Arriva is faced with a conundrum that many of the large-scale operators in the UK have seen as they confront falling ridership; how can they tempt people away from their own private transport and into the bus?
In our modern age, bus services are seen as an unglamorous economy measure for those without their own personal means of transport. Perception is everything, and Arriva’s view is that if they can improve the image of key bus services, non-bus users can be persuaded to consider whether the bus is a more viable alternative to private transport for their journeys, and those who make infrequent or semi-regular use could reassess when and why they use the bus.
Locally, this means that Arriva Buses Wales’ 1 service connecting Wrexham and Chester, operated from Berse Road depot in Wrexham, will see the upgrade, and will also be the first to be revealed in the UK. Currently, the route is operated with a mix of standard VDL SB200 saloons new to Arriva Buses Wales and Alexander-bodied DAF DB250s cascaded from Arriva London; perception of the route in the local media is low, particularly since the introduction of cascaded double-decks, so the upgrade will be a welcome contrast to current operations.
With this in mind, Arriva has unveiled Sapphire, a premium brand strategically targeted at key routes that would benefit from an increase in ridership. Through the use of focus groups and survey teams around the UK, Arriva has determined that improving perceptions of the bus as a form of transport means improving what is offered on board and developing the reliability and convenience of the service. Four services in the UK will initially see the Sapphire banner, one each in the North West and Wales, Southern Counties, Midlands and North East businesses.
The Sapphire vehicles for Wrexham are nine Alexander-Dennis Trident II double-decks with Alexander-Dennis’ own Enviro400 bodywork; previously, these were allocated to Birkenhead depot and worked Cross River Express services. Fleet numbers 4402 to 4410 are earmarked for Wrexham and have received a comprehensive refurbishment, including the fitment of ‘Moovbox’ purpose-built passenger WiFi equipment supplied by specialists Icomera, power sockets capable of powering laptops and mobile phones, and passenger information screens providing route information and Arriva advertising.
Seats have been leather-trimmed, with upper-deck seating being in a high-back 2+1 layout, with the lower deck featuring Esteban Civic V3 seats trimmed in e-leather embroidered with the ‘Sapphire’ name. Interestingly, the Esteban seats start life on Wrexham Industrial Estate, not too far from where the buses will operate! The vehicles will be painted in a distinctive specially-designed livery, designed by industry guru Ray Stenning.
The concept is set to extend to more than the vehicles, with a review of scheduling, reliability and staff taking place. At present, all drivers at Wrexham depot are allocated to a mix of local services and duties on route 1; from the introduction of the Sapphire service, specific drivers will be permanently allocated to the route, providing familiarity to customers. The drivers will also receive comprehensive customer service training to match the high standard of the vehicles.
Added value is also provided in the form of a money-back guarantee; if passengers are unsatisfied with their journey, they are able to claim a refund. As yet it is unclear what the process for this will be, but I am assured that it will be carefully monitored to prevent abuse.
The biggest change for the route since seven Northern Counties Palatine-bodied Volvo Olympians were delivered in April 1998, Sapphire is set to launch in Wrexham during April; look out for further details on the blog as the date approaches!