Saturday 4 March 2017

Back To The Future?

We would all love a time machine, and I think it's fair to say most of us would be living in the past when everything was so much better. I most certainly would not have subjected my spine to an hour on a 13yo Dart travelling from Maidstone to Ashford today, for example. Oh no - I'd have either gone back to 1981 for a Bristol VR, or 1988 when I myself drove a unique Scania on that route which I would give my eye teeth to drive again. I also think most would use their time machines to stop them making mistakes made in the past, and it's this which brings me onto today's subject.

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
So I went for a ride, and I have to say I like the Sprinters as vehicles. Solidly built, no rattles, smooth, quiet, but are they suitable buses? I guess it depends who you are and why you use the bus. So let's take a closer look at the interior. The entrance is wide and boarding is easy, although the ticket machine is quite a bit further forward which could prove difficult for those smaller people needing to scan passes.

Boarding the minibus - that shopping took up a seat
Inside the door
The wheelchair/Chantelle bay!
The first Merc I travelled on was pretty full - at least 6 people plus Chantelle, plus shopping occupying seats, of which more later, so I was forced to take the back seat, which is easier said than done, especially while moving. The aisle, albeit short is narrow and sideways movement for a portly chap like myself is required. And then there is the legroom. I'm only 5"9, and not long legged with it. I would think someone 6"6 would find these seats impossible.

It's tight back there!
So let's see who is suited to these new services, If I was a commuter living on these routes I would be offering to kiss the boots of the Stagecoach brains behind this venture. To know it doesn't matter if my train is a few minutes late as I won't have to wait more than a few mins for a bus is very reassuring. I can see many choosing to save on station parking and get the bus. However maybe a promotion with Southeastern is required - 6 months free on the bus with every annual season bought for example. L&O should prove a huge hit with commuters

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!


  1. Definitely marmite I agree, I can't see this minibus idea being extended to other stagecoach depots though, great idea but impractical, I grade this services as just about a C

  2. To say the 1980s minibus schemes were unsuccessful is simply not true in many cases!! They generated huge growth and were it not for this, many services that still exist today would it do so. Mechanically, many of the vehicles were incredibly reliable -the Transit in particular was very cheap to operate and lasted way longer than many expected. And breakdowns were rare! I concede the Sherpa and Talbot were in a different league, but they were in the minority!!

  3. In August 1987 13 Mercedes 609D's at the depot I worked got through 39 clutches, numerous brake pads and were always being written up for steering issues. We weren't bad drivers as when the 709D's came in all the probs disappeared.

    But look at the routes that were converted to minibus operation then and how many are now big bus again. Also if they created so much growth where did it go, what was done to keep it and why did minibuses die out? Yes, use them on low patronage routes, and evenings - I can't argue with that but they must have died for a reason, and that reason cannot be because they were hugely successful!

  4. ...And let's not forget that people have got bigger since the 80s. Those seats look tight by anyone's standards!

    1. What a very good point!

    2. Andrew Kleissner6 March 2017 at 14:40

      Yes - it's noticeable that, in trains which have triple seating on one side of the aisle, folk tend to avoid using them, even in the rush hour.

  5. Andrew Kleissner6 March 2017 at 08:16

    When I saw the pictures, I was immediately reminded of the "dolmuses" in Turkey or "cars raoides" in Senegal. These are small minibuses which run frequently on fixed routes and with fixed fares. They are, however, privately owned and have no timetable, a cross between a bus and a shared taxi. No tickets are issued and "travel cards" are not valid; fares are cheap. In Istanbul the dolmus network runs parallel to the "big bus" (and other public transportation) provision; in some smaller places the dolmus provides the only public transport.

  6. I think minibuses are now to small particularly when they have to carry shopping, buggies and wheelchairs. I think a small midibus is more suited. Higher frequencies will attract more passengers but it takes time too build the usage up man operators start a rout , don't advertise it sand give it up after 6 months

    Smaller buses can also get around the more rural roads as well as estates where full sizes buses struggle

    1. I wonder if the estates point is a good one?

      When I first read the post, my immediate thought was the old reliability vs convenience chestnut? (Conkers, anyone?) Locally First Essex have tried the increasing frequency and new/expanded routes with their existing (or recycled) stock. On urban/suburban routes (so don't get too excited yet, Steve). The problem appears to be (apart from even lower patronage) that in two (three and increasingly four or more car households with young adults living at home for longer and more younger retired people) on-street (and too often poor) parking increases expotentially on our cramped and winding roads (our obsession with house prices = land at a premium, and discouraging boy racers) so the buses are delayed, and delayed further into town with stop/starts; increasing congestion (and decreasing reliability) throughout the town, and for everybody. The bus becomes a curse, not a blessing. Apart from the question of what happens when the Developers' revenue support runs out?

      I can see how minibuses might appear a solution. Apart from their cost benefits; they might enable not just more regular but evening and Sunday services, too.

      As everyone points out, the big problem is convenience. It's either an obstacle course for the bus, or an obstacle course on the bus! Always the bugbear for buses. The question has always been: are they for those who have no option or those that don't (yet) think of using them? It was a question in the past throughout their history, as much as in the present. I suspect that the money, where it is to be made, is from regular travelers, not the more or less occasional shoppers. Just playing devils advocate for a moment: how, by the way, is a bus more convenient for shopping; if you have an option?

      The future of buses (even for those that depend on them - and that is going to increase as regulation gets stricter, which it has to) depends on their ability to generate profits. It always has; for those of us with rose-tinted spectacles, as I've been accused of in the past! So I'm reluctant to criticise any experiment to try and make the bus a transport of choice, rather than just one of necessity (and, of course for us, hobby). If you can't do it with increasing patronage and/or reducing costs, the only other option is fares. The Chancellor has enough other things to throw our money at. I suspect buses aren't on his shopping list. And I don't think they need to be. We've tried subsidies in the past, and it was still a world of cutbacks. I prefer innovation.

    2. Just a supplementary to try and introduce a positive note: might there be some worthwhile patronage from some people (among the 90% who don't use the bus) seeing a 10m or more frequent minibus and thinking "might try that for a quick trip into town". We're not all fat, or lanky. I'm not sure they'd use a normal bus (say up to quarter hourly timetable to give the benefit of the doubt - it would be very much so in my experience) or even a minibus for the weekly shop, in any circumstances - other than necessity.

  7. And of course,in rural areas, you could get away with a smaller bus during the day. However,some routes require more capacity morning and evening peak times to cover for students, workers etc.Most rural routes are allocated a bus or buses for that day so do not have the flexibility to change vehicles between peak time requirements.

  8. All in all, a lot of things have changed since the 80s. Bigger people, the freedom to take unfolded baby buggies on board - ironically facilitated by the DDA Act 1985, plus the DDA requirements themselves, all appear to mitigate against a return to this model.

  9. Stagecoach must be getting quite a thirst for innovation. In my old stomping ground of Royston (south of Cambridge on the Herts border) they're consulting on restoring an hourly service (following the protests when it was cut to two-hourly due to low daytime patronage). The sting is that the service will terminate at the edge of town Park and Ride (where it can link to the rail station and hospital, as well as the town centre), not in the town centre, out of peaks. More reliable as well as more buses, perhaps.

    It'll never happen. Us moaning minnies who believe you can never change anything will make sure of it. Think of all the mumsies and elderly/disabled with buggies and/or loaded with shopping and wheelchairs having to hike off one bus and on to another!!! Come to think of it weren't too many of them around when I used to use the existing service; and obviously not now either, hence the cutbacks.

    At least there's no possibility of unimaginative First following their example! They'd rather sell up or pull out, apparently; or thankfully!

  10. First Bus have sold their Midlothian & the Borders operation, It includes it's Galashiels depot, Peebles, Hawick and Kelso outstations and all staff transfer to West Coast Motors.

  11. I thought at the time the Sprinter City 45 might be too small (seating 17); I thought something a little larger but still van based such as the Sprinter-based Mellor Strata (seating 21) would've been better suited, given it's similar length but being four abreast and having more low floor area better able to cope with peaks in demand whilst maintaining similarly low operating costs. Basically it feels more like a "proper bus".

    Seems I was right as Stagecoach have upgraded the whole operation to Solo SRs citing complaints about space and legroom, and cascaded the City 45s elsewhere. But fuel consumption will see a big jump going from 5T GVW and 2.1L engine to 11T with 5.1L. Obviously Stagecoach think this is sustainable but I question the point of running Solos when you can run a 10-11m E200MMC for the same money and use it on a much wider variety of routes, and you could reduce frequency a little to cut PVR and staffing which seems to break the whole "little and often" concept.