Saturday, 5 September 2015

All change!

As I'm sure most people are aware, the end is nigh for First's Devon business, with the final day of operation being Saturday 5th September. The news first came as Stagecoach South West first announced the takeover of Plymouth depot, as well as Tavistock and Dartmouth outstation on Friday 10th July and since then there has been much speculation as to what will happen in terms of both routes and vehicles. 

Stagecoach announced a new route network, which is slightly smaller than First's was, however Plymouth Citybus continue to serve destinations that Stagecoach won't. The new route network is as follows:
1/X1 Plymouth - Derriford Hospital - Yelverton - Tavistock 
Replacing Firsts 83/86

2/2A Saltash - Plymouth - Mount Batten
Replacing Firsts 1/1A Plymouth-Saltash & 2/2A Plymouth-Mount Batten

3 Plymouth - Kingsbridge &  Kingsbridge - Dartmouth 
Replacing Firsts 93

48 Plymouth - Plymstock - Wembury
Replaces Firsts 48, though there doesn't seem to be any sign of a service to Burrator.

89 Courtlands Road - Tavistock - Bishopsmead
Replaces Firsts 89

90/90A/90B/90C Dartmouth - Townstall

Replaces Firsts 90/90A/B/C

91 Dartmouth Park & Ride
Replaces Firsts Park & Ride service

100 The George P&R - Milehouse P&R - Royal Parade
Replaces Firsts PR1

101 The George P&R - Derriford Hospital - Milehouse P&R - Royal Parade 
Replaces Firsts PR1A

200 Coypool P&R - Royal Parade
Replaces Firsts PR2

804-809 Schools Services

The Gold service will have a revised timetable, thanks to the ability to now run buses from both ends of the route.

Unfortunately, the following First Bus services will not be replaced by Stagecoach:

  • 3/3A Plymouth - St Budeaux circular
  • 6 Plymouth - Efford
  • 15 Plymouth - Woolwell 
  • 76 Plymouth - Launceston
  • 81/81D Plymouth - Torpoint
The change also brings an interesting time of vehicle changes, which in this case is proving to be very interesting. I was expecting to see an influx of boring, crappy modern vehicles however this isn't the case. Although it's not for the long term, Stageocach have actually drafted in a lovely selection of euro 2 Dennis Tridents and 6 cylinder engined Darts from various parts of the country. Not my idea of nice, but there is also a batch of Enviro200s from Carlisle and some other cascades from other parts of the South West. I will include full details on a downloadable document. 

Whilst there are some interesting times ahead, the takeover sadly sees off some favourites of mine; most of all, the Wright Crusader 2 bodied Volvo B6BLEs. As hated as they are by most, for me they are among my favourite single decks with their amazing sounding engine, whiny ZF gearbox and the very smooth (and bouncy!) ride. The W-PAF batch are also the last buses ever delivered under Western National operation and one of very few batches of buses to stay at their home depot all of their lives. The other B6BLEs currently in Plymouth are the W-PFBs which started life in Bristol before being transferred down a few years back. 

48201 is seen at work in Plymouth

There are also two oddballs, the first being 48201 T801RHW which also started it's life in Bristol in July 1999. Apart from being the only T reg B6BLE Crusader 2 in the South West devision of First Bus, I'm not sure if it has any other significance. It may be a former demonstrator of the type? The other oddball is 48210 V810EFB which was recently transferred in from Weymouth, and is the only V reg B6BLE at First Devon. Over the years Plymouth have also seen a further two batches of B6BLEs running round town; these being a batch of former York 51 reg's which have since been made DDA Compliant and carted off to Buses of Somerset, nice to see them doing well! Another batch were a small bunch of 52 regs that started out in Cornwall for the Corlink routes, and were later transferred up to Plymouth. Corlink was taken over by small van based Mercedes Minibuses and the Volvos sent to Weymouth, where I believe they still work today. 
48234 W834PFB sits at Gunnislake, about to work a
Summer Sunday only 187 in June 2014.

Another type I'm sad to see leave the city are First's large amount of elderly euro 2 engined Dennis Tridents. With both East Lancs Lolyne and Plaxton President bodies on offer, Plymouth has always been a place for a nice selection of older Tridents (as well as the euro 2 54/55 reg East Lancs Myllenium Lolynes that can be found on Park & Ride and Torpoint services). The first lot to arrive were the small number to arrive were 32802/3/6/8/12/19/46 T802/3/6/8/12/19/46LLC which were transferred from London and displaced a batch of Routemasters from the brand new George Junction Park & Ride service in 2006. They operated in full First London livery, complete with dual doors and a mere sticker advertising the route they were doing over the old destination display glass. Drivers used small cards, that slotted in the old TfL running number slots at the front, to indicate their direction of travel. 
33173 on Royal Parade

Whilst running the Park & Rides, the Tridents were one by one repainted into Firsts Barbie 3 livery, however retained the centre doors until the much anticipated Enviro400s arrived to take over the service. The orignal batch of T-LLCs were joined by more from London, as well as some T-KLF/V-HBYs and some euro 3 LR02 registered

examples, all of which had been repainted and door converted at Rotherham works, as well as the ones used on the Park & Ride.  All but the '02 reg's were carted off to Cornwall to oust some Leyland Olympians. But not for long...the re-launch of 'Mayflower Link' 93 saw 32802/3/8/12/46 return to Plymouth and painted up in an exceptionally smart livery. Unfortunately, it was found that these former Londoners really couldn't cope with the hills, and in 2010 the Tridents were painted back into Barbie 3 livery, and once again returned to Cornwall. 

34197 in Torquay - photo thanks to Derrick Cuff
Meanwhile, in 2007 the ex-Airbus Volvo Olympians on the X80/X81 were being replaced by two batches of Tridents, these being some 2000 'W' reg's that had been cascaded from Bath Park & Ride duties, and a batch of 55 reg East Lancs Myllennium bodied Tridents that had come from Cornwall. In my younger years, I strongly disliked these, however I began to find them rather nice, especially the older ones with the loud and thrashy euro 2 Cummins C220 engines. I've enjoyed many a trip on the X80 listening to those Tridents battle the hills, and the A38 and sounding fantastic during every minute. After the closure of North Devon in 2012, the W-RHTs were joined by a quadruplet of X reg examples, 32751-4 and being rural buses, they cope far better on the                                                                                      hills than the old Park & Ride ones. 

In 2011, 'Mayflower Link' was once again re-launched, this time using the former London 02 reg examples; ones in livery were 32174/5/6. Although better on the hills, their reliability isn't quite the best and they have a tendency to throw their fluids out all over the ground...but nevertheless, a rural trip on an old Trident is always nice! (I should probably run away after saying that...)
33176 LR02LYV at Torcross

Meanwhile, the all-new Enviro400s were settling in nicely on their Park & Ride duties with their striking 'cloud' livery, luxury leather coach seats, ground-breaking euro4 technology environmentally friendly engines and various other mod cons! I have to say, that batch are the only Enviro400's I have ever enjoyed, and still do enjoy travelling on. In 2012, First purchased the '56 reg Enviros from Plymouth City Council, and they were transferred to Bristol for use on Bristol-Weston Super Mare express X1 to replace a batch of Volvo B9TLs. Plymouth Park & Ride was taken over by a batch of '12 reg Enviro400s that had been purchased as part of a 200 strong order of double deckers (half of which were Volvo B9TL/Wright Gemini2s) for the 2012 London Olympics. These, in my opinion, were an almighty downgrade from the '56 regs. They were fitted with the (new) standard spec interior, consisting of Esteban Civic V3 seats, pink handrails and blue panels - not to dissimilar to that of Stagecoach. Being euro 5 engined, they are woefully sluggish and quite frankly, boring. 

In late 2013, said '12 reg Enviro400s were whisked off down to Tavistock in order to hit back at Plymouth CityBus who has just launched a batch of brand new Enviros on their new 'BlueFlash' route (which in itself will become history this month!) which competed with Firsts core 83/86 routes. This left the Plymouth Park & Rides with no specifically allocated buses and much to the disappointment for the 'normal' passenger the bus of choice was...well...anything! Park & Ride duties were covered by various aged Tridents, Volvo B6BLEs, Darts and even Optare Solos! The local Plymouth Herald reported of passengers anger at "old bangers" on the Park & Ride services, which are run commercially. A reader of the Plymouth Herald said: “If the council and the people of Plymouth fail to make their voices heard, our state of the art, eco-friendly park and ride facility will become just another run of the mill bus station served by First Group’s less comfortable old bangers which have been to the moon and back.” To me, those comments appear as quite unfair from both the council and the public. Whilst the average 2002 Trident may, cosmetically, be a slight downgrade from a flash 2006 or 2012 decker, they still get passengers from A to B in the same journey times. I've often wondered what the obsession, nationwide, is with high spec vehicles on Park & Ride routes which mostly take no longer than half an hour each way. Is it really worth it? As the Plymouth Park & Rides are run commercially, Plymouth City Council shouldn't need to have an input on vehicles - or if the need for 'better' buses was so great, perhaps they should have provided adequate funding for them.

In light of the reactions, First met halfway with the council and focus turned on having a recognisable Park & Ride brand, rather than new buses. This resulted in a re-launch of the services on Monday 8th September 2014 which saw the three former X9 2008 Enviro400s, and two 2005 East Lancs bodied Tridents fitted with e-leather seats and repainted into a variant of standard 'Olympia', but with a bright pink front which makes them instantly recognisable as Park & Ride vehicles. The changes also saw the loss of the '51 reg Volvo B6BLEs to Buses of Somerset, in exchange for similar aged Volvo B7Ls; three of which have also been refurbished for use on Coypool Park & Ride. 

In 2014, the Truro Unibus contract was re-awarded to First, but with the requirement of newer buses. This sent the 2012 Enviro400s down to Cornwall for these duties, and Plymouth were given back a large number of the 1999 Dennis Tridents (great news for me!). This, however, meant Plymouth had very few 'modern' buses and indicated the end of the road. 

The final kick in the teeth for First Bus was the launch of Stagecoach's new Gold route on 30th September 2013 which competed with Firsts core X80/X81 route from Torquay to Totnes and then Plymouth/Dartmouth. It was later announced that First would withdraw the X80/X81, which ran for the final time on Saturday 27th October 2013, after a month of direct competition. This change did however allow a number of the low floor double deck fleet to be used on Plymouth City work to relieve crowded, and ageing single deckers from some of the routes. In summer 2015, it was announced that First had lost the contract for the 'Mayflower Link' 93 service, and that it had been passed to Stagecoach South West. The news of Firsts sale to Stagecoach followed shortly after.

34003 at Dartmouth, Summer 2014
One final bus that deserves a mention is Volvo Olympian 34003, K803ORL. New to Western National in 1992 and fitted with very comfortable coach seats for use on route X80, she is the oldest bus in the First Devon fleet and quite possibly the oldest Volvo Olympian in service in the world. K803 has seen use at every depot: Plymouth, Totnes, Dartmouth, Barnstaple and most recently, Tavistock during it's 23 years and still performs better than anything a fraction of it's age. It's outlived buses at least 6 years it's junior and still solders on, having been used in and around Plymouth since finishing the Dartmouth Academy school contract in July. K803 is also the last remaining of the batch in service, with K801ORL being in preservation and K802/4ORL both having been scrapped some years ago. K803s misfortune of it's engine blowing up on the A38 whilst working an X80 back in 2011 must have been it's blessing, since they fitted it with a brand new engine and kept it going all this time. 34003 K803ORL saw off the route it was bought for, having returned to X80 duties on the final day of operation of the route. I rode on 34003 last week on a 79 from Tavistock to Callington. It's widely hoped that she will be used today for one last blast before retiring for good. Rumour has it that she is safe, though other reports suggest otherwise, so who knows...
34001 K801ORL in 2012

P568EFL was another Olympian in the Plymouth fleet -
sadly it was short lived.
                                      So what happens to the current First fleet?
Unfortunately, the release of the low floor double deck fleet from Plymouth spells the end for Cornwalls many Volvo Olympians. Torpoint depot is to be used as a store for withdrawn buses, which already includes ex-Airbus Royales 34193, 34195 and 34198 and Palatine 34259 with many more to follow suit. The Plymouth Volvo B6BLEs are being offered for sale, bar 48201 T801RHW which is due to depart for scrap this week, and 48261 W601PAF which has been transferred to Taunton as a source of spares. The aged former Hong Kong Dennis Dart SLFs I would imagine are also destined for scrap. The two 'newer' Darts 42924 and 42946 will be transferred to Cornwall, along with 32802 (which is looking fantastic in it's new livery!) and a large number of the remaining Tridents upon return from Bath Rail Replacement work. The two Cummins engined Optare Solos which can currently be found in Dartmouth are also due for transfer, whilst the elderly W/V reg Solos are all up for disposal. I plan to do a more in depth post on Cornwall in the coming weeks, and by then it should be clearer what has happened with the former Plymouth fleet too.

One of only two Solos remaining in the fleet.
The final day
As is well known, Saturday 5th September (today!) is it. The end. For those on Social media, an event called 'Celebrate the buses of Plymouth' has been organised, which will see the operation of former Western National heritage vehicles on some additional routes to mark the last day, and give First the send off they deserve after so many years. 

The latest post on the events Facebook page features a route map of the special services, and the list of vehicle departures and times  "DEPARTURES FROM BRETONSIDE on 5 September

This is the planned departure list from Bretonside during the event. Please be aware that vehicles and services may be subject to change depending on operating circumstances. We hope to add duplicate or additional journeys, depending on demand and vehicle availability.

You will only be able to board vehicles from the public stands at Bretonside. The public are NOT permitted to walk across the bus station to board vehicles in the layover bays.

We are recommending that you board and alight vehicles at the bus station. We cannot guarantee space on any service - especially from intermediate timing points.

These services are FREE of charge, and operate in addition to the scheduled First Devon services on the day.

For a more detailed timetable, potted history and more, we will have illustrated programmes on sale on the day - be sure to pick yours up."

For those targeting what's left of the current First Bus service fleet today, the usual Darts, B6BLEs and Tridents will be out, as well as the Park & Ride fleet during the day and will be withdrawn as services end during the evening. The first load of Plymouth vehicles are expected to be moved to Torpoint. A team of drivers from Cornwall will be collecting members of the fleet throughout the day and taking them to Camborne, with some Buses of Somerset drivers assisting with the move. I have no exact details on what is going where as of yet, but it will be something to look out for. I have heard that an additional Volvo B7L was towed into Plymouth yesterday, and swapped with a B10BLE which has gone to Somerset, so there may be a chance to see some odd vehicles and workings during the last day of First Devon operation. 

Stagecoach certainly didn't hang around in getting their name on the scene, and releasing their new timetables, which I have to say are very smartly designed. They have been distributed on nearly all First vehicles in Devon. The staff at First Bus have done an exceptional job at informing passengers about the changes, and answering any problems or queries that they have.  

A large amount of Volvo B7RLEs were once part of the
Plymouth 'Ugobus' fleet.
I will update the blog (as a new post) most likely this evening to report on the final day; but in case I don't get the chance, I'd like to wish the First Devon drivers the best of luck with their future at Stagecoach South West, and those made redundant with finding new jobs.