Sapphire bus run in tyne and wear as well

An early start at Runcorn left us time to call at Wrexham on our way to Bangor, where we were welcomed by recently appointed Engineering Manager, Steve Parry. Wrexham operates service 1 between Wrexham and Chester and in April last year it became the first of Arriva’s new premium Sapphire branded services to launch. It initially utilised nine ADL Enviro400 double deckers refurbished in the company’s own St Helens facility and repainted by Bus & Coach World in Blackburn. Dating from 2008, the base vehicles had previously seen service on the Cross River services operated from Birkenhead depot, where they were replaced by Volvo B5LH hybrids.

2+1 Esteban leather seating on the upper deck of the Sapphire Enviro400s
2+1 Esteban leather seating on the upper deck of the Sapphire Enviro400s
In a process that saw around £27,000 spent on materials for each bus, they were very extensively refurbished and equipped with new Esteban Ega fixed coach seats trimmed in e-leather with attractively embroidered headrests featuring the Sapphire brand. Each bus has phone/laptop chargers, free wi-fi, television monitors working on a loop and a dual language next stop passenger announcement system. Tip up seats on the lower deck were removed as part of the process of making them more comfortable and spacious while every bus has a different theme focussing on somewhere on the route. As a final touch, all have been given personalised registrations ending in ABW (Arriva Buses Wales).

All of the Sapphire services launched so far have had different elements and the stand out feature of the Wrexham product is the use of 2+1 seating with additional spacing on the upper deck. Phil Cummins, who was a member of the project team headed by Nigel Featham that developed the Sapphire concept, explained that customer surveys showed that people did not like to be crowded and a feeling of personal space was high on their agenda. It was felt that the 2+1 layout gave them that and because the 66-seat double deckers were replacing 44-seat single deckers, the additional seating was such that there would not be capacity issues at peaks. ‘It was our choice. We looked at the local market and decided to go with it,’ he said. ‘Patronage on the route is high but not like Speke to Liverpool which is always packed, so we could afford to do it. We couldn’t have done it in a city.’

Each of the Wrexham Sapphire buses has a mural promoting a different theme on its staircase panelling
Each of the Wrexham Sapphire buses has a mural promoting a different theme on its staircase panelling
No advertisements for other products are carried internally or externally on any of Wrexham’s Sapphire fleet, which does have cost implications of over £1,000 a bus annually. Phil Stone admitted, ‘It is a debate.’
An important part of the equation has been additional marketing which began two months before the buses were introduced with a door to door drop of around 40,000 leaflets. This was subsequently followed up with additional marketing. Phil Stone commented, ‘We targeted the Chester business parks where there are a lot of American banks. Wi-fi was a big factor which is why everything UK Bus takes this year will have the Icomera system. Steve Parry pointed out that some customers are prepared to miss one bus to have wi-fi on the next one. There is an individual download limit so you can’t download movies.’

The combination of the various factors has seen growth from the outset of around 15%. All factors are tracked in detail with the actual growth level varying from week to week between 8% and 21%. Race meetings at Chester help considerably in boosting it. To maintain this trend, another two similar buses to the same specification are being converted at St Helens to take the total fleet to 11 vehicles.

A major punctuality issue on the route is at the Pulford roundabout where buses can be sat held up for 15 minutes at peaks. Cheshire County Council has agreed to do the roundabout up, putting in traffic lights and priority measure for buses. Extra buses are being put in to maintain the service in the meantime. Phil Stone commented, ‘Cheshire are good to work with, though we are about to appeal their concessionary scheme. They are pulling tendered services off, as are Wrexham. Local Authorities are finding it very tough.’

Two former Cross River Enviro400s undergoing conversion to Sapphire specification in the St Helens facility
Two former Cross River Enviro400s undergoing conversion to Sapphire specification in the St Helens facility
Two further Sapphire services are planned for Arriva North West and Wales during the coming year. The first scheme will see 20 brand new standard length ADL Enviro400 double deckers introduced at Rhyl for use on the Coastliner 12 service, a route that despite its coastal location is busy all year round. They will replace DB250 double decks and also have 2+1 upper deck seating. Arriva sees new double deckers as an important tool in the promotion of growth.

The second new Sapphire route will be in Bolton where the 575/362 services between Bolton, Wigan and Chorley are being upgraded. This will retain the existing 58 and 09 plate VDL SB200 Wright Pulsars which will be refurbished to Sapphire specification in the company’s own St Helen’s bodyshop. Part of the philosophy behind Sapphire is to try different approaches in different locations to try and quantify the results that different levels of specification produce.

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