Stagecoach South East’s revival of high frequency minibuses
This time thirty years ago, the word on the streets of Wythenshawe, Dukinfield and Stockport were high frequency minibuses. In particular, Carlyle bodied minibuses with a yellow, black and red livery sporting a vinyl bee. Or the Ivecos and Fords of GM Buses’ Little Gem services.
The notion of high frequency minibuses instead of single deckers or double deckers has its roots in Harry Blundred’s experiments in Exeter and Hereford. Eventually, this approach was embraced in Worcester as well as Greater Manchester and Preston. Instead of having an hourly bus route with a double decker, you could have six 16 seat minibuses per hour. A bus every ten minutes.
This approach was not without its problems. Overcrowding on popular journeys was one. Another was the lack of luggage space which made the minibuses unattractive for passengers carting heavy shopping bags. The combination of narrow doors and step entry, alongside the lack of pushchair space made them virtually inaccessible for mothers. For potential passengers with wheelchairs, just as inaccessible as the double deckers they displaced.
With the above accessibility issues solved, Stagecoach South East have looked at high frequency minibuses with fresh eyes. Today’s equivalent of the Dodges, Ivecos and Fords is the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter City 77. Yes, we know it’s a conversion of the Sprinter van to a minibus form, but the City 77 (which Stagecoach South East use) is a popular minibus in mainland Europe.
Another bread van?
Though the Sprinter City 77 has the obvious whiff of bread van conversion, Stagecoach South East’s models have big bus features. These include a full width passenger entrance and a low floor, solving the issue of carting wheelchairs or pushchairs. The seats are the faux leather variety, similar to those seen on Enviro 400 MMCs in Greater Manchester.
Not only that, they also have free WiFi access and the new Vix ticket machines. Launched early last week on Stagecoach Manchester routes, they also take payments with contactless cards and smart cards. In other words, a 216 bus in miniature, only in Ashford.
Ashford’s Little & Often services began on the 12 February. There are up to twelve buses per hour, operating between 0600 and 2300 hours. One route, the B from Park Farm has ten buses per hour: a minibus every six minutes. A flat fare of £1.90 is charged, plus the usual concessionary rates. Stagecoach South East’s season tickets are valid. The service was launched by Rita Simons, better known as Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders.
The 15-seat vehicles which have cost Stagecoach South East £2.8 million have attracted mixed reviews on the Kent Messenger‘s website. Tight legroom and the lack of space for shopping were the main criticisms. One of the four commenters wondered if they would bring back the Leyland Nationals.
Could they work in Greater Manchester?
As proven by recent criticism and previous practice, minibuses are better for short distance routes. Town shuttle services, or routes with narrow streets that are unsuitable for full size single decker or double decker buses.
In a nutshell, the answer is ‘no’. For tendered bus routes, the minimum capacity for each bus in TfGM territory is 20 seated passengers. On the other hand they could be good for the development of new rural services or for Local Link DRT services. Or they could replace gaps hitherto lost for several years as an experimental service (which, patronage permitting, could be retained or upgraded to having full size buses).
If (and this is quite a big if) a Greater Manchester based operator had a Little & Often style service, they should be put to good use on short distance radial or circular routes. Any journey longer than 20 minutes is best serviced with full width buses (including Optare Solo SRs, Enviro 200s and Volvo B9TLs).
Fitting the short distance category are the Ashton circular routes, the 331 and 333. At present, the 331 operates every half hour with anything on from an 02 reg Optare Solo to a 14 reg Wright StreetLite. Or a Volvo B9TL. Potentially, that is 150 seated passengers per hour. Instead of every half hour, there could be ten Mercedes-Benz Sprinter City 77 buses per hour. Every six minutes and a similar amount of space for buggies and/or wheelchairs as two buses per hour. Or every twelve minutes by night.
A short distance radial route such as the 39 from Ashton-under-Lyne to Hazelhurst could be another candidate for Little & Often style frequencies. In fact, it has previously seen high frequency minibuses of the Little Gem variety. It has a similar frequency to the 331 service and up to 150 seated passengers per hour.
As for anything outside of short distance services taking a maximum of 30 minutes, the Little & Often option is a non-starter. With existing traffic conditions, the 10 minute frequency of the 216 (with double deckers) is a test of patience and immaculate timing. Supposing every double decker was replaced with five Mercedes Sprinter City 77 minibuses on a route like the 216, that’s a minibus every two minutes. Oh, and a shed load of congestion woes.
From personal experience, I have found minibuses a poor substitute for full size ones on long distance journeys. Not only with stage carriage services, but also privately hired minibuses on journeys over an hour long. If you add heavy traffic to the mix, the journey is immensely less comfortable (no amount of free WiFi could ameliorate the ennui). Metal Rear kicks in as does Coach Travellers’ Knee.
The sight of thirty minibuses instead of six double deckers could be seriously problematic on Ashton Old Road. We all know how bad the rush hour traffic is with six 219s an hour and the plethora of cars with only one passenger. With 30 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter City 77s, don’t go there.
Minibuses were never designed for heavy duty trunk routes. That is my personal opinion (yours truly still likes his GMT-standard buses). Originally, they weren’t suitable for stage carriage work till National Bus Company’s early experiments. They come into their own on rural and residential routes where the roads (or space left by parked cars) are too wide for full width buses. Also for demand responsive transport and community schemes.
Could high frequency minibuses have a future 30 years after The Bee Line Buzz Company and Little Gem did in Greater Manchester? Feel free to air your views. If you’ve tried the Stagecoach South East Little & Often services, we value your opinions.
S.V., 22 February 2017.