GoSutton Go

Tuesday 13th August 2019

IMG_7390.jpgTfL’s first foray into the new fangled world of App based Dial-A-Ride (aka Demand Responsive Transport) in Sutton is now in its twelfth week and yesterday a rather impersonal email popped into my inbox announcing an exciting extension of the area served by the swish exec style wishy-washy liveried Mercedes Sprinter minibuses.

GoSutton hit the streets for the first time at the end of May when I sampled a few rides and wrote about it here. From yesterday, the operating area centred on Sutton now extends eastwards beyond Hackbridge and Wallington to include the Beddington Lane area of retail sheds, light industry and the residential areas of Beddington and Roundshaw and in the west includes more residential roads in Cheam, with the A24 Epsom Road, GoSutton’s new western boundary. The area served now stretches from the A24 across to the A23.

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TfL flagged up the idea of a possible eastern extension in its original consultation in March but the area now included is slightly larger than in that proposal while the extra roads out west weren’t originally flagged up but TfL admitted feedback from the consultation saw requests for more of Cheam to be included, so now they’ve delivered on that.

Another exciting change announced yesterday was a temporary reduction in the single journey fare from the usual pricey (by TfL bus fare standards) £3.50 to a more tempting £2. This applies for the rest of August and is clearly designed to stimulate interest and attract newbie travellers who are otherwise put off by the significant price differential to taking a conventional bus for just £1.50 (including hopper options).

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You’d think therefore there would be lots of promotional activity surrounding these new developments, especially that 43% price reduction, yet I had a look at the bespoke GoSutton website last night and while it included the updated map with eastern and western extensions, there was no mention of the new reduced fare, still quoting £3.50 a ride (point 3 above).

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I always find it ironic that for a service that’s supposed to be all about using technology the operators are so tardy at using it themselves to convey updated timely information. I’m pleased to report the website was updated today and now refers to the £2 a ride offer (see above, spot the difference); although the TfL official website still fails to mention it.

And the 44 page (!!) “easy read” manual explaining how to use GoSutton still quotes £3.50, including showing cash on page 22 … except you can’t pay using cash.

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Quite how TfL expect potential passengers to find out about this fare offer is beyond me; it’s no good just sending an email to existing customers; there needs to be extensive promotion among non users.

Intrigued by yesterday’s email I decided to give GoSutton another try out today to see how loadings are doing in the newly extended area and take advantage of the August holiday bargain basement £2 fare.

I began my adventure at the Ampere Way tram stop in the new north eastern top corner of the extended area and ordered a journey down into the far south western corner of the new western extension in Cheam, because I’m like that as a customer.

IMG_7180.jpgA minibus was close by at IKEA dropping a passenger off so I was given a convenient pick up time just five minutes away and the little map showed me where driver Shane would be coming from after that drop off.

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The thing was though the little minibus icon didn’t move for about five minutes. ViaVan’s software algorithm picked up something was wrong and sent me an auto-text advising of an (indeterminate) delay.IMG_E7178.jpg

In the interests of research I stuck with it and sure enough Shane began to move and arrived with me at 10:25 rather than the promised 10:16. A total wait from ordering at 10:11 of 14 minutes, just 4 minutes outside TfL’s target of ten minutes.

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I was a bit surprised Shane didn’t mention anything about the delay as I boarded so I broached the subject asking if he’d been held up – it turned out the passenger being dropped off was unsure where she’d be picked up and needed reassurance.

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We took a straight forward route through Carshalton and Sutton over to Cheam with an ETA showing of 10:51 as we set off.IMG_7203.jpg

It’s still an odd feeling to be on a bus in London driving past passengers waiting at bus stops, providing a slightly superior feeling of being in a special mode of transport that’s got no time for stopping hither and thither for conventional bus using folk.

IMG_7244.jpgDuring the journey the SatNav gives explicit directions even where the route has the right of way at junctions; eg turn left… on a bend to the left in the main road, if there’s another road off to the right. And every instruction is given twice; once with a precise assessment in feet of how far ahead the manoeuvre is and then at the actual location. It can all get a bit annoying background noise when sitting in the front seats.

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Interestingly at one point Shane chose to ignore the SatNav’s advice of where to turn right and continued to the next junction. He wasn’t told to do a “U-turn” though!

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We arrived in North Cheam after a twenty-seven minute journey at 10:52, just two minutes later than the originally predicted arrival of 10:50 as we set off from Ampere Way.

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I took a bus on route 93 up the A24 Epsom Road to the junction with Sutton Common Road which is in the extreme north west corner of the expanded operating area and called up my second ride at 11:11

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I thought I’d head over to the newly extended southeastern corner just off the Purley Way, not far north of Purley itself. This was becoming Extreme DRT Bus Riding; I was beginning to feel like a Guerilla DRT Tester.

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I was given two options of a minibus in either 9 or 20 minutes, but in the time it took to think about that (and take a screenshot) a message came back the options are no longer available – you have up to 30 seconds to decide; so I tried again and got the same options but with a more convenient pick up point exactly where I was rather than having to cross the junction.

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The minibus would be with me in six minutes. In the event it was 11:21, after ten minutes when Ivan appeared.

IMG_7260.jpgWe set off on a diagonal route right across the area, avoiding the centre of Sutton and using a number of residential roads not used by standard bus routes.

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We got to the edge of the area in a rather well-to-do leafy part of Purley arriving after just 22 minutes travelling at 11:43.

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Although the newly extended eastern boundary frustratingly doesn’t reach the A23 Purley Way I noticed there’s a small blip on the map to include the large Costco outlet by the former Croydon Airport and opposite the Colonnades retail park on the east side of Purley Way. I thought that would make for a good starting point for my next journey.

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I took a 289 the short ride north to this location and at 12:40 ordered my third GoSutton ride to take me north to the Beddington Lane tram stop – both my origin and destination being within the extended eastern area.

IMG_7321.jpgIt’s odd that you can only summon a minibus to appear on the far western side of Costco (at the bottom of the Google aerial shot below) rather than by the more logical and busy Colonnades on the eastern side of the A23 …….

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 18.39.48.png…… as it has to use Purley Way to get to Costco so could easily pick up at the Colonnades too.

The App gave me a pick up time of twenty minutes – the longest wait yet and double the TfL target. Alexandru was the driver of the nearest free minibus right over in Sutton.

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He arrived as expected at 13:00 and once we’d established how to turn round (using Costco’s car park was the best option) ….

IMG_7370.jpg…..we headed north taking just fourteen minutes instead of the predicted sixteen and I was dropped off at the official TfL bus stop used by route 463 south of Beddington Lane tram stop – I’ve noticed the algorithm likes dropping you off at official bus stops.

IMG_7373.jpgAlexandru then headed off to await his next passenger.

IMG_7374.jpgAnd I wandered up to the tram stop and headed back to East Croydon and home.

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It had been an interesting three hours. Three journeys. Three different minibuses. Three pleasant drivers. Three smooth journeys. Just me riding solo on each journey. Total wait time 44 minutes. Total ride time 63 minutes. Total minibus time devoted exclusively to me 1 hour, 47 minutes. At £2 a journey; TfL took £6 in revenue from me.

After almost three months which is a quarter of the way through the twelve month trial, it’s not looking very financially sustainable to me.

BUT before I close …… and just to show ride sharing can work I need to also report on a quite astonishing experience I had just a couple of weeks ago when I passed through the area and gave GoSutton a go.

IMG_4860.jpgIt was a gorgeous hot sunny Monday afternoon at the end of last month as I got off the train at Carshalton station and fired up the GoSutton App to order a minibus to take me over to the Royal Marsden Hospital in the south-western corner of the original operating area.

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I was well impressed to receive a reply reporting a minibus would pick me up within three minutes and sure enough it duly arrived pretty much three minutes later and not only that but another passenger was already on board.

IMG_4883.jpgNot only that but I became intrigued as the journey continued that we weren’t deviating from the expected route to the Royal Marsden to drop her off somewhere. It turned out my fellow passenger was also travelling to the Hospital, where she works, and had boarded just a couple of minutes before me up the road in Carshalton.

IMG_4887.jpgIt was the first time she’d used GoSutton and was understandably impressed with the convenience of only a short wait and then a ten minute direct journey; and what’s more she couldn’t believe as a Freedom Pass holder it had been a completely free ride for her.

Now how about that? What are the chances of my random arrival at Carshalton station at 13.30 on a Monday afternoon and choosing a destination to travel to completely at random which coincided with another person making pretty much exactly the same journey at the same time. The algorithm must have been in software heaven, not believing its luck. This is what the ViaVan techy geeks had been dreaming would happen during years of ride sharing software formulation. And on the afternoon of Monday 29th July, it finally delivered.

But the thing is, impressive though that was, and I’m still blown away at the coincidence of it all, my £3.50 fare together with the reimbursement contribution from the London Boroughs for my fellow passenger’s free ride (if there is indeed such reimbursement for the GoSutton trial) will not have gone anywhere near to covering the operating cost of providing that journey, let alone the set up development costs of the algorithm itself!

Two people riding around on a conventionally operated bus would mean instant withdrawal as it being hopelessly uneconomic; let alone one passenger paying £6 for over an hour and forty-seven minutes travels as I did today.

Meanwhile the Ealing trial begins shortly.

Roger French

Britain’s most southerly bus stop…

… and other west Cornwall travels.

Thursday 8th August 2019

IMG_6670.jpgHaving travelled up to Cape Wrath last month to visit mainland Britain’s most northerly bus terminus I thought it was time to take a look at the most southerly bus stop.

It’s located at The Green, Lizard, just north of Lizard Point itself, where First Kernow’s route L1 terminates.Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.33.46.pngScreen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.35.20.pngRoute L1 runs almost hourly from Helston down to The Lizard (there are a couple of two-hour gaps in the morning timetable) with most journeys projected back to start from Redruth Station’s Platform 3.

IMG_6494.jpgThat’s where I began my travels, having taken GWR’s Night Riviera sleeper from Paddington on Monday evening.

The train arrived on schedule into Redruth at 07:22 giving a generous connection time to include breakfast before the 08:00 departure on route L1, except Redruth’s one of those towns that remains firmly closed at that time of the morning. Not an open café or coffee shop to be had.

The upside was it gave time to meet Redruth Station’s gorgeous friendly resident cat, Hector….IMG_6511.jpgIMG_6519.jpg….. and admire the signs directing passengers to the bus stop outside the station ‘for Helston & Culdrose’, quaintly called Platform 3 complete with a ‘3’ in former BR corporate style.

IMG_6441.jpgIMG_6446.jpgIMG_7158.jpgThis is from the time the innovative Truronian bus company branded the route The Helston Branch Line in the 1990s which is still displayed on the bus stop.IMG_6449.jpg

National Rail show bus departures to Helston from Redruth and there are fares in the rail database to ‘Helston Bus’ (way below First Bus current prices I’m sure) but you can’t buy one from the ticket office or from a ticket vending machine so it’s all a bit anachronistic as usual with these things.

Truronian sold out to First Bus back in 2008 and it’s only recently with the reinvigorated First Kernow that the smart new Lizard branding (another Best Impressions masterpiece) and new route number L1 have arrived.

My itinerary included a visit yesterday to the Helston Railway itself where a dedicated band of volunteers toiling away for the last fifteen years have amazingly reopened about a mile and a quarter of track south towards Helston from the hamlet of Prospidnick.

IMG_7053.jpgIMG_7050.jpgIMG_7051.jpgThere are ambitious plans to extend the line further south but it’s going to take a long time and much more hard work.

In the meantime the railway is open two or three days a week and was proving very popular yesterday with families enjoying their visit of a half an hour’s round trip including time at the southern end of the line at Truthall Halt.

IMG_7062.jpgIMG_7063.jpgIMG_7060.jpgThere’s the usual shop and cafe in a former DMU located at Prospidnick…..IMG_7047.jpg….which is a twenty minute walk from Crowntown (along an overgrown footpath and country lane) where the two hourly route 38 passes on its run between Helston and Camborne so careful planning is needed to visit the railway by bus and fit in with both bus and train times. I think I was the only one yesterday morning.

But it’s worth it to see Prospidnick Halt station in the middle of a wood on a narrow viaduct and admire the work of the volunteers.IMG_7046.jpgThe Helston branch left the mainline just west of Camborne; it closed to passengers in 1962 so for the past 57 years the bus has been the only way of reaching Helston and south on to The Lizard peninsula.IMG_6507.jpgJourney time from Redruth to The Lizard on the L1 is 83 minutes including eight minutes stand time in Helston. The 08:00 journey took eight of us from Redruth as far as Helston and a similar number south from there with most alighting in the village of Mullion.

One passenger alighted at the scenic Poldhu Cove bay ….IMG_6527.jpg…. but only one other passenger joined me all the way down to The Lizard. I’m sure the journey is much busier on a schoolday and I noticed a double deck in Lizard branding on another journey indicating school children are a key market for this route.IMG_6726.jpgBritain’s most southerly bus stop is next to The Green with surrounding gift shops and eateries. The arrangements for where buses stand and wait seemed confused with the driver of my incoming journey stopping alongside The Green (photographed below) but the driver of the next journey reversing alongside the stop itself as photgraphed above.IMG_6654.jpgI had just enough time for breakfast and a brisk walk down to the lighthouse and Lizard Point itself before returning to catch the next bus back which operates via the hamlets of Ruan Minor and Kuggar (with nice seating in the shelter) …IMG_6731.jpg… and then the outward route in reverse to Helston and Redruth. It became a very busy journey with all seats taken and we arrived back in Helston fifteen minutes late necessitating a change to my original planned itinerary – this happens a lot in Cornwall – experience has taught me to allow at least a 15 minute buffer for late running across Kernow land but I still ignore my own advice sometimes with the consequential need to replan on the hoof.

I decided to catch the already mentioned two-hourly route 38 from Helston to Camborne and in contrast to the L1, I was the only passenger on the entire 34 minute journey leaving Helston at 11:57. (I travelled on the same journey again yesterday after visiting the railway and there were six others on board).IMG_6757.jpgCamborne bus station is adjacent to First Kernow’s main offices and bus garage for Cornwall.

IMG_6765.jpgIMG_7066.jpgIMG_6780.jpgIt’s pretty basic with lots of signs telling passengers to stand behind the barriers, and there’s staff coming and going through a door marked PRIVATE, but otherwise not much to report.IMG_6770.jpg

One bright spot in an otherwise somewhat depressing waiting area with no seating is a bright map and timetable display.IMG_6768.jpgI also noticed the low flour easy access arrangement from the bus station saw-tooth layout doesn’t allow for the door behind the front wheels layout on the smart new Optare Solos.IMG_6783.jpg

My next journey was another quiet run on the four-journeys-a-day route 39A (note the incorrect Lizard branded bus photographed below) across to Penzance via a delightful rural route through lovely Cornish villages such as Relubbus, Goldsithney and Rosudgeon on the B3280 as well as a double run to serve Perranthnoe.

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Penzance bus station was given a makeover a couple of years ago and is now a very pleasant place to wait with a functional shelter and departure bays.IMG_6785First Kernow have done a fantastic job displaying maps and timetables in the shelter… IMG_6830.jpgIMG_6831.jpg… and the Council have included electronically displayed upcoming train and bus departures.IMG_6832.jpgIMG_6833.jpgIt’s a shame the dedicated First Bus Travel Shop has closed …IMG_6839.jpg…. but it probably made financial sense to utilise the adjacent Visitor Information Centre which has a great display of timetables and yet another helpful network map.IMG_6788.jpgIMG_6786.jpg

Despite many previous visits to Penzance I’d never fitted in a walk out to nearby St Michael’s Mount so put that right on Tuesday by catching the Atlantic Coaster branded open-top route A2 to Marazion.IMG_6880.jpgThe A2 continues to St Ives where it morphs into an A3 around the coast to Lands End changing again there into an A1 to complete the circuit back to Penzance. The full circular ride takes 3 hours, 40 minutes and many people make a day of it breaking the round journey up into bite sized chunks.IMG_6885.jpgI’m pleased to have ticked off St Michael’s Mount which was very busy during the period when low tide allows access and despite the excellent bus service there were all too many cars parked in fields on the edge of Marazion.IMG_6881.jpgIMG_6882.jpgMarazion is also served by the hourly route U4 one of four routes First Kernow run for the University of Exeter’s campus at Penryn just north of Falmouth.IMG_6899.jpgAnd commendably these run during college holidays and are popular with tourists and locals.

I took the U4 back to Helston where I finished off Tuesday’s travels with an early evening ride on the last journey of the day on route L2 from Helston to the south west corner of the Lizard peninsula at Coverack – which is particularly scenic as the road descends to the bay around triple narrow hairpin bends …IMG_6991.jpg… and St Keverne. We took about half a dozen workers home and brought back about the same number of tourists on the return journey. The bus arrived about 15 minutes late into Helston – and didn’t make the time up during the journey or back again. It was an incorrectly Atlantic Coaster branded bus.IMG_6982.jpgThere are only six journeys a day on the L2 four of which continue to or start from Truro.

I stayed overnight in Helston and after yesterday’s enjoyable morning on the Helston Railway and taking the 38 again into Camborne I took a ride on one of the two bus services between Camborne and Redruth which take a circuitous route around the residential areas between the two towns.IMG_7071.jpgRoute 46 runs hourly and takes around an hour to reach Redruth having headed westwards first, then north and then south (repeating a few times) as it generally meanders eastwards. I reckon a detailed map of this and sister hourly route 47 would be a great help to demistify where the buses actually go – the network map isn’t much help as illustrated by an enlarged extract below. There are maps showing “where to catch your bus in Camborne” and maps showing limits of zone tickets, but there really needs to be a town bus map showing roads traversed. (Update….see PS at the end of the blog).Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.59.54.pngThe 46 continues every two-hours beyond Redruth to Truro via a lovely rural route including Gwennap, Perranwell and Devoran.

I alighted in Carnon Downs, about ten minutes south of Truro on the Falmouth road, to catch that part of route L2 (from Truro) to Helston I didn’t travel on Tuesday. This includes some incredibly narrow country lanes for a double decker to negotiate, especially in the Stithians area.IMG_7121.jpgThe bus was already six minutes late leaving Carnon Downs and negotiating traffic on these narrow lanes meant twelve minutes late arriving into Helston just in time to see my planned connection on route 35A to Falmouth departing – will I never learn!

Instead I caught the eastern end of route U4 from Helston across to the Penryn campus where it connects with the more frequent U1/U2 into Falmouth – except the U4 was ten minutes late and just as we pulled in, the connecting bus pulled away without letting passengers transfer as advertised.IMG_7139.jpgMore positively the Penryn campus bus stops are well laid out with clear signs indicating where to catch the various bus routes.IMG_7135.jpgIMG_7138.jpgThe U4 branded route is a later addition to join the original U1 and U2 routes as can be seen from the outdated and updated maps on the sides of the latest buses now in service.IMG_6838.jpgIMG_7022.jpgIMG_7154.jpgI headed back over to Redruth on a north westerly bound late running U2 which arrived into Redruth just as a T2 was leaving for Camborne and St Ives and despite two passengers jumping off the arriving U2 and frantically waving their arms at the T2 driver, he chose to ignore them and drive on.IMG_7159.jpg

I caught the T1 that followed about fifteen minutes later bound for Penzance and ended my Kernow bus travelling there before catching the Night Riviera sleeper train back to London arriving into Paddington early this morning.

Five reflections on the last couple of days’ travels:

1. Transforming Travel

Many of us mocked the totally inappropriate ‘Transforming Travel’ tag line First Bus used to describe themselves in the early 2000s. It was rightly derided. I remember travelling around Cornwall on buses which any bus operator should have been ashamed to have in their fleet. The photos below were taken between 2012 and 2014. No wonder Western Greyhound virtually wiped First Bus out of the County.Penzance - August 2014 049.jpgCornwall - October 2012 023.jpgNow travel truly has been transformed and after an incredible turnaround in vehicle investment a resurgent First Kernow are running an extremely modern fleet on which you feel proud to travel.

2. The route network has been simplified with core routes increased in frequency and attractively marketed. Routes T1 and T2 in particular now stand out as prime routes as do the U1-U4 university network. The excellent timetable book with colour coded maps for the whole County is readily available if you know where to look, although I’d like to see it placed on buses as Stagecoach do in the Lake District. It could usefully have more detailed town plans showing routes in places like Helston, Camborne and Redruth where the networks are confusing to understand. (Update- see PS at end of the blog)

3. First Kernow’s route branding has also come on leaps and bounds and is also now excellent and really stands out compared to how it looked a few years ago as shown below.Cornwall - October 2012 042.jpgDevon-Cornwall - August 2013 075.jpgBut much greater care is needed on vehicle allocation. As noted above, I saw an Atlantic Coaster on a Lizard L1 and another on an L2; as well as a red Tinner on a blue U4; a Lizard on a standard route 38. Because the brands are so high profile, these incorrect allocations cause confusion and undermine the whole branding.IMG_6923.jpgIMG_7130.jpg

4. Timekeeping is very susceptible to late running. This isn’t just summer traffic; nor just meeting traffic on narrow lanes and taking ages to pass; it includes time taken to deal with passenger queries and ticket issuing and is also a consequence in some cases of insufficient stand time between journeys. IMG_1400There are plans to coordinate First Kernow’s bus timetables with the new improved regular half-hourly GWR train service on the main line from December. If integrated timetables are the name of the game it needs a rethink of whether bus schedules are currently realistic, otherwise passengers are going to miss connections.

5. The prices charged by First Kernow are not cheap. The £15 day ticket (£13 on the App) is one of the most expensive in Britain. But the more you buy, the cheaper it gets with 2-days at a better value £18, three for a reasonable £23 and a bundle of five for just £30 or twenty for only £100. The latter are more designed for residents than short stay visitors and assume a bus passenger has cash flow of £100 available.IMG_7133.jpgThe most flexible yet top-secret ticket is the ‘Ride Cornwall’ which gives bus as well as train travel throughout the County. This ticket has had a recent chequered history – at one time it was anomalously cheaper than the bus only day ticket but due to First Bus refusing to advertise its existence, very few people were aware of it. Matters came to a head at the beginning of this summer with First Kernow no longer accepting ‘Ride Cornwall’ tickets until GWR (and Cross Country) increased the price, which they’ve now done to £18 for a day; and in a stingy move withdrawn previously available one-third off discounts with Railcards. This is a great shame bearing in mind the desire to integrate bus and trains across the County. There’s still no mention of it at all on any First Kernow printed literature (including a leaflet entitled ‘price & ticket guide’. or online; nor can I find a reference to it on GWR or Criss Country’s websites but full marks to Go-Ahead’s Plymouth Citybus, who also accept and issue it, and at least reference it under Tickets; Day Tickets; Other Tickets on their website.

You have to wonder whether bus and train companies are serious about modal integration when they completely fail to even mention such tickets, let alone promote their use.

Finally, it was a pleasure to once again enjoy west Cornwall by bus over the last couple of days. I hope the real and significant improvements continue in the coming months and years.IMG_6862.jpg

Roger French

PS I’m very grateful to both Chris and Paul who have been in touch since posting this blog to advise that town plans are available in the Cornwall Council produced public transport guide, which indeed they are, and I’m pleased to show an example of the Camborne and Redruth pages below…IMG_7170.jpgIMG_7172.jpg

Three days in Dorset and Somerset

Monday 5th August 2019

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My little trip on the GWR train between Taunton and Bishops Lydeard on Saturday was a good opportunity to sample some great bus rides across Dorset and around Somerset on my way there and back making for a lovely long weekend’s travels.

Planning bus journeys in Somerset is quite a challenge as the County Council has long given up on buses providing no printed or online information at all; no wonder passengers are scarce too. Luckily First Bus provide a very helpful map of their network and if you happen to know South West Coaches is big in the area, their website includes a helpful list of bus routes operated so it’s possible to scan down this and see if anything fits into a travel plan.Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 09.10.22.pngNeighbouring Dorset County Council isn’t any better with Go South Coast (‘more’) and First Wessex admirably filling the information gap but details of any smaller operators running tendered bus routes are almost impossible to find.

Experience on the road provides further interesting contrasts between approaches to bus stations and facilities to encourage or discourage bus travel as we’ll see.

FRIDAY

To begin my Taunton bound journey on Friday I took the train along the south coast via Southampton to Poole. Setting off before 09:00 and travelling via the Brighton Main Line changing at Clapham Junction would have set me back £53.10 whereas travelling via Barnham along the West Coastway line taking the same journey time is a bargain £27.80 peak hour price by comparison.

IMG_5302.jpgPoole bus station has a bright and welcoming ‘more shop’ where two helpful ‘Travel Advisors’ are on hand to help you and there’s a great selection of timetable books and leaflets to entice and encourage you to travel.

IMG_5300.jpgI particularly like the Purbeck Breezer booklet which promotes the growing band of brightly branded routes serving the Isle of Purbeck area operated by ‘more’ (nicely numbered 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70). No wonder all the buses I saw were extremely busy – this is how you successfully sell bus travel.

IMG_5304.jpgOnline just doesn’t cut it in the same way (First Essex, First West Yorkshire, Arriva Leicester, TfL take note). The standard ‘more’ timetable book is also excellent with some great maps both by route and for the whole network.

IMG_E6398.jpgIMG_E6399.jpgA shout out also to First Wessex who produce a similar excellent timetable book with some first class maps covering their routes and network in Dorset. And it was really good to see it available in the ‘more shop’ too. Pats on backs all round.

IMG_5338.jpgI caught the 11:50 route X8 from Poole to Blandford Forum. This ‘more’ operated double deck route runs hourly and pretty much operates north westerly the whole way via the A350 save for a small diversion around Sturminster Marshall. The journey takes 37 minutes to Blandford where the bus then does a circuit of this lovely market town’s northern residential area before arriving back at the Market Place 26 minutes later.

IMG_5345.jpgSister Go South Coast company Damory operates a minibus on an X8A which as the number implies, operates an anti-clockwise circuit twice every hour so Blandford is pretty well served.

IMG_5370.jpgIt’s a thing in this part of the country for bus routes to have an ‘X’ route number. South West Coaches operate a two-hourly X3 north to Shaftesbury, Damory operated a two-hourly X12 south to Dorchester and Weymouth and First Bus (Buses of Somerset) operate an X10 west to Yeovil (which was my next bus at 13:55). But none of these routes are limited stop in nature as is often implied by using an ‘X’.

IMG_5400.jpgThe X10 runs two-hourly and takes 1 hour 50 minutes for the journey to Yeovil with a four minute pause in Sturminster Newton after 43 minutes. From Stalbridge the more frequent hourly route 58 (Wincanton to Yeovil) joins the X10 for the final forty minutes of the journey on the A30 via Sherborne. This was the most used section of route particularly between Sherborne and Yeovil. Before that we had slim pickings and the route was distinctly rural in character passing through such delightful Dorset villages with unusual names such as Shillingstone, Okeford Fitzpaine and Child Okeford.

Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 14.30.54.pngOver the border in Somerset, Yeovil has a busy little bus station with South West Coaches the dominant operator.

IMG_5495.jpg The old order when First Bus reigned supreme can still be seen from the legacy Travel Shop, now closed…IMG_5448.jpg…..and a very traditional waiting room complete with a wall of old style (empty) timetable cases.IMG_5443.jpgHowever more positively the adjacent ‘office’ had boxes of the splendid Buses of Somerset timetable books and high-viz wearing staff were only too willing to hand over a copy …IMG_5533.jpg… and I spotted a supply in the kiosk selling magazines and sweets as well as printed A4 timetables for the South West Coaches Services looking very prominent alongside copies of this week’s TV Choice magazine – great product association!

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Although the bus station shelters were unattractively grubby creating a down-at-heel impression timetables are on display in most of them and there are signs showing which routes departs from each bay.IMG_5497.jpgThere was also a comprehensive timetable display for South West Coaches.

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My next bus was the 16:15 route 54 to Taunton. This route runs every 90 minutes taking just over an hour and a quarter heading northwards via the Roman Town of Ilchester and Somerton before continuing west via Langport to Taunton.

IMG_5574.jpgWe left with about a dozen passengers a few travelling all the way to Yeovil. The busiest of the three journeys I travelled on. You get some great views for many miles across the Somerset scenery along the way too.

IMG_5588.jpgIt had taken just over nine hours to reach Taunton after leaving Hassocks station including an enjoyable hours break in Blandford Forum for lunch and forty minutes to have a wander around both Poole and Yeovil. A very pleasant way to enjoy the scenery along the south coast and across Dorset and Somerset.

As a long serving Go-Ahead employee I enjoyed a complimentary ride on the X8 but for the X10 and 54 where the end to end single journey price was £6 on each route it was cheaper to buy the First Bus (Buses of Somerset) day ticket on their App for £11.

IMG_5699.jpgIt can’t be easy running buses in Taunton especially with a disinterested County Council but hats off to First Bus for giving the network a boost in 2014 with the bright Buses of Somerset brand. These brand makeovers often flag after a few years but five years on I was impressed it’s still going strong and looks cared for. You can tell there’s someone in charge who’s on top of their job, and in this case it’s Aled Williams a young, bright, enthusiastic and energetic manager who looks after Buses in Somerset as Operations Manager.

He’s so on top of things that my tweeted observations received courteous explanations about any minor shortcomings I’d observed which I much appreciated.

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I was very impressed to see not only supplies of the excellent Buses of Somerset timetable book on display in the waiting room (open until 18:30 hours on Mondays to Fridays too) …IMG_5736.jpg…but also GWR timetables and Devon County Council bus timetable books for neighbouring areas, and even the full county bus map which is hard to obtain in Devon!IMG_5645.jpg

There was even an Onward Travel poster for Taunton Station in the window…

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… and where else can you see large colour coded maps and summary departure times by route on a bus station wall? (Answer: nowhere I know of).

IMG_5649.jpgThe waiting room seats all conveniently point towards the departure bays, but I noticed no one was sharing one of the rather cosy seats with a stranger!

IMG_5648.jpgMargins are tight in Somerset so buses are often cascaded from other areas served by First Bus meaning it’s a challenge to keep buses on brand but I received an explanation from Buses of Somerset’s Twitter feed that the Atlantic Coaster brand (from Cornwall) I saw on one bus would soon be adapted as one had already been done; and very smart it looked too when I saw it shortly after.

IMG_5639.jpgIMG_5806.jpgA rather tatty interior on another bus transferred from its former life on the Glasgow Airport shuttle route 500 would soon be refurbished I was told, which again was an impressive exercise in communications, and interestingly the layout included extensive luggage racks which are ideal for route 28 linking Taunton rail station with the popular Butlins holiday centre at Minehead.IMG_6157.jpgIMG_6158.jpgIn contrast I very much liked the smart new Park and Ride livery which matches the branding used for on street directional signs around the town centre – a nice coordinated touch.IMG_5714.jpgIMG_5819.jpgAll this shows what can be achieved if you have a dedicated locally based motivated manager with a passion to do a good job. I experienced one or two unreliability issues while travelling around over the weekend but overall I was impressed with what’s been done in challenging bus territory. Well done Aled.

SATURDAY

After my train ride to Bishops Lydeard and back on Saturday I headed west from Taunton to Tiverton on the Buses of Somerset three-journeys-a-Saturday (five on Mondays to Fridays) seventy-minute long route 22 via Wellington. A more frequent service runs out of Taunton on the same route also numbered 22 (and 22A) as far as Wellington and just beyond.

Ironically my bus was one of the Park & Ride branded ones as that operation had been upgraded to double deck to help with the crowds expected to visit the Taunton Flower Show – another nugget I learnt from the Twitter feedback following my comments.

IMG_5938.jpgRoute 22 uses the A38 heading south west out of Taunton and makes good progress but picks up few passengers after Wellington. The route diverts off the main road to serve Uffculme using some very narrow lanes before reaching the outskirts of Cullompton where it’s joined by the more frequent Stagecoach route 1/1A from Exeter into Tiverton. Most passengers on this busier section of the route gravitate around the Stagecoach bus timings and probably aren’t aware of the 22’s sparse existence.

Tiverton bus station can be described as basic. There is a long bus shelter across the narrow passenger ‘concourse’ and the head-on stands are well used. There’s a timetable display in the shelter by each stand and a wooden perch bench. That’s about it. I didn’t see anywhere to obtain a timetable but I only had a few minutes to scout around.

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I’d been a bit worried about only having an eight minute connection in Tiverton arriving at 12:37 and aiming to catch the 12:45 departure on the three-journey-a day route 398 to Dulverton. I’d no need to fret; we arrived into Tiverton bus station on time and the Dartline driver of the 398 was enjoying a chat with other colleagues further up the bus station.

IMG_5952.jpgThere are only three departures from Tiverton which go all the way to Dulverton, taking an hour. Three others go as far as Brampton, about half way along the route.

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Just one journey a day, the one I was on, does an extended loop after Brampton to serve the villages of Shillingford, Claypits and Morebath along more narrow rural roads.

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We left Tiverton with ten passengers, five got off in Brampton, one in Shillingford and four alighted as we approached Dulverton. A fairly typical midday rural route.

IMG_6057.jpgDulverton is a beautiful village within the Exmoor National Park; sadly it’s off the beaten public transport track, but then this is subsidy-free Somerset.

IMG_6011.jpgIt enjoys the three-journeys-a-day route 398 from Tiverton in the south, the six-journeys-a-day route 25 from Taunton in the east operated by Buses of Somerset and the bus I was next catching, on the three-journeys-a-day route 198 to Minehead to the north operated by Atwest, a Community Bus charity.

IMG_6105.jpgThe 198 has all the hallmarks of once being a through service from Tiverton to Minehead straddling both Devon and Somerset council areas. An inevitable consequence of the divergent policies towards support for bus services between the two Counties has meant splitting the route with the southern end, numbered 398, largely in Devon, supported as a tendered bus route by that authority, whereas the northern end, numbered 198, in Somerset is left to a Community Bus charity to provide as best it can. The minibus used by Atwest is supplied by the County Council, albeit non wheelchair equipped, because priorities are elsewhere in Somerset.

I realised route 198 would be operated by a limited capacity minibus when checking the departure timetable posted on the bus stop in Dulverton and spotted this rather alarming and off putting notice.

IMG_5984.jpgFor a bus service running three times a day, and the last journey of the day leaving Dulverton at 15:01 this was somewhat disconcerting and does nothing for reassuring visitors they’ve made the right decision to travel by bus.

IMG_6086.jpgAs I had time on my hands and had explored Dulverton, ate my picnic lunch and it was starting to drizzle with rain I decided to catch the bus on its southbound journey from Dulverton to the village of Brushford at 14:45 and stay on the bus for the return journey through to Minehead and be sure of a seat.

This also gave me time to chat with the driver as we waited in Brushford for the return journey; he laughed at the thought of the bus overloading and couldn’t understand the notice, saying he’d never known it to be busy in the last three years since Atwest had been running it!

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I suspect this was a very old notice which has succeeded in putting off more passengers than it’s encouraged, particularly as I also spotted a notice above the timetable case advising of a diversion due to a road closure almost two years ago – I did my bit for community service and unfixed the notice and binned it.IMG_6085.jpg

Routes 398 and 198 pretty much head due north on the A396 from Tiverton to Minehead (the towns are geographically on the same line of longitude) by following the lovely Exe Valley. It’s a delightful route to take and highly recommended. Route 198, like the 398, makes some deviations off route, two journeys in each direction head west to serve the villages of Winsford and Exford but sadly not the journey I was on. I made a note to return another time and catch one of those journeys as it looks a spectacular ride.

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From Minehead I headed back to Taunton on Buses of Somerset’s busy route 28. As mentioned earlier it serves the popular Butlins complex at Minehead as well as the West Somerset Railway terminus.

IMG_6149.jpgIMG_6118.jpgIt’s a ninety minute busy journey and passes Dunster, Watchet and Bishops Lydeard stations on the West Somerset Railway on its route into Minehead.

I’d used another £11 Somerset day ticket for my two Buses of Somerset journeys (22 and 28) and paid separately for my journeys on the 398 (which was a bargain at just £3.50) and 198 (£4.50 + £2 for the ride down to Brushford).

SUNDAY

IMG_6167.jpgI’d been wanting to have a ride on the First West of England open top bus routes 20 from Burnham-on-Sea to Weston-Super-Mare and 1 from Weston-Super-Mare to Sand Bay for some time and never managed to fit it into a travel schedule so yesterday, Sunday, I caught the first departure on Buses of Somerset route 21 from Taunton to Burnham-on-Sea at 08:00 to connect with the first departure on route 20 at 09:20 to Weston-Super-Mare.

IMG_6214.jpgIMG_6227.jpgThe timing connection worked superbly, but annoyingly not the ticketing. You can use a Buses of Somerset Day Ticket on the 21 to Burnham-on-Sea (as First Bus Buses of Somerset operate that route) but you can’t use it on the 20 (as First Bus West of England operate that route). This is confusing and could do with sorting by allowing the Somerset day ticket to include West of England’s network too. Burnham-on-Sea is in Somerset after all. Indeed over half the route of the 20 is within Somerset County Council with the northern end in North Somerset, a unitary authority. It’s bad enough having restrictions between operators let alone between subsidiaries with similar branding and names of the same overall company.Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 09.10.46.png

Commendably Buses of Somerset include the 20 on their wonderful network map available online, in the printed timetable and on the wall of Taunton bus station, but there’s no indication the route falls outside the remit of the day ticket, compared to the other routes shown.

Route 20 is a lengthy route for an open-topper taking seventy minutes for the journey to Western-Super-Mare. It’s busy too, helped by the various holiday parks, caravan and camp sites as well as adventure parks along the seafront between Burnham-on-Sea and Brean before heading in land via Lympshaw and into Weston-Super-Mare.

IMG_6234.jpgIn Weston-Super-Mare I hopped on the shorter open-top route 1 which runs every half an hour to Sand Bay.

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This is a very spectacular ride around the coastline to the north of Weston-Super-Mare with some tricky narrow roads especially through the village of Kewstoke.

IMG_6361.jpgIt wasn’t so long ago that this route was operated by the competitor called Crosville which expanded in Weston-Super-Mare taking advantage of the period when First Bus lost their way. But now, as in Cornwall, the tables have turned and a resurgent First West of England has seen off the smaller competitor and is back with a vengance in Sand Bay.IMG_6331 (1).jpg

It’s a fantastic route, taking just over twenty minutes for the single journey and well recommended. The route back from Sand Bay provides a great view of the abandoned Birnbeck Pier (see in the distance in the photograph below)…

IMG_6350.jpgIMG_6372.jpg… (it’s not just Brighton with a ruined pier) and passes through the tree lined road also in the distance in the photograph above …IMG_6366.jpg… the yellow road in the map below. 

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A wonderful way to end a lovely three day travelling in Dorset and Somerset. This shop front spotted in Weston-Super-Mare summed up how I felt.

IMG_6391.jpgAll that was left was to head back to the station and home with GWR.

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Roger French

On Track in Taunton

Saturday 3rd August 2019

IMG_5895.jpgSouth West Trains started the ‘run trains to link with heritage railways’ trend a couple of summers ago (before they handed the keys over to South Western Railway) by running a few trains on a summer Saturday on the connecting tracks from Wareham to the Swanage Railway at Corfe Castle. This summer on selected Saturdays GWR are doing the same thing between Taunton and the West Somerset Railway at Bishops Lydeard.

It started last week with today the second Saturday the shuttle train has run with five more Saturdays to go: 17th, 31st August, 7th, 21st September and 5th October. There are five return journeys each day and tickets can be bought online from the West Somerset Railway or on the train for £4 single and £6 return with half price for young people and dogs (!).

IMG_5866.jpgYou can also buy through tickets to the West Somerset Railway (but not its individual stations) from any GWR station and this includes travel on the shuttle train.

Today’s shuttle had added spice for those ‘all the stations’ completists among us as the train was also calling at the hardly ever used ‘station’ of Norton Fitzwarren located just after the junction where the connecting track to Minehead leaves the main line. The platform here belongs to the West Somerset Railway and is only used in conjunction with its annual Steam Fayre and Vintage Rally held on adjacent land and today was Rally day.

IMG_5882.jpgIndeed, as well as GWR’s shuttle train, West Somerset Railway was running a few additional journeys with its DMU shuttling between Bishops Lydeard and Norton Fitwarren as has happened in previous years after the platform was built on its current sight ten years ago.

But what got us all excited today was that it’s the first time a mainstream Train Operating Company has run trains to Norton Fitzwarren, and, as last Saturday, to Bishops Lydeard. A small piece of railway history in the making for rail station aficionados.

The platform at Norton Fitzwarren has never had it so good and the crowds came out in force to mark the occasion; and enjoy the Rally!

IMG_5872.jpgI travelled on the first shuttle train from Taunton at 09:35 this morning and our refurbished Class 150 two coach train left with a full seated load.

IMG_5874.jpgThe deal with GWR seems to be they provide the driver and train with West Somerset Railway providing the ticket collecting staff and other staff to marshall and assist passengers. They were certainly doing a good job making sure everyone had tickets this morning and making us all feel welcome.

IMG_5900.jpgAbout two-thirds of the passengers on board alighted at Norton Fitzwarren (photographed above) for the Rally and the rest of us continued to Bishops Lydeard (photographed below) with most then continuing on to Minehead on a WSR steam train.

IMG_5894.jpgWe pulled into Bishops Lydeard on time at 09:56 to find the platform heaving with excited Steam Fayre and Vintage Rally bound fans. Luckily everyone just about managed to cram themselves on and we left for the return journey to Taunton on time at 10:03 full and standing.

IMG_5897.jpgMost alighted at Norton Fitzwarren but a few of us continued back to Taunton and one or two, like me, were pleased to have ticked off this unusual extension to the national network rail map.

However with just seven Saturdays and an independent ticketing system I would think the Office of Rail and Road won’t classify it as an ‘official’ extension just yet, but based on today’s crowds we can optimistically hope this may become a regular summer feature like Corfe Castle and Okehampton, albeit a Rally no doubt helped bring the punters in today.

Steam Fayres and Vintage Rallies aren’t really my thing and I had some serious Somerset scenic summer bus riding planned for the rest of the day which I’ll report back on in the next blogpost.

IMG_5916.jpgIn the meantime here’s a lovely bus I spotted back in Taunton this morning also running a shuttle to the Rally at Norton Fitzwarren and this one was free.

IMG_5920.jpgI hear the bus is owned by one of the Directors of the West Somerset Railway so good to see modal integration on heritage railways even if mainstream rail struggles with it sometimes!

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Roger French

Hard and soft launches in Edinburgh

Thursday 1st August 2019

IMG_5231.jpgLNER know all about high profile launches. I guess it helps being in the public sector with a generous marketing budget rather than being a cash strapped TOC with unattainable winning franchise pledges submitted to the DfT in misplaced optimism a few years back.

Following LNER’s all singing, all dancing Kings Cross launch of their Azuma train in May there was no high pressure streams of dry ice on Tuesday for the Azuma’s PR debut in York – instead Mallard was rolled out from the nearby National Rail Museum for a photo-call alongside a smart new Azuma followed by the same procedure in Darlington but where the iconic Flying Scotsman itself made a similar comparator appearance. After all, everyone loves a stream engine; while it was inevitable a bagpipe player welcomed an Azuma rolling into Edinburgh Waverley for the media cameras yesterday.

IMG_5225.jpgThe media dealt with it was time to get the public on board especially with expectations raised through huge billboards around central Edinburgh; a bit overkill at the moment as it’s only the 05:40 southbound departure that’s so far been allocated an Azuma train!

The iconic 05:40 departure from Edinburgh is famous for only stopping at Newcastle and making the 400 odd mile trip in exactly four hours. The journey is given the romantic title of Flying Scotsman. Oh yes.

IMG_5229.jpgUnsurprisingly LNER staff were in abundance handing out breakfast boxes, juice and water on the platform in front of especially commissioned back drops ….

IMG_5233.jpg…..standing sentry style at each coach door to welcome everyone on board…

IMG_5234.jpg….posing for photographs with an especially commissioned LNER Tartan in the background….

IMG_5237.jpg….doing pieces to cameras for the PR records ….

IMG_5240.jpg….and generally getting excited and looking important.

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No wonder First Class was packed out with not a spare seat to be had whereas Standard Class was looking rather underwhelmed by comparison as we left Edinburgh.

When I travelled on this crack-of-dawn journey last summer I was the only passenger in one First Class carriage as far as Newcastle where we took on a decent number of London bound business suits and laptops. It was very different this morning.

Newcastle station was even busier than Edinburgh as we pulled in on time just before 07:00 and I wondered where everyone would sit but some LNER staff obviously had desks to get to back in Edinburgh and got off the train to create room, although a good number carried on south for this historic experience.

Despite the large number of staff on board, the catering team were doing their best to get everyone served but by the time the hot drinks trolley reached the third First Class coach it was forty minutes into the journey and we were cruising through Berwick-upon-Tweed.

IMG_5256.jpgIt was impressive to see LNER managing director David Horne come round to shake everyone’s hand and stop and chat.

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I bent his ear about handing out complimentary scotch whiskey to everyone on the assumption we’re all alcohol drinkers which he took in good part until scurrying off probably thinking ‘what an ungrateful spoil sport’. But I do think there’s an issue with stereo-typical assumptions of who travels by train, particularly in First Class. Inclusivity is the name of the game these days.

IMG_5267.jpgThe journey south made very good time and as we approached the stretch of line near Grantham where Mallard set its world speed record of 126mph for steam locomotives in 1938 we were three minutes early as we sped along hovering around 125mph.

IMG_5259.jpgA brief slow down as we neared Grantham itself where the Azuma on the LNER southbound working from Hull was just leaving still kept us ahead of time and we reached Kings Cross to a stop in an impressive 3 hours and 59 minutes to be met with more cameras and yet another bagpipe player.

IMG_5287.jpgIMG_5290.jpgGoodness knows what LNER’s PR and marketing people have got up their sleeves for the upcoming launch in Inverness and Aberdeen when Azumas reach that far north, but whatever it is, you can be sure it’ll be full of razzmatazz. A helicopter hovering over the Forth Bridge will be a must surely.

IMG_5197.jpgMeanwhile back in Edinburgh I missed another launch of a great new initiative on Monday of this week ….. because there wasn’t one. As Greater Anglia were soft launching their Class 755 trains on the Wherry Lines and Frederick soft launched his PediCab across Hammersmith Bridge, Lothian Buses were also joining the soft launch craze as they opened their impressive new ‘Travel Hub’ on Shandwick Place, the western continuation of Princes Street, for the first time.

This is not just any old bus company travel shop. Lothian’s ‘Travel Hub’ takes travel shops to a whole new level. It’s in a double fronted property previously used as a Co-Op convenience store but now kitted out with a slick low five position desk for travel enquiries and ticket sales…

IMG_5221.jpg…as well as a glass fronted booth for customers to discuss matters in a little more privacy (on the left) and a waiting area for passengers waiting to board the next Airlink 100 bus to Edinburgh Airport – even though it’s a frequent ‘every 10 minutes’.IMG_5222.jpgOn the right side of the front entrance is a well apportioned coffee shop which looks like it’s aiming to compete with an upmarket Costa and others providing a good selection of snacks as well as the usual coffees and other hot drinks (I was told there are three varieties of hot chocolate available alone).

IMG_5218.jpgIMG_5220.jpgThere’s a very generous selection of different seating arrangements in the coffee shop area, many close to sockets for dealing with the ever prevalent battery anxiety phenomenon.

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IMG_5224.jpgThere’s even a glass cabinet displaying Lothian ‘merch’ for sale on the travel shop side and a high definition TV screen playing promotional videos.

IMG_5223.jpgMy visit on Wednesday was only the third day after the ‘Travel Hub’ opened on Monday so the staff were still getting used to the new arrangements and receiving training but one thing that was noticeably missing was any timetable leaflets or literature of any kind on display.

I understand this is a deliberate policy to be in keeping with the digital age in which we live. Call me old fashioned (“you’re old fashioned, Roger”) but I like nothing better than having a printed copy of a timetable and map with me as I travel around, especially in a large city such as Edinburgh. In fact I popped down to Lothian’s long standing Travel Shop on Waverley Bridge for just that purpose to obtain the Lothian Country and Green Arrow timetables as I’m still trying to work out where all these routes go and printed information is essential to make sense of it all. I don’t have the print capacity to print all these leaflets out at home and I’m a regular sufferer of battery anxiety while out and about.

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Without these leaflets I’m unlikely to travel. On one of my two visits to the new ‘Travel Hub’ a passenger asked for a couple of timetables and she was provided with leaflets from the supply kept in the closed cupboards behind the counter.

Come on Lothian, this is no way to be selling your products. You’ve got a great network of bus routes….. sell them; don’t hide them away behind closed cupboards. It’s akin to how a newsagent has to sell cigarette packets – and remember ‘Smoking Kills’.

After all, if we’re really embracing the digital age, we wouldn’t need a smart impressive new Travel Hub, as just as the argument goes timetables are all online, so are ticket sales.

It’s great to see what must be the most luxuriously furnished bus travel shop in the UK and it’s a novel idea to invest in a coffee shop alongside, which I understand is staffed by Lothian employees rather than contracting it out to a specialist operator. It’s very brave for Lothian to be taking on the big boys of Costa, Starbucks and Pret (there’s a Starbucks branch almost opposite the ‘Travel Hub’ on Shandwick Place) but the Lothian innovative team might find these highly skilled market led operators in the coffee shop market will prove tougher competition than taking on First Bus in the West Lothian bus market.

Good luck with the venture though. I’m intrigued to see how it works out. Edinburgh’s certainly proving to be a fascinating place for public transport innovation and competition.

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Roger French

A day in Lothian

Wednesday 31st July 2019

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Edinburgh’s a great city to visit and for those of us with an interest in public transport it’s always full of interesting developments, whether it be new low floor coaches on inter-urban express routes, mega-size tri-axle double deckers on city bus routes, buses which accommodate bicycles, new electric trains to Glasgow, new refurbished HSTs to Aberdeen, and growing competition between the regions two major bus operators – all of which I’ve blogged about in the last twelve months.

With more developments on that competitive front in recent weeks I thought it was time to spend a day travelling around West Lothian and see what’s occurring. It proved to be as fascinating as ever.

Route 600

IMG_5036.jpgI began at Edinburgh airport by taking First Bus route 600 which takes a circuitous route to Livingston and Whitburn. This has recently seen a frequency increase from hourly to half hourly and received eye catching branding.

IMG_4980.jpgThere’s a prominent bus stop immediately outside the terminal building dressed in promotional branding for the service despite it being shared with Xplore Dundee’s recently introduced Airport Xpress running every ninety minutes.

IMG_4979.jpgA branded double decker arrived from its previous journey about ten minutes before departure time.

IMG_4995.jpgOnly three or four passengers alighted and I was told by the driver as I boarded through the open door he wasn’t ready for me to board and wandered off into the terminal building closing the doors behind him. At the 10:40 departure time he reappeared.

IMG_5079.jpgI’d tried researching the best tickets to buy for my travels online at home. I never find the First Bus website easy to navigate but under the Tickets tab found some options for day tickets available for purchase on the smartphone app. It looked like I needed a Zone L and M day ticket which by reference to a map under the map tab showed me it would cover the geographic area I’d be in. At £7 this seemed good value so I bought one ready for use.

Nothing on those webpages indicated it wasn’t valid from Edinburgh Airport on route 600; but I spotted that restriction later in the small print on information about route 600. Undeterred I guessed the restriction was only for boarding at the Airport itself so asked the driver if the Zone LM day ticket I had was excluded from the whole length of the route and if not, could I buy a single ticket to where it does become valid.

His communication skills were not the most erudite I’ve encountered and he let it be known it wasn’t valid and that was that and insisted I buy a single to my destination, Livingston, for £7.

IMG_5080.jpgI wasn’t convinced but went along with his unhelpful approach to customer service and we set off with just me on board. As the journey progressed and the 600 took on the characteristics of a rural route through West Lothian my frustration increased as I found the promised usb sockets not working and Wi-fi not connecting.

As luck would have it an inspector boarded during the journey and he confirmed my supposition was right that I should have been sold a single ticket to the first stop after the Airport from where my Zone LM ticket was valid. I made it clear I wasn’t happy to have forked out an extra £7 unnecessarily and he advised me to contact the First Bus head office in Falkirk and they could tell me how to obtain a refund.

I’ve blogged about the impossibility of dealing with ticket enquiries on the phone to First Bus before but I gave it a try out of curiosity but my instinct was right; after navigating two ‘press 1 for etc etc’ menus which pretty much listed the same options twice and hanging on for about five minutes I gave up.

I decided to abandon this bus at Broxburn from where the Inspector told me I could get the hourly 29 to Bathgate, my intended destination after Livingston.

IMG_5103.jpgThe next bus to arrive was the Lothian half hourly X18 (stopping bus Edinburgh to Bathgate and Whitburn) so I jumped on board and activated my Lothian £9 Day Network Ticket on their App which I’d also bought last night and headed off to Bathgate.

Green Arrow

IMG_5116.jpgI wanted to try out Lothian’s latest competitive strike in West Lothian – their new EX1 (Bathgate) and EX2 (Linlithgow) express routes to Edinburgh.

IMG_5120.jpgThese are a significant investment by Lothian compromising eight new Volvo coaches to a unique specification with a centrally located lift for access for passengers using wheelchairs.

IMG_5135.jpgThey have 49 very comfortable seats and offer a very smooth ride. Naturally usb and Wi-fi are fitted.

IMG_5130.jpgBoth routes began on 30th June so it’s early days but I found loadings to be worryingly low for the fifth week. A half hourly frequency is provided on both routes across a 06:30 to 20:00 day (hourly to 18:00 on Sundays).

IMG_5226.jpgBoth routes use the motorway (EX1 on the M8 and EX2 on the M9) for about ten minutes of the approximate 45 minute journey time. Buses run pretty much non-stop into Haymarket and Edinburgh with just three stops observed east of the motorways. This gives an impressively quick journey into and out of the City but it does mean the catchment area is restricted to either Bathgate or Linlithgow.

I suspect the main competition the EX1 and EX2 are pitted against is ScotRail’s trains on both routes but with fast electric trains, comparable journey times are around twenty minutes, although the coach has greater penetration of residential areas particularly in Linlithgow where the route heads off the main road to serve a well-to-do housing area.

IMG_5187.jpgHowever at the City end of the routes Lothian have chosen to terminate the EX1 and EX2 in the West End rather than add resources by continuing through Princes Street to the east side.

The Exchange terminal point is not particularly prominent and even more odd was there being no timetable information for these high profile new routes in the timetable case…IMG_5139.jpg… although the bus stop flag had been updated.IMG_5140.jpgOver in Linlithgow I spotted one bus stop timetable referring to X2 rather than EX2.

IMG_5194.jpgThe coaches didn’t have supplies of timetables on board either and even more bizarre I couldn’t find the timetables on the Lothian Country website – only a dated reference to the new routes ‘being launched’. I’ve subsequently been advised there’s a bespoke Green Arrow website containing all the details, but it seems odd not to include information on the Lothian Country site too, or even a link across.

The new coaches are superb to travel on but I wonder why Lothian didn’t take up the more practical arrangement to incorporate low floor access as Stagecoach have done with their Plaxton built ‘semi coaches’ as I reckon it’ll take quite a time to get a wheelchair on and off through the centre door access and lift.

IMG_5123.jpgI also wonder about the Green Arrow branding as this doesn’t particularly stand out on the coaches and appears an added complication to the Lothian Country brand which is used to describe all the ticket options.

IMG_5121.jpgA tie up with CityLink is highlighted on the coach sides and rear but not mentioned in the timetable leaflet or online so I’m not sure what it actually is.

IMG_5136.jpgI caught the 12:08 EX1 from Bathgate to Edinburgh driven by a very nice driver called Gill who normally drives standard Lothian Country routes but was covering the EX1 and EX2 just for today. I was the only passenger.

Later I caught the 14:55 EX2 Edinburgh to Linlithgow and return at 15:51 but this time there were five other passengers including one who got on by RBS’s extensive offices on the outskirts of Edinburgh all travelling to Linlithgow. It was just me on the return journey though. From what I could see through tinted windows of coaches we passed, these loadings were pretty much typical.

We had a driver changeover in the residential part of Linlithgow at Springfield Primary School on the outward journey with the drivers using a Lothian van from the depot.

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This is certainly another bold expansionist investment by Lothian, and I appreciate its early days, but I reckon it’s going to take a lot of growth to get these two routes to a sustainable future.

Bright Bus Tours

IMG_5146.jpgIn between my EX1 and EX2 rides I sampled the First Bus competitive fight back in the heart of Edinburgh – their newly launched foray into the city sightseeing market under the new Bright Bus Tours brand.

IMG_5145.jpgWaverley Bridge has long been the centre of open top tour buses which until now have all been operated by Lothian despite the plethora of brands and tour variations.

IMG_5156.jpgNow First Bus are aiming for a slice of this lucrative market by offering a cut price (£10 instead of £16) tour of the City. Buses depart every ten minutes on a 75 minute circuit with a multi-language pre recorded commentary. It’s pretty standard open-top sightseeing stuff.IMG_5152.jpgIt was all very orderly and chummy on Waverley Bridge while I was there with both companies flooding the market with street sellers and handing out leaflets. IMG_5168.jpgIf anything I reckon Bright Bus Tours were more prominent in their on brand colours ….

IMG_5165.jpg…. but the established brands seemed to be the more popular with customers.

IMG_5159.jpgIt looks to me as though First Bus will easily capture a slice of this huge market and probably make a small contribution against the pure direct costs, especially as they start winding down around 16:00 with buses returning to the depot, which I assume is over at Livingston adding quite a bit of dead mileage and time.

It was noticeable that First Bus are emphasising price ….

IMG_5166.jpg… whereas this isn’t mentioned on Lothian’s buses…

IMG_5167.jpg… although they have the advantage of prominent comprehensive static displays …

IMG_5151.jpg… with Bright Bus Tours keeping it simple …

IMG_5153.jpgI’m not sure whether Bright Bus Tours will be a commercial proposition in the dead of winter; but by then the sustainability (or not) of the EX1 and EX2 might also be more apparent.

It’s certainly interesting times in Edinburgh and West Lothian.

More in the next blog.

Roger French

New trains in 2019 Part 7: Greater Anglia’s Class 755

Tuesday 30th July 2019

IMG_4917.jpgSeven months into the year and I’m reviewing the seventh new class of train to be introduced in 2019 – that’s not bad going; a brand new different fleet into service on average once a month (I know the Class 230, formerly known as ‘D Train’ is not a brand new train, but it’s certainly a brand new class of train and definitely as good as new).

I took off to East Anglia today to see if the effusive praise dominating Twitter all day yesterday as the first Class 755 took to the tracks in public service on the Wherry Lines between Norwich and Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft was justified.

IMG_4918.jpgUntil yesterday Greater Anglia had been operating a Class 37 loco hauled train on one set of Wherry Line workings and this is the first diagram to be upgraded to these swish new Class 755 trains.

Previously train enthusiasts would make a pilgrimage to Norwich to sample the throaty roar of a Class 37 locomotive’s engine; now their cameras are all over these smart new bi-mode trains with their amazingly quiet traction.

Today was a double bonus with part of the diagram’s afternoon schedule including a return trip to Lowestoft still Class 37 operated, so many of the camera wielders were straight off the Class 755 arrival from Great Yarmouth into Norwich’s platform 5 at 13:52 and over to platform 4 for the Class 37 14:05 departure to Lowestoft – which had just two coaches in between the two locomotives!

IMG_4968.jpgThese lovely new Class 755 trains are built by the Swiss train manufacturer, Stadler, and are called FLIRT – which stands for ‘Fast Light Intercity (and) Regional Train’. Greater Anglia have ordered 38 to replace Class 153, 156 and 170 trains. Twenty-four sets have four coaches and the other fourteen are three coaches long. But they all also have a ‘power pack’ coach, which is just under a third the length of one of the passenger carrying coaches, where the ‘gubbins’ is housed.

IMG_4966.jpgThe contractual entry into service for these trains, and the similar intercity Class 745 electric trains now being delivered, was Spring 2019 and it was hoped to run a set coincidental with the new timetable on 19th May on the ‘Norwich in 90’ launch. Just over two months late isn’t bad going these days for trains-into-service-missed-dates so that’s already one star awarded for timeliness. Roger Ford reported in this month’s Modern Railways magazine that thirteen of the Class 755 sets had been delivered and authorisation received from the Office of Rail and Road on 11th June with four of the longer twelve coach all electric Class 745s delivered and authorised.

IMG_4962.jpgAs I mentioned last time the most important thing for me is seats. Expectations for new train seat comfort are now so incredibly low that any modicum of agreeable bum-on-cushion experience immediately gets another star; that’s if train operating companies are allowed to use the word ‘cushion’ in these heightened fire retardant safety critical times. When ordering these trains a while back Greater Anglia boasted about the extra care they’d taken to specify seats which passengers would find comfortable. It comes to something when this is seen as a bonus to shout about; in the event I’d say they’re passable for the job in hand – much better than a Class 700 (Thameslink) for sure, but then that bar is set so incredibly low, it’s not saying much to pass it.

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I like the ample width of the seats and this makes the gangway perceptively narrow and difficult to pass other passengers walking through. The seat cloth and it’s design appear smart and, as I found on Northern’s new trains, helps to make the seats more bearable.

IMG_4923.jpgThese trains, like Northern’s new Class 195 and 331, are very impressive. The acceleration from stations is quiet and powerful and the trains give a smooth ride both pulling away, at speed and braking. They look smart. They’re smart to travel in.

Today was only the second day in passenger service (the current fad, aside from LNER’s penchant for maximum profile [I see even Mallard was brought out today at what must have been huge expense] is for ‘soft launches’) and there were still plenty of Greater Anglia staff on board assessing how it was all going as well as what were probably engineers from Stadler. Lots of lanyards and high viz wearing. However I was impressed with the active staff including a friendly conductor and a train presentation team member who came through the train in between every station to clear away any litter. Not sure if this is the new norm or just a second day novelty.

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Drivers both open and close the doors which is a world away from the arrangement previously used on the slam door Class 37 hauled stock this diagram previously saw. It would seem the RMT are happy with this arrangement as all seems to be well on the industrial relations front at the moment as these new trains enter service.

Here are ten features, many new, which I spotted on my journeys today and which seemed particularly noteworthy:

1. The ‘Gubbins’ compartment is not particularly noisy even when walking through it when the train is moving along, although I wouldn’t want to spend a whole journey in this narrow corridor!

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2. Unusually there’s only one external double door per carriage which has an upside of facilitating more seating but the downside is longer dwell times for alighting and boarding.

IMG_4946.jpgThis was particularly noticeable when we got to Great Yarmouth with lots of holidaymakers/day-trippers getting on and off. Luckily there’s enough stand time at the terminus but it would be a different matter at a busy intermediate station.

IMG_4944.jpgGreater Anglia say the new trains will help to speed up journeys and timetables; not if dwell times increase they won’t.

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3. There’s a good supply of tables for four as well as airline style seating and unusually the tables and seats at the ends of each carriage are raised up on a small plinth giving an even better window view out on to passing scenery.

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Most seats line up with windows but as always these days it’s a compromise due to a decent luggage rack being included just inside the doorways meaning some seats offer a restricted view.

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4. There are two toilets per train, one fully accessible and one standard size and both are sited next to each other; which is handy if you need to go and one is engaged and the other is vacant as it saves walking further along the train.

IMG_4930.jpgThe toilet in the accessible cubicle is well positioned with adequate space on its left hand side (when sitting down) compared to what I’ve seen on other refurbished trains where there’s a trend of placing the toilet right in the corner.

IMG_4951.jpgThe door locking mechanism reverts back to buttons (rather than the easy to understand lever approach) but worked well – with audible confirmation the door was locked.

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5. There are double coat hooks for each pair of seats including oddly above the middle of a window.

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6. There’s a socket incorporating a three pin and usb underneath each pair of seats – the plug socket is upside down (depending which way you look at it, I suppose!) and is consequently a bit fiddly to use. On the upside two passengers can use it together if they sort out which socket suits them best.

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7. There’s a handy step (which I think is retractable) bridging the gap between doors and platform making for easy access.

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8. There’s a very clear passenger information system showing a line diagram as well as seat occupancy.

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9. There are cycle storage facilities at both ends of the train away from the accessible area which is in the middle.

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10. Poor old Brundall Gardens station isn’t long enough to accommodate the new four coach trains and it would seem selective door opening is not yet available so for now the regular diagram on which the new Class 755 train operates omits calling at Brundall Gardens. This obviously needs urgently sorting before any further new trains start operating.

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There’s only one new train out in service at the moment – it operated both the 10:36 and 12:36 departures from Norwich to Great Yarmouth leaving the 11:36 departure to a one coach Class 153. The comparison couldn’t have been more stark.

IMG_4894.jpgThese impressive new trains will certainly be welcomed by Greater Anglia’s passengers. I award them a full five star rating.

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Roger French

My previous new train reviews from earlier this year can be found here: 1 Class 707; 2 D Trains; 3 Sleepers; 4 Azumas; 5 Class 7106 Class 195 and 331.

 

Crossing Hammersmith Bridge

Monday 29th July 2019

IMG_4853.jpgA much needed new service began carrying passengers over Hammersmith Bridge from this morning. With the Bridge closed to all motor traffic including buses since 10th April this new service is provided by a lovely man called Frederick peddling a smart electric Pedi-Cab. And very efficient it is too.

IMG_4852.jpgI only stumbled on Frederick and his Pedi-Cab this morning by accident as he was promoting it to passers by on the south side of the Bridge. With TfL announcing more changes to bus routes which used to cross the now closed Bridge from this Saturday (3rd August 2019) I thought it might be interesting to pop along and see how things had settled down since the hiatus immediately following the sudden closure three months ago. TfL didn’t cover itself in glory back in April with an appalling lack of updated information at bus stops and on buses.

Bear in mind although they’re called ‘temporary bus route alterations’, it’s ‘temporary’ as in ‘expected to last for at least three years’ and probably longer while discussions continue over how to fund the repairs needed to the Bridge. The word on the street this morning was at least £100 million is involved – which I guess is not that much in the context of being only about two times the cost of an aborted Garden Bridge.

IMG_4833.jpgIt was the sudden nature of the closure in April which seemingly caught everyone out rather than any surprise at the closure itself. It had been known for many years all was not well with the structure of the Bridge. Five main bus routes used to use the Bridge but in the southbound direction traffic marshals restricted buses crossing to strictly one at a time through a manned barrier at what must have been a significant cost (and as seen in a photograph taken over a year ago below).

IMG_6091.jpgTwo of those five bus routes (33 and 485) now have to terminate short of the Bridge on the south side, one bus route (72) terminates short on the north side of the Bridge, a fourth is diverted to double back south from the Bridge to terminate in Barnes Pond (419) and the fifth route (209) has been diverted away from the Bridge completely at Barnes to terminate instead at the next bridge downstream, Putney Bridge. Bus passengers are encouraged to walk across Hammersmith Bridge as the quickest way to pick up a bus to continue their journey.

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Posters at bus stops explain “it’s about a twenty minute walk” which is a bit pessimistic (I did it in about fifteen), but not unrealistic for a slow walker leaving Hammersmith Underground Station and walking all the way to pick up a southbound 33 or 485 in Castelnau, the main road heading south.

IMG_4756.jpgTfL have also laid on a ‘temporary route’ numbered 533 which links Hammersmith bus station, adjacent to the Underground Station round to the Barnes area south of Hammersmith Bridge by crossing the next bridge upstream, Chiswick Bridge. Three buses provide a daily half-hourly frequency from 04:50 to 01:30. It’s timetabled to take twenty-four minutes from the north side of Hammersmith Bridge to reach the south side via Chiswick Bridge, Barnes Bridge station, and Lonsdale Road before returning in a loop via Barnes Pond back to Barnes Bridge station, Chiswick Bridge and Hammersmith.

IMG_4802.jpgI’d heard that passenger loadings on the 533 were low and this morning found typical carryings about eight passengers per single journey; it was evident the service was welcomed by those using it.

It was also evident in the off-peak there’s plenty of running time and although an hour is allocated for a full round trip I noticed buses arriving back into Hammersmith at least four to five minutes before the next one had departed.

IMG_4764.jpgI can imagine traffic during peak hours makes a world of difference though especially around the notorious Hogarth roundabout on the Great West Road and a peak vehicle requirement of three would almost certainly be required.

IMG_4796.jpgThe change being introduced from this coming Saturday, 3rd August, is to the short stub of a route 209 which used to run from Mortlake to Hammersmith – in history it’s the western end of the famous route 9 from Liverpool Street to the lovely bus garage at Mortlake.

As noted above, since April this has been diverted in Barnes to operate to Putney Bridge instead but very few people have been using it and public pressure has persuaded TfL to have a rethink and restore the route back to its original route from Barnes and continue towards Hammersmith Bridge terminating on the south side along with the 33 and 485.

Screen Shot 2019-07-29 at 19.46.55.pngThe 209 currently runs at a generous daytime frequency of every six minutes to Putney Bridge with a journey time of only 18 minutes. I saw many buses running up and down the route with very few passengers on board this morning, bearing out the public comments.

So in a bizarre move when the 209 reverts back to Hammersmith Bridge south side as a terminus from Saturday, TfL are replacing the lost section of the ‘temporary route’ to Putney Bridge with another new ‘temporary bus route’ numbered 378 running every 12 minutes; with the restored routed 209 reduced slightly to every 8 minutes. I really can’t see this new route 378 performing any useful function at all with much of it already covered by route 485 between Barnes and Putney.

Screen Shot 2019-07-29 at 19.46.13.pngThe changes to bus routes have been criticised for being confusing to passengers. This wasn’t helped initially by a lack of information, but even this morning, over three months on from the Bridge closure, buses were running round with blank destination blinds (419s unable to show Barnes Pond on its extended and diverted route away from Hammersmith)….

IMG_4765.jpg…. and buses on the 33 unable to show the terminus on the south side of Hammersmith known as Castelnau…

IMG_4832.jpg…. and inevitably Spider Maps haven’t been updated, prominently displaying out of date and inaccurate information at all the affected bus stops!IMG_4807.jpg

Even more confusing, and from one extreme to the other for TfL, new timetables were already on display at bus stops in Barnes for the new route 209 applicable from this Saturday – no wonder a passenger came up to me as I took this photograph asking if I could help her understand what was happening….

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It’s good to see TfL responding to feedback though, but when residents catch the rerouted 209 towards Hammesmith, they’ve still got to walk over the Bridge from Castelnau.

Which brings me back to Frederick. Local residents were vociferous at a recent public meeting saying there should be better provision for transport options to cross the bridge other than walking, cycling or taking a long detour on the 533 bus via Chiswick Bridge, especially for those who find mobility challenging.

This has led an enterprising local resident in Barnes to start up a new electric Pedi-Cab service and employ Frederick to peddle across the Bridge as often as he can carrying up to two passengers at a time paying £2 for a single ride.

IMG_4838.jpgThe plan is for Frederick to be joined by three more Pedi-Cabs in September when it’s hoped the service really will take off providing an attractive on-demand frequency and a decent alternative to getting cold and wet walking over the Bridge in the Autumn and Winter.

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Initial hours of operation are from 08:00 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 21:00. In the morning the Pedi-Cab waits for business on the south side of the Bridge and in the afternoon on the north alongside the Apollo, opposite one of the entrances/exits to the Underground station. IMG_4851.jpgIt’s a great idea and I’m sure it will catch on with residents wanting to save the walk and in some way it’s suprising the rickshaws which ply their trade annoyingly in Oxford Street haven’t also caught on to the potential market in Hammersmith.

IMG_4839.jpgKey to its success will be frequency and getting those extra Pedi-Cabs up and running. IMG_4843.jpgIn the mean time Frederick was doing a superb ambassadorial job selling the new service this morning and his courtesy, politeness, enthusiasm and positivity really was impressive – it persuaded me to take a ride; the company Ginger running the service has found a gem in Frederick and I hope it’s a success.

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Roger French

 

 

A south Suffolk saunter

Friday 26th July 2019

I incorporated Wednesday’s ride on Buckland Buses’ splendid 1929 Dennis on route 250 between Aldeburgh and Thropeness into an enjoyable couple of days saunter around the lovely countryside in south Suffolk.

IMG_4394.jpgOn Tuesday morning I caught the stopping train to Ipswich out of Liverpool Street at 11:04 as far as Marks Tey. It’s impressive to see the efficient use of track capacity on the fast lines out of Liverpool Street since May with a flotilla of trains pathed within minutes including the new ‘Norwich in 90’ only stopping at Ipswich leaving at 11:00; the normal hourly Norwich leaving at 11:02 with stops at Colchester, Manningtree, Ipswich and Diss then the train I caught with calls at Stratford, Shenfield, Chelmsford, Hatfield Peverel, Witham and Kelvedon. This train is followed out of Liverpool Street by a Southend Victoria train and then one to Clacton-on-Sea.

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Added to this efficiency is a three minute connection at Marks Tey to an hourly train on the single track branch line to Sudbury, which I easily made along with about a dozen other passengers.IMG_4395.jpgThis is a lovely branch line which I ranked 85th in my Hundred Best Train Journeys not least because it passes the quirky East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne station with the Museum’s trains occupying the southbound platform which hasn’t been used for many years. The other station on the branch is at Bures just outside Sudbury.

IMG_5886.jpgGreater Anglia have sensibly placed a poster at Marks Tey explaining its policy on maintaining connections – the ten minutes allowance covers the stand time of the train on the branch within its hour’s cycle and obviously prevents knock on delays for further passengers – it was good to see this being stated even if the absolute background detail wasn’t fully explained.

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In Sudbury I wandered over to what is called a bus station (at least there are toilets) and three stops with shelters (albeit very grubby) and timetables showing departures. It’s a Go-Ahead Group bus hand-me-down spotters delight with former front line buses from around the Group now enjoying a second life at Group owned Chambers and the independent Beestons.IMG_4399.jpgIMG_4405I enjoyed a ride on a former Scania demonstrator on Beestons operated route 91 to Ipswich and noted it had oddly been fitted with a farebox alongside the driver for exact fares.IMG_4407.jpg This puzzled me for an inter-urban route and as contactless wasn’t yet in operation despite the Ticketer ticket machine displaying the symbol I handed my £5 for the single fare over to the driver who issued a ticket in the traditional way. Beestons didn’t reply to my tweet asking about the farebox and contacless so I am still mystified what the policy is.

IMG_4408.jpgRoute 91 takes 75 minutes for the 21 mile journey via Hadleigh to Ipswich; buses currently run every 90 minutes, but will be changing to two-hourly from the beginning of September, although an improved hourly frequency will be incorporated into the new timetable between Hadleigh and Ipswich.

It’s one of those routes where the first fifteen minutes is spent wandering around the town’s residential streets heading away from the direction of travel, presumably at one time covered by a separate town service of sorts. We dropped about a dozen passengers off with their shopping and sped on to Ipswich with a handful of us left on board. This driver wasn’t hanging around. Once the bus leaves the environs of Sudbury it’s a pleasant run eastwards through the Suffolk countryside. I was particularly impressed with the village of Boxford which looked very attractive and quintessential rural England.

Arriving into Ipswich’s Old Cattle Market bus station at 14:00 a First Bus single decker was just leaving proclaiming it to be a ‘Felixstowe Flyers’ with a high profile promotional flash on the side and in a striking non First Bus corporate livery, which just goes to prove such marketing works, as it encouraged me to change my original plans and seek the service out for a ride.

The attractive timetable leaflet for the 75, 76, 77 and X7 which runs between Ipswich and Felixstowe has helpful maps explaining the route variations at the Felixstowe end and the timetable shows a twenty minute frequency is overlaid with an hourly fast (pretty much non-stop) X7 via the A14 giving a journey time to central Felixstowe of just 35/36 minutes – comparing favourably with 46/48 minutes on the stopping routes.

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Having missed the 14:00 X7 departure I caught the 14:20 all-stops 75 and was impressed with the good load of passengers throughout the route.IMG_4449.jpgWe were a bit late into Felixstowe’s Great Eastern Square, due at 15:06, so I just missed being able to photograph that branded X7 I’d seen at 14:00 in Ipswich heading back at 15:10.

Screen Shot 2019-07-25 at 20.26.12.pngIt gave me a chance to have a look around Felixstowe and particularly the greatly slimmed down rail station, now a shadow of its former past glory.

Great Eastern Square is actually the former station building now converted into small independent retail units with a car park out the back where once trains would have arrived on the tracks. The one platform now left is on the other side of the car park meaning passengers have to walk a fair distance to the main road outside.

IMG_4451.jpgThere’s an hourly train that shuttles up and down between Felixstowe and Ipswich timetabled to take 26 minutes. The 15:24 arrival brought a good load of passengers in and left at 15:28 with another busy train load.

IMG_4455.jpgThere’s plenty of people travelling between Ipswich and Felixstowe – I popped down to the seafront and reminded myself how attractive this coastal resort is.

IMG_4483.jpgIt was approaching 16:10 and I eagerly waited the next X7 back to Ipswich. I was waiting outside the cinema, the stop before Great Eastern Square, and the slightly late 16:00 route 77 picked up most of the dozen or so waiting passengers just as the X7 arrived with just four of us getting on board – not very impressive – and while I was pleased to have a top deck view on the journey back I was a bit surprised not to see the branded ‘Felixstowe Flyers’ bus on any of the other X7 journeys observed later that afternoon.

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One journey was operated by one of the rather smart looking Ipswich Reds branded buses which should now operate route 60….

IMG_4534.jpg… and another by a standard liveried bus…..

IMG_4601.jpgI can only assume vehicles on the X7 interwork with other routes across the late afternoon and evening peak which is a shame to lose the bespoke brand promoting what could be a decent alternative to the train and the all-stops bus routes. And I regret not being able to include a photo of a Flexistowe Flyers branded bus here despite trying to track it down, but I’m indebeted to the Central Suffolk Bus Blog (worth checking out) who included an explanation and recent report that the one vehicle so branded does appear on other routes around the network…

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As a slight digression, it was observed on Twitter after I posted a photo of the Ipswich Reds livery correctly on route 60 that it resembles the livery now being used by First Cymru in Swansea. Here’s an Ipswich reds…

IMG_4430.jpg…and here’s a First Cymru….IMG_3282.jpg…. which only goes to show you can’t keep a good livery down and it makes sense for the First Ipswich/Eastern Counties marketing people to copy and adapt a smart livery from a sister company (for now) in the same Group.

Back to the Ipswich to Felixstowe market … an off-peak day return on the train without a Railcard is £6.10 while a return on First Ipswich is just 30p cheaper at £5.80. The peak train fare is only 20p more at £6.30 with a weekly season at £24.90. On First Ipswich it’s £22 (£21 on an mTicket) for a weekly ticket I’m not sure these savings are enough to tempt rail users to give the X7 Felixstowe Flyers a go. Perhaps some more attractive fare offers and better fleet allocation and branding would help?

 

Wednesday morning was the day to travel to Aldeburgh for my vintage bus ride and I planned catching the First Ipswich route 800 which connects the town’s two Park & Ride sites from the west (Copdock, London Road) through the town centre to the east (Martlesham) every 15 minutes. One journey an hour is extended further east via Woodbridge to Rendlesham adding a half hour trip which effectively means an out of town route is efficiently dovetailed into the Park & Ride service by adding just one extra peak vehicle.

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My 800 left Ipswich town centre at 08:21 and was due in Rendlesham at 09:16 allowing a very comfortable 19 minute connection with the vintage bus leaving at 09:35 to begin its day’s operation with a positioning journey to Aldeburgh.

IMG_4656.jpgHowever despite a modest load our journey got progressively behind schedule and after we hit crawling traffic by Kesgrave High School were over 15 minutes late when we reached the Park & Ride site at Martlesham.

My driver seemed oblivious to the lateness of the journey continuing to drive in a fashion I would describe as ultra cautious and he even left the cab at the Park & Ride bus stop to have a chat with the driver on the bus waiting to return to Ipswich and then wentv to check no one was waiting in the waiting room – even though we were heading away from town, so the chances were extremely remote – he was obviously a very thorough employee and I decided the risk of getting even more late as the journey continued (and getting stranded in Rendlesham) was too great and so decided on a Plan B by bailing out at Melton Station to catch a Greater Anglia train on the East Suffolk line two stations north to Saxmundham where there was a good connection to a First Ipswich 64 to Aldeburgh.

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IMG_4662.jpgMelton is a small station with nothing much to comment on, other than it’s in need of a makeover with all its station name boards looking distinctly faded and unloved. They were barely legible. I’m sure Greater Anglia have it in hand as Saxmundham was sporting smarter signs even though the former station building was still behind barriers following fire damage eighteen months ago.IMG_4669 (1).jpg

IMG_4667.jpgTo cut what’s becoming a long story short, I was waiting for the bus on route 64 in Saxmundham High Street and started to get twitchy that it hadn’t arrived…

IMG_4671.jpg….when I spotted a tweet from First Ipswich advising of a breakdown on the 64. Although there’s no timing point of 09:05 on the journey I was waiting for (it left Ipswich at 08:50), I deduced (correctly) the tweet was referring to my bus, especially as it was now around ten minutes after it’s scheduled arrival, so I took the nuclear option of sourcing a taxi to take me the last twenty minute ride over to Aldeburgh in time to pick up the vintage bus at 11:10.

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And as you may have read I arived in Aldeburgh in time to enjoy a lovely ride on Buckland Buses 1929 vintage Dennis bus and just as we were about to leave an empty First Ipswich bus screened for route 64 arrived which was obviously a replacement for the broken down bus showing how route branded buses can sometimes end up on wrong routes for sensible reasons. And good to see First Ipswich doing their best to recover from the breakdown. But it had been a morning of unplanned events and regretfully missing that forty minute ride on the Dennis from Rendlesham to Aldeburgh.

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After enjoying the vintage ride I headed back to Saxmundham on Border Bus route 521, which takes a circuitous and very pleasant route, (and which I wrote about back in March) …

IMG_1624.jpg… and then to Ipswich on a nice air conditioned Class 170 which made a nice change for the East Suffolk line and a welcome respite from the hot weather.

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Roger French

Back in time 90 years in Aldeburgh

Wednesday 24th July 2019

IMG_4694.jpgThere are lots of wonderful heritage railways all over the country attracting thousands of visitors enjoying a nostalgic train ride. Most are run by volunteers with maybe just a few paid staff and are hugely successful. Who doesn’t enjoy a ride-back-in-time rekindling memories of how things used to be?

Although running days with vintage buses have become quite common these days heritage bus routes running regular services are few and far between. Cumbria Classic Coaches run a great network of once-a-week bus routes with their fleet of wonderful old buses throughout the summer based on Kirkby Stephen, some routes even run all year round; while Quantock Motor Services runs a fantastically scenic weekday route 300 between Minehead and Lynmouth during the summer with a vintage Bristol single decker and Seaford & District has run vintage buses on Sundays between Lewes and Pevensey in recent years but not this year. Sadly the Tuesday only vintage bus route 127 between Ripon and Hawes ceased a couple of years ago.

IMG_4695.jpgBritain’s oldest bus still in regular use (that’s the claim) dates from 1929 and started operating again from today on the summer only route 250 along the Suffolk coast between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness.

I went along this morning to sample a ride and it was well worth the effort especially as my trip over to Aldeburgh this morning was bedevilled with mishaps (more on those in the next blog).

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The 1929 Dennis ‘E’ Type is operated by Buckland Coaches based in Rendlesham. It’s a small set up with ten coaches together with the Dennis, christened Ermintrude, which owner Tony Buckland found back in 1987 in a night club in Stoke-on-Trent about to be demolished and with the bus destined for scrap. It was originally owned and operated by Accrington Motor Services and subsequently passed through many owners with various uses in later decades (including with a travelling circus) and its condition deteriorating.

Tony has lovingly restored Ermintrude and obviously takes great pride in her excellent appearance and sound mechanical condition, including an original 4-cylinder Dennis petrol engine, righthand gate-change crash gearbox, centre throttle pedal and push-on handbrake. It’s an amzing amount of hard work that’s gone into the restoration.

IMG_4677.jpgThis will be the fifth year Tony has operated route 250 along the Suffolk seafront. It runs on Wednesdays and Sundays up to 1st September including Bank Holiday Monday. The timetable incorporates a 40 minute frequency between 10:30 and 15:50 with a half hour break for lunch. At the beginning and end of the day at 09:25 and 15:50 the bus runs in service to and from the Buckland Coaches garage in Rendlesham via Tunstall and Blaxhall.

IMG_4674.jpgJourney time between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness is about twelve minutes but the extended route to Rendlesham takes another forty minutes. A £5 day ticket is available as well as single fares issued from an original Setright ticket machine. No concessionary passes are valid.IMG_4690.jpgTony and conductor Owen (who also drives Ermintrude in the afternoon and works full time at Buckland) were both in fine form today.

Both took a turn at expertly cranking the engine to start turning at the termini (no electric starter motors in 1929), here’s Tony showing his professional technique ….

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…. and Owen expertly changed the blinds just as would have been done ninety years ago (no roller blinds in those days let alone electronic displays!).IMG_4706.jpg

The 29 seater bus was way ahead of its time with separate forward entrance and rear exit – or was it the other way around – to minimise stop dwell time and I noticed Tony expertly doing hand signals out of the cab window.IMG_4680.jpgI’m grateful to Twitter friend Steve (@BusAndTrainPage) (also check out his blog) for alerting me to this service and he joined me for a ride this morning and we were both impressed with the seat comfort offered from ninety years ago.

IMG_4691.jpgIMG_4692.jpgIt was good to see prominent timetables on display at temporary bus stops along the route commendably provided by Suffolk County Council and an attractive leaflet was available and Owen was handing them out to many interested passers by.

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Even though this morning was the first day’s operation there were a few passengers on board and others taking an interest. Ermintrude not surprisingly turns heads and attracts camera phones as she travels up and down this section of Suffolk coastline.

IMG_4702.jpgIf you’re in the East Anglian area in the next few weeks it’s well worth taking a ride on route 250 (the number harks back to an original Eastern Counties bus route on the same road) along this delightful scenic coastline and meet the friendly Tony and Owen – both Aldeburgh and Thropeness are beautiful places to visit too.

IMG_4704.jpgIf you’re unable to make it, you can take a ‘virtual ride’ by viewing this YouTube video.

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More Suffolk travel experiences in the next blog.

Roger French