Running at Cheltenham

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Hundreds of racegoers queue to board the waiting buses at Cheltenham railway station. RICHARD SHARMAN

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a big draw for the horse racing community, attracting thousands of visitors across the week. Richard Sharman speaks to the man charged with organising the shuttle services each year to find out how it is planned

The second week of March every year sees Stagecoach Group vehicles (85 to be precise) from all over the UK leave their home depots to make the trip to the spa town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire to assist Stagecoach West in providing transport for thousands of racegoers.

Operations Manager of North Bristol depot, Mark Rosaman, has the job of planning for the biggest event in Stagecoach West’s calendar.

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All in the planning
“I have been organising the event services for the last six years, but before that, it was my father, David Rosaman, who did all the planning and when he retired Rupert passed it on to me,” enthused Mark. “So the planning of the event has been in the family for at least 20 years!

“As the Gold Cup week is such a big event I need to start planning for it in January. This begins with a meeting at the racecourse with traffic management, train managers, police and racecourse management. This year has been more challenging due to Boots Corner reopening.

“Boots Corner is an area that runs through Cheltenham town centre that was closed for the last two years to cars as an experiment to reduce pollution in the town centre area. That experiment has now ended and all traffic is allowed to use Boots Corner again. This means that there is the potential for the services to be delayed by racegoers using their cars instead of public transport.

“Whilst Cheltenham Gold Cup week is certainly our busiest time, we also provide vehicles for race meetings throughout the year, either by duplicating services D and E which serve the racecourse or running special services in November using 36 buses. Some of these vehicles are provided by other operating companies. We even run on New Year’s Day, operating 12 buses. Driving staff-wise we use whatever staff we have available across the west division, but on the smaller meetings, we tend to utilise our quality inspectors.

“During the Gold Cup week there are two services in operation. One starts at the train station and operates to the racecourse via the town centre, also dropping off those who want to go for a drink in the town first. The second service departs from outside WHSmith in the town and operates directly to the racecourse.

“It can take a vehicle one hour in the morning peak to run from the railway station to the racecourse and back, so 68 buses are soon used as you can have three buses fully loaded every four minutes when the big trains come in. It is even worse on the afternoon return trips when everyone wants to get back at the same time – six are loading and departing at the same time. We do not issue tickets on the bus; we have ticket sellers at the departure points which does speed things up.

“Fares are £3 for a single from both departure points or £5.50 for a return, which can also be used on any bus services in Cheltenham for the day. This allows passengers to use service D from the town centre if they alighted from the racecourse service to go for a drink, or board another shuttle bus in the town.

“We have eight ticket sellers at the railway station in the morning, and four in the town centre. In the evening they all go to the racecourse to move people as quickly as possible. Six of those ticket sellers are checking tickets at the vehicle doors, as in the evening we have quite a few that try to avoid paying.

“As the event is on over four days, we find that Tuesday is the second busiest day and a learning curve for everybody, including traffic management and the police. This year’s total racegoers per day were 70,000 on Tuesday, 60,000 on Wednesday, 68,000 Thursday and 72,000 on the Friday. In total, we do around 92,000 passenger movements throughout the week, as some racegoers use cars or hire coaches for transport. The services are completely commercial.”

Sourcing vehicles
“We always utilise our fleet spares for these events, ensuring that all MOT tests and servicing is carried out in the week before so those vehicles and the engineers are free to help with the races. Going back a few years we had a reserve fleet made up of 12 Volvo Olympians stored at our Stroud depot that were used on all special event services. This ended when everything went low-floor.

“Depending on availability throughout the group, we do sometimes contract in local independent operators such as Marchant’s or Swanbrook to help provide double-decker buses to meet the PVR.

“This year I needed a total of 85 vehicles for the Gold Cup day, although we used 68 in the morning and all of them in the afternoon. Return trips start at 1530hrs but demand is at its highest from around 1730hrs for racegoers wanting to get back to the town for a drink or those that need to catch a train home. The racecourse’s bars all close at different times to push people towards the exit, so we operate until approximately 1945hrs to ensure everyone can get back.

“We find that Manchester and London are normally able to provide the largest amount of vehicles, whilst other operating companies are normally able to help us with four or five each. We collect vehicles from all over the UK and have even had offers from the East Scotland division, but the North East is as far north as we tend to go. We also go to the South East and South West. Locations in between include operating companies such as East, East Midlands, Midlands, Oxford and South Wales. We are responsible for moving any vehicle loans, so during the Gold Cup week, no staff holidays are allowed to help cope with this. This releases around 70 driving staff to help assist in collecting and dropping off vehicles.

“Those drivers who collect the buses will then be allocated to the races all week and then take the vehicles back to their home depots on Saturday. Ticket selling staff and supervision is carried out by our office staff and management team, which includes our Managing Director, Rupert Cox. In total, we require 104 members of staff to cover the event.”

The event, which took place from 10 to 13 March, coincided with the spread of Covid-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus. This did not seem to deter the racegoers though as services seemed as busy as in previous years, with vehicles arriving with standing loads from 1000hrs onwards.