Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Purple People Eaters

FTR by CARLOS62 on Flickrsome rights reserved

In 2006, to some fanfare, the bus company First York introduced the ‘ftr‘ concept to the streets of York. This consisted of new articulated buses (‘bendy buses’ to you and me) replacing double-decker buses on the Acomb – York – University route number 4. As well as the new buses, there were new ticket machines installed at bus stops (like in London), so that you could buy your ticket prior to boarding, leaving the driver (or ‘pilot’ in ftr-speak) to just focus on driving and to reduce delays.

At least, that was the theory. Within the first week, its failings were making the national press, with the buses referred to as the ‘purple people eaters’ (a nod to the 1958 Sheb Wooley song, later covered by veteran comedian Barry Cryer). The extra long vehicles had trouble coping with York’s medieval street layout, getting stuck blocking junctions. The ticket machines disappeared not long afterwards, and instead, a ‘host’ – in reality a conductor – collected fares on the bus.

In 2009, the vehicles were withdrawn from evening and Sunday services on the number 4 route, as they were proving too expensive to run – employing a ‘host’ and a ‘pilot’ on the quieter services no longer made economic sense. At these times, a regular double-decker bus, with a driver who collected fares at boarding, took over.

Meanwhile, the ftr idea had spread to other cities, with First operating them in Leeds and Swansea. Interestingly, in all three cities, it was the number 4 service that was converted to ftr – undoubtedly a mere coincidence but interesting nonetheless. And, for a time, some buses ftr buses ran on the shuttle service between Luton Airport and its nearest railway station, Luton Airport Parkway, but these have since moved to Swansea.

Eventually, earlier this year, the York service was withdrawn completely, and the double-deckers returned to the number 4 route full time. Some of the buses went to Leeds, to strengthen the ftr service there. But First had a new idea up its sleeves. After all, these buses had cost £300,000 each to buy, and were only six years old.

The buses were refurbished and repainted. Gone was the purple livery that had earned them their nickname, and in came a two-tone blue look. The ‘ftr’ name, which was textspeak for ‘future’ was also dropped, in favour of ‘Hyperlink‘. The seats were reupholstered in leather, and an on-board Wifi system was installed. And, in early November, the buses took over the running of the number 72 route, between Leeds and Bradford.

Along with the new buses, the service frequency was increased slightly – from 7 services per hour to 8, meaning that a bus would arrive approximately every seven minutes instead of eight before. The fitting of the Wifi equipment means that free Wifi is available to users. As before, the buses will be driven by a ‘pilot’, with a ‘host’ collecting fares once passengers are on the bus.

The 72 bus isn’t the only way to get between Leeds and Bradford and so this service will be competing with both the train service and the faster X6 bus service, also operated by First with conventional double-deckers, albeit only once every 30 minutes. Trains are able to get between the two cities in just 20 minutes, beating Hyperlink’s fastest journey time of 45 minutes (and the slowest peak services take over an hour), but with 8 services an hour this is more frequent than the 6 trains – 2 of which go to Bradford Forster Square and not Bradford Interchange. And the trains don’t have Wifi or leather seats, and don’t have as many intermediate stops.

Notably, although theoretically boarding will be quicker with these buses, as the driver… sorry, pilot, no longer needs to take the fares, they operate broadly the same timetable as before. I suppose the quicker boarding times will mean that the buses are on time more often, but it’s a shame that the opportunity wasn’t taken to speed the service up a bit.

The introduction of the buses onto the 72 route meant some changes had to be made, and the service no longer makes it all of the way to Leeds Bus Station, instead terminating at the bottom of Eastgate, a couple of streets away, making onward connections a little less easy. They are able to use the bus station at Bradford Interchange, although this too required some changes with the Free City Bus service usurped from stand W and sent around the other side to stand 5.

I’ve yet to take a ride on the new Hyperlink service – although the promise of free Wifi appeals to me, trying to read or use my phone on a bus for more than a minute or two makes me feel travel sick. No such problem for me on the trains, despite the Leeds-Bradford services not providing free Wifi, and the journey times are much quicker. But then I don’t suppose the 72 is really aimed at those making end-to-end journeys.

Hopefully, these buses will do okay on the Hyperlink service. They’ve led an interesting life over these past six years, that’s for sure.

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