In September 2001, First Midland Red placed an order to buy two B22F Optare Solo buses for use on contract services at their Hereford depot. The vehicles were partly funded by Herefordshire County Council, with money from its Local Transport Plan and the Countryside Agency, with the aim to improve the quality of buses on subsidized services. These funds paid for the difference between a standard bus and DDA compliant vehicle. By the end of 2002 Herefordshire County Council planed to have DDA compliant buses operating on at least 45% of their subsidised mileage.
On Friday 5th April 2002 the first of these two vehicles, fleet number 1701 (registration number VU02PKX) was delivered to Worcester (Padmore Street) depot, the second vehicle, fleet number 1702 (registration number VU02PKY), being delivered on the following Monday. Both vehicles were delivered in FirstGroup corporate “Barbie” livery.
By late April 2002, both vehicles had entered service at Hereford depot and initially were being used on Service 110 and Service 111 between Bartonsham, the General Hospital and the City centre, and the Sunday only Service 32/38 between Hereford and Gloucester.
On Monday 6th January 2003 First Midland Red Buses Limited were due to start operating Cross-City “easyLINK” service in Worcester, linking the Dines Green estate on the West side of the River Severn to the new Royal Hospital and Warndon estates on the East. For these services the company was due to take delivery of new Optare Solo buses, however these vehicles were delivered late and the new services were not started until May 2003.
Like the two examples at Hereford, these vehicles were partly paid for using County Council grants under the “easyLINK” scheme. Tweleve vehicles were originally to be purchased, with eleven in service during peak times and one spare. However, before the vehicles were delivered the order was changed from tweleve 22-seat vehicles to ten 26-seat vehicles.
The first four examples were delivered to Worcester (Padmore Street) depot just before lunchtime on Friday 28th March 2003, arriving on trade registration plates in standard First corporate livery. A fifth example followed the next day, but this one had already been registered as VU03YJZ, and another five exaples a few days later on Wednesday 2nd April 2003 (registration numbers VU03YKB-YKE). Unlike the vehicles at Hereford depot, these were fitted with 24 fixed seats, plus two inward facing folding seats for use when the wheelchair area is not required, they are also plated to carry a maximum of 25 standing passenger. Each vehicle is fitted with four CCTV cameras with a colour LCD monitor above the driver and a harddrive mounted behind the destination display for recording.
All ten of these vehicles were kept in storage at Worcester and Redditch depots for over a month while they were made ready for service. This included having orange “easyLINK” route branded livery fitted and on some vehicles replacing the drivers’ cab door as the first five vehicles delivered were fitted with the wrong type.
Fleet number 1712 (registration number VU03YKE) was used at Worcester (Padmore Street) depot from Tuesday 8th April 2003 as a driver training vehicle and was also used as a demonstrator for local Council officials and the Press. All ten vehicles entered regular service at Worcester (Padmore Street) depot on the afternoon of Tuesday 6th May 2003 replacing a similar number of Mercedes-Benz O.814 Vario minibuses which were moved to other depots.
On Saturday 13th March 2004 First Midland Red Buses Limited renumbered their entire fleet, and at this time these vehicles became fleet numbers 53042–53051. All ten examples continued in service at Worcester (Padmore Street) depot, but with services changes the route branding was removed from vehicles 2005 and they started to appear on other routes.
In November 2008 three examples (fleet numbers 53049–53051) were withdrawn and passed to Northampton Transport Limited (“First Northampton”). The three buses returned to First Midland Red Buses Limited after about two years, and re-entered service at Worcester (Padmore Street) depot. Fleet number 53042 moved to Hereford depot in August 2014, and with withdrawn and passed to First Potteries Limited, Stoke-on-Trent, when Hereford depot closed in September 2015.
On Monday 27th October 2003, First Midland Red introduced the H8, H9, H10 & H11 “WyeS Moves” services to provide inter-community links in the South Wye area of Hereford. Herefordshire Council provided subsidises for these new services, which included partly funding the purchase of four new Optare Solo buses.
The first three of these new vehicles were delivered to the body shop at Worcester (Padmore Street) depot on Tuesday 14th October 2003, in yellow and lime green livery, and soon after they received their distinctive new “WyeS Moves” decals.
With the notable exception of the eye-catching livery, these vehicles are of similar specification to the ten examples that came into service at Worcester depot in April 2003 (fleet numbers 1703–1712), having the same seating layout in standard FirstGroup trim. Of the minor specification changes, the most noticeable is at the rear as these vehicles are fitted with new round LED taillights.
On Wednesday 12th November 2003, a forth example (fleet number 1716) was delivered to Worcester depot and the “WyeS Moves” branding was applied by Worcester depot’s body shop a few days later. This vehicle joined the other three examples in service at Hereford depot shortly after.
Also in November 2003, First Midland Red acquired an additional three Optare Solo buses for use at Hereford depot. These vehicles all carry standard FirstGroup corporate “Barbie” livery.
In March 2004, when First Midland Red renumbered their fleet, there was some confusion with these vehicles and two examples (registration numbers VX53OET and VX53OEU) received the wrong numbers, running for a short time as 53056 and 53057. These numbers had already been allocated to a pair of Optare Solos in the First Berkshire fleet (registration numbers LK43MDJ and LK53PNO) so once the error was spotted they were renumbered to fleet numbers 53063 and 53064.
On 1st June 2004, First Midland Red Buses Limited started operating County Council “easyLINK” and “flexiLINK” contracts from Worcester (Padmore Street) depot and Kidderminster depot using two new Optare Solo buses. Acquired from dealer stock in plain overall white livery, these vehicles are leased to Worcestershire County Council and are operated by First Midland Red on their behalf.
Not being owned or directly leased by First Midland Red, these vehicles did not receive five digit “National” fleet numbers for registration on the groups asset management systems, instead they carry fleet numbers 1720 and 1721 in line with local fleet numbers used before March 2004.
Initially First Midland Red operated 1720 at Worcester depot and 1721 at Kidderminster depot. However, at the end of March 2005 another two Optare Solos arrived for use at Kidderminster depot, making 1721 surplus to requirement at Kidderminster, so after being stored for three months it joined 1720 at Worcester depot for use on Service 363 and Service 364.
The two vehicles to enter service at Kidderminster depot in March 2005 are also leased to Worcestershire County Council and have been given the local fleet numbers 1722 and 1723 by First Midland Red. Unlike the first two examples to arrive, these vehicles carry blue and orange County Council “flexiLINK” livery and the slogan “flexiLINK the bus that comes when you call…”
Three of these vehicles are fitted with Mobisoft MobiRouter dispatch systems to allow flexiLINK control to direct them to pickup points when used on demand responsive services. 1720 is not fitted with this system, as it was initially intended for use only on “easyLINK” Service 363 and Service 364 between Worcester, Upton-upon-Severn and Great Malvern. These are normal stage carriage services running to fixed timetables, and therefore the MobiRouter system is not required.
In February 2007, fleet number 1720 was renumbered to fleet number 53141, then a few weeks later in March 2007, it was withdrawn by First Midland Red.