Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Metrorider Story (so far)

The ‘minibus revolution’ of the mid 1980s was predicated on replacing big buses with cheaper, smaller, more frequent minibuses. NBC led the process, experimenting with Ford Transit van conversions. Unit costs were much lower – partly because drivers did not require a full psv license at the time (they do now, however) yet some questioned the validity of the economics given that the Transit had a short service life and it took several to replace one big bus. Manufacturers and operators started to stretch the concept and the van conversion era soon moved to the coachbuild era. Northern Counties, in particular, started coach building bodies on Dodge S56 chassis cowls. Optare broke the mould with its stylish City Pacer – on a van chassis but without the cowl. MCW then launched the Metrorider with similar appearance to the City Pacer but as an integral rather than as a van descendant. MCW closed down in 1989 and Optare bought the rights to the Metrorider, redesigning it and re-launching it.
Blackpool chose the City Pacer for its minibus fleet and moved onto Optare’s Delta to replace its single deckers. When the City Pacer replacements became due, Optare – not surprisingly – wanted the business. It had already provided a demonstrator back in May 1991 (H844UUA) but in March 1995 a seed vehicle arrived in full Handybus black and yellow livery as 584 (M924TYG) – built for stock by Optare. It spent six weeks on service 26 from Rigby Road and a month at Squires Gate on Fylde’s 44B before returning to Rigby Road. It was duly taken onto the permanent fleet strength and eight more were ordered. These arrived as 585-592 (N585-92GRN) in October and November 1995. All nine were normally to be found on the 2/2A/2B (Poulton to Bispham) though did appear on other minibus routes on Sundays. A long wheelbase 29 seat example arrived for demonstration in January 1996 as P507NWU, but the next batch of eight was ordered as 25 seaters again. The first four were 593-6 (N593-6LFV) and arrived in May, with the second four coming in September as 501-504 (P501-504UFR). With 17 now in stock allowing the full 2 route to be covered by Metroriders, 584-587 moved to Squires Gate Depot to work the 33 (Cleveleys-Mereside) inherited from Fylde. Various sisters – including 588/9 – briefly ran from Squires Gate with 589/91 moving there in April 1998 to convert route 193 to minibus operation. The depot closed in April 1999 by which time several Metoriders had spells there.
589, meanwhile, was an unusual (and so far unique) example of a minibus that received an all-over advert. It promoted Harvey’s American diner from October 1997 to September 1998 when it emerged in a reversed livery of yellow with black skirt rather than the established black with yellow skirt.

By 1998 the City Pacer fleet was down to 18 and a batch of 14 further Metroriders was expected to see these off. However as they arrived between October and December 1998 an elaborate cascade plan was put into place. The new buses would convert the 12A and 26 back from Delta operation to minibuses (undoing a change made in August 1996), the Deltas eventually moved onto the 11, 11A and 12, releasing Atlanteans for school work, in turn releasing several very old Atlanteans for disposal.

The new buses were 505-518 (S505-518LHG) and arrived in the mainly yellow livery pioneered on 589. 505-515 entered service on 7 December (505/6/9/11/13/14 on the 26, 507/8/10/12/15 on the 12A) with the last three following over the next couple of weeks as they arrived. From January 2000 a total of 24 buses were now required in service covering routes 2/2A/2B (9), 12A (5), 26 (7), 77 (1) and 193 (2) with new Solos replacing the City Pacers and operating on the 23, 24, 25 and 33.

In August 2000 BTS withdrew services 77 and 193 which used three minibuses and place its first Metroriders into store, with 586 and 587 being delicensed. During the summer routine repaints into the new livery commenced with 584, 588, 590, 594 and 595 treated. 2001 started with the reinstatement of 586 and 587 but the withdrawal of 585. This returned to use in early April following the sudden demise of Phoenix North West. At the start of the month BTS had resumed the 77 (St. Annes Roamer) and soon after Phoenix ceased trading with BT taking on the emergency contracts for routes 7 (Kirkham Roamer) 10 (Pheasants Wood-Halfway House), 53 (Poulton- Halfway House) and 180/2 (Poulton to Preston) which needed seven minibuses. This resulted in some big bus workings on minibus services however the introduction of the new Metro network from the end of April was intended to reduce the minibus requirement. The new services included a revised Line 2 (Poulton to Blackpool with 7 buses), route 26 (South Pier to Mereside with 7 buses) and routes 8/8A/9 (South Shore to Marton with 2 buses) This 16, plus the 8 required for tendered services occupied the 31 buses nicely. Another surprising addition was tendered service 88 (Fleetwood-Knott End-Lancaster) in July 2001 using 2 more buses. Sundays also saw Metroriders operate tendered service 167 (St. Annes to Preston) between May 2001 and October 2005 and the 158 (Knott End to Preston) from October 2003 to October 2005

In July 2001 the process of dedicating buses to services progressed with 505-10 allocated to Line 2, 511-516 to Line 26 and – surprisingly – 517 to Line 3. The six buses on the 26 were all quickly repainted into its green/yellow livery during September and October and then attention turned to painting spares into the generic yellow, mustard and grey livery. 590-5 and 501/2 had all been treated by February. The 8/8A/9, 10 and 53 were revised into a new 8-10 group in November 2001 but then completely withdrawn in April 2002 along with the 180/2 and the Lancaster service followed in July. This allowed 584-588 to be withdrawn, though 584 was soon reinstated.

Also in April 2002 the 2 and 26 were merged, this also incorporating parts of the 8-10 group with 14 buses required. Line 26 Green was adopted - nothing ever received the intended black/yellow Line 2 livery, though it was later adopted for the pool fleet. Repaints into green restarted with 504-510 all treated between May and August 2002 making 13 buses for 14 duties. 585-8 were briefly reinstated in September but were back in store in November with 584.
Two more buses were required for an extension of Line 2 to Lytham in January 2003 and in February 517 and 518 were repainted in the line livery with 503 following in November for another extension to Thornton. September 2003 saw a further reinstatement of 584-587 surprisingly for use on Promenade service 1 to release double deckers for an emergency school contract. 584-6 had a brief period of storage in November but returned to use from December to April 2004. In May they were joined by 587-9 following the arrival of three new Solos for Line 3 and 590 joined them between July and August.

Autumn 2004 saw the return of the stored buses. First up was 588 which still retained the mainly yellow version of Handybus livery. This was followed by 584-587 which all went through the paint shop to receive pink and yellow livery for new Line 15 (Staining to Poulton) which started on November 22. Other repaints included 596 – from the original black and yellow Handybus livery into the new Black and yellow Pool fleet livery. Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. December saw 501/2 lose the old pool livery in favour of Line 2 to make up a full route allocation of 17 buses (501-510 and 512-518) as 511 had suffered major accident damage and was out of use from October 2004 to August 2006. More pool repaints during included 588 and 592 in February 591/4 in November and 589 in December. 595 gained Line 2 colours in November reflecting an increased requirement due to the extension of certain journeys to Knott End. 593 was repainted blue and yellow in December for new one bus Line 10 (Town Centre to Midgeland Road). 590 was the last to lose the original pool livery in favour of the new one in January 2006. This meant that 501-18 carried Line 2 green, 584-7 Line 15 pink, 588-592, 594-596 pool black and 593 Line 10 blue.

The Optare Solo fleet had grown progressively with the first 15 replacing City Pacers in 2000, followed by examples for the new Lifestyle Line in 2002/3 and for Lines 3 and 5 in 2004. The next new batch arrived in 2007 for the Lifestyle Line and cascaded older Solos into the pool fleet and for Line 2. This triggered a cascade. First of all 518 moved onto Line 10 receiving a new grey and yellow livery and 593 was repainted into pool colours causing 591 to be withdrawn. 584-587 were withdrawn between May and September as 514-517 were painted into pink for Line 15. 584/5 and 595 went on loan to Arriva in Darlington between June and August 2007, reprising a similar visit by 589/90/6 two years earlier. 588, 589 and 590 were also withdrawn during 2007 once the various Solo repaints had progressed.

Some of these buses continued their charmed life. 590 was reinstated again in January to service a one bus requirement for a shuttle on Line 15 while Mythop Road was closed. 584 also returned to use in January, partially repainted into pool livery but a failure in February saw it withdrawn again. More new Solos arrived in May and caused further cascades of older Solos. 590, 592 and 594, 595 and 596 were withdrawn in May – 593 escaping by virtue of its tachograph. This left 501-513 on Line 2, 514-7 on Line 15, 518 on Line 10 and 593 in the pool fleet. 590 escaped once more, returning to use in late June and surviving until it failed in November 2008. 516also suffered a failure in summer 2008 and kept slipping further behind in the queue of vehicles to repair. So much so it was officially withdrawn at the end of the year and replaced by 513 which gained Line 15 livery.

The 2009 Solo order was intended as a direct replacement for Line 2 Metoriders. The new buses entered service in May and 501, 502, 504, 505 and 507 were withdrawn. 503 and 506 continued in service and were replaced on the doomed list by 508 and 514 which suffered failures during July. September 7 saw service changes which took out 503, 509, 510 and 593, while 506 was retired at the end of the month. 511/2 remain on Line 2 currently but are on borrowed time. Other than these just 513/5/7 (Line 15) and 518 (Line 10) now remain in use.

Considering the first Metrorider was stored back in 2000, it was not until 2007 that the first permanent withdrawal took place and April 2008 for the first disposal. 586 – withdrawn in May 2007 – was stripped for spares at Rigby Road in spring 2008 and taken for scrap. 584 – finally withdrawn in February 2008 was similarly stripped in April 2008 but the shell hung around until final scrapping in March 2009.

Two preservation sales took place with 589 passing to Alan Hayward in summer 2008 and 590 to LTT in February 2009. Other than that everything remained undisturbed until summer 2009 with most withdrawn examples stored at Jackson’s Coaches. 594 was the next to leave in July 2009 having been used for spares. The process then accelerated with the sale of several examples to Wigley’s Carlton who collected them in pairs. 24 July saw 516 and 596 leave; the following week saw 501/4 go then on 7 August 508 and 591 left, with 514 and 592 a week later and 587/8 on August 28. 591 had been the first withdrawal back in April 2007 and survived over 27 months in store. Its travel companion – 508 was withdrawn and disposed of with almost indecent haste by comparison.
September saw three further sales with 502, 509 and 510 passing into private ownership. 502 and 510 have stayed local, the latter is preserved, the former intended for caravan conversion. 509 is believed to have been preserved in the North East. 585 and 595 have come back to the depot for component recovery ready for scrapping leaving just 503 and 593 of the 1995/6 purchases still in stock.

So with the fleet decimated and just seven left in use, the Metrorider is entering its 11th hour with Blackpool Transport. With further service cuts planned in January their farewell may be just round the corner.