Scottish Citylink says it will meet demand for the busy commuter service between Edinburgh and Glasgow while growing coach travel with a fleet of 18 new Plaxton Panorama double-deck coaches
Efficient commuter services that link cities allow passengers to strive for and achieve higher paying jobs while eschewing the need for a motor car.
They create economic prosperity and drive investment in even better public transport schemes and infrastructure. This in turn reduces car travel, congestion and pollution. Presence is everything if commuters are to be convinced that such an alternative means of transport exists and is right for them.
Constituent elements for attracting commuters to such a service include frequency, reliability and vehicle appeal. Through the latest improvements to its 900 service, Scottish Citylink believes it has achieved all three.
A new structure for the Scottish Citylink route
The 900 route along the M8 between Glasgow and Edinburgh is Scottish Citylink’s flagship service and a parry to rail travel between the two cities. Coaches on the route cover 2.5 million miles each year.
Alongside a restructuring of the firm’s nationwide network, the route has been simplified and upgraded with 18 new Alexander Dennis (ADL) Plaxton Panorama bodied double-deck Volvo B11RLE coaches, operated under contract by Stagecoach West Scotland and Parks of Hamilton.
The aim of this restructure, says Stagecoach Regional Director for Scotland Robert Andrew, is twofold: To meet a recent growth in customer demand, as passenger numbers have increased by 12% over the previous two years, as well as encourage more coach travel both in Scotland and across the UK. For Plaxton, it hopes to demonstrate the benefits of its double-deck range.
Operation of the vehicles is split between Parks and Stagecoach. The former owns 10, the latter the remaining eight.
A £7m investment sees the two operators subcontracted to the Scottish Citylink route, which the firm believes to be the single biggest investment in one coach service in Scotland. There has been no funding or public subsidy; the new coaches are provided by fares income.
With a simplified timetable, services now run every 15 minutes during the daytime and hourly at night, 24 hours a day, even on Christmas Day. Tickets are cheaper than train travel. The visual impact of the double-deck coaches, brightly liveried in Scottish Citylink colours, passing by at such frequency is hoped to make an impression to those travelling on the same roads, and quickly raise awareness in local communities.
By replacing the previous mixed single-deck fleet with the 79-seat double-deckers, Citylink says passenger capacity has been increased by 32%. It adds that the double-deck Panorama was the only product capable of accommodating the required increase in passenger capacity. Peak vehicle requirement in the morning is 16 according to Robert, which then drops to 15 for the afternoon peak, with the remaining vehicles on standby or other duties.
Attractive alternative for commuters
If the 900 route is to prove coach and bus travel as a serious alternative to rail, both its advantages and disadvantages must be considered.
There remains one major edge for rail travel; it is faster. Rail links take around 45-50 minutes to the coach’s comparable 80 minutes in off-peak times. But whether that time saving is worthwhile is a moot point when the comfort and convenience of each journey is compared.
With that in mind, few would argue that an equivalent train journey can compete with a high-specification coach.
Passenger numbers are increased when passenger comfort is prioritised. Scottish Citylink demonstrates its dedication here with uniquely designed and specified interiors.
Each vehicle is fully PSVAR compliant and permits wheelchair access through a portable manual ramp through the centre door, dictated by demand (access through the front doors, and down the centre aisle, is equally as easy). Volvo’s low-end chassis design permits multiple wheelchairs to be carried in the lower saloon if necessary.
The low floor arrangement offers very good headroom and easy access in and out of the seats, ideal as this is not a touring coach operation, but an express service after all. That ease of use should decrease dwell-time. Legroom is very good and should pose no problems even for passengers over six feet tall.
Inside, a unique blue moquette establishes a Scottish brand identity. Integrated reading lights, fold-down tables, USB ports, wi-fi and wireless charging incorporated into phone holders in the back of the seats show a focus on portable devices, and allow for an efficient commute for those looking to catch up on work while travelling. Seating is provided around two tables on the lower deck, with cup holders and wireless charging also integrated.
Storage capacity has been maximised through generous luggage racks overhead and over the front wheel box. Optional airport style luggage racks can also be fitted for relevant services.
A further improvement has been the toilet, specially tailored for Citylink. Space within the cubicle has been maximised and includes baby changing facilities. From an operator’s point of view, it is advertised as being easier to service for a faster turnaround.
Reliability of the new vehicles is also espoused. One of the chief desires of commuters following the 2018 Confederation of Passenger Trleopardansport Scottish Conference was better journey times. “We really feel that if we can get consistency in journey times on services that are using a strategic road network then that will grow our customer base,” says Robert. “It will help to influence politicians on the importance of coach and bus in connectivity.”
This is, of course, said with subtle inference to the substantial investment into rail travel in Scotland, which Citylink does not decry. But the firm says it will continue to push the flexibility of coach and bus over rail travel (the new 900 service took only a matter of months to establish, while rail upgrades take years) as well as the amenities each vehicle provides, alongside visual impact and quality of the interior. Volvo’s efficient and LEZ-compliant Euro VI engines add to the kudos.
Combined, these factors should encourage more people to turn to coach travel. “Coach and bus is more flexible, more affordable and we can do things so much quicker,” Robert says. “And we really believe the new focus that’s appearing in our sector can only be beneficial. We’re stepping up the mark in terms of vehicle quality.”
While an assured positive for commuters between Scotland’s major cities, the growth in the double-deck coach market across the UK might be another benefit.
Fleet customers such as Parks and Stagecoach have bought into the project, and the double-deck market is appealing to operators such as Megabus. But Plaxton says orders are also already coming from retail customers.
The benefits of additional capacity are on display, as is the visual impact of increased road presence. These are two aspects driving sales in the double-deck market. For Plaxton specifically, fully PSVAR compliant vehicles could be another. It has recently championed accessibility with side-mounted lifts on its Leopard stock, assuring compliance with the standards even when built to order. Being built in the UK allows for flexibility when responding to that market demand.
By moving from a mixed fleet to one of a single, high standard of well-specified vehicles, Scottish Citylink has let passengers know what to expect from its revamped 900 route. Uniformity helps the service to compete with rail.
It also proves the importance of on-board amenities to modern passengers, and how faster isn’t always necessarily better. What’s more important is setting new standards for travel, and for allowing users to make the most of their commuting time. The next step might merely be an increase in frequency.
Most importantly, delivery of these new vehicles is a showcase for public transport in Scotland, and hopefully one of many incremental steps to come.
It is a model for other operators to follow and a successful foundation for the Scottish and UK governments to build upon.