Worcestershire wanderings

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RICHARD SHARMAN

Whilst many county councils and operators are busy parading their new battery-powered fleets, not all areas of the UK have been so lucky with funding. Richard Sharman takes a look at the county of Worcestershire to see how things are progressing there

Surrounded by Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, the West Midlands, Warwickshire and its former non-metropolitan county twin Hereford, between 1974 and 1998 when it was abolished, Worcestershire is largely a rural county with a population of approximately 603,670 people. The largest conurbation is the City of Worcester, followed by the towns of Redditch, Kidderminster and Malvern. Given this, you would think that the county would boast a substantial bus network, but like many places in the UK, it has seen a vast number of changes and funding cuts

in recent years. But are things slowly turning around?

Midland Red to First

Historically speaking, if you say Worcester to any time-served busman, manager or enthusiast they will instantly think Midland Red West. If you are a little older you might think pre-deregulation Midland Red. In 2024, the only mention of Midland Red you will find in Worcester is restricted to the 25 millimetre tall First Midland Red Buses Ltd legal lettering on the side of the bus. These days the company forms part of the wider First West of England division that includes First Cymru and is headquartered in Bristol.

Unfortunately, the deregulation red and cream-liveried days of the Midland Red West of old are long gone. Some of you may remember that Midland Red West was once famed for its award winning thick timetable booklets of yesteryear that were nearly as big as an old-school Yellow Pages phone directory, showing just how many bus services it operated from depots in Kidderminster, Redditch, Worcester, Evesham and of course Hereford in its latter years.

Today, its hold on Worcestershire has been reduced to a single historic depot in Padmore Street, Worcester. Although it still has authorisation to operate a fleet of 265 vehicles from the depot in the centre of the city, the current fleet strength numbers 62 vehicles operating on a network of 56 registered public services, (including route variations) plus school, works and special event services.

The network is, as might be anticipated, centred around serving the City of Worcester with 20 and 30-series routes serving most large estates and the county’s large Worcestershire Royal Hospital. Frequencies vary, but the largest estates enjoy a bus every 10 minutes which drops them in the bus station located under the Crowngate Shopping Centre.

When it comes to inter urban links, big towns such as Great Malvern have seen a significant reductions in the number of buses, with frequency maintaining a strictly 30 minute headway throughout the day, with the last bus leaving Worcester at an early 1738hrs, no evening service on Friday and Saturday night and no service at all on a Sunday. This is a far cry from back in 2005 when a branded fleet was introduced using brand new Wrightbus StreetDecks, and services were frequent, operated late and at the weekend.

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The problem with the Great Malvern to Worcester corridor is that it completes with a good train service, ironically operated by fellow FirstGroup subsidiary Great Western Railway, although the line is also not that frequent but does start and finish in Hereford and runs through the Cotswolds to Oxford.

Five Alexander Dennis Enviro300s have recently moved within First’s West of England division to Worcester from Cymru. The fleet names have been adapted from Cymru Clipper to Worcester Clipper. RICHARD SHARMAN

Salt Road

Heading in the opposite direction towards Birmingham is the historic 144, or ‘Salt Road’ route as it was rebranded for a time back in November 2019.

The 144 operated between Worcester and Birmingham calling at Droitwich Spa, Bromsgrove and Catshill. Between Worcester and Catshill, the service offered a 15-minute frequency when combined with the 144A which terminates in Catshill. The service operated the full route to Birmingham every 30 minutes, with late-night buses provided on Friday and Saturday nights.

The rebrand saw the Best Impressions-designed Salt Road livery applied to 12 Wright Eclipse Urban 2-bodied Volvo B7RLEs transferred from Leicester depot, but new to First West of England in 2009. These vehicles received a refurbishment at Thornton Brothers, Ashington, that included a repaint, the fitment of WiFi equipment, USB ports and Hanover white LED destination gear, whilst HJS Emission Technology converted the vehicles’ exhaust systems over a six-month period to bring them to Euro VI standards.

The Salt Road branding referred when local salt deposits were being exploited, dating back to the Iron Age and possibly earlier. Droitwich Spa went on to be very prosperous in medieval times and was then industrialised and developed in the 19th century. Production of salt has now commenced again on the edge of the town.

At the point of relaunch the 144 had carried 978,000 passengers in a year, with a 7% growth rate per year, but that relaunch came just a couple of months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. By 1 May 2022 the decision had been taken to change the Malvern area services and curtail the 144 Salt Road service to Catshill, near Bromsgrove, with no service operating to Birmingham at all. The effects of Covid-19 had meant that flexible working patterns, working from home and lack of confidence on public transport had a big impact of bus services.

However, First Bus’ retrenchment on this route lead to National Express West Midlands increasing its operating area to serve Bromsgrove, initially working with Worcestershire County Council to reintroduce the 144A, the original service number First Bus used for short Bromsgrove and Catshill workings, thereby maintaining a bus link to Longbridge where passengers could change to onward services to and from Birmingham.

From 16 April 2023, an improved seven-days-a-week bus service between Bromsgrove and Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital was introduced. The new, extended service 20 replaced service 144A on an hourly frequency from Monday to Saturday between Bromsgrove bus station and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham via Rubery, Longbridge and Northfield.

The enhanced service meant passengers benefited from buses that start earlier and finish later, with services also running every two hours on a Sunday.

Councillor Mike Rouse, Cabinet Member with Responsibility for Highways & Transport at Worcestershire County Council, said at the time of the change: “My mission to secure and enhance bus services for Worcestershire is making good progress with the extension of this service, running on a Sunday, and improved regularity. These are the things people who use this service asked us for, and we listened to them before re-tendering the service.”

First Bus’ 144 currently operates between Worcester, Bromsgrove and Catshill at a 20 minute frequency, with services ending at 1910hrs Monday to Saturday, with an hourly service on a Sunday.

Diamond has been using an open-top bus on local services between Kidderminster and the river town of Stourport-on-Severn. RICHARD SHARMAN

Rebuilding

Effectively, the Covid-19 pandemic ended up with the retrenchment of First Bus’ network in the county, but the company has done some building back of its operating territory with a number of tender gains in and around Bromyard, Tenbury, Leominster and Hereford, where it used to have a depot and was the dominant operator in the county until September 2015.

In November last year First Bus was also successful in winning the tender to operate a new service developed following a successful bid by the County Council in partnership with Wychavon District Council using £120,000 received from the UK Shared Prosperity funding, specifically for enhancing bus services to key industrial sites within Droitwich Spa.

Service 153 now runs from Worcester to Droitwich Spa on weekdays and offers early morning and late night journeys specifically serving Berry Hill and Hampton Lovett Industrial Estates, enabling both day and night workers to have a viable bus service. In addition LMS Travel’s Droitwich Spa town service 20 was also enhanced.

Councillor Rouse commented: “The business community in Droitwich approached the council directly about improving the bus services during shift times. I went to see them, and we agreed a piece of work they would undertake to survey their staff for instance. I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to secure funding from central government and work with First Bus to make changes to the bus network that will benefit the workforce and also help other passengers access Droitwich more easily by bus. Identifying the demand was a key part of making this happen and is a good example of how we as the council can be a constructive partner to help create a more sustainable bus network.”

Operations Manager for First Worcester Richard Chinnock said: “We’re committed to getting more people to travel by bus, so we’re delighted to be working in partnership with Worcestershire County Council to provide this additional service in the county, which will provide a much needed boost to the business community, especially those on the industrial estates it serves, as well as local residents and visitors.”

First Bus’ operations in the county are ‘landlocked’ by Rotala, Stagecoach Midlands, Stagecoach West and National Express West Midlands.

A brighter Diamond

Rotala-owned Diamond Bus is no stranger to Worcestershire and has been operating services in the county since the early 2000s when it opened a depot in Droitwich Spa and commenced competitive commercial services in and around Worcester. By 2009 it had won 11 tendered bus services from Worcestershire County Council. At this point operations were known as Red Diamond. Further growth in the county was achieved when it purchased Kidderminster and Redditch depots and operations from FirstBus in January 2013.

Diamond further expanded its operating territory on 24 June when it commenced operation of service 540 from Evesham to Tewkesbury, taking it into Gloucestershire.

Working in partnership with Worcestershire County Council, an enhanced 540 timetable was introduced. The previous schools service remain in place, and following some additional funding, the daytime frequency has increased to half hourly between 0900 and 1500hrs. Additional evening peak journeys were also added to Evesham railway station, offering commuter passengers a peak time return rail service.

Other innovative partnerships include a trial free park & ride service in the town of Bewdley, near Kidderminster. This service has been fully funded by Bewdley Town Council to support the prosperity of Bewdley town and operates between 1000 and 1500hrs until 27 July, with the aim of allowing visitors a stress-free journey into the riverside town, as car parking is limited. Kiddermister depot also provides a temporary ‘Bewdley Bridge Closure Shuttle’ service whilst work continues to install flood defences.

Meanwhile, another recent innovative idea was to move Diamond’s open-top Dennis Trident, named Julia, to use at Kidderminster depot, first being used to drop students off at a prom event and then seeing use on service 3 between Kidderminster and the river town of Stourport-on-Severn, a popular tourist location.

LMS Travel has been part of the bus scene in Worcestershire for many years, and once operated many Plaxton Pointer-bodied Dennis Dart SLFs, but these have mostly been replaced by Enviro200s. The sole surviving example, looking in excellent condition, is KP51 SXY, seen on service 21 in Worcester. RICHARD SHARMAN

Early pioneers of DRT

Worcestershire County Council’s (WCC) early incarnation of a demand responsive transport (DRT) offering first started way back in 2003, when the new FlexiLink-branded service initially served 12,500 homes in the Warndon area of Worcester. Back then customers called a number to summon a bus to 100 bookable pick-up points in the area.

It went on to operate in other areas of the county such as Evesham, Tenbury Wells, Kidderminster and Redditch, often taking over set routes with low passenger numbers and requiring passengers to book the bus along the route. FlexiLink operated for a good few years before the passenger transport unit was rebranded ‘Whoosh!’ and more once or twice a day services were provided instead.

Fast forward to the current offering, and WCC launched Bromsgrove on Demand (since rebranded Worcestershire on Demand) in July 2021. It allows people living within Bromsgrove and surrounding villages to access both on demand and pre-booked buses for journeys anywhere within the service area, including to and from the town centre, Bromsgrove railway station or nearby villages. It is reported to have facilitated over 65,000 completed trips since it was launched.

This summer, it is planned to expand the operating area to include the north-east of the county. Councillor Marc Bayliss, Cabinet Member with Responsibility for Highways and Transport at Worcestershire County Council, said: “I’m delighted to announce that we are planning to extend the operating area, providing a much-needed service to more residents. On demand transport creates an inclusive, responsible, and adaptive transport network. It makes travel accessible to the whole community, and offers an innovative, sustainable, and efficient way of getting around. This service, which has been funded in part by the Department for Transport, is a key part of our mission to enhance and secure bus travel in Worcestershire.”

June 2023 saw the second DRT service launch in the county, this time funded by both Worcestershire County Council and Malvern Hills District Council. The initial focus was on the South Malvern Hills area with passengers able to travel to points of interest outside of the zone.

February this year saw the service vastly expand to serve numerous local towns and villages, as well as destinations such as Malvern Hospital, Malvern railway station and Malvern Retail Park, along with points further afield such as Worcestershire Parkway station, Worcester Countryside Centre and Tewkesbury town centre.

Councillor Tom Wells, Leader of Malvern Hills District Council, added: “We are very pleased to be providing funding to support such an essential service for our residents across the Malvern Hills district. On demand transport provides a life-line to communities who need assistance with accessing health services, important appointments, and town centres for shopping and entertainment. Not only this, but it is a great way of reducing social isolation for people living in rural areas, as well as offering a sustainable travel solution. Both of which come under the council’s priorities.”

Both services operate from 0700 to 1900hrs Monday to Saturday with a flat fare of £2.50 per person, with additional passengers paying £1.25. Two fully accessible 13-seat Mercedes-Benz Sprinters are provided by Diamond Bus to operate the service, with new Ilesbus-converted examples now starting to enter service. The Malvern service also uses two Sprinters, with one operated by LMS Travel of Worcester and the other by Malvern Community Action, in conjunction with Worcester Wheels.

As part of Worcestershire’s Bus Service Improvement Plan funding, Worcestershire County Council says the Department for Transport has provided valuable support to launch the initial service and expand to wider areas allowing more passengers to use the service for a variety of local journeys and support the local economy. A third service, covering Pershore and Evesham is planned for later this year.

Stafford-based Select Bus Services is a recent entrant to the Worcestershire scene, having been awarded the contract to operate the 297 from Bridgnorth to Kidderminster, previously operated by Arriva Midlands’ Telford depot. RICHARD SHARMAN

Independent opportunity

Worcestershire is a county where it has been possible for independent operators to thrive for many years. It is not only a county that offers a strong base for private hire and day trips, but they have also provided many of Worcestershire County Council’s supported bus services.

LMS Travel operates 21 bus services in the county, serving Worcester, Droitwich Spa, Evesham and Great Malvern; MRD operates four services focused on Bromsgrove; N.N. Creswell provides four services around the Vale of Evesham; Finesse Travel operates two routes originating in Droitwich Spa; Gloucestershire-based Henshaw’s Coaches operates two routes serving rural communities in Evesham; Yarranton Brothers provides five services in and around the Wyre Forest and Worcester; Kev’s of Bromsgrove serves its home town, Worcester and Droitwich Spa; Flexibus operates Warwickshire County Council supported routes into and around Redditch; and finally, Select Bus Services operate into Kidderminster from Bridgnorth.

Many of these operators’ Worcestershire County Council-supported bus services have seen the same independent operators serve the local communities on the routes for decades, but one operator which falls in that category has recently made some changes to its bus operations.

Lucy Conway, General Manager of Earls Croome-based Astons Coaches, told CBW: “Astons has been going through an in depth analysis of all the work that we currently operate and have decided to terminate the Worcester to Martley/Clifton and Tewkesbury to Evesham bus services. Whilst Astons has always been a part of bus services within Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, these two services specifically were not financially viable for us to continue with.

“We still operate both the 332 and the 19 and we have no intention of stopping these in the future. Whilst this may come as a shock to some, we have to look at what works for our business and we have decided to invest more into the private hire and European touring areas that we cover. We have some very exciting new contracts ahead of 2024 onwards, as well as a busy remainder of the year and already a very busy 2025.

“Following our recent purchases of a brand-new 19 seat executive Mercedes-Benz Sprinter minibus, a Yutong TC9 34-seat executive midi coach and a 59-seat executive Scania Touring, both of which are PSVAR, we have also put an order in for another brand new TC9 and we are about to receive another 53-seat executive Scania. We are working closely with our vehicle suppliers in order to upgrade the remainder of the fleet in the near future. We are proud that Astons has always operated a variety of work from bus services, local private hire, European tours and that is how we will always intend to continue.”

BSIP and ZEBRA funding

Across the border, Herefordshire Council has just announced that it has been awarded £950,000 of Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) money. Amongst the plans to introduce more regular and later bus services, Worcestershire is set to benefit from the DRM Bus-operated service 420 between Bromyard and Worcester being reinstated, with the 469 linking Bromyard and Hereford being ‘simplified.’

In terms of Worcestershire County Council’s own ambitions, its BSIP document on its website, dated 2021, notes some critical figures that show the stark reality surrounding passenger numbers.

It provides evidence that patronage on local bus services in Worcestershire has decreased from 17.2m in 2010/11 to 9.3m in 2019/20, a decrease of 45.93% over 10 years. WCC says this downward trend can be seen in both regional and national figures but is more pronounced in Worcestershire.

There is a long way to go to build those passenger figures back up, and WCC’s BSIP+ allocation for the current year stands at £1,429,686. Meanwhile, WCC’s bid for Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) funding has, so far, been unsuccessful. Its 2021 to 2022 application form reveals that its application was for £19.7m.

The proposed extent of that ZEBRA scheme covered the districts of Bromsgrove and Redditch in the north east of Worcestershire. Bromsgrove and Redditch work collaboratively, sharing a number of key services with the majority of key commercial services run by Diamond Bus. The application shows that routes 43 and 58 were used as test beds for potential electrification.

Testing times ahead

Whilst the winners of significant BSIP and ZEBRA funding make huge changes to their bus fleets and infrastructure, Worcestershire has so far been unable to win the funds to make the same changes. However, operators which provide bus services do, on average, operate modern fleets on services throughout the county. Also, as a pioneer of DRT, WCC clearly identifies this mode of transport as playing a significant part of the counties future. It also has a significant number of real-time screens in operation, and has had for some years now. So whilst it is a county that cannot boast about huge zero-emission fleets coming into service, it can look to the future knowing that improvements have been made in recent years, that it works with some quality operators and that funding will come at some point in the future.

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