Independents Day

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Towns and cities across England tend to be dominated by services operated by bus companies owned by one of the big groups. However, there are still some locations where the independent operator still has a large presence and one of those is Milton Keynes. Richard Sharman looks at the local bus scene, and how changes might be on the horizon

There are not many places in England now where you can find a high concentration of bus companies operating that are not associated with one of the big bus groups, but at least for the time being Milton Keynes acts as a shining example of how the independent operator still has a huge part to play in providing important services for the council, and in some instances commercially.

As we enter another national lockdown it is important to remember that many people still need to leave their rural villages to reach the local town to buy food and do other essential shopping, whilst key workers also still need to use the bus to travel to and from work.

This is why these services must keep running, and at the time of writing many of the bus services looked at in this feature are continuing to operate normally.

Z&S Transport’s 168 is seen being passed by an Arriva Wrightbus Pulsar 2

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The ‘New Town’

To many, the mention of Milton Keynes brings to mind a concrete jungle with many roundabouts. OK it does have many roundabouts, but the fact is the town also has a large number of green spaces and lakes, many of which are within walking distance of the town centre. The vast majority of the streets in the town are also tree-lined, and thanks to the grid system Milton Keynes was built on, there is very little traffic.

Vale Travel operates ADL Enviro200 CX57 FGU in a smart yellow and white livery on service 12. RICHARD SHARMAN

Whilst the 53-year old Buckinghamshire town is still classed by many of one of the ‘new towns’ born out of the need for extra houses needing to be built in 1967, it was actually found by archaeologists that there were human settlements dating back to 2,000 BC in the area that the town was built on. It was also named after Milton Keynes Village, which has a history dating back to the 11th century.

For the last 25 years, the town has continuously added new attractions to bring people in, including ‘The Point’ which opened in 1985, Britain’s first multi-screen cinema; in 1999 the Milton Keynes Theatre opened which today is classed as being situated in the Theatre District.

Just a year later the Midsummer Place Shopping Centre Opened and in 2001 the indoor ski slope situated in the Xscape centre became a major attraction.

The most recent leisure attraction in the town is the 12th Street Leisure Quarter, which includes a hotel, several places to eat, an ‘escape room’ and more.

So there is plenty in the town to attract local and long-distance visitors, and the fact that the town is also well served from all surrounding areas is also of huge benefit.

Big plans

Before bus deregulation and privatisation in 1986, the incumbent bus operator was National Bus Company (NBC)-owned United Counties, which operated the vast majority of bus services in the town with buses in standard NBC green livery with Milton Keynes Citybus fleet names. United Counties was one of the bigger operating companies within NBC and was thus split up in January 1986 to make it more marketable for onwards sale.

Several months before this, Buckinghamshire County Council had put Milton Keynes Citybus’ network of services out to tender: proving that independent coach and bus operators have always had an interest in operating in the town. A joint bid by 14 different operators was submitted to the council which would offer electronic ticketing and two-way radio control on all services. The consortium of operators believed they could save the council £5m a year in comparison to the network that was already in place.

However, it seems that Milton Keynes Citybus retained the lion’s share of work and was sold in a management buyout on 7 August 1987. It then became part of the minibus revolution for which the Milton Keynes bus scene is well known. However, independence didn’t last long as in November 1992 the operation passed to Cambus Holdings, which introduced new liveries and fleet names, such as Buckinghamshire Road Car. Just three years later Stagecoach was to acquire Cambus Holdings and thus Milton Keynes Citybus would change hands again, but there was a twist to this story because Stagecoach already owned United Counties, which operated routes in and around similar areas to Cambus and its subsidiaries. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission ordered Stagecoach to divest both its Milton Keynes and United Counties Huntingdon depots.

In the interim period, operations at Milton Keynes carried on as normal and the company’s printed timetables were as far as the Stagecoach Milton Keynes brand went.

Grant Palmer operates in from Ampthill Heights on service 34. RICHARD SHARMAN

By 2 May 1997, Julian Peddle had acquired both depots under the Premier Buses name, Milton Keynes operations carried the fleet name MK Metro and the fleet was modernised and painted in a yellow and blue livery. The Huntingdon depot was later sold on to the Blazefield Group.

Today’s incarnation of MK Metro has been owned by Arriva since February 2006, and an operation that once had a large allocation of Optare Solos now only has a handful, and has now moved onto larger midi and full-sized single-decker buses.

So the bus scene in Milton Keynes has always been a changing one, from the incumbent operator having pockets of independence to going in and out of group ownership, although its circumstances may change again as Arriva UK’s Bus Division is currently up for sale. A good example of how things can change in these circumstances is Arriva’s Cannock depot moving to D&G Bus ownership recently, a depot that was within the same management as Milton Keynes at one point.

Red Rose ADL Enviro200 YX10 BGY is seen arriving from Aylesbury on service 100. RICHARD SHARMAN

Current service provision

Aylesbury-based operators form the core of independents in Milton Keynes, while, Uno’s Cranfield depot, Grant Palmer from Flitwick and Britannia Bus from Northampton provide the rest.

The current vehicle of choice for most of these independents is the Alexander Dennis Enviro200 in varying lengths, including some dual-door ex-London examples with Z&S Transport, although there are also some Optare Solos but these are now thin on the ground. Uno Bus adds variety with Wrightbus StreetLite DFs dating from 2018, along with some rather smart Optare Olympus-bodied Scania N230 double-deckers.

MK Council provides detailed maps and departure information at stops in the centre, many of which include real time information. RICHARD SHARMAN

Moving to DRT

Milton Keynes Council is currently working on plans which may see some supported bus services moving to demand-responsive services. It told CBW: ‘The Demand Responsive Transport service will be in place later this year and means local people will be able to phone, use a website or use an app to book their journey.”

The first of these demand-responsive services started on an emergency basis in October last year after the Council offered subsidised bus service operators contract extensions until April of this year. The operator of service 28 declined the opportunity, so the area previously served by service 28 from Westcroft and Shenley Wood to Central MK, the Hospital and Bletchley now falls under ViaVan MK Connect using Mercedes-Benz Vitos. At present £2.9m is spent by the council supporting 28 bus services in the borough annually. It is currently unclear how many of these are planned to move to demand responsive transport.

Cabinet member for sustainability and transport, Lauren Townsend, told the MKCitizen: “It’s important to note that 86% of bus users in Milton Keynes use the busier, commercial routes – and that these are unaffected by this decision, as they are run by private companies and not MK Council.

“Subsidised routes are the least used (hence the need to subsidise them – as private companies will only run routes they can turn a profit on) so the council are currently paying a lot to run buses which are frequently near-empty.

“Of course, not being profitable does not mean they are not essential to the people who rely on them; those who need them to get to work or school, or to appointments or to see friends. This is why we have kept funding subsidised routes for so long, and why we will now be offering an alternative that we hope will not only plug the gap, but actually provide an improved, and more bespoke service.

“With DRT, residents will not be restricted by timetabled or fixed-route services, meaning they can travel to and from where they like, when they like, within MK. We will be setting out the desired specification to operators looking to procure the contract, including having accessible vehicles from day one.

“We are aiming for a level of service with a maximum distance of 400m for pick-up/drop-off and a maximum wait time of 30 minutes. In urban areas, we would expect these to be lower, in more rural areas they are likely to be closer to the maximum – but it’s still an improvement if what those residents have at the minute is a bus that only comes once every 90 minutes and only takes them to a fixed destination.”

The council has also noted that a steep decline in parking revenue in Milton Keynes throughout lockdown is forcing the change.

This is not the first time that on-demand services have been tried in Milton Keynes: March 1975 saw the launch of a Dial-a-Ride service by NBS in partnership with the Milton Keynes Development Corporation with a subsidy from the local authority.

Using a small fleet of Mercedes-Benz L406 and 0309D minibuses with 15 seats, the service initially served the Woughton area to the town centre but later became known as the Centre Bus, and lasted for five years until ending in 1980.

CBW will keep you up to date with the Milton Keynes service changes from April as soon as we know more.