With First now vacated from the North Devon bus scene, Stagecoach largely have it all to themselves, save a few select routes operated by independents, Filers and Beacon Bus, although even their presence seems to have dwindled somewhere since previous visits. All this hasn't been met with a reduction in good working practice though, in fact you will now find quite the opposite on a visit to Barnstaple bus station. Stagecoach has just been taking delivery of 22 brand new Enviro 400 bodied Scania ND230s for use on not only their 'North Devon Wave' branded network, but also on other routes around the area, with some of the batch painted into standard 'Beachball' livery. It was also surprising to find that the day ticket was of such reasonable cost; just £3.50 to cover their whole network, or a whole week's worth for £11. A reduction in competition certainly doesn't seem to yet have been met with any price hikes! Of course as is often mentioned, the bus industry's real enemy is the car, and not each other. In many a town operators actually co-exist quite peacefully, and certainly at least show a mutual respect for each other, which I've found to very much be the case in Huddersfield. Although the combined forces of Centrebus owned K-Line and Huddersfield Bus Company have the power to do something, there isn't really any meaningful level of competition seen on any routes in Kirklees, operators have stuck pretty solidly to their 'traditional' territory.
Anyway, back to the reason for this post, it seems to me, unless anyone can correct me, that this order of 22 brand new vehicles is the largest influx of new buses the South West has seen since NBC days. Stagecoach have invested to the tune of £4 million, with what appears to be no outside help; certainly there is nothing to suggest that the local council contributed to the buying of these at all. This amisdt cuts in BSOG, local authority funding and with the network in North Devon being so rural, make such an investment even more impressive; Stagecoach evidently seem to see promise in North Devon.
Now with my enthusiasts hat on, I must be frank and say I disapprove of these vehicles. My first little niggle with them is the livery. It's unquestionable that the new Wave branding is tidier than the previous incarnation seen on the Tridents which does play to their advantage, but with it, the livery loses a bit of individuality, again though, not necessarily a bad thing. The seating was also a bit of a disappointment. Considering people could potentially be on these vehicles for anything up to 1hr 45minutes, it's a shame that they didn't opt to fit something a bit nicer than the standard seating. The rearmost seating on both decks is fitted with a plastic type seat cover as well, which although practical, does make them a lot less comfortable. Despite only being weeks old, the Alexander Enviro 400 bodywork already squeaks and rattles around a surprising amount, which is a shame, as you'd hope the build quality would be slightly better from one of the leading manufacturers. The biggest disappointment comes from the mechanics though. Although the vehicle offers a smooth gearchange, that's about the only nice part. The suspension is noticeably hard which you certainly feel on some of the rural roads, along with the engine being woefully underpowered. This is most likely in the pursuit of fuel saving, and the gearbox changing up early encourages a further fuel reduction, but the vehicles really do seem to struggle on the hills in the region, of which some are particularly testing. Surprisingly, the vehicle's cooling fans stayed on constantly, the whole time I was on 2 different vehicles, evidently showing that they were being worked hard to heave their way along, with the noise being produced by this being of such a horrible pitch, it caused headaches for all involved (video included below)! Of course it is easy for someone to counter this in saying is there any real need for the bus to be doing a great deal of speed, but on roads such as these, I would actually argue that the competing motorist will inevitably end up stuck behind one of these buses quite frequently, trundling along, and hence would be put off knowing that they'd be getting home slower - it's all in the visual! I'm not saying it would be better to put on a 20 year old Leyland Lynx which would wholly likely be able to overtake cars on those roads, but there does surely need to be some sort of balance; surely there is a more appropriate vehicle out there for the route.