Tag Archives: Stagecoach

It’s time to call time on the Black Dog model

Exeter’s Stagecoach bus services are still in meltdown, but that’s not the only problem. The whole county network needs rethinking.

For at least a year now Exeter’s bus services have been not fit for purpose. I wrote a piece in Exeter Observer about this and won’t repeat that here.  There may be more to say after the Traffic Commissioner’s enquiry into Stagecoach South West planned for 27 October in Bristol.

Meanwhile, bus planners could do worse than rethink their whole service pattern.  The bus industry is not renowned for radical innovation – doubtless in part due to the expressions of outrage from many bus users when faced with change – but there are other approaches to services in Devon that could usefully be, at least, explored.

As noted in my Exeter Observer article Devon County Council (DCC), as the local transport authority, has committed to carry out a review of the network. This is significant because DCC funds many bus routes, particularly in rural areas.

The other important bit of context is that getting public transport into a state where people will prefer it to their cars is a priority if any of Devon’s – and particularly Exeter’s – net zero carbon targets stand any chance of being achieved.  The county’s Bus Service Improvement Plan stated that increasing usage was key,

Which means making it more attractive to use the bus rather than the private car.

Here’s one suggestion: Replacing linear rural routes with circular ones to increase service frequency.

Most bus services in the Exeter hinterland are linear, that is they run from a specific place in a broadly straight line to the city centre. Because of the current lack of patronage these services are infrequent, sometimes only one service each way each week. 

The 679 Black Dog to Exeter service, operated by Dartline and funded by DCC, is one of several examples. Its timetable is here. If you want to go to Exeter by bus you have to travel on a Wednesday morning and come back the same day at lunchtime. Er, that’s it.

Who on earth is going to abandon the car in favour of a bus with a service like this? DCC and operators need to increase frequency to multiple services every day, if modal shift – and the consequent reduction in cars entering Exeter – is to stand a chance.

(For those unfamiliar with Mid Devon this map may help understand what follows.)

Such an increase is not impossible if the Black Dog linear service is reimagined into a circular route, serving not only all the villages on the existing 679 timetable, but connecting at Crediton with the every-15-minutes Stagecoach 5 service to Exeter, then continuing on to Shobrooke, then on to the A377 west of Cowley – again connection with Stagecoach 5 – and then north on the route to Thorverton and Cheriton Fitzpaine (currently one daily Exeter service on each of Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday)  and Witheridge (currently Wednesday and Friday only), whence it would go on to Black Dog and the circle begins all over again.

Based on the existing timetables, the circle should be achievable in about 2.5 hours, which would allow 2 buses – one in each direction – to make a minimum of 3 trips each day.

A real attraction could be the addition of a 4th round trip timed to give an evening out in Exeter.  This need not be every day.

I don’t know nearly enough about the economics of running bus services to be able to cost any of this.

So what are the local advantages of better bus services?  First, they would connect up more villages to one another, strengthening community links.  In turn, this should increase the market for local retail businesses – if I live in a village with no food shop, why go to Exeter if I can get to a nearby village by bus?

Second, having more buses gives greater flexibility in travel choices.  Excluding Crediton, the population of the settlements joined up by this route is around 8,300 [1]. So there is a market to be tapped.

This proposal won’t on its own solve Stagecoach’s Exeter problems in the short term – yet another set of city service changes comes into operation at the end of October. But it could be a step toward the wider BSIP objective of increasing bus use, which would if achieved:

  • reduce car traffic in Exeter
  • speed up the buses (fewer traffic jams)
  • reduce carbon emissions and air pollution, and
  • make services less dependent on public subsidy (which is not a “good” in itself but is going to be part of a necessary trade-off for as long as we have barking mad governments in London).

Note 1   This is a back-of-envelope figure based on the 2011 Census figure of 8,200.  The general uplift of population in the Mid-Devon district shown by the 2022 Census (detailed village results are not yet published) is 6.5%, though much of this will have occurred in the larger towns such as Crediton, Cullompton and Tiverton.  So a fairer uplift figure for the circular route villages would be nearer 1%, giving an estimated 2022 population of 8,286


Normal service will resume on 3 January

Well, if you’ve read this sign on Exeter’s Stagecoach buses, not exactly.

With a delightful irony (whether intended or not, only the editor will know), today’s Express & Echo runs two adjacent stories on page 10.  The first is about an Exeter University-led project studying commuting patterns with the aim of reducing the city’s traffic congestion.  The survey stage of the project found that car commuters who also use public transport are 20% more likely to use public transport if they are influenced by the traffic congestion information they receive [1].

The second page 10 article explains in some detail how Stagecoach is celebrating the New Year by making “mergers, cuts and frequency changes” to Exeter area bus services.  And which group of bus users will be most affected by the changes?  Yep, commuters.  Two of the Park & Ride services are being merged and reduced to a 15-minute frequency (a year ago, the interval was 10 minutes).  The frequency on the commuter route from Crediton is being reduced from 4 an hour to 3 an hour (and the service from western Crediton from half-hourly to hourly).  Newton Abbot to Exeter services are cut from 3 an hour to 2 an hour, though passengers will doubtless feel greatly compensated by the news that their buses will in future be painted purple.

We know that the number of car journeys made by commuters into Exeter is twice that of car journeys within the city [3].  So cutting commuting is the key to cutting congestion and pollution.  Even Stagecoach say they recognise this – on publication of the group’s half-year results in October 2016, the chief executive said: “There is a large market opportunity for modal shift from cars to public transport against a backdrop of population growth, urbanisation, technological advancements, and increasing pressure to tackle road congestion and improve air quality” [4].

Clearly Stagecoach don’t believe that market opportunity exists in Exeter, despite the fact that the “backdrop” conditions for it are here in abundance.  After all, it’s the shareholder dividend that counts, isn’t it?



[1] There are other very interesting findings.  For details see the Engaged Smart Transport project at http://www.commute-exeter.com/results/

[2] Stagecoach service update information at https://www.stagecoachbus.com/promos-and-offers/south-west/exeter-area-timetable-changes-from-3-january-2017

[3] Findings of a study by Trevor Preist, promoted by Exeter Civic Society and Transition Exeter.

[4] http://www.stagecoach.com/media/news-releases/2016/2016-12-07.aspx

Tinkering with transport isn’t enough

Is transport really at the root of our urban sustainability problems?  If we can come up with some innovative and deliverable approaches which challenge why and how we move around, does that unlock solutions to the other issues we face?

The section of my personal vision of a future Exeter headed “Place” makes much of reforms to the way we move around the city, but that could just be a reflection of my mindset.  Yet if we think about the impacts of our current mobility patterns, it’s clear that these make a substantial contribution to a city building up problems for its residents and visitors.

These impacts include:

  • Air pollution: cars and buses in particular, but HGVs, motor bikes and diesel trains all add to the potentially toxic mix we breathe.
  • Poorer health, as we exchange walking or cycling for the soft option of the bus or car.
  • Congestion: businesses use traffic congestion as the economic justification for road improvements, but it impacts on family life (a parent stuck in a traffic jam) and on health (stress from not being able to move easily), as well as adding to air pollution.  A different form of congestion is overcrowding on our local peak hour trains.
  • Infrastructure: new roads and new car parks are usually top of the vandalism lists because of the amount of land they take and the evidence that car journeys expand to fill the increased space available.
  • An acceptance that out-of-town shopping malls can be developed on greenfield space, because car use makes it easy for people to get to them.
  • Similarly, a belief by some planners (and almost all housebuilders) that it’s acceptable to build new housing on greenfield sites away from jobs and services because people will be able to travel.

Some willingness to address these impacts is being made, at least on paper.  The city council has responded to concerns about pollution by having an Air Quality Action Plan in place since 2011 and more recently by producing an Air Quality Strategy and a Low Emission Strategy [1].  However, action on the ground is less evident.  There is no equivalent, for example, of the London Low Emissions Zone.

In any case, this is fiddling with the symptoms rather than the causes.  Transport planning in Devon is heavily road-focussed.  The centrepiece of the current Local Transport Plan [2] is the recently-opened South Devon Link Road designed to make it easier to drive to and from Torquay.

True, new rail stations in or near Exeter have opened – at Cranbrook and Newcourt, with further stations at Marsh Barton and (perhaps) at Monkerton in prospect.  Yet there are huge disconnects between rail services and bus services.  I’ve illustrated this disconnect in rural Devon in a past blog post [3], which argues that matters could be vastly improved by designing better services rather than building new infrastructure; and I will examine the parallel problem within Exeter itself in a later post.

Most people in the city who want to move around by public transport are heavily reliant on bus services.  This is a service model that has remained largely unchanged since the widespread introduction of the bus.  It has the advantage of great flexibility, both within the city and in the surrounding travel to work area, though bus operators seem strangely reluctant to exploit this advantage.  Buses remain broadly the same design – mandatory wheelchair spaces being the main difference – with cramped seating and minimal luggage space.

Again, there have been marginal improvements.  Stagecoach – the major bus operator in Devon – has recently introduced smartcards for fare payments, in theory reducing the time spent at stops while passengers find cash to pay to their fares.  The one-day ticket for unlimited travel in the wider city area is attractively priced and seems to be well-used.  Some local buses offer wi-fi.

And yet.  Despite all the fine words in the Local Transport Plan, Devon County Council was forced to bow down before the god of austerity and implement cuts in bus subsidies [4].  These bore down hardest on rural areas, and so reinforced the reliance of rural dwellers on private cars and served as a disincentive to use a bus to get in and out of Exeter.

We need to ask whether incremental improvements using traditional models will really deliver change.  Outside of London, the evidence that improving public transport on its own will reduce car use is weak. Transition Exeter has promoted a report which argues convincingly that major innovation is needed if the city is not to be choked by its own growth plans [5].

The diffusion of leadership between different public and private bodies doesn’t help in forging a clear vision of what we want and need from our transport systems.

In future posts on transport I will suggest specific innovations that ought to be explored.



[1]  All three documents are available at https://exeter.gov.uk/clean-safe-city/environmental-health/pollution-control/air-pollution/

[2]  Devon and Torbay Local Transport Plan 3, 2011-2026, available at https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/

[3] https://petercleasby.com/2016/02/01/its-not-just-the-infrastructure-stupid/

[4]  See my post at https://petercleasby.com/2015/02/13/local-austerity-how-the-environment-and-the-people-lose-out/.

[5]  Rush Hour Transport in Exeter, by Trevor Preist, available at http://www.transitionexeter.org.uk/node/263