Book Review: GWR Guide to Services

Tuesday 10th December 2019


It may be a bit pricey – at £8 (and only for six months validity too); it may be hard to find – usually only available from ‘under the counter’ at certain GWR rail stations; it may have some annoying flaws in its layout and content (see below); but it’s a cracking read for timetable fans like me. Not least because this latest edition contains full details of the exciting new speeded up and enhanced frequency timetables being introduced across GWR’s network from Sunday.

It’s so refreshing to find a train company actually producing a fully comprehensive timetable book. And to its credit GWR also produce a whole range of timetable leaflets – 38 at the last count, if to a rather complex structure coded by a letter (B, D, K and T) and number (eg D2 is the Exeter – Barnstaple Line). I worked out a while ago that B is for Bristol based routes, D for Devon and T for Thames Valley and have just twigged that K is for Kernow – the name to always use if you want to show you’re proud of being Cornish.

GWR’s 408 page Guide to Services book is a true treasure trove of transport information. Everything you want to know about every station across the network is there including accessible information, hours of opening, other facilities (eg toilets) and even the station’s three letter CRS code. There are pages showing the detailed layout of every train type GWR operates including Class 158, 165/166 and 387s as well as the 5/10 and 9 coach new IET trains and the refurbished Night Riviera sleeper sets.


You’ll find details of Heritage railways and their nearest GWR station and major events happening during the validity of the timetable from the Boat Race to Six Nations Rugby and their implications for travel.

Best of all for a ‘bus and train user’ like me, are eight pages listing 111 towns and villages from Aberbeeg to Yeovil’s town centre not served directly by a GWR rail station yet within easy reach by a connecting bus route. The table shows where the nearest bus stop is located, the bus route number, the frequency and journey time and the bus operator along with its website. A great asset and huge credit to GWR for its inclusion.


There are also a few visitor attractions shown where a combined through ticket is available, eg Blenheim Palace and the West Somerset Railway and you’ll find listings showing contact details for a range of useful bodies including details of Community Rail Partnerships across the network.

The Guide to Services is set out encyclopaedic style rather than offering a sales and marketing pitch and details of the upcoming enhanced services in the new timetables are listed and explained  in a ‘matter of fact’ style rather than overly hyped up full of gloss as some other train companies might do.

Nevertheless there are details of GWR’s Pullman services and how to book the fine dining they offer and there’s also information about the extensive range of Day Ranger and Rover tickets GWR offer. Which bring’s me to one of my few criticisms of the Guide; it’s an unfortunate omission not to provide full details of these great value tickets including the useful addition of their areas and times of validity and prices.


My other criticism is the lack of an index to the 322 timetable pages within the Guide. There is a very helpful old style index (as used to be found in the National Rail Timetable) showing stations in alphabetical order, and for main stations, a sub index of destinations available from that station, but the reference isn’t to a page number where you can find the timetable but to the timetable leaflet code with its letter and number – eg D2.


There is a listing of all those timetable leaflets in letter/number order showing the destinations they cover – eg B1, B1b, B1c, B2 etc but these don’t refer to the page numbers where the timetables can be found either, so you’re a bit at sea leafing through the 322 pages full of detailed timetables trying to find the one you want. It would help if either either the index/listing referred to page numbers or the timetables showed the leaflet number so you knew where you are as you browsed.

The detailed timetables are fully comprehensive and even include mileages and individual head codes for each individual journey. Standard symbols are used which are all listed once on a separate page with bespoke codes for a particular timetable at the end of each timetable section with advice of which page number to find them on shown at the bottom of each page.


At the back of the Guide is the most welcome inclusion of four pages of bus timetables, albeit heavily edited to remove intermediate points, showing bus times from Exeter to Exeter Airport and Okehampton and Bude, as well as Bodmin to Wadebridge and Padstow and Redruth to Helston.

The inside back cover includes a slightly truncated London Underground map and folds out to display a double page map of GWR’s network on the other side with the status of each station’s accessibility clearly shown.


All in all GWR’s Guide to Services is an excellent production and many congratulations and thanks to GWR for continuing to produce it. I remain puzzled why it’s kept a secret and hope it doesn’t go the same way as South West Trains’ similar excellent comprehensive book – ie discontinued.

Now, to get ready to enjoy some of those speeded up journeys available on GWR’s network; but more about these next week.

Roger French

London’s four new bus routes

Saturday 7th December 2019


It’s quite a day for fans of new bus routes in London. Christmas has come early for those who love new route numbers added to an already comprehensive bus network – I can’t remember the last time four new routes were added all on the same day.

The Mayor has been promising for a while that as well as cutting back sparsely used bus routes within central London, he’d redeploy some of the saved resources into boosting routes in the busier suburbs. Back in the summer, from 13th July, new route 301 started plying between Bexleyheath and Woolwich (designed to provide seamless connections with Crossrail at Abbey Wood, except that bit of the plan has to wait a while longer yet) while on 26th October lucky residents with a penchant for Village Living who’d moved into expanding Kidbrooke Village began enjoying a brand new link to North Greenwich as route 335 began.

Both numbers 301 and 335, well known in green bus London days of old, were new additions to red bus London land, which added a touch of excitement to their arrival.

From today, four more bus route numbers have been added to TfL’s route lists and, if they could be bothered to produce one, London’s bus map too. It’s noteworthy TfL have added next weekend’s Maidenhead and Reading joining the TfL Rail brand, to a new Underground map by a schematic representation of a line heading north from Hayes & Harlington, but many of us would appreciate the luxury of seeing where the Capital’s bus routes go in relation to each other, not least brand new route numbers which no-one’s heard of before.


Anyway, that beef aside, a warm welcome to routes X140, 218, 278 and 306 joining TfL’s network from today. The 306 number was used in red bus London land for four years in the early 1990s for an off shoot of the 202 between Crystal Palace and Plumstead and the number still links some former green bus haunts between Watford and Borehamwood whilst the number 218 will always be associated in my mind with a ride between Kingston and Staines before it passed over to Surrey County Council control and lost its way a bit.


After trolleybuses were withdrawn in the early 1960s the number 278 began a long association linking Chingford, Walthamstow and Leyton with the Royal Albert Docks until it’s withdrawal in the early 1990s when the number was reused for another ten years until 2004 for a local route from the former ‘pre Village’ Kidbrooke to Lewisham.IMG_3870.jpg

I took a ride on all four new routes earlier today to get a feel for why they’ve been introduced. They fall into two distinct categories. Firstly part of a minor reorganisation of routes in the Acton and Hammersmith area involving the shortening of two existing routes ….


… and secondly providing faster and new links to Heathrow Airport from within the London Boroughs of Harrow and Hillingdon.


I began my new route expedition this morning at Sands End, the Fulham terminus of new route 306.


Until yesterday Sands End’s Sainsbury’s had been the terminus of route 391 running every 12 minutes over to Richmond via Fulham, Hammersmith, Turnham Green and Kew Gardens. From today the 391’s been banished from Fulham and now gets no further east than Hammersmith so the 306 is not so much a new route but a direct 391 replacement for this section of route, taking about thirty minutes, as far west as Hammersmith.

The Sands End terminus for the new 306 (old 391) is alongside a massive Sainsbury’s in Fulham and I was puzzled to find what looked like the main bus stop on the north side of William Morris Way was out of bounds.


Even more puzzling as Mike Harris’s splendid bus map shows the 391 used to only observe bus stops on the south side of the road – using it as a westbound one-way loop returning via Townmead Road.


Just goes to show how important a map is.

The half hour ride to Hammersmith was uneventful save for some minor early Saturday morning delays due to roadworks in Fulham’s North End Road. I would imagine it’s a different story later on in the day and at busy commuter times.


From Hammersmith the ‘new’ 306 continues to its terminus at Acton The Vale by replacing another curtailed longer bus route –  the 266 which has been cut back on its trek over from Brent Cross via Willesden and Harlesden to now turn in Acton High Street rather than continuing to Hammersmith. So the western end of new route 306, sixteen minutes on from Hammersmith to Acton, is also a replacement route and not new at all. I’m beginning to feel a bit ‘new-bus-routes-in-the-suburbs’ cheated.

This morning we didn’t follow the former 266 route due to a Christmas market closing King Street in Hammersmith.


Instead along with other bus routes we went off on a diversion via Shepherd’s Bush Road, Shepherd’s Bush and Goldhawk Road.


It’s a shame about this confusing start to the new regime for passengers but at least notices were posted at bus stops and new timetables added and bus stop flags updated along the route.



The 266 ran every 7-8 minutes so as the 306 is only a 12 minuter another new route has been added on the Hammersmith to Acton corridor – the 218 – which is a bit of a tiddler of a new route running from Hammersmith to Acton and then continuing to terminate at nearby North Acton Station but taking the more circuitous route between Acton and North Acton via Noel Road and West Acton station hitherto used by route 440. That route, the 440, now follows the direct road, Horn Lane, also taken by the 266.

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This shaves a valuable few minutes off the overall journey time taken by the 440 on its Chiswick to Stonebridge Park route enabling it to be efficiently extended on to a new terminus at what’s become known as Wembley Eastern Lands.


The good news is the 218 runs every 10 minutes so the former 266 corridor between Hammersmith and Acton via Askew Road now has 11 buses an hour (on the 306 and 218) instead of 7/8 buses an hour (on the 266) and Horn Lane between Acton and North Acton now has the extra four buses an hour on the 440 as well as the 266.

Meanwhile residents in Noel Road have seen their four buses per hour 440 replaced with the six buses per hour 218. So it’s all good news for Acton residents.

On the resource front, the 218 needs eleven single deckers while the 306 is run with eleven double deckers which as well as one more single deck for that 440 extension makes an extra 23 vehicles in all. But on the compensatory reduction front, the curtailment of the 391 back to Hammersmith saves eight single decks and the shortened 266 will be run with four less double decks, so overall a net increase of eleven buses in the scheme (and meaning annual cost increases of well over a million pounds) – not to be sniffed at, and I hope residents of Askew Road, Horn Lane and Noel Road will respond by making many more journeys to pay for the frequency uplifts they’re now enjoyng. Otherwise TfL’s finances will be even more strained.

From North Acton I nipped over to Ruislip to give new route 278 a try, and this really is a ‘new route’ and mostly run with smart new buses from Abellio too.


But not completely …


It runs every 15 minutes from Ruislip via Ickenham, Hillingdon and Hayes and Harlington to Heathrow Airport taking around 55 minutes for the full journey. A useful new link between parts of the London Borough of Hillingdon and the Airport not previously provided – most bus routes in this neck of the woods have until now provided local links into Uxbridge or eastwards along the Uxbridge Road.

The 278 also provides a regular service along Long Lane between Ickenham, Hillingdon and the Uxbridge Road for the first time. Not surprisingly we didn’t carry many passengers on today’s inaugural journeys but I’m sure it will build if residents can find out about it.

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South from Hayes & Harlington to Heathrow the new fifteen minutely 278 has replaced the seven-minutely 140 meaning a rather unwelcome halving of the frequency on this busy corridor.


Except if your local bus stop is Harlington Manse Close or Harlington Corner, you’re in luck as these are two of the thirteen stops being observed by the all new X140 limited stop route linking Harrow via the 140 route to Heathrow every 12 minutes.

However if your stop is one of the other eleven stops between Hayes & Harlington and Heathrow not observed by the X140; then tough, this new bus route enhancement in the suburbs is not for you and your only option is the less frequent 278.


Back at Ruislip TfL reckon there’s not enough room outside the station for the new terminating 278 to wait in between trips so the journey ends round the corner at the previous stop in Brickwall Lane by the shops where the bus waits its time before continuing to the Station to begin its next journey.



The new X140 is a much welcome addition to the network – I’ve long thought there’s scope across London for more limited stop routes to provide improved journey times – until now just the X26, 607 and peak hour X68 have provided such quicker ride opportunities. It will be interesting to see how passengers respond to the quicker journey times.

On board the buses this morning there were lots of complimentary comments from appreciative passengers as well as much consternation from others pushing bells for the bus to stop at one of the 140 only stops only to get annoyed as it sailed by.


It only took 12 minutes from Hayes & Harlington Station to Heathrow on an X140 and there was a definite air of superiority as we passed the all stops 278 along the way.


However I noticed a long gap between X140s at Heathrow at lunch time today as well as seeing another turning short at Harlington Corner. This will do nothing to make the new service attractive – a 24 minute gap at Heathrow and only the 15 minute 278 as an alternative. Not good.

Perhaps bus lanes such as this Monday to Friday peak hour only one along the route at Northolt need making applicable all daytime hours, seven days of the week to ease the flow of buses through London’s traffic choked roads.


The X140 taking around an hour is now a realistic travel option from Harrow to Heathrow instead of the Metropolitan Line to Uxbridge and changing on to an A10. For those not worried about price though, it’s still quicker to head into London and take the Heathrow Express.


The new slimmed down 140 (as well as being curtailed at Hayes & Harlington it’s had a frequency reduction from every 7 minutes to every 8 minutes) takes 21 buses instead of 32 but the new X140 will take up 10 of that 11 bus reduction and the new 278 needs another 10 buses, so overall nine more buses are now running on Hillingdon’s roads. Let’s hope Ruislip, Ickenham and Hillingdon residents appreciate what’s being done to get them to the Airport.

It was good to see bus stop plates had been updated, I only spotted one rogue 391 plate near Imperial Wharf and sadly Harrow Bus Station hadn’t been done…


… as I travelled around this morning but timetable case updates were hit and miss with some displaying a new 218 but not the 306, for example.


Over at Heathrow the X140 was in place but no 278 – in fact there seemed to be no 278 timetables anywhere along the route even where there was plenty of room such as here at Ruislip.


As usual no spider maps have been updated – not even at Heathrow Airport bus station to promote the all new X140.


But there were two high-viz wearing personnel handing out leaflets and explaining to bewildered passengers whether they needed a 278 or an X140.



Those changes to central London’s bus routes back in the summer as well as the more recent withdrawal of route 48 must have saved around 40-50 buses net of the increases on some other route extensions and diversions to new termini. With new routes 301 and 335 needing seventeen buses, that still means a handy saving of around ten or a dozen buses from the network after these latest new route introductions.

I’m sure the completely new routes 301, 335 and 278 will generate new passengers in time, but whether enough to justify the investment in all these additional buses now added back into the network is a moot point.

Roger French

Thanks as always to Mike Harris for producing his wonderful Greater London Bus Map, extracts from which are shown above. Contact Mike for your own copy of this gem of a map.

The soon to be ex X90

Wednesday 4th December 2019


The recent announcement by Oxford Bus of the withdrawal of their long standing X90 coach route between Oxford and London in a month’s time on 4th January surprised a good few industry observers. Me included.

But when I thought about it and read more of the background it really wasn’t surprising at all.


The origins of the X90 go back a long time but it’s in the last thirty years that the Oxford London corridor has experienced intense competition after Harry Blundred’s Thames Transit interloper began the Oxford Tube in 1987 and which was subsequently sold to Stagecoach.

At it’s competitive height the route had the highest frequency inter-city coach service in the UK if not the world.


It’s been quite a while since that heyday of high frequency timetables on both routes applying all day and both operators have reduced frequencies to take account of worsening traffic congestion extending journey times and changes to market conditions.

Two notable developments have included a fight back for the Oxford market by train companies with Chiltern Railways’ new service to and from Marylebone introduced three years ago in December 2016 and GWR’s recent upgrade using Hitachi electric Class 800/802 trains with their superior acceleration – a new timetable starts on 15th December with reduced journey times – down from around 56 minutes to an impressive 47 minutes on some journeys between Oxford and Paddington.

The X90 timetable runs to a pretty standard half hourly frequency between 05:10 and 22:40 from Oxford and 07:00 and 01:00 from London although it’s only hourly northbound until 09:40.

Journey time is advertised as 2 hours which is around double what GWR (currently 56 minutes) and Chiltern (65 minutes) take – both pretty much running half hourly too.


Stagecoach’s Oxford Tube runs every 20 minutes increasing to every 15 minutes in the morning peak and afternoon and half hourly in the evenings as well as hourly through the night. There are two extra departures at 05:55 and 06:15 which run ‘express’ by not stopping at Hillingdon, Shepherd’s Bush or Notting Hill Gate.

Oxford’s X90 takes a different route into (and out of) London following the M40/A40 to Marylebone Road and then via Baker Street to Victoria. As well as Hillingdon there’s a stop for Westfield/White City/Wood Lane (advertised as ‘White City’) on the A40 but involving a less than salubrious walk through White City Estate.

I took a ride on the X90 for a farewell fling this morning and remind myself of the characteristics of the service which will soon be missed.


I caught the 11:10 departure from Victoria and the smart personalised registered (X90LDN) Volvo B11RT/Plaxton Elite Interdeck coach was already at the bus stop when I arrived at 10:45. The driver arrived at 11:00 and boarding began.


There are a range of fares and ticket options. £8 single and £14 return are the X90 headline prices with a range of period tickets from £57 for a week up to £1,225 for a year. A 12 trip ticket costs £72.

Stagecoach are slightly more expensive at £9 single and £15 return with a week at £58. They’re currently offering an annual ticket at a reduced £1,025.

A GWR/Chiltern anytime return is a whopping £66.60 (£33.70 single) (four times the price of the coach but for the benefit of halving the journey time) and this reduces to a very reasonable £27.40 in the off-peak (£27.30 single) especially if combined with a railcard for further discounts.

It will be interesting to see whether Stagecoach increase prices in the New Year once the dust has settled on the X90 withdrawal. £8-£9 is remarkably cheap for the service provided albeit they need to watch the railcard discounted off peak fare for a return journey on the train which works out broadly the same per single leg.

We left spot on time this morning at 11:10 having sorted all the fares and tickets out for the eleven passengers on board and one more who joined as we stopped on the opposite side of Buckingham Palace Road opposite Victoria station having turned round by way of the Green Line coach station and Eccleston Bridge. That manoeuvre took us four minutes and then it took ten minutes to our next stop at a rather congested Marble Arch where two more passengers joined us.


It was slow going at the northern end of Park Lane and we crawled around Marble Arch (helpfully using the bus lane cut through) and along the slow moving western end of Oxford Street but some nifty driving (using the right turn only lanes approaching traffic lights as we headed straight up Gloucester Place) got us ahead of the queuing traffic on the nearside lane and to the stop in Marylebone Road to pick up two adults and a child at 11:36.

Luckily the Marylebone Road and A40 Westway raised section were free flowing westbound (it wasn’t so lucky for eastbound travellers with slow moving traffic) and we stopped at the TfL bus stop called White City Estate at 11:42 where much to my surprise seven passengers alighted including a group of six laden with suitcases.

I hadn’t appreciated you could make local journeys within London and while the X90 leaflet is silent on the White City option it does promote commuting from Hillingdon into London at special fares.

I think I overheard the alighting White City passengers say they’d paid £3 single each (it would have only been £2.40 using the Underground).

We pressed on and it was a treat to dive under the free flowing Hanger Lane underpass (rather than the gridlocked roundabout above us on the North Circular) at 11:56 and we pulled off the A40 nine minutes later to serve the Hillingdon stop where three passengers joined us at 12:06 to bring our new onboard total to twelve adults and a child.

Two minutes later we’re back on the A40, and after another two minutes at 12;10, exactly one hour since leaving Victoria, we pass the M40 signs and it’s full throttle to Oxford on the motorway.


At 12:10 I’d be arriving into Oxford if I’d taken the train and up until now it has felt like we’ve been struggling through London’s traffic, even in the off peak, especially where parts of the A40 Westway/Western Avenue are being dug up to construct cycle lanes and were frustratingly slow moving. I can imagine it must be very slow going at peak times.


But now we’re on the M40 admiring the view through a rather filthy front windscreen as we glide along for exactly half an hour until we leave at junction 8 and back on the A40 into Oxford.

At 12:45 we pull into the Thornhill Park and Ride site and I decide to say farewell to the X90 here, as did a couple of other passengers.


It’s evident the time has come when the market is simply no longer big enough for two coach operators to be slugging it out competitively. As Oxford Bus was the first to slim down and adjust to the financial realities it was inevitable that Stagecoach became more dominant with its higher frequency and round-the-clock service.

It shows a level of maturity that Oxford Bus have withdrawn gracefully and it’s good to see Stagecoach responding by expanding their service with a new timetable from 6th January which includes six extra southbound peak hour journeys running non-stop between Thornhill Park and Ride and Baker Street (following the X90 route) as well as six similar journeys at hourly intervals through the afternoon. While in the northbound direction there will be hourly extras throughout the morning and four extra journeys in the evening peak via Baker Street. These are on top of a new fifteen minute frequency for most of the day except for three hours around lunch time and evenings.

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The service will also depart from inside the (rather dingy) Green Line coach station at Victoria which will offer much improved weather protection compared to the rather scant facilities in Buckingham Palace Road.

So, while it’s sad to see the end of an era with Oxford Bus withdrawing from this corridor which has been a feature of the UK bus and coach scene for so long, it looks like it’s in good hands with Stagecoach and its Oxford Tube and the service will hopefully prosper at the new service level.


After arriving at Thornhill Patk and Ride I thought I’d give Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up service another try and booked a ride to the John Radcliffe Hospital.


This journey is possible from Thornhill on Stagecoach route 800 running every half an hour with a 9 minute journey time and a single fare of £2, but there’s no Oxford Bus service.


I booked via the app at 12:50 and was offered a ride either in 9 or 13 minutes.


The minibus (which was waiting for custom by the hospital) arrived with me in 7 minutes and we arrived at the hospital at 13:07. Very impressive.


It cost £2.50, pretty good value for what was a personalised taxi journey for me – once again, no-one else wanted to travel at the same time and in the same direction as me. Impressive though it was I could have caught an 800 that left at 12:50 and would have got me to the Hospital for 13:04 according to the timetable.


After I arrived at the Hospital, the follow up suggested tip arrangement on the app  doesn’t sit comfortably with me.


I’m still not convinced there’s a future for DRT but it’s good to see stakeholders such as Oxford Science Park giving their (hopefully, financial) backing to enable these trials to take place.

Despite this partnership I suspect it can only be a matter of time before Pick-Me-Up follows the X90 to the bus route graveyard.


Finally, I was impressed to see promotional boards and leaflets available at Thornhill Park & Ride for the coach services to London and the Airports. Good to see.





Roger French

Bus battle Southampton style

Sunday 1st December 2019


There was a time when Oxford was the oft quoted example of head-to-head quality competition between two major bus companies as each operator aimed for a high standard of service to attract custom.

Oxford’s bus market matured after a statutory partnership deal led to a coordinated network so its fallen to Southampton to take on the mantle of England’s most contested bus city.

Bus competition is nothing new to the south coast city – the upstart Solent Blue Line was an early newcomer taking on the mighty municipal owned Southampton City Transport in 1987 shortly after deregulation before it expanded significantly by taking over the Southampton based operations of Hampshire Bus enabling Stagecoach to famously make a financial killing on selling that Company’s former bus garage and bus station in the city.

The ensuing decades have seen Southampton City Transport sold to its employees in 1993 then on to First Bus in 1997 with consistent shedding of a traditionally complex municipally run route network into a slimmed down core now marketed under a modern brand of CityRed.

Meanwhile Solent Blue Line (part of Southern Vectis) sold out to Go-Ahead, rebranded certain routes, and then the whole network, as Bluestar and slowly expanded by taking on routes and parts of routes progressively given up by First Bus.

The consequence being many areas and bus corridors in Southampton now have both red and blue buses, sometimes via different route patterns, sometimes running head-to-head.

The twists and turns of route changes in recent years are too complex to record here but I was intrigued by announcements from both companies a couple of months ago of ‘exciting new services as a result of customer feedback’ (aka ‘we’re going to try and gain competitive market share in another area’).

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I decided to take a trip over to Southampton yesterday and see what’s occurring.



As on previous visits I was impressed to see clear information for both companies provided at bus stops and in shelters with departure times and posters.



Unlike other towns with bus competition, in Southampton information always appears very orderly and organised.


Bus stop flags are also clear and well presented, which is not always the case in competitive situations.

However, there were some intriguing inconsistencies in route presentation …



…. and I was puzzled by quite a number of missing flags around the city, replaced by temporary signs affixed to poles with cable ties.


The new competitive incursions that caught my attention were introduced ten weeks ago on 22nd September and have all the hallmarks of ‘tit-for-tat’ spoilers.

As usual in such circumstances where areas and corridors end up being over bussed for the numbers travelling, neither operator can be experiencing improved margins; but meanwhile passengers are certainly enjoying higher frequencies – and for seniors like me who don’t have to worry about brand loyalty by having an operator specific ticket, it felt like a real luxury yesterday to hop from one operator to another checking out the product on offer.


As befits these two operators, both equal each other on quality. Vehicles are clean and comfortable; well presented with smart attractive branding both outside and inside with pleasing decor and informative cove panels.


Drivers were also all pleasant and helpful. The standard of driving was faultless.

Clear next stop announcements are made and displayed by both operators; wi-fi is available and Bluestar have usb sockets.

I couldn’t source a First Bus CityRed timetable book in the city – last time I picked one up from the main library – but I found all the information I needed easily online including a helpful network map before I left home.

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Commendably Bluestar have a city centre Travel Shop which is well stocked with timetable leaflets and books for neighbouring networks run by ‘more’ and Hampshire County Council produced books for Romsey and Eastleigh/Hedge End. There’s also a book for the rather strangely numbered route network Bluestar run on behalf of the University of Southampton branded as Unibus which is open to all passengers.


Personally I’d prefer to see a timetable book rather than individual route leaflets for Bluestar’s network too, but perhaps it’s a reflection of the instability of the network due to the developing competition that’s a factor here. If so, it doesn’t inspire long term confidence.

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I’d also like to see a printed map for the Bluestar network combining the detailed route map of Southampton (above) and the extended area map showing fare zones as shown on the Travel Shop front window (below).


This latest competitive spat involves Bluestar introducing a new route 19 into one of First Bus’s heartland areas in the east of the city – Thornhill – replicating First Bus CityRed route 3 which runs from there into the city centre and to the western suburbs.


Thornhill already has high frequency Bluestar route 18 running ‘at frequent intervals’ (every 8 minutes) via Bitterne to the city centre and then out to Millbank in the west of the city. This route saw an investment in a fleet of smart new dual-door Enviro 200 buses a year ago making quite an impact. It turns round at Eastpoint – a sub-area of Thornhill relinquished by First Bus a few years ago.


City Red 3 also runs ‘at frequent intervals’ (every 8 minutes Mondays to Fridays) with Volvo Wright bodied Eclipse single decks with 2+1 seating in the front half and leather seats, and operates from Thornhill Fairfax Court via Sholing and Woolston to the city centre before continuing cross-city to Lord’s Hill.



Bluestar 19 runs every fifteen minutes with a promise of an increased ten minute frequency in the ‘New Year’. Rather than running cross-city, as CityRed 3 does, it turns round at the Central Station.

I took a ride on both a Bluestar 19 and a CityRed 3 and loadings were pretty much split according to which bus had arrived first along the route save for a minority of passengers who clearly had a loyalty branded ticket for one company or the other and waited for their favoured bus.


In retaliation for the Bluestar 19 incursion into Thornhill, First Bus began running a new CityRed 1 between the city centre, Totton and the residential area of Calmore to the west of the city also from 22nd September.


Totton had been exclusively served by Bluestar routes 11 and 12 as well as route 6 (on its way to Lymington) after First Bus withdrew from Totton some years ago. The 11 and 12 provide a combined 10 minute frequency to Totton with the 11 continuing every 20 minutes to West Totton and the 12 every 20 minutes to Calmore.


New CityRed 1 runs every 10 minutes on Mondays to Fridays to Calmore significantly trouncing the Bluestar 12’s twenty minute frequency but CityRed 1 also drops to every 20 minutes on Saturdays albeit cynically timetabled to be 3 minutes ahead of the 12.

Interestingly First Bus drop frequencies on a number of CityRed routes on Saturdays compared to Mondays to Fridays.


On my ride out to Totton and around Calmore on a CityRed 1 we picked up passengers waiting with no one hanging back for the Bluestar 12 running three minutes behind us but when I switched on to the 12 for the ride back from Calmore in the loop arrangement around the estate, we played cat and mouse for a while having caught up the 1 and split the load equally.



From Totton back to the city the CityRed went ahead as the 12 waited its scheduled departure 3 minutes behind.


Both Thornhill and Calmore are euphemistically called ‘good bus territories’ to describe their demographics but I doubt there’ll be enough new passenger generation to maintain margins at sustainably profitable levels as a result of the higher frequencies now provided following this latest upping of competition between these two bus company giants.


I also took a ride on a frequent Bluestar 18 to Millbrook (another ‘good bus territory’ residential area in the west of Southampton) which is hotly contested by CityRed 2 running every 8 minutes Mondays to Fridays and every 10 minutes on Saturdays.


It was much the same pattern as in Thornhill and Calmore with the first bus arriving picking up waiting passengers save for a few with loyalty tickets for one operator or the other.

Not surprisingly ticket prices offer good value, and are broadly comparable with inevitable “promotional” bargains. For example to Thornhill and Millbrook, which are in the ‘Southampton City’ zone for Bluestar a day ticket is £3.40, and to Calmore (in the ‘City Zone Plus”) it’s £3.70. A single from either Thornhill or Millbrook to the city centre is a bargain at just £2 and from Calmore it’s £3. A ‘Southampton City’ zone weekly is just £9.


A Day ticket within the CityReds ‘Southampton Zone” is £3.50 and £9 for a week.


There is an all operator SolentGo ticket (“from A to B to sea”) costing £5 for a day’s travel in the Southampton City zone, but a pricey £20 for a week – meaning it’s currently cheaper to buy a weekly ticket from both Bluestar and First Bus than the combined ticket, albeit you can also use the inter-urban routes within Southampton run by Xelabus using the latter.

As mentioned above, the presentation of buses is to a high standard – I only noticed two gremlins on yesterday’s visit (which is very good going compared to other places I visit)…




… and these are more than made up for by the welcome abundance of positive messages about using buses at bus stops and on buses.





Inevitably local media reports have woken up to what’s happening and as usual local politicians don’t really know what to make of it all.Screen Shot 2019-12-01 at 08.11.14.png

New Forest Councillor Harrison is downbeat about the new competition reckoning the extra route “adds nothing for passengers” but goes on to conclude “one bus company will be driven out of business, the other will have a monopoly and we all know what happens when customers don’t have a choice”.

So I’m not sure whether Councillor Harrison favours giving passengers a choice or not!

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Ironically Bluestar is part of Go SouthCoast which is well used to bus competition, experiencing it in both its main urban areas – Southampton and Bournemouth – while it also trades under a monopoly on the Isle of Wight – where, uniquely, passengers enjoy a comprehensive bus service throughout Christmas Day – so perhaps we don’t “all know what happens when customers don’t have a choice” after all.

Meanwhile back in Southampton recent years have brought many changes to bus competition in the city and 2019 has seen futher interesting developments. Riding around the network and seeing the numbers travelling yesterday, I suspect there’ll be more developments to come in 2020 if Go-Ahead and First Bus want to see those elusive sustainable margins.

Roger French



TfL reaches Reading

Thursday 28th November 2019


The rail industry’s fond of slipping in new developments before they’re officially due to start; they call it a ‘preview service’. It’s just happened again on the stopping service between Reading and Paddington currently operated by GWR and where most of the service is to be handed over to TfL Rail from the 15th December timetable change in just over a fortnight.


A seven-coach Class 345 TfL Rail branded train began running this week on a handful of journeys to get TfL Rail staff used to the new arrangements as well as passengers being able to sample the new trains west of their current terminus of Hayes & Harlington.

It’s a tad ironic to see these trains running in advance of their scheduled introduction date to Reading bearing in mind the continuing significant delay to the overall Crossrail project. There’s no chance of these trains continuing beyond Paddington towards Abbey Wood or Shenfield through the new Crossrail tunnels under central London for at least another year.


The new trains are likely to be received with mixed reactions by Berkshire commuters. Gone are the tables, forward/rear facing seats, plug sockets, toilets (including accessible) that have been the norm on GWR’s smart Class 387 trains for a while now (see above) and instead there’s plenty of inward facing longitudinal seats as favoured by TfL, a few bays of 2+2 seats, no toilets and no plug sockets (see below). On the positive side this creates much more room for standing and therefore increases the overall capacity albeit with less comfort for those wanting a seat. A bit like the Class 700 trains on Thameslink which everyone loves to hate, but knows there’s no alternative on busy commuter routes stretching ever further out from London.



Commuters from Amersham, Chesham and Uxbridge have long been used to such arrangements on the Metropolitan line, and I doubt there’s any passengers on the GOBLIN (the Overground line from Gospel Oak to Barking) who’d want to trade their longtitudinal seats on the new Class 710 trains back for traditional 2+2 seating on the old Class 172 trains now they’re used to the much greater capacity.


Commuters from Reading, Twyford, Maidenhead, Taplow, Burnham, Slough, Langley, Iver and West Drayton may be more discerning about seat comfort and positioning than hardy Londoners but, on the other hand, at some of these stations GWR will continue to be running frequent trains between Reading and Paddington so they’ll have a choice if they’re desperate for the loo or suffering battery top-up anxiety. I reckon the standard of seat hardness is as poor on both TfL Rail and GWR.


A glance at the timetables now available online, shows that from Maidenhead into Paddington, for example, in the morning peak between 07:00 and 09:00 there are eight TfL Rail departures at 07:05, 07:19, 07:35, 07:48, 08:05, 08:18, 08:35 and 08:48 taking 42 minutes to Paddington and ten GWR ‘semi-fast’ or ‘non-stop -N’ departures at 07:02, 07:07N; 07:15; 07:32N; 07:35N; 07:44; 08:02N; 08:14; 08:31N and 08:44 taking as little as 17 minutes for a non stopper to either 20, 25 or 35 minutes for semi-fasts. So plenty of train choice for Maidenheaders.

Commuters from Iver, Langley and Taplow will be mainly served by TfL Rail (with just a sprinkling of GWR trains) but other stations, like Maidenhead as described above, will continue to see GWR trains. Bizzarely, Burnham will have GWR trains from Paddington in the evening peak but not into Paddington in the morning peak, when it will be TfL Rail only.


Those passengers who will almost certainly disciminate in favour of a ride on TfL Rail’s trains are adults travelling with children. That’s because TfL allow up to four children under 11 to travel free when accompanied by an adult and this will apply to Reading, but not on GWR trains.

London residents with a Freedom Pass will also no doubt be committed TfL Rail travellers as they’ll be enjoying free travel to Reading but only on the purple coloured trains – and if travelling before 09:30 the pass won’t work station gates so passes will have to be shown to station staff to exit.


This will be the first time any TfL run service will not be accepting Oyster. The section of route west of West Drayton falls outside the Oyster scheme, even though Oyster does extend to places such as Gatwick Airport and Hertford East where TfL don’t run any services. That anomaly arises from the techy limitation of the ageing Oyster scheme. I understand contactless will be available, but posters at stations make no mention of this.


If you want to grab a preview of a Class 345 train running to or from Reading before 15th December they’re on the 07:32 and 09:48 Reading to Paddington journeys and the 17:42 Maidenhead to Paddington with return journeys from Paddington at 08:43 and 18:42 to Reading and 16:56 to Maidenhead. Or you can just sit at home and enjoy a Geoff Marshall video about it.

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Roger French

Tapping into confustion

Tuesday 26th November 2019


It’s good to see more and more bus companies playing payment systems catch-up by accepting contactless cards as an alternative to cash. I’m not convinced the transaction time is quicker, and indeed could well be slower in the hands of a proficient and experienced cash handling driver, but it’s the way society has rapidly moved and the bus industry must respond and adapt. I very rarely buy anything with cash these days.

My concern is the potential confusion caused by mixing up the simple substitute of cash with a contactless card to buy a bus ticket from the driver with new systems of tap-on and tap-off being rolled out by some operators linked to daily, weekly or even monthly capping. The former is still very much traditional ticket buying; the latter is ticketless travel and sometimes known colloquially as ‘London style’ (ie previously with Oyster).

Before these tapping trials take off too extensively there’s an urgent need for bus companies to think very carefully about how their marketing is targeted, the terminology used and procedures adopted.

In London it has all worked smoothly since the introduction of Oyster to the Capital’s bus network in 2003 because the flat fare has obviated the need to touch out. One tap as you get on is all that’s needed. Everyone accepts the ticketless concept and the daily cap.

Out in the provinces where flat fares aren’t appropriate it’s not so simple. Tap a ticket machine too early and you could end up paying for a single journey whereas you might have wanted a return ticket or a day ticket from the driver. How are you to know the difference?

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For example, Brighton & Hove who accept both contactless to buy traditional tickets, and contactless to tap-on and tap-off are using various marketing messages including “Tap to pay and you’re on your way” while Stagecoach South operating through the city  accept contactless on their frequent Coastliner route 700 into the city only for buying traditional tickets and use the marketing message ‘Tap & Go’.


Brighton & Hove also use the message ‘Tap on, tap off. Contactless is even easier’.


I’m not sure what tap-on tap-off is meant to be ‘even easier’ than …. but an uninformed customer would be hard pressed to know there’s a fundamental difference between the two ‘taps’ – a “Tap & Go” is vastly different to a “Tap-on, tap-off” while a “Tap to pay” could mean anything.

Wellglade owned trentbarton and Kinchbus in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire both also offer contactless payments and use the terms ‘travel contactless’ (for tap-on and tap-off) and ‘contactless payments’ for buying traditional paper tickets by contactless. TrentBarton have the added complication of also still using their long standing proprietary mango smartcard which has always operated in tap-on and tap-off mode and indeed was the first such operation in the UK – initially offering an attractive 25% discount compared to cash fares but since those heady days has been scaled back to a more modest 10% saving. Mango now suffers from its limited functionality (limited to three timed caps and not possible to offer area zonal caps) compared to what can be achieved through contactless.


The tap-on/tap-off system introduced by Brighton & Hove and Metrobus a few months ago is a good opportunity for Go-Ahead to trial what happens when passengers travel across two bus companies with a common cap. It’s the kind of thing that could be rolled out in Oxford, for example, across two competing bus companies (Oxford Bus and Stagecoach Oxford) with an integrated ticket scheme where the daily cap would effectively be that city’s Smartzone day ticket at £4.30.

Up until now, as a passenger, once I’d bought my Smartzone day ticket, I would know which operator I’d bought it from, and I have no interest in how the money is shared out between Oxford Bus and Stagecoach Oxford. Why would I need to know about that? But in the new world of tapping on and off, this becomes an issue as I found out on my recent trials travelling with Brighton & Hove and Metrobus.

Brighton & Hove have day tickets/daily caps of £5 (travel across the City network) and £7 (travel beyond the City). There’s also a £7.50 Metrovoyager ticket which includes all B&H and Metrobus routes and is quite a bargain if you use it extensively, but I doubt many folk use both Metrobus and B&H that much. Metrobus also have day tickets within each town served as well as across their network.

I was interested in how it would work by making journeys across both B&H and Metrobus which would be subject to the £7.50 Metrovoyager cap, so last Thursday, 21st November I set off for Brighton to give it a try out.

My first journey was from Hurstpierpoint into Brighton on Metrobus route 273. I tapped in as I boarded and tapped out as I alighted. As you tap out there’s nothing to confirm what you’ve paid (as happens when you tap out with Oyster at an Underground gate) – just an ‘accepted’ message.

I happen to know the single fare for the journey I made is £3.70, but otherwise I’d not have known that’s how much debt I’d incurred.


A little concerning was the pole mounted exit reader had gone to sleep as I came to get off in Brighton with no green light displaying. The driver said to use his cab mounted machine instead but just at that moment the former machine came to life and displayed ‘accepted’ as I placed my contactless card on it.

Normally a passenger making a return journey from Hurstpierpoint to Brighton and back would ask the driver for a return ticket which costs £5.90 – a saving of £1.50 compared to buying two singles (at £3.70 each way) for £7.40.

But for that I’d need to know not to immediately tap on to the ticket machine but instead ask the driver for a return ticket in the traditional way, wait for it to be keyed into the ticket machine and then tap my card for the fixed payment to go through and receive a paper ticket. Tap too soon and I’d be £1.50 worse off as the driver would be unable to cancel the £3.70 lined up to be deducted from my bank account; and when I returned home it would be another £3.70 as the tap-on and tap-off system is not clever enough to cap fares paid from and to the same origin/destination at the return fare. Effectively it’s either singles or day tickets in this new world of contactless – tap-on and tap-off may be ‘even easier’ but it could also be ‘even costlier’.

Once I’d arrived in Brighton I took a short ride on a Brighton & Hove bus through the central area with my tap-on and tap-off card clocking up a fare of £2.20.

My third journey was a return trip to Hurstpierpoint which the tap-on and tap-off would calculate as another £3.70 single but I was expecting the Metrovoyager cap of £7.50 to kick in limiting my payment to £1.60 (£3.70+£2.20+£1.60=£7.50).


I eagerly logged on to the Metrobus website when I got home to see if that is indeed what had happened only to get a message ‘no records found’.

I realised I was probably being premature and left it until the next day (Friday 22nd) and had another try.

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Somewhat disconcertingly a similar message of no entries matching my ‘search criteria’ came back both when entering my credit card details on the link for unregistered users and, after registering as a user and trying that way. Still nothing. On the upside no transaction had been recorded against my credit card for the previous day’s travel either.

I tried again 48 hours later (on Saturday 23rd) and still nothing as a registered user.

However by checking as an unregistered user up came an entry showing a deduction of £5.30 for Friday 22nd (the day after I’d made the journeys on Thursday 21st).

This puzzled me at first as I couldn’t see why a daily cap would kick in at £5.30 rather than the £7.50 I was expecting; however, when clicking on the icon for further details I then saw the two entries for my outward journey for £3.70 and return journey shown as £1.60.

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That’s when it dawned on me that the missing £2.20 (£7.50 less £5.30) would no doubt be listed on the Brighton & Hove website and sure enough, although nothing was showing at that time, later on during Saturday, it popped up as a record – also showing the incorrect travel date as Friday.

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Clicking on the ‘Details” icon brought up that journey on route 49 for £2.20.

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I checked my credit card transactions again with my credit card company and the Metrobus entry for £5.30 had been deducted and after another 24 hours (on Sunday 24th) the £2.20 was shown as a deduction for Brighton & Hove.

This all seemed a bit confusing to me, and the lack of information being available for 48 hours giving rise to consternation and not helpful in building trust into the system. One of the key elements of ticketless payment systems of this kind, as TfL always point out with Oyster and their use of contactless, is how absolutely vital it is for passengers to trust the system to charge the best fare. Whilst it did do that for my trips, I’m not convinced the presentation across two bus company websites is the best way to show it. Had I bought a Metrovoyager from the driver of the 273 for £7.50 on my first journey I wouldn’t be knowing B&H got £2.20 of this and Metrobus £5.30; indeed the whole £7.50 would have gone to Metrobus and been retained by them.

Following that expereince, I thought I’d give the system another try and so this morning began my tapping in central Brighton and made four short journeys in quick succession.


The first £2.20 centre-fare journey was on a B&H smart new electric bus on route 5B from Preston Circus down to London Road shops.


Short journey number two, just to add to the confusion, was on a Metrobus route 272 from London Road shops to the Old Steine. Although this journey is charged at £2.20 in line with B&H’s fares, and although Metrobus and B&H are effectively run as one company, this journey wouldn’t have been possible with a Brighton & Hove one day City Saver ticket for £5 – only the Metrovoyager £7.50 ticket includes both Metrobus and B&H buses, so I’m not expecting this journey to count towards the daily B&H cap of £5 when it comes to analysing my contactless tap-on and tap-off journey record.


My third shop hop was on a B&H route 1 from the Old Steine just one stop further on in North Street which counts as a £2 ‘short hop’ rather than the £2.20 centre fare, although I couldn’t find a list online showing where these slightly cheaper fares apply.


The fourth and final short hop was on a B&H route 49 from North Street to Churchill Square, which could be £2 or maybe £2.20, but as the £5 cap should kick in I’ll never know!

I’m expecting the B&H £5 cap to cover my three B&H bus fares and the Metrobus £2.20 to be set against the extra £2.50 to take my cap from £5 to £7.50 for the Metrovoyager ticket leaving 30p still to use.

After my four short hops I headed back from Brighton to Hassocks and Hurstpierpoint on a Metrobus 273 which would normally be £3.70 for the single journey, as explained earlier, so I would expect to pay just the 30p outstanding within the £7.50 cap for that journey.


This evening, I’ve checked both the Metrobus and B&H websites to see if my travels have been recorded yet, and much to my surprise following last week’s posting delays, four of my five journeys have appeared. The fifth, that £2.20 journey on Metrobus 272 seems to have disappeared.

On the B&H website using the non-registered user function, it shows the three journeys I made (on routes 5B, 1 and 49) with the £5 daily cap kicking in. (As you can see my journey on Thursday 21st November is still erroneosly listed as Friday 22nd November).

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On the Metrobus website using the non-registered user function, it shows only my journey back to Hurstpierpoint on route 273 valued at £2.50 (the difference between the B&H cap of £5 and the Metrovoyager ticket cap of £7.50. The £2.20 journey on route 272 has disappeared into the ether.

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When I click on to My Account to see a record of journeys, it still tells me there are no entries to be found.

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Update insert: Wednesday 27th November 

Checking my transactions record on the Metrobus website this morning (below) I see the elusive journey I made yesterday on route 272 is now listed but showing a zero value being within the £7.50 cap even though the journey was made sequentially earlier than the later journey on route 273 which is given a value of £2.50. Even more confusingly the date of both journeys has now changed to today’s date rather than yesterday!

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Also, this morning (Wednesday) on checking the ‘pending transactions’ with my credit card company on their online website, an entry for “Brighton & Hove Bus An Brihgotn & Hogbr” appeared for 10p and an hour later a similar entry for Metrobus, although with no gobblegook spelling. I’m told on Twitter these are verfication deductions, but it seems odd (a) to have one from both companies; (b) that I had none last week and (c) they’re both still showing this afternoon, seven hours after first appearing with no sign of the actual expenditure appearing.

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Update insert: Friday 29th November 

The 10p entries highlighted above were deleted from my credit card statement after 24 hours and finally today the entries for my travels on Tuesday 26th November have appeared – dated 28th November, but only appearing this morning, three days after travelling.


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I’m pleased to see my former Company in the vanguard of using this new technology and well done to all involved in setting it all up which I can imagine must have entailed a lot of hard work, but it would seem there are teething problems to sort out, especially how the system works across two companies, which will be critical for those areas where pundits want to see “integrated London style ticketing”.

There’s also wider issues for the bus industry as to how paying for travel is going to be communicated and marketed in the future. Are return tickets old hat; will it all be tap-on and tap-off with daily caps? If so, what about all those who don’t have or don’t want to pay with a bank card? Or those bus companies mainly running trunk routes where daily caps are not appropriate? Will maintaining a range of alternative systems and ticket options add to confusion? What is the difference between “Tap to Pay”, “Tap & Go” and “Tap-on and Tap off”?

There’s a lot to think about, and in the meantime there’s a risk confusion leads to passengers giving up.

Good luck to cities and towns with more than one operator like Oxford in sorting this out in ways passengers will understand, and importantly have the trust and confidence to use.

London Oyster style this isn’t.

Roger French

Slip ‘n Slide

Thursday 21st November 2019


Following last Friday’s try out of TfL’s latest Demand Responsive Transport trial in Ealing, I found myself back in the Borough with two bus industry colleague friends to give it another try yesterday afternoon.


There was a Slide vehicle parked up waiting for custom as we came out of Ealing Broadway station so to give the system a proper try we caught the next bus on route E1 along to Drayton Green station where we alighted and ordered a Slide from there to Greenford Broadway.


We made two bookings using apps on two separate smartphones at pretty much the same time, so not surprisingly the software combined us all on to the same vehicle which was indeed the one we saw parked up and arrived with us within the estimated seven minutes.

I booked for two people and paid £2 for that second booking rather than the standard £3.50 fare.

When the minibus arrived it seems the driver wasn’t expecting three of us but on checking his in-cab tablet he then noticed the second booking had come through, and it then appeared on the monitor behind the driver – but oddly with a slightly later arrival time at the same destination.


Off we set and it then became obvious there was a problem – the driver’s SstNav on the tablet kept reverting to recalculating the journey and wouldn’t show the driver where to go. No route appeared ahead of where he currently was.


Luckily he knew our destination and the route to take so used his initiative and got us to Greenford Broadway in spite of, rather than helped by, the SatNav software.

Our next journey about half an hour later began with me booking for two passengers from Greenford Broadway to Northfields station which after acceptance and being advised a minibus would be with us in six minutes, my friend, a few minutes later, booked his journey from Greenford Broadway to South Ealing station (not far from Northfields). The software duly allocated us the same shared ride on the same minibus and it soon appeared at the designated pick up point by Lidl.


This proved to be a tricky point to pick us up with peak afternoon-post-school turn out time traffic and cars trying to get into Lidl’s car park; but our driver managed to reverse back into the main road and turn the minibus round and pick us up. I wasn’t sure about that manoeuvre as we were now pointing in the wrong direction.

Our second driver, like the first, also wasn’t aware there would be three of us but then spotted my booking was for two people so was reassured. But the biggest consternation was the SatNav taking us off in a north-westerly direction rather than south-eastwards towards Northfields and South Ealing.


After struggling in the wrong direction through Greenford’s congested traffic and ending up doing a complete circuit around residential roads in north west Greenford, after ten minutes we were back at Greenford Broadway and Lidl where we’d started the journey.IMG_3050.jpg

Our driver valiantly struggled on using his local knowledge to get us on our way, as it seems the routing software had once again packed up not being able to cope with more than one booked passenger on board.

It’s a bit of a fundamental problem for a ride sharing operation not being able to cope with ride sharing; but hopefully it’s just teething problems and will soon be sorted out.


The monitor behind the driver (still using unfriendly destination names rather than Northfields and South Ealing stations) gave worsening predicted arrival times as our journey included off route deviations and worsening traffic congestion.


At one point during the journey the monitor turned itself off but my friend Phil managed to find the on/off switch at the back and turned it back on again.

In the event the journey to Northfields took 45 minutes instead of the originally expected range of 17-29 minutes.

I emailed the ‘SlideEaling’ Hello address during our prolonged journey to pass on feedback about the loss of SatNav and to explain how well the driver was coping as he was gutted and embarrassed about the problems – especially as we were his first and only passengers all day. I also asked for a refund of the £2 I’d paid!

James at SlideEaling has replied this evening to say:


Hopefully ‘a fix’ is now implemented and there’ll be no more slips on Slide.

Roger French

Not Notts Again!

Tuesday 19th November 2019

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Indeed it is; and many congratulations to Mark Fowles, managing director of Nottingham City Transport (NCT) and his entire team for picking up the coveted Bus Operator of the Year award at the UK Bus Awards’ annual ceremony in London this afternoon. Not only that, but congratulations also to Mark for the personal accolade of winning the prestigious Services to the Bus Industry Award.


It’s becoming a bit of a habit for NCT to top the UK Bus Awards. In addition to this afternoon’s success, they’ve picked up the Gold Award as Top City Operator in four of the last seven years (2019, 2018, 2016 and 2014) as well as the overall Bus Operator of the Year award in 2019, 2016 and 2014.

It’s an outstanding record. I’ve had the privilege of sitting on the judging panel for this Award category for a few years now, as well as mystery shopped NCT and other operators in different years as part of the judging process, and am pleased to confirm the Company lives up to its promises.


My visits to Nottingham always get off to a positive start being met by a magnificent display of information, maps and timetables about buses in the foyer of Nottingham Station. Commendably this not only includes NCT’s bus services but also those of trentbarton which provides an equally impressive network of bus routes to destinations outside of the City and are also rightly renowned for the quality of their operation. There’s also a large selection of timetables for complimentary tendered routes to NCT and trentbarton’s commercial networks.


Around the corner in the corridor to the station exit there’s information about the tram network adding to the comprehensive public transport information offering.


Outside the station the bus stops and shelters are all clearly marked with departure lists, maps, flags showing route numbers as well as ticket and fare information and, of course, there’s real time information boards which work well too.





In the city centre, you’ll find a conveniently sited Travel Shop, which although traditional in its layout (a bit basic with large security screens protecting staff) is handy for buying tickets or picking up information.IMG_1953.jpg


NCT’s website is also easy to follow with maps and timetables within two clicks.

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NCT’s insistence on exact-fare-in-the-box cash payment is one of the few negatives about the company, but it does offer an EasyRider smartcard option as well as tickets on mobile phones and is shortly to at last introduce contactless payments which I’m sure will be welcomed by passengers.


There are also easy-to-use on-street ticket machines all over the city provided by the City Council which sell the all-operator Robin Hood branded network tickets on smartcards.


A quick glance at NCT’s network bus map is all that’s needed to get a grasp of where each bus route goes as it’s all colour coded in a simple and easy to understand presentation, applying logically to groups of routes by corridor.


On my visits to Nottingham I’ve never seen a coloured branded bus on the wrong route – the huighky credible system gives great confidence to a visitor to travel around the city by bus. All the main corridors enjoy impressive turn-up-and-go frequencies as well as decent evening and Sunday timetables.


NCT is no minnow.  A fleet of 330 buses makes it one of the largest operators dedicated to one city. Even more impressive is the track record of investment in new buses. The past two years has seen a record investment with a staggering £42 million spent on fleet and infrastructure renewals.


“The entire NCT fleet has been upgraded to Euro VI. 130 brand new buses since 2017 and exhaust treatment systems fitted to 180 diesel buses has resulted in fleet emissions falling 90% and 8,000 tonnes of CO2 and 70 tonnes of NOX emissions avoided over a twelve month period.” That certainly sounds an impressive claim, even if it is just numbers and words to me. It’s also encouraging to see the retrofitting of upgraded exhausts has been achieved with funding support from both Nottingham City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council showing partnership working can be across many facets of work. Not least, of course, is also the pioneering and forward thinking workplace parking levy across the City.

NCT is a great fan of bio-gas buses; there are now 120 operating in the city following the delivery of 67 since April which have upgraded Brown Line 17, Lilac 27, Purple 89 and Pink 28. All this investment has brought the fleet average age down to just 4.5 years.


Passenger satisfaction as measured by Transport Focus was 91% in the 2018 Survey, which though slightly down on the 2017 result of 94% and the all time high of 97% in 2015 is still very impressive for a city operator facing issues of congestion, roadworks and other external challenges. And, of course, Nottingham has the second highest bus use per head (145 trips) outside of London (and Brighton & Hove); so there’s lots of people using lots of buses. You don’t have to be in the City for long before picking up the vibes that this really is a place which embraces buses and has a true bus culture. The smartly turned out fleet of very colourful buses of both NCT and trentbarton certainly helps. Preentation is everything; and in Nottingham it’s quality.

Other impressive exemplars NCT (and its partners) exude include a Control Room with direct access to traffic cameras; the highest number of real time displays in one city outside of London (1,803); 24 Kms of bus lanes; 60 junctions with traffic light priority guaranteeing green light for late running buses; overall patronage growth of 0.61% – and 1.3% on commercial routes; 40% of day tickets now sold on smartphones; a commercial under 19 day ticket with price frozen for 3 years; usb chargers on 40% of buses and more being retrofitted; fleet wide 4G Wi-Fi; and an expanding night bus network.

Just a few reasons why NCT is a well deserved award winner.


And before anyone observes “aha; this shows what can be done by a bus company with the benefit of municipal ownership”, I would add that my positive comments were just as effusive this time last year for the UK Bus Awards 2018 Bus Operator of the Year winner – Go South Coast – and, I would also commend Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancs and Ensign Bus, the two worthy winners this afternoon of the Gold Award for 2019 in the Top Shire Operator and Top Independent Operator categories and which are definitely in the private sector, proving ownership is irrelevant when it comes to running a top quality bus company. Oh, and of course, I should add the Gold Winner of Top City Operator in those years when NCT didn’t quite make it to the top – 2017 and 2015 – was, of course, Brighton & Hove – by all accounts another quality PLC owned bus company!


One final observation: NCT’s Operating Margin at just 2.8% for the last financial year is very much on the low side. Furthermore it’s down on the previous year’s already low profitability of 3.63% as a result of rising costs outstripping increased revenue during the year, partly as a consequence of the significant investments being made. Running a low margin operation is certainly one benefit of municipal ownership with its less demanding shareholder;  but it’s a perilously risky business to run a £54 million turnover business on such slim profits. A strong headwind can soon blow the business off course and lead it into choppy waters. There’s no doubt though NCT is well placed to meet any such challenges and its consistant track record of award wins admirably demonstrates its robustness, excellent leadership and first rate service delivery.

Many congratulations for yet another well deserved win.


Roger French

DRT Slides into Ealing

Friday 15th November 2019


It’s all change in the world of Bus Demand Responsive Transport (DRT). This week sees the final foray for Arriva Click’s pioneering ‘pilot’ in Sittingbourne and Zeelo’s scheme for pilots (and others) living in Crawley and working at Gatwick Airport. The former ends tomorrow having been launched with much fanfare back in March 2017 (quite a long ‘pilot’ then) and the latter packed up today after just three months operation.

No-one with any grasp of the economics of public transport (or new fancy terms such as ‘integrated mobility solutions’) will be surprised these initiatives have failed. It really was obvious from the start the DRT business model simply doesn’t stack up; as I’ve written and explained a number of times in these blogs and in my quarterly Inside Track column in Buses magazine.

But lessons are seldom learned and as Sittingbourne bites the dust Arriva are already announcing they’ll be announcing another DRT scheme some place else very soon – update: just heard this will be in Watford. More fool them; unless they’ve convinced another Local Authority and Developer (as in Leicester) to hand over Section 106 money to financially prop up the operation for a couple of years.


TfL are also intent on splashing the cash (they haven’t got) on loss making DRT trials. And not only on one heavy loss making DRT venture in Sutton launched in May, but from this Wednesday starting the promised second year long trial based in Ealing.


This one is supported by Slide – the company behind the financially disastrous ridesharing DRT/taxi venture in Bristol that was withdrawn a year ago – being run by RATP Dev as a ‘pilot project’ for just over two years from July 2016. I’d only just got round to deleting that Slide app from my smartphone so had to download this latest ‘SlideEaling’ version as I headed over to Ealing this morning to give it a try as I spotted a news release from TfL on Wednesday announcing the new service began that very day – not exactly giving much forewarning!


Whenever I travel on these new DRT ventures I get mixed feelings hearing the optimism of the drivers. Today was no exception with Will, Ovi and Pat, on the three journeys I made, all amazingly positive about their career change and the future success of the venture which on the one hand is great to hear, but I fear their naivety will lead to disappointment in a few months time.

I don’t like to pop their positive bubble and I hope behind the scenes senior managers at RATP Dev owned London Sovereign, who are running this operation for TfL, are not giving them false hope.

There’s no way this operation is ever going to succeed; it’s only hope is for some equalities or diversity issue to come up which could justify TfL spending vast sums on keeping the service going after its twelve month trial.


The software for this scheme is provided by MOIA rather than Viavan as used in Sutton (as well as used by Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up and Arriva Click). It has a few detailed differences; for example there are no texts to say your vehicle is shortly arriving nor afterwards asking for feedback. MOIA prefer to use their app to show the vehicle approaching the pick up point by way of an icon on a map with a timed countdown alongside. That’s snazzy but it does mean you need to keep looking at your phone screen if you want an update, rather than wait for the text as per the Viavan system. I read that MOIA is “the flagship mobility services subsidiary of the VW Group”.


SlideEaling are also using MAN minibuses rather than the more common Mercedes favoured elsewhere. They’re Euro VI so are Ultra Low Emission Zone compliant.  They have just ten seats (which will be ample) and a rear tail lift for wheelchair access which will slow things down compared to boarding through the side door.


Seats are comfortable with moquette rather than leather and laid out 2+1. There’s a wide entrance by the door but it does involve a step up. Not so easy for the less agile. Quite extraordinary not to be running low floor accessible minibuses.


Inevitably there’s usb but I didn’t find Wi-Fi but these days I prefer the former and am not bothered about the latter, especially on short journeys when it’s too much faff to log in.


London Sovereign have ten of these minibuses for the service (with legal lettering for London United) housed at RATP’s engineering base in Twickenham. Five vehicles are used during the day with the spare five vehicles entering service with late turn drivers as the five early turn drivers take their buses back to base, so a bit inefficient on the capital employed front.

The operating day is an extensive 06:00 to 01:00, seven days a week. Yes, really. TfL certainly know how to splash the cash when it comes to DRT trials. The five vehicles will be covering a large part of the London Borough of Ealing from Southall in the west to the North Circular in the east and from the A40 down to Boston Manor on the southern Borough boundary.

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Everything else is pretty much the same as in Sutton with rides costing £3.50 a go with a daily cap of £10.50, a weekly £35 cap and a monthly top whack of £105. Additional passengers booked at the same time pay £2 a ride. The system doesn’t accept Oyster or contactless and although journeys are encouraged to be booked and paid for through the app, there is a phone number given for people without smartphones and an operator will book the journey for you and let you know pick up location and estimated time, but after that you’re on your own, with no further updates.

Children under 13 are not carried unless with an adult and those aged 13 to 16 need parental or guardian consent to register with the service.

Freedom Passes and English National Concessionary Travel Scheme Passes need to be pre-registered by email when a six digit coupon number will be provided within 24 hours which can be entered into the app to provide a full offset to the cost of each journey giving a ‘nil balance’. I applied yesterday and received a reply within three hours. The coupon lasts for 180 days (it also refers to 1,000 journeys, but I won’t be travelling that often) so I assume I need to apply for a new coupon number halfway through the twelve month trial if I want to continue enjoying a free personal taxi service across Ealing.

My first journey this morning was from Ealing Broadway to Boston Manor. I booked it at 10.35 with an expected arrival within 8 minutes at a pick up point at Bus Stop D on Haven Green just a stone’s throw from the station exit.



One annoying thing about the booking software is despite putting the “destination” icon in the exact place I want to go, it comes back with “16 Cawdor Crescent” rather than something a bit more user-friendly like Boston Manor. I appreciate this is because the minibus won’t be actually taking me to the front door of the station at Boston Manor which is tantalizing just over the scheme boundary, but it assumes I know where Cawdor Crescent is, which I don’t.


The app also gives an estimated range for the journey time, in this case of between 11 and 21 minutes, which seemed a bit vague. Anyway Will duly drove up within the expected waiting time, and I was well impressed to hear I was his second passenger of the day. So a busy day for him!


There’s a fleet number in the top nearside corner of the front so you can be sure you’re boarding the correct vehicle. Whereas Viavan lets you know the driver’s name, MOIA doesn’t, so that’s a helpful feature.


His dashboard mounted tablet with its zoom in map showing directions took us along some very narrow residential streets for the Boston Manor bound journey. The software seemed to be doing everything possible to take us on a route that avoided any main road.

We duly arrived in Cawdor Crescent after a 12 minute ride and I bid farewell to Will who’d been driving big buses on and off for a number of years with Metroline as his last employer, so he had high hopes for this new venture.


I wandered around to Boston Manor station and caught a Piccadilly Line train the two stops to South Ealing to reposition myself for my next journey to Greenford Broadway which I ordered at 11:12am.


Again, despite landing the “To” icon exactly in the middle of the crossroads of Greenford Broadway, the software wanted to take me to Clifton Road, which I was also told was a 1 minute walk from 424 Greenford Road. Sounded good, so I booked it and was told my “Slide arrives in 12 min”.



I was impressed that the route to be taken by the incoming vehicle to pick me up took account of the roadworks right outside South Ealing station and that Dorset Road, a 2 minute walk from where I was at “82A S Ealing Road” aka South Ealing station was closed as part of the works.



Ovi arrived ten minutes later and we set off with an expected journey time range between “17-29 min ride”. Interestingly that worse case 29 minute scenario was almost as long as the TfL Journey Planner recommendation of catching a 65 to Ealing Broadway and changing to an E10. Suffice to say the Journey Planner didn’t know about Slide.


I was chatting to Ovi and found I was his first passenger of the day. He’d also been a big bus driver, but for him, with London Sovereign itself so no employer change had been needed. I then noticed a screen immediately behind the driver which showed my initials alongside the drop off destination and the estimated time.



I guess this might be useful if there’s more passengers on board (some hope!) as you can see the order of when you’ll expect to reach your destination. As Andrew Garnett pointed out on Twitter it’s a shame the manufacturer’s sticker hadn’t been removed!

As you approach the drop off, the screen changes to add a reminder “don’t forget your personal belongings”.


Another repositioning via TfL big bus route 92 down to Ealing Hospital where at 12:06 I ordered my third and final ride of the day to take me right up into the north east corner of the Borough, just a stones throw from Hanger Lane gyratory and Underground station.

IMG_2968.jpgI was wondering whether the pick up point at Ealing Hospital would be by the bus stops for routes 92, 282 and 483 within the hospital grounds and sure enough it came through as at “TfL Bus Stop – Ealing Hospital” but prior to that confirmation it was insisting I was trying to book “from Denman Avenue” which must be an internal hospital road as the icon was definitely in the hospital grounds.



Even more bizarre the destination drop off was shown as “Hail & Ride Section” which was a “O min walk” from “112 Garrick Cl’. I just wanted Hanger Lane!

It would be another “23-37 min ride” and “Slide arrives in 7 min”. Which it did.


And surprisingly was a blue liveried minibus, but otherwise the same as the previous two internally.


Pat, my driver, explained five of the minibuses are coloured blue and five white as a base colour. He wasn’t sure why; he was just pleased to see me, as he’d been on an early shift and I was his very first customer at 12:15.


Like Will and Ovi, Pat had had big bus driving experience during his career and had been attracted to the innovative nature of this service which he had great hopes would be a success although he admitted he was getting worried about not having had any customers all morning until I came along.


There was a bit of a gremlin in the ‘drop off’ screen behind the driver seemingly on the wrong display ratio.


Pat also had some confusion as we rounded the Hanger Lane gyratory when he thought his tablet was showing to head south down the North Circular instead of back round on to the westbound A40, so just to be sure he went round the gyratory a second time and it became obvious the directional arrow in the top left hand corner was indicating an instruction in the distance shown, rather than immediate.


Confusion sorted and I duly arrived at my destination of “Hail & Ride Sec…” after a 25 minute ride just over the optimistic range of the predicted “23-37 min ride”.


Pat explained that he’d been waiting at his chosen spot all morning for a customer and it only then dawned on me that whereas Viavan’s software designates a spot where it’s optimal for drivers to wait, the MOIA software allows drivers to wait anywhere of their choosing. This seems an odd way of working as Pat admitted, first thing in the morning the drivers could all end up waiting close by each other in one corner of the Borough. He explained a controller can see where they all are and can ask them to move, but that’s hardly an efficient and cost effective way of working. I thought the software was supposed to remove the requirement for a costly controller; albeit someone also needs to be available to book phone requests from non smartphone owning passengers too.


So, another DRT launch, another handful of solo journeys in my (now, free to use) personal taxi, and no doubt more hyped up trade press coverage to come. I see the Confederation of Passenger Transport and the Campaign for Better Transport were busy sending out missives to politicians and the trade press this week calling for innovative DRT type schemes to be funded and supported as the salvation of rural transport. I wish they’d get out of their offices and see DRT in action, lest we have more wasted funding prior to more DRT ‘pilots’ being terminated as hopeless causes.


Roger French



Heathrow funds more bus routes

Thursday 14th November 2019


It’s becoming notable how many new and improved bus routes are being introduced with financial support from Heathrow Airport offering better connections for staff and airline travellers. Anyone would think there’s a third runway in the offing.

I wrote about First Bus’s new RailAir link from Guildford to Heathrow when it kicked off back in July. Earlier this month I wrote about the much improved timetable introduced a couple of weeks ago on Thames Valley branded route 10 to Datchet, Windsor and Dedworth and yesterday I caught up with a couple more initiatives now up and running thanks to the ever generous Heathrow Airport Ltd.


Route X442 began on 10th August providing a direct quick link from Staines rail station pretty much non stop along the A3044 past the massive reservoirs straight to Terminal 5. It supplements the more circuitous route 442 via Ashford Hospital, Stanwell and Stanwell Moor which has also seen an improved timetable with late evening journeys and a new Sunday service. Both routes 442 and X442 are operated by Carlone with swanky Mercedes Sprinter minibuses with the usual leather type seats, awful leg room, especially over the wheel arches, but a handy usb socket in the side panels.


Surrey County Council have also chipped in to facilitate the improved service and Spelthorne Borough Council (in which Staines resides) has aspirations for a ‘Southern Light Rail’ scheme which “will form part of the Oyster card network”. Recent press reports state the Council “had been given the nod to proceed with its bid” for such a scheme. I guess when you have a Masterplan which builds a new runway, eliminates communities by bulldozing hundreds of homes, diverts rivers and roads, burrows the M25 into a tunnel and goodness knows what else, a light rail connecting Staines into the airport is almost petty cash consideration. But, in the meantime for Stainesites and Heathrow workers using SWR trains to the station, it’s the new look X442 for now.

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I took a ride around lunchtime yesterday from Terminal 5 out to Staines and back again. It’s a tight run taking thirteen minutes pretty much non-stop. The half hour frequency is operated by just the one minibus (although a second spare is available), and one driver at a time, who notwithstanding the punishing regime was amazingly cheerful (even handing me a promotional pen with timetable) but he did admit the constant up and down the same bit of the A3044 does get to him towards the end of the shift in the afternoons. Update note from Matt at Carlone – three drivers are allocated to the X442 between 06:30 and 19:00 and all Carlone drivers have bespoke shifts on weekdays with weekend working voluntary overtime – a very employee friendly arrangement.


The first X442 journey leaves Staines station at 06:33 and continues until 19:03. There’s an hours gap mid morning and mid afternoon when passengers are directed to use the circuitous 442 instead which is appropriately diverted via the station (where it doesn’t normally go – preferring the bus station for the rest of its approximate 90 minute frequency timetable). The 442 also covers for the missing X442 in the evenings and on Sundays.


I was the only passenger on the 12:32 journey from Terminal 5 to Staines station but on the return trip leaving the station at 12:45 we picked a passenger up in the High Street who deliberately let the First Berkshire route 8 go by as she was pleased to tell the driver the cheaper fare on the X442 saved her £2. She reckoned a few of her colleagues had also twigged about the cheaper fares and made the switch. First’s route 8 also provides a fast half hourly link from Staines to Terminal 5, albeit serving the town’s bus station rather than the rail station.

The cheaper fares and the regular frequency will make the X442 an attractive link for the airport’s workers to and from Staines and the half hour frequency is generous but necessary if connections to trains at the station are going to be convenient. It’s quite an investment, but there again, Heathrow Airport can no doubt afford it.


The second new route to Terminal 5 only began last week, so it’s still early days. Operated by Reading Buses/Thames Valley route 459 provides a link to Iver just over the border in Buckinghamshire and also takes in Langley (twice on each journey).

CEO of Reading Buses, Robert Williams has explained the full service is not set to begin until next February, but in the meantime the five off-peak journey a day Monday to Friday taster timetable runs between 09:38 and 14:28 and has been “mobilised exceptionally quickly for the various authorities and will build everything up as things progress”.

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The Reading Buses news release issued a couple of weeks ago says “the new route will be implemented in three phases as we trial different bus types”. Phase one started on Monday of last week and runs until 20th December using a full electric bus with the service “completely free to use”.


Phase two runs during the month of January and “we will use one of our single deck buses that run on compressed natural gas”.

Phase three from 3rd February sees “the full timetable introduced which will include a service running from 3am until after midnight, and of course, include weekends. From phase three, full fares will be in operation”. This full service will be run by a Euro 6 diesel engine bus.

This is an intriguing way of starting a new bus route; I’ve never come across anything quite like it before, and am not sure I understand the logic behind the various phases nor why the three month lead in period until the full timetable.Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 15.25.55.png

Route 459 takes in part of First Berkshire’s route 7 through Langley and I wonder if they will be pleased about this new interloper once the full timetable is introduced next year. For now, the five off-peak journeys are hardly a threat and unsurprisingly yesterday when I had a ride around on the 11:38 from Terminal 5 we left with no-one on board.

The online route map (above) shows “certain journeys only” making a detour via Langley before commencing the anti-clockwise circuit via Iver and we followed this route and the timetable shows all five journeys do so; perhaps this will change once the full timetable is implemented.  It certainly adds to the sense of going round in circles for people travelling to Iver.


When we got to Iver station we picked up a passenger who thought we were the Redline Buses operated infrequent route 583 to Uxbridge where she was heading to (presumably) change on to TfL’s route A10 to get to Heathrow Central Bus Station for Terminal 2, so she was well pleased to discover she was on a free-to-use bus (for now) to Terminal 5 where she could make a (free) connection to the Central bus station. She was the only passenger but there didn’t seem to be much publicity for the 459 at bus stops as we went along the route, so that wasn’t surprising.


I spotted a timetable attached to a bus stop pole in Iver itself, but there was nothing displayed in bus shelters in Langley or through Colnbrook and no bus stops plates had the 459 number added.


I commented last week about the appalling dearth of helpful information about bus departures at Terminal 5 itself and wasn’t surprised to see no mention at all of the 459 anywhere yesterday.


It seems quite bizarre that Heathrow Airport are funding at considerable expense these new services, including the 459 and the improved route 10, yet there’s absolutely no mention of these initiatives. Quite how people are supposed to find out about them I really don’t know.

Terminal 5 compares very poorly with the Central Bus Station where there are at least displays advising you where to catch buses and coaches, and their destinations.


Compare the above with this disgraceful display at a Terminal 5 bus stop.


While at the Central Bus Station, I picked up a copy of the acclaimed Local Bus & Coach Guide (edition 2 dated 1 July 2019) and this is a real gem with a regional map showing bus routes to and from the airport, who operates what, and what special fare deals are available for airport staff.


Hopefully another edition will be published soon with all these latest initiatives included. And Terminal 5’s departure bays will get some much needed attention.


Roger French