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Profile: A century of service in Rossendale

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Twenty years ago Rossendale Transport ran just under 50 vehicles. Today it runs just over 100. And it is also marking 100 years of municipal bus operation in the borough by both of Rossendale’s predecessors, Haslingden and Rawtenstall corporations.

And while the company is marking its centenary with an open day at its Rawtenstall depot at the end of this month, that doesn’t mean it is a backward-looking business.

Rossendale Transport was an early user of low-floor buses, in 1996. It was the first to have low-floor buses which met the “quite onerous” specifications of the Greater Manchester PTE, in some ways a precursor of today’s DDA. And although it didn’t shout about its achievement, commercial director Barry Drelincourt points out that for the last two years all services in Rossendale, apart from those associated with school operations, have been run by low-floor buses.

“Our philosophy has been quality, not quantity,” says Drelincourt.

The company’s low-floor buses range from Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and narrow Optare Solos, through to Dennis Super Darts and Volvo B7RLEs. There are, as yet, no low-floor double-deckers, although that might be the next item on Rossendale’s shopping list. At present double-deckers are used solely on schools. Although the double-deckers only operate for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, having some low-floor examples in the fleet would provide increased operational flexibility, in particular making single-deckers available for the engineering department during the day by covering some duties with a low-floor double-decker.

Rossendale operates a range of low-floor buses.

The company has looked at early low-floor double-deckers which are available on the second-hand market, but Drelincourt is unimpressed, commenting on how much advance there has been in vehicle design over the last ten years. And if the company does buy new, it faces the Euro 4 dilemma. Drelincourt is reluctant to introduce buses using SCR technology to the fleet because if he did they would for the next few years be the only vehicles requiring the addition of urea, a complication he feels he can do without.

Not that Rossendale is afraid of innovation. Drelincourt claims the company was among the first to place orders for the B7RLE, the narrow Solo – it now runs 23 of the latter – and even Bova coaches with automatic gearboxes. He jokes: “Whatever Rossendale does today, the rest of the country does tomorrow.”

The company’s expansion came in the early years of deregulation, when it started operating in Bury and Rochdale, initially securing PTE tenders. This was a reaction to what proved to be a misguided expansion policy by PTE-owned GM Buses, which secured tenders in areas outside Greater Manchester – notably in Rossendale and Blackburn. “If it hadn’t been for them expanding here, we wouldn’t have expanded there,” says Drelincourt. And he questions whether the Rossendale business would have survived had it not set up operations in the Bury and Rochdale areas.

Drelincourt plans to reduce vehicle lift to 12 years over the
next ten years.

It now has a base in Rochdale, with a 46-vehicle allocation, and a substantial commercial operation.

But warming to his theme of quality rather than quantity, Drelincourt points out the drawbacks of expanding in new areas – route training costs, the problems of vehicle breakdowns remote from base, supervision, and the increased risk of confrontation between passengers and drivers over ticketing. “That’s why we don’t tender outside our area,” he says – a subtle reference to complaints by some politicians in the Greater Manchester area who perceive a lack of competition for PTE tenders.

On the other hand, his experience has shown that quality pays dividends. When Rossendale faced competition on its Accrington corridor, it was introducing new low-floor Darts. “It soon became clear that people were interested in new vehicles,” he says.

Most of the vehicles in Rossendale’s fleet have been bought new, but the company also buys modern used vehicles. Some of these have speeded the expansion of the low-floor fleet; others help smooth out the age profile. The influx of Optare Solos in 2004 and 2005 have helped lower the average age of the fleet to under seven years. At present the company works on a 15-year vehicle life. “Our plan is to bring that down to 12 years over the next 10 years,” says Drelincourt.

For the last two years all services in Rossendale, apart from
those associated with school operations, have been run by
low-floor buses.

Reorganisation of the NHS in East Lancashire and North Manchester is creating new opportunities. In 2002 services were revised to improve links to Bury’s Fairfield Hospital, and Drelincourt and his team are monitoring the changes taking place involving hospitals in Blackburn, Burnley, Rochdale and North Manchester, all of which are expected to impact on the company’s operations. “We’re identifying needs and matching demand,” he says.

Rossendale was, says Drelincourt, the first bus operator to use a generic ITSO-compatible smartcard in the UK, when in April it adopted the NoWcard for Lancashire concessionary travellers. The NoWcard will shortly cover concessionary travel for the whole of Lancashire and Cumbria. At Rossendale the next step in smartcards will be their introduction for staff passes and rover tickets.

Over the last five years passenger numbers have risen by five per cent, but Drelincourt believes that pass holders are under-recorded. The smartcard will address that issue. It also gives Rossendale more flexibility in the tickets it offers its customers. “The main problem,” he says, “is the Financial Services Authority which believes a smartcard is money.”

A sense of history: one of Rossendale's predecessors.

Rossendale has an unusual operating area, with no one significant population or employment centre in the towns of Haslingden, Rawtenstall and Bacup. The company’s trunk route runs from Accrington to Bacup, with high-capacity single-deckers – B7RLEs and Super Darts – providing a 10-minute frequency. Some services reach out as far as Blackburn, Bolton and Burnley. To the south lies First Manchester; to the north the main operator is Transdev.

Drelincourt is convinced that concentrating over the last 10 years on quality in its own operating area has been the right policy for Rossendale Transport, and while accepting that no operator has exclusive rights to what might be defined as its catchment area, observes that ‘bus wars’ are futile.

Saturday 28 July sees the company mark its centenary with an open day at its depot in Rawtenstall – which itself dates back to 1938, and in acknowledgement of its heritage two recently-acquired Olympian double-deckers have been painted in the liveries of the area’s original municipal bus fleets.

There are plans for a new depot and bus station in Rawtenstall, possibly linked to a much-needed redevelopment of the run-down town centre planned for 2011. But Drelincourt, who has a fine sense of history, observes: “In 1948 there were plans for a new bus station with a combined depot. And in 1972 there were plans for a new bus station with a combined depot.”

You sense that he won’t be holding his breath.

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