Coastal Connections

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As a result of significant investment, Stagecoach Bluebird’s route 35 between Aberdeen and Elgin was among the nominees for Best Bus Route at the 2020 Scottish Transport Awards. Following his visit to Macduff depot, Jonathan Welch took up the invitation to go for a ride to find out more

After making the trip north to the Buchan coast to visit Stagecoach’s seashore depot at Macduff, which featured in last week’s issue, the relaxation of lockdown restrictions meant that I was able to take up the invitation of a journey along the route. Having heard from Stagecoach North Scotland’s Managing Director Peter Knight and Macduff’s GreenRoad Champion Fiona Pattinson about the new buses and the high standards of driving, as well as the varied nature of the route, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to see it for myself.

I chose to travel northwards from Aberdeen, and considering that social distancing requirements were still in place opted for a mid-morning journey so as to be travelling at a reasonably quiet time of day, to be sure that I wasn’t preventing anyone else from boarding due to restricted capacity.

Descending into Cullen, the bus passes under the old railway line, which no longer provides any competition to the bus service. GRANT ANDERSON

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Aberdeen has good transport links to the rest of Scotland, with a number of key long-distance corridors converging on the city’s Union Square Bus Station. The bus station was heavily rebuilt just over a decade ago, re-opening in its new form in October 2009. Located between the harbour – where Northlink ferries leave for Shetland – and the railway station with connections to the north and south, the new Union Square Bus Station is a part of the wider Union Square complex, which is also home to restaurants and a cinema. It provides a warm, safe and undercover route for passengers changing from bus to train or waiting for onward connections. It is also home to Stagecoach Bluebird’s regional offices and has bus and rail travel centres.

The route takes Stagecoach’s Enviro400 MMCs down into many of the coastal communities around Macduff. GRANT ANDERSON

Although quieter than normal as I boarded the 1100hrs route 35, there were still plenty of buses laying over or waiting to depart from the sawtooth stances, including a double-deck Van Hool Astromega on a megabus service, a pair of purple Jet727-liveried Enviro400s on the frequent service to the airport and a Coastliner-branded Plaxton Elite i. Long distance services, plus all Stagecoach Bluebird services start and finish here, except cross-city route 59 which uses stops just outside the bus station on Guild Street. With the exception of the 727 and 59, local bus services are operated by First Aberdeen, with Stagecoach being the regional operator. By the time of my journey, most services had returned to a level of service close to normal, although passenger numbers remained low throughout the city and throughout my journey.

First impressions were good as I boarded the bus, which was on the stance waiting when I arrived a few minutes before the scheduled departure time. The £17.90 Explorer ticket is not cheap, but allows for unlimited travel on Stagecoach Bluebird services over a wide area of north-east Scotland. On my journey, it would take me the 88 miles north on the 35, and 65 miles back sounth on the more direct route 10. The bright blue and orange leather seats are not to everyone’s taste but provide a bright and airy atmosphere on board.

We reversed off our stance right on time with around 10 people on board, most upstairs. We turned left out of the bus station and passed the glass front of Union Square, crossing the railway on a bridge whose rough cobbled surface provokes a somewhat harsh ride, though that is by no means unique to our Enviro400! Looping around the one way system, we dived beneath Trinity Centre and the city’s main thoroughfare, Union Street. Although some long-distance buses run along what is the main shopping street, others such as the 35 use this faster route which avoids the city centre.

Passing by the ongoing works at Union Terrace Gardens, where the green space is being redeveloped to make it more usable and accessible, we quickly gained another passenger at Rosemount Place, where the engine switched off immediately as we came to a halt. The sudden silence drew attention to the loud noise from the blowers below the front window, highlighting a welcome feature of the Enviro400MMC, and which should help prevent the large upper deck windscreen misting over on a wet day, a common complaint and irritation for passengers. Although the large front and side windows make for great views, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of flex in the single-glazed side window pane.

Passing similar bus 11161 nearing the end of its run on the 35, we headed on towards a key stop for the service, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, where we met one of Stagecoach’s Enviro350H hybrid single-deckers in the new Stagecoach colours. Aberdeen’s native fleet of these buses, branded for route 59, has been joined by similar Gold-specification vehicles transferred from Perth.

A brief pause here gave our driver time to step off and adjust his nearside mirror, while I wondered about the new multi-storey car park, which alleviates the previous parking problems on the large hospital site, but seems to do nothing to encourage public transport use. Our first passenger alighted shortly after, reminding me of the Ding-Ding-ding-ding bell fitted to recent ADL products, which rings twice in the cab then twice in the saloon. Having driven similar buses in service, this can quickly become irritating, and as a passenger I find it no less so. Our driver slowed to give an elderly lady time to finish crossing the busy dual carriageway towards a bus stop ahead, but alas, she didn’t want our bus.

We passed one of Stagecoach’s Tridents heading the other way as we arrived at the Haudagain roundabout, where there is significant work going on to remodel this busy junction where a key route in and out of the city meets the main ring road. Reflecting the quiet nature of services at present, we waited a couple of minutes for the clock to catch up with us at Dyce, after which we left the city behind and headed for Newmachar.

At Whiterashes, an electronic speed sign flashed 37 as we entered the 40 limit, our driver in no hurry. Initial impressions of the bus suggested that the ride is quite firm, but at the same time we had barely any passengers aboard, which always changes how a bus handles. Leaving the 40 limit, the Enviro400 had no problem accelerating towards the 50mph now permitted and remained reasonably composed on the open road. Looking around, I noticed that although the bus is fitted with seatbelts, no one was wearing one.

The route passes through some narrow sections of road, which can be a test of drivers’ skill. GRANT ANDERSON

Climbing up towards Oldmeldrum, a low mist hung over some of the hills, highlighting the pinks, yellows and greens of the landscape. We again waited at the first stop in Oldmeldrum, although it didn’t seem an ideal spot, being close to a junction. So far, the drive had been smooth and steady. My watch told me it was now 1151hrs, and we still had a long way to go to Elgin. Inspired by the cove panel advertising, I decided to try the WiFi and USB charging point, only to discover that as I plugged my phone in, nothing happened. A few moments of disappointment ended as the engine re-started and my phone pinged to say it was charging – from this, I concluded that the USB sockets only work when the engine is running. Signing in to the Icomera WiFi required me to accept the terms of use and confirm that I am over 13 years of age. Once done, the connection seemed quick and stable and remained so when I tried it at a few random points along the route.

The colours evident in the landscape change at different times of the year, making for an ever-changing journey. GRANT ANDERSON

Checking a copy of the timetable – downloaded in PDF form from Stagecoach’s website – I saw we were on time as we arrived at Oldmeldrum Square. In an age where journey planners are growing in popularity, I find the facility to easily download a full timetable useful in allowing me to see all the available options without having to first select a time or departure point. In this case, it made it easy to figure out the options for connections back south on route 10, which also runs between Aberdeen and Elgin but via a more direct route, using Plaxton Elite coaches.

As is common on long routes, the 35 coming the other way this time showed ‘Oldmeldrum for Aberdeen,’ Oldmeldrum being one of three points on the route where the destination is changed to comply with local service regulations. Our route took us into Fyvie, where we do a loop around the turning circle before rejoining the main road the same way we came in, passing a garage with a selection of classic cars parked outside including a Ford Capri, a Rolls Royce and a Jaguar XJS. A brown tourist sign reminded us that we are on the Castle Trail, the dark skies ahead and wet road suggesting that we have just missed a downpour as 15 minutes later we passed yet another 35 with a friendly wave, reflecting the half-hourly schedule on this normally-busy route.

At Turriff, one of the larger communities hereabouts, we passed temporary signs telling us that the town centre is open for business, and it seemed to be. The last of my upper deck co-travellers left here. I noticed the unusual ‘indoor’ petrol station, enclosed on all sides bar the front, and as we left Turriff behind, three wind turbines spinning made me realise that there was a strong crosswind, which combined with the twisty nature of the main road presents a challenge for drivers of double-deck buses. Our driver handled it well though, the journey remaining smooth and stress-free.

A sharp right turn along the old High Street in Macduff was followed by a descent towards the harbour, held up briefly while we waited for oncoming traffic in the narrow streets, and I mused that the name ‘High Street’ seems to reflect the geographical location at the top of the hill rather than the usual shopping connotation.

The harbour is still home to a number of fishing vessels, ‘Fisher Boys’ and ‘Westroe’ being among those alongside the quay as we rolled past the depot of Deveron Coaches and pulled up outside Macduff depot for a driver change.

It was now around two hours and 50 minutes since we left Aberdeen, and there was still a way to go. A 35 arrived from the opposite direction, lightly loaded with just three passengers visible, and as we waited a cleaner boarded that bus, wiping down touch surfaces such as handrails and seats before crossing the road to attend to ours too, joking with our new driver not to forget she’s on board and take her to Elgin!

The last hour of our journey would see us follow the coast west before dipping back inland again to reach our destination. A short hop across the historic bridge at the mouth of the River Deveron took us to Banff, where the café in the Famous Spotty Bag Shop looked busy but I couldn’t be sure if it is famous for its bags, its spots or its food. Banff appeared to be the kind of small town which I might have described as bustling if it were not for Covid, though at least we saw a number of people both joining and leaving us here.

The roads from here become narrower in places, at one point our driver sounded his horn as we approached a blind 90-degree bend to warn others of our approach, needlessly as it turned out as there was no-one coming the other way. Crops in the fields could be seen rippling in the strong wind as we made our way west, and as we passed a roadsign I wondered if Boyndie ‘Drome is as interesting as its name suggests. Thanks to the on-board WiFi I learned that it operated as a WWII airfield, though most of the modern references seemed to point to it having more to do with karting than flying these days.

An interesting and somewhat home-made bus shelter appeared on our left with ‘35’ in large numerals, and before long we descended to Portsoy, home of the annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, which brings crowds to the small village from far and wide. An unfortunate meeting with an oncoming 35 on a narrow bend saw us make a quick – but smooth – stop to let it pass, before we headed back on to the main road where signs told me we were now in ‘Moray – Malt Whisky Country’ before we dropped down into Cullen, ‘Home of Cullen Skink,’ a delicacy which is not to my taste I have to admit!

The curved viaduct at Cullen is a well-known landmark on the route. GRANT ANDERSON

Despite the slowly-growing number of flies splattered on the windscreen, the view of the former railway viaduct curving around the bay was spectacular. These days, the only railway in this part of the world is the main line from Aberdeen to Inverness. More narrow roads and parked cars at Portknockie saw us passing a long row of brightly coloured cottages on the wrong side of the road, whilst roadworks at Findochty proved a real test of our driver’s skill as we squeezed through at walking pace. At Buckpool I was impressed to see our driver wait for an oncoming cyclist to come through a narrow stretch of road before continuing, before a narrow descent with hairpin bend took us down to the shore via another 90-degree bend under the remains of a railway bridge gave our driver another chance to show off his skill.

At Fochabers, we crossed the River Spey and the Speyside Way, a long-distance walking route which runs from Aviemore to the coast at Buckpool, immediately followed by the Baxters Visitor Centre on our right. Baxters is well known up and down the country, but has its roots in the grocery store opened in Fochabers by George Baxter in 1868.

Heavy rain marked the last stage of our run towards the former cathedral city and Royal Burgh of Elgin, with its slowly expanding outlying industrial areas and Stagecoach depot on the main road, before our on-time arrival at the town’s small bus station, from where I opted to travel back on the direct service, the X10.

It has to be said that I enjoyed the journey. The bus was clean and comfortable, but as Managing Director Peter Knight said in last week’s issue, the service is geared towards local journeys rather than end-to-end trips. Driving standards on my journey were high, in conditions which saw the bus being buffeted on occasions by strong crosswinds. Although the route did not win the hoped-for awards at this year’s Scottish Transport Awards, I’m sure the drivers and their colleagues at Macduff will carry on striving for the highest standards.