Decent London route branding (at last)

Friday 20th September 2019

Well done UNO Bus, operator of TfL bus route 383 between Woodside Park and Barnet, for today’s community led launch of the first decent route branding on a London bus route for a few decades.

The 383 may be a backwater north London bus route which takes a circuitous route east of the Great North Road between the Spires shopping centre near Barnet Church at its northern terminus and Woodside Park Underground station in the south, but it’s now the most professionally promoted route in the network.

Running only every half an hour the 383’s route meanderings take in New Barnet, Oakleigh Park and Friern Barnet with a 36 minute end to end journey time meaning three buses are needed to run the service – smart four year old Enviro 200s.

The 383 is the only TfL contracted bus route operated by Hatfield based UNO Bus – they’ve held the contract since July 2015 – so it’s a very welcome development to see MD Jim Thorpe and the team take this initiative to give the route a much higher profile.

It’s not easy to work out where TfL bus routes go. The inexcusable absence of a network bus map either in printed form or online (other than the independently produced map by Mike Harris) is an absolute scandal so anything that provides a clue where bus routes actually go is to be applauded.

IMG_4233.jpgAll the more so as recent ‘trials’ of route branding introduced by TfL during the last couple of years in the Barkingside and Hayes and Hillingdon areas are excruciatingly embarrassing due to their amateurish application. Well designed they’re not.

IMG_4237.jpgThis new 383 branding introduced by UNO has all the hallmarks of the excellent work produced by Ray Stenning and his Best Impressions design agency. It’s to their consistently high standard.

A lovely stylised route map on the lower back panel is an excellent idea although sadly looks as though it might suffer the fate of being usurped by an advert for a third party company in the frame. Let’s hope not, it would be such a shame to see a promotional bus route map covered up by an advert for a car dealer!

Inside the buses on the 383 are panels to create interest in the local area as well as another geographic route map.

Sullivan Buses – another small well presented bus company based in Hertfordshire who run a growing number of TfL contracts in north London – also use these panels to give background historical information about each route to generate interest.

I hope the larger bus companies who dominate London’s contracted bus market are taking note of these positive initiatives and hopefully TfL will approve more schemes of this kind and give up those appalling attempts at route branding in Barkingside and Hayes.

It’s also encouraging to hear this 383 brand launch has been introduced with customer focused training involving all the regular UNO drivers on the route.

Imagine if proper branding, as just launched on the 383, was applied to all the high profile routes through central London. What a positive difference that would make. It might even help turn around the downturn in passenger journeys being experienced across central London and encourage new passengers who might stand a chance of understanding where bus routes go.

Roger French

Only Connect in Kent

Monday 16th September 2019

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Back in July I took a ride on Nu-Venture’s route 58 between Maidstone, East and West Malling and villages and hamlets close to Wrotham Heath in Kent before it was transformed as part of one of Kent County Council’s rural pilots.

The idea was to cut the route back from the town centre to Maidstone Hospital (on the western side of the town), run more frequently (hourly), provide connections and through fares to Arriva’s town bus routes into the town centre and introduce two smart new Mercedes Sprinter minibuses.

The new arrangements began the week after I visited, on 15th July, so I thought it would be a good idea to pop back and see how things were settling down a couple of months on.

The publicity leaflet produced by Kent County Council for the new look 58 makes much of the ease of connections to and from Arriva’s bus routes. It suggests the best place to connect is alongside South Aylesford Retail Park, a few stops before the bus reaches Maidstone Hospital ‘due to the presence of shelters and real time information’ but ‘passengers may change buses at any stop on the route of the 71/72 that they choose’.

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The leaflet also explains ‘in addition, passengers can also choose to travel to Maidstone Hospital where connections to Maidstone Town Centre can be made with Arriva buses 3 and 8’.

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I’d been a bit sceptical about how easy all this sounded and particularly noted there was no mention of through fares if you began your journey on an Arriva bus in Maidstone town centre and wanted to travel out to the villages near Wrotham Heath but undeterred I gave it a go this morning.

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My scepticism wasn’t misplaced. Down in the bowels of Maidstone’s dingy Chequers Bus Station the driver of the Arriva Kent bus on route 71A immediately had a puzzled look and said he couldn’t issue any through fares to Trottiscliffe (one of the hamlets served by the 58 on the circuit via Wrotham Heath) and had never heard of such an arrangement. I decided not to press the point so bought a single ticket to Aylesford for £3.70.

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We arrived on time eighteen minutes later and I waited for the Nu-Venture 58 to arrive.

It turned out I got off at the stop before the suggested official interchange point at Homebase, but this stop, outside a large Sainsbury’s, is also endowed with a shelter and real time information, albeit not working, so seemed a good place to wait.

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There was an up to date timetable for the 58 and even a bum perch to sort of sit on.

The 58 arrived on time and the driver helpfully sold me a £7.20 return to take me on to Trottiscliffe and back to Maidstone town centre but emphasised when I returned it was best to alight at the stop opposite Homebase to change on to an Arriva bus there as drivers may not expect me at other stops – he also recommended having the leaflet to hand to show the driver.

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I said I was thinking of going on to Maidstone Hospital and changing to a bus on route 3 or 8 there as included as an option in the leaflet. The driver cautioned me against that as he thought that would only work for concessionary passholders rather than paid for tickets as Arriva drivers on those routes wouldn’t be aware of the arrangement.

He was also aghast to hear the driver of the 71A couldn’t issue a through ticket as he understood all the arrangements had been made for that to happen.

When I travelled on the 58 before it was modified back in July there were six passengers who had no alternative options travelling on a journey around midday (one of four off peak journeys). Today there were three already on board when I got on in Aylesford (one went to East Malling and two all the way to Trottiscliffe); two boarded in Larkfield (one to West Malling and one to Leybourne) and four and a buggy travelled from West Malling to Ryarsh. But sadly it was just me on the return journey back to Aylesford/Maidstone Hospital.

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We passed the second bus on service 58 in West Malling in both directions and it looked empty each time.

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The 16 seater Sprinter buses are smart looking inside with Arriva Click type seats and decor although the two front most offside seats are comfy tip-ups rather than standard tip ups by the wheelchair/buggy area.

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Heading back into Maidstone I got off at the Homebase stop with an Arriva 71A right behind us (the timetable shows an arrival on the 58 at 15 minutes past the hour and the 71A leaving at 16 minutes past) so that connection worked well….

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…except there was an inevitability as I presented my ticket that the driver firmly advised (twice) ‘we don’t accept Nu-Venture tickets’.

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Luckily the Mercedes Sprinter was just pulling away so I pointed to the unusual nature of the bus I’d just got off (not being a standard Nu-Venture route) and also produced in a flourish the Kent County Council leaflet for the driver to read – especially the section about through tickets.

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Fair play she accepted my return ticket even though there was a bit of ‘against my better judgment’ about it and ‘I’ve never heard of it’ and ‘it’s the first time I’ve seen one of those’. I stood my ground as I wasn’t going to shell out another £3.70!

This Rural Transport Initiative is a bold move which includes a more than doubling of the number of journeys serving the villages and hamlets near Wrotham and East and West Malling with direct journeys still provided to retail sheds at Aylesford as well as Maidstone Hospital; it’s seen two smart new minibuses and regular drivers too. My journey today had nine instead of six passengers (back in July) which is encouraging although the empty return journey and empty journeys on the other bus less so.

But although the connections for onward travel to and from Maidstone are pretty good and may work well enough for passholders not worried about through ticketing, for the few passengers who pay fares it’s incumbent on Arriva to make sure drivers are briefed and through ticketing made easily accessible on ticket machines especially in the outward direction. Otherwise passengers having a similar experience to mine today will be put off travelling.

It might also be a good idea for Kent County Council to take down reference to route 58 on all the bus stops on the section of withdrawn route into Maidstone town centre.

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Roger French

Pods in the Park

Tuesday 10th September 2019

Readers will know of my scepticism concerning Demand Responsive Transport; I’ve made enough journeys to conclude there’s no way such schemes will ever be commercially viable let alone more convenient for passengers over a fixed timetabled bus route. The Speke trial comprising a one bus fixed timetabled route (with passengers knowing when and where the bus is located) replaced by a one bus flexible ‘on-demand’ route (with passengers never knowing where the bus might be or when it might come, until logging into a smartphone, before having to ‘demand’ it) is the latest example of hype over substance.

Autonomous vehicles are an even more fanciful idea for on-demand transport whose time, I reckon, will never come (in my lifetime) on public roads in any main stream application. However there may well be applications in restricted zones with specific characteristics such as within University campuses, at Airports, large hospital sites or shopping malls. Or in former Olympic Parks now redeveloped as a broad based leisure destination over an extensive area named after the monarch.

Which brings me to another trial of autonomous pod type vehicles in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford. The previous trial, in September 2017 involved a partnership between French company Navya and Keolis.

IMG_2837.jpgThat team also operated a very small scale public service using pods with a capacity of twelve in Lyon.

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This latest trial in Stratford lasting two weeks began last Monday and involves Heathrow Airport and a British company – Westfield Autonomous Vehicles part of Westfield Sports Cars – using much smaller capacity pods, seating just four people in comfortable seats.

The pods are to the same design as those used to connect Heathrow’s Terminal Five with the car park on exclusive guided track. Heathrow Airport are running this trial to test how the technology works on open pathways used by pedestrians and cyclists around the Park. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park prides itself on being a hub for innovation and may even use such pods to connect people to its various venues in the future.

The pods have been ‘taught’ the circuit, which is just over a mile in length, by initially being taken around with a human pilot using a joy stick. This includes manoeuvring into three ‘bus stops’ at each ‘corner’ of the circuit as well as the ‘terminus’.

Having ‘learned’ the route the pod can take off on its own using a combination of RADAR, LADAR (some kind of lasar tech) and ultra sonic sensors to pick up anyone who comes within scope of the pods progress.

There are twenty four cameras and sensors fitted all around the vehicle. If anyone or anything comes within a short range of the moving pod then it stops automatically until the ‘object’ moves out of the way – which obviously is the big downside on making autonomous vehicles work in practice in a public place with anti-social behaviour not uncommon.

However I was told a follow up trial is planned for January when the next stage of development involves the pod being programmed to take avoiding action to manoeuvre around such objects which will certainly be interesting to see.

There were two pods out when I visited the trial this morning. The idea is to provide a ten minute frequency on the circuit which takes about twenty minutes to complete based at the Timber Lodge restaurant/cafe. The pods can travel at speeds up to 25mph but are restricted to just 5mph in this trial in the Park and a marshall walks in front of each one while a technician monitors progress using a lap top inside the pod. This person also seems to get the pod started after it’s stopped at each bus stop.

There’s only space therefore for three passengers on board but that seemed to be coping with the interest being shown from the public this morning. Originally the trial envisaged potential passengers asking a marshall using an app to request a pod from one of the bus stops around the circuit with a specific code which would then enable you to track where the pod was. Ominously for on-demand transport that idea was dropped soon after the trial began as being impractical.

Heathrow Airport have a big financial stake in the technology and this trial. They see scope for further applications particularly airside where they have to move staff entailing costly contracts with bus companies. Autonomous pods will reduce the number of bus trips within and around the airport. Heathrow will also benefit financially if others find a suitable application for such vehicles and that’s why they’re heavily involved in this trial and January’s follow up. The technician on my pod trip was employed by Heathrow Airport.

There are plans for more trials at Cribbs Causeway in Bristol as well as in the city centre, at Birmingham and Manchester airports and Grand Central in Birmingham. Westfield also state trails have taken place in the Lake District.

It’s certainly very clever technology; it’s got lots of funding both public and private, but it’s a small scale trial. Very small scale. Interesting nonetheless.

Roger French

Britain’s longest bus* route

Tuesday 3rd September 2019

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It’s about 230 miles long. It takes 7 hours and 50 minutes. It’s Scottish Citylink’s route 915 (or 916) from Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station all the way to Uig Pier on the Isle of Skye via Fort William and Kyle of Lochalsh.

I’ve travelled along this route a few times, but never from one end right through to the other in one go. Until today. Except, not quite, I actually hopped off at Portree for an overnight stop tonight keeping the last 30 minute ride to Uig for first thing tomorrow morning as there’s no ferry to North Uist from Uig on a Tuesday evening.

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Route 915/916 is a bus route in two halves. There are nine journeys a day between Glasgow and Fort William, with three continuing on to Kyle of Lochalsh and Portree and two of those go on to Uig. Those three journeys to Portree are joined by four more from near Invergarry (which start in Inverness), one of which also continues to Uig. So it’s a very good service for a such a sparsely populated area.

* There’s a very strong argument to say the 915 is not a bus route, more an express coach route, but passengers use sections of the route as they would a local bus service – for example we carried a passenger into Fort William from Ballachulish (27 minutes) and another from nearby Corran as well as a school lad from Fort William home to Spean Bridge, another home with shopping to Invergarry, one from Kyle of Lochalsh travelling just over the bridge to Kyleakin and two travelled from Broadford to Portree. You wouldn’t get that many local pick ups and set downs for short rides on an express service.

Furthermore the timetable lists 64 timing points for the journey which, stripping out the breaks totalling 78 minutes, means stops listed every 6-7 minutes. That has all the the hallmarks of a bus route rather than an express route to me. And Scottish concessionary passes are valid throughout. I rest my case.

Now that’s out of the way, here’s how my journey went today.

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The West Coast Motors coach (I agree the vehicle is not a bus!) arrived in its smart Citylink livery on the stand in Buchanan Bus Station at 09:25 in good time for the 10:00 departure.

Boarding commenced at 09:30, well, suitcases boarding commenced as in use of the under seat side lockers first for the four of us already waiting and the passenger door pointedly closed; then when no more passengers with cases turned up the driver decided to let us board and ticked us off his manifest list one by one.

Over the next twenty minutes our numbers increased until 24 were on board in very good time at 09:50 with three more boarding by 09:55 when we were all ready for the off with five minutes to wait.

Interestingly there were two groups of four on board, one group of three and four groups of two with eight passengers (and myself) travelling alone. Almost all were making leisure journeys and were of all ages with every decade of age from 20s to 80s represented; there were Scots, English and a fair few Germans.

The group of three Germans boarding at Buchanan Street hadn’t pre booked nor bought tickets from the open three person Citylink Travel Centre opposite our departure stand but the driver was happy enough to sell them tickets from his ticket machine …. for £76.50 (for three day returns to Glencoe). There was a bit of language confusion for a few minutes with the driver clarifying three times it wasn’t £17.50 he needed but £76.50, but they finally understood and coughed up in cash when finally it dawned how much it was.

Citylink is not a cheap option. Two passengers enquired what the fare to Portree was when we got to Tyndrum for our first five minute brief toilet stop.

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It turned out £42 single each was too steep for them and they headed off thinking what the alternatives might be (not a lot). I’d paid £46.50 for my single fare bought on line a month ago.

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I didn’t see anyone else pay by cash today – most had prebooked tickets, a few had the three day £49 pass (which is amazing value), and some paid by contactless or ApplePay.

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Before I forget again I just want to add an extra observation to yesterday’s blog to note only 5 of the 145 passengers on route 90 paid by exact fare cash into the fare box. Quite astonishing how things have changed.

Yesterday I spent 2 hours 44 minutes on an arc less than five miles from Glasgow’s city centre on route 90. Today in that time I was passing Glencoe!

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The two year old Irizar bodied Scania wasn’t lavish but was comfortable enough. I appreciated the seats not being too high backed to maximise views through the large windows.

I was a bit surprised there were no usb points, sockets or Wi-fi – most odd for such a modern coach on such a long route. There was a prominent digital clock which I like but annoyingly was five minutes slow. There were two TV style monitors and thank goodness they were switched off. A toilet was available at the rear which wasn’t excessively used bearing in mind we had a few toilet stops along the way.

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Four of the nine departures from Glasgow to Fort William take a route via Glasgow Airport. My 10:00 journey was one of those and we picked up two more passengers there making 29 in total on board. Extra time is allowed for the Airport route – we made it there in 20 instead of the 25 scheduled minutes and then rejoined the usual route by taking the Erskine Bridge over the River Clyde.

Having a pick up at the Airport is convenient for airline travellers jetting in but personally I’d never risk it because of the unpredictable nature of airline arrivals.

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After 45 minutes we’re near Balloch with Loch Lomond soon appearing between the trees on the offside. By 11:00 and for the next half an hour to Ardlui we enjoy unceasing spectacular views across the famous Loch as we take it carefully along the twisty and narrow A82 running alongside. Just after Ardlui our first two passengers leave us in Inverarnan.

By 11:45 we’re passing Crianlarich station with its famous refreshment room and with a journey time from Glasgow exactly comparable to how long ScotRail’s trains take to reach here.

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Our short leg stretching and toilet stop comes just up the road in Tyndrum where we arrive a couple of minutes early giving a nice 7 minute break for a short wander.

Immediately after we get going again at 10:58 we meet our first set of temporary traffic lights – these cause us a nine minute delay, which unsurprisingly we never fully recover from arriving into Fort William five minutes late. But not before we pass more scenic delights including the Tyndrum forests and for a while we pass alongside the West Highland line as it heads towards Bridge of Orchy.

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We pass at the end of Station Road and then let the railway leave us to deviate off towards Rannoch Moor and Corrour while we slowly climb the A82 towards Glencoe.

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Sadly low cloud and mist hid the best of Glencoe today but even so passing through this wonderful part of Scotland is quite breathtaking and there were many cameras up against the windows capturing the scene.

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Our first passenger since leaving Glasgow boarded at Glencoe Ski Centre travelling the 19 minute ride to Glencoe itself where we also said goodbye to our three German friends who I’m sure felt got their money’s worth from their £76.50 trip (including the ride back to Glasgow in the afternoon too).

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Fort William provides a welcome 45 minute break where we arrive at 13:20 with busy cafes in both the adjacent railway station and Morrisons but I’m back ready to board at 13:50 and our new driver has just opened the door for boarding. There’s a bit of a polite scrum at the bus stop between the fresh faced passengers and the old hands like me wanting to be reunited with the possessions we left on board to reserve our seats.

All gets sorted ready to depart at 14:00 although it’s 14:02 by the time we’re setting off with 28 on board.

The next stretch of route to Kyle of Lochalsh brings more wonderful scenery as we pass five lochs on the nearside (Lochy, Garry, Loyne, Cluanie and Alsh) as well as the forests and mountains along The Road To The Isles (aka A87).

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I reckon half the 28 on board from Fort William are my fellow travellers from Glasgow, and around half of those travelled on beyond Kyle of Lochalsh too with four alighting in Broadford, one in Sconsor and one in Sligachan; all on Skye. We picked up four in Kyle of Lochalsh and set down two and also set down five passengers in Dornie just before Kyle of Lochalsh.

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We ran about ten minutes behind schedule between Fort William and Kyle of Lochalsh which ate into our 23 minute break there but that still left enough time for a wander around to take in the splendid view of the Skye Bridge.

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I always enjoy the amazing scenery on Skye and the hours journey from Kyle to Portree never disappoints even on a low cloud day.

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As I mentioned above I decided to leave the journey at Portree when we arrived at 17:15 rather than continue to Uig as I would have needed to wait there for some time for a Stagecoach route 57C back to Portree and the fine rain drizzle and low mist wasn’t very enticing.

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I’ll be taking the first 915 tomorrow morning from Portree at 08:30 for the half hour ride to Uig to connect with the ferry over to North Uist and a day in the Outer Hebrides.

At Portree I noticed three fellow passengers had travelled, like me, all the 7 hours 15 minutes way from Glasgow and they also alighted. Three continued on to Uig but they’d boarded at Fort William (2) and Kyle of Lochalsh (1). Three new passengers boarded at Portree for that final leg to Uig.

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The Citylink 915 from Glasgow to Skye is a truly wonderful journey offering spectacular views all along the way. It’s well worth a ride.

Roger French

 

Ninety round Glasgow

Monday 2nd September 2019

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I’ve ridden round Birmingham (on both NatEx’s inner and outer circular bus routes); round Leicester with Centrebus; round Coventry before that city’s circular route (neatly numbered 360) got the chop so I thought it was time to take a ride on First Glasgow’s route 90, which almost completes an inner circuit of the city from Braehead Shopping Centre, west of the city centre close to the south bank of the Clyde round to Partick on the north side.

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Route 90 is not one of First Glasgow’s high profile city routes. Running only every half an hour it doesn’t warrant a bright splash of colour on a bespoke route livery; it qualifies only for a grey colour on First Glasgow’s useful colour coded network route map. Most vehicles used on the route today were Wright bodied Volvo single deckers, but I did spot a couple of double decks and one single deck with some vinyl remnants from the old Simplicity branding extolling frequencies of every ten minutes.

While route 90 might not be high frequency or high profile, as I found today, it’s certainly busy.

We left Braehead shopping centre quietly enough at 13:20 with just one passenger in addition to myself, but we soon picked up a handful more as we stopped by the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) – oddly not actually in the bus station itself – but alongside it.

It’s a bit of an endurance to ride the full 2 hour 16 minute journey, especially as we got significantly behind schedule; at one point being around half an hour late. Not particularly for any noticeable reason, just being busy. We finally arrived into Partick bus station, coincidentally with just one other passenger on board in addition to myself, at 16:04 instead of the scheduled arrival of 15:36.

In the meantime 145 passengers had got on at 44 bus stops, stopping at 20 more where passengers alighted. We carried one wheelchair and eight buggies, two at the same time as the wheelchair (one was folded).

Busiest bus stop was Forge shopping centre to the east of the city in Parkhead where 17 boarded while six adults and nine school children heading home got on at a stop in Springburn.

Aside from myself the longest journey undertaken by one passenger was from the QEUH to Celtic Park taking around 70 minutes. There was a lot of short journey lengths indicating the success of a circular route; our maximum load was 24 which was reached on three separate occasions with around 72 different passengers.

It’s an interesting way to observe the quite diverse nature of Glasgow’s inner suburbs and the people who live and work there. I don’t think at any point on the route we were more than 5 miles from the city centre – and that extreme was Braehead at the beginning – most of the route taken is only about 2-3 miles from the centre. . In addition to the QEUH we passed Glasgow Royal Infirmary, as well as Ibrox Park, Hamilton Park and Celtic Park. We passed through areas such as Govan where shopping streets are sadly dominated by shuttered up vacant shops and Hillhead with its well-to-do thriving cafe culture. We also passed a number of nice looking parks including the Botanic Gardens. We crossed the Clyde in the east as well as passing over and under a number of rail lines.

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It was a fascinating afternoon and I learned a lot about Glasgow I didn’t previously know, just from observing.

After a brief refreshment stop in Partick I caught one of First Glasgow’s flagship routes back to Braehead – the high profile route 77 running every 10 minutes from the city centre via Partick and the Clyde Tunnel, to QEUH, Baerhead and Glasgow Airport. It runs every 10 minutes as far as Braehead and half hourly beyond there to the Airport.

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Rather than 2 hours and 44 minutes, the 77 would get me back to Baerhead in just 18 minutes.

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Except I got off at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital to try the Stagecoach operated X19 Fastlink into the city centre via high profile bus lanes.

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IMG_9353.jpgThe branding is a bit lacklustre but there’s been serious investment in bus shelters and real time signs as well as the segregated bus lanes.

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It was an impressive fast ride even through the evening peak and brought an interesting afternoon to an end.

Roger French

Crossing the Pennines

Saturday 31st August 2019

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Route 888 between Newcastle and Keswick is the lesser known bus service across the Pennines.

Whereas the more famous route 685 takes a direct westerly trajectory along the A69 to Carlisle via Hexham and Haltwhistle, the 888 also serves Hexham but then follows a south westerly route via Alston and Langwathby on the spectacular A686 to Penrith and then across to Keswick.

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This ranks as one of England’s most stunning bus rides crossing moors and mountains and passing through forests and incredible hairpin bends along the way – just take a look at those contour lines and bends on the map extract below to get a feel of the ride.

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It should definitely feature in any ‘must do’ scenic bus routes bucket list but the only snag is whereas the 685 runs hourly, the 888 is a once-a-day-in-each-direction affair and only then during the summer months (July to September). Still, at least it runs daily as shown in the leaflet helpfully produced by Cumbria County Council despite most, of not all, passengers originating in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. Indeed I picked up the leaflet on my visit to Hexham last week.

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It’s actually more of a coach day-trip excursion than a bus route, being operated by a (15 year old) coach and even includes a 35 minute refreshment and toilet stop at Alston by a Spar shop and Texaco garage just 1 hour and 25 minutes into the journey from Newcastle – the rest of the journey to Keswick taking only an hour and ten minutes more.

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Interestingly the 35 minute stop reduces to 20 minutes on Sundays and is all that’s allocated on the return journey each day of the week.

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The 888 is operated by Wright Bros Coaches based in Alston and accepts concessionary passes, which is a bit of a surprise with the increasing tendency for ‘leisure’ type routes of this kind to be excluded from Schemes these days. On my trip today I reckon 25 of the 27 passengers on board were passholders.

Perhaps that explains why the single fare from Newcastle to Keswick is as high as £20 – to maximise reimbursement (ironically the responsibility of Tyne & Wear and Northumberland westbound and Cumbria on the eastbound return). Concessionary passes were being swiped on some kind of portable electronic ticket machine by the driver.

The driver was a bit vague on return fares when I asked after buying my single ticket but I gathered a period return is £30 and I was unclear how much cheaper a day return would have been. I asked pointedly if you receive a ticket if buying a period return as I hadn’t been issued a ticket for my single fare; and that’s when he got a bit vague. I think I’ll pass this feedback on to Wright Bros in case it’s of interest.

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The Volvo B10M coach was not the most comfortable I’ve travelled on and it was showing it’s fifteen years age. Cramming 57 seats inside meant minimal leg room – which might work for short legged school kids on a contract run but is not ideal for a leisure day trip across spectacular countryside.

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The ‘ash trays’ still in situ could usefully have been emptied too.

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More positively the coach arrived in Newcastle’s Coach Station in good time at 09:00 for the 09:20 departure but the driver parked up in the far corner for about ten minutes …

IMG_9184.jpg…before pulling on to one of the five stands in front of the small building run by National Express – a bit of a luxury these days for coach travellers but has toilets available (for 30p a visit).

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Sixteen passengers boarded and we were away spot on time picking the rest of our passengers up as we left Newcastle (1) as well as Throckley (3), Corrbridge (6) and Hexham (1).

It must be a long day for what I assume is an Alston based driver and coach as it’s over an hour’s drive to and from Newcastle (especially on morning peak traffic congested weekdays) meaning at least an 08:00 start and a 20:30 finish back at the garage at the end of the day.

It would make more sense for this to be a Newcastle based operation and furthermore I reckon it’s an ideal route for a double deck bus with some nice comfortable seats (maybe even a table or two) to enhance those spectacular views – except a reader has just pointed out the 13ft 6ins low bridge in Langwathby which rather scuppers that idea! However it certainly needs to be operated by modern accessible vehicles. An opportunity for an enlightened operator looking for market growth in 2020 perhaps?

I covered some of the same route yesterday between Alston and Hexham as I made my way back from visiting the wonderful South Tynedale Railway on the Go North East route X81.

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The X81 is effectively a positioning service to get the Tynedale Links branded bus from Go North East’s Hexham garage to Alston to operate the two return shopping journeys a day on route 681 to and from Haltwhistle.

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The 681 is another great route, presumably funded by Northumberland County Council even though Alston is just over the border in Cumbria. Journey time to Alston is 48 minutes and every minute is a delight.

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It’s a real rural gem including looping around narrow unclassified roads (to serve Yont the Cleugh mobile home/caravan site) and generally following the picturesque South Tyne valley on the A689 through Lambley and Slaggyford. It looks to me as though the route is a direct replacement for the railway from Haltwhistle to Alston which closed in 1976, so a bit of a shame it’s down to just two return journeys a day.

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I caught the 12:40 from Haltwhistle to Alston yesterday lunchtime and sadly we only carried two passengers back home with their shopping, one travelling the short distance to Park Village and the other got off on the double run we made to serve Halton-Lea Gate about half way along the journey – the rest of the way it was just me, as it was on the return X81 later in the afternoon.

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The bonus of visiting Alston is taking a ride on the South Tynedale Railway which runs north from Alston up the valley to Scallyford.

IMG_9093.jpgThe standard gauge tracks were lifted soon after closure in 1976 but the dedicated members of the Preservation Society replaced them with a narrow gauge line with operations commencing in 1983 to a temporary halt about a mile north of Alston pending repairs to a viaduct over the South Tyne River.

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Further extensions followed and the line now continues for five miles as far north as Slaggyford with two halts at Kirkhaugh and Lintley.

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The Railway has a variety of locomotives including three steam, four diesel and three battery electrics. Yesterday it was No 18 Old Rusty doing the honours – an 0-6-0 diesel mechanical locomotive for those who are interested.

IMG_9105.jpgA Lottery Award in 2016 has enabled the Society to improve both Alston and Slaggyford stations which now offer excellent facilities for visitors.

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At Alston there are two adjacent small museums one with an educational slant aimed at youngsters (a condition of the Lottery funding, no doubt) and the other a shed with a variety of transport vehicles and artefacts.

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The 2019 timetable of three return journeys a day runs until the end of October reverting from daily to four/five days a week operation now the school holidays are over.

Journey time is 35 minutes with 25 minutes layover at Slaggyford. The volunteer staff are exceptionally friendly – even inviting me to pay a visit inside the Slaggyford signal box to watch Old Rusty change ends.

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A great visit and two lovely bus rides to and from Alston too.

Roger French

Speke up for Arriva Click

Wednesday 28th August 2019

 

I was puzzled by a recent news item that Merseytravel are withdrawing a local bus route they fund in the Speke area of south east Liverpool from this weekend to be replaced on Monday by Arriva Click: ‘the new Arriva Click Speke Zone service will operate between the same hours as the current 211 service: 8.05am to 5.15pm Monday to Friday and 8.45am to 5.15pm on Saturdays’ – the News Release reassured.

This sounded as though Arriva were introducing a new tailor made Click on-demand service in a new zone to replace a fixed route traditional timetabled bus service. An intriguing development, but I thought Arriva’s Click venture in Liverpool already included Speke within its operating area, so not so much ‘new’ more like changing a loss making tendered bus route into a loss making Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) operation. I headed up to Liverpool today to find out what was going on.

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Bus route 211 provides a local circular ‘sideways figure of eight’ type service linking tight knit residential areas both to the west and east of Speke’s small centrally located community hub in South Parade and the nearby Morrisons supermarket and associated retail sheds just to the north.

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Buses run at a rather inconvenient 40 minute frequency with the Monday to Friday service contracted to small independent Huyton Travel and the Saturday service to municipally owned Halton Transport (goodness knows why the tender was split by day of the week, but that’s local authorities for you).

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It has all the hallmarks of an ailing tendered suburban service which doesn’t really go anywhere, other than providing local journeys around Speke. The Merseytravel timetable leaflet ‘valid from 29 April 2019’ states ‘What’s changed? Service frequency has reduced with a bus now every 40 minutes’. That service reduction obviously hasn’t worked as just four months later the service is being withdrawn ‘replaced by Arriva Click as part of an initial 12 month trial’ (note the word ‘initial’).IMG_8861.jpg

The thing about a fixed timetable is, even though a forty minute frequency is difficult to memorise, at least you know for sure a bus is due at a given time. I arrived in Speke’s South Parade at 12:30pm this lunchtime and set about catching the next 211 which I knew was due to leave at 12:45pm on the western circuit.

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Out of interest I checked the Arriva Click app to see when an ‘on-demand’ minibus would arrive to take me to Dymchurch Road – the furthest western bus stop on the 211 circuit.

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I was offered a pick up in 5 minutes and a fare of £2.35. That was impressive especially as the 211 bus arrived in South Parade at 12:35 and parked up (on the pavement) for its scheduled ten minute layover.

IMG_8862.jpgIt already had about four on board who’d almost certainly got on at Morrisons and now had a ten minute wait on their journey home as the driver popped over to the shops. I was beginning to warm to the idea of Click already; I could have been on my way.

I spotted two high-viz wearing Arriva managers also on board the stationary bus giving out information about the new arrangements as well as a packet of sweets and some kind of fridge magnet – well, you have to do these things.

After a bit of a delay after the driver reappeared and some dialogue with one of the high-viz managers ensued ….IMG_8867.jpg…. before the bus finally pulled up at the nearby stop and we were off on the circuit a few minutes late.

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The driver told me the comparable fare to Dymchurch Road on the 211 is £2.10 and interestingly I checked the Arriva app again and a bus was still available to take me there in just five minutes for £2.35 if I needed it.

I had a very interesting and informative chat with Arriva’s Liverpool Click manager on board who explained there would indeed be a dedicated Arriva Click minibus allocated to the newly defined ‘Speke zone’ from Monday which will effectively replace the 211 and its awkward 40 minute frequency.

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Although my fare to Dymchurch Road might increase by 25p, it was pointed out if I only travel a very short distance my fare might come down, with Arriva Click offering a minimum of £1.

Another upside of the new arrangements is Click’s acceptance of concessionary passes for free travel, but only within the ‘Speke zone’ – hence the necessity for a geographic definition from Monday.

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Loadings on the 211 looked to be about half a dozen passengers per journey per half circuit at most and that was from observations at a busy lunchtime. The service is dominated by concessionary pass holding passengers – remember the qualifying age is still 60 in Merseyside, so it’s obviously essential to continue the free travel on Click and part of this deal is Merseytravel reimbursing Arriva for passholders. But this will only apply on journeys within the zone so if a passenger wants to take Click further afield, rather than use it as a shuttle to change on to buses at South Parade or Morrisons as many do now, they’ll have to pay the standard Arriva Click rate which is about £1 per mile for onward travel beyond the zone. I expect Arriva are hoping it may encourage reluctant passholders to give Click a go for longer rides and pay up.

IMG_8872.jpgFrom my observations today, the other complication with morphing the 211 into DRT is the average passenger is probably not a smartphone owner or adept at using such technology. To get round this, as with GoSutton in London, passengers can ring up Merseytravel who’ll book the journey for them and provide the algorithm’s pick up details while they’re on the phone.

IMG_8873.jpgThis does introduce ‘noise’ into the system – will the communications always work and messages be accurately understood? – but the allocation of regular drivers to the dedicated ‘Speke zone’ Click vehicle and managers impressing on them the need to be flexible, especially in the first few weeks, is in hand.

For Merseytravel and Arriva Click this new deal makes sound financial sense. It’s a win win. Merseytravel get shot of an awkward tendered bus route and instead pay the money that went to Huyton and Halton to Arriva who benefit from some welcome guaranteed income towards Click’s challenging bottom line.

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Although Arriva are allocating a dedicated minibus to Speke, from my albeit brief observations today this could easily be achieved within existing resources – both times I passed through Liverpool South Parkway I saw three Click minibuses laying over or on standby and I was told three minibuses were on standby duties at the nearby John Lennon Airport. That’s a lot of spare resource.

IMG_8914.jpgAs well as the two times I tried a booking while in Speke and got a 5 minute response time (indicating a vehicle was available nearby), when I actually booked one to take me back to Liverpool South Parkway I was given a pick up within seven minutes; and it was just me travelling. So the evidence is it’s still a struggle to get that all important shared ridership as the pathway to DRT commercial success.

But the new look ‘DRT 211’ trial should certainly achieve shared riding for Arriva and that guaranteed income. It’s a very smart move.

However I’m not so sure it’s a smart move for passengers. It was obvious today the bus is used by regulars who know the times, albeit awkward times, to get them to Morrisons and back home again. In the new scenario, assuming no smartphone, they have to make a phone call from home to book a journey (reading out their ten digit concessionary pass ID) initially not knowing what time the pick up might be. It could be in five minutes, or it could be up to half an hour away if the minibus is on the other side of Speke. (30 minutes is the guaranteed maximum).

My guess is initially passengers will gravitate around the existing 211 times – we’re all creatures of habit – and this will be an algorithm’s dream outcome, but once passengers break ranks and opt for different times then the bus will become more unpredictable in its location and timings. This brings uncertainty into the journey, not least when it comes to returning home from Morrisons with the shopping. Apparently there are plans to put a phone into the foyer of Morrisons but in the meantime a phone-less passenger is stuck, unable to summon up a bus to get home.

And that could be a stumbling block not only for the passenger but for the trial. As a solution it might make sense to get Arriva to run the bespoke ‘Speke zone’ minibus on a fixed route to fixed times; and give it a route number … like 211 perhaps. It could be the ultimate in efficient shared riding!

Just a thought.

It’ll be interesting to see what passengers make of it next week.

Roger French

PS I requested my journey to Liverpool South Parkway from outside Morrisons but as well as the app telling me it was seven minutes away, it also gave me a pick up right on the far side of the supermarket/retail sheds car park – almost a five minute walk. If I’d had bags of shopping to carry I’d have been rightly miffed. I hope that’s sorted for Monday.

IMG_8903.jpgWhat’s more although I was set down by the Station entrance and Dan, my friendly driver, even told me which platform I needed and how to get there, I understand Merseytravel won’t let Click pick up from the bus station right by the station and you have to walk outside to the road network.

IMG_8909.jpgThis also happened to me on my last visit – not being picked up in Liverpool One bus station. Come on Merseytravel – if you’re now collaborating with Arriva it makes sense to sort these anomalies out.

IMG_8848.jpgPPS Liverpool South Parkway is an impressive airy bus station to wait in with lots of facilities but I was a bit surprised the man in the Travel Centre didn’t know Arriva’s Airport route 500 went to Speke when I enquired.

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There’s Hope in Derbyshire

Tuesday 27th August 2019

IMG_8777.jpgIt’s not often a National Park Authority trials a new bus service these days so hats off to the Peak District for funding the new H1 and H2 bus routes for six weeks during the summer school holidays.Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 21.06.56.png

Branded as the Hope Valley Explorer two Stagecoach Optare Solos are providing an hourly service (with a short break at lunchtime) in the north western corner of the National Park linking Bamford, Hope and Edale stations on the scenic Sheffield to Manchester Hope Valley Line with Derwent Fairholmes (for the reservoirs and dam), Castleton and the nearby Blue John Cavern.Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 19.28.58.pngIt’s good to see Derbyshire County Council have updated their online bus map to show the H1 and H2 which are basically the same route except the H2 does a 25 minute double run to serve Edale on every other journey (four out of the seven journeys in each direction). There are through journeys to Chesterfield, where the buses are based, at the beginning and end of the roughly 09:00 to 18:20 day.

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 19.35.04.png It’s a shame the timetable is buried in the Peak District National Park Authority’s website but you can find it easily on the Stagecoach website once you’ve narrowed down the geographic area and know to enter H1 or H2 in the look up function under timetables.

There’s a simple £6 day ticket and a rather pricey £4 single journey fare regime on the Hope Valley Explorer with no other ‘explorer’ type tickets valid. English National Concessionary Passholders can buy the day ticket at a discounted £3 rate. The National Park explain in their FAQs this is a “limited period seasonal service” for 42 days and they wish to “investigate the commercial viability of the project and offering a (free) concessionary rate may not provide an accurate picture of the use of the service”.

The Park Authority’s laudable aim is to “reduce the number of car journeys … at one of the busiest times of the year”.

IMG_8776.jpgAs the Hope Valley Explorer’s 42 days operation ends on Saturday I thought I’d better see how it’s doing in its final week so popped up to Hope this morning to take a ride.

Incidentally it was a first time experience on an Abellio operated East Midlands Railway train for me (they ousted the former Stagecoach run East Midlands Trains just over a week ago) but the only discernible (and much welcome) difference on the 09:02 from St Pancras International to Sheffield was free Wi-Fi throughout the train…IMG_8431.jpg…. and the retro 1970s Letraset style block lettering logo is going to take some getting used to.IMG_8429.jpgI passed one of the Class 222 Meridian trains in the new purplish livery on a Corby working which look quite smart but I’ll reserve judgement until seeing it close up.

From Sheffield I caught the all stops Northern Rail train to Manchester Piccadilly leaving Sheffield at 11:14 and due into Bamford, at 11:36 (a refurbished Class 150 with its smart new moquette on comfy seats) …IMG_8432.jpg…. offering a handy connection with the H1 at 11:41. Five minutes might seem a bit tight but the bus stop in the Bamford turning circle is only a stone’s throw away from the station exit.IMG_8825.jpgIn the event I resorted to Plan B as despite leaving Sheffield on time we were three minutes late into Bamford and I didn’t want to risk missing the bus. I stayed on the train to the next station at Hope …IMG_8463.jpg….where we’d got further ahead of the bus providing a more comfortable 11 minute connection even though it involved a short walk down Station Road to the main road.IMG_8468.jpgThere is a bus stop in the car park at Hope station but the H1 and H2 stay on the main road rather than double run up Station Road.IMG_8467.jpgDown on the main road the H1 came along spot on time and I bought my £6 day ticket from the driver and sat back to enjoy a full rounder of the route.IMG_8510.jpgI always enjoy visiting the Derbyshire Peak District and have travelled around the National Park many times taking in all the delightful bus routes which serve this scenic county, but visiting Blue John Cavern at the end of the Hope Valley Explorer route eight minutes beyond Castleton was a first for me, and it truly offers some spectacular views aas the bus climbs up through the Winnats Pass …Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 19.58.28.png…..to reach one of the most scenic bus termini in England for sure.IMG_8564.jpg

IMG_8562.jpgI was impressed to see a bus shelter and full information about the Hope Valley Explorer next to the cafe.IMG_8560.jpgAfter a short break I jumped back on board for the hour’s ride across to Derwent including that H2 twenty-five minute double run routing via Edale.

It’s a pleasant ride as the bus hugs the Hope Valley railway line crossing it twice along the way along a fairly narrow unclassified road.IMG_8649.jpgEven better, at Edale station we picked up another passenger – the first so far – who travelled down the road to Hope. IMG_8656.jpgWe continued on via Bamford to the spectacular Derwent reservoirs travelling alongside the picturesque Ladybower to the Visitor Centre at Fairholmes about x miles off the A57 Snake Road.IMG_8720.jpgWe arrived about ten minutes later than our scheduled time of 13:20 and the driver took the bus into the ‘staff car park’ for his lunch break while I wandered off to the picnic tables by the cafe and Visitor Centre.IMG_8733.jpgThe other Hope Valley Explorer bus arrived about an hour later at 14:10 for its lunch break just as we were leaving (also about seven minutes late – timetables for 14:03) …IMG_8785.jpg…. but we were back on time at Bamford by 14:25, indicating some generous running time for that section of the route.IMG_8752.jpgIt was good to see a group of three passengers boarding at Derwent Fairholmes who travelled to Bamford and connected with the First Bus route 272 to Sheffield, while another passenger boarded in Bamford village.

But otherwise it was just me; and sadly when we passed the other bus it was empty on two occasions and had just two passengers on board on the third.

My driver reckoned it the buses have been busier at weekends ‘or when there were events on’. He revealed there’s funding for the service for three years which is good news, and I suspect Stagecoach have come up with a good competitive price bearing in mind it’s a school holiday only service and there will be spare resources available.

It was encouraging to see a lot of effort has obviously gone into promoting the Hope Valley Explorer as this is always a challenge with new services, even more so ones which are time limited.

There were prominent posters at both Bamford and Hope stations (and I’m sure at Edale too) ….IMG_8826.jpg

IMG_8833.jpg… at all bus stops along the route….IMG_8472.jpg…. and at the Visitor Centres where there were also supplies of the leaflet.IMG_8728.jpg

IMG_8725.jpgThere was even a poster in the toilets at the Visitor Centre ….IMG_8724.jpgI was a bit surprised there weren’t leaflets for the route available on board the bus and the window notices were a bit functional.IMG_8645.jpg

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Bearing in mind the spectacular views on offer along parts of the route ….IMG_8559.jpg…. you’d think Stagecoach would have ensured windows were clear of price information blocking views ….IMG_8581.jpg

IMG_8580.jpg …. particularly when it’s not even pertinent to the Hope Valley Explorer. Bit of a fail from Stagecoach for that – it makes a mockery of the buses being branded.

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IMG_8608.jpgMore positively an informative commentary plays out from onboard speakers at various points along the route although it’s a bit difficult to hear above the bus engine noise at some points.

It looked like the two drivers were regulars on the route and they seemed friendly to each other, but I detected a lacklustre approach to passengers; albeit there were only five transactions to judge this by.IMG_8703.jpg

The H1/H2 provide a greatly enhanced bus service to Derwent Fairholmes (Hulleys route 273 provides just two journeys a day on weekdays with a few more from T M Travel on Sundays) so seven new journeys a day are a great bonus and I don’t know when buses last regularly ran to Blue John Cavern or Edale station but it’s great to see both places now on the bus map, albeit for just four more days until next July.

It made me wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better to spread the funding out over 21 weekends from the end of April to September so passengers get used to the service being there over a longer period of time rather than running on weekdays during the summer school holidays – Dalesbus and Moorsbus find this works well for them.

I appreciate the reason for having a restrictive ticket policy to ensure maximising revenue for the route but it’s a bit off putting to be unable to use tickets like the versatile Derbyshire Wayfarer; and £6 does seem a bit pricey if you’re really only making an out and back journey while £4 is steep if travelling just a short hop.

But I’m very pleased indeed to see this initiative and well done to the Peak District National Park Authority for embracing buses – other National Parks take note.

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Roger French

Toon Time

Friday 23rd August 2019

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It’s always a pleasure to spend some time on Tyneside.

Open tops

IMG_7564.jpgYesterday I sampled the new open-top sightseeing tour introduced this summer by Go North East and branded as ‘toontour’. There’s been a bit of a change round on the open-top tour front on Tyneside this year. Stagecoach pulled out of the City Sightseeing franchise with Go North East filling the void and confidently using their own unique local brand for the service rather than paying to use the familiar red and yellow City Sightseeing livery.

IMG_7628.jpgProbably a wise decision; the Best Impressions designed livery looks great and it very much does what it says on the buses.Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 18.43.35.pngTwo buses provide a half hourly frequency between 10:00 and 17:00 on a circuit taking in the sites of both central Newcastle and south of the Tyne on the Gateshead side including the Baltic and Sage buildings ..IMG_7640.jpg…and a great view of the Millenium Bridge, which unusually was open as I passed by yesterday.IMG_7646.jpgThe full tour takes just under an hour and has a very informative commentary which can be easily heard over the bus PA system. There’s an attractive and informative leaflet widely available with map, times, prices and descriptions of the attractions including some discounts. There’s also detail about Go North East bus routes to other tourist towns and cities in the region (eg Durham and Hexham).

A 24 hour ‘toontour’ ticket costs £8 or £12.50 including travel on all Go North East buses. A reduced £6 price is available for concessionary pass holders and students. It’s good value and if you have a spare hour the tour is well recommended.IMG_7544.jpg

Meanwhile Stagecoach have redeployed their ousted City Sightseeing open top buses on a new tour linking North Tyneside with Tynemouth and Whitley Bay branded as ‘The Seasider’.IMG_7768.jpg The bus seats might still be in CS colours but the buses have been repainted into ‘The Seasider’ branding with a pale sky blue and yellow beach livery which strangely makes no reference to the route taken or destinations served.IMG_7718.jpgScreen Shot 2019-08-23 at 19.33.33.pngThe Seasider route also runs half hourly from 10:00 to 16:20 and is more in the style of a traditional seaside open-top service than a city-sightseeing operation reflected in the cheaper fares of £2.50 single or £4 all-day with concessionary passes fully valid. It’s a weekends mid-April to mid-September venture with daily operation during school holidays.IMG_7706.jpgBuses pick up conveniently from the bus turning circle just a short walk from the cross-Tyne passenger ferry’s North Shields landing stage and the route stops outside North Shields, Tynemouth and Whitley Bay (photgraphed below) Metro stations.IMG_7739.jpgIt’s a great half hour ride offering some delightful seafront views on this popular stretch of coastline.IMG_7714.jpg I hope Stagecoach are having a good summer with the venture and repeats it next year.IMG_7774.jpg

New interchange

IMG_7652.jpgI took the opportunity on my journey on the Metro between these two open-top rides to check out the brand new transport interchange which opened earlier this month at the end of the line at the South Shields terminus.

This £21 million investment by Nexus has involved moving the elevated Metro station terminating platform about 100 yards further west (just visible in the above photo and below more clearly) so it can provide a direct link via escalators and a lift to the new bus station which has been built immediately below at ground level.IMG_7653.jpgBus station provision in PTE/Combined Authority areas is usually exemplary and it was great to see a brand new facility offering an airy and clean area to wait for a bus with a large passenger circulation area and seats for each front-on departure bay.IMG_E7660.jpgIMG_7665.jpgIMG_7667.jpgReal time departures were shown in the concourse and at each bay but I was a bit surprised there were no toilets; the Travel Shop was a closed-in talk-through-window affair and the only retail offering was a Greggs (which at least you could walk into rather than be served at a security window).

IMG_7657.jpgIMG_7655.jpgMeanwhile upstairs the Metro platform offered scant protection from the elements although there is a large area well under cover between the top of the escalators and the ticket barriers which would provide shelter waiting for the train to arrive before ‘turning round’ and heading back.IMG_7659.jpgPerhaps finances were tight and these extras got culled.

Ferry cross the Tyne

IMG_7672.jpgI took a ride across the Tyne on the passenger ferry which is just under a ten minute walk from the South Shields transport interchange.IMG_7675.jpgGerry Marsden has made the equivalent Mersey ferry world famous with his dulcet tones blasting out from the vessel’s speakers as you cross; I half expected Lindisfarne’s ‘Fog on the Tyne’ on this trip but it was all quiet on the impressively quick seven minute crossing.IMG_7677.jpgIt almost took as long to load all the passengers on the pay-as-you board system!IMG_7680.jpgThe ferry runs every half an hour with a bargain fare of £1.30 single and a range of other tickets which on first reading can appear quite complex. Run by Nexus, my Metro day ticket was valid for travel so that was a welcome bonus.IMG_7669.jpgIMG_7670.jpgOn the North Shields side as well as the Seasider open-top, Nexus fund a half hourly route 333 which provides convenient timetabled connections to the ferry a short walk from the landing stage. Ferry tickets (including my Metro day ticket) are valid as far as the nearby North Shields Metro station which is handy as it’s a bit further to walk than on the South Shields side.IMG_7686.jpg

Hadrian’s Country

IMG_8213.jpgIt’s been a few years since I had a ride on the splendidly scenic and appropriately, yet oddly, numbered bus route AD122 which links Hexham with Haltwhistle along the eerily straight B6318 (thank you, Romans) adjacent to Hadrians Wall.IMG_8335.jpg

IMG_8328.jpgTwo buses in a bespoke livery provide the hourly service (with some lunchtime gaps) daily from mid April to the end of September. It’s a popular service with tourists, campers and walkers enjoying this fascinating part of Northumberland with its rich history across a number of easily accessible sites to explore along the route.IMG_8367.jpgI caught the first journey from Hexham at 08:35 this morning. This runs direct to Haltwhistle using the A69, only deviating off it to call at Barden Mill, but as a 685 runs at a similar time it wasn’t surprising I was the only passenger on what is effectively an in service positioning journey.IMG_8268.jpgIn Haltwhistle an obvious regular passenger with shopping bag got on for the return journey to Hexham even though a 685 had departed a few minutes earlier and would have got her to Hexham in 36 minutes instead of the 57 minutes we took. Still I don’t blame her as the views along the AD122 route are stunning and the commentary over the bus PA provides a fascinating insight into the sites and sights the route passes.IMG_8337.jpgWe picked up and dropped off nine passengers at various points along the route and it was just me and my fellow shopper who travelled the full route.IMG_8324.jpgA few were obviously camping in the area while others looked as though they’d left a car nearby and were taking the bus to then walk back.

There’s a great leaflet available giving full details not only of route AD122 and the places it serves but also timetables and information about connecting bus routes at Hexham and Haltwhistle.IMG_8313.jpgIMG_8341.jpgThe two buses have a fantastic display of leaflets and information on board too, and I was impressed to see these being topped up on our arrival back at Hexham bus station.IMG_8370.jpgAD122 is part funded by Northumberland County Council, the Northumberland National Park Authority as well as a commercial input, at their risk, by Go North East. It’s an excellent example of partnership working which other county councils and National Park Authorities should take notice of. Well done to everyone involved.

Hexham bus station

IMG_8264.jpgHexham bus station is a smart functional, if somewhat clinical, affair opened just three years ago. There are three departure bays on the north side (as well as some layover space) with two on the south, roadside.

A waiting room is available with leaflet racks and departure screens at the western end of the central building off a short covered passage midway along…..IMG_8171.jpgIMG_8176.jpgIMG_8173.jpg….. and three individual toilet cubicles (signed for male/female/accessible) on the eastern side …..IMG_8373.jpg…… which also has a number of anonymous doors creating a bit of an unfriendly impression – one door leads into a staff facility which drivers accessed and the leaflet rack filler-up man tooIMG_8170.jpgIMG_8156.jpgBus timetables weren’t displayed by each stand but instead were grouped together in one place, stuck on the large waiting room windows.IMG_8372.jpgReal time departures were showing in the waiting room and by each stop on the north facing three bays but not on the two south facing roadside bays.IMG_8378.jpgThe bus station is used by Go North East buses in their localised branding for ‘Tynedale’ routes ….IMG_8137.jpg….. as well as the half hourly all stops ‘Tyne Valley Ten’ (route 10) to Newcastle (84 minute journey time)….IMG_8210.jpg….the semi limited stop hourly ‘Tynedale Express’ route X84 to Newcastle (65 minute journey time) and the hourly route X85 very limited stop (48 minute journey time)….IMG_8021.jpgGo North East also run a more rural 4-5 journeys a day route 74 taking 84 minutes between Hexham and Newcastle.

There’s yet another route to Newcastle (and westbound to Carlisle) – the infamous 685 jointly operated by Arriva North East and Stagecoach Cumbria. The 685 runs hourly and takes 51 minutes to Newcastle. I saw an Arriva single deck in the Best Impressions designed Cross Pennine livery ….IMG_8267.jpg…. but the following bus was in standard livery …IMG_8320…. as was a Stagecoach single decker showing its age too.IMG_8275.jpgIMG_8379.jpgStagecoach does have at least one double deck sporting Cross Pennine branding but Twitter comments indicated this is not always allocated or possibly a temporary diversion on route is currently making a double decker unsuitable. Either way it’s a shame this prestigious route with its inspiring brand is not more consistently promoted.

IMG_8104.jpgIt’s also a bit odd Northumberland County Council have left the two former shelters and bus stop flags in situ at the old bus station in Hexham (closer to the town centre too). Three years on, it’s now looking somewhat forlorn and unloved.IMG_8109.jpgIMG_8108.jpgAt least the timetables have been removed and I know Martijn Gilbert will have in hand the removal of the poster heralding the new look X84/X85 which must date back to over five years ago, at least!IMG_8371.jpgIt’s a shame to see the building in such a dilapidated state and sadly gives public transport a poor image while those shelters remain.IMG_8107.jpgBefore leaving Hexham it’s worth noting since May Northern have improved the frequency of trains on the line to Newcastle with two semi-fast trains an hour taking just 31 minutes and a third train an hour stopping at all stations taking 43 minutes. Journey time from Hexham to Carlisle is 52-56 minutes (twice an hour) compared to 84 minutes on the 685.

All in all there’s quite a choice of travel along the Tyne between Newcastle and Hexham (and on to Carlisle).

I bounced along on a Pacer on a stopper from Newcastle to Hexham last night which was well loaded leaving Newcastle at 17:55 ….IMG_8101.jpg…. and returned later this morning on the fast X85 taking the same journey time which was also a well loaded and busy journey.IMG_8389.jpgI enjoyed both journey experiences.

I’m always puzzled by the interior layout at the rear of these Mercedes – how the designer at Merc HQ thought it was a good idea to have six rear facing seats (including one pair split level on the nearside) and three inward facers baffles me.IMG_8397.jpg

Liveries and brands

Back in Newcastle you can’t help but notice the variety of liveries used by Go North East.

I’m pleased this policy is now changing as it makes good sense to bring these disparate brands together in a more logical family – particularly the new X-lines brand now being introduced for ‘fast direct bus links’ and I wrote about back in May.

IMG_7443I kept an eye out for the latest vesion now applied to one bus on the ‘Castles express’ route X21 to replace what I regard as one of the worst liveries ever put on a bus …IMG_7937.jpg… but didn’t spot it this time. The photographs of it circulating on social media a few days ago look like it provides a huge improvement.IMG_8031.jpgI’m sure this other ‘angel’ atrocity will also be revised and replaced as Martijn Gilbert’s new broom continues to sweep through Go North East.

Meanwhile Arriva North East have a plethora of route branded liveries for their routes heading north from Haymarket bus station. They’re on both new and original MAX and Sapphire brands as well as the “eco” type green branding and it’s all a bit of a muddle particularly as the depot allocation staff seem to pay no heed to the importance of getting the right buses on the right routes.

I lost count of the number of wrongly allocated buses I spotted in a short time – I could fill this blog with photographic examples….

IMG_8407.jpgIMG_7816.jpgIMG_7875.jpg…. so it was good to see a more generalised approach to branding ….IMG_8038.jpgIMG_8054.jpg… which I hope is not just for one or two spare buses! If you’re going to do route branding you must do it properly … or not at all.

Finally to end on a positive note, it was hugely impressive and welcome to see excellent displays facilitated by Nexus of timetable leaflets from all three bus companies available at bus stations in Newcastle and some other locations.IMG_8399.jpgIMG_8401.jpgIMG_8398.jpgWell done everyone. Other PTE areas please note.

All we need now is a network map or three!

Roger French

zeelo lands at Gatwick Airport

Wednesday 21st August 2019

IMG_7431.jpgI sampled zeelo’s new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol back in the Spring and wrote about the company and my travel experience on 24th May. Now the enterprising entrepreneurs based at zeelo’s London Shoreditch HQ have started another new venture, also aimed at commuters, this time connecting part of Crawley with Gatwick Airport.

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You might be thinking “isn’t Crawley already well linked to Gatwick Airport by the award winning Metrobus company, part of the Go-Ahead Group” and you’d be bang on the runway with that thought. Frequent buses operating round the clock on a comprehensive network of routes aided by smart bus priority measures including Fastway branded segregated guided bus lanes whizzing buses straight across roundabouts and gliding passed traffic queues. It’s impressive.

IMG_7499.jpgAspiring bus companies have given the Crawley bus market a competitive try over the years, but none have survived; the well regarded Metrobus has proved unassailable against all upstart new entrants.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read zeelo fancied their chances in this already well served market. I’m guessing they reckon they’ll win over bus wary employees at Gatwick Airport by offering their unique “personalised bus service” business model necessitating pre-booking using smart technology on a less frequent but targetted service with cheaper fares.

According to the news release heralding this initiative, zeelo reckon their “new shared bus service targets areas where Gatwick Airport employees are currently poorly served by public transport”. Indeed, they’ve been canny in finding four bus stops (from which Metrobus don’t run a direct bus to Gatwick Airport) along a route on the Horsham Road originating at Breezehurst Roundabout between the well served Bewbush and Broadfield residential areas continuing via Southgate towards Crawley town centre (but avoiding stopping there) and instead taking in three more bus stops in London Road from where the bus runs non-stop to Gatwick’s South and North Terminal buildings.

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End to end journey time is scheduled for 27 minutes which compares to Metrobus route 10 taking 29 minutes for early morning journeys from Broadfield Barton to Gatwick’s North Terminal, as well as serving Crawley bus station, for the town centre, along the way.

It’s also noteworthy that Metrobus route 10 runs 24/7 (half hourly between midnight and 03:30) increasing to an impressive every 6-7 minutes between around 06:30 and 18:30. The new zeelo commuter service offers just eight journeys running half hourly between 05:10 and 08:40 with a similar service pattern in the afternoon between 15:10 and 18:40 only on Mondays to Fridays. Interestingly buses run in service “against the commuter flow” in both the morning and evening peaks, presumably because of shift workers, making for quite a tight schedule with three minutes stand time at the end of each journey for the two buses needed to run the service.

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Whereas on Metrobus you just turn up and board their frequent service at any bus stop, zeelo’s “personalised service” means you pre-book your journey either online or via their App and be committed to that particular departure time.

Zeelo offer various bulk buying options for this new service as they do with Newport/Bristol and their other bespoke commuter services for specific employers around the country (eg Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin in Warwickshire and Ocado in Hertfordshire ). For the Crawley to Gatwick market their best offer is 100 rides for £87.99 through deals covering 50, 30 and 10 rides down to a return ticket for £3.50 and a single trip for £2.50.

Metrobus also charge £2.50 for a single Bewbush/Broadfield to Gatwick ride reduced to £2.40 if bought on their App. A week’s travel is £19.20 on the Metrobus App which for a five-day-ten-journeys-a-week commuter works out at £1.92 per journey compared to zeelo’s £1.39 for the ten ride package; but you have “weekend” travel on Metrobus free as a bonus when not commuting. Zeelo’s 50 ride package at £52.99 is the same price as the Metrobus 25 journey package on their smartcard (£53) therefore offering a fifty per cent discount.

Zeelo are offering free travel for the first two weeks of operation (normal prices begin next Tuesday) so I downloaded my bundle of twenty free trips and headed to Crawley this afternoon to road test this latest market entrant to the world of ‘smarter travel’.

I decided to book myself on the first journey of the afternoon, at 15:10 from the first stop on the Gatwick bound route at the roundabout near Bewbush/Broadfield. I tried logging on to zeelo’s website last night to get this all sorted but for some odd reason my email address had got corrupted by one letter in the zeelo database and it couldn’t log me in nor send me a ‘forgotten your password’ link. I tried re-registering with a different email address but got stumped by having to add my mobile number which it understandably told me had “already been registered with another account”. So I was stuck; locked out.

I sent an email through to the “contact us” helpline explaining my dilemma, and within a couple of minutes, if that, Simon replied and he soon resolved the problem by correcting the corrupted email address and we were back in business. Highly impressive to have access to personal service sorting out a techy problem at about 20:30 in the evening, so full marks to the zeelo team and Simon in particular for that great service.

Another issue was finding the Gatwick service on the zeelo website. It doesn’t appear on the home page of their zeelo.co site nor through any links I could find; instead you need to visit the alternative travel.zeelo.co website which has news releases about the company, and from where you can click on news of the Gatwick service launch and land at the booking page.

When you book your journey on line, if it’s a return journey you’re after, for each journey inbound to Gatwick, an option is listed of a return on each of the individual journeys back from the Airport on that day, including the very next departure, three minutes after you’ve arrived. This seems a bit unnecessary and it might be better to just list all the journeys once with passengers ticking the journey on which they wish to travel.

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I decided to return back from Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal at 16:10 which would be the second departure after my 15:37 arrival.

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The vehicles and drivers are provided by Ashford (Middlesex) based Passenger Plus+. The two mini-coaches used are based closer to Gatwick Airport though, at Pfizer’s UK headquarters in Tadworth – I’m guessing Passenger Plus+ do some contract work for Pfizer, so have a parking facility there.

IMG_7449.jpgThe two vehicles branded for zeelo are a ’16’ plate Mercedes 19 seater and a brand new very smart ’19’ plate Indcar (a Spanish manufacturer) 29 seater. Neither mini-coaches are accessible for wheelchairs and I noticed there’s not much room for luggage – the wheelie type compact suitcases beloved of flight crews. Not a problem in the early stages of the operation when passenger loadings are likely to be small, but it could be an issue if the buses get busy, especially the 19 seater.

IMG_7412.jpgI arrived at the Breezehurst Roundabout bus stop on the Horsham Road in good time for my 15:10 departure this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to be joined soon after by another passenger. She was a student working as an intern at Gatwick Airport for a month and had seen the minibuses on the road over the last few days so booked herself a journey to work “especially as it’s free at the moment”.

IMG_7410.jpgThis bit of Horsham Road is unserved by Metrobus and the bus stop pole is flag-less but specific stop information available in the zeelo App as well as online reassures that this is exactly the correct place to be waiting, and sure enough, on the dot of 15:10, Peter arrives to pick us up.

There’s no need to show him an electronic copy of the ticket as Peter simply checks our names which he is aware of and we set off. I’d been sceptical about whether we’d pick anyone else up at this time of the day, but sure enough as the journey continued we picked up two more passengers – both easyJet cabin crew going to work for a late shift – one at the Orchard Street stop in Peglar Way (near the town centre) and another on London Road.

IMG_7448.jpgIMG_7438.jpgThe Mercedes mini-coach has a ‘luxurious’ feel to it with comfortable seats, wi-fi and usb sockets. Peter gave us a smooth ride to the Airport. No-one on board alighted at Atlantic House at the South Terminal and we all continued to the bus stop by Jubilee House at the North Terminal – just two to three minutes walk from the Terminal building itself – where we arrived at 15:30. An impressive twenty minute ride. At this time of the day, Metrobus’s route 10 would have taken around thirty minutes travelling through Broadfield and the town centre as well as Manor Royal.

My fellow ‘intern’ passenger told me she was impressed with the quickness of the journey compared to route 10 which she had been using.

Peter didn’t wait until the next departure time of 15:40 back to Crawley but drove off after just a few minutes, presumably because no-one had booked for a ride so there was no need to wait.

IMG_7525.jpgMy return journey was the next departure at 16:10 and my driver Tembi again arrived on the dot of that time – it turned out no-one had booked on the incoming journey so he’d started this part of his shift from the North Terminal.

IMG_7527.jpgThis was the very impressive brand new Indcar 29 seater. Again, nice comfortable seats and a smooth ride; and this time it was just me travelling.

IMG_7528.jpgWe had a bit of a delay leaving the North Terminal being stuck behind a trio of National Express coaches loading up and there was a hold up by the level crossing in Horsham Road where a badly parked taxi led to alternate working.

IMG_7532.jpgDespite this we arrived back at the Breezehurst Roundabout (this time marked with a flag for only the first journey on route 24!) at 16:34 taking just 24 minutes.

IMG_7534.jpgIt made me wonder though, whether the 27 minute journey time over the next couple of hours of Crawley’s heavy peak hour late afternoon traffic might be a bit tight, especially as the mini-coaches don’t use Crawley’s bus lanes.

IMG_7446.jpgTembi was very friendly and was naturally hoping this new zeelo venture would be a success. He’s been with Passenger Plus+ for some time, having previously worked with Metrobus, and explained that his duty involved working on other contract work Passenger Plus+ have in their portfolio in the Crawley area in the morning switching to the zeelo work in the afternoon. It looks as though zeelo is a perfect fit for Passenger Plus+ and being a quality operator, they’re a perfect fit for zeelo.

Whether this new venture is a success will simply come down to if zeelo have found a big enough market served by the seven bus stops in Horsham Road and London Road to sustain eight journeys morning and afternoon to and from Gatwick Airport. I have my doubts, but I was very impressed that three passengers travelled on my outward journey after just a few days operation.

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Travelling with zeelo offers a great customer experience and full marks for that, although in addition to the website confusion mentioned earlier, there were one or two other teething problems with the technology, for example not being able to track where the driver was (even though a link was provided by text to my phone) and pick up locations being duplicated rather than showing the drop off location.

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Metrobus also has a well deserved excellent reputation for offering a great customer experience too; their Crawley garage has topped the UK Bus Awards Garage of the Year on a number of occasions and the company as a whole is a regular in the finalists’ short list. You might conclude that if there was a profitable market from those seven bus stops, then Metrobus would already be there.

Zeelo’s prices are excellent value, but it might need a build up in confidence among passengers before they’re prepared to outlay £88 for that bargain 88p a ride within the 100 ride package.

Metrobus have the benefit of serving a much wider area including penertrating residential areas and serving the town centre and Manor Royal. Those markets are unavilable on the zeelo service.

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Comparing posters advertising departures at the North Terminal highlights the different options now on offer for Airport employees living on the edge of Bewbush and Broadfield. Frequency versus fast and cheap.

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It’s certainly an interesting development in the expanding Gatwick and Crawley transport market and certainly one to watch in the coming months.

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Roger French