Updated 8 November 2014
Sunderland lies on England's north east coast, around 15 kilometres south east of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The city is at the mouth of the River Wear, which flows through a deep gorge just north of the city centre. Sunderland is twinned with the German city of Essen amongst others.
As in many British cities, a tram system was developed in Sunderland during the late 19th Century. However, the last tram ran in 1954. Sunderland is, however, served by the Tyne & Wear Metro which was extended to the city in 2002.
Sunderland has a large, modern bus station opened in 1999. This also provides an interchange with the Tyne & Wear Metro, although it is a short walk (or one stop on the Metro) from Sunderland's rail station. However, not all bus services call at the bus station.
Most of Sunderland's bus services are provided by one of two operators. Since they operate in a deregulated environment, each operator has its own network. There are some overlaps and buses do compete with each other in some parts of the city.
Stagecoach operate many of the services which run entirely within Sunderland. Single-door, single-deck buses are used.
As the buses only have one set of doors, when the bus arrives at a stop, passengers waiting to board have to wait until others have stepped off before they can get on.
The single-door layout is very common across most of the UK, but much less so in other countries that I have visited.
As well as services within Sunderland, Stagecoach also operate a group of routes northwards along the coast to South Shields. These routes are also operated with single-deck vehicles with a single set of entrance/exit doors.
Most buses entering Sunderland city centre from the north cross the River Wear using the Wearmouth Bridge.
Other than the Stagecoach routes to South Shields, most interurban services operating out of Sunderland to neighbouring towns and cities are provided by Go North East.
Most Go North East's Sunderland services are operated with single-deck buses, however double-deck vehicles are used on a couple of routes .
Although Go North East's standard livery is red with a "Northern" fleetname, many routes are branded individually with their own distinctive liveries.
The "Laser" brand is applied to routes 35 and 35A, which run from South Shields to Sunderland then south-westwards. The "Laser" takes a different route to the Stagecoach services between South Shields and Sunderland.
During the evenings and on Sundays, the Laser service operates a slightly different pattern of routes, as 35B and 35C.
"Lime" is the brand for the key east-to-west service from Sunderland to Chester-le-Street, Stanley and Consett.
The route is parallel to part of the UK's Coast-to-Coast cycle route. Not many British bus routes carry bicycles, but "Lime" does - one bike per bus, in the wheelchair space within the vehicle, on payment of an additional fare.
If a passenger using a wheelchair needs the space, the bike and rider will be asked to leave the bus (with fares refunded).
"Silver Arrows" link Sunderland with the new town of Washington, around 10 kilometres inland from Sunderland.
The "Wear Tees Express" runs south from Sunderland to Middlesbrough, on the River Tees.
The route is advertised as operating in two sections, with through fares and "guaranteed connections without changing bus". This is a legal technicality - by declaring it as two short-distance routes, it does not come under the scope of EU drivers' hours legislation; the UK's less stringent domestic rules apply instead (subject to a few other conditions being met). If it were declared as a single, longer-distance route, EU rules would apply.
"Prince Bishops" is the brand applied to routes 20, 20A and X20, linking Sunderland with Durham.
This isn't the only service numbered 20 in Sunderland - Stagecoach also operate a completely different service also numbered 20.
So if you want to get a number 20 bus in Sunderland, make sure you know which number 20 bus to look out for.
The "Fast Cats" brand applies to two limited stop services from Sunderland, the X35 heading southwards to Hartlepool and the X36 going north westwards to Newcastle.
The X35 and X36 share no common destinations. They share the brand, because the vehicles are scheduled to switch between the two routes.
So, the buses carry route details for the X35 on one side...
...and the X36 on the other...
...which means that, whichever route it is on, one side of the bus will be carrying inappropriate route details.
It is probably no coincidence that the "Fast Cats" base colour is black. Sunderland's football team is known as the "black cats".
The Fab 56 buses were built and currently operate as standard diesel-powered vehicles.
During 2015, these buses will be fitted with a flywheel system which will use stored energy, thus converting the vehicles to hybrid power.
When I first saw them in 2008, the Drifter buses were a pale beige.
By the end of 2013, the Drifter had been restocked with another batch of new vehicles, and the brand colour scheme had changed again.
Go North East operates a small network of services in the Seaham and Peterlee area under the East Durham name.
East Durham-branded buses currently reach Sunderland on route 238.
Not all of Go North East's services operate to destinations outside Sunderland.
The "Sunderland Connect" service links the city centre with the university, football stadium and seafront. Hybrid-powered midibuses are used.
The "Simplicity" brand was initially introduced to two routes within the city, the 36 running north from the city centre and the 42 running south.
Since this image was taken in 2013, the 36 has ceased to run. The Simplicity brand now applies to routes 42 and 61. The 61, like the 42, runs to the southwards from the city centre.
"Doxford Clipper" is a cross-city service.
Or, at least, it was in 2013 when I took this image.
By 2014, the Doxford Clipper brand had vanished.
Route 39, which had carried the Doxford Clipper brand still runs, but the silver buses have been replaced by larger vehicles.
These carry the same purple colour as the "Simplicity" vehicles, but no branding is carried (at least for the time being).
Branding individual routes in this way is doubtlessly a good way to draw attention to individual services, promoting them not just to existing bus users but also to people who don't currently use buses. It does add a challenge, of keeping the branded vehicles on their intended routes. In practice, this doesn't always happen.
Red "Northern" buses can regularly be seen substituting for branded vehicles. This one is operating on the "Laser" service in place of a gold-liveried bus.
Branded buses can also be found on the "wrong" routes - and in at least one case, this appears to be scheduled.
Although route 42 is branded as "SimpliCity", with purple-coloured vehicles...
...on Sundays (and during the evenings), it is operated with Drifter-branded buses.
So if you are in Sunderland on a Sunday, expecting to go to Seaham on the Drifter, watch out because the bus in Drifter colours may not be on the Drifter service; if you are accustomed to waiting for a purple "SimpliCity" bus on the 42, you may not see one - but keep an eye on those Drifters!
Confused? If so, I'm not surprised!
Like Stagecoach, Go North East has a large depot in Sunderland, a short distance outside the city centre.
Although most buses in Sunderland are operated either by Stagecoach or by Go North East, there are some exceptions.
Arriva operate a small number of routes into Sunderland from the south, linking the city with Peterlee and onwards to Hartlepool, Durham and Darlington.
I found a mix of single- and double-deck buses on the service to Durham.
On the 23 to Hartlepool, I noted a midibus.
23 is another route number which is duplicated in Sunderland, as Stagecoach operate a service using the same number.
Many of the bus services in Sunderland are operated on a commercial basis by their respective operators. The operators set their own fare scales, and tickets are not generally inter-available between different operators.
Nexus, the transport authority for Tyne & Wear, has a role to promote public transport within their area. It offers daily, weekly and longer period tickets valid on the services of any operator within the county of Tyne & Wear, although these are generally more expensive than the tickets offered by the individual operators for their own services. They are not available for journeys beyond the county boundary so, for travel between Sunderland and places such as Seaham or Peterlee, tickets for all buses irrespective of operator are not generally available (to the best of my knowledge).
Nexus manages the bus station/Metro interchange, and procures bus services to fill in gaps where the bus operators do not consider the service to be commercially viable. In some cases, operators use their own vehicles on these services while in other cases, Nexus provide the vehicles. This images shows a Nexus vehicles on routes 135, operated by Go North East. This route runs during the evenings and on Sundays, providing a service which the commercial networks do not provide at those times.
Route 73, between Sunderland and Washington, was shared by two operators when I observed it in early 2014. Go North East were operating one of the two vehicles on the service, with a Nexus-branded midibus.
Since these images were taken, the contract to run route 73 has passed to another small operator.
Go North East's route 38, linking Sunderland City Centre with Tunstall, operates commercially on Mondays to Saturdays, but not during the evenings nor on Sundays.
During the evenings and on Sundays a subsidised service, procured by Nexus, is provided as route 38C. However, when I originally wrote this post, you would not have found any reference to the 38C on Go North East's website or their route 38 timetable...
Rather than acknowledging that another operator provides a service at times when route 38 didn't run, Go North East's timetable for their service 38 simply stated "no Sunday service", and provided no information about the evening service either.
In July 2014, Go North East won the contract to operate the 38C. The timetable for route 38 does now include the evening and Sunday 38C service.
Long distance coach services operate into Sunderland's bus station, with routes provided both by National Express and by Stagecoach's Megabus brand.
The scene I have described in this post may be about to change. In October 2014, Nexus voted to introduce a franchising system to deliver a unified network of bus services across Tyne & Wear, similar to that which operates in London. This would replace the current deregulated system. This will have far-reaching implications for how Sunderland's bus network is planned and on the fare system. It could also result in a uniform livery in place of the operators' own colours (and the various colourful brands used by Go North East).
The bus operators are strongly opposed to the proposal. Stagecoach have even threatened to remove their buses and close their depot facilities rather than operate under the proposed franchising system (despite operating under a similar regime in London).