A Devon bus operator is seeing a rise in passenger numbers with its late-night long distance services.
Stagecoach South West – based at its new HQ at Matford in Exeter, launched South West Falcon coach services last year. It is the first ever 24/7 service linking Plymouth, Devon, Somerset to the region’s largest airport in Bristol and Bristol City Centre.
Mr Dennison, Managing Director at Stagecoach South West, said: “From a standing start, passenger numbers on the Falcon exceeded our initial expectations. Year on year growth has seen those numbers more than double, and nearly every week is still a record breaker being busier than the last, as more and more people hear about the service.”
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The £2.5million investment to get eight plush coaches on the road with wi-fi, charge points and air conditioning – was designed to fill a gap in the market for frequent round-the-clock public transport.
Mr Dennison said: “In some respects, Falcon was a flight into the unknown however we had every confidence it would rise to the occasion.
“It is already proving itself a success because it is delivering a service to customers that no one else was providing.”
The aim is to open up a brand new commercial corridor to link major towns and cities with the airport and Bristol, improve regional connectivity and offer a robust alternative to rail and the car.
The 2015 acquisition of First’s depot in Plymouth was the catalyst, providing the operational base and staff to start the project.
The company, which in 2015-16 alone has invested a total £13 million in 34 buses for Exeter, Exmouth and Torbay, 27 buses for Plymouth and 8 South West Falcon coaches, say the service plugs a gap in the market to get revellers, theatre goers or airport travellers home all through the night and when train services have stopped running.
The service runs every hour and every two hours during the late night and early morning period.
Mr Dennison said: “We did the analysis and made a decision to give it a go. It’s about half the price of the train and crucially, gets people where they need to be in good time.
“Many of our customers are people who go to gigs or the theatre and want to get home whatever the time of day. “We want to highlight how easy it is to get to events across the South West.”
To promote this 24/7 connectivity, Stagecoach has just run a competition to win tickets to MTV Crashes Plymouth and other competitions with other events accessible by Falcon are planned for the remainder of the summer.
Falcon runs 19 journeys a day, 7 days a week, between Plymouth, Exeter, Taunton, Bristol Airport and Bristol City Centre.
Mr Dennison: “We are a commercial business and we have to continually look at our services to ensure we are offering our customers the right routes and frequency of services.”
In 2015 it launched a brand new mobile responsive website and last year launched a Stagecoach app where customers can also buy and use day and one week mobile tickets.
It will also introduce contactless payments on all buses in the South West by the end of 2018.
Mr Dennison said: “It’s all about trying to make journeys with us as easy as possible.
“We cannot afford not to do it, it is amazing how quickly technological advances have become the new norm and we have to keep up.”
He said that bus travel will be a key part of future travel as efforts are under way to reduce congestion in towns and cities and as car ownership falls out of favour with younger people.
The Falcon service is among initiatives to help keep the South West open for business. Following the devastating storms of 2014, that cut off the rail line at Dawlish, the bus operator looked at how its local services could help stranded residents. This resulted in the redrawing of its zone boundaries to provide cheaper travel and encourage more passengers onto the bus.
Mr Dennison said: “When the sea wall was washed away it presented a number of challenges and a decision was made to make our services more attractive to people who otherwise would be stranded.
“We saw an increase in patronage and decided to stick with them.
“We did our best to extract some positives out of a very difficult situation.
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“It was very frustrating for us to see so many reports saying that the south west was cut off when we were doing so much to keep it connected.”
But the biggest challenge for the company remains congested roads.
A recent survey named Exeter as the worst city in the UK for traffic congestion.
He said: “There is only so much we can do with the road layout of the city. In partnership with Devon County Council, Exeter City Council and, latterly with Exeter City Futures we are striving to find innovative solutions to Exeter’s congestion problem. We fully support Exeter City Future’s aspiration to make the city but we’re fully aware it is not an easy problem to solve.
“This is one of our top priorities in helping lay the foundations for a bus network that works both now and in the future.”
Source: Devon live