May’s new timetable on track: Part 2

Wednesday 22nd May 2019

IMG_7312.jpgI left you yesterday morning in Sheffield about to head west on the delightful Hope Valley line (No 12 in My 100 Best Train Journeys) with Trans Pennine Express. It’s a beautiful scenic ride through the Peak District made all the better by a gorgeous sunny day.

IMG_7321.jpgI changed trains in Stockport to a southbound Virgin Trains Euston bound Pendolino as far as Crewe then changing again to head northwest over to Chester on another Virgin Trains, this time a ‘Super Voyager’ (according to the Train Manager’s announcement) although I wasn’t sure what was ‘super’ about it.

IMG_7346.jpgBut it was on time and I arrived in Chester with twenty minutes to spare for the new Transport for Wales hourly service to Liverpool via Frodsham and Runcorn which started this week.

IMG_E7490.jpgMerseyrail operate a long standing fifteen minute frequency service between Chester and Liverpool via The Wirral with electric trains on the third rail system serving Rock Ferry and Birkenhead. It takes 42 minutes to reach Liverpool Line Street on a city centre underground circuit including Liverpool Central in 44 minutes.

IMG_7351.jpgNow we have a choice of train companies and routes with the new TfW hourly service from Chester to Liverpool Lime Street timetabled to take a slighter slower 47 to 50 minutes depending on the journey.

For a visitor it’s rather confusing to see this new interloper heading to Liverpool in the opposite direction to the traditional Merseyrail trains. Even more confusing my 1327 departure was advertised as leaving from Chester’s Platform 6 but neither train in that platform were TfW branded and disconcertingly were locked up with no diesel engine throbbing away ready to leave (on the right pictured below).

IMG_7355.jpgThe adjacent Platform 5 (on the left) had a Northern train heading to Leeds which is another exciting May timetable initiative achieved by linking new journeys from Chester via Warrington to an existing hourly service from Manchester to Leeds. Except it takes half an hour longer than changing trains in Manchester Victoria on to a faster Trans Pennine Express train to Leeds 15 minutes later rather than the new slower through route via Hebden Bridge taken by the Northern train. Still, it does provide new direct links between stations along the way eg Warrington to Halifax so it is a good development.

IMG_7354.jpgAfter that train left at its scheduled 1321 the handful of us waiting news of the 1327 were told by a shouting orange high-vis wearing dispatcher that the now vacant Platform 5 would be for our Liverpool train – just as well he shouted as bizarrely there seemed to be no dot matrix sign on Platform 6, so old style communication is needed.

IMG_7357.jpgOur train wasn’t due to arrive from Liverpool until 1324 giving a tight three minute turn around; it actually arrived at 1328 but with our fresh driver ready to take over we were away at 1330 after an impressively quick handover.

IMG_7358.jpgMore impressive we got to Lime Street in just 41 minutes, beating Merseyrail’s journey time by a minute.

Even better there are only four stations along the way on the TfW journey whereas Merseyrail has fourteen on its route to Lime Street which makes the journey seem torturously longer.

Local and regional politicians are salivating with delight at this new route as they see future potential in linking trains along the north Wales coast directly with Liverpool and providing handy connections at Liverpool South Parkway (one of the four stations) for the nearby John Lennon Airport.

Two of the new journeys extend beyond Chester to Wrexham and there’s talk of more in the future. There’s also talk of links with through trains to South Wales but quite where all these new links will be diverted from on the existing network is a mystery unless they’re all going to be extra journeys which will be mightily expensive.

Chester, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway have already got regular trains to Liverpool so that just leaves Helsby and Frodsham as the two stations newly connected to Merseyside’s capital and as those station names convey, they’re not exactly booming metropoli in themselves. So unless those links are added further back into Wales, which will inevitably mean severing existing through journeys (eg to Cardiff, Manchester or Birmingham) , it’s difficult to see where all the new passengers are going to come from.

This exciting development has been made possible by upgrading what’s called the Halton Curve, a single line curve between Frodsham and Runcorn linking the Chester to Warrington Line with the Crewe to Runcorn and Liverpool line.

IMG_E7492.jpgPreviously this bit of little used track was only signalled for trains in the Runcorn direction and to travel on it you had to catch the once a week Parliamentary train that ran on a summer Saturday around 0700 from Chester to Runcorn just to say you’d done it. When I travelled on it a few years ago there were about six of us all just doing it for the sake of doing it. That’s dedication for you although I’m sure others call it something else!

After a lot of work over the last couple of years this bit of track has been made bidirectional so the new train service can run every hour seven days a week both ways on the new timetable. But all this hasn’t come cheap. A cool £16 million has been spent sorting out the signals and tarting up the track. I originally thought that amount of funding was going to double track the curve, but no, it’s still single line.

The funding was approved by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. I hope they think it’s worth the investment.

IMG_7383.jpgI had a wander through the train as we left Frodsham (the second station after Chester) to see how many new passengers were on board as we went on to the curve past the signal box marking the junction.

IMG_7360.jpgTwelve of us were making the trip including one or two just like me who were keeping a curious eye on what was occurring.

IMG_E7491.jpgAt Liverpool Line Street TfW we’re making their presence for the very first time in that station by promoting the new link with the usual goodie bags containing a pen, smarties and the timetable leaflet.

IMG_7418.jpgI guess it’s worth shouting about having blown £16million on revitalising a piece of curved track! It wasn’t up to Azuma launch standards, but then that cost a few hundred million more.

IMG_7417.jpgI hope it’s a success but it’s going to take more than just Helsby and Frodsham to achieve payback and those tight turn rounds in Chester look worrying with all the layover at the Liverpool end of the route – presumably for ‘pathing reasons’.

IMG_7423.jpgFrom Liverpool Lime Street I went back across the Pennines on the Trans Pennine Express northerly route via Manchester Victoria, Huddersfield and Leeds and on to York and Durham where it was a good opportunity to hop off and take a deviation to Newcastle via Sunderland.

By bus.

IMG_7459.jpgAlso new on the public transport scene this week is the beginning of a much needed brand makeover for Go North East’s vast bus network across the region.

The new X-lines brand sensibly brings all the disparate and individually branded limited stop routes together under one attractive identity. It’s another triumph from Best Impressions and I’m sure it will be a success.

IMG_7443.jpgIt certainly made a welcome contrast from the grim image created by the down at heel Durham bus station.

IMG_7430.jpgSadly reliability problems impacted my planned journey on the half hourly X-lines route X20 linking Durham with Sunderland and due to depart at 1726.

The bus didn’t arrive from its previous run until well after that time and we didn’t depart until 1739, 13 minutes late.

IMG_7450.jpgIt turned out to be one of those frustrating journeys where one delay added to another with passengers’ tickets being rejected by the new Ticketer machines and other issues.

IMG_7451.jpgEven more frustrating we got overtaken twice by the much more frequent all stops route 20 which turned out to be quicker on this occasion!

IMG_7454.jpgWe eventually arrived in Sunderland’s bright and airy ‘Interchange’ at Park Lane twenty minutes late and our driver loaded up and hurried off on the other newly branded X-lines route, the X6/7 to Peterlee with which the X20 interworks.

I headed over to Sunderland’s rather brutalist station …

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IMG_7465.jpg… which is even more depressing on the subterranean platforms ….

IMG_7469.jpg… and caught the Metro over to Newcastle for an overnight stop.

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Part 3 of this round Britain round up to follow in a couple of days.

Roger French

May’s new timetable on track: Part 1

Tuesday 21st May 2019

IMG_7172.jpgFirst improvement in the May 2019 rail timetable I experienced yesterday on my tour around was from my own local station, Hassocks where our disjointed two an hour trains to the Thameslink Core stations and on to Bedford or Cambridge (one an hour to each but to a 40/20 pattern) have been replaced with the new even half hourly Brighton to Cambridge service. Bye bye Bedford it’s been good to know you.

I caught the new 0748 which goes to Cambridge whereas previously there had been a long gap in our peak hour timetable until the 0808 to Bedford which now no longer calls at Hassocks.

IMG_7180.jpgIt wasn’t surprising on this first morning there were few passengers boarding or on board the train from Brighton, although by East Croydon we’d got busier, and by London Bridge as well as many alighting, there were also many boarding almost certainly unaware they were catching a new and extra peak hour twelve coach train. And that doesn’t often happen in commuter land. It’s a welcome addition to the timetable as are the new Saturday Cambridge Brighton journeys and the Sunday journeys which venture as far south as Gatwick Airport.

IMG_7185.jpgTimekeeping on the 0748 had been excellent throughout for this first day; we arrived London Bridge spot on time and through the Thameslink Core with five minutes spare to wait at Finsbury Park (even time for our driver to come back on board for a toilet break) before continuing north with noticeably few passengers on board this extra journey to last week’s timetable.

IMG_7193.jpgI got off at Stevenage in time to see one of the buses now running the all new Rail Replacement Bus service which has replaced trains to Hertford North while a new terminating Bay platform is built.

IMG_7187.jpgThere’s a half hourly service running direct to Hertford North and an hourly service just to Watton-at-Stone from where a half hourly train runs via Hertford North to Moorgate as normal.

IMG_7191.jpgThere was only one passenger on the 0937 departure from Stevenage to Hertford North. I’m not sure why this arrangement is happening as the four platforms at Stevenage still look as they’ve always done to me from where the Moorgate terminators terminated, but perhaps more structural changes are ahead.

I headed back south to Finsbury Park on a Horsham bound train (from Peterborough), did a quick cross platform change there to a Great Northern train from Hertford North and down the former City Line to Moorgate.

IMG_7198.jpgWhat a shame the former Network South East tiling and branding is finally being removed from these stations. Moorgate is presumably the first to be rebranded as so far Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury & Islington and Drayton Park remain untouched.

IMG_7201.jpgAs both Peterborough and Hertford North originating trains arrived and departed Finsbury Park at exactly the same time it was interesting to see just how many passengers dashed across the platform from one train to the other to either make their way towards stations on the Thameslink Core or to Moorgate.

IMG_7200.jpgSome interesting journey options and connections to the Underground are now available. I was heading to Liverpool Street and could have changed at Farringdon on to the Underground but decided to opt for Moorgate and take a stroll.

IMG_7205.jpgI arrived in good time at Liverpool Street to catch the very first northbound ‘Norwich in 90’ train operated by Greater Anglia at 1100, displacing the usual half hourly Norwich departure with its stops along the way at that time to 1102.

IMG_E7223.jpgThe ‘Norwich in 90’ idea is classic political and PR puff. Great for photo shoots and making out how wonderful everyone is at successfully campaigning for some eye catching achievement and for train companies to pat themselves on the back for responding to such calls for ‘improvements’, but of dubious benefit in the grand scheme of things.

IMG_7206.jpgNorwich folk make comparisons between the normal one hour fifty minute journey time for the 115 miles to London with the same time it takes to run non-stop from York over the 200 miles down to the Capital. But that ignores the crucial point that trains running southbound non-stop from York have come from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Durham, Darlington as well as Sunderland and other stations so already have a huge number of passengers on board making for an often full train load to whizz down to London.

The trouble for Norwich is that it’s at the end of the line, and to muster up the same number of passengers to head down to London, albeit with a stop in Ipswich is never going to stack up especially with a decent half hourly train running between the cities all day.

At the moment there are just two 90 minute journeys in each direction utilising one train which sits in Norwich for four and a half hours between the return runs. While the timings work well for Norwichites wanting a day out in London (0900 from Norwich and 1900 return from Liverpool Street) it’s not quite so good for a day in Norwich, unless you like a late start, leaving London at 1100 with a return at 1700.

And it’s that return at 1700, arriving Liverpool Street at 1830 just as the tracks are already stacked out with departing commuter trains which has caused the most consternation among Norwich in 90 critics. It’s meant a whole raft of tweaks have been necessary to create a smooth path for the all important 1830 arrival. Here’s a quick run through courtesy of Today’s Railways magazine ….

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IMG_7305.jpgAfter all that yesterday’s first run on the 1700 from Norwich hit a red signal near Bethnal Green arriving into Liverpool Street five minutes down at 1835.

My 1100 northbound journey fared better as did the first 0900 southbound, both achieving the 90 minute target; just as well with all the red lanyard wearing Greater Anglia staff, VIPs and camera crews on board.

IMG_7212.jpgWe nearly missed it with a slowing down near Diss, but they’d apparently chosen the fastest pair of engines in the fleet and our driver made up for that hiccup and arrived spot on time at 1230. While the two First Class carriages were well occupied with guests, I did a head count in standard class after we left Ipswich; there were 78 on board who could have all just about fitted into one carriage instead of the seven we had! Meanwhile the former stopping train that left 2 minutes behind us also looked to have a similar load on board as we pulled out of Liverpool Street.

IMG_7219.jpgGreater Anglia had hoped to show off one of their new trains on the Norwich in 90 runs yesterday but alas as is the way with new trains, testing is still going on and everything’s running late, so it wasn’t to be.

IMG_7226.jpgI came across a new Class 745 train on test on my next journey to Great Yarmouth where it made for an interesting contrast alongside the Class 37 engine which had brought us across the wonderful Norfolk Broads and which are still helping to keep the timetable on track until new trains are ready.

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IMG_7222.jpgIt’s an exciting time for Greater Anglia who are replacing their entire fleet over the next year and I’m sure the positive publicity surrounding the ‘Norwich in 90’ will all help to raise the profile of train travel in the region which has to be good; and it was certainly an impressive ride, if totally uncommercial.

IMG_7227.jpgAfter my nostalgic ride across to Great Yarmouth and back I just got caught up in the tail end of delays due to an earlier signal failure at Ely making for a late running 1357 departure from Norwich to Liverpool. East Midlands Trains were doing their best to recover service and combined the 75 minute late running 1257 departure with our 15 minute late 1357 journey making for a double crewed four coach train and the consequential hiatus over seat reservations. Makes me think it really is time to do away with reservations but I know the arguments for keeping them too, and sway between the two views.

IMG_7238.jpgA ride up the East Coast Main Line on an LNER HST from Peterborough took me to Retford ….

IMG_7248.jpg… where I changed to try out the all new hourly Northern service to Gainsborough Central. Theses journeys have been tacked on to a Leeds to Sheffield timetable which provide a stopping service from Sheffield eastwards to Worksop and Retford and then to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7273.jpgPreviously the train would have veered south as it approached Gainsborough and served that town’s other station a mile south of the town centre on Lea Road and then on to Lincoln. Lea Road is a delightful station with a wonderful entrance area lovingly cared for by local people….

IMG_7286.jpg…. but it’s not nearly as conveniently sited as Central, which as it’s name implies is central. And peculiarly used to get a train service just on a Saturday and then only three return journeys which continued on via Brigg to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. These Saturday journeys still run (they give Brigg along with Kirton Lindsey their required ‘Parliamentary service’) but it’s certainly celebratory time for the new look connection back to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7274.jpgAnd Northern have splashed the cash on some bunting to celebrate.

IMG_7276.jpgThere were just three other passengers on the 1750 arrival into Gainsborough Central yesterday having left Sheffield at a peak time 1654, but that was just day one and I’m sure as word spreads Gainsboroughites will find the new service a great improvement.

The new timetable has enabled Northern to speed up the previous hourly Sheffield via Worksop and Retford to Lincoln service by missing out the five stations between Sheffield and Worksop in the off peak (leaving them for the new Gainsborough Central train) saving about eight minutes giving a Sheffield to Lincoln in 73; that’s for 55 miles. Not quite Norwich in 90 over 115 miles but it’s a start.

IMG_7287.jpgI caught the first off peak ‘flyer’ from Lincoln at 0929 this morning and although we only had 24 on board leaving that wonderful city, we picked up a few at the next two stations, Saxilby and Gainsborough Lea Road before a good crowd at Retford and Worksop when it was foot down all the way to Sheffield and very perceptively a faster journey as we sped by the next five stations. I’m sure once this improvement becomes known it’ll become very popular especially as the train continues to Meadowhall for the shopping centre there on its way to Leeds.

IMG_7302.jpgSome passengers boarding in Lincoln wanting Sheffield were puzzled by the train showing Leeds as the destination but I overheard others on board buying through tickets to Leeds so that link up may prove beneficial.

I’m now at Sheffield and about to cross the Pennines to see more new May timetable developments and I’ll describe them in the next blog.

IMG_7307.jpgLittle tip, always follow the trolley when wanting to know which end First Class is located when it’s not displayed on station signs!

Roger French

All Line Rove Around

Monday 20th May 2019

IMG_E7095.jpgMid May’s always a good month to buy an All Line Rover and have a wander around Britain’s rail network taking a look at new initiatives introduced by various Train Operating Companies in the May timetable change. This year’s changes are bound to be much smoother than last year’s collective meltdown especially as some improvements that looked dodgy have already been postponed at the last minute.

For example, the new station due to open on the Stratford to Bishops Sortford line near Tottenham at Meridian Water has been postponed for a week or two (as predicted); while the introduction of Class 37 locos on peak hour journeys between Cardiff and Rhymney and refurbished Class 442s on SWR’s promised enhancements on the Waterloo/Portsmouth line have both been postponed just in the last week or so; still far better to delay than implement if everything’s not ready and risk it all going wrong. Definitely the lesson learned from May 2018.

There are still enough new interesting developments to seek out and experience and I’ll describe my travels as the week progresses.

The All Line Rover ticket has been around for ages. Every year in Barry Doe’s review of Rail Rovers in Rail magazine (there are 73 different Rovers available in regional areas all over the country) he observes “it is now eight years since the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) said that one advantage of the then all new All-Line time restrictions was that operators would now be more content to advertise its existence, as business abstraction had been removed.”

In 2011 restrictions on using certain long distance train companies’ services before 1000 were introduced on the All Line Rover at Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross as well as Watford Junction, Milton Keynes, Birmingham New Street, Luton+Airport, Bedford and Stevenage but as Barry continues “the only operators to advertise the All-Line in their general publicity remain GWR and Northern – and the Rail Delivery Group that subsumed ATOC has produced nothing centrally at all. What other industry would totally ignore its most extensive and comprehensive product?'”; good point as always Barry.

IMG_E7266.jpgIt’s not that the price of the All Line Rover is a giveaway. The longest version is for 14 day validity. The full, non-Railcard, price for that is £796 and for 7 days it’s £526 for Standard Class travel. That works out at either £56.85 or £75.14 a day. You have to be a very committed traveller to be spending those sums every day continuously for a fortnight or a week. Some days you might be quids in when making long journeys, but other days if you’re just making shorter trips it might be cheaper to pay-as-you-go. And if you’re one who likes to plan a Rover in advance to specific train journeys to get maximum distance and value, you might find it cheaper to buy a week or fortnight’s worth of Advance Purchase tickets.

On the other hand the great thing about a Rover ticket is the wonderful freedom it gives you to travel anywhere and change plans as the mood takes you. Indeed for the next seven days while I’ve got a few milestones to cover I’m happy to change plans at a moments notice. At this time of year it’s easy to book overnight accommodation at the last minute too which helps for such sporadic random travelling.

Built into the price of a Rover therefore is the freedom and flexibility it offers. Mind you the same is true for season tickets and Barry also often makes the point that with ‘Any Permitted’ routes you can also enjoy many travel options across wide areas simply by buying a One Week season between distant destinations.

As my Twitter followers will know, for this week, I opted for the 7 day First Class version which with my one third off Senior Railcard discount works out at a similar price to the full price Standard Class ticket coming in at £525.35. The joy of being over sixty! First Class for the price of Standard.

Full whack First Class would cost £796 and the top of the range fourteen day is £1,216. You’d really have to clock the miles up on First Class enabled trains to get your money’s worth with that one.

For me though it’s been the bargain of the year as once again I’ve saved up my Delay Repay vouchers over the last twelve months’ travels and cashed all £497.47 of them in meaning I paid just £27.88 for my £525.35 All Line Rover. Not bad; although as I wrote the other day with reliability improving on GTR, I doubt I’ll ever amass as much compensation in the coming year so won’t be able to do the same in 2020, although many of the larger claims are in respect of longer journeys which are worth more, and it all adds up.

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I’m probably one of the few passengers who generally don’t mind delays especially when they become severe, reimbursement gets generous and I’m not in a hurry!

There is of course an even greater value ticket and that’s the BritRail Pass which gives all the benefits of an All Line Rover and also including no pre 1000 restrictions on those business routes as an added bonus for roughly half the price.

IMG_E7265.jpgThe only snag is BritRail passes are not available to UK residents; only to those registered as resident overseas. The 8 day full adult price for Standard Class (no 7 day version exists) is currently $328 which is about £257, about half the price of the 7 Day All Line Rover at £526.

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I’ll certainly be getting my £27.88 worth of value in the coming week and am looking forward to sharing my travel experiences with you in the coming days.

Roger French

Farewell HST

Saturday 18th May 2019

IMG_6884.jpgToday’s a poignant day on the Great Western. The much loved HST trains are running their last journeys across the network to and from London as new Hitachi IET Class 800 and 802 trains now reign supreme.

Whereas last week’s LNER Azuma launch was met with much excitement for the future, somehow GWR’s similar trains haven’t made the same impact since they first appeared in late 2017.

IMG_6974.jpgAs I write this blogpost on board the very last HST which left Penzance for Paddington at 0650 this morning, many overheard comments are “it’s all very sad”, “end of an era”, “going to really miss them” and “have you signed the online petition to bring back the buffet; the Azuma has got one”.

IMG_6925.jpgIt’s been forty years down here on the West Country line to Penzance so for a whole generation of Millennials HSTs are all they’ve known so nostalgic regrets are understandable. All the more so as the ambiance of the new Hitachi trains is more Championship than Premier League in First Class.

IMG_6875.jpgTo bid my fond farewells I treated myself to the very last ever HST Pullman lunchtime dining experience on yesterday’s 1303 Paddington to Plymouth.

IMG_6877.jpgAlthough this splendid tradition is continuing on the IET it just won’t be the same as sitting in a sumptuous leather seat in what feels like an exclusive top class restaurant with just 17 covers and five attentive staff.

IMG_6878.jpgIt took well over an hour for my veggie main course to appear but it didn’t matter at all as there was lots to see out of the window as the journey continued westwards and with such a small kitchen it would be impossible to serve an awkward diner like me avoiding alcohol, skipping the first course and out of sync with the flow of other diners. And it was certainly worth the wait.

IMG_E6911.jpgThe Acorn Squash was absolutely delicious and came with complimentary bottled spring water and bread rolls; and of course it’s all served silver service style with decent crockery, cutlery and napkins.

IMG_6912.jpgI was so impressed I had to seek out the chef to pass on my thanks and in so doing was aghast to see the limited facilities from which she produced around two dozen amazing three course meals over the previous two hours. A quite remarkable achievement.

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From Plymouth, after an hour’s break, I continued down to Penzance on a nine coach IET Class 802.

IMG_6930.jpgThis journey, the 1403 from Paddington, had originally been scheduled for an HST but was swapped for the new replacement and provided an interesting contrast. It was my first journey through Cornwall on an IET and in fact my first journey on a GWR nine coach version having previously only enjoyed trips on the five coach trains (and doubled up as ten coach) to Bristol and South Wales.IMG_6944.jpg

The internal layout unsurprisingly is very similar to the Azumas and the same comments apply to luggage storage and seats as I made in yesterday’s blog.

IMG_6945.jpgI did get a peek inside the ‘end of carriage’ large lockable luggage and cycle stores which I’m sure are going to be kept very busy.

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IMG_6950.jpgAside from Menheniot the 1725 journey from Plymouth is an all stations stopper right through Cornwall and it was interesting to hear the auto announcements programmed to emphasise which doors will or will not open bespoke to each coach at short platform stations (something the HSTs weren’t able to do) supplemented by the Train Manager’s announcements.

Another noteworthy improvement is the train no longer being delayed while the Train Manager or station staff have to walk up and down the platform manually shutting all the carriage doors which together with the much improved acceleration away from stations meant we were well able to keep to time as we journeyed through Cornwall; something I’d not often experienced before.

IMG_6953.jpgIndeed, we arrived in Penzance a minute early.

IMG_6954.jpgAnd so to my last HST journey from Penzance all the way through to Paddington at 0650 this morning. Lots of cameras; lots of waving; smiles and sighs and many memories shared.

IMG_6972.jpgI’ll miss the clunk clicking as an HST pulls away from stations; the sound of those doors being slammed shut; the door windows which can be opened and shut; the draught howling back into the carriage because someone’s pointing a camera out of the open window; the late running in Cornwall (we arrived in Plymouth around ten minutes down) …. the happy ambiance of it all.

IMG_6969.jpgIt’s a shame progress means we seem to be losing an air of quality as new trains come on stream but the good news is it’s largely being driven by the need to increase seating capacity because trains are becoming more and more popular. More seats per carriage is an inevitable consequence on long distance journeys as well as commuter trains.

I was never a fan of the high backed seats First Great Western crammed into an unfriendly layout in Standard Class in their HSTs a few years ago (which continue in the shortened 4 coach ‘Castle’ sets in the West Country and round to Cardiff pictured below) and much prefer the new IETs albeit with their less comfortable seats.

IMG_6929.jpgBut the days of luxury in First Class sadly now seem to be passing into a bygone era as twenty percent more seats are added per carriage. But I’m sure people said the same when steam was replaced with diesel and in the years to come we’ll get to love the IETs and Azumas for their modern approach to train travel.

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IMG_6948.jpgBack on the last HST journey this morning from Penzance we lost a bit more time due to slow running through Starcross arriving Exeter St Davids 15 minutes late. Through Tiverton Parkway and Taunton we got extremely busy and there were the usual issues over passengers with seat reservations assuming an IET layout and naturally couldn’t find their expected seats (no First Class coach E on an HST).

More positively we were twelve minutes late into Westbury at 1112 instead of 1100 which would have meant passengers just missing the connection for the Southampton train due to leave at 1111. A shout out to GWR’s Swindon Control who held the Southampton train for a few minutes until our arrival allowing passengers to make the connection – something you perceive rarely happens these days.

IMG_7039.jpgWe continued to be around twelve minutes down towards London, picking up a large contingent of passengers at Reading (standing room only from there) and where we passed an equally large number of photographers recording this historic last day of HSTs which have been synonymous for so many years with that town. (I well remember taking my first HST ride when at Reading University in 1974/5).

It’s now 1227 and we’ve just arrived into Paddington after a splendid five hour and 37 minute journey which I’ll also well remember … perhaps not for as long as 45 years this time, that would be pushing life expectancy too far, but hopefully for many years to come.

Farewell HST and thanks.

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Roger French

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New trains in 2019 Part 4: Azumas

Friday 17th May 2019

IMG_6810.jpgLet’s get the usual bit out of the way first …. “at last, after many delays” etc etc. Same old story, of course, and in the Azuma’s case it still hasn’t quite been sorted with onboard technical issues to do with electrical and signal compatibility north of Darlington still to be resolved; so for now you can only Azuma between Kings Cross and Leeds and the one return journey a day LNER run to and from Hull.

Then there’s the usual PR spin in the Media Release and glossy brochure I filched when gate crashing Tuesday’s launch: “Setting new benchmarks in rail travel is part of our DNA….LNER is on a mission to transform rail travel…….state of the art……..environmentally friendly……world class…..” I completed my media release buzzword bingo card even befrore the end of Page 1.

“The Azuma train will be the first of 65 new trains to replace the existing fleet of 45 trains operated by LNER on the East Coast”. Sounds impressive. You had to look at another piece of paper to note that 22 of the 65 new trains will only be five coaches long with 43 being the standard 9 coach lengths we’ve been used to with the Mark 4, and HSTs. But to be fair, we’re also told there will be “an average of 100 more seats on every train compared to the current fleet”. Not sure how that “average” has been worked out but it sounds impressive, and we certainly need more seats at busy times so that’s all good.

Hitachi the manufacturer are proud that the 42 electric and 23 bi-mode trains have “over 70 per cent of parts sourced from the surrounding areas of our factory” which is in Newton Aycliffe. “Azuma may look like a Japanese-bullet train, but underneath it is very British” we’re told. How apt for these turbulent times.

IMG_6809.jpgThere are a few upsides from the significant delay in getting these trains on the tracks: it’s given LNER time to finesse the branding which perhaps GWR didn’t have, while gradually phasing them in on the Leeds line enables staff to get used to them. Which was the first thing I noticed arriving at Kings Cross yesterday morning for the 1103 departure to Leeds; LNER staff everywhere.

IMG_6832.jpgThere’d been even more at the razzmatazz media launch on Tuesday of course, but although the band had long gone to their next gig, the dry ice turned off and the stage and microphones packed away (and all that was without the ‘Branson’ influence who loved nothing better than staring in a high profile media launch)……

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IMG_6676.jpg….. for day two in service, there was still a large number of red lanyards around necks on the platform as well as on board. I’m sure some of it is training teams from across the network as well as giving managers and other staff the new-train-in-service experience. I couldn’t make out the job titles on all the name badges but I reckon most LNER offices must have been empty yesterday.

IMG_6869.jpgThe mystique of using an Azuma brand is a typical Virgin/Stagecoach ploy now inherited by LNER; and it works a treat. ”Hello and welcome aboard this LNER Azuma to Leeds”, the auto announcement plays out as the train departs every station. Mind you there’s never any passion in an auto announcement so that touch point didn’t quite do it for me.

The whole branding, livery and image is in a different league to the same trains running on the Great Western with their more staid dark green and grey and no one quite sure whether to call them IETs or Class 800s (or 802s).

IMG_6817.jpgThe two tone red (Standard Class) and burgundy (First Class) colours used by LNER are certainly bright and classy respectively.

IMG_6822.jpgAlthough they’re the same seats as used by GWR the moquette somehow gives the perception of a little extra padding and my two and a quarter hour journey to Leeds was comfortable but perceptively less luxurious than the Mark 4 leather seats in First Class, but that’s a sign of the times. I also tried out the Standard Class seats – I think Leeds is about the furthest I’d like to travel – certainly worth taking a cushion if ever you take the train all the way to Inverness or Aberdeen. Leg room is good and I particularly noticed the “up to an additional 7cm leg room” the media release boasted about in Standard Class. Well done LNER for that.

IMG_6821.jpgI’m a bit of a seat layout obsessive and always try and find the best seat that suits me in each train set so paid particular attention to this aspect. Whereas in First Class on a Mark 4 the 2+1 layout swapped sides at the mid point of the carriage to create a wide passing area with two single seats facing each other on opposite sides of the carriage (my favourite spot) now in Coach L (shown above) it’s a straight 2+1 throughout the carriage with ten single seats facing one direction and nine in the other (plus a luggage rack where the tenth would be) HST style, giving only one pair of single seats facing each other over a table in the middle of the coach. On the other side seats are in tables for four (as on Mark 4s) with two pairs airline style facing north.

IMG_6823.jpgThe end First Class Coach M which has two accessible spaces by the entrance door has five single seats all facing north with none facing south so if you’re travelling First Class and like ‘facing the engine’ book yourself a seat in coach L or half of K when London bound rather than M. Coach K (shown above) has seven southbound facing single seats and three northbound.

IMG_6812.jpgThe accessible spaces for passengers using a wheelchair in both First and Standard Class include a large space between the back panel and the table. This makes for easy manoeuvring but if the passenger parks their wheelchair up against the panel, they won’t be able to enjoy a window view.

The table lifts up but I wonder if all wheelchairs would fit under it when in the down position leaving the passenger sitting awkwardly if not. I’m sure that’s all been thought through though and my concerns are unfounded.

IMG_6813.jpgThere’s the usual mixture of Standard Class seats airline style and tables for four to a similar arrangement to the Mark 4 coaches.

IMG_6816.jpg“Our spacious new Azuma coaches give you more places than ever before to store your luggage” LNER’s ‘Your guide to AZUMA’ explains. I seem to be an exception these days by travelling fairly light with a small rucksack easily stored in an overhead rack but it seems to me suitcases with wheels have opened up a large number of wardrobe addicted travellers and even a fairly lightly loaded train to Leeds yesterday morning had luggage racks full leaving Kings Cross.

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However on exploring the train further I came across a lockable storage cupboard for even larger luggage items….

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….. and there are other similar cupboards for cycle storage too.

IMG_6867.jpgThere’s the inevitable ‘restricted view’ seat/s which makes me think this area really would be an ideal space for an extended luggage rack to store those mini wardrobes and would only lose minimal seating capacity.

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IMG_6864.jpgUnlike GWR’s IEPs the Azuma has a nice buffet area mid train in Standard Class (and it’s not just any old buffet area, it’s a “Let’s Eat Cafe Bar” where you’ll find “locally sourced ingredients from along our route form the ingredients for the best possible onboard catering”. To me it looked like just the usual range of drinks and snacks but perhaps there’d all been sourced from the local Grantham branch of Bookers……

IMG_6819.jpg…. and in First Class the kitchen occupies the rear portion (heading north) at the end of Coach M.

IMG_6826.jpgIndeed it takes up a surprising amount of space in Coach M – offering complimentary food making for an interesting business model about the use of space and customer expectations on service and what’s included.

IMG_6857.jpgWhich brings me to the all important pricing, as Judith Chalmers used to say on the Holiday TV programme, or was it Wish You Were Here?

I booked yesterday’s return journey from Kings Cross to Leeds online a month ago on 18th April. First Class tickets with a third off Senior Railcard cost £29.05 northbound and £37.60 southbound (all the £29.05 tickets had gone) making £66.65 in total. If I’d opted for Standard Class it would have cost just £11.90 both ways; £23.80 return. A tasty curry (I could have had two – one going to Leeds and one on the return), fruit, crisps, biscuits, a chocolate and caramel pot, juices and coffees were all complimentary in my £66.65 ticket price. That’s what I call excellent value. Mind you if I’d just rocked up and bought my ticket at Kings Cross just before departing it would have set me back £223.10 with a Railcard or £74.09 Standard Class – the latter is not bad value for a turn up and go flexible ticket – albeit with some peak restrictions.

As with GWR trains and the new Caledonian Sleepers there are electronic displays by the doors on each coach – shame the word Kings couldn’t have been programmed on to the second line alongside Cross…

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… and there are these connecting cables between coaches which have been the subject of considerable concern from the Office of Road and Rail – it’s thought they might invite people to climb up on to the roof so modifications are being arranged.

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Yesterday’s journeys went well. The Azuma acceleration and ride quality is impressive but we’ve got used to that on GWR; it was still pretty awsome to accelerate silently out of Kings Cross and into Gasworks Tunnel bang on time at 1103.

IMG_6811.jpgWe stopped at Peterborough and approached the next stop at Doncaster five minutes ahead of schedule. After Wakefield Westgate we arrived Leeds a minute down at 1317. It was a good run and a memorable first journey experience.

IMG_6850.jpgThe 1345 return back down to London was equally smooth with a slight early arrival into Kings Cross. Once again there were LNER staff enjoying the ride but the catering staff seemed to be struggling only serving some passengers who boarded at Leeds with their hot meal as we were leaving Peterborough at 1510 which was when the hot drinks trolley made its first appearance.

I’ve noticed catering standards slipping on recent journeys with LNER and hope this can be sorted now the new Azuma era is beckoning. It certainly wasn’t for the lack of onboard staff yesterday – perhaps a case of ‘too many cooks spoiling the ….’

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There are still advanced purchase tickets available at just £36 return in Standard Class on the 1103 Kings Cross to Leeds and 1345 return on most days next week as I write this, so if you’ve got five hours to spare, it’s well worth the ride for that all new train experience which those journeys offer.

Roger French

If you’re new to the world of BusAndTrainUser blogs here are links to previous posts in this series: Part 1: Great Northern’s 717s; Part 2: D Trains; Part 3: Sleepers

Two cheers for GTR

Thursday 16th May 2019

IMG_6770.jpgWe’re fast approaching the anniversary this weekend of that fateful day in May last year when the Thameslink (and Northern Rail) train networks went into meltdown.

Changes to the GoVia Thameslink Railway (GTR) operated Thameslink network had been billed as the culmination of years of investment and preparatory work including millions spent on rebuilding central London stations, untangling tracks at London Bridge and a huge fleet of brand new trains. The dream that was once called Thameslink 2000 was finally going to be realised as RailPlan 2020 with greatly expanded services travelling north/south through the ‘Thameslink Core’.

IMG_3591.jpgYou couldn’t miss the build up during March, April and early May last Spring. Posters were everywhere and repeated announcements encouraged us all to be prepared and check out the new timetables as ‘the time of every train will change’.

IMG_7983.jpgTrouble was, as quickly became apparent from first thing on Sunday 20th May, it was only us passengers who’d been prepared. Everyone else including GTR, Network Rail and the DfT turned out to be lamentably unprepared, as subsequent Reviews and Inquiries have shown, and the service simply fell apart from Day 1.

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I remember arriving at my local station, Hassocks, excitedly looking forward to a ride through to Cambridge on one of the new hourly journeys to see auspiciously the first two had been cancelled. Not a good omen.

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Still at least the third journey at 0718 ran. It turned out to be one of the few that did.

IMG_8674.jpgMuch has been written about those disastrous first few months of the worst service change ever known, and it’s not my intention to dwell on the past, but more to assess things one year on and look to the future.

IMG_E9801.jpgWhich I have to say is much more positive. It seems to me former GTR CEO Charles Horton got it right about “The ‘Golden Age’ starts in May”, the only problem being he was a year ahead of his time. It’s this May rather than last May.

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My travel experiences of late have seen a huge improvement in reliability and you get the impression GTR are well and truly back on top of service delivery. Sure we have the usual disruptions from trespassers, the odd freight train breaking down, points failures and signalling issues (all of which have caused delays just in the last seven days on the Brighton line alone) but these aren’t GTR’s fault and, following February’s blockade and interminable weekend closures there’s greater confidence track related failures will now be much less frequent.

Of course it must help that the full timetable is still not in place meaning less trains are running through the ‘Thameslink Core’ than originally planned. From Monday things get ramped up with a second train each hour between Brighton and Cambridge added to the timetable in the peaks and throughout the day (inluding Saturdays) making for a half hourly service between those cities to match the half hourly Horsham to Peterborough trains already linking the East Coast Main Line to the Brighton Main Line.

When everything’s running smoothly it’s certainly impressive to stand on any platform at one of the ‘Thameslink Core’ stations and see the high frequency departures: eg from City Thameslink at 04 Sutton; 06 Brighton; 09 Rainham; 11 Gatwick …. then an 8 minute gap which has yet to be filled until …. 19 Sutton; 21 Horsham; 24 Orpington; 26 Brighton with another eight minute gap to 34 Sutton and the same pattern repeating in the next half hour giving 16 southbound trains an hour. In the evening peaks for a couple of hours there’s an extra 01 and 31 East Grinstead and a 46 Littlehampton added to the cycle with a similar northbound pattern in the mornings.

Despite the need for northbound trains to switch from third rail to overhead wires at City Thameslink (and at Farringdon southbound) dwell times are kept tight and trains arrive and depart on schedule helped by some generous time allowances between stations. Indeed I’ve noticed trains heading to and from the East Coast Main Line have further slack added between St Pancras, Canal Tunnel and Finsbury Park to allow recovery from any late running before the second half of the journey.

The ‘Thameslink Core’ is also getting busier especially in the peaks. More and more passengers seem to be boarding at London Bridge (presumably from a Southeastern train) to travel on to Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon or St Pancras. You wonder how much busier it would get if TfL did the decent thing and include this section (and on to Kentish Town/West Hampstead and Finsbury Park as well as back to Elephant & Castle) on the Tube map as an alternative to the over crowded Northern Line rather than deny Thameslink exists.

IMG_1911.jpgLove them or loathe them (and I do both) the Class 700 trains are certainly now proving their worth at moving huge numbers of passengers. Fortunately the Brighton Main Line almost exclusively has twelve coach trains allocated except for two northbound journeys at 0759 and 0828 from Brighton to Bedford, and you really notice the difference by the time those two trains get to East Croydon. They’re rammed.

Brighton 1 - June 2010.jpgIt brings it home to you not so long ago some of these journeys were being operated by 4 coach Class 319s which were full to bursting at Gatwick in the peaks, let alone East Croydon. The Class 700s are uncomfortable, the seats are hard, they’re too narrow but that standing space really does soak up the crowds and has become absolutely necessary.

IMG_5418.jpgWhen these new trains were being ordered Charles Horton was derided in the Evening Standard by saying the main benefit was ‘passengers would be able to stand in greater comfort’ but he was spot on. That is their main benefit – and as I mentioned in Tuesday’s blog they also have ample room for luggage, something the Class 319s and 377s don’t. I loathe the 700s in many ways, but you have to love their crowd moving abilities. Where would we be without them?

Waiting on a platform for the next train.

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Other things that have noticeably got better during the last year are ticket office opening hours, staffing of gatelines, social media information and responses, much less station skipping, more realistic turn round times at termini, excellent response times for delay repay and generally a better more relaxed atmosphere among the staff to name just seven that come to mind.

Is it perfect? No, of course it isn’t, there’ll always be some delays and disruption on a crowded railway running at capacity. Heading home to Hassocks in the evening peak my train rarely arrives spot on time, but you only have to look at the frequency of departures through the ‘Thameslink Core’ described above to see the impact of one train running just a minute or two late and can appreciate the knock on effect to following journeys. Add in the Southern network south from London Bridge and Victoria (as well as Gatwick Express) with constraining flat junctions such as Windmill Bridge just north of East Croydon and you can see how delays can soon spread – not unlike the impact congestion has on a busy M25 in the peak where it’s stop start the whole way round and virtually a car park on a busy Friday afternoon peak.

It’s good to see an attractive evenly spaced timetable across the network which makes sense although one strange scheduling anomaly that continues concerns the two evening peak journeys from Bedford to Littlehampton (introduced last May) leaving London Bridge at 1655 and 1755 which arrive at East Croydon three minutes ahead of a Victoria to Littlehampton train resulting in the two trains following each other three minutes apart all the way to Littlehampton. Passengers from London Bridge were used to these being Southern branded trains starting from the low level terminating platforms and could easily be confident of a seat. Now it’s a rush to board and grab one of the few seats left as it arrives from Bedford having filled up in the ‘Thameslink Core’.

There’s a perception that delays on the busy East Coast Main Line are more prevalent than the Midland Main Line so stations on the Horsham line and Hassocks which are only served by Peterborough/Cambridge trains rather than Bedford trains (from this Sunday’s new timetable in the case of Hassocks when our Bedford train becomes a Cambridge) are more prone to late running and the risk of station skipping. On the other hand by splitting the Thameslink timetable across both East Coast and Midland lines north of the Thames it means if there’s a blockage on one some semblance of service can still run through and south of the ‘Thameslink Core’ by trains continuing as normal on the other. In the old days with just Bedford-Brighton, you were snookered if there was a problem at say West Hampstead.

It’s noteworthy that the improved timetable south of East Croydon has by-passed poor old Redhill (literally) which now has a less attractive service than the pre 2012 ‘New Southern Railway’ version. Although they’ve gained through trains to Peterborough beyond London Bridge, they’re the stopping trains and there’s a perception Redhill has missed out on improvements.

Reliability on Southern had improved before May 2018 when disruption had been related to the long running disputes with ASLEF and RMT. Once the former was settled things greatly improved. It was ironic that during the worst of the Southern times it was Thameslink trains that kept going and when the Thameslink May 2018 debacle began it was Southern/GatEx trains that ran normally and saved the day.

Meanwhile over on Great Northern the emergency timetable introduced soon after May 2018 with preplanned cancellations on both Hertford North and Welwyn Garden City trains ended last Autumn and a full timetable has been operating for some time with the new Class 717 trains at last in service making for a great Improvement in capacity and reliability.

IMG_7269.jpgFew will miss the ageing Class 313 trains now being withdrawn. well, perhaps except for the seats, although even those had become worn and bumpy after years of use!

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Finally, a few areas where I’d like to see improvements during the final couple of years before GoVia’s GTR management contract ends in 2021 are:

1. Much better driver communication when there are delays (I’m writing this very sentence yesterday evening while we’re crawling between East Croydon and Gatwick Airport; I can see there’s congestion ahead by looking online and on Apps, but it would be a nice gesture if our driver could say something by way of explanation and even apology).

2. Completion of the retro fitting of seat back tables in the Class 700 trains.

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3. Sort out the in-carriage displays – they’re far too frequently showing blank or giving misinformation.

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4. Make tickets inter-available between the GTR brands much more readily when there’s disruption – as mentioned in Tuesday’s blog on Gatwick Express.

5. Display the in-carriage Train Loading Indicator on station departure signs so waiting passengers can see where best to board.

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6. With continuing delays to implementing the important Traffic Management System (TMS) and Automatic Train Operation (ATO) through the ‘Thameslink Core’ and no sign of implmentation, be wary of adding any more journeys to fill those eight minute gaps, as originally planned, to Sevenoaks (from Welwyn Garden City) and Maidstone East (from Cambridge). They’re providing a useful buffer in the event of delays.

 

Twelve months on GTR’s CEO Patrick Verwer previews this weekend’s timetable change including the enhanced Brighton to Cambridge service and other improvements acorss the network at weekends with the same confidence Charles Horton had done a year ago, except this time it’s justified.

All in all, a year on from Armagadden it’s two cheers for GTR. Quite a turnaround.

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Roger French

Gerry wouldn’t be impressed

Wednesday 15th May 2019

‘Winding your way down on Baker Street’ the late great Gerry Rafferty sang; and since February, if he’d still been with us, he would be able to wind his way back up it once again. The road (and nearby parallel running Gloucester Place) has changed back to two-way traffic including an all important northbound bus, taxi and cycle lane through the Marylebone Road junction.

Despite the new arrangements settling down well, I heard the changeover had initially been a bit of a hiatus so took a look yesterday to see what was happening.

As Gerry sang, it turned out to be ‘another crazy day’ on Baker Street as first thing I spotted was the newly completed bus lane was blocked at the northern approach to Marylebone Road.

It turns out three months after the switchover, the enhancement works are not complete and an improved central island at the junction has been constructed for pedestrians to cross.

This is unfortunate as everyone had just got used to the new bus routes and stopping arrangements and now everything’s in turmoil again.

The island work was scheduled to be completed on Monday afternoon and it looked to me as though it was nicely finished,…..

….. except no one had removed the barriers so buses had to continue on a slow crawling diversion causing unnecessary delays ……

…… and passengers were left wandering around the neighbourhood searching for an alternative bus stop.

No wonder passengers are deserting London’s buses in droves. Two of the alternative bus stops weren’t shown on the closed bus stop panel map, nor is the brand new bus stop north of Marylebone Road shown and where the notice was posted causing much disorientation …..

Tthe alternative bus stop arrangements involved lengthy walks either towards the southern end of Baker Street or some distance further north along Gloucester Place.

Some passengers were waiting forlornly at one of the two coach stops used by National Express/Green Line/Stansted Airport express coaches ……

…….and just to add to the confusion occasionally a TfL bus driver took pity on the hand waving passengers and stopped while others sped by.

The street furniture in some locations looked a little odd; such as here where the southbound stop pole and flag by Baker Street’s famous Lost Property shop seems to have got detached from its shelter by some distance!

It wasn’t very encouraging but hopefully those barriers were swept away just after my visit and all is now back to the new normal.

 

Meanwhile over at Tottenham Court Road another two way scheme with a new southbound bus and cycle lane has just been introduced.

It was great to see buses having a lovely clear southbound run and saving valuable time that used to be lost in the horrendous congestion at the bottom of Gower Street.

Some delays were evident at the junction with Oxford Street for right turning buses on the 73 and 390 (just one bus getting through each green phase) but southbound buses on the 14, 24 and 29 were gliding through, when able, with 134 buses easily turning left to their newly located terminal stand; all making for a refreshing change for central London buses.

Northbound traffic on the now restricted one lane Tottenham Court Road however was barely moving. Indeed I walked the full length from the Oxford Street junction to Warren Street in the same time it was taking buses in more typical contemporary central London traffic conditions.

However Camden Council have plans next year to shift northbound general traffic into a new two-way Gower Street (running parallel to the east) leaving Tottenham Court Road pretty much exclusively to buses and cycles only. And that really will be impressive.

This scheme is proving controversial by excluding taxis but for me this and the new look Baker Street are very much welcome changes, once properly completed and those barriers and cones are all swept away, because at last buses are being given decent priority road space (along with cycles) in London

‘Another year and then you’d be happy, just one more year and then you’d be happy, but you’re crying, you’re crying now’.

Roger French

End the 35 year GatEx rip off

Tuesday 14th May 2019

IMG_6273.jpgExactly thirty-five years ago today British Rail began the first non-stop train service between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport marketed as Gatwick Express. Class 73 locomotives hauled Mark 2 carriages providing a 30 minute journey time.

Since 1984 GX’s history has been in three almost equal parts: the British Rail era for the first twelve years followed by National Express, awarded the first privatised franchise to run the service in April 1996, which lasted a further twelve years until 2008 when it was subsumed into the GoVia operated Southern franchise. GoVia successfully bid for the new Southern franchise the following year and in 2015 won the notorious larger GTR management contract including Thameslink and Great Northern as well as Southern and Gatwick Express.

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 19.51.27.pngThere’s been a succession of train types over the last 35 years notably the Class 460 Junipers with their pointy nosed front ends introduced by National Express from 1999, followed by reconditioned Class 442s and, since 2016, brand new Class 387/2 trains ordered by GTR.

IMG_4069.jpgGradually the bespoke offer of an exclusive Gatwick Express service has been watered down not least the sensible, yet controversial, decision in 2008 to extend peak hour journeys to Brighton to increase capacity on the Brighton Main Line including calling at most stations between Haywards Heath and the coast. This concept was extended further in 2015 when alternate journeys, running every 30 minutes, during the off-peak were also extended non-stop to Brighton replacing the previous fasts operated by Southern between Brighton, East Croydon and Victoria.

In the early days the GX offer included smartly dressed hosts meeting and greeting passengers on platforms as well as selling tickets on trains together with an onboard buffet trolley giving the impression of a premium service. First class seating, especially during the Class 442 era offered a level of luxury travel which was very much premium.

IMG_6272.jpgNow, the whole concept of the Gatwick Express as a premium service must be called into question. There really can be no justification for charging passengers a premium fare for a journey that’s virtually no different to the alternatives. Continuing the facade of GatEx being something special is frankly a deceitful way of fleecing visitors from abroad using Gatwick Airport. First impressions count when you’re a stranger in a new country for the first time; goodness knows what visitors think of the complex fare structure they meet at Gatwick Airport’s bank of Ticket Vending Machines or in the long queue for the ticket office and must conclude they’re being ripped off, which they are.

IMG_2558.jpgAnomalously the team of thirty-six On Board Supervisors allocated to GatEx only travel between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport and it seems to me their sole purpose is to enforce the First Class seating area as other than giving onboard announcements which simply replicate the pre-recorded auto ones and the occasional walk through the train, that seems to be it. If you’re heading down to Brighton from Gatwick Airport there’s no OBS to provide that so called reassurance that applies if you head north to London. If you catch a northbound Southern train from the Airport that’s originated at a station along the Coastway East or West (rather than Brighton) you’ll also have the luxury of an On Board Supervisor for your whole journey, so it’s hardly a premium differentiation.

IMG_3451.jpgPerhaps if the First Class section was more clearly marked such diligent checking (which doesn’t happen on Southern’s OBS-less Brighton Main Line trains anyway) wouldn’t be necessary. When the doors of a GatEx train are open, there’s no external indication you’re entering a First Class area save for the minuscule “1” sticker on the windows. Nothing appears on the doors which cover up the word “First” on the train side when open.

IMG_3393.jpgThen there’s the seating. Although not as dire as the Class 700s on Thameslink, they can hardly be called comfortable. Hard and upright and exactly the same whether in Standard or First Class, save for the flappy bit of papery cloth thing where you put your head – antimacassars to use the official terminology. The seats on the early Class 387 trains used by Southern are far superior than these. Another bonus until buffet trolleys were withdrawn was an on-board complimentary drink for First Class passengers; now ceased.

The tables are frustratingly slimline too, handy to be able to slip easily into the seat but no good for comfortable use once seated because of the annoying gap from seat to table. There is free (data limited) Wi-Fi and one plug socket for each pair of seats but these fineries are thankfully pretty standard now and can hardly be descibed as premium.

When the Class 387/2s were first introduced GTR boasted of their fantastic luggage space, and it’s true they do have a small luggage space at the end of each carriage by the doors but this is nowhere near adequate particularly on peak trains which arrive at Gatwick Airport from Brighton in the morning already packed with commuters, including their folded cycles, meaning seats can’t be used as back-up luggage pens.

It’s usually a complete melee on the busiest evening peak departures from Victoria as returning commuters and outbound flight travellers are mixed up as they all board together.

In the early days when the Class 442s were first extended to Brighton in the peaks the PR people said it would all work fine in the mornings as messages would be relayed on to Gatwick Airport platform staff about where the vacant seats were and boarding passengers would be guided to the best place to wait. Some hope. There’s always a huge crowd congregating around the bottom of the escalator on Gatwick Airport’s London bound Platform 4 despite the best efforts of some dispatchers to use the tannoy to cajole people to spread out along the platform.

As a sop to tourists there’s a four language translation of the “welcome to Gatwick Express” auto-announcement which plays out approaching and leaving both Gatwick Airport and Victoria stations, but it always amuses me that the critical extra message added in 2008 on trains arriving at Gatwick Airport, that “will passengers please note this train will only wait on the platform for a short while” is only played out in English! I suspect no-one has ever got round to thinking it might make sense to translate this too, rather than just the somewhat insincere welcome messages.

So what about the thorny issue of that premium fare; the one that means you theoretically save 2 minutes on your journey between the Airport and Victoria, with GatEx trains timetabled to take 29 minutes and some Southern trains scheduled at 31 minutes.

The Airport to Victoria Standard Class single is £19.90 (£31.70 including antimacassar – aka First Class). A return ticket offers a miserly £2 saving coming in at £37.80 (£61.40 with antimacassar). Another miserly saving, this time just 10p, is available if you use Oyster Pay As You Go or Contactless at £19.80. Travelling off peak instead of peak on GatEx? Tough pal; there’s no discount. The same price applies all day in the land of premium travel that is Gatwick Express.

IMG_6268.jpgAlternatively if you don’t mind a more comfortable seat and take two minutes more for your journey, take a Southern train and pay £3.20 less in the peak (£16.70) with a ticket or £4.80 less with Pay As You Go (£15.10).

Travel after 0900 using Pay As You Go and save £11.40. Yes, the off-peak fare on a green train with comfy seats and taking two minutes longer to Victoria is just £8.50 compared to £19.80 on a red train with Pay As You Go.

IMG_6269.jpgBut why not head to London Bridge on a grey Thameslink train instead? For sure the seats are narrow and very uncomfortable but there really is plenty of room for luggage in the wide aisles and door vestibules and it only costs £11 peak and £9.70 off peak (or £8.50 PAYG).

And if you find this all a tad confusing, remember at certain times of the day GTR run Gatwick Express branded trains on Southern train diagrams so although your cheaper ticket will say “Not Gatwick Exp” you can use Gatwick Express when the Company chooses to run a train called Gatwick Express at their convenience, including the onboard announcements confirming it is indeed Gatwick Express, as opposed to the station signs which say it’s Southern – a regular occurence in the evenings as shown below…

IMG_2706.jpg……or when engineering works send Southern trains to London Bridge, which turn out to be Gatwick Express trains.

IMG_4071.jpgOn the other hand try using a GatEx train when a Southern one might have been cancelled. No chance with the eagle eyed barrier staff at the GatEx platforms 13 and 14 at Victoria where any ticket which doesn’t work the barrier is rudely snatched out of your hand for forensic examination – even when it’s a legitimate cross-London “any permitted” ticket which I frequently use on my travels to and from the north. I find these barrier staff rival Blackpool North for their unfriendly customer service.

Passengers would find it hard to believe the array of train options from Gatwick Airport are all controlled by the one DfT and all contracted to the one train company. You’re bombarded with rival messages in the station ticket office area promoting both Gatwick Express and Thameslink as the best way to get to London. As you can see from the photos below, none of them mention price, nor where in London they go to. And Southern doesn’t get a look in.

IMG_2557.jpgIMG_2552.jpgIMG_2553.jpgThe same misleading banner advertising can be found on Victoria Station’s concourse too. A huge prominent promotional back-lit poster is suspended from the roof to show Gatwick Airport bound passengers to platforms 13 and 14 where in the off peak you can catch the (PAYG) £19.80 “direct” red train; there’s not a word about the green trains which leave more frequently with more comfortable seats (and still run “direct” albeit with two stops) from platforms 15 to 19 just a little further past the escalator and costs less than half price at £8.50 a ride. If a similar practice was used to persuade us to take up pension protection it would be deemed misselling and there’d be an Inquiry. As it is the Government and DfT are not only complicit but direct this financial fare rip off. It’s utterly scandalous.

IMG_2705.jpgAll the more so at Gatwick Airport where regular tannoy announcements play out encouraging passengers to avoid the long queues for tickets and simply tap in and tap out at Victoria but I’ve NEVER heard that extra bit of vital price differential information which could potentially save a wasted £11.30 explaining to passengers the need to catch a Southern train for the cheapest ride. Scandalous.

And don’t forget, if you stay on that red train departing Victoria’s platforms 13 or 14 and travel all the way to Brighton the fare is miraculously the same as if you’d caught the green train from platforms 15 to 19. No premium for Brighton travellers!

Just as bizarre as all that is the current marketing campaign at stations on the Brighton Main Line south of Gatwick Airport to promote travel to the airport on Thameslink, whereas Southern runs at the same frequency and is marginally quicker. These adverts have also been appearing in local newspapers. Why does the DfT allow this nonsense to continue? What a complete waste of marketing spend to only promote half the trains providing the service.

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The same is true for the social media ads for Gatwick Express which were bombarding my Twitter timeline recently. What use are they to me when the train I need, aside from the peak, to get to Gatwick Airport is any train except Gatwick Express?

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An inevitable consequence of these ridiculous price differences is that passengers who get to know the score obviously take the Southern train option, especially in the off-peak when savings are huge, and crowd out those trains while GatEx trains have lots of spare space. It’s extremely frustrating for Clapham Junction passengers seeing half empty (or less) red trains crawl through Platform 13 heading to the Airport without stopping while they have to cram into a packed green one behind.

It’s time to call a halt to all this nonsense which is a legacy of over twenty years ago when three separate franchises were competing for the lucrative airport market – the original GoVia Thameslink; the Connex South Central franchise and the National Express operated Gatwick Express. We’ve moved on from those days and it’s now time to end the facade that is the so called premium service that isn’t Gatwick Express. End the fare rip off.

Happy 35th birthday though!

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Roger French

 

London versus…

Sunday 12th May 2019

IMG_6658.jpgThe Guardian newspaper ran a high profile series of articles last week comparing London with the rest of England across various quality of life parameters under the theme “London versus…”. “The price of a standard pint of Carling lager in Wetherspoon’s pubs across England varies by more than £2, depending on where you order it.” On obesity: “the people of Barnsley are the country’s heavyweights and residents of the City of London and Richmond upon Thames the lightest”. Not surprisingly the extended feature reported “house prices are the great divider between London and the rest of England – a two-up, two-down near Burnley station sold in January for £39,000, £20,000 less than in 2006. In London, a two-bed flat in Notting Hill sold last summer for £1.24m, up from £570,000 in 2005”.

And so it went on ….. but the biggest feature, including a front page headline, was all about buses and bus fares. “Scandal of ‘unfair’ gulf in bus fares in England” screamed the tabloid style headline in the, ahem, tabloid sized Guardian.

IMG_6657.jpgHelen Pidd, the newspaper’s North of England editor has been digging around and come up with a number of outrageous claims which I’d been expecting one of the newly appointed communication bigwigs at the supposedly resurgent Confederation of Passenger Transport to counter with some factually based rebuffs to the feature’s underlying mantra of ‘public control of a regulated bus network in London = good; privatised deregulated rest of England = chaos and bad’,  but sadly nothing appeared on subsequent days.

IMG_6659.jpgRather, the letters page on Thursday contained more of the same biased viewpoints including a lead letter from Mike Parker, Director General, Nexus (Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive) 1994-2006 lamenting that the practice of turfing passengers from Gateshead heading into Newcastle off buses at Gateshead Interchange and enforcing a ride on the Metro to complete their journey ended at deregulation because the nasty bus companies were free to offer choice and an option of staying on the bus to complete their journey, which unsurprsingly proved quite popular.

Stagecoach Manchester Operations Director, Matt Kitchen provided a sterling response to some of Helen’s claims on Twitter – and even engaged Helen in a reply – but otherwise there’s been a noticeable silence from any high profile personalities in the bus industry and their trade organisation which I thought was supposed to be adopting a much higher public profile following its recent controversial reorganisation.

IMG_E6661.jpgSadly this means some of the Guardian’s reporting will be taken as factual and accurate. So, just for the record here’s a few ripostes from me ……

As a result of her research, Helen Pidd claimed Britain’s “most expensive five-mile journey found was in Hampshire where a ticket from the Broadway, Winchester, to Matterley Farm, Tichbourne costs £5.65”. Not surprisingly Helen compared this “massively unfair” fare to the cost of £1.50 for a similar distance in flat fare London.

First point on this is to observe Stagecoach’s route 64 between Winchester and Alton has an unfortunately coarse fare structure, which Helen has rather taken advantage of to make an extreme point. It’s true the single fare from Winchester for the 4.4 mile (not 5 miles) journey to Tichbourne is £5.65, but that price also applies to every bus stop thereafter right through to and including Alton which is 19 miles from Winchester, but that wouldn’t have made for such a dramatic comparison. As the map below demonstrates you get a bonus of 14.6 free miles added on for your journey at no extra cost by travelling beyond Matterley Farm (shown) all the way to Alton.

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.10.29.pngFurthermore, I doubt the bus stops at Matterley Farm are particularly busy as aside from the farm to the north, and a smattering of three or four cottages there’s nothing else there, except for the “A31 Burger Van” – marked by Google, to the right.

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It’s also pertinent to point out that the previous stop on route 64 is some considerable distance back towards Winchester, on the outskirts of that city, at the Science Park, where guess what, the single fare is a rather cheaper and a more attractive £2.25 single and £3.70 return – which is much more comparable with a £3 return fare in London.

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Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.26.33.pngA Stagecoach spokesperson was quoted in the Guardian defending its fare “the reality is that boundaries between zones have to be set somewhere”. It was also pointed out that the weekly ticket offers much better value.

A return price for a £5.65 single works out at £7.30 whereas a weekly ticket bought on a smartphone for Stagecoach South’s whole operating area costs £23 (and £13.10 for the Winchester city area including the Science Park) which compares well with London’s weekly cap of £21.20. And as the Stagecoach spokesperson pointed out whereas their route 64 runs subsidy free “the cost of operating London’s bus network is £700m more than the income TfL receives from fares. If London operated like the rest of the UK, where fares reflect the true cost of running services, pricing would be far different.”

It’s important to make this distinction as politicians love jumping on the London bandwagon, not least Greater Manchester’s metro Mayor Andy Burnham who is quoted in the Guardian feature saying outside London bus operators had created a “fragmented, incomplete, overpriced, fragile” network of services that could be withdrawn at any time with no consultation, where single fares in some of the most disadvantaged areas cost up to £4.40. Buses are “fundamentally not run in the public interest”, he said. “How do you best illustrate the transport divide, north v south? It’s as simple as the price of a bus ticket and the price of daily travel. It’s massively unfair. Why did everyone else get bus deregulation and London did not?”

Which led Helen on to her next dramatic claim……. sticking with a Hampshire and Manchester theme, she wrote ……. “in Hampshire 33 bus providers compete, while in Greater Manchester there are 47, including for schools and cross-boundary operators. They have no duty to coordinate with each other and can charge whatever they like.”

The idea that 33 bus companies are competing head to head on Hampshire’s roads is of course complete bunkum. Matt Kitchen rightly publicly challenged Helen on Twitter for the source of her research for the quoted numbers of operators in both areas, pointing out the majority are school journey providers, where in Manchester for example, the operator will simply be contracted to charge the fare set by Transport for Greater Manchester.

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Helen responded she’d seen a list of Hampshire bus companies on a map produced by the County Council but didn’t have it to hand. She’s right about that, Hampshire County Council does indeed produce a wonderful network map which helpfully lists all the operators and the routes they run – in stark contrast to TfL who can’t be bothered to even produce a netork map online let alone in print to show where their bus routes go.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 20.23.43.pngIt’s worth a quick analysis of Hampshire’s listing alongside the list of bus routes operated across the county – this exposes the rather unhelpful fact for Helen that there are actually just seven bus companies running Hampshire’s network of commercial routes across the county. You see Stagecoach and Go-Ahead both own five of the companies listed individually (Stagecoach has Portsmouth; South Downs; Hampshire; Hants & Surrey; Swindon)) (Go-Ahead has Bluestar, Damory Coaches; More; Salisbury Reds; Unilink) and Reading Buses has, or about to have, three (Reading Buses, Newbury & District and ‘soon to be’ Courtney Buses); which with First Bus, Xelabus and Wheelers Travel make up the six main companies with the seventh bring Bournemouth based Yellow Buses who reach the western corner of Hampshire with their hourly route to New Milton. The other 27 companies listed comprise seven Community Transport operators, four coach companies, three taxi companies all of which operate a handful, if that, of infrequent tendered rural routes (some just one return journey in a week) and the remaining three operators in the list of 34 don’t currently run a bus route. Hardly the hot bed of bus competition offering “fragmented and fragile” bus routes Helen and Andy Burnham would have you believe. In fact, Hampshire has a tidy and attractive network of bus routes which is well used, and its tendered routes were overseen until his recent retirement by the hugely experienced and much respected Peter Shelley.

A couple of other points from Helen’s feature which could have done with a little more in depth research:

She stated “anyone can apply to set up a bus company in most of England. It only requires giving the local authority £60 and 28 days’ notice before applying to the traffic commissioner which regulates and licences buses.” Looks like she overlooked the small matter of obtaining a Certificate of Professional Competence and the rather hefty financial requirement to provide the necessary financial backing running into at least five figures to satisfy the Traffic Commissioner.

The feature wasn’t all bad news for deregulated buses though……

“So is everything better with buses in London?” it asked.

“Not everything. The quality of some services outside the capital exceed those in London: some operator’s offer free Wi-fi, better seats and charging points; and some routes can work out better value per mile.”

That’s good to see; it’s a shame this point didn’t feature more extensively – perhaps with an illustration of one of Stagecoach’s swish new double decks introduced in November 2017 on the subsidy-free route 64.

IMG_7748.jpgIt’s also a shame that instead of quoting historic passenger journeys: “London experienced years of growth from the late 1990s to 2014, while the number of journeys elsewhere slowly fell across the same period, with a sharper decline since the start of the decade”, a more up to date assessment of the situation since 2014 wasn’t included when the wheels have well and truly come off London’s growth as bus frequencies are now being continually cut in a desperate bid to square the financial circle of frozen fares, falling passenger numbers, increased journey times and less buses. Not a happy situation. “London versus” indeed.

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Roger French

Alderney’s Northern Line

Wednesday 8th May 2019

IMG_6600.jpgI spent last weekend’s Bank Holiday break on beautiful Alderney, one of the Channel Islands.

Alderney’s not renowned for its public transport – there are no buses – they’re not really needed on an island that measures just three miles long and 1.5 miles wide with a population of 2,000. It doesn’t take long to walk most places.

IMG_6591.jpgBut there is a railway; Alderney Railway. Except it only runs on certain days during the summer, mostly Wednesdays and weekends between June and September as well as Sundays in April and May.

IMG_6605.jpgTrain departures are at 1430 and 1530 from Braye Road Station which is adjacent to Braye Beach on the north side of the island and about a ten minute walk from the Island’s commercial centre, such as it is, of St Anne.

IMG_6606.jpgThis is no ordinary railway. As you can see it’s run with two former London Underground train carriages powered by a lovely seventy year old diesel engine called Elizabeth.

IMG_6609.jpgThe carriages are former Northern Line stock dating from 1959 and have been preserved to a lovely condition, complete with original internal cove line diagrams.

IMG_6610.jpgThe railway line runs for two miles eastwards from Braye Road to Mannez Quarry where sheds have been erected that accommodates the rolling stock.

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The railway opened on 14th July 1847 to bring sandstone from the quarry to the harbour area at Braye rather than passengers, although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took a railcar along the line in 1854 on a visit to the island. At one time it extended westward beyond Braye Road to the next bay, but these tracks have now been abandoned although can still be easily seen.

IMG_6590.jpgDuring the Second World War the occupying Germans took up most of the track and sent it to Cherbourg building their own metre gauge railway to other gravel works from the harbour in its place. After the Liberation in 1945 that track was removed and the original standard gauge line to Mannez was relaid. Commercial quarrying never returned however and the line passed through various Governmental/State responsibilities and is now leased to the Alderney Railway Society – a group of dedicated volunteers and enthusiasts who run it as a tourist attraction.

IMG_6632.jpgThe first public train ran in Spring 1980 with Wickham carriages but these were replaced initially by 1938 Underground stock but the salt air damaged their steel bodies so a pair of 1959 aluminium bodied cars were purchased and delivered courtesy of the Royal Logistics Corp using a landing craft to deliver them as a military logistics exercise as well as taking away the old 1938 cars.

IMG_6643.jpgThe Society owns two diesel engines dating from 1949 (called Elizabeth) and 1958 (Molly). Elizabeth is an 0-4-0 diesel mechanical powered by a six cylinder Gardiner engine; the locomotive is a Drewry design and was built at the Vulcan Foundry in Newton Le Willows.

IMG_6629.jpgMolly is a Ruston Hornsby and doesn’t haul the former Underground carriages as she features US style couplings and has a restricted compressed air charging system.

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The ride from Braye Road to Mannez Quarry takes around 15 minutes and where the train lays over for about 15 minutes before returning to Braye Road ready for the next journey at 1530. The volunteers are so friendly and show you around the sheds at Mannez. The fare is £6 return. Some people take a ride and walk back or vice versa.

IMG_6625.jpgIMG_6608.jpgIt’s a fascinating railway and totally bizarre to see a Northern Line Underground train heading along a single line track offering magnificent views of the coastline around a wonderful island as well as a clear view of the French coastline on the south side of the island.

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Roger French