The West of England Mayoral Combined Authority’s Birthday Bus scheme provides an opportunity to explore the region’s bus network for free. Tim Weekes couldn’t resist! Here are his thoughts on a month on the buses in and around Bristol.
During September, I spent about 34 hours on local buses. I travelled more than 650km and visited Wells, Weston-super-Mare, Yate, Bath, Portishead, Midsomer Norton and Clevedon as well as many places in Bristol.
Top deck views
Most services these days use double-decker buses, and on rural routes this allows people who can get upstairs a clear view over the hedgerows. Highlights for me were:
- The 172 as it descends into Bath from Combe Down, giving views over the city from the south;
- The 376 as it crosses the Mendips into Wells, giving a vista over the Somerset Levels and the Isle of Avalon;
- The view of the Bristol Channel from the X5 along the coast from Portishead to Clevedon.
Bristol Bus Station
Most of urban Bristol is connected to the central area by reasonably frequent bus services. But longer journeys involve changing, which may involve a fairly long walk.
Buses to destinations outside Bristol generally terminate at Bristol Bus Station. But some city buses stop 300m or more away, and passengers may have to cross some of Bristol’s busiest roads to get there. Bristol Rail Campaign has long argued for better integration between buses and trains, but it seems that bus-bus integration needs improvement too!
Bristol Bus Station is busy, clean, modern and well laid-out. Real-time passenger information is clear and generally accurate. In addition, on my visits the ticket and information office was open to advise passengers. Unlike those in train stations this doesn’t appear to be under threat of closure! I was able to pick up a map of the bus network there, and this proved invaluable when planning subsequent outings.
The Centre is the traditional hub of Bristol’s bus network. Its location may have made sense when it was a tramway interchange, but it is a long way from the Bus Station, Temple Meads Station and the central shopping area.
The Centre was remodelled as part of the MetroBus scheme, which provided good-quality bus shelters and information. But it seems to have reduced the amount of road space available for bus stops, leading to congestion and longer walks between buses. Finding the right stop can be a challenge, too.
In Bath, the bus and train station face each other across Brunel Square, an attractive open space flanked with bars and eateries. Many local buses stop alongside on Dorchester St. Interchange is much better than in Bristol, and screens in the bus station give real time train information as well as bus times.
This is a really good transport hub; very busy, but perhaps that is a problem of success.
MetroBus vehicles are of a slightly higher standard than regular vehicles and are capable of going a little faster if traffic permits. This is notable on motorways, when regular buses travel at around 40mph whilst MetroBus vehicles can sometimes exceed 50mph.
The ‘buy-before-you-board’ ticketing system used on MetroBus services didn’t seem to have much of an impact on boarding times; neither did the centre exit doors, which just seemed to cause confusion.
MetroBus route m2 deserves a special mention. This is Bristol’s gadgetbahn, with its own flyover and guided busway leading to Long Ashton Park & Ride. Vehicles are low-height to navigate the Long Ashton Swing Bridge and have guide wheels which steer them along 3.5km of guideways.
It is very difficult to understand the benefit of these guideways. Buses slow down almost to a halt to engage with them, then drive slowly to the end before speeding up until they reach the next section. Only specially-equipped vehicles can operate this route.
How can this make economic or operational sense?
Getting rid of the guideways would speed up these services, but low-height buses would still be needed.
Buses and trains
I made a point of only using buses for these journeys. Returning from Bath, the X39 ‘express’ service was a stark contrast with the train, taking an hour and ten minutes for a journey that could have been completed in 18 minutes or less by rail.
Most buses to the northern half of Bristol cross the Severn Beach line, passing Clifton Down, Montpelier, Stapleton Road or Lawrence Hill Station. Heading south-west, many buses pass Parson Street Station. Some buses have audio systems which announce the next stop as you approach. Similar systems on trains explain which buses can be caught from the station, but the systems on buses do not advertise onward rail connections at stations.
The Birthday Bus Pass allows you to use the WestLINK demand-responsive transport service, but I didn’t try it out. Chatting to people at bus stops, I concluded that most people who’ve used it find it a hit-or-miss affair.
What did I learn?
Most of the buses I caught were clean and more or less on time.
Real-time information at bus stops was fairly reliable.
Most services were reasonably well-used; at peak times buses were very full.
Interchange between bus services in Bristol is poor. Many local Bristol services don’t stop near the bus station, and not all buses serve the main hub for local services at The Centre.
Buses are slow. If you normally use the train for your local journeys, you may be surprised at how slow buses are. Even where bus lanes are provided, vehicles are still held up by traffic lights and frequent stops. MetroBus services are only slightly quicker.
At peak times buses are even slower. An 11km trip from The Centre to Cadbury Heath is timetabled to take up to an hour (early morning buses make the journey in 30 mins). For comparison, the train from Bristol Temple Meads to Shirehampton (a slightly longer trip) takes a consistent 22 mins.
Buses are a vital part of our public transport system. I will certainly make more use of them now I have a better understanding of how the system works.
Good interchange between buses and rail services, with proper signposting, access and integrated ticketing could speed up cross-city journeys significantly. The Severn Beach Line, looping around the inner suburbs, could act as an orbital link allowing passengers to avoid the city centre.
MetroBus services are a better than regular buses, but they cannot accurately be described as ‘transformative’. MetroBus is not rapid transit.
Bristol needs proper mass rapid transit. We think a fully-segregated, steel-wheeled system with the existing rail network at its core can deliver this.