South Shields Interchange

Sunday 4th August saw the opening of the all new South Shields Interchange. In turn, it also meant we saw the first ever permanent closure of a Tyne and Wear Metro station.

Construction started on the £21-million project in Spring 2018, which forms Phase 2 of the £100 million South Shields 365 regeneration masterplan. The new Interchange, built roughly 100 yards away from the previous Kepple Street Bus Station and adjourning Metro Station, offers a bright and modern replacement facility for customers.

Keppel Street Bus Station, South Shields.
Former Keppel Street Bus Station, South Shields.
© Copyright Malc McDonald and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Former South Shields Metro Station, King Street Entrance.
© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The new Interchange project received £9.4m from the Local Growth Deal through the North East Local Enterprise Partnership. The Local Growth Deal is supporting major capital investments to promote innovation, economic and skills infrastructure and sustainable transport across the North East LEP area.The new Interchange.

Although long overdue, I finally managed to get across to South Shields and see the new Interchange for myself. I wish I had done so closer to the opening route, but South Shields makes for a pretty uninspiring bus journey from Durham, with the choice being limited to either of Go North East’s ‘all stops’ services on their 20 or 50 services. The 20 takes 92 minutes and the 50 takes 81 minutes. As I was already in Newcastle at the time, I instead opted for the Metro.

Arriving at South Shields, and the new Metro platform is much like the former. A single line runs into a largely uncovered platform, offering passengers very little protection from the elements. Especially important, given the elevation from ground level. A black wall with silver lettering of ‘South Shields’, replaces the more common brightly coloured yellow station signage. Something that Nexus have replaced during other station refurbishment projects. Sad, but perhaps a sign of modern times…

Ticket barriers were in place and in operation, although grossly understaffed. Having purchased a paper day rover ticket on a bus, I had to wait for a member of Metro staff to let me through the barriers. As the one platform side was assisting a customer, and the one foyer-side was assisting customers in purchasing tickets, a queue had formed behind me.

The foyer space is fresh and modern looking with black tiled walls; a theme throughout the Interchange building. There were ample ticket machines, I imagine, for the number of customers using the station and a help point nearby. There is a lot of vacant space here, which would have made an excellent enclosed waiting room…

There was a large information board, which held information about about Transfare and Network One tickets, but nothing on Metro services from the station. Which given the lack of Real Time information or service indicator boards in the foyer, it would have been handy to have visibility of the timetable.

Real Time information boards were available on the platform itself, but this isn’t of much use to those intending to purchase a ticket.

From the foyer to the lower bus level, you have the option of escalators, stairs, or two elevators. The escalators take you right down to the entrance from Keppel Street, but bare right at the bottom and you’re into the new bus station.

South Shields Interchange – Bus Station

The bus station offers 14 stands for local bus services, a coach stand, and a coach/drop off point. The black/white theme sees the introduction of Nexus ‘Buses’ red. A Greggs (with seating), information board and travel shop is on your right-hand side.

The stands are well spaced out and offers around eight seats at each. It is nice to see proper seats too, rather than the ‘backside rest’ style perches, that seem to be all the rage. Each stand is clearly lettered above the doors, with an information stand in front of the seating area for each.

The face of the information stands included a large paper timetable for services departing, with the rear being filled with the usual Nexus adverts – for POP cards and so on. Given the spread of services across the stands available, it would have been nice to see this space used more appropriately, perhaps with operators being asked to provide commercial posters for their services.

As well as next buses displays above each stand, there were large Real TIme information boards available, showing services for all stands.

Across from the stands is a travel shop, to the left of more paper-based information boards. The travel shop has three booth-style windows to it, rather than one that you can walk into. However, despite being there during the daytime on a Saturday, it was closed.

The rather unhelpful opening times make the case for what seems to be a dwindling number of Travel Shops in our region, with Heworth, Monument and the Go North East Chester-le-Street and Washington ones all closing in recent times. I had heard from previous reports, that the paper timetables are kept behind the counter, and you have to ask for them. Which makes the opening hours even more unhelpful.

I decided to put this to the test. Although the travel shop was closed, there was a single member of Nexus staff on the ground floor, hovering in and around the stands. I approached and asked where I could get some paper timetables from, to be told “we don’t have any” Knowing this not to be entirely true, I challenged the response, only to be told “I’d have to visit a travel shop” Really helpful, when the one stood 20 meters away from our conversation, was not open on Saturdays… The final response was that “You’ll have to go online or take a photo”, which pretty much sums up my experience of Nexus customer service.

South Shields Interchange

After a quick pit-stop at Greggs, I headed outside for a quick look at South Shields, not before taking a look at the bus station exterior, which in my opinion is very impressive looking.

South Shields Interchange – Bus Area

One thing I noticed, even in the couple of minutes I was stood there, was the volume of people venturing across the bus area as a short cut, rather than through the Interchange doors. This is made possible due to the large opening, with little to deter people from doing just that.

In summary, I was quite impressed with the Interchange itself, but the usual attention to detail by Nexus lets it down. The lack of toilet facilities in a modern building are somewhat surprising, but the lack of working with bus operators is not. This is something visible in other Nexus managed bus stations, rather than working in partnership to encourage and make bus travel easier.



Better Bus Fares? A month on

So it has been about a month now, since Go North East introduced their new ‘GoZones’ range of tickets, back on the 21st July 2019. I thought I’d write a relatively quick piece on this, documenting my observations over the past month.

Now I’m normally quite sceptical about these large scale fare changes; I’ve certainly voiced my frustration in the past, of what I’ve perceived to be ‘backdoor’ increases, and operators avoiding having to relay the negative message of fare increases, on to their customers. But I have to say, overall, the move to GoZones, appears to have been a positive one.

The introduction of GoZones, has introduced a product which offers perceived benefits over the now-scrapped Buzzfare scheme. Go North East will tell you that the majority of customers can now go further on a single zone ticket, offering them a daily/weekly and monthly saving. It has also completely overshadowed the fact that single/return fares have also risen.

The Go North East Facebook page is usually alive and kicking when this sort of announcement drops, and you could literally spend hours reading through all the complaints and negative comments; but it just wasn’t the case this time round. Much the opposite, with many positive comments, of customers reporting how much they’d save with the forthcoming increases. Perhaps this was expected, being the largest wholesale change in over 10 years, but nice to see all the same.

The marketing and promotional campaign has been one of the best I’ve seen, from a bus operator, in a long time. It was bold, in your face, and well thought out. At one point, even ensuring that the competition carried the promotional message!

Metro newspaper with a front-page advertisment wrap for Go North East's 'Better Bus Fares' campaign.
A Durham-based Arriva Pulsar 2, having taken stock of the daily edition of the ‘Metro’ newspaper.

Buses across the depots were well prepared with fare changes posters, secured into the clipframe at the front of the bus, and although it took me some time to come across one, some buses also had stocks of a fare changes ‘timetable size’ leaflet. This is quite a good and informative leaflet, so its a shame that sufficient stocks weren’t provided on buses across the fleet.

On the cab door of the buses I travelled on, a day before the fare changes, an A4 paper sign was sellotaped into place, advising customers of the fare changes the next day. I do wonder if this was a ‘quick fix’ as a result of a printing delay, because standard copier paper isn’t exactly the most durable material to place there. Many rips and tears were visible the following day…

One thing that wasn’t provided in the prices list, and isn’t on the website either, is a list of zone boundaries for each service. I asked Go North East about this, but was advised by Customer Services that I’d need to enquire each time. This seems a bit of a chore, given it is something that could be placed on the website (or App!) for self-service.

A ‘Better Bus Fares’ tour was launched on July 19th, which travelled across the region in an open top bus, promoting the new GoZones tickets. The open top bus was branded for the occasion, and large scale promotional versions of the Go North East app, contactless payment card, and a QR code multi-trip ticket, were along the materials in use.

One final thing to note, and a big thumbs up from me, is the promotional work around Network One tickets. These tickets offer a great value multi-modal and/or multi-operator alternative, and we really should be putting more time and effort into expanding this range. It was therefore pleasing to spot the ‘price list’ by the door of most buses.

Bus 5366 displaying a ‘price list’ by the door

These price lists started to appear about a week after the changes, and by the second week, they appeared to be on most buses that I had spotted. I did observe a vertical version of the price list on one of Washington’s indiGo branded Solos, which I think is due to the window layout. Unfortunately that appeared to be one of the few carrying the vertical version, as despite my best efforts, I didn’t spot another Solo carrying one.

So in summary; a positive campaign and one that has, in my opinion, resulted in better value for money to a lot of customers. In so many ways, this was a massive shift change about the way Go North East do things. There is still room for improvement, but I’m keen to see a lot more of this in the future.


Go North East: Fare Game?

Following the recent announcement of service changes to take place on 21st July 2019, a more unexpected announcement landed on Monday: Go North East are to scrap Buzzfare – say hello to ‘GoZones

I actually heard about this second hand, so I logged on to the Go North East website, to see if I could find more information. Surprisingly, given the size of the announcement, it didn’t (and still doesn’t!) appear on the company’s News Room. However, a little bit digging, and following a link from the Go North East Facebook page, and it appears there is a new page under the ‘Tickets’ section of the website – not very useful for those who don’t use Social Media. The following day, this appeared on the slide show on their homepage.

Better  Bus Fares: Now Even Better to Travel By Bus. Ticket changes from 21 July.

So a summary of the boundary changes:
* Orange, Cherry, Turquoise and Blue Zones – scrapped
* Purple Zone extended to cover the old Blue Zone and the Northern part of the Orange Zone (Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth and Seaton Sluice)
* Red Zone extended to cover Peterlee and Hartlepool.
* Washington now covered by Purple AND Red Zones.
* Green Zone extended to cover the Tudhoe, Spennymoor and Bishop Auckland part of the Turquoise Zone.
* Billingham, Stockton and Middlesbrough taken out of the zone system.

As for ticket zones, Go North East will now only offer a single zone ticket priced at £5.30 a day (a 10p increase from the previous ticket price), and an ‘All Zones’ ticket priced at £7.00 – a 30p increase or £1.20 decrease, depending on your travel patterns. Weekly, Monthly and Annual tickets remain available, for those making more regular journeys.

Go Zones: A map showing the new zones from Go North East

A notable exclusion is the X9/X10, which now has its own set of tickets. A resurrection of the old X10 ticket from the late 90s/early 00s, before it was amalgamated with the then ‘Regionwide’ Go ‘n’ Save ticket. This is priced at £8.50 for a day ticket, but Go North East appear to be offering a ‘North’ and ‘South’ version of the ticket, priced at £7.00 each.

Whilst the full X9/X10 ticket is also valid on all Go North East Buses, with the usual exceptions, it does not appear that the ‘North’ version of the ticket will be. Leaving Peterlee customers with no option than to purchase the £8.50 ticket, unless they live in walking distance of the bus station, or fancy a slow journey to Houghton-le-Spring, followed by an X1 to Newcastle…

For more regular commuters, there is a big saving of £15 a month, for those previously using a 3+ Zone ticket, except on the X9 or X10, who will instead have a price freeze for now at £110.

Those using a 1 Zone or 2 Zone ticket previously, will see their monthly fee increase by £3.00 and £1.00 respectively.

Despite the big announcement in January that weekly tickets would now be available on the bus via contactless payment, due to a new £30 cap, it now appears that we have our first weekly ticket that exceeds this cap. I did query this with Go North East to see if the cap would be revised, but they have instead informed that this will be available on the bus by cash payment only.

Having had some time to think about the boundary changes for the new ‘GoZones’ tickets, it doesn’t really offer much in the way of surprise. The key competitive areas have seen zones and price reductions, such as the North of Tyne and Coast Road corridor, the Tynedale services to and from Hexham, the X21 between Durham and Bishop Auckland, and of course the competition between Arriva between Sunderland, Peterlee and Hartlepool.

The boundary changes in the North of the Tyne area, will be the largest competitive changes put in place, since the infamous Bus War of the early 2010s. And maybe a positive move by Go North East, to new North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, who has his own ideas about public transport in the area

The Green Zone remains largely intact, given there is no real fight from Arriva between Durham and Newcastle, with the rest of the Green Zone being largely dominated by Arriva. Speaking of Arriva, it will be interesting to see what their move will be, given the rumours about a potential sale…

Consett, similarly, remains in confinement, but now within the new Yellow zone. Although users of the scenic 689 service will now be able to enjoy travel within a single zone, for the full length of the route.

Another big change is that quite a number of return fares will be scrapped, as they are price capped by the relevant day ticket. Return fares were launched in the early 2010s as ‘Cheap Day Returns’, with a big fanfare approach, bus stop publicity, posters, and the usual jazz… the ‘Cheap’ was silently dropped a couple of years later, presumably because very few were actually cheap in price.

I assume that this will mean the fares are removed from the ETM, prompting the driver to recommend a day ticket, if no return fare is available for issue. Very little information is available at this stage, with only a foot note being available on the Go North East website.

This sounds like a common-sense approach, and quite frankly one that should have been in place sooner. It remains to be seen what will happen if there’s only 10p or 20p difference between the return fare and the day ticket. I hope that this will result in the customer being offered the option of which of the two tickets, but I will not hold my breath…

I took to Twitter yesterday to query a long-existing discrepancy, or an ‘evening premium’, as I call it. Currently it is £4.60 to travel between Durham and Washington (via the 50), but on an evening that will now cost £7.00. This is the cheaper option of £3.60 on the 21 and £3.60 on the 50A.

I have questioned the fairness of this with Go North East on a number of occasions, without such luck of an informed response. My view is that it shouldn’t be more expensive to travel between A and B, depending on what time of day you travel. Let alone with the added inconvenience of changing buses and a 10+ minute wait.

The response wasn’t forthcoming, so with a little nudge the following day, but soon wished that I hadn’t bothered.

I really dislike this level of customer service. The question I have asked has been outright ignored, with a response instead giving only what they want to tell me. Quite clearly I never asked about return fares or day tickets, nor did I show an interest of wanting to travel further. Why would I on an evening, when there are very few regular services about?

Going from a negative to what I’d class as a huge positive, is the news that Washington will *finally* sit within both the Newcastle and Sunderland Zones!

Since the introduction of Buzzfare in 2008, this has been something that has been a gripe of those living in Washington and Sunderland, as well as the surrounding areas, such as Penshaw and Shiney Row. The ability to now travel on a single zone ticket can only be seen as a positive.

In summary, I think that the changes are largely positive, but it will remain to be seen for how long the prices can be sustained at this level. For a company that has made several fare increases in the not too distant past (…and let us not get started on the 5p fiasco!), this is a massive change of direction.

Of course, as operators will tell you, there are always winners and losers in boundary reviews, so I’d be keen to hear other people’s experiences.


Festival of Transport: a showcase event for our region?

On the weekend of the 13th and 14th July 2019, we saw what is now the third annual Festival of Transport event, held at the Seaburn Recreation Park. I hadn’t attended this event last year, but given I was due in Sunderland around 4pm, I thought I’d pop along and see what was happening.

So a bit of background: Launched in August 2016, it was said that the “new festival will bring together vintage buses, traction engines, commercial vehicles and cars.” and that “It is hoped it will become a major showcase event for the region and has received backing from a number of groups including the North East Bus Preservation Trust, North East Land Sea and Air Museum and Sunderland and District Classic Vehicle Society.”, as published in this Northern Echo article. The first event was held on the last weekend of July 2017.

FESTIVAL: Councillor John Kelly, from Sunderland City Council and vintage motorbike owner Graeme Curtis (right) help to launch the new North East Festival of Transport. Picture: WILL WALKER/NORTH NEWS
Councillor John Kelly, from Sunderland City Council and vintage motorbike owner Graeme Curtis (right) help to launch the new North East Festival of Transport. Picture: WILL WALKER/NORTH NEWS.

The first event held in 2017, and having attended, I found it to be a decent day out. There was a lot of different vehicles present, from buses to cars, from commercial vehicles to service vehicles. There really was something for everyone to see. There was also an infrequent shuttle bus service running, but only to Roker beach and back.

However, the first question to come to mind at the time, was “What about the Seaburn Rally?”

The Seaburn Rally, or to give it it’s full name, the ‘Seaburn Historic Vehicle Display’, is an annual rally held at the same location, on the Late Summer Bank Holiday in August. Anyone who has attended the Seaburn Rally will know that this is always more than buses. Whilst the perimeter fence along the West and North sides of the park are usually lined with Buses, the majority of the show field is made up of other vehicles: cars, commercial vehicles and service vehicles – i.e. an identical specification to the Festival of Transport.

So why have two events in two months, offering the same thing, at the same location? Who knows, but the organisers have persisted with the strategy for three years now.

There was still something missing though, and something I find to be missing from all our rallies in the North East, with exception of the 500 Group’s running day: a distinct lack of organisation, information and promotion.

For the second event in 2018, the organisers decided to move the event to the 8th and 9th September. Barely two weeks after the Seaburn Rally had taken place. The first announcement of this on the official North East Festival of Transport Facebook page was on the 1st September… a week before the event, which happened to clash with one of the Region’s largest events – the Great North Run.

I didn’t bother to attend this event, but by all accounts, the turnout was poor. Whether that is down to the the Sunday road closures for the Great North Run, or the sheer lack of notice or information about the event, remains to be confirmed…

So back to 2019, and we started to receive some vague links on the North East Festival of Transport Facebook page, with a couple of further posts announcing dates of the 13th and 14th July 2019. Finally, on the 10th March, a flyer and an entry form was published, followed by an announcement that the ‘Fans Museum‘ mobile football museum was to attend. A bit of a strange one, given it is a transport event, but equally something that I would look forward to seeing.

This was the last of the publicity for the event, until a reminder post was published on Facebook, a day before the first day of the event.

Fast forward to the weekend of the event, and so came the first post on the North East Buses forum. A solitary bus was captioned in a big empty field. Another contributor, however, pointed out that today was a “family fun day with a limited number of vehicles on display”

Time to see for myself.

Having arrived on the Sunday afternoon on the E2, I could see straight away that there was very little to see, as the bus swung round the recreation park to stop before the old fountain roundabout. I walked up and round to the West side gate of the Park, taking a panoramic photo on my way.

North East Festival of Transport 2019: Panoramic view from the North West Corner of the field.

The event advertised £2 admission into the event, which was also stated on a poster at the gate. I did however find that the table by the entrance was empty, and a few people were just walking straight in. I thought I’d wait a minute or two, but nobody was around to take my money, so I too walked straight in.

I did notice on my way out that there were four stewards stood by the bottom gate, but this was a bit of a waste of time, given the West pedestrian gate and South vehicle gates were wide open, with no stewards around to attend to them.

Upon entry, it became obvious just how few exhibits were at this event. In addition to this, there was only a handful of people inside. I’d have a rough guess at less than 20, if you discount the people who have turned up as families with their vintage cars on show. There was about 20 cars there, but even they were quite heavily dominated by 90s cars.

In contrast, there were three times as many cars turning up at the Coxhoe classic car evening a few weeks ago, and that included Ferraris and Lamborghinis…

North East Festival of Transport 2019: A panoramic view from the North side of the field.
North East Festival of Transport 2019: The majority of buses lined up, including a modern Go North East bus.

The photo above shows the majority of buses on display lined up, aside from two that were on shuttle work, and another that was still parked up by itself, over the other side of the field.

There was really little else to see. I think I counted three trade stalls, a burger van, an ice cream van, and an inflatable slide for kids. The ‘Fans Museum’ that was advertised, didn’t appear to be in attendance, and there was very little visible sign of the camping that was on offer.

As I wrote on the North East Buses forum, my review of the day was a mere 2/10. That is only because of the glorious sunshine on the day, and that I got in for free; which makes up for the extra money I spent on a Day Rover.

So in summary: This is now the third event of the North East Festival of Transport, which when launching the idea in 2016, stated: “The event is aiming to fulfil a long held wish of transport enthusiasts in the region to create a major showcase event, similar to those held in some other part of the country.”

And that: “Interest among vintage vehicle owners is already high with hundreds of vehicles expected on the large and easily accessible show fields, within sight of Sunderland’s Blue Flag award winning beaches.”

The event is organised by the Sunderland District Classic Vehicle Society and the North East Bus Preservation Trust, but advertise that they also receive support from the Sunderland City Council: North Area Committee. It is unknown as to what that support entails.

So what has happened? Has the long held wish been fulfilled? I would suggest not.