Monday 7 October 2013

Houghton-le-Spring, UK

Houghton-le-Spring a small and historic town in North East England, believed to have been founded in the 12th Century.  The Houghton Feast is a traditional festival held annually in the town in early October.  A highlight of the event is the roasting of an ox.  This will take place today, the Monday of the feast.

My mother-in-law lives in Houghton-le-Spring.  The town lies approximately mid-way between Sunderland, around 10 kilometres to its north east, and Durham to the south west.  Newcastle-upon-Tyne is less than 20 kilometres to the north.  Houghton is within the county of Tyne & Wear.  It has no railway connection, the public transport service is provided by entirely buses and taxi-buses.  Nexus is the local transport authority although, as bus services in Britain (outside London) are de-regulated, they have limited powers over the bus network.  Operators have the freedom to determine their own networks of routes which they will run for profit.  Local authorities can then procure additional services to fill gaps in the commercial operators' networks.  Under these provisions, Nexus procure certain bus routes in Houghton-le-Spring while Durham County Council also funds some bus services which reach Houghton after crossing the boundary into Tyne & Wear.

Go North East operates most of the buses which serve Houghton-le-Spring.  Go North East has gone in for branding individual routes in a big way, particularly for its frequent, core services.  A number of the routes serving Houghton carry route-specific branding.

Prince Bishops is the brand applied to routes 20 and 20A which link Sunderland with Durham.  Buses carry a purple livery for this service.  The 20 and 20A provide a combined 10-minute service on Mondays to Saturdays.  In Houghton-le-Spring, route 20 operates via Hall Lane Estate while the 20A runs via Rainton Bridge business park.  The timetable alternates between the two routes, so Hall Lane Estate and Rainton Bridge each receive a 20-minute Prince Bishops service.

The image above was taken in Hall Lane Estate on route 20; the images to the left and below are of route 20A.

During the evenings and on Sundays, route 20A doesn't operate.  Evening and Sunday buses all operate as route 20.  There is also an X20, which operates a limited number of journeys during the Monday to Friday peaks.

Laser branding, using a gold-based livery, is applied to routes 35, 35A, 35B and 35C.  These provide a link from South Tyneside through Sunderland to Houghton-le-Spring and beyond.

During the daytime on Mondays to Saturdays, routes 35 and 35A provide a combined 10-minute frequency over their common sections.  Both routes operate from South Shields to Houghton-le-Spring, although they follow different routeings south of Sunderland.  Route 35 serves the Royal Infirmary, while the 35A runs through Silksworth.  Beyond Houghton-le-Spring, route 35 continues to Hetton Downs, Hetton-le-Hole and Low Moorsley, while the 35A runs to Rainton Bridge business park.

As with the Prince Bishops 20 and 20A, the timetable for the 35 and 35A alternates with each route operating every 20 minutes.

During the evenings and on Sundays, the Laser operates as routes 35B and 35C.

The 35B closely follows the 35, from South Shields via Sunderland and Houghton-le-Spring to Hetton Downs, Hetton-le-Hole and Low Moorsley, except that it serves Silksworth in addition to the Royal Infirmary.


The image to the left was taken in Hetton Downs.

Route 35C parallels the 35B from South Shields to Houghton-le-Spring, thus serving both the Royal Infirmary and Silksworth.  Beyond Houghton-le-Spring, the 35C runs direct to Hetton-le-Hole (omitting Hetton Downs) then continues to Easington Lane and South Hetton.

Over their common section between South Shields, Sunderland, Silksworth and Houghton-le-Spring, routes 35B and 35C jointly provide a 20-minute frequency during the Sunday daytime and half-hourly during the evenings.  During the evenings, each route operates hourly.  During the daytime on Sundays, the 35C is hourly with the 35B running twice an hour, at alternate 20 and 40 minute intervals.

Route X35 is a limited-stop relative of the Laser 35.  It has its own distinct brand, Fast Cats (cats is a reference to Sunderland's football team, known as the "black cats").  

The X35 links Sunderland with Houghton-le-Spring and Hetton-le-Hole, then continues via South Hetton and Peterlee to Hartlepool.  It serves the Doxford International business park between Sunderland and Houghton.

The X35 operates half-hourly on Mondays to Saturdays, but does not run during the evenings nor at all on Sundays.  Laser 35C serves South Hetton when the Fast Cats aren't running, while Prince Bishops route 20 operates via Doxford International at these times.

In 1980, a Metro system was opened on Tyneside.  At that stage, bus services had not been deregulated.  Tyne & Wear PTE (predecessor to Nexus) reorganised the bus network to feed into the Metro at a number of interchange points, with integrated ticketing.  Bus movements in Newcastle city centre were reduced as passengers were brought in on the Metro.

Route M1 links Houghton-le-Spring with the Metro interchange at Heworth, via Fencehouses and Washington.  The route is branded Metrolink.  Buses run every 10 minutes on Mondays to Saturdays and half-hourly on Sundays.  From mid-evening, the M1 runs only between Heworth and Washington and does not reach Houghton-le-Spring during the mid to late evenings.

The North East Bus website (an enthusiasts' site) reports that the Metrolink brand is about to be replaced with a dark blue Connections brand using new vehicles, while many of the buses currently used on the M1 have already been repainted for use on other services.

Although Metrolink M1 provides connections to the Tyne & Wear Metro, with through ticketing, Go North East provide a frequent direct link to Newcastle from Houghton-le-Spring. 

Route X1 is branded as Red Arrows.  The route starts from Easington Lane, running via Houghton-le-Spring, Washington and Gateshead to reach Newcastle.    Part of the route is limited stop, giving a journey time of under an hour from Houghton to the centre of Newcastle.

In recent years the X1 had been operated with single-deck buses but over the last couple of years, these have been replaced by new double-deckers.

Route X1 runs every 10 minutes during the daytime on Mondays to Saturdays, half-hourly during the evenings and on Sundays.

Go North East use a generic Northern livery for those of its routes which are not treated to their own individual brand.  These tend to be the less frequent or more local routes.  Two such routes serve Houghton-le-Spring.

Route 71 links Houghton-le-Spring with Chester-le-Street via Fencehouses.  Buses operate half-hourly, but there is no service during the late evenings or at all on Sundays.

Although route 71 is usually operated with single-deck buses, double-deckers do appear occasionally.

A few years ago, the route had had its own brand, Lambton Worm, but this was later abandoned.

Route 238 links Houghton-le-Spring with Sunderland via an indirect route.  From Houghton, the 238 heads out eastwards through countryside, to Seaham where it turns north and follows the coast towards Sunderland.  Buses run hourly, but there is no evening or Sunday service.

With so many different brands, keeping each route fully-stocked with its own branded buses is a challenge which isn't always met.  A branded bus on the "wrong" route does happen occasionally.  Rather more common is Northern vehicles substituting for branded buses.

On a single day, I found one Northern vehicle operating in place of a Laser on the 35A (left) with another substituting for a Fast Cats on the X35 (below).  



One bus route in Houghton-le-Spring is provided by another operator.  Route 79 is operated with subsidy from Nexus by Compass Community Transport.  It provides a bus service to several housing areas where commercially-provided bus services don't operate.

Route 79 runs hourly, every day, from Barnwell into Houghton-le-Spring.  The daytime service runs to Hall Lane Estate.  From mid-evening, however, the route runs as 79A and runs instead to Fencehouses.  During the daytime, Fencehouses is served by route 71 and Metrolink M1, but neither of these operate beyond mid-evening.

The bus network is complemented by a taxi-bus service which provides links to the town centre and Houghton Health Centre from residential areas in Houghton-le-Spring and neighbouring Fencehouses.  Taxi-bus routes TB20 and TB21 run every hour to two hours on Mondays to Saturdays during the daytime.  These services are provided with financial support from Nexus.

The diagrams below illustrate the bus network serving Houghton-le-Spring:

Bus fares are generally set by the individual bus companies.  Single tickets, which vary in price according to the distance travelled, do not permit transfer.  If you need to change buses to complete your journey, you either pay twice, or buy a day ticket.  There are, however, "Transfare" tickets for transferring from bus to Metro or vice versa.

As well as single (and day return) tickets. Go North East offer an array of "BuzzFare" day and longer period tickets on their own services.  These are based on individual zones or combinaitons of zones.  Prices vary acordingly.  Go North East's BuzzFare tickets are not valid on other operators' services so, in Houghton-le-Spring, they are not valid for travel on routes 79 or 79A, nor on the taxi-buses.  So although Go North East serve Fencehouses during the daytime, if you want to travel there in the late evening, a BuzzFare ticket won't be valid as the late evening service is provided by a different operator.

Nexus also market a range of tickets valid within Tyne & Wear on bus, rail, Metro and ferry services.  These include a Day Rover as well as longer period Anytime tickets.  Additionally, Go North East and neighbouring major bus operators jointly promote the "Explorer North East" ticket valid for a day on bus services across most of North East England.  It is also valid on the Tyne & Wear Metro.

The situation I have described is what prevails in Autumn 2013.  Change may, however, be on its way.  Nexus are currently consulting on plans to change the way bus services within Tyne & Wear are organised.  Their intention is to replace the deregulated system with a contracting regime, with Nexus specifying the network including routes, timetables and the fare structure.  They would then procure the bus services through contracts with bus operators.  Should the plans take effect, one result may be a single standard livery for buses across Tyne & Wear.  This would sweep away the colourful array of brands used by Go North East.  Several bus operators have voiced their opposition to the plans.

Images in this post were taken in Houghton-le-Spring, except where indicated.  Most were taken over Easter 2013.

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