Feel good Fun in the sun

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John G. Lidstone reports on a ray of sunshine from sunny Southend amidst the bleakness of 2020

Ever-enterprising Ensignbus reached an agreement early in 2020 to logically adopt the Southend seasonal summer seafront service which Thomas Drake of Go-Ahead London Commercial remarkably, but very successfully, brought back in July 2017 after an absence of several years and which ran each year subsequently.

But then Covid-19 struck: such ideas of ‘nice-to-have’ seafront frivolity were thrown into check, like so much else.

Nonetheless, Operations Director Ross Newman took the service under his belt and so service 68 was duly registered, timetable and fares planned to set the stage to bring back the successful structure of the 2018 Go-Ahead (GA) season once more.

Light was soon at the end of the tunnel as ‘lockdown’ was released, during which time the two in-fleet low-floor open-toppers – former Arriva London dual-door Volvo B7TL Gemini 392 (latterly known around the country as ‘the Brexit bus’ on long-term charter and converted to open-top in-house) and former Stagecoach and latterly Cambridge City Sightseeing Dennis Trident ALX400 339 – had been repainted and route-branded with artwork drawn up by Ross’s young daughter Lola.

Passengers taking photos and selfies have a little surprise on Metroliner 372 as the breaking high tide is whipped over the sea wall and will unusually spray a few of them!
It’s easy to see why London Pride knew these giant open-toppers as ‘Megaliners’ due to having 55 bus seats in place of former coach seats in their upper decks – the largest capacity of any double-deckers at the time they were converted from coach to bus. JOHN G. LIDSTONE

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The opening of shops and seafront attractions in the first week of July suggested an ideal start date of 11 July and so another family effort, bringing in other daughter Kara and ‘mum’ Lorraine saw roadside publicity produced, literally ‘in house’ (and put up by ‘dad’ Ross) as well as handbills readied to give out to passengers, as there’d not been enough lead time to get professional leaflets printed.

Ross’s wise rationale was that, despite the ever-present pandemic and very low passenger loadings on ordinary local Southend services and open-top tours in London, that it was worth a try nonetheless, to establish the company presence on the seafront and also to bring a ‘little bit of normal’ to summer 2020 for everyone (and how right he was too!).

There are not many places where Routemasters rub shoulders with palm trees, but the seafront at Westcliff is one of those places. On its first afternoon in use on duplicates on service 68, Ensign’s RM371 was proving very popular. JOHN G. LIDSTONE

The whole idea behind this was primarily to have some fun and bring some smiles to cheer people in the post-Lockdown summer sunshine: the only commercial concern was really to cover costs and break even. To that end, the extremely popular bargain fares of 2017/18 were restored (with single fares at just £2), hoping to win back the traffic lost after the 100% single fare increase and abandonment of ‘returns’ by GA in 2019, which had hit the numbers of the service that year.

Very quickly, passengers were drawn in good numbers to the service – seemingly not seeing it as the slightly ‘risky’ ‘public transport’ but more in terms of a fun-ride, like the amusement park of Adventure Island which nestles near to the key service base stop at Southend Pier.

Drivers requested lower saloon passengers to wear masks, but left this to the discretion of upper saloon passengers, as all vehicles were fully open-top, in contrast to the ‘half-top’ vehicles used by Go-Ahead in the previous three seasons. Hand sanitiser gel dispensers were fitted to all vehicles used and drivers carried a supply of spare face masks to be able to offer these where needed.

The route remained as it had been since 2017 (Southend Kursaal/Pier to Leigh Station) but with first and last journeys of each vehicle extended to run from/to the traditional Sutherland Boulevard 67/68 terminus just north of the London Road A13, affording connections to local bus services on that corridor.

Having vowed not to get involved with open-top bus operations again after the sale of such operations, the temptation of the 68, right on the family doorstep, proved too much to resist: but in so doing, the extensive expertise of the former London sightseeing tours under the London Pride banner and similarly City Sightseeing, was brought back out again to good effect from the outset on the 68.

Ensign’s remarkable miniature open-top bus, based on the running units of a 1963 Mini car and usually a family fun runabout, suddenly found a new reason-to-be as a control vehicle at the key Southend Pier stop, stocked up with fliers, face masks, gel, water and even an iced cool box, from which refreshing cold drinks and even a range of chocolate bars could be given to 68 drivers to perk them up on long hot summer days! Every night Director Ross would refresh the cool box for the following day – something I’ve never seen offered to open-top service drivers before, but indicative of the attitude toward its staff shown by Ensignbus and no doubt a contributory factor as to why so many Ensign staff are long-servers.

As loadings rapidly picked back up to 2018 levels, thoughts turned to adding extra weekend capacity, in part to enable better social distancing. The regular 30min two-bus headway meant that standing loads were avoided, but fully-laden upper decks were increasingly the norm all day.

‘Fun in the sun’ was definitely in mind when it came to duplication! First out of the starting blocks was one-time Lothian Routemaster open-topper 371, still with its rear doors and immortalised by being used by boyband One Direction for one of its tracks.

Although the 68 is primarily a seafront service, great views over the Thames Estuary can be enjoyed from Belton Way East and West on the climbs up from Leigh Station. Trident 339 climbs toward Leigh town centre on the first journey of the day. JOHN G LIDSTONE

Capacity was still very much in mind, so next out was the restored former London Pride MCW Metroliner tri-axle 372, looking every inch a modern bus despite being 38 years old and with a capable upper deck capacity of no less than 63 the best crowd-shifter to employ on sunny summer weekends – and soon enough even this ran with capacity upper deck loads, much to the evident delight of Ross, who was to be seen in the cab on most occasions his pet bus was used.

Given the restrictions of use of each heritage bus in passenger service these days, the oldest remaining former London DMS-class Fleetline, Ensign’s 333 and the former DMS33 was reactivated from storage and soon made an appearance to bolster weekday capacity on busier days, rejuvenated with an almost new and extremely economical Gardner 6LXB engine. This is now the oldest of its class surviving other than the LT Museum’s largely static class pioneer, DMS1.

August 8 saw an advertised in-house heritage running day on August 8, with a number of wellknown bus industry managers and characters taking part.

This day saw the remarkable appearance of Ensign’s judiciously-acquired former Chester Tour 1990-built E. L. Farrar replica LGOC B-type bus, ‘B1439,’ based on the slightly testing Bedford SB5 946 WAE, complete with its tricky export-only 6-speed crash gearbox otherwise most usually found in New Zealand! Joining with the RM, DMS and Metroliner, it showed that the concept of a running day on this service – just 50 miles from London – was very much a realistic option for the calendar.

The B-type had benefitted from the exacting eye for detail of Director Steve Newman, whose restorations of members of his Vintage Fleet like the repatriated Green Line AEC Regal, the Country Area Leyland Cub and repatriated Regent III RT8 are well known and much admired.

First journey of the day early in the season with Volvo B7TL/Gemini 392 (392 MBF), new to Arriva London as LX53 AYY, showing the upper deck cctv camera added to the front screen after its use as the ‘Brexit bus’ on longterm charter previously. JOHN G. LIDSTONE

First appearing at Ensign’s pre-Christmas Running Day in 2019, ‘B1439’ gained a much more authentic London appearance, with authentic-looking signwritten advertising (with names changed to humour those of family and Ensignbus staff, but in beautiful period style) and notably, with its windscreens removed, to give a fully open cab in traditional B-type form. That proved very popular with Director Ross on the many days over 25°c, where the welcoming breeze was like no other vehicle!

Conducting ‘crew’ specials through the season was Jack Gillies, who soon took to the rather awkward rope-pull bell on the platform of the B-type, which was fitted with a floor-mounted Ticketer ticket machine ‘desk’ under the stairs, by which means contactless payments could be offered to passengers. Change was not given on the service to avoid handling cash and its inherent Covid-19 risks.

Carefully-selected regular staff operated the service throughout, with the key Pier stop manned by the irrepressible former London Pride Ensign stalwart Mickey Botton, whose lively manner (and voice) proved just as much a hit with passengers in 2020 as it had been for London Pride and City Sightseeing Tours around the world with Ensign. His efforts are reckoned to have made a significant contribution to the success of the 68 service this season on top of that by the regular drivers.

Smiles of success! The photographer just happened to be recording MRM1 being tucked away for the night when news broke of the best takings of the service since 2017 having been achieved that day. The evident delight in the face of Ensign open-top stalwart Mickey says it all really, as he joins with Lorraine to delight in the news. JOHN G. LIDSTONE

All too soon, the scheduled last day of the service loomed on September 6. Experience in August showed that a Running Day could again be offered, so this time it was using guest buses from the London Bus Company, in the form of its open-top AEC Regent III RT3435, traditional Leyland-engined RM1159 and, most remarkably, former Hastings Town Tour AEC Regal HKL 836, the latter freshly attired in Hastings & District cream with maroon wings.

A good time was had by all, including your writer, who was able to hugely enjoy driving the last trip of the day with the Routemaster.

Relaxation to licensing regulations permitted short-notice alterations to be made in 2020 and so, armed with a fortnight’s further weather forecasts of continuingly above-average sunny weather, Director Ross seized the opportunity to run a very slightly amended service for that extended period – the change being to finish the service an hour earlier, as the evenings were starting to draw in.

That commercial decision proved to be absolutely ‘on the money,’ in more ways than one, as record takings ensued, on weekends especially with added capacity of earlier proving a necessity, to cater for the continuing very strong demand. Special ‘extended season’ timetables were placed on all stops, too.

A particularly commercial and welcome aspect to the 68 service has been the custom it generates which is, in good measure, completely new traffic from passengers who had either never used a bus before, or would otherwise not do so locally. Bargain fares also meant that much of that traffic would become repeat business.

The attractiveness of a frequent and reliable service – not one single trip was ‘lost’ during the season – also enabled families to avoid expensive on-street seafront parking, whilst the ‘staycation’ effect drew people in good numbers to this traditional attraction again and again – with its appeal apparent to ages from 9 to 90.

The final day was set for 20 September, and, as a strong supporter of the very worthwhile RNLI, Director Ross arranged that final day as an RNLI Charity Day, with all fares donated to the local, very busy, RNLI, based at Southend Pier, raising the total of £1,950 through donated fares and with a very creditable £790 from Pier bucket collecting on top!

Remarkably for good old ‘Blighty’, the almost unbroken warm summer sun continued to shine on the 68 right to the final trip, shared between driver Alan (another ‘old stager’ from London Pride days) and duplicated by Director Ross himself – as ever with a broad smile and the replica B-type.

As the increasingly autumnal sun began to set, family drew round with staff at the Pier stop as the last duplicate (by this time, unexpectedly driven by yours truly on the said B-type) drew alongside the last scheduled bus.

Director Ross then invited me to take the B-type back over the 68 route for a final time, following the Trident returning to base, in order to convey guests back to other transport link points at the stations en-route at Chalkwell and Leigh-on-Sea, so the opportunity was taken to finish the journey ‘properly’ by going to the Sutherland Boulevard terminus for one last time.

As the sun set on the B-type (and indeed the service for 2020) and Mickey Botton donned his coat for the dusk dash back to Purfleet, a feeling of having given the service its best shot for the summer was shared amongst all who had been involved, whether it be director, driver, family or pavement crew (or even photographer!). A lively Whatsapp group, set up by driver Dave, shared that spirit between staff all season.

As Director Ross told me: “I’m glad we decided to do it: it really was 50/50 at the start, but it’s been fun and smiles all the way, and that’s what it’s been all about – not just the money it may or may not have made.”

He continued “A little positivity and something new – a ‘little bit of normal’ if you like – has been the idea, to give everyone a bit of fun and to have something to divert attention away from the troubled times we’ve all been experiencing.”

He summed it all up with a broad smile by concluding: “The 68 has been an absolute tonic. I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been a great couple of months in such a horrible year. I’m just so pleased with how it’s all gone. It’s been a fantastic first season for us: and we will be back next year – and even better.”

Knowing Ensignbus, I know every word of that will be true – and personally, I can’t wait for ‘Fun in the Sun’ to come back again in 2021.

My thanks to all involved for their kind help and welcome throughout the season, especially Ross Newman.