Thursday 14 September 2017

Day Trip To Yorkshire

Having thoroughly enjoyed my few hours in Leeds a few weeks ago, and also being castigated for getting there too late to sample some of the finer bus services there, thanks to a seat sale on Virgin Trains East Coast I made a return visit yesterday for some unfinished business.

The day started the night before, wondering if Storm Aileen would allow me to travel at all. Thankfully Aileen wreaked her vengeance on lines I wasn't travelling on, and so I got to Norwich in plenty of time to catch the train to Peterborough, which yesterday was East Midlands Trains 158774.

158774 unusually on Platform 1 at Norwich
Now the sharp eyed among you will notice the number 7 located bottom right hand corner. I hadn't the foggiest what it denoted so I asked the great and good of the railway world who couldn't come up with an answer either. However, the affable Conductor on board knew. The 7 denotes it's the end with the disabled toilet. The other end displays a 2, signifying cycle storage etc. He explained it's to help platform staff quickly identify which end is which to aid boarding passengers with specific needs. Clever, simple and very subtle. Why 7 and 2 I'll never know though!

I like the 158's, always have and we sped through Thetford Forest, mercifully still standing, and across the Cambridgeshire Fens. A change at Peterborough and a 20 minute wait for my first real treat of the day. In 1978 I caught my first HST up the ECML. 39 years later and I caught my next one. Not the first time back up the ECML by any means, but the HST's have just avoided me. So this was rather special.

43315 at Peterborough
I've been on other HST's of course, Great Western and East Midlands but it was good to add VTEC to the list. A lovely fast, smooth journey and I was soon in Leeds. A spot of lunch, a leisurely stroll down to the bus and coach station, and my first journey on Harrogate Bus Company's flagship 36. The route runs between Leeds and Ripon via Harrogate and Transdev, who run Harrogate Bus Company have put a lot of effort into branding, marketing and plugging the service. The buses - Volvo B5's on a Gemini 3 body are high spec to the extreme. The seating upstairs is 2 + 1 with sumptuous business class style seats, that have seat back tables, arm rests and magazine holders, as well as USB sockets and free WiFi.

The luxurious seats on the Transdev 36
The seat back tables, complete with drinks holder
So I settled in, waiting to enjoy the Yorkshire countryside. Then the bus started to move. How can I explain it -let's try this...

You have gone to a really posh restaurant. The chairs are plush, the tablecloths highly starched and pristine. Silver cutlery is laid exquisitely with matching candelabra and freshly cut, delicately perfumed flowers. The decor is perfect, with Gainsborough prints on the walls, soft gentle music. The Sommelier shows you a wine list the like of which you haven't seen before. then the chief waiter approaches with a silver serving dish, and with a triumphant, Basil Fawlty like flourish, takes the lid off to reveal a McDonald's Happy Meal, a small Coke and a broken toy because the supplilers couldn't be bothered to deliver the fillet steak or lobster, That is the 36.

The Gemini 3 bodies are shocking. Disgraceful. Embarrassing. Utterly appalling. I took a 30 second video which needs no description. Just listen.

The bus industry needs people like Alex Hornby at Transdev, who have the vision and ambition to make bus travel different and downright revolutionary. What it doesn't need are manufacturers that, to put it buntly, just can't be assed to deliver a decent, durable product. If I was Wrightbus I'd have been downright ashamed that my name was on that body. Why is it that Gemini bodies have got worse with each version, not better? Why does MMC stand for Mainly More Crap? Why has every single British manufacturer bottled out of building a new bus for the X1? Yet our glorious PM goes to ADL praising buses we are exporting to Mexico, as if they didn't have enough problems, buses that are illegal on our roads! Alex, you have my full and utmost respect, because you must be banging your had against a brick wall You have a superb product, but not the quality of tools you deserve.

So, rant over, back to the route, which crosses some truly outstanding scenery heading into Harrogate, where I got off to take a look around. A neat bus station, which is adjacent to the rail station, and a conveniently placed walkway from the nearby shopping centre to a multistory car park which provided a perfect spot to get my new header pic.

Harrogate is served by two main operators - Harrogate Bus Company and Connexions, who seem to have mainly old Scanias - I saw but wasn't quick enough to photo ex First Essex 65574 S574 TPW, still happily plying her trade oop North. Anyway, after a break I resumed my journey to Ripon on another 36, which mercifully wasn't quite as bad as the first but still fell in the bracket of  "not what you'd expect from a 2yo bus" and lost myself in yet more gorgeous landscape until we arrived in the small town of Ripon.

Transdev 3620 BL65 YYT at Ripon Bus Station
One thing I must mention are the destination screens. They are quite superb, giving info I haven't seen before, such as this...

Very clever
I like that - saves the driver getting repetitive questions and unnecessary running for passengers. As I said, everything about the 36 is extremely impressive except the bus itself. I got back to Harrogate and decided to travel back to Leeds on a longer route via Wetherby on one of the B5's predecessors, a Volvo B9tl Gemini 2. This had the same, impressive layout upstairs as the B5's, and I found the seats, if anything even more comfortable.

Yes the interior of a Volvo B9tl!
This route - the 70 - is simply a must for any fan of bus travel. The route meanders over spectacular Yorkshire landscape and charming little villages. You get to see sights like this.

Now I'll admit at this point I didn't expect the route to be quite so long. The 36 takes around 25 minutes to get from Leeds to Harrogate. The 70 a trifle longer - 110 mins to be precise and I had a train at Leeds to catch. This would have been fine if I hadn't been handed a good photo op at one of the villages/ I got the photo op because the B9 (far nicer and quieter than the B5's btw) had overheated.

Harrogate Bus Co 3613 BF62 UXZ somewhere!

The driver, a nice bloke called Steve, kept us all informed what was going on and eventually it was decided to limp the bus to Seacroft, a shopping centre still some way from Leeds. It was looking increasingly likely I was going to be spending the night on Peterborough Station when a First bus came in, which happily was going to Leeds Station - via every housing estate in Yorkshire. I made the train with 3 minutes to spare. Nope, never panicked once! A thankfully uneventful journey back to Norwich, although it must be said the Electric Virgin set I came back on wasn't nearly as nice as the HST. 

A truly interesting day which covered most emotions. Alex Hornby tells me improvements are being made to the 36 in October, with some more new buses - not sure what right now - and the rattling on the B5's is going to be rectified. Good luck with that, Alex, and I mean it. Transdev are pioneers in bus travel, we need more like them. I will return to see if the improvements have the impact the vision behind the 36 deserves. 

 Incidentally Chris Speed -  2 + 1seating on the new X1's? 20 min service where needed in West? Just saying.....


  1. The reason that the Gemini's get more brittle by the version is the industry has become obsessed with buses being as lightweight and a fuel effiecent as possible to the point where the initial Gemini stopped selling as more and more operators went for the more lightweight and brittle but cheaper to run E400.

    The Gemini 2 did very little to stem this flow and Wrightbus were still losing orders hand over first to ADL, since whilst the ADL product was nowhere near the build quality of the Gemini, it was lighter on fuel and therefore cheaper to run and Wright had to act since however good and well built their product was, it was simply too expensive to run so hence the Gemini 3 was built primarily to be competitive on weight.

    It wouldn't surprise me if the E400 was built to be a lightweight bus since they knew that they could not compete with Wright on build quality who were historically far better in this area in an attempt to change the industry into a cost based one rather than what it had been previously.

    This strategy totally depended on at least one large group going down this road, if they did, then it was reasonable to think that the other operators would have to follow to remain competitive on costs. Of course, this is where the benefit of the ownership of a certain bus group and would come in very very handy.

    One vehicle manufacturer is certain of getting a massive amounts of vehicles from one operator and that is mutually beneficial for both companies, especially when both of them are the biggest names in each industry.

    1. Rather depressingly that makes perfect sense. It needs the other big operators to say actually no, your products are not good enough and we are going elsewhere or waiting for you to improve. Then we might get somewhere, but are any of them brave, or concerned enough to do that? Probably not.

    2. But if ADL have a new vehicle or some changes in the works, who do you reckon is going to be the first operator to hear about it and how long after that do you think the other operators and manufacturers will get to hear about it?

      This is a different approach to all the other manufacturers have to undertake, if they want to launch a new product they need to reveal their hand early to get orders, any new ADL bus is almost certainly going to be ordered by Stagecoach so they don't have that worry

      The trouble is an operator such as First/Go-Ahead/Arriva etc basically then has a choice of:

      a) doing nothing waiting for another manufacturer to offer a similar and getting beat on cost by the large operator with the close association with the manufacturer

      b) ordering from the same manufacturer to reduce costs, but strenghtens said manufacturers overall grip on the market which also helps the associated bus company to it, whilst weakening the competing manufacturer who have now lost orders.

      Go and have a look at Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Edinburgh to see what it's like where theres no fear of having this problem. They know that they're never going to have to face up to a challenge from an operator linked to a manufacturer and these cities have therefore not seen the switch to lightweight buses built to simply use as less fuel as possible that much of the UK has.

      What would really be nice to see would be another manufacturer come under ownership in part of some of the other groups, since at the moment you have two companies at the top of their linked industries who basically can dictate the market to some respects, the operator gets an advantage on cost and are first to know and you'd guess have some input on the bus design too and the manufacturer has the security of certain orders for their product from said operator.

    3. The move to lightweight has nothing to do with Brian Souter have a financial interest in ADL, the domination of Dart SLF & Trident in the market was long before the 2004 troubles of Transbus, and is driven by increasing fuel costs (both base cost & tax), reducing council funding & the move to Euro 6 which greatly increased the cost of the drivetrain. Also when ADL were developing the MMC models they brought in a number of operators (at least 70 was suggested at the launch) of all sizes including all the big-5, Metroline, McGills, Newport Transport, Epsom Coaches & Lothian so the fact that ADL shares a shareholder with a major bus operator didn't give them a distinct advantage. I would agree that Wright do appear to have taken the weight loss too far, their bodies do appear to rattle more than others, but I find the E400MMC to be pretty well put together with few rattles from most I have experienced (far better than the old E400) though it will depend upon the area, the condition of the roads (as a note West Yorkshire has very badly maintained roads) & how well cared for they are.

      The Enviro 500 is only illegal on UK roads because it has been designed for the build regs of the countries it is sold to (Hong Kong, Singapore, US, Canada, Mexico etc) rather than UK regs. It is perfectly possible for the E500MMC to be made UK compliant, the previous version was, it is just that ADL don't think the UK market is large enough to justify them diverting the resources to do so from other projects at this time. The sales of the Ensign Enterprise will probably show whether they were correct on that view in time.

    4. So you reckon that Brian Souter an owner of the UK's largest bus company, bought an interest in ADL just for the crack of it and there is no benefit whatsoever to his existing company? Come on! There are obvious synergies there to take advantage of any half decent businessman can see that.

      Increasing fuel costs of course is a problem, but the fact that one operator has a link to a integral bus builder puts them at a distinct advantage to all of their competitors when it comes to buying new lightweight buses to not only undercut the other operators on cost and also gives the manufacturer financial assurances that a certain number of their vehicles will be ordered.

      Having a bus builder and an operator in somewhat common ownership certainly is not good for the industry and nothing will convince me of otherwise and that is from someone who knows people working in both the big groups and independents, it's resulted in an unbalanced industry where one operator and manufacturer has got stronger and the others have got weaker.

      Stagecoach is by far ADL's biggest customer and you can be sure that like any good company, they will want to please their biggest customer and whilst other companies views may hold some weight, they would not be contributing anywhere near the revenue to the business that Stagecoach do.

      By the way, the Enviro 500 is quite happily operating in Ireland with 20 delivered in 2005 and another 50 in 2007. They're highly impracticial because of the massive dwell times and the fuel usage and tyre usage issues to the point no more were ordered, but they're there none the less.

      Also you're seriously comparing now with 2004? In 2004 there were a lot of Darts and Tridents being sold, I give you that, but there was also East Lancs, Optare, Wrightbus and Scania having a far bigger marketshare than they have now and a lot of big groups were ordering far less ADL products then than the do now. First for example were ordering almost everything as Wright at that point.

    5. No, I suspect Brian Souter bought into ADL to keep his major supplier going. Transbus (as was) was already pretty much the exclusive supplier of bodywork to Stagecoach as well as midi bus & double deck chassis (through the Dart SLF & Trident), the comparative volume of sales to Stagecoach hasn't changed that much (proportionally it probably has fallen as ADL expand their customer base both at home and abroad) and if anything their position in the market has been strengthened when they began concentrating on those other businesses with sales teams aimed at smaller operators than their usual bulk market sales that Transbus had been built around. You may be right that the ownership may give ADL better security to try things that have helped them but their success has come from designing a model range & support systems to suit multiple different types of businesses not just their largest & most established.

      The E500s in Dublin, as the ones delivered to First in Glasgow, are of the previous version which was, as stated in my previous post, engineered to UK regs. As I said it can be done to the newest version but ADL don't consider it worthwhile (the small number of orders they received for the previous version may be part of the basis of that decision). 3-axle deckers are a specialist product in the UK, largely favoured by top line school bus contractors as they can shift an entire year group on a single vehicle for private hires and are useful for normal school runs & rail replacement work as well due to the high capacity.

      ADLs recent success in the market is down to them not concentrating on meeting the needs of one supplier but by talking to smaller operators and then acting on what they are told. My employers are one of many smaller operators to return to ADL in recent years as they appear to have the best combination of build-quality, running costs, support and vehicle spec to meet the aspirations of these operators. ADL are the only manufacturer at Euro 6 to offer the larger 6-cylinder engines in their range, something which will attract them to a number of independents who run country & interurban services and have ramped up their customer support & build quality at a time where their competitors have dropped off. Wrightbus still appear focused on selling to big groups (First, Arriva & Go-Ahead all being major customers) but don't appear to be very successful at attracting smaller businesses themselves. Optare have previously been successful in selling to smaller companies, largely relying on the Solo, but that market is struggling due to council supported service cuts and their have been reports of quality issues (Trent in particular being vocal) which have driven some existing customers away. The European manufacturers appear to have largely given up on the UK market, VDL no longer offer a RHD bus model, MAN only really offer their Gas models whilst Volvo & Scania only really offer a niche single-deck product based on their coach range (neither of which really seems to be pushed) alongside a double-deck chassis, only Mercedes really seem to be pushing their product in the market but even that is a self-confessed premium product for the top of the market. By 2004 East Lancs were already a very much niche low volume double-deck builder, Optare was specialising in lower weight models similar to Transbus as were VDL in the single deckers and Wrightbus was pretty much the only body available on Volvo & Scania sd at the heavy weight end and designed around the needs of their largest big group customer in First.

  2. Steve The carriage side numbers on class 158's are in the range 57xxx with the toilet and 52xxx without. The 2 and 7 therefore tell you which is which.

  3. Re ADL and Stagecoach, it should noted that Stagecoach in recent years has taken large volumes of Scania based Enviro 400s.

    1. and remind me, who builds the bodies on the Enviro 400?

      Most of the time when Stagecoach have ordered other vehicles it has been because of build time requirements or there is not an ADL product that meets their needs and even when they have done this they have been very careful to spread their orders around for obvious reasons.

  4. Small point of note: Ripon, although small, is proudly a City not a Town as it has an ancient cathedral.

  5. Having now travelled (albeit briefly) on the Scania 250UD chassised E400MMC that's on our local route at present, it seemed sturdier and less rattly than the standard model (also more gutsy in the engine and with a better ride). Not knowing how things work, am I comparing a chassis + body bus with an integral one? And, if so, does that make any difference to the body stiffness?

    1. The MMC is without doubt a better built bus, it's not as good as the first two Gemini's but it's better than the original E400.

  6. Transdev are a company in trouble, the ministry is watching them like a hawk, especially since they were hauled before them for the serious offence of failing to run as registered, the new Wright scrap is unreliable, and all are plagued with body issues, all the Coastliner examples were letting in water badly, and they are already suffering chassis corrosion due to cheap reclaimed steel used on the underframes, with no anti corrosion treatment. I suspect Transdev & Mr Hornby will be parting company soon, staff morale is low throughout the Transdev group too. And on the subject of Wright, their product range has always been flimsy, the Eclipse body flexes alarmingly, especially in the roof and around the window frames, pools of water are common inside when parked outside in the rain, the shedule 2 DDA spec bodies were even worse for structural integrity, the emergency door drastically weakens the structure, you slam an emergency door on them, and watch the body ripple, The Streetlight range, which are DAF underneath are plagued with reliabilty issues, and flimsy bodywork, rear axles falling off plague them, Wright only sell because they are cheap, and very nasty, the latest MMC Enviros are vastly superior in every way, and thanks to them fitting larger engines in the Trident & Scania versions, they are better on fuel that the thirsty twin turbo Volvo 5 litre, or the Merc 4 banger bored out Vario engine in the Streetdeck, which is hopelessly unreliable, and awful on fuel, and has no torque. Buses designed by accountants at First HQ, which aren't lasting. Arriva Yorkshire have already replaced the unreliable B5LH hybrids with brand new Enviros, as the Volvos were unreliable, and the EPAS system failed on one, a common fault, and it ended up in someone's garden near my mums house. Volvo & Wright are losing orders, and Optare are just a joke, how they won that NZ order I will never know, as UK orders aren't enough to keep them afloat. The best decker on the market, with the best economy is the Scania/Enviro MMC, it still has a nice, large engine that isn't working as hard, so revs lower, and uses much less fuel, also has more gears than stuff like the Streetdeck, with it's Voith 4 speed, which also aids economy. To many accountants at the PLCs are looking at individual unit costs, not whole life costs, Volvo are already having to do big warranty claims on the 5 litre engine, and once these are out of warranty, you are talking £15k for a new engine, which has a service life of under a year, and rampant chassis rot even before entering service, as the company accountants won't stump up for chassis protection. It is a typical case of cutting your nose off to spite your face