Bus War and Peace

In recent months, we’ve had plenty of time to look around when waiting to get across M4 Junction 16. It’s being re-modelled to allow a new road to bypass the junction. It’ll pass south of the motorway and tunnel through to reach the new ‘Canalside’ development south of Swindon. With a bit of coordination between planners, the road tunnel will be accompanied by a canal tunnel, allowing the Wilts & Berks Canal to reach Swindon.

When it comes to bus services outside of London, there’s no coordination, just competition, as I was reminded when looking across to a bus stop near Junction 16. The temporary bus stop as seen today advertises the ‘R1’ bus service from Thamesdown, started in May 2017:

20180115_161151_R1_Spittleboro_stop

The new quarter-hourly bus service triggered a ‘bus war’ waged by Stagecoach, operators of the 55 route between Swindon, Calne and Chippenham via Royal Wootton Bassett. This was a 20-minute frequency, but Stagecoach threw another 20-minute frequency into the mix as a ‘spoiler’, short-running between Swindon and Royal Wootton Bassett to give a 10-minute headway.

At the time, I feared for the future of the Council-supported hourly 31 route between Swindon and Malmesbury. Within a few weeks, the operator Coachstyle had trimmed the 31 so that it no longer served New Road, but it did maintain the service through the town. For those of us living south of the railway, the New Road stop had been our closest; we briefly had eight buses an hour, trimmed to seven when the 31 withdrew.

20170608_112216_R1_RWB_High_StreetThe bus war couldn’t last. Stagecoach was determined to keep our town more or less to itself, and by late October, Thamesdown finally retreated to its home territory of Swindon. The company might have lost the battle, but Swindon’s residents gained a rejuvenated bus fleet.

For a few weeks, I wondered whether Stagecoach would revert to its original pattern but I was relieved to see that it’s kept the 10-minute frequency through the town. The summer’s competitive frenzy did wonders for passenger numbers which seem to have stayed up.

Back to Junction 16: the road works have caused immense traffic jams. I’m sure that one day I counted three 55s, two R1s and a 31 all stuck in the queue stretching between ‘Bassett and the motorway roundabout. As today’s photo shows, the work is nearly completed and the chicanes and cones will soon be removed; the temporary bus stop will finally be replaced, and ‘R1’ will be but a memory.

In ‘Bassett, we now have three buses an hour to New Road from Monday to Saturday, with two an hour on Sundays, so we have gained something even though we’ve lost the early morning and late evening services in our part of town introduced with the R1. Some 55s on the Swindon shuttle are double-deckers as happened today, but most are the elderly single-deckers like this one from Saturday:

20180113_153207_55_on_Station_Road By the way, we may have an out-of-date bus stop sign by Junction 16, but we also have a very out-of-date election poster in the town, as seen on the right-hand side of this photo.

What happened to the ’31’? It’s still running to its usual frequency, but despite my pleas for it to return to its old route via New Road, it hasn’t yet done so; I have to walk another 5 minutes to catch it, as I did on Saturday in both directions. On the 31 journey out of Swindon there were only two passengers all the way to ‘Bassett, probably because it didn’t look like the normal service. It was a bus borrowed from ‘Faresaver’ for the day, seen here at Noremarsh Road just after I’d reduced the passenger count to zero.

20180113_152459_Faresaver_on_31

We might no longer get swarms of buses in Royal Wootton Bassett, but the town still sees swarms or ‘murmurations’ of starlings – too late this afternoon to photograph in the failing light.

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