End-on parking in Royal Wootton Bassett’s High Street means that vehicles are constantly edging into and out of these parking spaces, aided quite often by the two sets of pedestrian crossing lights going red at just the right time. We normally cope.
In recent weeks, RWB has had more than its usual number of traffic queues, and the finger’s being pointed at the ‘bus wars’ being fought between Stagecoach and Thamesdown Buses. Thursday’s Town Council Meeting had a new agenda item: “Following a conversation and subsequent correspondence with Alex Chutter, General Manager of Thamesdown Buses, the Mayor requested that an item be placed on the agenda to discuss the situation regarding the impact that the new R1 bus service has had upon existing services and road users. Alex Chutter was keen to attend a meeting and undertake a dialogue with Members in relation to this new bus service.” I decided to go along and hear what Alex had to say.
Alex explained to the councillors how the Go-Ahead group had bought Thamesdown Buses, and wished to re-focus the service. He’d started as General Manager in February, and the company applied to the Traffic Commissioners for a new service connecting Swindon with Royal Wootton Bassett.
They were required to give 56 days’ notice of the new route, and in that time they ordered 8 new buses off-the-shelf, painted into new colours emphasising the name ‘Swindon’.
Councillors deplored the loss a few years ago of the 54 route once operated by Stagecoach; this had served the north of the town. The new route R1 serves the south but not the north. Worse, there are often two buses squeezing into the bus-stop lay-bys in the town; there’s really only room for one, and with one vehicle jutting into the road, this causes tail-backs.
Alex claimed that when the new service started in mid-May, there wasn’t a problem with bus congestion. However, two weeks later, Stagecoach doubled the frequency of their 55 service between the town and Swindon (which it could do at far shorter notice because the route already existed), and this caused the problem.
This morning, I was able to put the theory to the test. I was on my way to the RAF International Air Tattoo at Fairford near Lechlade: my first visit.
I caught a bus at 8:40 from my nearest stop, and it happened to be an R1: not the green and yellow variety, but white with vinyls on the sides and rear. It was a newer design than the original fleet, and I’d travelled on it quite recently. Alex later confirmed my suspicion that it was a demonstrator, hence the lack of colour. He’d told the meeting that Thamesdown has ordered 13 of this design to their specification with wi-fi and all the other trimmings, for delivery by the autumn.
We reached the High Street to take on more passengers, and on the other side I spotted not one but two Stagecoach 55s.
If they’re supposed to be 10 minutes apart, why was the first one still sitting at the bus stop, causing the other to jut into the road? Here’s the view from the R1’s back window of the competition.
Alex told the council meeting that the R1 had carried over 50,000 people so far – not yet enough to make a profit, but growing. On my trip I counted 16 passengers, many of them using the latest electronic ways to pay such as smartcards. Even though I was paying for my trip because it was before bus-pass time at 9:30, the single fare was £2.50 for 6 miles, which isn’t bad.
I’d decided to take the shuttle bus to Fairford from Swindon Bus Station because it was easier than having to park miles from the main event. Who provided these buses? Stagecoach. They’d brought a whole fleet of almost-new double deckers down from Manchester for the long weekend. If they can rustle up such a fleet for Fairford, it’s not surprising that Stagecoach can lay its hands on several not-so-new single deckers to wage its war with Thamesdown.
The rest of the day was filled with war-planes from all over the world, from new to not-so-new including a couple of F4 Phantoms from the Greek Air Force, and this antique: a U2 spy plane from the 1950s.
Another ‘blast from the past’ was a KC135 tanker. It looks like a Boeing 707, because that’s what it is.
No wonder Boeing won the jet airliner battle in the late 1950s – the USAF had ordered 700 for their use, against the 10 or so RAF Comet 2s, thus subsidising the cost of the civilian versions. Boeing 707s have long since disappeared from airline service, but military versions still fly. Do they scream like those that flew over our house in Hounslow? No – this one has been re-engined with a far quieter CFM56 turbofan.
No doubt Thamesdown and Stagecoach are working out their next war manoeuvres. The local Council wants to get the new buses to serve the north of the town – after all, it’s well-endowed with bus shelters with the town crest – and even offered to re-locate one or two if it helps.
I still fear collateral damage to the existing 55 through route to Chippenham and to the 31 to Malmesbury. Let’s hope a truce is called soon, and that the winner creates a more useful service for the whole town.