Monday, 1 March 2010

Blackpool and the Excel - an fraught relationship?

Excel 217 in original livery on layover at Saltcotes Road on Line 7.

History has shown Blackpool - bus wise - to favour the tried and tested. For years it standardised on the Leyland Titan - though did wait until its fifth year of production before taking the plunge. The Atlantean neared its 20th birthday before the first were purchased - Leyland Nationals were eschewed until they were almost obsolete and it was only circumstance that saw the first Olympians arrive just six years into production. 1982 had seen a brave venture into the unknown with the Dennis Lancet, an odyssey rewarded with teething troubles, unreliability and passenger complaints. However this was a new supplier to the company brought on by municipal tendering. By 1995 Optare was Blackpool's main supplier when it launched its new Excel 'low floor' single decker at the Bus and Coach show in the autumn.

Blackpool Transport had been in discussions with Lancashire County Council about using the new design on a quality partnership for routes 44A/B (Cleveleys Park to Mereside/Marton Mere) then operated by its subsidiary Fylde Transport Ltd. Eight were duly ordered and the first arrived on Sunday 21 April 1996 moving to Squires Gate Depot quite quickly. It was numbered 201 (N201LCK) and was painted all-over yellow. Seating was for 36 in the 10m body.

Three more followed during May (202-4 N202-4LCK) and all four were launched by two characters from Coronation Street at the Sandcastle Centre on 30 May. They entered service on 3 June initially converting the 44A journeys. 205-208 followed during July and progressively entered service to convert the 44B journeys. 208 was the last and hit the road on 12 July - just nine days before Fylde ceased as a separate company. These were body numbers 9024-7 (201-4) and 9031-4 (205-8) - the numbering series starting at 9022, and just a demonstrator and a Thorpes of London example precede 201 in numerical order.
One of the first batch - 202 - returned to the Fylde in 2006 on Cumfybus service X7 Blackpool-Southport

8 buses for 8 workings was always asking for trouble and it was clear that 100% low floor operation was unlikely to be guarantee-able. 3 of the 4 trips per hour were designated "operated by Easy Access Handybuses at all times (except for emergencies)" and the others would be so operated where possible. The 44A departures at xx18 from Mereside and xx15 from Cleveleys Park were the designated non compliant workings. During the evening four Excels went onto the 333 and 444 services - the partially subsidised evening/Sunday versions of the 33, 44A and 44B with the 333 running Fleetwood-Marton Mere and the 444 Cleveleys Park to Marton Mere. These also ran on Sundays with 3 Excels though there was no Cleveleys to Fleetwood section on the 333 then. The routes interworked at Marton Mere with no scheduled layover time - drivers had the challenge of changing nine number blinds and two destination blinds with no time to spare!

Despite using established and successful mechanical components, these early Excels proved troublesome. Fylde's mechanics worked miracles to keep them on the road with evening maintenance undertaken. Optare provided support under warranty and took each one back for rectification during 1998. Four demonstrators were used with P446SWX in February/March, N330EUG (the very first) from February to May, P447SWX from June to September and R98HUA briefly in July 1998. Perversely the Excels did get the wanderlust - occasionally straying from the straight and narrow. An afternoon school working on route 191 (Hodgson School-Great Eccleston) saw the odd Excel and the occasional working on the 154/8 to Preston was recorded.

The problems were exacerbated with the closure of Squires Gate Depot in April 1999. Rigby Road depot was now at capacity and the space was not there for overnight repairs. Availability plummeted - days with just three out of eight serviceable were not unknown. By now Optare had admitted defeat and agreed to replace the batch with 9 new examples - this time to 10.7m length with 40 seats. This matched one of the demonstrators, though some difficulties around Stanley School had resulted from its deployment.

The nine replacements were numbered 210-218 (T210-8HCW) and also arrived in two batches. 210 was first on 15 July 1999 with 211-213 following within the week. 210/1 made their debut on 29 July, 212 the following day and 213 on 3 August. These replaced 201/3/4 which left on 27 August. 214-218 arrived in late August/early September and allowed 202, 205-208 to be withdrawn by 13 September and they joined their sisters at Optare's Rotherham facility at the end of the month. Interestingly 214-218 could have legitimately received V-prefix plates but didn't - though a drawing of 214 as V214HCW hung in the company's offices for some time.

210-218 settled into service on the 44A/B and 333/444 which now enjoyed a spare low floor bus - or did until January 2000 when a ninth was added to the cycle. For the next 18 months the Excels were used virtually exclusively on this group of routes, though 211 did sneak onto the St. Annes Roamer 77 on one occasion! A further demonstrator was used during February/March 2000 with Mercedes (rather than Cummins) engined T790KNW covering for accident damaged 210.

The company's network review in 2001 led to the 44A/B being replaced by Metro Line 4 in April 2001 with a reduction to every 20 minutes with seven Excels needed. The 4 also ran in the evening and on Sunday using two buses. The excels were proving too large for the route and in January 2003 moved onto Line 5 (Staining-Hospital-Halfway House) which required all nine - though 217 was missing until April having sustained serious accident damage back in December. This lasted until 21 March 2004 when nine new Solos replaced them on Line 5 and the Excels went into temporary storage - 210 was already off having suffered an electrical fire in February.

211 and 215 immediately went into the paint shop and emerged in Line 7 purple livery replacing two Deltas on 19 April. 210 followed after repairs in May, 214/6/3 in June, 212 in July and 217 in August. 218 was also repainted - carrying the pool Black and yellow livery. 218 regularly ran on the 7 but also appeared on the 14 to cover the guaranteed low floor commitment on this otherwise Trident operated route.
Ex Go North East 220 demonstrates pool livery at Lytham Square

Although better than 201-208 reliability was still disappointing and it was rare to experience a full low floor output on Line 7. At the time several other operators were disposing of their Excels - mainly to eager buyers in Ireland - though some did travel all the way to New Zealand! Blackpool decided to persevere and bought three from Go North East - 219-21 (T880/1/4RBR) arriving on 22 December 2004 and entering service in pool livery in late Jan/early Feb.

It was decided to embark on a refurbishment programme in 2007 following a pilot by East Yorkshire where the Cummins ISB engine was proven to be reliable. 210 was the first treated in summer 2007 with 210 following and 212 done during the winter. All three had a body overhaul with improved panel fixings to reduce rattles.
217 undergoing the bodywork aspects of refurbishment - May 2009

Three more were treated in 2008 - 213 was completed in August, 220 in October and 216 in early 2009. The process slowed as other projects took priority and 217/8 became defective in 2008. 218 was selected for refurbishment in June 2009 - after ten months in store with 217 following soon after. Both returned to use in November. 215 and 219 followed with 219 back in use in February 2010 and 215 to follow soon having returned from Cummins on 2 March. 

220 showing off the new light clusters and engine ventilation grills

Line 7 was increased in frequency in January 2009 so five more Excels were purchased form Reading Buses in October 2008 - 222-226 T922-6EAN. All had a minor bodywork overhaul - but not the engine change - and entered service on 26 January. 222/3 carry pool livery 224-226 Line 7 colours.

One of the Reading Excels on diverted Line 7 at North Pier

An 18th Excel -R742BUJ - arrived on 17 February 2010, but only for component recovery having been sold by Choice Travel in 2009 after accident damage.

Other than the donor the current fleet is:
210-213 T210-3HCW of July 1999 Line 7 livery, all re-engined
214-217 T214-7HCW of Aug/Sept 1999 Line 7 livery, 215-7 re-engined, 215 out of use
218 T218HCW of Sept 1999, pool livery, re-engined
219-221 T880/1/4RBR of Mar 1999, pool livery, 219/20 re-engined. Ex Go North East 12/04
222/3 T922/3EAN of May 1999, pool livery ex Reading Buses 10/08
224-226 T924-6EAN of May 1999, Line 7 livery ex Reading Buses 10/08

Ten buses are required for the daytime Line 7 duties - an 11th comes out for the evening workings. The pool buses appear on the 7 and 14 mainly but can and do operate on the 6, 11 and a works contract for the Department of Work and Pensions.

The pioneer batch has had mixed fortunes with some remaining on Optare's books for well over a year- their reputation clearly preceding them.
201 Jan 2001 - Dukes, Coleford then Jan 2002 to GHA Wrexham (and current)
202 Feb 2000 - Swanbrook, Cheltenham then 12/04 to Cumfybus, Southport. Sold Oct 2007 and not licensed since (presumed scrapped)
203 Feb 2000 - Reliance, Great Gonnerby, later taken over by Mass then by Centrebus (current)
204 Mar 2000 - Ludlows of Halesowen, Jan 2005 - Classic Annfield Plain - sold for spares 2009.
205 Feb 2000 - Swanbrook, Cheltenham then 12/04 to Cumfybus, Southport. Sold Oct 2007 and not licensed since (presumed scrapped)
206 Jan 2001 - Dukes, Coleford then Jan 2002 to GHA Wrexham (and current)
Jan 2001
207 Oct 2000 - Docherty Irvine, Oct 2004 taken over by Stagecoach Western, Jan 2007 to Stagecoach Yorkshire at Chesterfield (current)
208 Oct 2000 - Docherty Irvine, Oct 2004 taken over by Stagecoach Western, Jan 2007 to Stagecoach Yorkshire at Chesterfield (current)