Day 4 – last day of the working week?

As I mentioned yesterday – today was a nice short day with just 4 hours driving the Asda shopper buses, well I say bus, we actually use a coach on it. It’s not ideal and has really limited what we can do with it.

Back in September we did have an Enviro 200 on lease for 3 months which was perfect and passenger numbers were slowly growing – especially after the gap during the summer where the service didn’t run at all following the failure of the previous operator.

It saw use on various college runs and schools too as it was belted. The only issue was it wasn’t ours! As it was a lease bus it was expensive – but with supermarket shopper buses generally not being a long term contract it’s hard to justify long term spending. Ultimately it was decided to terminate the lease and utilise our existing fleet.

Our loaned E200mmc at Normanby

The Asda shopper bus to the store at South Bank has been running for a good 25-30 years to the same routes and times. It was operated by Stagecoach for many years until they lost all of the school work that used to fit around the Asda contract. Then my previous company took it on, and when they closed Asda had to find another operator – that’s when Coatham picked it up.

There’s a dedicated band of regulars that rely on it to get their shopping each week, but numbers have noticeably dropped to the point where it’s running in single figures every week on most runs. At Stagecarriage we were sometimes getting 25-30 people on some runs, I’m not going to pretend it was every week but certainly the four services that we run now were fairly busy!

We used to run a bus on a Wednesday from Guisborough, Skelton and Lingdale. It carried numbers similar to what we are seeing now and eventually ended up getting dropped. That’s really playing on my mind currently and wondering what we can do to improve things.

Our Merc Cheetah that became the solid Asda vehicle for most of the year!

Obviously the fact that the current service isn’t ‘accessible’ is a big barrier to people using it. We used a Cheetah for a while, and we couldn’t even get shopping trolleys down the aisle! Recently we’ve been using the Yutong TC9 and the aisle is a bit wider at least – but still dragging trolleys up and down the steps becomes a chore. Especially with the current situation where it’s not safe to be handling other people’s property – being unable to help with trolleys and bags isn’t ideal.

Unfortunately more and more people have stopped using the Asda buses. The current message from the government over avoiding public transport clearly doesn’t help. The old saying ‘use it or lose it’ is not being helped by the service being unattractive though. Internally of course it’s attractive with comfy seats, air con (though not at present!) and radio.

Using a coach on the Asda shopper bus, lovely for drivers – but not so much the passengers.

It’s more of an issue now that the remaining few shopper buses are generally funded by the store themselves rather than centrally too. If not enough people are using them then they’re likely to be asking questions over whether it’s worth funding… and that’s what I don’t want to happen. I’ve seen too many lifeline services lost forever due to cuts or withdrawal of funding.

I’m glad to say we are looking for suitable vehicles to add to the fleet and even looking at opportunities to fill gaps in the bus network around our area. The addition of more college routes means there’s an abundance of vehicles generally sat around in the middle of the day. This is of course exacerbated by the current Covid situation where the daytime private hire work has dropped off a cliff.

There’s still, at the current time, the deadline for all operators to introduce PSVAR compliant vehicles. This means that all school routes from 1st August, where seats are paid for individually, need to be operated with PSVAR compliant vehicles. Whether this will be delayed (again) remains to be seen. It requires huge investment and is not particularly viable for most – especially with no revenue coming in for the last 6 months but that’s another story altogether! It will be interesting to see what happens in September.

Our Asda shopper bus timetable – with the new CoathamConnect branding

The cheaper way to do this is to bring in some buses, which then opens up the potential of using them in the middle of the day ‘between schools’. It’s a tried and tested method of building a network of local bus services. After all it’s a comparatively low cost (the bus and driver costs are both paid for) option.

That’s where the Coatham Connect brand comes in. Running bus services I like to think is my area of expertise, I’ve been in the industry now for coming up 10 years. In my previous job I was lucky to get experience behind the scenes of actually running a successful little network of services. Ultimately we were sadly let down by an owner who didn’t care.

It’s something I think we could do, and do well. With the backing of a wonderful family business and an already well known brand there’s no reason why we couldn’t build a nice little network across the area. The only issue is it’s a step into the unknown for a company who have only known coaching for the last 38 years!

Still, we’ll have to see what the future brings us… and what other unknowns are around the corner! All I do know is that all of us are itching to get back to work – and my week hasn’t finished here. I’ve got two days over the weekend of rail replacement, the first Coatham have worked for many years.

Watch out for tomorrow’s story!

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