I rode the secret TrawsCymru bus route

IMG_8137.jpgMonday 11th February 2019

I’m a great fan of the TrawsCymru high profile long distance bus routes crisscrossing the Welsh nation. They compliment the rail network and provide some great connections between distant communities at impressive frequencies.

I’ve travelled multiple times on all the routes numbered T1 to T6, and always enjoy the truly amazing and contrasting scenery each has to offer.

The idea has come a long way since the National Bus Company and Welsh Office initiated a single north-south TrawsCambria branded route 700 between Cardiff and Bangor in 1979 running only on Fridays to Mondays with National Welsh and Crosville each providing a vehicle.

Fast forward through three decades with many route introductions, withdrawals and changes to find the TrawsCambria brand being used on a growing network of individual routes of a strategic nature until 2012/13 when the Welsh Government, by then well and truly behind the initiative, introduced a renaming to the snappier TrawsCymru and importantly provided funding for new vehicles to use on the services with a bright exterior livery and excellent standards of comfort inside.

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IMG_7981.jpgSince deregulation it’s been tricky for the Welsh Government to subsidise and control routes which bus companies see as a commercial proposition in whole or in part across the network. For a time Arriva had a go at developing a small network under the CymruExpress brand. After that idea was abandoned the TrawsCymru network has stabilised and become well established.

An off the wall idea in 2017 to promote the benefits of the network and raise its profile was the introduction of free weekend travel for every passenger, much to the consternation of bus companies running parallel commercial bus routes over common sections of route. The Welsh Government are underwriting this ‘trial’ (which continues well into its second year) including compensating operators who can show loss of commercial revenue.

My eye was caught last summer by some online controversy concerning further plans for new east-west TrawsCymru routes across mid and north Wales. This included allegations of political bias that the new routes served favoured constituencies, a lack of transparency and procedures not being followed. All of which were denied.

In the event just one of the three proposed routes, the T12 between Machynlleth and Wrexham via Newtown, Welshpool and Oswestry reportedly began at short notice last September.

In a completely separate development last September, Stagecoach regained the tender for route 39 in the Brecon, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford corridor and agreed with the Welsh Government to link the route to the Cardiff to Brecon timetable on the T4 with an improved frequency bringing Hereford and Hay-on-Wye into the TrawsCymru network and renumber the extended 39 as T14. This route duly appeared on an updated TrawsCymru network map.

IMG_E8088.jpgMysteriously the new map omitted any reference to the T12. Indeed you’d be forgiven for thinking the T12 doesn’t exist with no mention of it on the TrawsCymru website at all, even now over five months since its introduction. It’s as if the route has done something wrong and must be kept a secret.

I decided to head over to Machynlleth and take a ride on it to check out whether it really does exist.

IMG_8249.jpgIt does.

The timetable can be found on the Lloyds Coaches website as well as Traveline. Intriguingly there’s no mention on the Tanet Valley Coaches website (checking their journey planner with two of the destinations served by the T12 returns a “no service exists” response) yet there are indeed 6-8 journeys on Mondays to Saturdays with Lloyds providing two buses (plus a peak school run along part of the route) and Tanet Valley three buses. The timetable states the route is funded by Powys County Council and TrawsCymru. The small print also confirms free travel is provided on Saturdays (there’s no Sunday T12 service) which together with the ‘T’ prefix route letter confirms it really is part of the TrawsCymru family.

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Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 19.38.42.pngI can understand why TrawsCymru branding has yet to be applied to the buses (costly to revinyl or repaint for what might be regarded as a trial route perhaps) but almost six months since introduction you’d have thought the network map could have been updated (especially as it was amended to include the T14), details could be included on the TrawsCymru website and branding could be applied at bus stops and shelters along the route as impressively applies elsewhere throughout the network.

In Newtown there’s a nicely branded poster for the T4  but no mention of the secret T12.

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IMG_8221.jpgInstead I found bus stops and shelters to be in a very poor condition and at Oswestry, for example, there was no mention at all of the T12 in the bus station information panel. Mind you, anomalously this section of the route is passing through England so perhaps Shropshire County Council prefer to keep this secret Welsh initiative an English secret too.

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IMG_8162.jpgThere was also a distinct lack of printed timetable leaflets ….. anywhere. I’m really puzzled how potential passengers are expected to find out about such a useful bus service let alone be enticed to use it.

I planned to catch the 0857 departure this morning from Machynlleth station where Lloyds Coaches occupy the nearby former Crosville (and subsequently Arriva Wales) bus garage.

IMG_8140.jpgMy heart skipped a beat when I consulted the Powys County Council departure listings at the bus stop stating the first departure on the T12 was two hours later at 1057 which would have thrown my onward travel plans into disarray. Fortunately I then spotted this was a separate listing for Tanet Valley Coaches’ operated journeys on the T12. I needed to look at the separate entry above it for the Lloyds Coaches’ operated journeys (you really have to be streetwise in bus schedules in Powys) and was relieved to see an 0857 departure duly listed.

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IMG_8145.jpgThe bus was reassuringly sitting on the garage forecourt after completing a school journey (handy contribution to the vehicle/driver costs) and pulled over to the bus stop spot on time.

IMG_8149.jpgI paid my £14 single fare to Wrexham, conveniently by contactless bank card, and asked the driver whether there was any provision for a toilet stop on the three hour thirty-eight minute journey that lay ahead. I wasn’t particularly relieved by the reply that “we have a nine minute break in Oswestry” as that wouldn’t be until after two and a half hours travelling but in the event there’s also a ten minute break in Newtown’s small bus station after an hour’s ride which proved timely and convenient! I’d like to add the driver drove superbly throughout the journey and is a credit to Lloyds.

My journey to Machynlleth on Sunday afternoon by train had entailed a rail replacement coach west of Newtown and I thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful scenery along the A470 so it was a pleasure to travel in the opposite direction on the T12 and enjoy the sights again from a different angle.

IMG_8335.jpgThe T12 pretty much follows the rail line all the way through Newtown to Welshpool where the former heads northeastwards towards Oswestry and Wrexham and the latter eastwards to Shrewsbury. The T12 also takes in the lovely town of Montgomery after Newtown.

IMG_8336.jpgWe took two passengers out of Machynlleth to nearby villages and after some miles of just me and the driver travelling together we picked up seven passengers at various stops on our way into Newtown.

IMG_8152.jpgAnother spell of solo riding followed from Newtown to Montgomery where one passenger boarded (travelling all the way to Oswestry) and that was it until Welshpool where five got on, two of whom soon alighted while three went to Oswestry as did six more boarding at various points either side of the Welsh/English border. Having emptied out in Oswestry again and enjoyed our little break one passenger boarded for Wrexham and another for just a short ride to the nearby town hospital.

Through Chirk there was some confusion among waiting passengers whether to board us or the following Arriva bus on route 2 behind. We take a more direct route into Wrexham which was favoured by two of the six passengers the other four opting for the all stops Arriva route 2, and finally as we entered Wrexham we picked up seven passengers at the hospital for the short ride to the town centre bus station so ended the ride with a respectable load.

IMG_8180.jpgInterestingly of the 32 passengers who travelled 27 were concessionary pass holders and five paid or had a prepaid ticket; 19 were female and 13 were male. Fairly typical of off peak travel characteristics most places these days. I wasn’t sure how the concessionary pass rules apply for the English boarders travelling across into Wales and vice-versa in these border areas – especially as we passed into England and back out again, but guess there’s some sensible knock for knock arrangement.

It looks to me as though the T12 has subsumed routes which previously connected some of the communities along the way, albiet possibly with an improved frequency. The free travel deal on a Saturday will be particularly attractive to younger people but that’s assuming they firstly know about the improved service, and secondly about the free fares. Neither of which are well publicised.

The T12 is a great addition to the TrawsCymru network of routes. With some proper promotion together with complimentary publicity for the Welsh rail network (one integrated map would be good – after all both are under the control of the Welsh Government); and some decent price offers – for example why not accept the Senior Railcard for a discounted fare on TrawsCymru for those English and Scottish visitors not in possession of a Welsh concessionary pass; and a proper makeover of the bus stops and shelters along the route – as has commendably been done elsewhere on the T1-T6 routes; and finally a nice attractive printed timetable leaflet with online information and an updated map ….. then who knows, the route could be the success it deserves to be!

Roger French

Rosso ride round round up

Sunday 10th February 2019

January 2018 saw Rossendale Borough Council become the latest in the dwindling band of local authority municipal owners to sell off its bus company. Transdev Blazefield were the successful buyers and twelve months on seemed a good time to have a look around the network and see what’s been happening.

Quite a lot is the answer.

In fact, a hell of a lot is the answer.

It was as recently as 2014 the much welcomed Best Impressions ‘Rosso’ makeover ousted the somewhat dated Rossendale Buses brand to brighten up the streets of Rossendale, Rochdale and Bury. I remember thinking how fresh and transformational the new bright red livery with its white and orange Rosso logo looked among a sea of First Bus light grey, faded pink and dull purple on a trip to the area a few years ago.

Yet now, less than five years later the Rosso brand looks underwhelming compared to the new colourful route brands (again designed by Best Impressions) launched during the first busy twelve months of Transdev Blazefield’s ownership.

Tottington Line was the first attractive new brand applied to a fleet of off the shelf sparkly new Streetlite buses introduced last April on route 469 shuttling up and down on the efficiently timed route between Bury and Tottington. I took a ride in its first week of operation last year and was very impressed. Ten months on it’s still looking fresh, smart and as welcoming as it did during launch week.

Three further new route brands were introduced last year; one on a fleet of new Versas for the 464 between Rochdale, Bacup, Rawtenstall and Accrington, another applied to the six Streetlites bought by Rosso in 2016 for the Rochdale to Littleborough circulars 456/458 branded as Lakeline while the third new higher profile route brand, ‘red4’, is for the Bury to Ramsbottom route.

Hollingsworth Lake on Lakeline 458 is a particularly lovely spot and all the better for now having a high profile branded bus route to make it stand out.

A recent revamp of the route includes an extra two buses an hour running direct as a 457 between Littleborough and Rochdale competing with First Bus route 457 (and 454) at four buses an hour along the same road.

Two more attractive brands were introduced last month: ‘trax’ for Bury to Rochdale routes 467/468 and ‘irwell line’ for the Bury to Rawtenstall and on to either Blackburn (481) or Burnley (483) routes.

‘trax’ uses four year old Streetlites transferred over from Burnley in an attractive orange livery while ‘irwell line’ has refurbished ‘as new’ Wright Eclipse bodied Volvo B7RLE which belie their twelve years age.

If you didn’t look at the registration plate you’d think you were in a new bus, helped by the excellent treatment of the interiors which all incorporate attractive easy to read maps, ticket prices and useful succinct information.

The key to successful cove panels is keep the message short and simple – these are exemplars of the very best.

By designing the interiors to a common house style it becomes obvious that the attractive new brands are part of the same ‘company family’.

My day’s travels round the Rosso network yesterday saw some excellent customer service skills from drivers, impressive punctual timekeeping and displays of attractive promotional timetable leaflets at bus stations making for a welcome contrast with TfGM’s bog standard black and white print outs.

However a word of praise for TfGM for their bus stations which really are the business. Relative recent builds at Rochdale and Bolton are hugely impressive – literally huge too. Together with Bury all three sites visited yesterday had manned information desks and a range of other facilities including retail and toilets.

It’s just a shame the toilets seem harder to enter and exit than Alcatraz! Still, it is only 20p a time but with no change given you need a pocketful of coins these cold winter days requiring multiple visits in a day (!) – not easy in a contactless world!

And of course these bus stations are in the Premier League compared to the appalling relic from the 1970s bottom of League Division 2 bus station in Rawtenstall. Thank goodness there’s finally news the Borough Council have plans for a replacement opposite the current dilapidated site. As Michael Watson tweeted, the current relic needs shipping straight to Beamish Museum! It’s not just past it’s prime, it’s “pushing up the daisies” as John Cleese would observe.

From my travels yesterday it’s evident Rosso has experienced an exciting first twelve months under Transdev Blazefield ownership and if I know CEO Alex Hornby* it’ll be an even more exciting (and ‘amazing’) second year ahead.

I have absolutely no inside knowledge or even any hint of possibilities but reports First Bus are seeking bids for their Manchester operations will surely be of great interest to Transdev, not least the operations between Bolton, Bury and Rochdale, which are a perfect fit for Rosso’s ‘South East Lancashire’ network.

However there are two counter considerations. While Manchester was noticeably booming when I arrived late on Friday afternoon the same can’t be said for the area north of the conurbation. Talk about the ‘death of the High Street’ is old hat for Rochdale. Closed shutters outnumbered open retail units when I visited some years ago before Metrolink got extended beyond the rail station and it didn’t look much different riding the tram down to the town centre yesterday.

Except to my pleasant surprise I was encouraged to see work well underway on ‘Rochdale Riverside’ adjacent to the transport interchange and tram terminus.

This “will create the prime core in the heart of the town centre” including “a M&S department store, retail and leisure units, kiosks, 6 screen cinema and an adjoining car park around inspiring public realm”.

If it achieves what a similar development called ‘The Rock’ has done in revitalising neighbouring Bury, then it could be the saviour of Rochdale as a place to visit. Good luck Rochdale Riverside.

The second factor is of course TfGM’s desire to introduce bus franchising which they’re currently spending an obscene amount of money (£11 million) investigating. Interestingly Mayor Andy Burnham has not actually fully committed himself to such a regime change so it’s all to play for as his initial mayoral term marches on a pace, ending in just over twelve months time.

The bus operators are fighting a rearguard action talking up plans for huge investment in electric buses (Stagecoach) and working together under a new ‘one bus’ brand to make it easier for passengers to navigate their way around.

I was expecting to see the new logo emblazoned across all colours of buses ousting the beloved (!) corporate Arriva, First and Stagecoach brands, but instead espied it among a plethora of window notice overload on a First Manchester bus. Surely that’s not it?

Unsurprisingly I didn’t see it sullying any Rosso buses from Transdev Blazefield and don’t expect to. Indeed it might just be that an opportunistic expansion with further excellent attractive route brands across this part of north Manchester and a plentiful supply of promotional leaflets is just the encouragement the Mayor needs to put any risky franchising plans firmly on the back burner.

It’s a risk I hope Transdev will be emboldened to take and let’s hope their bid offer is currently on its way to Aberdeen.

It’s looking like it’ll definitely be an interesting year two for Transdev Blazefield’s Rosso.

* which I do.

Roger French

Sparks are flying on GOBLIN

Monday 28th January 2019

You’ve got to feel sorry for the growing number of passengers who rely on the GOspel Oak to Barking orbital railway line in north east London, known affectionately as GOBLIN for short.

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The former down-at-heel and unloved Silverlink Metro line transferred to TfL back in 2006 when the future was bright, the future was orange, as it became born again as part of TfL’s Overground network. This higher profile, together with greatly improved service quality, released huge latent pent up demand as passengers soon discovered the extensive travel opportunities this Cinderella of commuter lines offered. Boarding a train just a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath in north London and arriving in central Barking in East London in little over half an hour is impressive. Many passengers also transfer at Gospel Oak to and from the West London line from Clapham Junction/Richmond via Willesden Junction continuing into the North London line via Highbury & Islington to Stratford and the East London line south of the Thames offering a fantastic number of convenient interchange possibilities.

It’s undeniably one of the most successful rail line turnarounds in a decade with 10,000 passenger journeys now being carried a day. Plans to electrify the line and introduce a brand new fleet of 4-carriage trains to replace the 2-carriage diesel units were therefore hugely welcomed when first announced. What a shame things haven’t quite worked out as planned.

The eastern end of the line closed in June 2016, with the western end following a few months later in September to allow Network Rail to install overhead electrification. This extensive work included rebuilding ten bridges as well as lowering the line in four places to allow for the necessary clearances. Weekday services were reinstated in February 2017 while weekend services resumed in June 2017 but passengers didn’t get to benefit from electric trains as the grossly over crowded 2-carriage diesel operated Class 172 trains carried on running with a promise of brand new Bombardier built 4-carriage Class 710 electric trains to be introduced with a new timetable from May 2018.

In pre-overhead wires days at Harringay Green Lanes

As well as an absence of electric trains, it wasn’t long before it became evident the electrification works hadn’t been properly completed either and a further eight week full line closure became necessary between November 2017 and January 2018 to finish things off.

Never mind, at least the new electric trains were due to appear in May 2018; except they didn’t despite the first train being delivered to Network Rail’s test facility in Leicestershire at the end of 2017. To make matters worse the May 2018 timetable initially removed five vital peak hour extra journeys (known as ‘PIXC-busters’ – ‘passengers in excess of capacity’) designed to cope with the crush loads. These were subsequently reinstated by TfL, except within a matter of weeks, they were withdrawn again. The problem being Class 172 diesel train availability – all eight trains were due to come off lease and transfer to the West Midlands by December 2018 and to meet this deadline one train, effectively the spare used on peak hour extras, was withdrawn so it could be overhauled and refurbished for its new owners.

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As is the way with these things, for reasons best known to PR and media people, despite no chance of the new trains being imminently introduced, TfL held a high profile launch of the brand new Class 710 trains in June 2018 (just as the ‘PIXC busters’ were withdrawn again) reassuring passengers understandably frustrated and annoyed at having a new train dangled in front of them only to be swept away again back to the test track with the rather limp commitment that “the new fleet will be in service by November”.

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The only thing that happened in November 2018 was the announcement of a reduced timetable at weekends to allow for engineers to service the fleet of hard pressed Class 172s as another was withdrawn for its new life in the West Midlands.

As 2019 began and still no sign of the much promised (and publicly launched) new trains and all the Class 172s having to be withdrawn at the latest by mid March, TfL’s been forced to come up with a Plan B, the first part of which was rolled out this morning as a modified spare Class 378 5-carriage electric train set reduced to just 4-carriages (so it will fit into the platforms along the line) took to the tracks as another Class 172 train has been withdrawn. Two more spare Class 378s are being similarly modified to hit the tracks as two more Class 172s are withdrawn in mid February.

The final three Class 172s leave in mid March when Plan C comes into play. This entails the timetable being halved to run every 30 minutes instead of every 15 minutes. TfL say in such an event “there should be adequate capacity for anyone wishing to travel along this route” pointing out four-carriage trains running every half an hour equals two-carriage trains running every fifteen minutes. Except the less frequent service will be more than twice less attractive (you really have to adjust personal travel schedules for a half hourly service in a way you don’t for a fifteen minute one) and the longer trains have much reduced (longitudinal) seating meaning more standing passengers, albeit “standing in greater comfort”.

I gave the new slimmed down Class 378 train a ride this morning. Obviously the interior and ride quality are well known from travels in these trains on other parts of the Overground orbital lines, but it was a novelty to ride the line from a longitudinal seat which is not welcome as you have to sit askew to look out of the window behind you to enjoy the fascinating suburban scenery the train passes or you have to spend the journey avoiding eye contact with the passenger opposite.

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Today’s train was well able to cope with the numbers of passengers travelling who are used to squeezing on to a two-carriage diesel. Passengers were noticeably pleasantly surprised at the extra available room, all the more so as they must have initially been disappointed thinking our train was not operating as it failed to appear on departure screens, nor, mysteriously, is it recorded in Real Time Trains records.

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It was noticeable how acceleration between stations was much better than with the Class 172s and we easily reached the termini ahead of schedule, even with the padding at the Gospel Oak end. I reckon passengers really will welcome the new Class 710 trains and hopefully this hiatus will be forgotten once they’re introduced just like the summer 2016 closure for bodged electrification works is now a distant memory.

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Of course, Bombardier don’t come out of all this at all well. TfL’s latest public statement claims the manufacturer “has still not been able to fix the software problems that are causing the delays”. There’s not even a date for “when the new trains will be ready for driver training to start”. No doubt TfL are hammering them with compensation claims for extra costs and loss of revenue – they’ve already extracted a promised of a months free travel on the line when the trains are finally introduced.

Meantime, it look’s like another Spring (and probably Summer) with crowded trains and longer waits for the hard pressed GOBLIN passengers.

Roger French

 

 

 

A day out in Sheppey

Friday 25th January 2019

was too good an opportunity to miss. As Ford’s Chariot accepted its last ride share booking today, closing down just a few weeks after RATP’s Slide and Esoteric Systems’ (with First Bus) MyFirstMile in Bristol also both bit the dust, Arriva’s Click has been in celebratory mood marking its 100,000th booking by offering free travel all day in Sittingbourne.

As I hot footed over to Sittingbourne, keen not to miss out on what could be a busy day for ride sharing bookings, I pre-booked my first Click trip from the station to Iwade while still an hour away on the train from Victoria. My train was due into Sittingbourne at 1115 and luckily the 1115-1145 slot was available, so I sat back and relaxed as the train headed to Kent.

Somehow my booking got lost in the system, or I failed to confirm, or something untoward happened as checking the Click app at 1100 it showed I had no scheduled bookings! I was reassured when trying to rebook and finding a minibus was available in 9 minutes but as that was too soon for my scheduled 1115 arrival I let it go and tried a few more times with offers of a ride within a matter of minutes.

I decided this was a good sign a minibus was available and close by the station so waited until I actually arrived at the station to book again. Sure enough outside the station were two Click minibuses including one of three drafted in on loan for the day from Liverpool to supplement Sittingbourne’s usual fleet of five for the anticipated busy day of ride share freeloaders like me.

The drivers of those two minibuses must have been on a meal break as my booking attempts instructed me to walk to Morrisons (about a five minute walk away behind the station by Mill Way/Milton Road – see map above) to pick up my designated ride in another vehicle.

Just as I was working out from the app map which way to walk I spotted my designated minibus driving by so gave the driver a meaningful wave which luckily he correctly interpreted and pulled up so I could board where I’d originally asked to!

A passenger already on board was heading to work at Screwfix further on along the route past Morrisons but she alighted a bit sooner than that in the Asda car park where we’d been diverted to pick up two people travelling home together with their shopping.

We did a diversion around the houses in Kemsley to drop them off (getting stuck behind the standard bus route 347 as it dropped its passenegers off) and it was then foot down to Iwade where I bid farewell to my very friendly driver, Daniel arriving not much more than 20 minutes from getting off the train at Sittingbourne station. Not bad.

A bus on the hourly Arriva 334 to Sheerness-on-Sea (from Maidstone) was due in five minutes which was just perfect for onward travel and allowed time to explore the unusual double shelter on the other side of the road. Except a quick check on Arriva’s handy app showing real times indicated it was stuck way back on its route in Delting.

I’m grateful to fellow tweeters who saw my plight and explained there’d been an incident closing the A249 in Delting – the benefits of social media which sadly Arriva are still struggling with.

Arriving at Sheerness-on-Sea with its interesting steel girders.

I opted to head back into Sittingbourne on a Maidstone bound 334 and took the train to Sheerness-on-Sea instead. I’d originally thought a bus ride over to Leysdown-on-Sea (the far eastern point on the Isle of Sheppey) would be interesting but the usual problem of filthy winter windows meant it was probably best to leave that idea until the better summer weather.

Sheerness-on-Sea High Street

Instead I had a mooch around Sheerness-on-Sea’s somewhat down-at-heel High Street with its rather unkept bus stop summing the atmosphere up rather well.

Arriva’s bus yard next to the station indicated the bus wash was out of action which probably explains the dirty buses seen all around.

Back on the train and a stop off at the remote and quirky station at Swale and a walk to nearby Iwade to summon another free ride with Click seemed a good plan.

Swale’s a rather desolate station in the shadow of the vast A249 Sheppey Crossing but it does boast a southeastern ticket machine and matrix dot display and an adjacent bus stop where I discovered to my delight a bus on the 334 was due in just a couple of minutes.

Click buses didn’t seem to want to come out to play in Iwade but I kept persevering on the app while on the 334 until we approached the village of Iwade and finally success and journey booked. I alighted and waited in the designated spot.

The empty minibus appeared in less than five minutes and we soon turned into a series of small residential roads to pick up a young mum with a buggy who was dumbfounded to find she didn’t need to use the laborious lift process at the back on the usual Mercedes Sprinters but as this was one on loan from Liverpool she could board at the front.

Heading towards Sittingbourne we picked up another passenger in Kemsley who was also heading for the station where we arrived in next to no time and all alighted.

Back at the station at 1400 I decided to head back to Hassocks. Today’s National Rail Journey Planner befuddlement routed me on the 1413 southeastern to Victoria (arrive 1525) and then the 1555 to Hassocks arriving at 1650 – the best route as also confirmed by southeastern staff at the station. Whereas, with an Any Permitted ticket by taking the 1408 HS1 to St Pancras (arrive 1506) and taking the 1520 Thameslink, I arrivied Hassocks almost twenty minutes earlier at 1633.

A few thoughts on ride sharing……..

This was my sixth visit to Sittingbourne since Click began in April 2017. The ‘ride sharing’ aspect has definitely increased over that time – both my journeys today were shared with two independent passengers. But two passengers don’t make for a commercial business proposition. Rural bus routes are being abandoned as uneconomic and unjustified for public funding with far bigger passenger counts than that!

It must be a sign of how much Click is still in financial ‘special measures’ nearly two years from its roll out that a decision was taken to give free travel on a Friday. That would be a very brave move for any bus network that was anywhere near commercial. Fridays were always a top revenue day in my experience; you certainly couldn’t afford to give it all away. I can only assume there was little revenue to risk for this 100,000 promotion and the hope it might encourage some new riders; but after nearly two years of Clicking it’s difficult to see where new passengers are going to appear from.

My two journeys on the 334 which links Sittingbourne to Iwade every hour were quite well loaded and I suspect the usual Click fare of £5 single for that journey (so that’s an off putting £10 for a return – whereas a full Swale area day ticket is £4.60 on traditional Arriva buses) as well as the idiosyncratic booking system with its hit and miss timings dependant on whether there’s a minibus and/or fellow ride sharers nearby puts people off. It would me, if I lived in Iwade. I’d prefer the certainty of a timetabled standard bus – road traffic incidents permitting.

I’m not convinced 100,000 journeys is that impressive either. Click’s been going for 95 weeks which across six operational days a week means 570 Click days have passed. So that’s 175 journeys a day, across four to five minibuses – let’s say 4.5 making for 39 passengers per vehicle which over a 12 hour day, say, gives the three people per hour I experienced today and in my last visit.

You’re not going to get rich carrying three people per hour in a top of the range minibus, that’s for sure.

Roger French

railair & you’re there

Thursday 24th January 2019

IMG_7489.jpgThe recent launch of First Bus’s nine brand new Scania Irizar i6 bodied K-series coaches for its prestigous RailAir nonstop service linking Reading Station with Heathrow Airport attracted a shoal of positive comments on Twitter and in the trade press so I thought I’d give it a road test today.

IMG_7509.jpgAll the more so as I realised I’d never actually travelled on this bespoke route before; living in Sussex I don’t have much need to reach Heathrow from Reading, although back in my student days at Reading University in the early 1970s I remember trips up to London on Thames Valley’s (sadly rebranded Alder Valley in its ill fated merger with Aldershot & District) infamous routes A and B which took an age to reach London; and I really can’t remember whether one of them nipped into Heathrow to serve the airport on the way.

 

IMG_7481.jpgThese new coaches do look very smart indeed in their attractive Best Impressions designed livery. Sleek lines, lovely blue and grey colours and an attractive no-fuss typeface and logo with the slogan ‘railair & you’re there’. The professional design’s a world away from the busy bus-crash style message overload which befits some of First’s bus fleet in metropolitan areas (Leeds I’m looking at you!).

 

IMG_7511.jpgThe step entrance is noticeably nice and wide, and, naturally the coaches are equipped for wheelchair accessibility, although sadly three days advance notice is required if you want to travel in a wheelchair. It looked like it’s much more than a five minute job to remove the seats that make way for a wheechair.

IMG_7532.jpgThe gorgeous interior design matches the exterior and really is very attractive and welcoming, as are the 47 seats including twelve arranged around three tables spread through the coach. USB sockets are available as is wi-fi, although I couldn’t get a connection on my journey.

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IMG_7529.jpgThe seats really are the most sumptuous and comfortable I’ve travelled in for a long time, and all the more so for passengers making the transition from a Class 800 IEP train and its rather unwelcoming seat comfort and transferring in Reading over to this luxury and comfort for the onward journey to Heathrow. It even beats First Class on an 800.

IMG_7530.jpgAs I showed on Twitter this afternoon, there was a rather disturbing amount of vibration on the table surface as the coach tackled the uneven road surfaces, especially on the M4 where long term roadworks are upgrading it to a ‘Smart Motorway’. That aside, the coach really did glide along and I found it a smooth enjoyable ride. The plaudits are well deserved.

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IMG_7482.jpgOne or two observations and suggestions about RailAir: we set off exactly on time at 1300 and after seven minutes in free flowing off-peak Reading traffic reached the A329(M) at 1307, joining the M4 five minutes later at 1312. The motorway’s temporary 50mph speed limit impacted our speed until we reached the end of the roadworks by Junction 7 for Slough at 1325 when we speeded up, reaching the M25 at 1333 with a smooth run round to Terminal 5, our first drop off two minutes early at 1338 where four passengers got off and we left on time at 1340. Four more alighted on time at Terminal 2 at 1352 with our final two passengers deposited at Terminal 3 at 1358, just two minutes down. We reached Heathrow’s bus station at 1402 (instead of 1400), and the coach got ready for its 1410 departure back to Reading.

IMG_7537.jpgTen passengers may not seem many, (around the same number took the previous journey from Reading at 1240 – the service runs every 20 minutes) but at a fare of around £20 (for both single and return) that’s not bad going for an hours work.

I booked online in advance last night, but there are a few inconsistencies with the booking arrangement. The RailAir website advises passengers must book online at the latest by 5pm the previous day, yet I found I was able to book at about 8pm without any difficulty, so that seems an unnecessary restriction. Once you receive your email confirmation and ticket, it contains the instruction “YOU MUST PRINT YOUR TICKET AND SHOW IT TO THE DRIVER”. Not only is this in block capitals but is repeated twice more and a similar warning is contained on the website.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 19.30.58The only problem for me was my email came with a large promotional graphic which didn’t fully download in any event, which took up so much of page 1 of the 3 page email I MUST PRINT OUT that what looked like the all important QR Code was split between page 1 and page 2! Not being a computer expert and knowing how to change the settings I was a bit befuddled!

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 20.28.11.pngIn the event, the railair representative in the lounge at Reading Station confirmed it’s quite in order to simply show the email to the driver on a smartphone, and indeed my driver was very happy to see it that way!

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The inevitable ‘wet floor’ (it wasn’t) bollard too!

The reception area at Reading Station has also been given a much welcome Best Impressions designed makeover and really looks quite splendid inside with its TV screen showing the latest news, complimentary newspapers (The Times at that too), complimentary hot drinks machine, comfortable seats as well as seats to sit and work at. It made up for the ineptness of the website booking arrangement to be honest.

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IMG_7506.jpgAnother small inconsistency is that the only benefit of booking online is for an ‘Early Bird’ ticket, defined as booking more than three months before travel; otherwise, despite the messages, despite the 5pm cut off, there didn’t seem to be any difference between online prices and just paying in the lounge or to the driver.

I was pleased to see the main Railcards are accepted for a third discount, which meant my fare for a single journey was £13.20; which I ranked as good value for the service provided.

IMG_7525.jpgBearing in mind railair is operated by First Bus and GWR has long been in the hands of First Group, you’d think there’d be close working between the two companies. There’s a lovely railair leaflet I spotted at Reading, but I’d be surprised if it was to be found at stations westwards to the West Country and South Wales. Although I did spot a GWR leaflet giving details of links to many airports from GWR’s network which included mention of RailAir.

IMG_7480 (1).jpgThere are signs for the RailAir coach inside Reading Station and commendably departures appear on screens and therefore on apps too. I was surprised there wasn’t better signage directing you to the departure lounge as you exit through the barriers and would suggest this would help those unfamiliar that this gem is hidden behind M&S Simply Food’s central outlet.

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IMG_7410.jpgI would also suggest ways be found to include the service on National Rail’s journey planner. I caught the 1158 from Newbury arriving Reading at 1220 giving a good connection with the 1240 railair departure (had I needed it) which would’ve got me to Terminal 5 at 1320. However, if you put Newbury to Terminal 5 in the Journey Planner it will take you into Paddington and out again on the overpriced and extortionately expensive Heathrow Express arriving Terminal 5 twelve minutes later at 1332. Pay more and arrive later; I don’t think so!

Screen Shot 2019-01-24 at 19.43.13.pngThe long term future of RailAir is in some doubt with talk getting louder about constructing a new western link into Heathrow from the Great Western main line. At the pace of change on the rail network it will be some time before we see such a development, so in the meantime these new coaches are indeed very welcome; well worth a ride and you’re there.

IMG_7535.jpgRoger French

Class 717s in service at last

Monday 21st January 2019

IMG_7269.jpgIt was way back on Friday 28th September 2018 when commuters in Hertfordshire and north London had their travel appetites whetted when Great Northern rolled out one of their sparkly new Siemens Class 717s for a grand launch trip from Moorgate to Gordon Hill. The media and public were invited to sample a ride and look forward to the rest of the fleet being rolled out “between now and next Spring” to quote the news release at the time.

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Just over sixteen weeks later and finally, today, the next train came out of the sidings running an extra ‘preview’ journey slotted into the public timetable at 1137 from Moorgate for a run north to Gordon Hill.

It was all a bit of an anti-climax with no more than half a dozen camera wielding enthusiasts plus a dozen more passengers who’d turned up a few minutes early for their normal train at 1140 to Watton-at-Stone and found a band new gleaming train glide into the station ahead of their normal forty-plus year old Class 313.

As a seasoned Thameslink traveller the utilitarian ambiance of the 717 was all too familiar to me. The usual ‘ironing board’ backed seats with their minimal cushioning and an absence of seat back trays for the coffee you’ve just bought from the little cafe outlet now springing up on platforms everywhere. But at least there’s a power point below each pair of seats (one between two of you – how penny pinching is that!) and wifi has been installed from the off rather than as a retro-fit being applied to the 700s.

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The six car trains do offer a much welcome uplift in capacity with no space wasted for driving cabs in the middle of the train as on the joined-together three-car Class 313s they’re replacing and of course the 2+2 slim-line width seats compared to the 2+3 standard width seats in a 313 provide for noticeably wider gangways facilitating “commuters standing in much greater comfort” (as Charles Horton was infamously and mischievously quoted in the Evening Standard many years ago).

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There are batches of tip up seats every so often by the wider doorways as well as behind the cab at each end of the train and there are two spaces for wheelchairs in the middle of the train. There are also single priority seats as well as double seats marked for priority by certain doors.

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There are electronic screens inside which although not working this morning will no doubt provide the same information we’ve got used to seeing on the 700s including updates on how the Underground lines are doing.

Being a shorter commuter run than Brighton to Cambridge there are no toilets on the 717s as there aren’t on the 313s of course.

As well as the ambiance of a new train compared to a well worn forty year old, one other noticeable difference is the amazing acceleration these new trains have. Once the fleet has totally ousted the 313s there’s real scope for cutting journey times on the timetable to take advantage of this.

Another significant improvement that’s immediately noticeable is the lovely nice clean windows (and of course an absence of graffiti which has bedevilled the 313s over the last few years). I do hope the train care cleaning team will finally sort out the soap mixture they use in the train wash at Hornsey or wherever as I’ve yet to travel on a 313 without streaks all over the windows and it will be such a shame if this practice is inflicted on the 717s.

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It’s also a great shame another new train set is being introduced with unattractive seat comfort in the name of progress but at least we’re promised more comfortable seats by other train companies as they also finally get round to rolling out their much hyped and promised new fleets this year.

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The preview journeys to Gordon Hill continue this week at 1137 and 1337 from Moorgate then we’re promised a full roll out into service. There again, we were promised that last September!

Roger French

 

 

Battle for Bellfields begins as Guildford goes electric

Monday 7th January 2019

It’s all happening in Guildford this week. Stagecoach South introduced a fleet of nine ADL Enviro 200EV electric buses on the Guildford Park and Ride services today while, as predicted in my post on 16th November last year, the bus war between Arriva and Safeguard has escalated into Bellfields. I had a look at both developments this morning.

First the electrics and their high profile ‘glide’ brand. There are four Park & Ride sites in Guildford; they’re well used, being popular with both commuters and shoppers. The four car parks are all relatively close to the city centre with Artington, to the south on the Godalming road, only a seven minute journey from the bus station while Merrow on the Leatherhead road to the east has a twelve minute journey time. The other two car parks just off the A3 are equally close: Onslow in the west is ten minutes while Spectrum to the north is eight minutes. So I suspect these not particularly arduous journey times are ideal for the electric buses with their high capacity roof mounted batteries with overnight charging giving a reported 150 mile range.

Naturally the buses come with usb sockets and wifi, but on their current duties you’re hardly on the bus long enough to have time to sort out the plug-in lead from your bag, nor go through the logging in process for wifi. Handy facilities if the buses move on to other routes during their lifetime, I suppose.

The seat moquette is to Stagecoach’s brash “iron brew” colour specification or a cross between Aldi-meets-Tesco-meets-Sainsbury’s. I find it a bit overpowering in double deckers and much prefer the softer grey colour scheme used in the north west (on Service X2 – pictured below); but for the short ride, the seats are comfortable enough, and at least the colours brighten up a single deck interior, if a bit in your face.

Interior messages on the cove panels are thankfully large enough to actually be read and extol some of the virtues of the services as well as promoting Stagecoach’s longer distance routes from Guildford.

Most impressive of all is the quietness of the transmission/engine, the only noise coming from bumps in the road, which those aside, means the smoothness of the ride really does stand out. Quite a few passengers were commenting positively about the “new electric buses” and it was good to hear general positivity about the service. Well done Stagecoach and Surrey County Council – the buses have certainly raised the profile for Park and Ride – an essential ingredient in Guildford’s notorious traffic challenges.

Meanwhile, the residents of Guildford’s Bellfields estate woke up this morning to double the number of buses to take them on the 14-17 minute journey into the town centre. It was obvious to me that Safeguard were not going to take Arriva’s completely foolish incursion last November into the Park Barn estate and Royal Surrey County Hospital competing with their routes without reacting. They’ve been serving that area extremely well for decades so they’re not going to simply give up and allow Arriva to muscle in and take their business away.

A retaliatory competitive service against Arriva into Bellfields was therefore only to be expected. My view hasn’t changed since writing in November: “the only likely outcome” (of the incursion into Park Barn) “is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down route A) as it won’t be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ”.

I’ll go further now and suggest a likely outcome is Arriva will now capitulate, withdraw their Service 3 completely and cede Bellfields to Safeguard. There clearly aren’t enough passengers to support two twenty minute frequency services. There’ll be no generation. Of the two operators there’s no doubt Safeguard enjoy any brand loyalty such as it is, but in the main, passengers will catch the first bus that comes along, which by dint of timings is likely to be Safeguard (timetabled to run five minutes ahead of Arriva). On Saturdays Arriva only run half hourly to Safeguard’s new twenty minute frequency so one departure will have a Safeguard bus behind, and the other in front. Arriva run an hourly frequency on Sundays under contract to Surrey County Ciuncil.

Full marks once again to Surrey County Council who have displayed up to date timetables at all the bus stops along the route and in Guildford bus station – I doubt many local authorities would deliver up to date information so efficiently. Well done.

Today’s experience demonstrates once again how Safeguard, unsurprisingly, have that all important attention to detail spot on with new timetable leaflets for their 3S service on board both buses together with balloons and sweets for passengers as a novelty addition and friendly drivers, while Arriva were still running a “lumbering double deck” I mentioned last November (completely unsuitable for the route) and a branded single deck for MAX 34/35 routes! Hardly demonstrating commitment.

I’m beginning to wonder how long the entire Surrey outpost of the Arriva Kent operation controlled from Maidstone, will be sustainable. We’ve already seen Abellio Surrey give up and pull out …….

Roger French

The m1 arrives in Bristol

Sunday 6th January 2019

Today saw the launch of the third route in Bristol’s metrobus trilogy: the m1. And this is the biggy. Route m3 was first out of the blocks last May between Emersons Green and the city centre using a new bus only exit off the M32 for easy access to the University of West of England campus. This was followed in September by the former Long Ashton Park & Ride service rebranded and renumbered m2 and diverted to use some new fancy bus only roads and completely unnecessary guided busway sections (reviewed here).

In reverse number order, we now have the m1. From the gigantic leisure and retail park just off the M5 known as Cribbs Causeway in north west Bristol the m1 runs via Bradley Stoke in the north east and the University of West of England to the city centre then via Bedminster and Hengrove to terminate outside South Bristol Community Hospital having taken a whopping 85 peak minutes for an end to end journey. A Monday to Saturday 10 minute frequency impressively runs from 6am right through to 1am (20 minutely on Sundays). The extended peak running time means at least fifteen buses are needed to run the route.

Cribbs Causeway
South Bristol Community Hospital, Hengrove

Uniquely the route is being operated by Bristol Community Transport (BCT) under a fixed cost contract to First West of England who are taking the revenue risk. BCT is part of CT Plus which in turn is part of the expansive HCT Group (a social enterpise formerly known as Hackney Community Transport) who specialise in fixed contract operations. This arrangement is a win-win for all concerned. BCT get an extensive contract with no risk; First West of England get to develop revenue on a high profile new route overlaying their extensive Bristol city network rather than competition from a third party, and I suspect First are paying CT Plus less than if they’d operated it directly, and the local authorities, who have backed the metrobus concept and funded all the infrastructure, get an integrated package and their vision of a better quality bus service to tempt motorists out of their cars. With First West of England’s recent difficulties with staff shortages it’s also a sensible arrangement to contract out a significant resource uplift such as the m1.

It all sounds like a sensible arrangement with local operators working pragmatically together playing to their strengths and local authorities putting they money where their vision is. And the evidence is metrobus is working too. Coinciding with the m1’s introduction this week, a new timetable is being introduced on the m3 with peak hour with-flow express journeys (numbered m3x) using more of the M32 and shaving eight minutes off the journey time, due to overloading from Emersons Green and the Science Park.

I had a ride up and down the m1 today; it was encouraging to see so many people giving the new route a try (many buses ran full), and noteworthy how many families with young children were travelling. Extra buses were drafted on to the route to cope with the numbers travelling, helped by a first day free travel promotion – just the kind of thing to get people trying a bus route. I overheard many positive comments about the bus interiors and the service in general and I’m sure this bodes well. The interiors are nothing plush, but very smart, very comfortable and very practical. The usual usb sockets and wifi are available but sadly no next stop announcements were working on the buses I travelled on although I’m told they were working on other buses – no doubt some teething issues.

I’m always puzzled why some bus companies still go for large screens which block the forward view and the ones I saw weren’t providing anything useful – other than a reminder to exit via the rear doors which was displayed only once the bus had stopped.

Overlaying fifteen buses on to an already comprehensive city network without damaging profit margins is risky, but James Freeman, the well experienced managing director of First West of England, told me initially no reductions are being made to routes which now face competition from metrobus until things settle down. This is a very wise strategy as the m1 takes a different route to existing First buses at both ends of the route as well as a different route into the city. In Hengrove confusingly, existing buses into the city centre serve the opposite side of the road, and in one case (the 50A) is quicker than the new m1, so it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to this new high profile entrant. I suspect there’ll be both abstraction and generation and hopefully the latter will exceed the former (and by some margin – to cover fifteen buses!).

Confusingly some bus stops in Hengrove are served by traditional First bus routes but not the m1; the lady photographed above was politely advised by our driver who stopped to explain the situation.

The m1 serves the University of West of England, including the exclusive access to and from the M32, so the northern section of the route has a ready market especially as the m3 has shown, students are a great market to attract and respond in large numbers to improvements to bus routes.

Despite extensive stretches of bus lanes, the m1 running time has been expanded at peak times to cope with Bristol’s notorious traffic congestion. This is sensible, as even today, albeit with first day teething problems as drivers and passengers got used to the new arrangements, on one journey I travelled on we lost fifteen minutes on the northbound journey between Bedminster and the city centre, not helped by a delayed five minute driver handover – and at a bus stop not served by metrobus (not good!).

As with the m2 and m3, no tickets are sold by the driver. Every stop has a pod with clear instructions how to buy a ticket or to use a smartphone or smartcard.

The fleet of buses on the m1 are powered by gas. A nice touch, but I’m not convinced many passengers notice, and even if they did, it would make a difference to their travel arrangements. But it’s good to see alternative propulsion sources continue to be trialled.

All in all an exciting development and congratulations to all involved. It’s certainly worth a trip to Bristol to take a look.

Roger French

My Hundred Best Train Journeys 4

Wednesday 26th December 2018

And so the final forty of My Hundred Best Train Journeys ranked 61-100. You can read the top 10 here, 11-30 here and 31-60 here.

61 Brighton – East Croydon

This line which passes my home station of Hassocks. I reckon I know just about every inch of its track and views from the windows having made frequent trips on GTR’s trains up to London and back over the last five years since retiring. The outstanding section which gets me every time, and I never miss the opportunity to gaze out of the window as we pass, is the wonderful view across the South Downs from David Mocatta’s famous Balcombe Viaduct. It’s even more spectacular from the parallel road (see above) as is Mocatta’s brilliantly designed northern entrance to Clayton Tunnel just south of Hassocks (see below).

62  Lewes – Eastbourne

When a Class 170 to Ashford met a Cuckmere Community Bus at Berwick

This delightfully scenic journey begins at the wonderful junction station in Lewes. The journey east from Lewes was covered in entry no 58 (Brighton to Seaford) and heading westwards the train passes alongside the River Ouse, and soon takes you past the beautiful scenery of the South Downs National Park where hang gliders can often be seen flying off the hill tops as the train continues past Glynde and Berwick stations towards Eastbourne, a town which never looses its charm as a more genteel neighbour to brash Brighton along the coast. 

63  London Paddington – Reading – Newbury – Westbury

Speeding down to Reading never fails to impress on one of the latest Class 800/802 trains, even beating the beloved HSTs on speed, if not comfort. Then marvelling on arrival at the amazing changes which have taken place at Reading station in recent years. Then it’s a delightful ride through what’s promoted as the North Wessex Downs as the journey continues through Berkshire and Wiltshire keeping an eye out for Newbury racecourse and the Kennet and Avon Canal which the line parallels all the way as far as Pewsey.

Most journeys from London take the ‘by-pass track’ avoiding Frome which is a great pity as it has a delightful full size roof over its now single platform and track (the other platform and track long being out of use) which is very unusual for a through station. It’s worth catching the 0607 up from Frome or the 1707 or 1807 down from Paddington (the only direct trains linking Frome with London) for the pleasure of doing so! 

Arriving at Westbury it’s well worth wandering outside to appreciate the station’s traditional architecture as shown below.

64  Fareham – Southampton

There are two highlights on this journey. The superb views as the tracks cross the River Hamble (noting the luxury boats moored up alongside the pontoon jetties) and the wonderful horseshoe curve around the River Itchen between Woolston and St Deny’s stations – always important to sit on the nearside in the westbound direction to see the Itchen in all its glory.

65  Shoeburyness – Upminster

Another journey with lovely coastal views as the tracks abut the beach between Chalkwell and Leigh-on-Sea and then continue over Hadleigh Marsh and alongside West Canvey Marsh Nature Reserve. Another nearside in the westbound direction seat for best views being essential. A lovely ride.

66  Ashford International – Stratford International – St Pancras International

Not so much for the scenery (have you seen Stratford International from the platforms!?) but for the amazingly impressive high speed the train takes. Having worked in Ashford in the 1970s it always seems impossible that a train now takes just 38 minutes for the journey to London.

67  Stourbridge Junction – Stourbridge Town

You just have to love the cute mini-size trains – they’re called Parry People Movers – or Class 139 in railway parlance – which shuttle up and down between Stourbridge’s Junction and Town stations every ten minutes for the three minute single journey time. If you haven’t taken a trip, now’s the time to head for Stourbridge and tick it off your list of journeys to do ….. and spare a thought for the lovely staff who share driving and ticket selling/checking duties on what must work out at over eighty single journeys per duty!

68  Edinburgh – Tweedbank

A busy Tweedbank

This wonderfully scenic line through the beautiful Scottish Borders, which reopened in September 2015, became an immediate success and questions were asked about the decision to cut back on construction costs meaning large sections were built as single track making it susceptible to delays and unreliability. The Borders is a lovely part of the country and the parallel X95 bus route (operated by Borders Buses) which continues south all the way beyond Galashiels to Carlisle (the original destination for the rail route) is a brilliantly scenic ride too – and for part of the journey, the bus and train parallel each other as seen below.

69= Rhymney – Cardiff

69= Merthyr Tydfil – Cardiff

69= Aberdare – Cardiff

69= Treherbert – Cardiff

69= Maesteg – Bridgend

As you’ll gather I’ve found it impossible to choose between these South Wales Valley Lines. They each have their own characteristics and are all worth a ride to explore the communities and scenery in this fascinating part of the Country which has seen much change in the post coal mining era. The termini at the head of the Valleys are all now a shadow of great stations past (as the photographs above show) but Pontypridd station where the Merthyr Tydfil, Aberdare and Treherbert lines meet to form a ten minute frequency into Cardiff has echoes of the past as the photographs below show.

74  Norwich – Lowestoft 

The wonderful line between Norwich and Reedham was covered at entry no 47 (Norwich – Berney Arms – Great Yarmouth) but east of Reedham the Lowestoft line heads off in a south east direction crossing the lovely Reedham Swing Bridge and then continuing via Haddiscoe, Somerleyton and Oulton Broad North with great views across the southern arc of the Norfolk Broads. Lovely.

75  Leeds – Ilkley

This is a great line following the River Aire Valley west of Leeds with some brilliant sights of former mills and Yorkshire’s industrial heritage before climbing north through Guisley towards the River Warfe Valley and some great views across into North Yorkshire and the Pennines as Ilkley approaches.

76  Bishop Auckland – Saltburn

Darlington from the outside
Darlington from the inside

This is really a line of two halves with the magnificent Darlington station hosting the half-time interval. Bishop Aukland’s station is home to the wonderful Weardale heritage railway heading westwards to Stanhope, and well worth a visit; while the National Rail line eastwards towards Darlington has an hourly Northern Rail service overseen by a very active and successful Community Rail Partnership. The line passes Hitachi’s factory at Newton Aytcliffe for added interest. The hourly service continues eastwards from Darlington past the quirky Teeside Airport Station (just two trains call on a Sunday morning each week) as well as Britain’s Least Used Station in 2017/18: Redcar British Steel, with its three departures on Mondays to Saturdays and sadly now a shadow of its former industrial self. Saltburn is well worth exploring taking a walk to the cliffs and the lift down to the sandy beach below. All in all a great line for curiosities.

I didn’t alight at Redcar British Steel but just took photographs as…..
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The terminus at Saltburn ……….
…. is not what it once was …..
….but the beach and lift to it are well worth a visit.

77  Liverpool Central – Southport

Southport station still retains an impressive number of platforms

This line is the only Merseyrail line to make My Hundred Best Train Journeys and it’s a real gem, with some great views of Liverpool’s former era as the Country’s foremost north western port as the line passes former gigantic sized warehouses before hugging the coastline of Liverpool Bay all the way to Southport. A great journey.

78  Derby – Stoke-on-Trent

This journey is noteworthy for its one coach diesel train formation scurrying through the lovely countryside which joins Derbyshire with Staffordshire. The midway point at Uttoxeter is a lovely station, right next to the famous racecourse and an amazingly well kept garden to explore.

79  Lincoln – Gainsborough – Doncaster

There are just five or six trains a day which take this journey from Lincoln to Doncaster on the direct route rather than going via Sheffield, with just the two stops in the 50 or so minute journey at Saxily and Gainsborough Lea Road, and I like taking it for that very reason. It has a quirky feel about it. There’s also a rather nice junction at Gainsborough Trent Junction signal box where the line crosses the Retford to Brigg and Grimsby line as it crosses the River Trent (see no 79 below).

80  Birmingham – Stratford-upon-Avon

This journey through the Warwickshire countryside brings you to the tourist hot spot of Stratford-upon-Avon, which sadly only has trains approaching it from the north direction after the line heading south through to Honeybourne was severed.

End of the line ….. such a shame the tracks no longer continue south to Honeybourne

As well as West Midlands Trains running either via Henley-in-Arden or Dorridge (the former is the better route), a less frequent service provided by Chiltern Railways brings (a very few) trains from London Marylebone and Leamington Spa (just a few more) off their mainline by Warwick Parkway at Hatton to Stratford-upon-Avon.

There’s a Parkway station just north of Stratford-upon-Avon but whenever I’ve travelled very few passengers have used it, probably because its a bit of a walk from Stratford-upon-Avon’s station into the town centre which as the first photograph above shows, is noteworthy for being unimpressively down at heel and in need of some TLC. There’s also a frequent bus between the Parkway car park and town centre taking most of the passengers I would think.

Interestingly the two minor stations at Claverdon and Bearley on the connecting single track line from the main Chiltern line to the West Midlands Railway line through Henley-in-Arden to Stratford-upon-Avon are administered by West Midlands Railway but only served by Chiltern Railways trains (except for one early southbound WMR train stopping by request at 0631/0635MF) …. and for now they both retain the former London Midland branding.

81  Retford – Brigg – Cleethorpes

It’s high time I included another Parliamentary Train journey and highly appropriate to include the line which sees passenger trains making just three journeys on a Saturday which start at Sheffield and run between Retford and Cleethorpes calling at Gainsborough Central, Kirton Lindsey and Brigg before joining the main Doncaster – Scunthorpe – Grimsby – Cleethorpes line at Barnetby. It’s a great shame those three stations only get a look in on a Saturday and hopefully the active Brigg Line Group will one day succeed in gaining trains during the week too. Meantime Gainsborough Central’s heritage signage is just fab.

82  Castle Cary – Weymouth

End of the line – Weymouth

The Heart of Wessex Line provides a non hurried journey from Somerset into Dorset approximately every two hours. It’s single track all the way (as far as Dorchester) with passing loops at Yeovil’s lovely Penn Mill station (where there’s a connecting line used by a few South Western Railway journeys to the Salisbury to Exeter line at Yeovil Junction – entry no 52) and some lovely named stations including Yetminster and Maiden Newton.

At Weymouth, it’s worth taking the time to follow the train tracks from alongside the station’s west side and still easily seen embedded in the town’s roads which once took trains all the way down to the Harbour Station (photographed below) – what a sight that used to be.

83  Cambridge – Ipswich

This is a lovely line across Cambridgeshire and into Suffolk. It’s well worth a break at Bury St Edmonds to explore this lovely town and the superb brickwork of the station building. On the Preston to Colne line (entry no 43) the journey passed by the rather upbeat positive sounding Pleasington station, whereas on this line the first station after Cambridge has a more downbeat name……

84  Maidenhead – Marlow

End of the line – well not quite – Bourne End

One of the best branch lines close to London which includes the reverse manoeuvre at Bourne End where the line used to continue to High Wycombe (and where heritage signs still exist on platform 2 promoting it!). Now trains only shuttle up and down the branch with no through trains to Paddington. In peak hours Marlow commuters have to also change trains at Bourne End so that a half hourly service can be provided, whereas in the off peak trains travel the full length of the branch on an hourly frequency. Marlow’s a lovely spot on the Thames, which makes the journey all the better.

85 Marks Tey – Sudbury

This busy single track three-station Suffolk branch line is included in My Hundred Best Train Journeys because (a) it provides well timed convenient connections off the main line to and from Norwich at Marks Tey with trains in both directions (provided everything’s running on time), (b) the first station on the line, Chappel & Wakes Colne, has the lovely East Anglian Railway Museum on site, (c) the second station, Bures, is the nearest Request Stop station to London (although only after 1000) (d) the terminus at Sudbury, with its dead end tracks south of the town centre are a sad reminder of the heyday when the line used to continue to Haverhill and Bury St Edmonds.

86  Shrewsbury – Chester

The magnificent Chester to the left

I included the southern section of this line via Hereford to Newport at no 37, now I’m travelling on the northern part of this boundary hugging line which passes from England through Flintshire in Wales and back into England for the wonderful city of Chester. The views as the line heading towards the River Dee near Ruabon are quite stunning. The line between Wrexham and Chester has recently been upgraded and hopefully will lead to an improved timetable and reliability.

The magnificent Chester to the right

87  Bidston – Wrexham

This quirky line starts at an unusual point …. at Bidston on the outskirts of Birkenhead (where there are connections with Birkenhead and Liverpool on Merseyrail from its inconsequential island platform) then heads down through the Wirral and some spectacular views of the Dee Estuary before crossing into Flintshire and passing under the North Wales coastal line at Shotton where there’s a station on each line (Low Level and High Level) as at Retford and Smethwick. Perhaps one of the best named stations is on the next section, Hope (or Yr Hob in Welsh) and handy if you want to play a pairing game with the other Hope (in Derbyshire – entry no 12). The line’s southern terminus is as unusual as the northern one, at Wrexham Central, which consists of an inconsequential single platform alongside a warehouse style shopping centre. The little spur to Wrexham Central deviates off the main north-south line at Wrexham General before passing under the tracks on a right angle curve.

Looking south at Wrexham General, the line from Bidston can be seen on the right to its own Platform 4 before passing under the main tracks as it heads left towards Wrexham Central.

88  York – Pontefract Baghill – Sheffield

It’s a shame there are so few journeys on this line – just two a day – as it gives full on, up close views of Ferrybridge Power Station and although the journey takes an hour and a quarter compared to half that time on a Cross Country train via Doncaster (partly because it has ‘pathing issues’ so the timetable has bags of slack time including a prolonged stop at the only-twice-a-day served Pontefract Baghill, it’s got a charm all of its own and is well recommended if you’re not in a hurry.

89=  Waterloo – Windsor and Eton Riverside

This journey is well worth taking with much of interest to see as the train travels through south west London, including the country’s busiest station at Clapham Junction , then Barnes Common, Mortlake and Richmond (including its iconic bridge over the Thames), Bedfont Lakes Country Park and Staines where it then takes you through reservoir country as the Thames meanders towards Windsor. The approach via Datchet is a great way to arrive in Windsor as is the Windsor and Eton Riverside station itself, but this is equally matched by our next entry…..

89=  Slough – Windsor and Eton Central

…. the GWR alternative route into Windsor via the one stop shuttle service from Slough offering spectacular views of Eton and Windsor Castle as the train approaches Windsor and Eton Central station and the rather sad diminution of this once great edifice to just the one platform inside the vast station building with its other retail and tourist opportunities now on offer.

91  Twyford – Henley

End of the line – Henley

My third GWR branch line in this section, known as The Regatta Line, which like Marlow (no 83 above) provides a shuttle service from the main Great Western Line; this one serving Wargrave and Shiplake on the way on a half hourly timetable for most of the day. A great little circuit is to take one of these shuttles have a wander around the delightful Henley and then continue over to Marlow on the Arriva 800/850 bus route, have another wander before back to the main line on that shuttle train via Bourne End. Delightful.

92  Gospel Oak – Barking

Harringay Green Lanes in pre electrification days

This line has been much troubled in recent months with delays to the electrification and more recently towards the end of 2018, delays to the new electric trains Class 710 being introduced. The reason for its inclusion in My Hundred Best Train Journeys is as a north London lad I always knew it as the Ugly Duckling of a line mysteriously heading east-west whereas everything else seemed to sensibly head north-south. It wasn’t until TfL gave it much needed TLC to make us all realise it was in fact a beautiful White Swan of a line providing really helpful connections between communities right across north London. A true transforming travel exemplar….. just a shame about the recent infrastructure delays damaging its reputation, but I’m sure it will soon regain its prominence in 2019 once the new trains begin running.

93  Sittingbourne – Sheerness

Notwithstanding the terminus at Sheerness being somewhat underwhelming, it’s a great stub of a line to the quirky Isle of Sheppey.

There’s an isolated station at Swale in the shadow of the enormous road bridge which connects the island to the rest of Kent and for real quirkiness, aside from the main shuttle trains which scurry up and down every half an hour there are a couple of peak hour journeys for commuters which take the western curve to the main line and omit Sittingbourne!

94  Stockport – Reddish South – Stalybridge

The Mother of all Parliamentary Trains got a boost this year when the May timetable changed its one journey a week leaving Stockport at 1013 only on Fridays to 0945 only on Saturdays AND introduced an inbound journey from Staybridge at 0846 meaning for the first time for many years you could actually board a train in Reddish South or Denton, travel to Stockport, have 36 minutes there, and return the same day! Whenever I’ve been on the journey it’s been surprisingly ‘busy’ with a handful of other people checking out its quirkiness; it just has to be on any bucket list train journeys.

95=  Whitland – Fishguard Harbour

95=  Whitland – Milford Haven

The wonderfully scenic journey westward from Llanelli as far as Whitland in south west Wales was included at entry no 42 (Llanelli to Pembroke Dock) but from Whitland (photographed above) the line also continues west towards Clarbeston Road station before splitting again for the two lines I’ve included here to Milford Haven on the south coast and Fishguard Harbour on the west coast.

Milford Haven

Both journeys provide glimpses of beautiful scenery as you head towards the Pembrokeshire Coast. Fishguard Harbour is one of those stations that’s seen better and busier days sitting alongside the ferry terminal to Rosslare, (with shades of Stranrear and Holyhead about it). Even more sad is the one platform terminal at Milford Haven resting alongside a massive Tesco Extra. But the journey to both termini is well worth taking.

Fishguard

There are some strangely timed trains to and from Fishguard too; for example, an 0237 arrival from Manchester with an 0237 departure to Carmarthen aren’t particularly convenient for the ferry arriving from Rosslare at 2125 and leaving at 2345! My favourite journey is the 1250 flyer to Cardiff which takes the Swansea avoiding line. Even more exciting after Llanelli the train took the line via Pontlliw last time I travelled on it.

97  Chippenham – Melksham – Westbury

This lovely connecting single track line (grandly called the TransWilts Line and which starts in Swindon) is well worth a ride between Chippenham and Westbury. It got a frequency boost a few years ago when the County Council funded extra journeys and which luckily still find themselves in the timetable – there are now nine on Mondays to Fridays, eight on Saturdays and six on Sundays. Due to electrification works on the main line through Newbury, West of England express trains have been using this link as a diversion on many occasions during 2018.

98  Stevenage – Hertford North – Moorgate

99  Hitchin – Welwyn Garden City – Moorgate

100  Enfield Town – Liverpool Street

And finally my last three entries are all totally self indulgent – well after all, this is MY Hundred Best Train Journeys, not yours. My childhood was spent living close to Winchmore Hill and Grange Park stations on the Hertford North line and I’ve many happy memories of travelling when very young to adjacent stations at Enfield Chase and Palmers Green & Southgate (as it used to be called) and often catching the bus home. Even better were extended trips to the hustle and bustle of Kings Cross and seeing steam engines taking express trains to places far far away, especially from Platform 8. Other memories include peak hour journeys through the adjacent York Road platform and going ‘underground’ on the ‘widened lines’ to Farringdon, Aldersgate (now Barbican) and Moorgate and also peak hour journeys to Broad Street which left the line at Finsbury Park and ran via Canonbury and Dalston (now part of the Overground).

At Wood Green (as Alexandra Palace used to be called), where the Hertford North line branches off over the East Coast Main Line by the Bounds Green depot, it was always fun to see the Bounds Green tunnels and wonder if a train would emerge from “up north” and even more exciting to catch a suburban train as far as Hitchin where many terminated. The Welwyn Viaduct still brings a joy to this day as I pass over sadly also knowing how restrictive it is in pathing more trains on the main line.

In my youth these lines together with the Enfield Town to Liverpool Street line were all within British Rail’s Eastern Region but the main difference was the former had mostly two or four car DMUs, whereas Enfield Town had swish electric trains making them appear a little more superior for a ride up to London especially as, after Lower Edmonton it seemed to be on stilts as it passed through Edmonton and Tottenham (keeping an eye out for the Spurs ground at White Hart Lane of course). However, such superiority was always brought back to earth by the manual level crossing at Lincoln Road, Bush Hill Park which unbelievably lasted as a vehicle crossing right up until 2012.

So, that’s My Hundred Best Train Journeys. There’s no better way to enjoy the wonderful scenery this country has to offer than by train (and bus)…. from the delights of the West Highlands (entry no 1) through to a suburban-journey-with-a-view through Edmonton and Tottenham (entry no 100). You can’t help but enjoy the scenic variety along the way. Happy travelling.

Roger French

2018 Quiz Answers

1 What are passengers in Basingstoke soon to miss, that those in Leicester suffered a loss of in the summer?

Printed timetables …. as Stagecoach South announced they wouldn’t be printing timetables for upcoming changes next month. It follows Arriva Midlands doing the same in Leicester in 2018.

2 What did passengers do to force Stagecoach to convert express route X92 to plain 192 in Manchester?

Passengers kept boarding the peak hour limited stop X92 journeys and demanding drivers let them off at stops which the bus didn’t observe, forcing Stagecoach to relent and make all buses observe all stops. A Stagecoach spokesperson said “as a result of ongoing verbal abuse directed towards our drivers by passengers who pressure them to stop at (the 34) stops which the X92 does not serve”.

3 Why was Platform 13 unlucky for Jubilee Line passengers at Stratford?

London Underground introduced a new timetable and driver ‘stepping up’ arrangements meaning they could just use Platforms 14 and 15 for all departures which conveniently use the same island platform removing the need for passengers to walk back and around to Platform 13 for the next train if they just miss a departing train from those platforms.

4 Why did Sid come unstuck for spending £1 on his megabus journey?

The Advertising Standards Authority demanded Stagecoach remove the large £1 fare signs from coaches as not enough seats were sold at that price. Megabus have replaced them with other promotional features – e.g. usb sockets, wifi and a generic ‘mega value fares’.

5 Why were Arriva and Carousel back as one between Chesham and High Wycombe?

The previous coordination agreement that saw both companies share route 1 (Chesham to High Wycombe) broke down in 2017 and competition broke out instead, but they kissed and made up from January 2018 and the timetable once again became coordinated.

6 What new destination could you catch a train from St Pancras to but not back again?

Eurostar began running to Amsterdam but no agreement exists between the UK and Netherlands Governments for the UK Border Force to operate immigration facilities in the Netherlands so no return journey is yet running.

7 Which two towns had a new peak hour bus replacement service laid on for commuters as part of the ‘improved’ Thameslink service from 20 May?

Wellingborough and Bedford.  The new Thameslink timetable south of Bedford meant there was not enough time for some peak hour East Midlands Trains to stop at both Wellingborough and Bedford so a Stagecoach coach now provides a replacement facility.

8 Where could you find a South Western Railway train meet a stream train on summer Saturdays?

Core Castle….where South Western Railway ran journeys on the connecting line at Wareham to the heritage Swanage Railway on summer Saturdays, sadly disrupted by RMT strike action on a number of occasions.

9 Why weren’t train drivers seeing straight driving new electric ScotRail Class 385s between Glasgow and Edinburgh?

The curve in the windscreens led to drivers seeing “double vision” at night so modifications had to be made before the trains could enter service.