These days, universities tend to be rich seams, writes Omnibuses’ Edinburgh Correspondent. Omnibuses welcomes contributions
The University of Kent at Canterbury sits on top of two huge hills—St Thomas on side, St Stephens the other—to the north of the City. This windswept plateau was, so the story went around fellow students in the early eighties, the first British landfall for winds from Siberia. I suspect that to be untrue, but certainly the number of chilly days were too many to count. But the views of the city and the cathedral were stunning. And I met my wife there, so it is city I am enormously fond off.
Despite the large numbers of students living out on the coast in these areas, only the last circular bus of the day diverted off the main road into the university. A market most definitely missed as when I lived out on the coast for a year, loadings seemed to be good, especially on Sundays.
When East Kent was privatised from the National Bus Company, it pleasingly migrated away from poppy red to a colour scheme based on the traditional red and cream. Based on my observations (my in-laws lived in Folkestone and so I could pop back to Canterbury), it seemed to struggle and the service became a bit thin. Minibuses were in evidence, which improved the frequency, if not vehicle quality. But then enter (the then) Mr Souter, who brought Stagecoach stripes to the area, buying East Kent Road Car in 1993. I must admit to having reservations at the time, feeling that a once proud company would loose something of its character and offer an even poorer service.
eighties MAP project saw routes in Canterbury numbered in the 6xx series but Stagecoach has gone back to (mostly) the traditional route numbers. 650 was long gone but what we now have is Unibus to the University, running at a staggering eight buses an hour. Admittedly, there is more on-campus accommodation these days, but even so, this is a service that the university never had before (and as a student I would have loved). There are even some buses up St Stephens Hill into the University as well, no doubt as a fightback to some competition that now seems to have faded away.
But improvements are not just confined to the university market. Comparing a route map I drew back in 1979 (top) with the current Stagecoach version, it is clear that the network is comparable. Stagecoach has cleverly deployed their strategy to the operation and then grow the market, in east Kent as a whole. A lot of the inter-urban links now run at frequencies comparable to or better than those indicated in my 1972 timetable of the area. Canterbury city services are also improved, with more advertised improvements to come out to the hospital. Thanet, always a bit of a bus backwater, seems also to be growing. Stagecoach innovated a few years back by loosing the traditional "around the houses" network and replacing it with the "Thanet loop", which seems to have better frequencies every time I look.
Stagecoach is not a charity and it wants to make a profit. But the operation here shows how, by taking measured commercial risks with increased bus provision (and quality vehicles to boot), you can pay dividends. Of course today's passengers in east Kent may pay comparatively higher fares than I did, but clearly the network is thriving and growing, so people are voting with their feet on to the buses.
Today's students, loans permitting, will find their transport choices vastly improved. It is heart warming to see public transport improved so much for a city for which I have a lot of affection, particularly when we all know of areas where the reverse is to be true. Stagecoach should be congratulated on their achievements.
And Stagecoach hangs on to some heritage as they still run an AEC Regent V in traditional colours. Lovely.