Gold star for X17

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It is now over six months since Stagecoach in Yorkshire launched the revamped and upgraded X17 service between Barnsley and Matlock. Jim McWilliam took a ride to see how the route is faring

On a slightly grey Yorkshire morning, I arrive at the bright, modern and busy Barnsley Interchange to catch a Stagecoach Gold-branded X17 to Chesterfield. The Interchange itself is surprisingly busy, with a constant flow of mainly Stagecoach vehicles in standard fleet livery coming and going. I’m a little early, so have time to sample the food on offer in the small and friendly Citizen Coffee, as well as pick up a few snacks for the journey at the well-stocked convenience store.

Barnsley Interchange sees a constant flow of buses, including service X10 to Leeds.

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There is also a bakery and bookmakers, as well as clean, well-maintained toilets and ample well-lit space to sit and wait, with a clear view of arrivals. In common with other South Yorkshire interchanges, there are electronic displays showing a list of the next departures and the allocated stand number. Our vehicle arrives on time and there is already a short queue, mainly shoppers it appears, this being a midday departure. All in all, first impressions are very positive.

Launched in October 2018 at a cost of £1.9m, this was to be the first time I’d travelled on a ‘Gold’ specification vehicle. On boarding I was very pleased to discover that the fare was just £7, over two pounds less than the equivalent train fare to Chesterfield. Not only that, but I learned a little later I could have used that same £7 Explorer ticket on any Stagecoach bus, meaning that I could have travelled the full route to Matlock for the same fare.

If that weren’t enough, I could also have used it on the X10 express coach service to Leeds; £7 to go from Leeds to Matlock is outstanding value, if maybe not the quickest option.

Barnsley Interchange, the start point for the author’s journey, is a modern airy building with good amenities. JIM McWILLIAM

Getting comfortable

Taking a seat on the upper deck, our bus is generally clean inside and out, with the usual exception of Metro newspapers and the odd sweet wrapper. As we load, I am impressed to see a cleaner board the double-decker alongside during its layover. The driver starts the engine and reverses from the stand right on time at 1213hrs.

Noticeable when the engine starts is the noise from the blower vents along the bottom of the front window, drawing my attention to a feature which must be much appreciated on those wet days when the glass quickly becomes covered in condensation. All seats are equipped with USB charging points, although not having a charging cable to hand I can’t check if they’re working. However, as we head out of town I try the advertised free WiFi, which connects instantly and takes me to a simple log in page requiring just an email address to access the service. Connection speed appears good, and I have no difficulty opening a selection of web pages.

As we leave the town centre, we pass a heritage Yorkshire Traction-liveried Scania, repainted in 2015 to celebrate Stagecoach’s 10th anniversary of operating in Barnsley. A few local passengers alight, and more join us heading for Sheffield, but the journey remains quite lightly loaded. The view from the top deck is impressive as ever, and passing the houses and gardens of Worsborough and on towards the M1 at Birdwell, I notice a dartboard attached to someone’s garden wall – I’d never thought of darts as an outdoor sport before!

Viewed from the enclosed footbridge, the author’s X17 arrives at Barnsley Interchange. JIM McWILLIAM

The bus seems to cope well with some of the long up and downhill sections, and before long we’re joining the motorway. Helped by a long downhill slip road, we reach our top speed of around 55mph easily, and an HGV moves over to allow us to join. Other than a little buffeting from the wake of the passing lorry, the ADL Enviro400 MMC seems very smooth and quiet, holding the road well with almost no noticeable sway. The seats, too, are proving comfortable and I’m able to relax in comfort with ample leg room.

As we leave the M1 to pass under the famous Tinsley Viaduct, where repair work is being undertaken on the lower deck, we arrive at an almost deserted Meadowhall Interchange, trees in the central reservation thumping the roof as we turn into the bus station. The Interchange serves the adjacent Meadowhall shopping centre, and provides a park and ride facility for buses, trains and trams, but surprisingly only a few passengers board and alight here, our driver helpfully advising one woman where to alight in the city centre.

A further surprise comes as we turn left at the exit rather than right as expected, but instead we head towards Attercliffe to serve the retail park and new Ikea store. We pass the former home of the Sheffield bus museum at what was once Tinsley tram sheds, now a discount tile warehouse. Sheffield Arena is on the left as we bear right towards Wicker, which takes us beneath the massive viaduct that was previously home to Sheffield’s second railway station, once a part of the now much-missed route over Woodhead to Manchester.

The roads were quiet and we had an easy run into Sheffield city centre. Approaching Wicker Arches, we were overtaken by an inbound National Express coach, whilst a new Caetano Levante III passed in the opposite direction heading for Halifax. JIM McWILLIAM

Having carefully negotiated roadworks in the city centre, including skilfully squeezing through a very narrow gap, we arrive at the equally deserted Sheffield Interchange. Although located a short uphill walk from the city’s main shopping and leisure streets, as its name suggests the Interchange is across the road from the railway station. Had I boarded the train at Barnsley, I’d be changing here for an onward service to Chesterfield.

Living up to the hype

We head back into the city centre, and make our way along Arundel Gate, collecting the biggest number of passengers yet. At least 10 board and a couple take up the seats opposite me – presumably for the view, as the two seats at the top of the stairs are standard seats rather than the coach-style high-backed ones used in the rest of the upper saloon. This is understandable, but the use of ‘bus’ seats here – and across the back row – does somewhat spoil the otherwise very high-class look of the top deck.

An hour into our journey, I’m still comfortable as we work our way up some of the hills out of Sheffield, which again the bus ascends with the minimum of fuss. It certainly feels as if there is plenty of torque available, although in common with many modern buses I get the feeling that the rate of acceleration is limited, our driver struggling to nip out onto busy roundabouts as we make our way down the A61 towards Chesterfield where this bus will terminate.

The upper deck seats are very comfortable, and the blue and cream colour scheme creates a very classy atmosphere. JIM McWILLIAM

Before making the journey, I looked online for timetables, and was pleased to find that via the Stagecoach website I could download a PDF file of the full timetable in the usual Stagecoach house style. Whilst many people, myself included, like to have a paper copy in hand rather than rely on journey planners, this seems like a very acceptable alternative, and enabled me to plan my journey easily.

Although the service continues to Matlock, this would mean a change of bus and a wait of around half an hour in Chesterfield. The core section, between here and Sheffield operates every half an hour, with hourly extensions to Matlock at the south end, and Barnsley in the north, apart from on a Sunday where buses operate the full route hourly.

Following a driver change on the outskirts of the town, where our driver – optimistically dressed in shorts – was replaced by a younger colleague, we arrived at Chesterfield Coach Station just one minute adrift of our scheduled time. I called into the small office here, which serves as a waiting room and information centre, as well as providing toilets and driver facilities. I was able to pick up a paper copy of the route guide for the X17, a very professional, classy, dark blue pamphlet containing much more than just the timetable.

A very useful list of stops is provided in both directions, to make the limited stop service as easy to understand as possible – although there were still some disappointed faces as we passed many roadside stops without stopping!
There is also a route map, and a section giving a short description of the towns and cities en route, almost like a tourist guide. Important too, but often missed, was a list of fares available for various common journeys so the intending passenger knows what to expect and how much change to have handy. The quality of the publicity is certainly a good way to attract attention, and from what I’ve seen so far, the product lives up to the hype. My journey was punctual, comfortable and smooth, and I find myself having time for a quick cuppa in the town centre before boarding the bus for the two-hour return journey.

Chesterfield Coach Station is the terminus for buses from Barnsley. Alternate journeys continue hourly from here to Matlock. JIM McWILLIAM

A good value service

This time, I opt for the rear seat downstairs, to see what the ambience is like. It has to be said, there’s a marked contrast with the top deck. The rear seat, which uses the same seat base and back as a standard bus, is very firm, whilst the backrest is warm from the engine. Nonetheless, it is spacious and clean, the gloss white ceiling giving a sense of brightness and light. There was an irritating creaking from one of the nearside rear trim panels, which proved somewhat annoying, although generally the fit and finish was to a high standard.

As we head back north, a few people leave and I opt to change seats, selecting the row of high-backed ‘Gold’ seats right in front of the step to the rear saloon, which proves a mistake. There are only three rows of these more comfortable seats downstairs, the rest being a combination of standard seats over the wheels and tip-up seats. Unfortunately, the third row is mounted quite high, with the backrest at a much more upright angle in order to leave knee room for those seated on the raised seats over the rear wheels. Again this is an understandable compromise, but it did leave me wondering if there might be a better solution.

Nonetheless, it gives me a chance to have a closer look at the seat back console which downstairs features a USB charging point and LED reading light. There is also a useful coat hook towards the side of the seat. It is to be expected that downstairs was noisier, and on the whole much more akin to a ‘bus’ experience than upstairs.

The ADL Enviro 400 MMCs look very imposing in Stagecoach Gold livery. JIM McWILLIAM

For the final leg from Sheffield I choose to move upstairs again, this time sitting half way down, behind the staircase. On the upper deck there are no intrusive grab handles, these being replaced by handles on the shoulders of aisle seats, and so bell push buttons are included on the upholstered seat backs.

As we re-join the M1 for the final run to Barnsley, the bus feels smooth and solid at speed, joining the motorway traffic with relative ease. As on the outbound run, our driver is excellent, smooth, steady, safe progress being made. This stretch of the M1 is now a ‘smart’ motorway, and unlike some car drivers, our driver slowed for a 50mph speed limit and with signs warning of a lane one closure ahead due to an obstruction, moved over to lane two in good time. It was very worrying to see some car drivers either ignoring or not seeing this, and continuing in lane one; fortunately in this case, the broken down car was in the process of being towed up the slip road as we passed.

More good judgement is shown as we leave the motorway, as we’re held up behind a lorry who had taken the wrong exit from the roundabout and attempted a U-turn to get back on to it. Our driver waits patiently with no creeping forward or sounding of the horn – it might not have been the best place to turn, but we all make mistakes, even professionals – and we were soon on our way again, arriving punctually back in Barnsley.

Overall, I found the experience to be very pleasant and thought it offered good value for money. The service ran to time throughout, although that might be harder to maintain at peak times. The bus was clean, as were the facilities at each end of the route, and the publicity and timetable information easy to find and understand. It is an excellent example of what can be achieved, and hopefully will continue to grow and set the standard for interurban bus travel. X17