckily for us a driver change on the 82 prevented the 81 from leaving, so we were able to board. At the terminus I was about to ask the driver if it'd be okay to jump off for a quick photo, but he indicated in broken English that he should've departed one minute ago. From his rather flustered, but nonetheless polite tone, we both got off and waited for the next bus, capturing a couple of decent photos. The next bus arrived punctually and the driver undertook his 4 minute layover.

Bunching on a 10 min headway is not good news. With no roadworks along the route, it is my main concern that inadequate time to do a round trip could be what makes or breaks the new venture.

We stayed on this 82 into the city centre. It was on this journey that I took a call from my parents, regaling me with a frightening story about how, while on a coach holiday last week, their coach was impounded by Austrian transport officials for numerous offences. They'd gone with Max's of Lowestoft - perhaps they ought to blog about their European experiences by coach?

Back in the city centre, we left the Your Bus 82 and noticed the city centre official had swapped to a female, who was offering timetables. We caught a NET to its Station Street terminus as my friend had never travelled on the NET network so I said we'd get a bit more of the network under his belt.

NET still reaches streets within the city that no bus can. Would residents along Beaconsfield and Shipstone Streets forgo the tram for Your Bus?

And that was it. Our first experience of Your Bus over. What to think? To be honest, I really do not know. A quintessentially British trait is to always favour the underdog, and despite the Dunn family's links with the AIM-listed Rotala group, who no doubt has some involvement with the scheme, they are still very much the lesser operator in Nottingham. I think they've rightly cited their aim to win patronage from disillusioned NET travellers - they've rightly realised that unlike other council-owned bus companies, NCT is now well-focused, well-operated and with its 17% Transdev stake, particularly aware of the industry at large and able to draw on funds to cause real problems for Your Bus if it so wished.

I think it's worth Your Bus giving it a go, trying to recruit NET passengers fed up having to stand from Bulwell into the city centre, but the route is quite short: in my experiences, people often prefer to stand when they know they're not going to be travelling for a great distance; they're nearer to the doors so can bail out sooner. A journey of more than 20 minutes was once suggested as being too long to expect someone to stand. Bulwell-Beastmarket is timed as 22 minutes - is it far enough over the threshold? It's hardly like having to stand on a train from Birmingham New Street to Oxford - something I've had to endure on countless occasions.

And don't forget that Bulwell sees Your Bus compete with NET, NCT and East Midlands Trains!

NET, of course, cannot respond to rivalry in the same way; they can lower their prices to match Your Bus, but operating a more extensive network and at times/days when Your Bus is all locked up at their Watnall Road depot, they have nothing major to fear. That's my opinion. Is there room for new patronage to be gained? Both National Express and Stagecoach's Megabus operations claim neither's seen passenger decline on competing services. Can the same be done along the Hyson Green corridor in Nottingham? Possibly. I think everyone knows that whatever could happen certainly wont do so overnight. It is through attracting new patronage that I think Your Bus will benefit the most.

I'd like to think that Your Bus could calve out a niche for itself in Nottingham - it appears well financed and the publicity is very catchy. They need to pay particular attention to their reliability though - this could, in my opinion, be their undoing. (GL)

Photos taken yesterday can be seen by clicking here.

The Your Bus website can be accessed by clicking here.