Go South Coast expansion explained

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Go South Coast is continuing to expand its operations on the South Coast in the wake of major changes in both Bournemouth and Southampton. Richard Sharman speaks to Managing Director Andrew Wickham about recent and future developments at the company

It has been an extraordinary time in the history of bus operations along the South Coast of England since August 2022, having seen the closure of Bournemouth Transport, which traded as Yellow Buses, and then the announcement that First Bus’ City Red operations were to be withdrawn completely on 18 February.

The closure at short notice of Yellow Buses meant that Go South Coast’s Morebus division had to move quickly to secure drivers, source additional vehicles and cover services. The situation in Southampton has been rather different, with First announcing its withdrawal from the city on 29 November, giving Go South Coast time to prepare for changes to its network.

Acting quickly

Managing Director, Andrew Wickham.

Managing Director of Go South Coast Andrew Wickham gave CBW an update about how it handled the situation in Bournemouth, and plans for this summer. “The announcement that Yellow Buses was to close was very sudden, but we had noticed that things were not going well following its 2017 service changes which saw many long-standing links broken that had been in place since tramway days,” he explained, “and we understand that was mastered by the then-owners based in Paris. The lack of local knowledge applied to the service changes cost them a lot of passengers.


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“The business was then sold to the management in July 2019, which suggested to me that things were not great at Yellow Buses. Then the pandemic came along and changed everything. You can’t help but hear rumours about what’s going on behind the scenes and we noticed that performance was suffering on many routes.

“In July 2022 an administrator was appointed for Yellow Buses. We had made plans as we thought this may have been coming, but they were quickly firmed up once the administrators put a statement out that the Wednesday would be the last day of operation. We managed to have a full service up and running on the Saturday, so we had everything in place within two days.

“We needed to source around 100 drivers to cover the additional services, so we booked a conference room at a local hotel which was close to the Yellow Buses depot, as I didn’t think it was fair for anyone to have to walk into one of our depots looking for a job. The hotel provided us and applicants with neutral ground.

“We opened the recruitment centre at the hotel on the Friday. Applicants went through a number of stages on the day, from applications, licence checks, right to work checks and then interviews if successful. Those who were successful in their application, and we did not take everyone, went on from the interview to an induction, then went to the supervisor to get their duties for the Saturday and the following week.

“The new drivers arrived at the depot early before their duties on the Saturday and received a depot induction. There was no route learning required as they were placed on former Yellow Buses routes. The former Yellow Buses routes started running on the Saturday and since then we have made a few tweaks to the timetables and added some extra buses into the system to make them more reliable.

“The consequence of the additional staff and increased peak vehicle requirement is that we have also employed more engineers and cleaners, and recruited an additional supervisor and assistant operations manager.

“The day prior to Yellow Buses closing, we were short of establishment by 20 drivers, out of a total of 315. We took on 100 drivers on the Friday, and after that an additional 20. Since then, we won a short term Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council contract for a week, have put more resources into the m1 and m2 services to meet passenger demand, and operated open-top buses which have come off for the winter, so we are currently 18 short of establishment, which is not too bad.”

Work at Bournemouth depot in 2020 created a large parking area with a new depot building and bus wash. RICHARD SHARMAN

Further investment

“The loss of Yellow Buses meant that many corridors are now only served by us,” continued Andrew, “which means an increase in demand for existing services. The m1 between Poole, Bournemouth, Castlepoint and Bournemouth Hospital and the m2 between Poole, Bournemouth and Southbourne were both identified early on as seeing an increase in passenger numbers.

“The current fleet on those services are Alexander Dennis Enviro200MMCs. We acted quickly to meet demand and have put double-deckers on the m1, were possible. The new Unibus fleet can be utilised on the m1 when the students are on holiday too. Overall we have seen some really good growth on those services. To recognise that growth we are to invest £7.7 million in new fleet of double-deck buses for Bournemouth and Poole. The new fleet of 28 buses will be Alexander Dennis Enviro400MMCs and will feature new seat cloth and floor design by Ray Stenning of Best Impressions. These vehicles will also feature stop-start technology.

“Our new fleet of double-deckers will initially serve our m1 route between Poole, Bournemouth and Royal Bournemouth Hospital, allowing us to make the transition from having some double-deckers on it to a full allocation, so our customers can enjoy an increase in seating capacity along this route, as well as the views from the top deck. The new buses will also run on our 5/5A from Bournemouth to Kinson.

“The aim is to make sustainable transport a more attractive proposition, in order to entice people out of their cars. One full double-decker bus can take up to 75 cars off the road – and this latest investment is a huge step in that direction. Our Bournemouth depot, situated opposite the railway station, has seen a big transformation. In March 2020 when it opened with a new depot building, it had a fleet of 44. With the recent changes, the allocation there is now 92. When we acquired Excelsior Coaches, we acquired the site with it, but unfortunately the depot building was in rather poor condition. At the time you had an Excelsior parking section, and a Morebus section which had originally been rented since 2006. We knew that there was potential for growth in Bournemouth, so decided to demolish the old building and build a new modern depot.

“Since taking on the additional routes, the peak vehicle requirement has grown from 38 to 78. It has meant that we have had to move the coach fleet out to our Damory Coaches depot in Blandford Forum and our Poole depot. It takes more supervision to manage the yard with 90 vehicles, but it has worked out well, especially having the Unibus fleet based there as one of the routes starts and finishes on the road outside the depot.”

More services added

On 1 February, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council announced that Morebus had been awarded the contracts for three essential bus services and school bus contracts. Routes 18, 33 and 36, which serve residential areas in and around Bournemouth, were formerly operated by Yellow Buses. Morebus stepped in on an emergency basis to cover the contracts initially after that operator’s collapse, but XelaGroup-owned Yellow Coaches won a temporary six month contract to ensure the services remained for residents, which recently came to an end. Morebus commenced operation of the new contracts on 15 February. Yellow Coaches has now withdrawn from the area, including operation of school bus services.

Councillor Mike Greene, Portfolio Holder for Sustainability and Transport at Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole (BCP) Council, said of the new contracts: “We are delighted to award these important bus contracts to Morebus and have pulled out all the stops to ensure that these vital routes remain in operation. Reliable public transport is essential to the success of any area. It was vital that we found a way to keep buses that directly serve places such as Fernbarrow Estate and West Way in Broadstone running smoothly. Our hard work on this – and close partnership with Morebus – means there will be no break in service and that it’s now possible for residents to travel sustainably around our area using one company.” Andrew added: “I am delighted to add these important public routes to our network across Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, and to continue operating the school services we were entrusted with last year. We are delighted to be working with BCP Council to not only safeguard these school and public services, but to ensure taking the bus is an attractive alternative to travelling by car. This will play an important role in reducing congestion and improving the air we breathe on the south coast.

“We won’t rest on our laurels though, and will continue to look for new ways to improve our offering here. I am delighted that Morebus will now be providing a comprehensive service across the region, giving people better value-for-money and a joined-up bus network our customers, old and new, can rely on.”

Morebus has also been re-awarded the contract for the route 1 town centre shuttle from Poole bus station to the town’s hospital, railway station, quay and Baiter Park; the service will remain unchanged from present timetable and route.

Eight Optare Versas have moved from a sister Go-Ahead fleet in Swindon. Also in view are two Scania Omnicitys on loan from Southern Vectis. ANDREW WICKHAM

Saving services in Southampton

Talking about the withdrawal of First Bus and its City Red bus services on Saturday 18 February, Andrew said: “The move by First Bus to leave Southampton didn’t come entirely as a surprise, as there were rumours that it was a loss making operation. But although things were not great, it did come out of the blue that it was to withdraw completely.

“There were no rumours that this was going to happen; normally you hear rumours as was the case with Yellow Buses, but First had done a good job at keeping the news quiet until the day of the press release and letting employees know. So it was a shock and after the situation in Bournemouth we all thought ‘here we go again.’

“But this time at least we had plenty of notice in terms of sourcing drivers, vehicles and looking at the bus routes that needed to be covered. Within an hour of the First Bus news, we put out a press release that we would be covering withdrawn routes in one form or another and to look out for more news soon.

“We took on the routes on an almost entirely commercial basis, with the exception of former City Red service 9, now our Bluestar 10, which received de minimis funding from Southampton City Council due to low passenger numbers, and which we will continue with in the short term every hour, improving on the previous frequency.

“First Bus operated 10 services in Southampton. Two those are Solent Ranger services which it will continue to operate from its Fareham depot. This left us with eight services to cover. First’s service 1 parallels one of our Totton services, so no need to replace that one. City Red service 2 from Millbrook to Weston via Southampton parallels our services 17 and 18 so that will not be replaced as we already operate double-deckers on both routes and are confident we can accommodate the extra passengers.

“Other changes will see Bluestar 7 to Sholing gain additional evening journeys, and the former City Red 13 – the only number we have carried over that wasn’t already used – will see its frequency double from every hour to every 30 minutes serving the city then Woolston, Merryoak, Bitterne and Harefield. Former City Red service 8 to Hedge End will remain at the same 30-minute frequency but be renumbered 14. Bluestar 15, formerly City Red 15, to Hamble will remain at a 30-minute frequency. Bluestar 19, formerly City Red 3, from Lord’s Hill to Thornhill via the city centre will run every 15 minutes throughout the week, rather than at the various frequencies of 10, 12 and 20 minutes. Bluestar 20, formerly City Red service 7, was originally going to operate every 20 minutes, but because the driver recruitment went well and it is a busy corridor, we decided to run it every 15 minutes instead.

“The service changes, which came into force on Sunday 19 February, First having ceased operations the previous day, ensured that no one was left without a bus service. Some routes have seen a major upgrade in frequency, whilst there is a minor reduction to one. This is our initial network, and as with Bournemouth, we will let it settle in and then make any further changes required once we have data on the passenger numbers.”

Eighteen Wrightbus Gemini-bodied Volvo B7TLs have been acquired from Go North East as a short term solution for the extra vehicles required. Hants & Dorset Trim painted the fronts of the vehicles into fleet livery. ANDREW WICKHAM

Fleet increase

“The increase in our Bluestar network in Southampton meant that an additional 27 buses were required to meet peak vehicle requirement at Eastleigh depot, with a mixture of single- and double-decker vehicles needing to be sourced,” explained Andrew. “We have managed to source 18 Wrightbus Gemini-bodied Volvo B7Ls from fellow group company Go North East, which have all gained Bluestar livery at the front only as a short term solution. Bluestar route 7 has also been upgraded to double-deckers, so this will assist that transition. In terms of single-deckers, we already had some surplus in the Go South Coast fleet, so they have moved to Southampton along with Opatre Versas from Swindon’s Bus Company.

“In terms of driving staff, following the announcement by First Bus and our own advertising, we received applications for drivers that numbered 140. This number was roughly split between former City Red drivers and drivers from other operators and non-licence holders, partly due to the media coverage that surrounded Bournemouth and then Southampton, and this has also included former employees that had taken a break a decided to come back.

“For the launch of the new network we required 78 drivers to ensure everything was covered, including things like holiday cover and other functions. We were also 28 short of establishment prior to the First Bus announcement, so overall the numbers have worked out well in the lead up to the new network launch and immediately before the new service launch, we were no longer short of drivers.

“In terms of ticket machines, we already had some spare Ticketer machines from previous service changes, although we didn’t have enough tap-on, tap-off readers in stock and those had to be ordered.”

“My team across the company at all levels has been superb in achieving these two service introductions. I am in awe of them and it’s a privilege to lead this business. I also pay tribute to our owners, Go-Ahead Group, which continues with its devolved, locally accountable model, established in the 1990s. The agility we demonstrated in both Bournemouth and Southampton would never have been possible in a more centralised and bureaucratic organisation, and we would not have been able to realise these two great opportunities.

Full circle

Southern Vectis was launched in May 1987 by John Chadwick, who passed away in 2021 and now has a current member of the Bluestar fleet named after him, and Peter Shelley to compete against Southampton CityBus, with the aim of offering a customer focused service and expanding Southern Vectis operations beyond the Isle of Wight. After initially operating 16 buses, they went on to acquire Hants & Dorset in October 1987, which had taken over Stagecoach Hampshire Bus services in Eastleigh and Southampton, swelling the fleet to over 100 vehicles. Some services were operated under franchise by Brijan Tours and Marchwood Motorways.

The Go-Ahead Group acquired parent company Southern Vectis in 2005, with Solent Blue Line also being included in the deal, the operation being rebranded Bluestar from 2008. The departure of First’s City Red operation, which was established after acquiring Southampton CityBus from its employees in July 1997, means that the Solent Blue Line/Bluestar story has come full circle and some 36 years later the founders’ aim of taking over the Southampton bus scene has been achieved.

Peter Shelley, who co-founded Solent Blue Line in 1987, with Go South Coast Managing Director Andrew Wickham whilst celebrating the 30th anniversary of the company in 2017. BLUESTAR

£2 fares

Like many other operators in England, Go South Coast is taking part in the Government-funded £2 single bus fare scheme. I asked Andrew for his thoughts on it: “We had in-depth discussions with the Department for Transport about the scheme and did our sums. They told us what we would be reimbursed, and that was satisfactory for us for the three months. To fill out the paperwork for this scheme you needed to work out your potential revenue loss, but not just across single ticket sales, but also on things like day and weekly tickets as passenger may buy a £2 single rather than using those other products during the promotion period.

“However, to operate the scheme for these three months in our off peak season, because we not only serve many coastal communities, but the tourists who visit them in the summer, works well for us but should it be extended it will affect our summer season where we operate tourist bus services. For example, our Swanage service is extremely busy during the summer, and that could demand could double on a hot summer day. If the £2 scheme were to still be running them, the amount of people willing to pay £2 instead of normal prices means that we would struggle with capacity. For those reasons, should it continue beyond March, we would have to have separate discussions with the Government over how it would work. It is not so much an issue in the urban areas, but certainly coastal areas are a different case.”

Final thoughts

The last few years have been an exciting, if extremely busy, time for the Go South Coast team. Pre-pandemic you would have never have thought that two major long-standing operators would have closed or withdrawn from major urban areas like Bournemouth and Southampton but in the year 2023 we have seen that anything is possible, and Go South Coast has proven that it has the ability to react to changes and ensure that the public still has a bus service that they can depend on.