In the mid to late 80's Britain suffered a German invasion that you won't find in the history books, but a German invasion it was. Hundreds and hundreds of Mercedes 608D minibuses flooded the UK bus market, and operators thought all,their birthdays had come at once. Perfect, they thought, we'll increase frequencies so passengers have far less time between buses, and people will scramble to get onto them. Hundreds of freshly qualified drivers, including yours truly, suddenly appeared on the roads guiding these bread vans round estates. The Sherpas followed, Transits, Dodges, even Talbots (don't go there) and minibuses ruled the roost. Big buses were scrapped in their droves. There was, however, just one slight flaw in the master plan.
They were crap! I lost count of the times I broke down, normally with clutch issues, only rectified when the 709D came along. Bunching was the norm not the exception, and you would frequently fill up early and then drive past loads of passengers come rain or shine. Fact is if people know a double decker bus is coming at 10:15 that they will definitely get on then they are happy. Leaving home not knowing how many buses you'll see drive past cannot inspire one with confidence. So gradually minibuses disappeared to be replaced by the likes of the Solo and short Dart. Not many more seats but vastly more space for standing passengers.
So when I heard Stagecoach Southeast were thinking of bringing back minibuses on a couple of routes in Ashford I was intrigued. Surely that has been tried and not worked? What is different about the market now, and bus usage? I'm sure a lot of you have read the articles in various magazines about the "Little and Often" service in Ashford, so while in Kent for a couple of days I decided to go down there and take a quick look. It was a quick look too, only 50 minutes available in Ashford but it was enough to make an initial assessment. I will go back and spend longer riding around on them soon before I reach a final conclusion, but today I will try and sort out the pros and cons to this what I would describe as courageous trial.
Stagecoach are using a fleet of 30 Mercedes Sprinter City 45 minibuses, which have 13 fixed seats, and space for two buggies/wheelchairs. If that space is not occupied 4 pull down seats are also available. All Ashford Town routes are lettered, not numbered, and Little and Often operates on the B and C serving the big Kennington and Park Farm estates among others. The service operates from around 6am to 11pm including Sundays. During the day buses can run up to every 5 minutes. All sounds good..
|One of the Little and Often Mercedes Sprinter minibuses in Ashford|
|Boarding the minibus - that shopping took up a seat|
|Inside the door|
|The wheelchair/Chantelle bay!|
|It's tight back there!|
I did suggest to someone that I have memories of struggling onto buses going to school with a school bag, sports bag compete with cricket bat or hockey stick, AND a cello! It would have been impossible to use something as cramped as these buses. However I have been assured that big buses still operate school journeys so that shouldn't be a problem unless, like me, said boy with schoolbag, sports bag and cello has an after school activity....
It is noticeable the L&O serves Ashford International Station, Tesco, Asda, the most popular outlet centre in Kent, and of course Ashford town centre. This would suggest that Stagecoach are assuming or hoping plenty of shoppers will be using these services. Window shoppers I presume as there is no luggage space whatsoever on these Sprinters. If Chantelle and Lauren are on board there is nowhere for suitcases if travelling to Paris via Eurostar, which would have to be moved anyway if buggies or wheelchairs wanted to get on, and husbands will be delighted as their partner's shopping would be severely curtailed as the chance of boarding successfully with multiple shopping bags is unlikely as there is nowhere to put them. Christmas shopping - nah! There will be more bags on seats than bums!
At this point I must point out I have not spent enough time in Ashford to compare the market (stop it)
there to Suffolk. However, in Suffolk old ladies with shopping trolleys getting on buses is a very common sight. No chance on L&O, plus despite a step free entrance those old ladies and gentlemen have to negotiate two albeit small steps to get to the seats. Small but easy to trip on. Though as I said that might not be an issue depending on the market there but it would be here. I shall return for a longer visit to determine that.
But here is my major doubt. L&O has been launched at the quietest time of the year for bus travel. What is it going to be like in the Summer, when a couple of families decide to go into town together? That bus will be full, especially when returning with multiple shopping bags. In 1987 25 seater minibuses running every 7 minutes weren't enough to stop people waiting down the route for up to 40 mins because full bus after full bus drove past. Will there really be enough capacity? Incidentally 2 buses that were not full drove past me without stopping while I was at Asda. I do hope history won't repeat itself and drivers do the job merely because it is a (well paid) job and not because they want to drive buses and serve the public. There is no minibus rate of pay, which is to be commended, but if you want growth then friendly, welcoming, considerate drivers are essential. That is one thing that HAS been proved in Suffolk! I didn't see any of that on my visit, indeed one driver was rather worryingly staring out the entrance door while pulling up to see how close to the kerb he was.
As an experiment - Stagecoach describe it as an open ended trial - it is useful, if only to realise that there needs to be something between this size vehicle and a Solo. Certainly some people will love it - I was told the reaction has been somewhat Marmite like and I can see why. L&O will either suit you down to the ground, or will be hopelessly impractical for your needs. Yes it will undoubtedly attract new passengers, especially commuters, but Stagecoach need to be very careful about alienating existing passengers, particularly shoppers. Will be interesting also to see if those areas served by L&O are used as unofficial Park & Ride sites, with workers in particular leaving cars on the estates to get L&O into town.
I will go back for a longer look before I give my final judgement. I think the concept is positive, but at the moment I think the Often is good, but the Little a wee bit too little.
I have been contacted by Matthew Arnold, the Commercial Director at Stagecoach Southeast, who has given me the following statement;
"This is a trial purely to see whether increased frequencies using lower cost vehicles can generate growth and we are well aware that the eyes of the industry are on Ashford. We have learnt a great deal already and will continue to listen to comments from all customers"
Matthew has also offered to meet me on my next visit to show me around the estates to see the Sprinters in their element. I'll look forward to that!