Monday, 24 August 2009

The Delta - Blackpool's best buy?

Next year marks 20 years of Blackpool's first Optare Deltas, though this may be slightly overshadowed by the 125th anniversary of the tramway. Blackpool's fleet was predominately double deck from the 1930s to the 1990s, and its only since 2000 that the more than half of the fleet has been single deck (including minibuses). Recent history has been littered with short lived single deck designs:

55 AEC Swifts of 1969-1975 - w/d between 1980 and 1988 - the oldest being 14 yrs and 7 months old

4 Dennis Lancets of 1982 sold in 1988 before their 6th birthday

4 Leyland National 2s of 1984, sold in 1991 before their 7th birthday

15 second hand Leyland Nationals which lasted 3 to 4 years.

Prior to the Swifts, the last new single deck bus arrived in 1940 - two of which survived to the ripe old age of 24, most of the rest having typical lives of 17-18 years. The second hand Nationals were effectively stop gaps to replace the Swifts while BT focused on its minibus fleet. During 1989 BTS tried a pair of Leyland Lynxes, two Deltas and a Dennis Dart, placing an order for 8 Deltas.

Like most Optare vehicles the Delta was sold as a complete bus, though it was of conventional body on chassis construction on the DAF SB200LC550 chassis. You couldn't have a Delta on any other chassis, though the body shell did spawn other variants.

So it was then that on 22 February 1990 106/7 G106/7NBV rolled into the depot yard from Leeds to start a new era. Optare's eye for style produced a stunning vehicle, slightly less harsh than its ground breaking City Pacer but with a family feel. Its low floor (for a step entrance bus) in the front half was coupled with deep windows to afford a view. Internally high backed seats for 46 were specified, rather than the 51 bus seats that could be squeezed in. A contemporary grey soft trim finish was all that let the image down.

The full batch was 101-108 (G101-8NBV) and it saw off Nationals 145-148 and some early Atlanteans. 106/7 made their debut on 5 March with the rest following over the next month. 7 were required on weekdays with five on the 23-25 (Hospital-Mereside/Midgeland Road) and two on the 53 (Airport-Poulton). On a Sunday five were used on the interworked 22/22A (Cleveleys-Halfway House) and 25 (Hospital to Halfway House) and spares often appeared on the 12 (Blackpool to St. Annes).

A second batch was ordered - 109, 110, 112-117 (H109YHGetc). 112/4 arrived in late November 1990 well ahead of the rest which came in January/February 1991. These replaced the Strathclyde Nationals and allowed the interworked 2 (Poulton-Bispham), 15 (Bispham-Staining) and 180/2 (Poulton-Preston) to be largely Delta worked using five buses. Eight more followed during 1991 with 118-120/2 (H118-20/2CHG) arriving in April, 123/4 (J123/4GRN) in July and 125/6 (J125/6GRN) in November.

The new batches seemed to take the operations department by surprise as they now had 24 single deckers for just 13 all day workings:
2/2A (Blackpool to Poulton) = 3
15 (Staining to Cleveleys) = 2
23-25 (Hospital-Mereside/Midgeland Rd) = 5
180/2 (Poulton to Preston) = 2
192 (Blackpool to Kirkham) = 1

A network recast saw route 12 extended to Cleveleys and converted to Delta operation in March 1992 taking 8 buses, but at the expense of the 2A and 15 which lost four workings. Three were put to use on a short lived service 4 between Blackpool and Mereside to compete with Fylde from September 1992 to January 1993 with these three moving onto route 11C (Blackpool to St. Annes). January 1993 saw the arrival of four more Deltas (127-130 K127-30UFV) making 28 buses yet without the work to justify them.

The take-over of Fylde in 1994 brought its three Deltas 1-3 (H1-3FBT) into the fold and 101/2 moved there as 8/9 in early 1995 as the 192 was transferred in. When Fylde was absorbed 1-3 became 131-3 and 8/9 regained their original numbers.

The consolidated network of November 1994 saw Deltas on the 12 (4), 22/22A (10) 23-25 (5), 192 (1) and Fylde's 44A (3) making 23 duties for 31 buses which was a bit more respectable. The Deltas couldn't cope with the 22/22A so four double deckers were soon drafted in and in March the Deltas moved onto route 6. Next change in August 1996 saw the Deltas move from the 12 and 23-25 to the 12A and 26 increasing the utilisation to 25. The ex Fylde buses were now normally on the 193. Minibuses returned to the 12A/26 in December 1998 and several Deltas were consigned to store! 105-110, 112, 114, 115, 116 and 130 the affected buses. They returned to use in February with the conversion of the 11/11A and 12 to single deck operation.

The Metro network of 2001 saw the following official allocations:
Line 6: 108-110, 112-117 (9 out of 10 all progressively branded)
Line 7: 118-120, 126-129 (7 out of 8 all in livery from launch)
Line 11: 101-103 (3 out of 3 all retained green and cream)
Pool: 104-107, 122-125, 130-133 (122-133 receiving the original Metro pool livery).
Various transfers have since taken place:
Sept 2002: 125 to Line 7 (ex pool to replace 120)
Oct/Nov 2002: 122, 130-133 to Line 11 (ex pool)
March 2004: 118 to Line 6 (ex 7)
Apr-June 2004: 119, 125-129 to Line 11 (ex 7)
May 2005: 115-117 to Line 11 (ex 6)
Aug/Sept 2005 - 101-103 into Pool livery, 104-107 to Line 6
Apr 2007: 115/6 to Pool (used on tram replacement over winter 06/07)
Nov 2007: 115/6 back to Line 11
Feb 2009 - 103 to Line 6 (replacing 110)

The aforementioned storage of 130 in winter 1998 was for a pilot refurbishment. An odd choice as the newest bus and the most recent repaint! The bus was duly stripped in February 1999 and treated to retrimmed seat, light laminate interior panelling, new floor, revised lighting and another repaint, finally returning to use in October 1999. Deemed a success, the programme was rolled out with 129 first and then in reverse order to 120 which returned to use in September 2000. Neatly the Fylde trio slotted in here (their body numbers follow on from 122) and they were treated in reverse order. They received two modifications to match their sisters - rear number blinds (instead of side ones) and a reduction from 48 to 46 seats. 131 was followed by 119 and 118 which emerged in April 2001 as one of the vehicles in Line 7 livery for the new Metro network.

The programme ceased for a while as attention focused on repaints for the new identity but in August 2001 114 entered the works as a pilot for a phase 2 refurbishment. This reduced some of the changes - retaining the soft trim ceilings/coves for example, but saw the high backed seats replaced by modern moulded bus seats. It returned to use in January 2002 after a protracted refit. 113 followed whilst 108 jumped the queue following minor fire damage. This emerged as a phase 3 job with original seats retrimmed and less internal changes. Phase 2 programme continued with 112, 115, 116, 110, 109, 117 completing the pack by December.

The phase 3 work on 101-107 didn't particularly take off. 101 was retrimmed and fitted with a new floor in Spring 2003 with 102 following. 103-107 retained their original seat moquette with 105 receiving attention to its floor during the autumn.

So far seven of the 31 Deltas have been withdrawn from service, two meeting firey ends. 120 suffered a suspected electrical fire in the depot on 5 July 2002 and was scrapped in February 2003. 131 was burnt out in dramatic circumstances in St. Annes on 18 May 2004 and was scrapped in September. The arrival of new Dennis Tridents for Line 11 saw 115-117 and 130 delicensed in at the end of August 2006. 130 had been selected for conversion to a driver trainer vehicle - the retrofitment of ABS braking allowing it to replace one of the two Atlanteans. Sister 129 was also withdrawn in October (with 115 reinstated) and became the second trainer conversion. This emerged as 969/70 (K129/30UFV) in February 2007 in a reverse Metro blue/yellow livery.

116 returned to use in November and with 115 had its Line 11 branding replaced by tram replacement lettering to cover for the trams during the winter track renewal process. They gained pool livery in the spring but went back into Line 11 before the end of the 2007. 117 was not so lucky, it was progressively stripped for spares and went for scrap in July 2007. The only bus to be sold so far is 128, purchased by Preston Bus as a driver trainer. BTS did the conversion over the winter 2007/8 and the bus moved to Preston in February 2008. Finally 110 was withdrawn in February 2009 and scrapped in June 2009. Its seats live on though - replacing the originals in 107.

So the current allocations are:
Line 6: 103-109, 112-114 (10)
Line 11: 115, 116, 118, 119, 122, 125-127, 132/3 (10)
Pool: 101, 102, 123, 124 (4)
Trainers: 129/30 (2)
Scrapped: 110, 117, 120, 131 (4)
Sold: 128 (1)

So why the best buy? Well reliability. They have proven to be good workhorses and all retained their original engines until a catastrophic failure for 113 in February 2008. A rebuild could not be affected, but the engine from fire damaged 120 was rebuilt and fitted instead. Not a bad record.