Leeds to Manchester has been looked at and dismissed by bus operators many times over the years – but Transdev Blazefield had a zappy new idea


Linking Leeds and Manchester, every hour


VISITED: 15th November 2017
SERVICE: The first CityZap route has linked Leeds and York since March 2016, using SatNav technology. Last month, a new CityZap service was launched, operating hourly between Leeds and Manchester with a journey time of 80 minutes
FARES: I paid just £6 to travel between Manchester and Leeds
OWNER: Transdev Blazefield
WHO’S IN CHARGE?: Alex Hornby is chief executive of Transdev Blazefield
WEBSITE www.cityzap.co.uk

In adversity it takes balls and that’s when true leaders come to the fore and shine. With all the (not unreasonable) downbeat paranoia surrounding the future of the bus sector currently and searches for technological innovation as the panacea for all its problems, it’s refreshing to see a bus company stick its head above the parapet and try something old, but new, if you get my gist.

CityZap is not an app (although the initial Leeds-York service has one), or a demand responsive whizz or an eco-obsessed gizmo. Alex Hornby and his groovers at Transdev Blazefield have done something traditional, they’ve set up a new CityZap route linking two big cities, Manchester and Leeds. They’ve also done something new – as with the first route, CityZap offers faster and more reliable journeys by using SatNav to find the best route.

Last month, Blazefield introduced this new route across the Pennines as part of its modern, funky and elegant CityZap brand. It was a brave move against a nationwide backdrop of route axing and frequency reductions. But perhaps the bravest act was for these pace-setters to decide to connect two cities with a history of antipathy between each other, the War of the Roses and all that.

Transdev Blazefield’s chief executive, cheeky chappie Alex Hornby, had been harassing me to take a trip. So, a fortnight into the new service, I hopped on-board at the most challenging time for a bus company – a gloomy, Wednesday afternoon in November.

I caught the 16:05 from Chorlton Street in Manchester and even before boarding I was instantly star-struck by the bright scrolling destination display that shone out in the dark, prominently telling all and sundry this was a fast, direct express bus service between Manchester and Leeds. Shame that the visibility of the new service was almost non-existent at the bus stop. If Blazefield had its way, it would be all over this, painting the stop in sexy CityZap branding all over the infrastructure with bright timetables and literature available imploring people to get on-board. They’d probably even offer a bob or two to build a nicer waiting area. But, of course, we’re in PTE territory here, where anodyne, humdrum standardisation is the order of the day, never mind if it actually makes it harder for customers to be aware of services or encouraged to get on board a bus. The PTE knows best, of course, believing that if left to their own devices the operators couldn’t be trusted and anarchy would prevail.

Anyway, Blazefield does what it can and there was a zany looking enthusiastic young chap, pro-actively approaching customers and any other folk hanging round. He’d run out of leaflets but was extolling the virtues of the new service, even if it was slightly frustrating that the bus was sitting belligerently a few yards away from the stop and the driver points us to the stop to board rather than letting us get out of the freezing cold and onto the bus. Anyway, the bus  eventually came to the stop and I get on. Our driver smiled, and so did I when I found out it was only £6 to get all the way to Leeds – that’s 14p a mile!

It was the cleanest public transport vehicle of any description I have ever been on in any mode

Inside and the bus was plush, swanky red and yellow CityZap branding and demure lighting. It was the cleanest public transport vehicle of any description I have ever been on in any mode. The window was so sparkling, I nervously put my hand towards it, expecting it not to even be there – it was that clear. Then, the floor. It was so immaculate, not an ounce of dust or grime, nor a splodge or encrusted body hair round the seat stanchions.

We were off on time and very quickly zapping eastwards out of Manchester. I looked around the bus and it was a picture of gaiety even if the crowd only numbered eight, which given this was a woeful wet Wednesday in November, was quite respectable really. The demographics were interesting, very la-di-da, upper end of the social spectrum, like retired rail industry toffs travelling in First Class. We had a group of elderly ladies, grinning and chuntering on about their lovely day out and the beauty of this new service – they were a classy bunch, Laura Ashley shopping bags, lots of bling and slap on their boat races. Behind them were some students and a couple of old blokes, again upmarket types, not your sweaty and hairy bus vagrants, with their body odour problem, food and vomit stains on their coats and penchant for talking to themselves.

As we drove through downbeat Manchester suburbs, I reflected on how great it is that a service was being provided between two ‘Northern Powerhouse’ cities
(a phrase that is utterly inane). Free Wi-Fi, leather seats and loads of legroom, the only thing to zap me off about the new service were the power chargers. I am one of those traditionalists whose phone chargers have fixed plugs, so the USB sockets were no use to me. I spent the journey worried that my phone had died and I was unable to reply to Hornby’s panicking texts (made under the desk in a meeting every few seconds) asking for my feedback.

Unfortunately, all the fears I had about the new service – centred on the M62 and its notorious meltdowns – looked to be coming true as we approached the motorway and found there was a humungous tailback. We sat motionless for 15 minutes and I was getting restless, particularly when we started moving and the driver just ploughed on, rather than taking a SatNav-inspired slip road detour. But then as other cars made their diversion, the problem dissipated and we were on our way again.

On the outskirts of Leeds we stopped at a weird place called Ainley Top. I’d never heard of this miniature metropolis, but I approved of seeing it in the timetable. Sometimes you need to be a bit quirky, to provide a differentiator and find a neglected small location and bring a big city-to-city express service to the 649 people who live there (a figure that includes the Blackley lot). I later heard that stopping here has been a masterstroke, with most of the residents using it!

We arrived in Leeds 10 minutes late but the driver did his best to let a couple of customers off at the outskirts to make life easier for them. He gave me copious directions from the stop in the city centre to the railway station and thanked all of us for travelling. What’s more, shortly after, came a moment of realisation. I’d got off CityZap and within seven minutes was in the comfort of a train taking me to Newcastle. Whilst I’d made this trip to satisfy Hornby’s desire for me to check it out, it had been a key and extremely credible integrated leg in my trip from London to Manchester and Newcastle. It felt as quick and more comfortable than the crowded rail alternative. I was also able to save my employer a few quid. My corporate greasy pole climbing colleagues wouldn’t be seen dead getting on a bus across the Pennines for a business trip. More fool those grey-suited, “yes men” dullards.

Where to next for Blazefield’s audacious foray? Well, for starters, it’s going to take 18 months before this gig reaps dividends, I suspect. Setting up a starter operation on a route covering large population centres (where it’s difficult for a marketing message to saturate), and where there is a mutual loathing, isn’t easy. Hornby’s posse has got to hold its nerve and build growth incrementally. Christmas will be good, there’s plenty to attract folk in Leeds and Manchester, then Easter will be better and inroads can be made next summer, nudging volume and yield up in tandem, penetrating socially mobile students, thrill-seekers and a new audience for bus travel along the way. Patience is a virtue and all that.

Bringing the new service under the CityZap umbrella is a great idea – this brand has already set the benchmark for bus travel and customer service excellence on its prototype York to Leeds route. Providing the same quality can be delivered across the Pennines then this model could be replicated across the North and beyond.

Internally, CityZap is all about power to the local manager and on both of its routes it’s the governors in the depots that have been the public face of the new service, not the big cheeses at the Harrogate HQ. Blazefield’s parent company Transdev, meanwhile has a habit of keeping its distance, recognising its local subsidiaries know the market best. These are reasons why this whole shebang will succeed.

It’s possible that CityZap, combined with Blazefield’s VAMOOZ crowd funding concept, could be used by others to rejuvenate the entire bus model and industr

Maybe there could be a CityZap franchising model offered by  Blazefield or at the very least a direct, York-Leeds-Manchester route. It’s possible that CityZap, combined with Blazefield’s VAMOOZ crowd funding concept, could be used by others to rejuvenate the entire bus model and industry. However, it’s important that only those who can be trusted to extol the brand values and customer service excellence should get their mucky paws on it.

I don’t want this to sound like I’ve a man-crush on Hornby, but what he is doing could be game-changing, whilst also finally enabling there to be a dedicated, customer-obsessed service between Leeds and Manchester. If you were an alien landing on the Pennines tomorrow, you’d think a service had always been in place, but Leeds to Manchester has been looked at and dismissed many times over the years. This time though, a bit of ‘Back to the Future’ might just be what’s needed to brighten up a bus industry that needs a glimmer of hope, positivity and a bit of bravery. This is a shot in the arm for us all.



Get on board, spread the word and do your bit to help Blazefield make this a success. CityZap could be the future solution.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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