Friday, 2 June 2017

From the Archives: A Big Hand for Handybus - 30 years ago

A typical light load of three for City Pacer 564 in September heading for Spring Gardens (Brian Turner)
The bus industry in the mid 1980s was fixated on the minibus. Ribble had introduced them to the Fylde coast in 1986 at Fleetwood and it was inevitable that others would follow. Blackpool Transport's chose the new Optare City Pacer and introduced the "Handybus" brand. A distinctive black scheme with yellow skirt was adopted for the new minibus fleet in 1987. 
560 signals left to turn into St Davids Road North as 562 heads up St Thomas Road bridge (Brian Turner)
Five City Pacers arrived at the end of March 1987, numbered 560-4 D560-4YCW and entered service on tendered service 33 (Cleveleys to Marton Hypermarket) and the F3-F5 evening/Sunday contracts in Fleetwood and Cleveleys in May. The 33 was only a temporary arrangement as on June 1st they moved to St. Annes operating a free launch day service on the new Handybus route that started for real the following day. Four buses were required providing a ten minute service starting at Spring Gardens and serving almost entirely previously under served roads to St. Annes Square before continuing to Whalley Place. The northern leg competed with Fylde's 193 which ran half hourly and the southern leg arguably competed with the hourly Roamer but also both Blackpool and Fylde's main services along Church Road.
Handybus leaflet front and back covers showing the two route legs
The high frequency was somewhat ambitious and loadings were not particularly encouraging. The service was daytimes only with buses from St. Annes to Spring Gardens at 0751, 0811, 0831 and every 10 minutes to 1721 then 1741 and from St. Annes to Whalley Place at 0730, 0750, 0810 and every 10 minutes until 1700 and 1720. Buses started their day by operating as service 11C from Blackpool to Spring Gardens where they picked up their first working. Likewise their final journeys from St. Annes to Spring Gardens continued to Blackpool. From there one retired to depot but three ran to Fleetwood to work the evening services and positioning journeys on the 14 (Fleetwood) and 4 (Thornton).
One of the hired in Ford Transits heads to Whalley Place (Brian Turner)
A further 15 City Pacers were obtained to convert service 26 to high frequency operation in September 1987 but only one had arrived by launch day! Two demonstrators were purchased and a third borrowed but Blackpool Transport had to hire some two year old Ford Transit minibuses from Midland Red North. These - amongst the earliest of the first generation minibuses - were normally used in St. Annes to release the five City Pacers for the 26. C39-43WBF arrived in late August and were temporarily Blackpool's 379-383, C37WBF followed in September (385) and C49WBF in October (389). All except 49 arrived in blue, grey and purple livery and as part of the loan deal Blackpool Transport repainted each one into Midland Red North's new red/yellow livery. 39 went back first in early October (replaced by 49) and the rest followed by the end of October.
The Transits were repainted as shown by 43 (new red livery) and 37 (old blue livery) (Brian Turner)
Blackpool covered this hire under the blanket of a research exercise and passengers were given a questionnaire to fill in to compared the Transit and the City Pacer. The results were never published.

The other marketing initiative was to provide through fares to the extended Routemaster operated service 12 (St. Annes to Blackpool). However loadings were still poor and the inevitable notice was issued in February advising that the service would cease on 27 February 1988 - ironically the buses were used to part convert service 12 to minibus operation.

562 demonstrates how the buses penetrated local housing estates in St. Annes (Brian Turner)
This was not the end of minibus experiments in St. Annes for Fylde had a couple of valiant attempts. First was the Shoplink 1 and 2 from 9 December 1989. Each ran hourly with the 1 serving Alexandria Drive, Clifton Hospital Grounds and Kingsway to Ansdell then through South Park to Lytham with the 2 serving Mayfield Road, Shepherd Road, Jubilee Way, Hall Park and joining the 1 route in Ansdell to Lytham. Five journeys ran each way on each route and Renaults 111 and 114 launched the services. Oddly at times Bristol REs stood in - which with 44 seats provided a huge excess of supply over demand. The services were unsuccessful and ceased in February 1990.

Route map for services 1 and 2
The next attempt started on May 10 1993 when service 88 started. This followed much of the route of the Handybus from St. Annes via Oxford Road, Dobson Avenue and Frobisher Drive but terminated at the recent housing development on Appealing Lane known as "The Hamlet" - not a name which screams 'good bus territory'. The 88 ran every half hour from 0945 to 1415 (1645 on Saturdays) and 15 minutes later back from St. Annes with a break for the regular driver's lunch. The leaflet (below) credited the idea to a local councillor and quoted fares from St. Annes:

  • to St Patricks Road North of 25p (20p on the Handybus in 1987); 
  • to Links Hotel of 40p (25p in 1987), 
  • to Rodney Avenue of 50p (v 35p) 
  • and to the Hamlet of 65p compared to the 45p maximum on the Handybus. 
Like the 1 and 2 the service lasted just two months, ceasing at the end of July.