With a lack of concessions, Go South Coast’s summertime New Forest Tour three-route network has proven both commercial and sustainable

 

newforesttour

 

VISITED: 3rd and 20th August 2015
SERVICE: The three-route New Forest Tour bus network offers “an open-top safari” through the New Forest National Park during the summer
FARES: A one-day ticket is £15 for adults, £8 for children, £12 for concessions and £36 for groups
OWNER: Go South Coast (part of the Go-Ahead Group)
WHO’S IN CHARGE?: Andrew Wickham is managing director of Go South Coast since December 2011
WEBSITE: www.thenewforesttour.info

 

I’ve always loved Britain’s National Parks. They’re described as the country’s ‘breathing spaces’ and each offers unique spectacular scenery and endearing individual characteristics. By far the best way to appreciate these amazing qualities is travelling around and through them by bus.

Sadly some bus routes have been reduced or withdrawn in recent years mainly due to unsatisfactory concessionary fares reimbursement or the general trend for local authority cutbacks. I travelled on one of the last Moorsbus-branded routes through the North Yorks Moors before they were withdrawn for lack of funding in 2013. The bus was full and standing but I was the only passenger paying a fare. It’s good to see the enthusiastic Friends of Moorsbus have managed to maintain a small route network this year with financial donations.

Dalesbus in The Dales is another great favourite weekend bus network overseen by National Park enthusiasts and has valiantly continued despite North Yorkshire’s financial cutbacks. I was sorry the Sunday journey beyond Buckden north to Hawes has been cut this summer (one of the best Yorkshire bus rides) but I enjoyed sampling Transdev’s commercially-provided link from Grassington to Burnley as well as travelling extensively on Stagecoach’s impressive commercial network throughout the Lake District, including the infamous Keswick to Lancaster 555 and the spectacular 508 from Penrith across Kirkstone Pass to Windermere.

I’ve also enjoyed delightfully scenic routes across the Derbyshire Peak District run by Centrebus, Hulleys and TM Travel; toured the Northumberland National Park with Arriva and the enterprising Spirit Buses; savoured the wonderful minibus routes funded by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, which literally hog this gorgeous coastline; rode the fantastic Filers Travel 300 bus route through Exmoor (as well as Quantock’s vintage bus version) including the amazing 1:4 hills either side of Purlock; taken in the Dartmoor Sunday specials from Okehampton (as featured in PT112); loved the new weekend ventures for the South Downs National Park from Petersfield to Winchester and Alton, as well as the other mainstream routes throughout Sussex and Hampshire. I’ve enjoyed train journeys through the spectacular Cairngorms and Snowdonia, a CityLink coach journey along Loch Lomond and a memorable bus ride from Swansea through the Brecon Beacons to Brecon.

But until this month, I’d never been on a bus through the New Forest, so it was time to put that right. Indeed, compared to reductions elsewhere, the New Forest Tour operated by Go South Coast is encouragingly expanding every year and is an exemplar of commercial good practice others should follow.

Undoubtedly one of the secrets of its success is revenue not being dragged down by unsatisfactory concessionary pass reimbursement. Cost-cutting Hampshire County Council decided passes are not valid on the network; it being deemed the routes are solely aimed at tourists. The fares are not cheap either with a day ticket available across the three-route network at £15 with concessions at £12 and children charged £8. There are cheaper deals for ‘any two out of five’ days travel or ‘any five days out of 14’, particularly attractive for longer stay holiday makers and there’s 10% discounts for online purchases.

The New Forest Tour began in 2004 and is now a fully commercial operation, dovetailing nicely in between summer holiday dates for Go South Coast’s bus commitment to Brockenhurst College. This year’s operation is the biggest and best yet comprising three circular routes all operated by open top buses and denoted by red, blue and green colours (see map).

The Blue and Green routes meet in Brockenhurst and Lymington with the former circling east to the delightful village of Burley and New Milton before serving the coastal stretch between Barton-on-Sea and Milford-on-Sea while the latter heads west to Beaulieu and Hythe (for the ferry to Southampton) continuing to Lyndhurst where it meets the Red route which covers the north and north west of the park including Ringwood and Fordingbridge and the amazingly scenic ‘Wild West’ of the Forest.

The network is now so comprehensive that all main centres in the National Park are served including the many campsites where thousands of tourists stay during the peak holiday period when the daily operated service is on the road; this year from June 27 to September 13. There are roughly eight circular journeys on each route lasting around two hours with the timetables providing a 60-75 minute frequency.

I began my New Forest two-day travel fest at Brockenhurst station where there’s a splendid sales and information point right outside with a very helpful and friendly New Forest Tour branded t-shirt wearing advocate encouraging arriving train passengers to explore the area by bus. I headed straight on to the waiting Blue-liveried bus to find an empty seat on the impressively almost full upper deck for the exploration to begin. Outlawing concessions hasn’t dented the routes’ popularity but there’s a distinct lower average passenger age than modern bus travel norms.

Our progress was temporarily halted as we negotiated the streets away from the station by two New Forest ponies characteristically letting us know they were in charge around these parts by wandering across our path and through the town much to the delight of selfie-with-a-pony tourists. All 9,000 cattle, ponies, donkeys sheep and pigs have right of way on the roads and wander freely throughout the park.

The open-top buses on the tours all come equipped with a GPS-enabled commentary which provides fascinating facts about the National Park; its history, geography and characters as well as an update on where the bus is approaching and, in most cases, details of a ‘20% off’ or similar deal that’s been negotiated with nearby commercial attractions “on production of your New Forest Tour ticket”. It certainly makes you think this is more than a bus route. It’s a whole leisure experience and one that’s in tune with the local area.

The top deck of a bus really is a fantastic way to see the delights of the New Forest and there’s no doubt an open-top offers an unbeatable novelty attraction which draws people to take a ride, but for me the wind factor on open stretches of road through the park was a bit of a downer especially as my Blue tour driver was taking it at a fair pace. On occasions the cross wind was so noisy it rendered the commentary inaudible.

Although a standard closed-top double deck wouldn’t be such a draw, a two-hour windy ride takes some stamina. Some passengers stayed on board for the whole route but even if they stopped off for a break, as many did, with limited return facilities on most of the route, they’d need to reboard a following bus on the one-way circuit to return to their starting point. My journey on the Red route last Friday with a driver less concerned about speed made for a much more pleasant ride helped by a calm and sunny day.

What is particularly impressive, and only to be expected from a Go-Ahead company, is the attention to detail on branding, information and signage with plentiful supplies of it all. The tour bus livery is attractive and colour co-ordinated for each route; the bus stop flags and timetables are similarly colour co-ordinated and are well maintained and placed in sensible prominent locations all over the network to give reassurance to passengers and act as an advert for the network.

On board the driver hands you a 34-page A5 size booklet full of information not only about the routes and timetables but also all the many visitor attractions as well as suggestions for walks and other activities. The drivers are also real ambassadors for the service; smartly dressed, knowledgeable and helpful.

Go South Coast’s energetic and enthusiastic managing director, Andrew Wickham, is understandably very proud of the commercial New Forest Tour. He told me they work very closely with the park authority who help with marketing and promotion through social media and conventional advertising. The park are this year funding two other bespoke routes – the Beach Bus to Lepe Beach and the New Forest Baby Bus.

Go South Coast have also rebranded their Bluestar 6 between Southampton and Lymington as the Forest Bus with some extra journeys funded by the Park after Hampshire County Council reduced their funding. This provides some helpful connections and alternative travel options on the main corridor from Ashurst, Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst to Lymington.

After six hours’ bus travelling covering all three routes across two days I now feel I’ve ‘done’
the New Forest and what a brilliant National Park it is too. A great way to end my summer travels for another year as it’s time to hand the Travel Test Rover ticket back to Alex Warner to resume his column
.

VERDICT:

A textbook example of public and private sector jointly giving sustainable public transport in an area previously with very little. May its success continue and be emulated in other National Parks.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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