New trains hit the tracks in 2019 – Part 1

Wednesday 24th April 2019

It’s been a long wait with some well over a year late, but finally an avalanche of new trains is entering service; well one train has.

First off the blocks is the much anticipated Class 230 train which began running on the Marston Vale line between Bedford and Bletchley yesterday. Not so much ‘new trains’ as ‘completely refurbished forty year old former Underground trains now with an added diesel engine’.

The D Train project is the brainchild of career railwayman Adrian Shooter and his company Vivarail. After a highly successful stint at Chiltern Railways you’d think the highly respected Adrian would use a well earned retirement to put his feet up, relax and play with his own train set in his back garden. Not a bit of it, he foresaw the opportunity to use former District Line trains reengineered and refurbished for further use on a variety of branch lines around the country and after much development work his initiative is finally paying off with orders for trains and the first actual train now in passenger service.

I took a ride this morning full of anticipation and wasn’t disappointed. I’m not surprised passengers felt they were travelling on a new train; the makeover is that good.

D stock trains used to have four single leaf doors per carriage when on the District Line, but on the new Class 230s these have been reduced by two enabling more two by two seating to be introduced – both airline style and as foursomes around tables – in addition to the longitude seats still in place.

The table shown below is in the spot where there was once a door.

And these are no ‘ironing board’ seats; these are brand new as well as reupholstered old longitudinal seats which are actually comfortable to sit in and with a smart moquette design too showing a nod to their District Line heritage as well as the new London North Western Railway corporate colours.

Neat usb sockets are handily incorporated into the longitudinal seats as well as underneath the new seats.

There’s a roomy accessible toilet on board as well as wi-fi.

What’s also impressive is you hardly notice the noise of the engine. If you didn’t know, you might think you were still travelling on an electric powered train. It gives a very smooth ride.

The cove panel space used in Underground days for commercial advertising has been well utilised with a plethora of messages and information about the trains and the Marston Vale line.

One noticeable oddity was the length of time it took to not only release the doors but for the ‘open’ button to light up and then react after being pressed. Not much of an issue on the Marston Vale line but could be critical on a tightly timed line such as Bidston to Wrexham Central where the D Train is destined for later in the year.

London North Western have specified a two coach train which offers a step up in capacity from the single coach Class 153 trains which are also still in service on the hourly frequency, so if you’re paying a visit for a ride imminently watch out for what train is on which diagram.

And if you have time it’s worth a stop off at the lovely Ridgmont station ….

where there’s a delightful tea room…..…. and a fascinating heritage museum staffed by knowledgeable and very friendly volunteers.

Well done to Vivarail, London North Western Railway and Sam Jessup Design for the great work on these ‘new’ trains. It’s set a high standard for the coming weeks which will see a whole variety of new trains hit the tracks.

Roger French

Jersey Boys take a Liberty

Sunday 21st April 2019

IMG_4551.jpgLet’s get the vinyl-over-windows frustration out of the way first. It’s never a good idea to ask the public to vote on branding; it’s bad enough letting them decide on EU membership or naming a research vessel for the British Antarctic Survey so when CT Plus Jersey (an HCT Group company) celebrated winning the contract to replace Connex to run the State of Jersey’s bus network in January 2013 and invited the public to vote on the marketing and branding for the revitalised network as a bit of a ‘community involvement’ PR stunt, it was bound to offer up a Boaty McBoatface result.

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Sails are all very well, but whoever thought it was a good idea to cover bus windows with them has obviously never travelled on a bus, especially on an island renowned for its spectacular views across glorious bays.

The fact the public backed livery went on to win an award for ‘Best Brand Campaign’ at the ‘Jersey Chartered Institute of Marketing Awards’ in 2013 speaks volumes about such dubious accolades rather than anything to crow about.

Six years on from winning the contract it was telling to see what seems like the majority of buses looking distinctly slapdash with missing vinyl where panels have been replaced during my whistle-stop visit to Jersey this Easter weekend…..

IMG_4701.jpgIMG_4757.jpg….. but there’s a glimmer of hope for the future as it appears the designers have finally seen sense, with a year left to run on CT Plus’s initial contract and introduced a very welcome modified livery with less prominent sails which I spotted on a few newer or repainted buses.

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So, having sorted that, here are some of the many positives about LibertyBus.

It’s a tidy, easy to understand network with all bus routes sensibly radiating out from St Helier which lies a little to the east of the centre of the south coast, and is the Island’s capital. Pretty much all the main tourist hot spots and coastal bays are served by bus meaning there’s no need for tourists to hire a car, although many must do as this rather effective and poignant message on a bus confirmed.

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IMG_4560For those eschewing car hire, three bus routes serve Jersey Airport, located in the west of the Island, with buses stopping right outside the exit to the terminal building.

IMG_4520.jpgMost routes run to an hourly frequency with route 15 to the Airport and route 1 to Gorey Pier, on the east coast, running every 15 minutes Mondays to Saturdays and every 20 minutes on Sundays. Route 3 to Jersey Zoo is increased to half hourly from the end of May to the end of September when there are a few other seasonal enhancements to the network.

IMG_4585.jpgMost routes are operated with single decks (Solos, both long and short, dominate the fleet) but route 15 as well as route 22 to the west coast are double deck (Alexander Dennis Enviro400s and a few ex London Scania OmniCity buses).

IMG_4663.jpgBuses were busy as you’d expect over a late Easter weekend with superb weather but the frequencies and vehicle capacities seemed to be coping well. I saw one or two ‘stacked out’ Solos on route 12A which skirts St Aubin’s Bay on its way to the picturesque St Brelade’s Bay and Corbière on the south coast. On Sunday buses were leaving Liberation Station showing ‘Sorry! Bus Full’. I reckon the ‘high summer’ seasonal route 12 could usefully be added to the network from Easter.

IMG_4867.jpgSummer only route 14 which follows a similar route to the 12A as far as St Brelade’s Bay has a Beach Bus branded open topper (a second hand Dennis Trident from Lothian) and was doing a good trade for much of the day although I noticed it had been replaced by a standard closed top double deck later on.

IMG_4695.jpgIMG_4930.jpgIMG_4909.jpgIt was noticeable how many families and people of all different ages were travelling by bus, and although there was some minor late running due to squeezing pass traffic on narrow roads, there was no real congestion issues and it was all the more enjoyable to travel around the Island without incurring severe Bank Holiday traffic delays. I was particularly struck by how few sets of traffic lights I encountered on my travels.

IMG_4622.jpgLibertyBus have a unique system for marking bus stops; in many cases there’s no pole on the pavement but simply the word BUS painted on the road with a four digit number (which appear to be to any random sequence along a route) to identify the stop to find live departure times online, although the look up option also includes bus stops by name too. I wasn’t convinced all the information was showing ‘real time’ either.

The most odd feature is the listing of routes online which, like the bus stop numbering, also appears to be in a strange random order. I guess locals get used to it though.

There’s a very impressive zoomable colour coded online map which shows the exact position of every bus on each route by colour as well as every bus stop being clickable for departure times and interestingly this sits on a Government of Jersey webpage rather than the LibertyBus website.

Slightly less impressive, the online network route map which backs up the ‘journey planning’ tool is out of date showing a route (27) and network link (route 4 to the Zoo) which are now withdrawn.

The website also contains an image of the very colourful and helpful network timetable book which one can scroll through, but frustratingly as the timetable pages are printed landscape you have to crick your neck to try and see them at ninety degrees on screen.

It would help if a pdf of the timetable pages in the book could be shown turned by ninety degrees or more pertinently the website be updated and the timetables which are showing the right way up but expired on 31 March (for the winter), and still displaying, need to be taken down and replaced with the now current summer timetables.

There’s no app available which is a shame as these rather cumbersome look up features, including real time departures, lend themselves to be much simplified through using a handy app on a smartphone when out and about. It could also give the option of mobile tickets.

IMG_4556.jpgThe heart of the bus operation is Liberation Station where all services terminate. There’s a Tourist Information desk as well as a LibertyBus Customer Services desk with extensive opening hours.

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Both have supplies of the timetable book to hand out but I noticed none were on wide display for passengers to help themselves, which is a shame. I did spot a little pile on the Customer Services counter from time to time.

There were lots of racks containing plenty of other tourist leaflets including a Visitor Map of the island which I noticed many people using (it does show some bus route numbers but is no good to follow the routes).

IMG_4697.jpgI also noticed a lack of timetable books on board buses and other distribution points such as hotels; something Stagecoach do very well in the Lake District by comparison.

The bus station concourse is extremely well laid out being very inviting and airy as well as functional. There’s a coffee/snack bar and also a Brompton Cycle Hire facility and toilets are adjacent.

IMG_4570.jpgThere are a few seats by each of the ten departure bays on the inner side of the concourse which have doors covered by advertising material so you can’t see into the gloom where the buses draw up.

IMG_4564.jpgHowever, there are screens advising of upcoming departures and at each departure bay a screen shows imminent departures.

The advertising at most of the bays features a tourist attraction along the route which is a nice touch.

IMG_4851.jpgIMG_4855.jpgOnce a bus pulls up ready for boarding the departure door opens.

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IMG_4574.jpgThe area hidden from view reminded me of Aylesbury bus station, except there passengers have to wait and board buses in the gloomy area.

IMG_4558.jpgThis side of the bus station can only take single deckers so the double deck operated routes depart from the other side of the concourse on the roadway where there are a further four departure bays and where all evening departures leave when the concourse is closed. Many buses also set down at these stops too.

IMG_4785.jpgSmartcards are available for regulars, visitors and students on which a range of consecutive day tickets or pay-as-you-go can be added and contactless is also available, but there’s no on board Wi-fi or usb sockets, but there are next stop displays and in some cases, audio too, although I noticed on some routes the displays seem to get stuck. The audio only plays for major tourist destinations. As mentioned earlier, no mobile tickets are available which would prove useful for visitors.

IMG_4927.jpgFares and ticket prices are good value. A day ticket at £8 gets cheaper the more consecutive days you buy (2 for £15, 3 for £21 and 7 for £30). A 10p increase was applied to the flat £2.20 fare from the beginning of April but it’s still just £2 per journey for contactless payment or a bargain £1.65 for pay-as-you-go.

I spotted the above notice on a bus which would indicate there are cheaper ticket prices for residents who register and use an ‘Avanchi’ smartcard – 7 days travel for £21 instead of £30. If so, CT Plus Jersey are running a risk of a claim for discrimination!

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Three highlights of my visit and highly recommended are a ride on the hourly route 22 (also route 12 from end May to September) over to the west coast which takes about an hour to reach the terminus at L’Etacq and the views from the top deck between Corbière and around St Ouen’s Bay are magnificent as pictured above; secondly a trip on the less frequent route 4 (nine journeys a day) which reaches the north of the Island and particularly Bonne Nuit Bay and the quintuple hairpin bends down to, and back up from, the scenically spectacular Bouley Bay (below)…

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…. and thirdly a ride on one of the heritage buses operated by the independent Jersey Bus & Boat Tours to the Jersey War Tunnels; if you’re lucky on the wonderful RTL 326.

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This tour company runs a number of island tours which are worth considering if you want to explore the island in one journey without taking a myriad of local bus routes.

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I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend’s wander around the island using routes 1, 1A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 21, 22, 23 and 28 finding well used buses even away from the main tourist spots, keeping pretty much to time, and with very friendly and helpful drivers. The only mishap was the driver on my open top journey on route 14 this afternoon taking a wrong turning instead of heading to St Brelade’s Bay necessitating a 20 minute detour to get back to the same point but it was all taken in good spirit and we all enjoyed a bonus longer journey.

CT Plus Jersey’s initial seven year contract expires at the end of this year but I’m sure the optional three year extension will apply; all the signs are that it’s going very well. Passenger numbers have been reported as growing year on year although I noticed this year’s summer timetable has retained a couple of winter features rather than the usual seasonal enhancements.

A 9 by 5 mile island would lend itself to electric buses and local press reports indicate environmental issues are rising up the agenda. Certainly something well worth considering.

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As is a more frequent timetable on the 12/12A with double decks perhaps earlier in the season as well as wider distribution of the timetable book, an app together with mobile ticket options, and add usb and Wi-Fi on board. Sorted.

Roger French

11X goes down a storm on a sun soaked Bank Holiday

Friday 19th April 2019

IMG_4389.jpgIt’s not often a completely new bus route starts up. Usually changes to bus services see variations to long standing routes featuring improvements or reductions to frequencies and journey times or diversions to routes to serve new developments.

The last new route launch I can recall was Stagecoach’s brave investment decision to introduce eight new coaches on the South West Falcon branded hourly service between Bristol and Plymouth in 2016. Encouragingly three years on that service seems to be doing very well. There are signs Stagecoach are about to launch another new service in the south east which will be watched with great interest.

At the more minor end of the new route investment scale is Brighton & Hove’s brand new 11X which launched today running between Brighton and Eastbourne. Not all along the A259 coast road via Seaford – which has seen remarkable growth over the last twenty years transforming a staid 30-minute frequency service into an amazing 9-bus an hour timetable as far as Seaford with 6-buses continuing to Eastbourne; instead the 11X runs via the less populated inland A27 route where it’s been a struggle to ever make a bus route stack up commercially east of LewesIMG_E4425.jpg§Instead of running via Lewes, the 11X route astutely leaves Brighton along the busy Coast Road via Rottingdean, Saltdean, Telscombe and Peacehaven as far as Newhaven before heading inland on the A26 to Beddingham joining the A27 to Polegate and importantly serving Middle Farm and Drusillas Zoo Park along the way before continuing south on the A22 to Eastbourne.

It’s a one-bus, three-return-journeys-a-day, Sundays-and-Bank Holidays route for the summer season meaning the commercial risk for Brighton & Hove is minimised. The bus would have sat idle in the garage over the weekend anyway, so the marginal cost is just a couple of drivers’ duties, diesel and other minor incidental expenses.

The other great thing about this new route is the idea for it came from Shaun, one of the regular drivers on the Coast Road bus routes, showing a bus company receptive to ideas and suggestions from its employees and prepared to take a punt on trying one out.

It’s always nerve wracking to see how a first journey on a new route will work out. Will anyone turn out to take a ride, aside from the devout bus enthusiast keen to record a historic first? The omens were good as I arrived at the Brighton Station departure stop at 8.45am for the 9am journey. There were ten people already waiting.

IMG_4384.jpgShaun drove up in the Drusillas branded bus in good time at 8.50am and we left spot on time with twenty on board.

As we continued along the seafront to Newhaven we picked more passengers up at all the key stops the ‘limited stop’ timetable observes which, after one passenger alighted at Rottingdean and one in Newhaven, meant we headed to Beddingham and the A27 with a very impressive 56 on board. Now that’s what I call a very successful new bus route inaugural journey.

IMG_4431.jpgEncouragingly there were many families and children on board; concessionary passes and their poor reimbursement rate were definitely in the minority. Even more impressive, forty passengers alighted at various stops along the A27 including Firle, Middle Farm, Charleston Farmhouse, Wilmington and around half at Drusillas. Until today none of these destinations had been available by bus from Brighton and the Coast Road.

As we continued into Eastbourne we picked seven more passengers up at the District Hospital dropping seventeen off in the town centre and the remaining six at the Pier terminus.

A glorious sunny and warm Easter weekend has helped kick start this new route but it has all the hallmarks of being a successful addition to Brighton & Hove’s award winning network, and deservedly so.

Not only is it tapping into what I believe is a growing market for leisure and tourism orientated journeys by bus – it was noticeable how many passengers alighted with walking maps and other leisure orientated literature – but also full marks to Brighton & Hove for making sure proper promotional leaflets and information is readily available.

IMG_4383.jpgBus stops have been updated with the 11X route number and timetable….

IMG_4430.jpg…. the real time signs included our departure, on board next stop displays and announcements have all the new stops and there are timetable leaflets on board too, all key ingredients alongside an updated easy to use website with information too.

IMG_4456.jpgI wish those managers at bus companies who reckon because there’s a timetable online there’s no need to print anything could have seen all the passengers on board this morning clutching the latest edition of Bus Times magazine which was also available on board. This is how you encourage passengers.

IMG_4455.jpgArriving in Eastbourne Shaun was understandably well chuffed with a total of 65 passengers having travelled on the very first journey. I reckon this must be something of a record.

Ten boarded at Eastbourne Pier for the return journey too. The omens are definitely good.

To celebrate it was time for a coffee and soak up the Eastbourne Easter sun and write up this blog.

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Roger French

Three non red bus rides in London

Wednesday 17th April 2019

IMG_4277.jpgOne of London’s best bus routes started up again today for the summer season.

Route RP1 runs on Wednesdays from 17th April until the end of October. It runs outside the TfL regime and is completely free to ride thanks to the generous sponsorship of two anonymous (and wealthy) local residents who’ve stepped in to provide continued funding after the three year Lottery grant, that had been funding the route, ran out at the end of last year’s operation.

IMG_4273.jpgAnd there’s a brand new bus for this year’s operation. Provided by RAKAT (Richmond and Kingston Accessible Transport) it’s a smart and comfortable 16 seater Mercedes with room for wheelchairs and is used on their community and welfare transport work on other days.

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 15.37.55.pngThe RP1 route comprises a full clockwise circuit around the ten mile internal perimeter road in Richmond Park with bus stops by each entrance/exit including two brief excursions to serve bus stops just outside the Park at Ham Village and Common and Roehampton’s Danebury Avenue. The route also includes a short diversion to Penn Ponds inside the Park as well as the accessible entrance to the Isabella Plantation with its magnificent collection of rhododendrons. There’s also a stop at Pembroke Lodge.

IMG_4295.jpgIt takes just over an hour to do the full circuit. It’s the best hour’s bus ride you’ll ever have in London. I’ve travelled the route at least once each year for a few years now and always thoroughly enjoy the experience. Not least because Malcolm the regular driver makes it so special.

IMG_4265.jpgMalcolm has been involved in the Royal Parks’ educational trust for many years making sure youngsters get to know all about the amazing features and history of the Park. He’s in his element out and about on Wednesdays driving the bus and providing a fascinating running commentary during the journey not only about the many interesting features you pass by including the famous deer and wildlife but also many historical anecdotes and facts. For example the magnificent tree pictured below is the oldest (circa 800-900 years) in the Park.

IMG_4321.jpgEvery year Malcolm tells me he’s going to retire, but every year to my and other regular passengers delight he’s back for another season, as he was today and on top form too.

IMG_4283.jpgWhether it be putting out promotional ‘A frames’ at bus stops in Ham ….

IMG_4288.jpg…. making sure timetables are in place at bus stops all round the circuit ….

IMG_4296.jpg….. or delivering supplies of the timetable leaflet to any location that will take them.

IMG_4293.jpgMalcolm also displays remarkable patience with everyone boarding and alighting including those needing a helping hand and being besieged by families wanting to take a ride into the Park for a school holiday picnic as happened on the second journey this morning.

IMG_4343.jpgIt was also hugely impressive to see TfL come up trumps and inserted this year’s RP1 timetable in the cases at stops in Ham Village and Ham Common so connections with routes 371 and 65 can be promoted.

IMG_4287.jpgMalcolm was visibly chuffed to see his hard work supported by TfL as was I.

I took a ride on route 430 from right outside Putney station to its terminus in Danebury Avenue from where it’s a short walk to where the RP1 stops on the western side of the ‘cycle only’ barrier which prevents through traffic.

There’s a wonderful timetable display here; probably London’s best.

IMG_4262.jpgIMG_4263.jpgMalcolm appeared a few minutes before the first journey’s scheduled departure time of 0940 and another regular passenger (who’d come for the full circuit) and I boarded. We were soon chatting away with Malcolm and were joined by another passenger as we got underway on the circuit picking up two more at Ham Common just outside the Park.

Without access to a car and if you don’t cycle (hundreds do cycle around the Park for pleasure) it’s a long old walk to see the delights the Park has to offer so the RP1 is a real godsend.

IMG_4269.jpgWe dropped one passenger off at the Isabella Plantation and another at Pembroke Lodge where we picked up a family of four who were travelling round to Robin Hood gate as well as another passenger boarding for the circuit.

IMG_4323.jpgWe were lucky to see many of the Park’s deer population today basking in the sunshine including a group of red deer crossing in front of us near Sheen Gate.

IMG_4336.jpgBack at journey’s end at Danebury Avenue the regular passenger and I alighted and left Malcolm to deal with those families off for a picnic.

IMG_4345.jpgI can’t recommend a ride on the RP1 highly enough. Malcolm is training up another driver to stand in for him on some weeks as well as ensuring he can have a well earned summer holiday this year, but if you do get to ride with Malcolm you’re in for a treat.

 

IMG_4358.jpgAfter that ride I headed over to Hoxton in Islington for a ride on London’s other quirky minibus operated bus route; the long standing 812 which meanders around Islington’s residential roads providing links to the Angel, Clerkenwell and Old Street areas which compliment TfL’s traditional red bus routes.

IMG_4349.jpgIronically although the route runs in Islington, it’s operated by HCT Group which has its origins as Hackney Community Transport based in the neighbouring Borough of Hackney but which has grown hugely over the last decade and now has transport interests in many areas of the country.

HCT is a social enterprise which reinvests profits from its contract operations (including a growing number of TfL bus routes in London) into non-profit community operations including the 812.

IMG_4347.jpgHCT’s London operations are now run by a company called CT Plus and the 812 has regular drivers employed by CT Plus who are very attentive to passenger needs and provide extra help as needed.

The service provides a circuitous route as can be seen by the green roads on Mike Harris’s excellent London bus map below. Concessionary (‘Freedom’) passes are valid and other passengers pay a nominal £1 flat fare per journey.

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The timetable has recently changed with an earlier start at 0914 although this journey starts at Skinner Street’s Exmouth Market rather than the terminus at Hoxton where the first departure is a bit later at 0930. The first two round trips also now have an extended 66 minutes running time to cope with traffic delays but from 1050 the schedule settles down to a half hourly frequency with a fairly tight 57 minutes running time.

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IMG_4348.jpgI arrived at Hoxton just before the 1220 scheduled departure this morning and the smart minibus was already waiting nearby the terminus at Bridport Place; the usual bus stand being blocked by a short turning route 21.

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IMG_4351.jpgWe headed off bang on time with one other passenger who mysteriously also travelled all the way around the circuit. Only one other passenger boarded, and she was obviously hugely grateful for not only the service but the extra help provided by our driver as she boarded with her wheelie walking aid.

IMG_4353.jpgTwo buses are needed to run the service and London’s new ULEZ has meant CT Plus have redeployed minibuses from special needs transport work on to the 812 with a refreshed branding and livery.

The 14 seat (with room for wheelchairs) Volkswagen minibuses perform well in Islington’s stop-start traffic and provided a very comfortable ride.

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If you’re in the Clerkenwell, Angel and Hoxton area and have a spare hour during Monday to Friday daytimes outside the peaks it’s worth giving the 812 a ride and see the result of a community transport initiative funded by profits from the big bus routes operated by CT Plus for TfL.

An interesting financial model for hard-to-fund routes of this kind.

 

IMG_3760.jpgMy final foray on London’s non red bus routes was last week after my trip on the Tuesday only 969. Kingston University has been running its bespoke network of bus routes for some years and at the end of 2016 splashed out on a fleet of smart new Wright bodied hybrid buses. Actually it’s RATP-DEV who’ve invested in the buses as they operate the contract to provide the Uni routes alongside their London United bus company which runs an extensive number of contracted routes for TfL in this part of south west London.

IMG_3746.jpgThe three routes KU1, KU2 and KU3 are free to use and aimed at students and staff at the University, but there’s nothing to stop any member of the public hopping aboard (“there is no need to show your University ID”) if the bus is going your way; which it might well do if you travel to and from Kingston town centre from the various University campus sites in Roehampton Vale, Kingston Hill and Penrhyn Road or near the University residential complexes at Seething Wells, Clayhill and Fairfield South.

The main inter-site route is the KU1 which runs every 15 minutes (12 minutes in the peaks) from Seething Wells via Kingston town centre to Roehampton. It diverts into the Kingston Hill campus along a magnificent tree lined access road, which is worth a ride just for the majestic splendour of the tallest trees I’ve ever seen on a bus route!

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The half hourly KU2 is a circular route linking the Halls of Residence at Fairfield and Clayhill with the Penrhyn Road Campus and Surbiton Station, while KU3 is a Monday to Friday four journey per evening amalgam of the KU1 and KU2.

The buses are smart and very comfortable to travel in. Heart FM was playing on one ride I took. Unlike many bus routes the average age of passengers is probably around 20. I felt forty years younger after my travels so it was definitely worth a ride … but make sure you know the University’s term dates as there’s no service during holidays.

Roger French

Who needs an App when John’s in Control?

Friday 12th April 2019

IMG_3840.jpgWiltshire’s Wigglybus was introduced way back in 1999. At one time it was considered so cutting edge as a project to solve the rural transport challenge it attracted £1million in Government funding for expansion. Rebranded, along with other shared taxi type services across Wiltshire, to the less colloquial ‘Connect2Wiltshire’ umbrella brand in 2007 the original routes in the Vale of Pewsey area are now operated by Go South Coast subsidiary Tourist Coaches, masquerading as sister company Salisbury Reds out on the road.

That’s the brand names dealt with. Now what exactly is it?

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.20.57.pngBasically it’s like one of the new fangled app based ‘Demand Responsive Transport’ (DRT) services operating to a flexible route as demanded by passenger bookings up to two hours before departure (think Arriva Click and Oxford Pick Me Up) ….. but without the app. Instead it’s got the wonderful John based in ‘Tourist Coaches Control’ answering the telephone when you ring to book your journey from one of the many small hamlets located across the delightfully scenic Vale of Pewsey between Pewsey and Devizes in southern Wiltshire.

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 21.34.37.pngThis is no ‘innovative bus operation’ in a large conurbation; this is a sensible and practical way for Wiltshire County Council to maintain a semblance of public transport in a deep rural area. Furthermore it’s based around a fixed bus route with advertised times from the route’s origin and final destination and at popular stops across the area but allowing flexibility to dive off down country lanes as needed to serve micro hamlets which would otherwise be isolated.Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.23.55.pngHaving experienced lonely solo rides and disappointingly long waits for app based DRT services (“no buses are currently available – please try later”) and frustratingly no means to contact a human being to ask how long the wait might be, I was intrigued to see how a hybrid scheme mixing fixed timetabled times and flexible routings with a human being in control rather than an AI driven algorithm worked in practice. So I wandered over to Pewsey yesterday to take a ride on the ‘Connect2Wiltshire’ routes 101 and 102 between Pewsey, Devizes and surrounding hamlets.

It was a delight to meet up with Tourist Coaches driver Andy again. He’d taken me from Newbury to Marlborough on the Friday only route X20 back in January. Andy’s memory is much better than mine as he could instantly recall where we’d meet before, I just remember him being a star driver on some previous jaunt around Wiltshire.

IMG_3843.jpgAndy pulled up outside Pewsey’s Co-op spot on time for the 1200 departure on route 102 which heads south to Upavon. This route is also covered by Salisbury Reds hourly X5 between Swindon and Salisbury which gets ten minutes for the direct journey. The flexible 102 can travel via Pewsey’s Broadfields Estate (we did; and took one returning shopper to her house there) as well as the hamlets of Manningford Bruce, North Newnton and Rushall which we had no-one on board for so let them be.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.27.17.pngIn fact we had no-one else on board for anywhere, so made it to Upavon in good time and continued beyond the village centre, and off the X5 route, to a small residential area called Avon Square on the A342 where our scheduled return time was 1218.

IMG_3844.jpgTime for a short photographic stop before returning direct to Pewsey and with no pick ups booked we arrived at 1230, six minutes ahead of schedule ready for the 1240 departure on route 101 across to Devizes.

IMG_3848.jpgOn arrival Andy pulled up in the corner of the Co-op car park to give John a call and hear details of the booked pick-ups for the next trip. It turned out just one passenger had booked us from a stop on the outskirts of a hamlet with the wonderful name of Honeystreet.

Andy kindly invited me to join the call and I had a great chat with John who I’d trust a million times more than any so called ‘Artificial Intelligence’ derived algorithm to schedule a bus departure for my needs. Previously, Wigglybus bookings were handled by a remote costly call centre in Exeter but as part of the new contract arrangements with Tourist Coaches/Salisbury Reds, control was localised in October 2017 and six-day a week working John is obviously a very cost effective way of managing the pick ups.

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Techy people are still catered for through an online booking form on the website although more notice is required.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.31.05.pngFive passengers were waiting for us as we pulled round to the bus stop right outside the front door of the Co-op for the 1240 departure. Three travelled all the way through to Devizes, one got off within a few stops as we left Pewsey and the fifth, a teenage girl, was travelling to Stanton St Bernard meaning we’d be wiggling off the standard route to drop her off.

Fifty-five minutes running time is allocated for this 101 journey to Devizes and the next fixed timing point after Pewsey is a third of the way at 1258 in Woodborough. When Wigglybus first started in 1999 the timetable allowed 40 minutes to complete the core route with an extra 20 minutes added to allow for wiggles.

Twenty years later Andy reckoned an end-to-end 55 minute schedule doesn’t allow much time for many wiggles. He proved right as our diversion to Stanton St Bernard cost us five minutes and we arrived to pick up our pre-booked passenger at Honeystreet a few minutes behind the expected time, only to find she wasn’t waiting.

IMG_3870.jpgAndy took this potential hiccup in his stride; parked up, stepped out of the bus to give John a ring and update him. “They often get picked up by someone they know passing by in a car” Andy explained. I asked if she would have let John know she no longer needed us, but apparently that rarely happens, but at least John is on hand for updates, something an app can’t help with.

We headed onwards on our westbound route having been travelling south for a while, so we now headed back north through Chilton and Patney (where we picked up a passenger at a scheduled timing point who was travelling to Devizes). Andy explained the very narrow country road we were travelling along has only recently been added to the route, buses previously wiggled another way, but we soon came to the largest hamlet, almost a village, on the route, All Cannings which is another fixed timing point and where we picked up two more passengers heading for Devizes.

Suffice to say Andy knew these (as well as the other passengers on board) and was presented with a gift from one who’d just returned from holiday and where it turns out the weather had been very nice and she’d had a great time. She was now off to work; her grandson was doing well and all was good.

IMG_3959.jpgAs the second passenger boarded he pointed out our further progress through All Cannings was blocked by a window cleaning van parked directly opposite a car so there was nothing for it but for me to get into ‘reversing supervision mode’ again and see Andy safely back into a driveway from where he skilfully did a shunt or two to turn around and wiggle back the way we’d come into the village and get back on route via another way.

Andy was not only an expert driver with a great friendly personality but was also a mine of information about the area we were passing through, providing a superb commentary not only for me but everyone on board as we wiggled around the Wiltshire countryside.

We’d passed over the Kennet & Avon Canal five times during the journey and the main railway line to Devon and Cornwall three times and for a short stretch after Woodborough drove parallel to it with Andy pointing out it’s a great location where steam enthusiasts came to catch a view when heritage trains speed by, just on queue as an ‘almost heritage’ GWR HST sped along towards Paddington.

IMG_3938.jpgCrossing the line at Woodbrough, Andy pointed out the extensive sidings still in situ which at one time would carry train loads of daffodils grown extensively in the area for sale in Covent Garden.

At another railway crossing just beyond Patney, Andy pointed out the site of the now long closed station with only a brick water tower now to be seen as a clue to what was once there. Soldiers would alight here and be taken to the nearby Salisbury Plain. When the station first opened in 1900 it was called Patney Bridge but soon changed to plain Patney to avoid confusion with Putney Bridge in London. I also spotted a footbridge over the railway which didn’t seem to be doing much – I reckon it needs shifting to Pilning who are crying out for a footbridge at their station.

IMG_3954.jpgAnother interesting insight was a long abandoned and grassed over war time runway alongside the road between Alton Barnes and Staton St Bernard which had been protected by dug out mound type shelters camouflaged with grass around a small entrance and which can still be clearly seen as you drive by today.

Alton Barnes has a church (Saint Mary the Virgin) which is partly Saxon being built in the 10th and 11th century. Indeed this journey took me back to my wander around Suffolk last month passing all these hamlets with just a handful of dwellings and their magnificent churches.

IMG_3957.jpgOther wonderful sights on the journey included so many thatched roofs, I lost count; including a rebuilt one which Andy explained followed a devastating fire (six fire engines attended); the farm where a thrashing machine was in full flow making the raw material ready for the thatchers; the famous Pewsey White Horse which can be seen from all over the area; and just mile upon mile of delightful scenery and splendid Wiltshire views.

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IMG_3856.jpgI was also impressed by the obvious availability of roadside information about Connect2Wiltshire; not only in Pewsey and Devizes but all along the route. Timetables were also available to pick up on the bus (as seen in the reflection of the dashboard below)!

IMG_3950.jpgYou couldn’t fail to miss the bus stop plate and information at Pewsey’s Co-op.

IMG_3841.jpgDevizes also sported a handy map at the main Market Square bus stops which is also available online.

IMG_4001.jpgWith all the excitement of the journey, we arrived in Devizes just over five minutes late and Andy welcomed the nine passengers boarding for the return journey to Pewsey and see how much wiggle room there’d be heading back to Pewsey.

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It had been a brilliant couple of journeys; made all the more enjoyable by Andy’s superb driving and fasincating commentary.

Loadings may have been on the low side; with eight/nine on the journey to/from Devizes; but that’s still eight/nine more than I’ve encountered on my app based rides in much larger towns, cities and conurabtions! Furthermore the bus stop information was commendably simple and easy to understand; much more so than fiddling around with apps.

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Secretary of State Chris Grayling was drooling at the idea in his speech to CPT”s Annual Dinner in January that app based DRT minibuses are the future of transport and will even solve the rural transport problem. I disagree. Who needs apps when you’ve got John in Control?

Wiltshire is wiggling and it seems to be working. Just as well, as there’s no chance of another £1million coming Wiltshire’s way!

Roger French

 

 

TfL’s least frequent bus route

Tuesday 9th April 2019

IMG_3806.jpgTransport for London’s bus service 969 is the last route standing of a once substantial ‘Mobility Bus’ network of routes operating one or two days a week to a local shopping centre from relatively low-density neighbourhoods where no alternative mainstream route in the main bus network served the area. In the old days the buses were wheelchair accessible so also provided a service for those with impaired mobility.

Improvements to London’s bus route network over the last twenty years or so has seen new smaller buses able to penetrate residential areas previously off limits to bigger buses, as well as the widespread introduction of low floor accessible vehicles, so the Mobility Bus network as was is no longer relevant to the Capital’s transport network, particularly as TfL also fund an extensive Dial-A-Ride network of minibuses operating all over London for those with severe mobility needs.

Route 969 runs one return journey on a Tuesday and Friday at 10am starting in a couple of micro-sized residential areas in Whitton (near Twickenham) to the south off the Chertsey Road before heading north and joining the more frequent H37 route past St Margarets and then joining five other routes into Richmond.

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 16.11.22.pngFrom Richmond it heads east towards Barnes along the Upper Richmond Road, also served by three other bus routes, except our 969 bifurcates to pass by Mortlake Station, the River Thames (pictured below) and Barnes Bridge Station as well as the delightful Barnes Pond before heading back south at the Wetland Centre passing Barnes Station and then deviating off into another small residential area unserved by other bus routes called Lennox Estate.

IMG_3715.jpgThe 969’s final furlong is south again via Roehampton Lane turning right on to the A3, Roehampton Vale and Kingston Vale, where it terminates at the large Asda.

The journey time is scheduled for 62 minutes with an 11.02am arrival at Asda allowing for around two and a quarter hours shopping time before returning to Whitton at 1.15pm.

Aside from School and Night Buses it’s the one bus route in London I haven’t had the pleasure of riding, so intrigued as to why it continues running as TfL responds to its financial crisis by cutting frequencies and routes across the Capital, I decided to take a ride this morning.

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IMG_3669.jpgThe Abellio operated bus arrived in Rosebine Avenue, a short nondescript link road from the A316 Chertsey Road into a small cul-de-sac triangle of roads at spot on the scheduled time of 10am and despite there being a timetable posted on the opposite side of the road, the bus pulled up and an empty shopping trolley wheeling passenger who, like me, had been lurking for the previous ten minutes climbed gratefully aboard across the grass verge.

IMG_3699.jpgI’d done a little recce around the Gladstone Avenue triangle and already clocked a lorry delivering bricks to one of the bungalows which would cause a problem when the bus arrived; but luckily unloading had virtually finished by the time we got there and the delay was only a few minutes.

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IMG_3703.jpgWe’d picked up four more passengers outside their bungalows as we cruised around Gladstone Avenue and Rosecroft Gardens (meeting another obstacle as a van gingerly reversed into a parking spot) ….IMG_3705.jpg….. before rejoining the Chertsey Road for our next loop along Lincoln Avenue where Google Maps identifies four ‘recognised’ bus stops but I spotted only one timetable case at the beginning of Lincoln Avenue with no identification at the other three locations.

And that was it, as we got back on the Chertsey Road and headed south to the roundabout with the B358 (Hospital Bridge Road) and then retraced our route northwards.

IMG_3664.jpgThe Chertsey Road (A316) is a fast dual carriageway which feeds directly to and from the M3 so there’s no scope for any more bus stops along the way, even though no other bus routes use it, until we turned right on to St Margarets Road and could safely stop by the station where we picked up two passengers who confidently boarded us even though the normal H37 pulled up behind. One of these travelled just a couple of stops and the other rode the six stops into Richmond where two of our original five Gladstone Avenue boarders alighted. Another had already left us just after St Margarets leaving just two on board.

In Richmond we picked up another befuddled passenger wondering what a 969 was and who was just doing a two stop hop, and on the outskirts of East Sheen our driver implored a passenger waiting at Berwyn Road to board us even though she also was just hopping along for two stops. We were back to just the two original Gladstonians on board again.

By the time we passed Mortlake station we were thirteen minutes behind schedule and then we hit trouble at the Wetland Centre in Barnes as a long queue of traffic heading south along Rocks Lane towards Barnes Station was confirmed on Google Maps to be caused by roadworks and tortuously slow temporary traffic lights.

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We eventually made it to the junction of Roehampton Lane and Upper Richmond Road where we headed off to the Lennox Estate and I was astounded to see we were besieged by nine shopping trolley wielding passengers all relieved to see us at last, by then being around twenty-five minutes late.

IMG_3728.jpgAs everyone clambered aboard with our driver sorting out the trolleys so they were neatly stacked he also warned there was another building supplies delivery ahead with the offending lorry completely blocking our path around the estate.

IMG_3733.jpgOur driver Sina, who until now had been ably deputising for regular driver Steve who was away on his holidays (you pick these news snippets up on bus routes of this kind, although no-one knew whether Steve had gone abroad) doned his high-viz and wandered down to see what the prognosis was.

IMG_3730.jpgHaving been sitting awkwardly for around an hour in my favourite single deck London bus seat immediately behind the centre doors (where you can keep an eye on most things) due to bus manufacturers once again not catering for anyone with a shoe size larger than size 5, I’d already decided to give up my seat to those boarding with various walking aids and needing it far more than me, so now got off the bus to see what might be done to alleviate the lorry blockage.

IMG_3711.jpgSina soon returned and announced there’d be a twenty minute delay while the unloading continued, but our nine regular Lennox Estate passengers were having none of that, and explained Steve often reverses back up and goes around the estate the “wrong way” before making a u-turn in a lay-by and retracing his steps.

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 17.37.02.pngGallantly I offered to help Sina reverse back and we performed the ‘Steve contingency plan’, but in the event not picking any more passengers up. Turns out Mavis wasn’t up for shopping today and had given the bus a miss.

We made it back to the junction of Roehampton Lane and Upper Richmond Road we’d last seen about 10-15 minutes ago, and it was foot down all the way to Roehampton Vale arriving at Asda around half an hour late.

IMG_3742.jpgSina helped unload all the shopping trolleys before taking the bus off to the official ‘Bus Stand’ on the slip road off the A3 where he parked up until the return journey at 1.15pm.

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What an extraordinary journey. What an extraordinary bus route. Aside from those who just jumped on board the 969 rather than taking a bus on a standard route following behind for their short hop rides; we’d taken three Gladstonians shopping in Richmond and two all the way to Roehampton’s Asda (which was strange as, aside from Richmond’s supermarkets [OK, inevitably a Waitrose] there’s an Asda in Twickenham just off the Chertsey Road about five minutes into our journey; although I appreciate it would be a bit of a walk and no real return journey option other than waiting for the 969 to come back, so you might as well enjoy the hour’s ride to Roehampton Vale and back I suppose). Then there were the nine (including two school holidaying children) Lennox residents who with a short walk to Roehampton Lane could get the standard route 265 which also serves Roehampton Vale’s Asda.

There was one other passenger who boarded in Lincoln Avenue at the start of our journey and travelled all the way to the terminus, like me, it turned out the young man was enjoying his school holiday taking a bus route just for the intrigue of it.

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I’m puzzled how the 969 can survive TfL’s funding challenges. But then TfL have always been an organisation with quirky aspects to its policy decisions. Not least the bus stop I spotted in Sheen Lane, Mortlake – a road only served by the two-journeys-a-week route 969 and where more frequent bus routes pass at either end of the road, as well as South Western Railway trains to everywhere you’d want to go …. yet, someone at TfL Towers authorised a fully fledged bus shelter just in case anyone wanted to wait for those two occasions a week to go somewhere you can get to more easily another way. I’m willing to wager no-one has ever waited at that shelter; ever.

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It must be London’s least used bus shelter, by far!

IMG_3814.jpgAnd ironically the spider map it displays doesn’t show the 969; the one route passing by; it’s relegated to being classified as an “other route”. It may not have a coloured line on a map; but it’s got a bus shelter!

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A quirky ending for a quirky bus route tale.

Roger French

 

Two penultimate bus journeys

Friday 5th April 2019

IMG_3585.jpgIt’s that time of year when local authorities begin a fresh financial twelve months which with dindling Government funding often means less money to spend than the year just ended. For subsidised bus routes that can only mean one thing … another round of cuts and withdrawals. I’ve been out over the last fortnight taking a ride on rural routes facing the axe.

Following a public outcry at the scale of proposed cuts to seventy bus routes announced by Kent County Council in November 2017 the local authority embarked on a consultation exercise branded as the ‘Big Convesation’ along with an inevitable ‘Bus Summit’ or two. This led to a very positive outcome with savings in the bus support budget for 2019/20 scalled back from a reported whopping £2.25m to a more modest £455,000. Stagecoach and Go-Coach Hire had made suggestions for sensible economies in the Thanet and Sevenoaks/Edenbridge areas which are being implemented this weekend. I took a ride on the routes and journeys disappearing around Sevenoaks to see what will be missed.

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Go-Coach Hire operated route 404 is a route of two halves. It connects Edenbridge, Four Elms and Ide Hill to Sevenoaks from the south west with a journey at 0725 (principally for school children) and back again at 1555 as well as a later journey back at 1735 which only continues beyond Four Elms if needed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 14.35.17.pngSecondly it links the villages of Godden Green, Stone Street, Ivy Hatch, Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol to Sevenoaks from the east also with a school timed journey at 0740 and return at 1526 as well as three off peak journeys for shoppers two of which continue through to Ide Hill to the west of Sevenoaks (on the way towards Edenbridge). There’s a late afternoon journey at 1735 but this only continues beyond Ivy Hatch if needed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 14.36.18.pngThe new timetable from next Monday removes the off peak circuit serving Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol furthest east (but these villages are also served by route 222 operated by Autocar runing north-south between Borough Green and Tonbridge) and reduces the number off peak journeys from three to two as far as Ivy Hatch. However, in a positive development these journeys will continue all the way through to Edenbridge rather than Ide Hill as previously together with an extra new morning journey from Edenbridge as far as Sevenoaks.

What’s being taken away from the east, opens up new journey opportunities to the west of Sevenoaks.

IMG_3564.jpgYesterday was the penultimate day of the current timetable and I took a ride heading east on the 1415 journey from Sevenoaks to Plaxtol and back again. There were just two passengers besides me. The female passenger got off after a delightful twenty minute ride through Godden Green, Bitchet Common and Bitchet Green at the lovely village of Ivy Hatch while a man took the bus around the soon to be abandoned circular route including Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol (which was well worth it too, as can be seen in the photgraph below, taken while we waited time at Shipbourne Church) and he alighted at the National Trust property of Ightham Mote, where he had an hour and a half to explore before the bus would take him back on the return journey after the school trip.

IMG_3566.jpgIn the new timetable it’s good to see Ightham Mote (a medieval moated manor house) will still be served by bus with an arrival at 1043 and a departure at 1340. Not that the National Trust will be bothered, as their priority sadly seems to be to attract motorists more than anyone else as the notice on the driveway to Ightham Mote captured below confirmed.

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IMG_3569.jpgWe didn’t carry anyone else on the outward journey or anyone coming back into Sevenoaks on the return journey at all, so it’s unlikely this bus is going to be missed by many actual passengers and frankly it makes for a sensible economy. Mind you, when you see the large mansion style exclusive properties we passed on the journey it’s perhaps not surprising –  one private road even had a barrier to restrict entry, it was that exclusive!

IMG_3577.jpgReturning to Sevenoaks, this bus left again at 1526 for its next journey to Plaxtol but with no-one on board although it undoubtedly picks up school children returning home from the nearby academy.

The same thing happened on the next journey I took, heading west, the 1555 to Edenbridge, which had been to the nearby Knowle Academy first and picked up 27 school kids going home to Ide Hill, Four Elms and Edenbridge. I was the only non school kid travelling – and it was quite an experience too.

IMG_3595.jpgOn yesterday’s showing of such sparse loadings, rural residents around Sevenoaks are doing well to still be receiving a bus service running each day Monday to Friday, albeit limited in frequency. It’s a shame more journeys can’t be justified, as it really is a lovely rural ride and well worth seeking out if you’re ever in Sevenoaks.

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Service 405 is a Wednesday only bus route linking West Kingsdown (to the north east of Sevenoaks) and the hamlets of Woodlands and East Hill through Otford to Sevenoaks. Aside from the positioning journeys from and to Sevenoaks which avoid the circuitous routing, there’s just one return journey a week operated by Go-Coach Hire. It leaves West Kingsdown at 0935 arriving in Sevenoaks at 1017 and returns at 1230. It ran for the very last time this week on Wednesday, 3rd April as it’s now been completely withdrawn. I travelled on its penultimate journey last week.

IMG_2806.jpgThe main purpose of the route seems to be to serve the mobile home community, many of whom are of pensionable age, at East Hill Farm which is located at the end of a very long and extremely narrow, winding dead end road. These residents really are isolated and rely on their one Wednesday journey a week to travel into Sevenoaks for shopping.

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The report to Kent County Council’s Environment and Transport Cabinet Committee meeting on 17th January which approved the withdrawal reckoned “no more than two passengers use it weekly”. When I travelled last week there were twelve regular passengers returning on the 1230 bus (as well as another six taking a final ride like me, just out of interest before the route ends).

IMG_2864.jpgSeven got off at East Hill who all seemed to be regulars with two others alighting in the Hillingdon Rise residential area in Sevenoaks, exclusively served by the 405, and another in Otford, while two others continued into West Kingsdown.

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I saw a similar number boarding the journey in Sevenoaks bus station a few weeks ago. I do feel sorry for these people, who’ll now be completely cut off from a bus route to their nearest town.

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Kent County Council have committed to pilot a “Taxi-bus” as a part replacement for the 405, but this doesn’t seem to be starting until June. No wonder they all had overfull shopping trolleys last week.

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 20.56.45.pngHowever, all is not lost as I spotted a notice in the bus shelter in West Kingsdown explaining that Buses4U (a Community Bus Operator) runs a Thursday journey to Bluewater and Gravesend on route 422 but it would seem you have to be a “member” at East Hill to travel, so that rules me out.

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I’m indebted to fellow 405 passenger and blog reader, Terrence, who told me about the quirky history of route 405, explaining it has its origins in an initiative by Dr H Nesbitt Heffernan who started the Thames Weald Travel Society in the mid 1960s to provide services to villages left isolated when London Transport withdrew routes as well as running a route through the Dartford Tunnel to Romford and one to Crawley for a time. It’s done well to continue for so many years and it will be interesting to see whether the Taxi-bus proves to be a sensible alternative.

Kent County Council will save a modest sum from withdrawing the 405 but it’s not clear how much the taxibus initiative will be costing.

Go-Coach Hire may generate some extra business by switching resouces on the 404 from the Shipbourne and Plaxtol end of the route for a more regular link between Sevenoaks and Edenbridge which itself is a lovely ride with a great view of Bough Beech Reservoir leaving Ide Hill towards Edenbridge.

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Finally another positive shout out to Go-Coach Hire for their presentational skills. It was good to see timetables on display in Sevenoaks bus station ready for the new routes and their new numbers (the 404 becomes the 4) starting on Monday and bus stop plates had been updated with new numbers to reflect routes taken over from Arriva.

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Meanwhile Arriva still don’t know what year we’re in on their website despite being advised …..!

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As a postscript I also travelled on the aforementioned Autocar operated route 222 between Tonbridge and Borough Green yesterday, and as I tweeted while travelling, was somewhat appalled by the condition of the vehicle.

IMG_3519.jpgWhile it was nice to ride this pictureseque route on a double decker, the filthy condition of the interior and the cracked upper deck front window presented a terrible image for bus travel.

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IMG_3488.jpgI sat upstairs with two regular passengers who commented how busy the journey was yet we only had eight on board from Tonbridge at 1222 and only me and two others travelled the whole journey to Borough Green. We dropped one passenger off in Ightham, just before Borough Green, where it meets the Arriva route 308 from Sevenoaks via Borough Green to Gravesend at exactly the same arrival time, 1258. Luckily he made the connection, but he’d been worrying the whole journey whether he’d miss it and have an hour to wait for the next bus. Strikes me a small retiming of the 222 would make all the difference … as would a decent bus to travel on too.

Suffice to say we picked no-one up along the journey nor dropped anyone off in the Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol villages we passed through and being abandoned by the 404.

Roger French

 

I won’t let a software glitch beat me

Monday 1st April 2019

IMG_3381.jpgI’d seen the build up in the trade press last summer. Another ‘on-demand’ ‘ride-sharing’ ‘app-based’ ‘innovative’ minibus service due to start running between central/north London and Luton airport from October 2018.

The operation called ‘Blue Bus’ would “drop you off as near to your home as we can”. Obviously there would be an “Uber-style app … matching customers to the closest pick up point”. It sounded too good to be true to be covering all of central and north London. I bookmarked it to follow up the launch with a ride.

October 2018 came and went but no news of the new service starting. I emailed Blue Bus founder and owner, Tazio Puri Negri to enquire about progress and he said he’d “keep me posted”.

IMG_E3308.jpgI heard no more until last week when a fullsome effusive  four page article appeared in the same trade magazine confirming what was now called B.Bus has been up and running for a month ….. and “we already carried around 20 passengers in the first two weeks”.

The article continued “at the moment the service is offered 7am till 5.30pm and is only available between Luton Airport and central and north London …. the long term strategy is to cover all the major airports of London. Gatwick is planned as our second expansion. There are even plans for airports to be served outside of the UK, but currently the Luton operation is where the focus for the time being will remain”. Just as well.

Unable to resist trying out anything new (and innovative) I downloaded the prerequisite B.Bus app, registered as a customer, and made my plans.IMG_3390.jpgI must have missed the bit when it said pick ups/set downs are initially only in the Paddington and Bayswater area, and it could well be my personal technical limitations at how to use apps but I found I could only default to having Luton Airport as the origin rather than destination for my journey.

Undeterred I headed off to Luton airport today to give B.Bus a try for a central London bound journey.

I’m sure it was something I’d not ticked or perhaps unwittingly opted out of, but arriving at the airport, my app wouldn’t accept any destination I entered despite using the inbuilt map or typing its name in manually. It got as far as telling me Paddington was a 3 minute walk away from Paddington Station but that’s as far as I got.

I decided to try the nuclear option of deleting the app and starting again. Trouble was the App Store wanted Wi-fi and I found my phone fighting between the various Wi-fi offers from National Express, Green Line and Arriva vehicles arriving and departing in the coach station – all of which need logging into or getting their own back by blocking Internet access. Increasingly frustrated I took refuge in the Terminal building and used their Wi-fi.

App successfully downloaded again and having logged back in as an already registered customer, I impressed myself with finally successfully booking and paying for a journey to Paddington and very impressively being advised a bus would be with me within 10 minutes. All I needed to do was take a 9 minute walk to the drop off/pick up point for cars and non scheduled coaches as B.Bus doesn’t come into Luton Airport’s coach station right in front of the Terminal building.

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I’d looked on the app on my way to the Airport at likely waiting times and saw what looked like an hourly service so was well chuffed to have dropped lucky at just a ten minute wait.IMG_3160.jpgI received a confirmatory text at 1306 that my journey was booked and scurried off to try and find the rendezvous point in ‘Drop Off zone area Bay F’ ready for a 1316 departure. This was impressive stuff.

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Once I’d worked out which way to walk it only took about five minutes and although the Bay letters are marked and positioned for the convenience of drivers and hidden from approaching passengers (other than Bay O) I eventually found Bay F and waited.

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And waited.

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And waited.

By 1330, fifteen minutes after my driver Simon had been due, I began to have that nagging feeling this wasn’t going to work out well. By 1345 I was on the point of giving up. The problem being there’s no contact details in the app and replying to the confirmation text just brought back ‘message not delivered’.

Luckily a bus industry insider had the mobile phone number of B.Bus owner Tazio Puri Negri so I gave him a ring to find out what was happening. A colleague answered and said he’d look into it and call me back within five minutes.

Which he did. Simon would be with me in twenty minutes and I’d be refunded my £7.99 fare. Sincere apologies were given with Simon’s non appearance put down to a software glitch which had shown no bookings for the afternoon.

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Simon duly arrived with me at 1430 and I was finally on my way. We had a nice chat as we drove down the M1 and encountered only a short stretch of slow moving traffic near the M25 delaying progress and some minor delays on the Finchley Road.

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Simon explained he’d got seriously delayed on the way up to the Airport by a crash on the M1 and also apologised for keeping me waiting as I boarded. I explained that I understood there’d been a software problem and he acknowledged he hadn’t received details of my booked journey.

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The Iveco minibus is comfortable and its nineteen seats give good leg room. A usb socket is available in the side panels. There is Wi-fi but my phone didn’t seem to pick it up. Three of the minibuses are natural gas (CNG) powered necessitating a special trip to fuel up in London while the fleet has another similar three diesel powered Iveco Daily Tourys vehicles.

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As we approached the end of the M1 Simon explained he was getting tight on drivers’ hours as he had to get back and fuel up before finishing his duty so we mutually agreed it would suit us both if I bailed out at Finchley Road and I’d jump on the Jubilee line and Simon could head back north before the homebound rush hour hit the M1.

It had taken 50 minutes to reach Finchley Road from Luton Airport and we bid our farewells.

 

Tazio and his B.Bus team are joining a highly competitive central London to Luton Airport market. Who can forget the legal battles between Arriva’s Green Line and National Express over the airport coach station access a few years ago. No wonder B.Bus is banished to the outer fringe of the airport although that presumably means a nice saving on departure charges.

The £7.99 fare is a bargain; setting aside software glitches, if I was a regular passenger needing to get to the Paddington area and was able to easily master the app and could summon up a comfortable luxury looking minibus to arrive within ten minutes, that’s a very attractive proposition at a great deal. When I travelled on Arriva’s Green Line 757 last September it cost £11 one way to Victoria.

On the strength of today’s experience though, it’s going to be a monumental task to make it a commercial success. Sure there are lots of hotels in the Paddington/Bayswater area and no doubt a percentage of their visitors pass through Luton Airport but I’m not convinced that market is big enough to sustain six minibuses.

As ever promotion and getting the service known in the marketplace is a Himalayan mountain to climb, and very costly too. It’s early days but I couldn’t see a social media presence (certainly the link from the app doesn’t work) and I can’t find a website by Googling ‘B.Bus Luton Airport’ or anything similar.

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Apps are the current fashion but why not run a scheduled hourly shuttle on fixed times between Paddington and Luton Airport – at least we’d all know what to expect and when to expect it rather than the lottery of whether a minibus is around and can be with me “within minutes”.

It might be today’s software glitch but when I tried to rebook my journey the app was telling me “There are no buses available at this moment please try scheduling a ride”. That’s not much good if I’ve just stepped off the plane especially when trying to schedule a ride, the app could only offer me a journey tomorrow morning after 0730.

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It’s always good to see new services being tried and I wish Team Tazio good luck; I think they’ll need it. I wouldn’t worry too much about those expansion plans for Gatwick and other airports just yet though and definitely and urgently get today’s software glitch sorted.

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Roger French

Farewell Norton Bridge

Friday 29th March 2019

IMG_3036.jpgThe rail replacement bus service which has been running between Stafford and Stone to serve the abandoned Norton Bridge station since May 2004 comes to an end tomorrow. I couldn’t resist taking a trip up there to check it out on its penultimate day.

Trains stopped calling at Norton Bridge fifteen years ago to allow for the rebuilding of the railway as part of the West Coast Route Modernisation project. The station platform was inconveniently in the way.

Norton Bridge first opened in 1837 and latterly only enjoyed an irregular frequency local train service between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent until it ended in May 2004.Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 19.35.17.pngA rail replacement bus service was introduced between Stafford and Stone via Norton Bridge which was included in the rail timetable system and journey planners with rail tickets continuing to be available and accepted on the buses which also served other bus stops along the route. Funding for this came indirectly from the DfT as the franchise holder, at that time, London Midland, included the cost of the bus in its successful bid.

With the new West Midlands franchise starting in October 2017 the DfT decided to finally bring, what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, to an end and issued a consultation in late 2016 to formally close Norton Bridge station, even though trains hadn’t called there for twelve years.

It came as no surprise the formal closure was enacted in December 2017 but the bus service was given a further stay of execution with continued part funding through the new franchise until the end of March 2019 enabling Staffordshire County Council time to review other bus service levels in the area.IMG_3037.jpgBrexit Day may not be happening today, but sadly D&G Bus service 13 is ending tomorrow and the 600 residents of Norton Bridge who lost their irregular trains in 2004, saw their station formally close in 2017, will now lose their only bus service.

Here’s how today’s trip went…..

IMG_3024.jpgI arrived in Stafford over an hour before the 1235 departure was due to leave for Norton Bridge and Stone (earlier departures are at 0835 and 1035 with later ones at 1505, 1615 and 1715). I didn’t want to risk missing it. This enabled me to see the bus arriving from Stone from its previous journey at 1133 before it takes just over an hour’s break. It’s not a particularly arduous schedule having just half an hour running time end to end.IMG_3034.jpgI was pleased about that as there was absolutely no information about the route, its times or even its existence anywhere in Stafford station or outside on the bus shelters. It’s always tricky when you’re not sure where a bus route departs from so at least I now knew and wandered off to explore Stafford for an hour.IMG_3139.jpgArriving back I was pleasantly surprised to see three passengers boarding the bus for the trip to Stone.IMG_3035.jpgIt didn’t take long to realise they were regulars who come into Stafford for shopping. As you can imagine talk on the bus was all about being cut off after this weekend. Although one lady got off in Great Bridgeford (a village on the route just north of Stafford) which will continue to be served by another D&G Bus service, route 14, which ironically also serves the communities of Wedgwood and Barlaston on its route which also lost their stations in the West Coast Route Modernisation project but you can still buy tickets to them from any station and use them on the bus (a single from Wedgwood to Barlaston is just £1.90).

One passenger continued on the bus towards Stone and the third alighted with me in the small village of Norton Bridge. I asked him where the entrance to the station was and it turned out the bus had stopped right opposite. He told me all about the station house, the railway cottages and the sad day when the footbridge was taken away which meant access to the station was lost for ever.IMG_3131.jpgHe shrugged his shoulders when I asked him how he’d manage to get into Stafford next week with no bus, before admitting his wife had a car!IMG_3130.jpgThe station house and adjacent cottages (“where the rail workers used to live” he explained – it must have been a real hive of activity at some time) are indeed very pleasant and I made my way on to the ‘station forecourt’ and looking down on the fenced off tracks could easily make out the former platform, now isolated and uncared for, together with an abandoned signal boxIMG_3071.jpgBut the best bit of all was the ‘Helpful information’ poster still in situ at what was the entrance to the forecourt. IMG_3125.jpg

IMG_3045.jpgNorton Bridge station is alive and well; except there’s “no ticket office” and “no ticket machine”, and sadly “no step free access”. Oh, and no access to a crumbling platform and …. no trains either!

Not only that but the new franchisee, London Northwestern Railway from West Midlands Trains has taken the trouble to reprint the poster in their own corporate house style and someone has taken the trouble to go out to Norton Bridge and display it ….. yet the adjacent bus shelter contains no information at all about the bus replacement service. Nothing.

IMG_3134.jpgIf there’s anything that sums up our dysfunctional non-integrated transport system in this country perhaps that is it!IMG_3137.jpgI headed back to Stafford.

Roger French

4,200 bus seats for Edinburgh

Tuesday 19th March 2019

Lothian Buses have just started operating their brand new 100 seat tri-axle buses in service on city routes 11 and 16. I thought I’d take a ride.

IMG_2389.jpgThey’re Alexander Dennis Enviro400XLB bodies on a Volvo chassis (according to the swanky promotional video which plays out every five minutes or so on two of the four on board TV screens – a pair on each deck). I think most passengers were just impressed they were smart new buses with lots of seats to travel on, rather than a manufacturer’s techy sounding bus model name check!

IMG_1977.jpgThey’re not all out in service yet – it takes a while to commission 42 new buses (although thankfully not as long as commissioning new trains), as I found out first thing this morning when four consecutive older buses turned up in Princes Street between 0650 and 0735 on route 11.

IMG_2299.jpgMy patience paid off though as one of the gleaming new jumbo sized buses eventually arrived and I began my first trip to route 11’s southern terminus at Hyvots Bank. About fifteen passengers had spread themselves out on both decks, which wasn’t hard as there really is a lot of room, both upstairs and down to spread out in.

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IMG_2377.jpgIMG_2383.jpgThe seats are very comfortable with ample leg room throughout.

IMG_2346.jpgThe two front offside seats upstairs has particularly generous legroom, as does the nearside seat over the first set of rear wheels.

IMG_2371.jpgIMG_2503.jpgBeing a tri-axle there’s a longer than usual wheel arch giving a double set of backward facing seats.

IMG_2498.jpgSome bus companies are now eliminating rear facing seats and replacing them with other novelties like a reading shelf. This also helps deter feet-on-seat syndrome. But here the name of the game is to maximise seating capacity.

Obviously there are the usual usb charging plugs and Wi-fi is available. There’s also some nice mood red strip lighting around the bus (see photos above and below) and smart spot lights making for a particularly inviting ambiance at night.

IMG_2419.jpgStrangely for a bus with a lot of room there’s only a single ‘three tip-up’ sized space for a wheelchair or a buggy.

IMG_2385.jpgOn one journey a passenger using a wheelchair boarded which meant no buggies could be carried and on another a buggy soon occupied the space with a second having to be folded.

IMG_2415.jpgSome bus companies are now installing two wheelchair spaces which has the benefit of increasing the chances for buggy owners to travel easily too.

The buses are double doored and the already mentioned on board video explains that passengers should exit through the rear door and an on-board warning announcement plays out every time they close.

IMG_2393.jpgThe pairs of screen monitors are behind the staircase facing the rear on the lower deck and at the top of the front window on the upper deck, sadly restricting the forward view a touch for front gangway seat passengers.

IMG_2500.jpgIMG_2349.jpgI’m not a great fan of screens inside buses, and certainly not two of them in pairs. I just think it’s way over the top leading to information overload. On the positive side the left hand screen (upstairs) and top screen (downstairs) show very clearly and helpfully the next three bus stops (the next one being announced too) and every so often within a display cycle the right hand screen (upstairs) and lower screen (downstairs) shows the expected arrival time at key points further along the route which is an excellent idea – a similar display in the Airlink buses to Edinburgh Airport helpfully gives up to date flight departures (and I know other bus companies are following Reading’s lead in showing train departures too).

IMG_2350.jpgThis is all good stuff but I reckon the same effective content can be achieved by cycling through displays on just the one screen rather than having two.

All the more so as the rest of the display cycle comprises PR messages about how many tonnes of carbon are being saved or videos about using apps to sync with friends so they’ll get a text message to know just when your bus is arriving.

IMG_E2501.jpgIMG_2432.jpgI’m not convinced passengers are avidly watching these things and indeed on a busy bus if you’re sitting towards the middle or rear you can’t make out the screens anyway.

Funnily enough despite all the gizmos there wasn’t any information displayed about the temporary arrangements at the northern terminus of the route – at the busy tourist spot of Ocean Terminal, where the normal terminal bus stops had been suspended.

IMG_2461.jpgMy journey down to Hyvots Bank was ‘against the flow’ of commuters and scholars heading into the city centre so was fairly lightly loaded but it gave me a chance to spot buses on route 11 heading towards the city and I was highly impressed at seeing busy buses which kept on passing by with very few spare seats.

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IMG_2364.jpgI can certainly appreciate why 100 seat buses make sense on such a busy corridor through the Morningside area heading into the city centre. The current timetable supplements route 11’s daytime ten minute frequency with extra peak hour journeys running at least every five minutes. It looked to me as though there were extra buses to those with at one point four buses virtually following each other, and not long after four more, all well loaded.

IMG_2365.jpgComing back into the city on my return journey between 0800 and 0900 we also got busier and busier as we approached the stop called Morningside Station (there isn’t one) and it was interesting to note there were seats available on the top deck especially towards the rear but downstairs was obviously getting crowded and congested with our driver calling out for passengers to go upstairs “where there are plenty of seats”.

IMG_2414.jpgIMG_2416.jpgI read Richard Hall, Lothian’s MD, suggesting the introduction of these high capacity buses might enable reductions in frequency. On the strength of this morning’s observations I’m not sure you’d be able to squeeze too many peak buses out, they’re very busy, although not all the route is yet run with the new buses.

Slightly off topic I was very pleased to note Lothian Buses have now relaxed their £10 minimum transaction value for the purchase of mobile tickets so I was able to buy a one day ticket for £4 – and a great bargain it is too.

But one other Lothian tradition still baffles me and that’s the absence of using the famous and popular Princes Street where many passengers board and alight as a timing point either in timetables or on the onboard displays.

IMG_2507.jpgIt must confuse visitors and tourists that the only references are to either Elm Row or West End, Lothian Road which are the stops before and after Princes Road – and 14 minutes apart at that. Most odd.

Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 20.02.27.pngLothian are excellent at providing timetable information – displays of leaflets in their Travel Centre and bus station – and there’s a colourful diagrammatic network map. Their website is full of well laid out helpful information and their fares are great value. There’s real time information via online and on the app as well as at many bus stops with a long established system that now looks a bit dated, albeit seemed to be working well, including switching to giving advice about using the new (Enviro400XLB) buses!

IMG_2221.jpgIMG_2222.jpgAs usual I found Lothian drivers to be cheerful and professional including taking obvious care with the longer than usual new buses not to block junctions…

IMG_2358.jpgAll in all a great positive development to see these new high capacity buses in service. I’m sure there are applications for such workhorses elsewhere in the country.

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Roger French