Peak sightseeing

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Passengers board a lunchtime return service from Castleton towards Chatsworth. JONATHAN WELCH

Jonathan Welch travels to the Peak District to find out about Stagecoach’s unusual diversification into BSIP-funded open-top services

It’s all too easy to jet off to a foreign land for a summer holiday and forget about the gems that lay within our own island shores. Across the UK, we have places to explore that are often overlooked; for those wanting to get out and see the countryside, national parks from Dartmoor to the Highlands offer all sorts of outdoor activities, but their roads are often busy and car parking limited.

Addressing a need to improve the tourist offer in the area, in 2023, Stagecoach launched the first iteration of its Peak Sightseer open-top service, featuring a loop based on Chatsworth House in the heart of the Peak District, which ran until Christmas Eve that year, catering not just for the summer visitors to the house and surrounding area, but also those going to Chatsworth’s famous Christmas markets.

For the 2024 season, experience having been gained from operating the route, a number of changes were made, including reducing the size of the loop to create what for this year is the ‘red route’ and adding a longer out-and-back ‘blue route to Castleton and dramatic Winnat’s Pass. It’s a route which has attracted significant attention, both in the local area and within the bus sector, marking an unusual diversification for Stagecoach Yorkshire.

This year’s service can draw upon a fleet of eight open-top buses, of which six are required for the daily PVR (peak vehicle requirement) of five plus one spare at Chatsworth in case of breakdown or, more likely, delays caused by the unpredictable traffic that the area can be affected by on busy days.

Something new

To find out more about the service, I headed to Stagecoach’s Chesterfield depot to meet up with Assistant Operations Manager Shayne Howarth and Commercial Director John Young, before joining Shayne for a trip out on the Peak Sightseer network, starting off on one of the feeder journeys which run from Chesterfield (and also from south Sheffield) to Chatsworth every morning. Chesterfield depot itself is an impressively large and spacious building, with a peak vehicle requirement of 73, plus a further 10 National Express Coaches, as well as the Peak Sightseer operation. Part of the site is also let out to another user, whilst a number of new electric buses for Stagecoach Oxford were being housed there at the time of CBW’s visit prior to delivery.

John explained a bit more about the background to the service. “Derbyshire County Council received £47m in Bus Service Improvement Plan funding,” he began. “Derbyshire has always been a positive local authority to work with when it comes to public transport. Like every local authority, there are budget constraints, but this was an opportunity to do something new and try to reinvigorate the market in many ways. The BSIP money was used for a whole range of things across Derbyshire.

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“What we were keen to do as an operator was to try something new. We can’t keep doing just what we’ve always done. We wanted to innovate; Stagecoach has a good track record of taking opportunities and trying new things. In a post-Covid world, we wanted that to continue, and arguably it was even more important than before.

Drivers Liam Hill, Andy Bagshaw, Gary Sykes and Paul Stevens with Assistant Operations Manager Shayne Howarth. JONATHAN WELCH

“We all know the challenges around ridership levels, and we know that leisure travel has come back the strongest. We’ve got the Peak District on our doorstep, and saw that as a major opportunity. We talked about the idea, and Derbyshire County Council was interested.

“In 2023, we ran a route which was similar to this year’s red route but also included Baslow and Calver. It was a one-way circular which also included Bakewell, Hassop station for the Monsal Trail and Ashford in the Water.

“The team at Chatsworth House was also very supportive. They have a large car park but are keen to do the right thing and encourage modal shift. We started on 1 July. Because it was new and we weren’t sure of the market, we decided to keep the service running until late into the year, and in fact we continued at weekends right up until Christmas Eve, influenced by the fact that there are popular Christmas markets at Chatsworth.

“We learned a few lessons along the way. Any open-top operation is heavily weather-dependent. There are also particular challenges around congestion, because the circumstances vary so much. Market day in Bakewell is on a Monday and can be very busy. If there’s a big event at Chatsworth there can be long queues.

“We established a team of regular drivers, all volunteers. We gave them route training, but also a lot more than that. We worked with Tracsis to deliver ‘delight the customer’ training. We briefed them ourselves on why we were trying this. We explained that we’ve got a big depot here in Chesterfield and we want to fill it. We told them they were our ambassadors.

“It’s not a typical bus service, and how they interact with customers was vital to that experience. That applies to any bus service, but especially so in this sort of situation. We stressed that they are empowered to do the right thing, and we have a group chat on our staff intranet.

“I said to them ‘I want you to run it like it’s your own business’ and they absolutely took that on board. I can’t speak highly enough of them, they’ve been fantastic.”

Second season

Fast forward to 2024, and John explained that when the Derbyshire County Council and Stagecoach looked at what had been achieved and what might be possible, there was additional BSIP funding available. “We said we’d like to run services to Castleton, which we’d hoped to do in 2023,” John continued. “We’d shown what we could do with the original route, and we were confident we could do the same on the Castleton route. We knew we had to make sure we did it properly right from the start. We worked with Ray Stenning from Best Impressions to design the livery and leaflet. The leaflet is a work of art; we love it. The buses look great.

“We sat down with Ray and discussed what we wanted and how we could make it look attractive. I’ve always admired Ray’s work; he has contributed massively to this industry. The designs for the livery and leaflet evolved over quite a short period of time. He’s made everything look so appealing, and that’s so important. If people see the leaflet in a hotel, we want them to want to go and get on a bus.

“We realise that we can’t do everything overnight. We have five of our own open-toppers, plus three which are on loan from Stagecoach South West; we’ve sent three Enviro200s in exchange. We’ve fitted commentary to our buses, and plan to complete fitting it to the loan buses soon. The two routes are now up and running; the blue route is quite long.”

Information provision at stops is good. JONATHAN WELCH

Positive response

“We were overjoyed when Roger French described it as ‘the best inland bus route in England’ in his blog. I never thought I’d be running open-top buses in the Peak District, let alone up the Winnat’s Pass. We’ve had lots of good feedback. We’re on TripAdvisor. The drivers have excelled; we have an expanded team this year. They go out and deliver a top-class service day after day.”

For anyone worrying about the ongoing effects of the driver shortage that has long been the talk of the industry, John explained that Chesterfield depot no longer suffers from a lack of drivers. “There have been opportunities in the not too distant past that we had to say no to,” he said, “because we didn’t have the staff. We’ve always been responsible and done the right thing. We’re now in a much stronger position.

“We’ve adjusted our rates, but it’s not just about money. We make sure we’re open and honest with our staff. We want to take them with us and make sure they can see what we are trying to do.

“Chesterfield depot is a fantastic depot. We see the Peak District as a bit of an opportunity. We’ve already got some ideas for next year. It’s an exciting time.

“We want to make sure our services remain relevant and serve people’s needs, but we recognise that there are new opportunities out there.”

BSIP funding

Returning to the subject of the Bus Service Improvement Plan funding, which some might find unusual for a route aimed at tourists, John explained: “Looking at the bigger picture, Derbyshire County Council is alive to the fact that it’s not just a bus service. It’s about the wider contribution to the area. The great thing about buses is that they’re available for everyone, they’re socially inclusive, they reduce loneliness, they assist in moving to a greener environment and they contribute to the economy.

“There are so many wider benefits, and those bigger picture elements apply very strongly to the Peak Sightseer operation. We’ve worked very closely with Derbyshire and Visit Peak District & Derbyshire, and other partners. All of the local businesses we’ve spoken to love it. They can see the value and the wider benefits it brings. I’m really pleased about that. If we’re doing well, they’re doing well. We’ve quickly become a part of the local business community. People get what we’re trying to do.”

As I headed out with Shayne, we boarded a bus at the depot which runs empty the short distance to Chesterfield railway station before running in service to Chatsworth. Arriving at the station, a handful of people were already waiting for the bus; a pleasing sight on an average mid-week day outside of the school holiday period.

“Chesterfield is a key connection point,” John explained, “with rail services from a wide variety of places. Because we have more buses this year that need to get to and from the depot, we also run some of them to the south Sheffield suburbs; the reason we don’t go into Sheffield city centre is that not all of the open-top buses are Euro VI, and Sheffield city centre is a clean air zone. Of course, not everybody lives in the city centre, and we have a network of routes that people can use to connect.

“To our pleasant surprise, we’ve had some good usage from people living in south Sheffield, and at very little extra cost to us to start the buses there. It’s made the service accessible to a much wider population.”

As we headed out of Chesterfield, Shayne took the time to welcome each of the passengers on board and have a short chat with them about the service and why they’d chosen to travel on it; an excellent opportunity to combine great customer service with valuable feedback. We picked a few more up on our way out of the town.

Shayne took the time to explain to me a little more about the routes and rosters, which now require seven driver duties per day instead of 2023’s three per day. He also pointed out that Stagecoach had been careful when designing the service to make sure it doesn’t tread on the toes of other operators’ services; although it serves all stops and passengers can make any journey, premium fares are charged and there is no £2 fare cap. As he pointed out, though, the service is still significantly cheaper per mile than an open-top city tour.

A pair of ALX400 semi open-toppers prepare for their last journeys of the day. JONATHAN WELCH

Variety

Speaking more about the feeder journeys to and from Chesterfield and south Sheffield, Shayne told me that they had also been popular with staff travelling to and from work at Chatsworth. He also explained that the team of around 18 drivers works on a dedicated rota which also includes a tendered midibus service, helping to give them some relief and variety.

Our first journey was aboard part open-top ALX400-bodied Dennis Trident WA05 WGX, one of the buses loaned to Chesterfield by Stagecoach South West, and still bearing some trace of that company’s waves and palm tree iconography, though with prominent Peak Sightseer branding added to its familiar Stagecoach blue, white, green and yellow. Left behind in the depot for the day was fully open-top Enviro400 MX07 HMG.

The mixed fleet includes Dennis Tridents, Scanias and a Wright Gemini, two of which are ‘high bridge’ buses and so barred from the blue route to Castleton, adding to scheduling complexities when considering which buses can be allocated to which duties.

After a stop at Chatsworth and a chance to take some photos, we boarded a ‘red route’ service for a local loop, along with a number of others. By no means a full load, it was nonetheless respectable for a mid-week morning journey, and again Shayne made sure to chat to the passengers and checked that they had all the information they needed.

Back at Chatsworth once again, we had another short break, during which there were plenty of people checking the timetables and publicity on the bus stop, or speaking to the drivers about the service. Our third journey would be aboard converted Scania Enviro400 YN60 CKU, which would take us all the way up through Castleton and on through Winnat’s Pass to the terminus at Mam Tor, before leaving us for a spot of lunch in Castleton. Again, whilst by no means heavily loaded, we had a few on board with some joining and leaving during the trip.

Luckily for us, traffic was quiet. Passing under a low bridge on an open-top bus is quite an experience, and a reminder of why the higher buses are not permitted this way; the bridge carries the railway line to Hope cement works. Despite the light traffic, the two 90-degree turns in Castleton proved interesting, especially as we had the misfortune to meet a coach on one of them, whose driver was kind enough to reverse to allow us through first. It’s not hard to see this being a source of delays in summer.

After our lunch, we made our way to Castleton’s bus station, where a First Bus service to Sheffield departed as we arrived, to await the next bus. This time, it was a fully open-top ALX400 which would take us back to Chatsworth, its fully open-top nature serving to highlight that some of the roadside trees could do with a trim. Finally, dual-door ex-London LX55 EPV, another ALX400-bodied Trident, returned us to Chesterfield, over six hours after we’d left.

Initial success

Customer research by Stagecoach in late 2023 found that 81% of passengers said they had used their car less as a result of the service, and 72% said they had visited locations they wouldn’t otherwise have done. An impressive 91% said they had used other local services such as cafés, and 85% were not local to the area.

By October 2023 and with just the initial route operating, the buses had carried over 12,800 people, and local estimations suggested that they could have generated over £490,000 of extra income for the area through the presence of Peak Sightseer. Impressively, 95% of those asked said they would recommend the service, and 84% said they would use it again.

In closing, John explained that it’s still early in the season but Stagecoach will be watching how the service performs before making plans for next year. “It takes time for people to become aware of any new service, and for them to factor in the time to visit. The service is still becoming established, but it’s doing well so far. Our focus for now is to make sure the service is running right and to make sure people want to come back or tell their friends.

“When the weather’s bad,” he joked, “you hold your head in your hands and wonder why you bothered, but when the sun’s shining and you can see people out enjoying themselves, it’s great. The school holidays are coming up soon, so we’re hoping for good weather!”

We continue our look at the Peak Sightseer operation in a couple of weeks, when David Jordan takes a ride and considers the service from a passenger’s perspective

Inside Chesterfield depot: The large and spacious depot is home to a fleet of 74 buses plus 10 National Express coaches. JONATHAN WELCH
A pair of ALX400 semi open-toppers prepare for their last journeys of the day. JONATHAN WELCH
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