End of an era at Swanbrook

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Swanbrook ended operation of its Oxford service in July. Richard Sharman finds out why, after 35 years, it was time to move the service on to another operator

On 25 July 2020, at 1800hrs, the final 853 service to be operated by Swanbrook departed Oxford for Gloucester. The route, which can trace its origins back to 1930, has been operated by Swanbrook for the last 35 years.

In recent years the service has offered three departures in each direction Monday to Friday, with an additional trip on Saturdays and a trip in each direction on a Sunday evening. The service provides an important link for passengers wishing to travel between Gloucester and Cheltenham and Oxford city centre. Additionally, the service calls at Burford and Witney.

Swanbrook was well known for its fleet of Duple 425s, which would become the regular vehicles for the service as it would also work to London. The service was renumbered to 425 whilst these coaches were in use on it. RICHARD SHARMAN

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Keith Thomas, Managing Director of third-generation family business Swanbrook, explained why this was the right time to let another operator take on the 853 service: “We have been conscious for some time that if we were to keep operating the 853 service, it would require some substantial investment, particularly in respect of upgrading the vehicles to Euro VI. Whilst the service has done well over the years and has paid for itself, it would require additional driver and vehicle resources to help develop it.

“With the requirement for PSVAR from September when schools return and the Covid-19 situation, it accelerated our decision to no longer operate the commercial service, which is a shame as it has been in our hands for over three decades.

“The important thing to us is that we provided our loyal customers with a continuity of service. Stagecoach West was the obvious choice for us, as we already had a ticketing arrangement on the 853 service with Megabus. We felt it was a good fit for them to enhance their network, with which they concurred, and an agreement was made quite quickly.

“Due to Covid-19 the service had been suspended since the end of March, and we were keen to return and operate the final few weeks of service as the lockdown eased. We used that opportunity to inform our customers that the service was passing to Stagecoach. In the current climate, we couldn’t sustain operating long-term with fewer passenger journeys being taken, so during this period, we decided to only operate Monday to Saturday.

“Having operated the service for 35 years, it is quite surreal to give it up, but with our commercial heads on and looking to the future it was the best thing to do. Going forwards there are areas of the business that are doing very well for us, such as our workshop activities where we do MOTs and vehicle repairs, which have recovered very quickly in terms of the coronavirus situation. So we have now purposely gone towards being an MOT centre and garage which happens to operate a few buses and coaches, as opposed to the other way around. That has been a natural development for us.

“We have downsized the bus and coach side of the business over recent years to a much more manageable size but still retain our strategy of a mixture of bus and coach work, both contracted and commercial.

“Over the years we have purposely not put all our eggs in one basket, which has allowed us to adjust to market forces and demand. For example, in the 1990s our work was predominantly coach work and holidays; when the margins got squeezed we moved on to bus work, which meant we were the first operator of the Cheltenham Park & Ride service. As local authority bus work became more competitive in the late 2000s we reduced our operations for that type of work and concentrated instead on further developing our workshop activities and returned a bit more to selective coach work, but in a controlled way.

“We are in a fortunate position with our 21-vehicle mixed type fleet in that we have a limited and controlled level of financial commitment and, aided by the welcome flexibility of insurers with reduced non-usage premiums, we have been able to park vehicles up that have not been required which has assisted us during the pandemic.

“The revenue generated by our workshop activities along with the recent introduction of flexibility into the Job Retention Scheme has helped us to minimise the collateral damage of the last few months. Then by September, our double-decker school buses will be back on the road, our commercial 354 service from Gloucester to Hartpury College will return and we have a contract with Ageas Insurance for a staff park & ride service which we are awaiting a return date for. So, going forward, we are where we want to be.”

Discussing the takeover of the 853 service, Managing Director of Stagecoach West, Rupert Cox said: “In the short term we are going to by and large replicate the Swanbrook operation except we aren’t going to cover the Gloucester to Cheltenham section, as we have many services already on that part of the route.

“Swanbrook has done a great job with the route and I hope that we can encourage their customers to give Stagecoach a try. In terms of vehicles, we will initially use ADL Enviro300-bodied Scania single-deckers but we’ll need to move to Euro VI at some point. Trees prevent double-deck operation right now, but if demand is good then the Gold standard double-deck is an option for us in the future when the trees are sorted.

“Longer term we want to improve connections and frequency and complement better the Stagecoach in Oxfordshire operation.”

Less than a month after taking over the service, Stagecoach West has added additional early morning and late evening trips, along with two trips on a Sunday. The 64-plate Enviro300s used on the service are currently being repainted into the new local livery, making them the first in Cheltenham, and beating Stagecoach in Oxfordshire to run the first repaints in the City of Oxford.