4,200 bus seats for Edinburgh

Tuesday 19th March 2019

Lothian Buses have just started operating their brand new 100 seat tri-axle buses in service on city routes 11 and 16. I thought I’d take a ride.

They’re Alexander Dennis Enviro400XLB bodies on a Volvo chassis (according to the swanky promotional video which plays out every five minutes or so on two of the four on board TV screens – a pair on each deck). I think most passengers were just impressed they were smart new buses with lots of seats to travel on, rather than a manufacturer’s techy sounding bus model name check!

They’re not all out in service yet – it takes a while to commission 42 new buses (although thankfully not as long as commissioning new trains), as I found out first thing this morning when four consecutive older buses turned up in Princes Street between 0650 and 0735 on route 11.

My patience paid off though as one of the gleaming new jumbo sized buses eventually arrived and I began my first trip to route 11’s southern terminus at Hyvots Bank. About fifteen passengers had spread themselves out on both decks, which wasn’t hard as there really is a lot of room, both upstairs and down to spread out in.

The seats are very comfortable with ample leg room throughout.

The two front offside seats upstairs has particularly generous legroom, as does the nearside seat over the first set of rear wheels.

Being a tri-axle there’s a longer than usual wheel arch giving a double set of backward facing seats.

Some bus companies are now eliminating rear facing seats and replacing them with other novelties like a reading shelf. This also helps deter feet-on-seat syndrome. But here the name of the game is to maximise seating capacity.

Obviously there are the usual usb charging plugs and Wi-fi is available. There’s also some nice mood red strip lighting around the bus (see photos above and below) and smart spot lights making for a particularly inviting ambiance at night.

Strangely for a bus with a lot of room there’s only a single ‘three tip-up’ sized space for a wheelchair or a buggy.

On one journey a passenger using a wheelchair boarded which meant no buggies could be carried and on another a buggy soon occupied the space with a second having to be folded.

Some bus companies are now installing two wheelchair spaces which has the benefit of increasing the chances for buggy owners to travel easily too.

The buses are double doored and the already mentioned on board video explains that passengers should exit through the rear door and an on-board warning announcement plays out every time they close.

The pairs of screen monitors are behind the staircase facing the rear on the lower deck and at the top of the front window on the upper deck, sadly restricting the forward view a touch for front gangway seat passengers.

I’m not a great fan of screens inside buses, and certainly not two of them in pairs. I just think it’s way over the top leading to information overload. On the positive side the left hand screen (upstairs) and top screen (downstairs) show very clearly and helpfully the next three bus stops (the next one being announced too) and every so often within a display cycle the right hand screen (upstairs) and lower screen (downstairs) shows the expected arrival time at key points further along the route which is an excellent idea – a similar display in the Airlink buses to Edinburgh Airport helpfully gives up to date flight departures (and I know other bus companies are following Reading’s lead in showing train departures too).

This is all good stuff but I reckon the same effective content can be achieved by cycling through displays on just the one screen rather than having two.

All the more so as the rest of the display cycle comprises PR messages about how many tonnes of carbon are being saved or videos about using apps to sync with friends so they’ll get a text message to know just when your bus is arriving.

I’m not convinced passengers are avidly watching these things and indeed on a busy bus if you’re sitting towards the middle or rear you can’t make out the screens anyway.

Funnily enough despite all the gizmos there wasn’t any information displayed about the temporary arrangements at the northern terminus of the route – at the busy tourist spot of Ocean Terminal, where the normal terminal bus stops had been suspended.

My journey down to Hyvots Bank was ‘against the flow’ of commuters and scholars heading into the city centre so was fairly lightly loaded but it gave me a chance to spot buses on route 11 heading towards the city and I was highly impressed at seeing busy buses which kept on passing by with very few spare seats.

I can certainly appreciate why 100 seat buses make sense on such a busy corridor through the Morningside area heading into the city centre. The current timetable supplements route 11’s daytime ten minute frequency with extra peak hour journeys running at least every five minutes. It looked to me as though there were extra buses to those with at one point four buses virtually following each other, and not long after four more, all well loaded.

Coming back into the city on my return journey between 0800 and 0900 we also got busier and busier as we approached the stop called Morningside Station (there isn’t one) and it was interesting to note there were seats available on the top deck especially towards the rear but downstairs was obviously getting crowded and congested with our driver calling out for passengers to go upstairs “where there are plenty of seats”.

I read Richard Hall, Lothian’s MD, suggesting the introduction of these high capacity buses might enable reductions in frequency. On the strength of this morning’s observations I’m not sure you’d be able to squeeze too many peak buses out, they’re very busy, although not all the route is yet run with the new buses.

Slightly off topic I was very pleased to note Lothian Buses have now relaxed their £10 minimum transaction value for the purchase of mobile tickets so I was able to buy a one day ticket for £4 – and a great bargain it is too.

But one other Lothian tradition still baffles me and that’s the absence of using the famous and popular Princes Street where many passengers board and alight as a timing point either in timetables or on the onboard displays.

It must confuse visitors and tourists that the only references are to either Elm Row or West End, Lothian Road which are the stops before and after Princes Road – and 14 minutes apart at that. Most odd.

Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 20.02.27.pngLothian are excellent at providing timetable information – displays of leaflets in their Travel Centre and bus station – and there’s a colourful diagrammatic network map. Their website is full of well laid out helpful information and their fares are great value. There’s real time information via online and on the app as well as at many bus stops with a long established system that now looks a bit dated, albeit seemed to be working well, including switching to giving advice about using the new (Enviro400XLB) buses!

As usual I found Lothian drivers to be cheerful and professional including taking obvious care with the longer than usual new buses not to block junctions…

All in all a great positive development to see these new high capacity buses in service. I’m sure there are applications for such workhorses elsewhere in the country.

Roger French

Long live the HST

Monday 18th March 2019

During my initial trip on a brand new Class 800 train when they began running between Paddington and Bristol/Cardiff at the end of 2017 my first thought was to lament the end of the luxurious comfortable seats GWR had introduced in first class in HST trains the new IEP units were replacing.

I needn’t have worried. Fast forward nineteen months and here I am writing this very blog sitting in one of those self same seats in amazing luxurious comfort on one of the first-to-be-refurbished HSTs forming ScotRail’s ambitious ‘Inter7City’ project.

Like everything rolling stock wise on the railways this project is running hopelessly late due to ambitious timescales by the company doing the refurbs and no doubt more work being found to be done once the units are stripped back.

I’d been trying to track down the sole unit so far in passenger service, 43169, since its introduction last October but been thwarted on previous trips north of the border by initial spasmodic appearances in service between Edinburgh and Aberdeen and my living nearly 500 miles away!

Hearing a second refurbished unit had finally arrived for service with ScotRail seemed like a good opportunity to head up to Edinburgh and bag a ride. ScotRail have helpfully tweeted the train diagram for the refurbed train which includes an intensive day’s running between Edinburgh and Aberdeen and I settled on catching the 1230 from Edinburgh and the return journey leaving Aberdeen at 1600 this afternoon.

When Thameslink began running intensified services through the ‘core’ a wag observed it’s possible a delay down on the Brighton line could have repercussions through the tightly pathed East Coast line with knock on effects as far as Aberdeen or Inverness. I had a slight taste of that phenomenon this morning when a Horsham to Peterborough train in front of my 0800 Kings Cross to Edinburgh came to a stop north of Huntingdon for twenty minutes which, to cut a long story short, meant a 16 minute late arrival into Edinburgh at 1236 and missing my admittedly tight connection for Aberdeen.

Still, at least it gave me an opportunity to make a direct comparison between a two and a half hour journey up to Aberdeen on a Class 170 and a return journey south on the refurbished HST.

The first thing to note is you just wouldn’t believe the HST is over twice the age of the 170 which first appeared at the turn of this century rather than the mid to late 1970s birth of the HST. It just goes to show brand new is not necessarily always better (especially when it comes to trains).

The HST is in a different league power wise to the turbo charged 170s. I’m no expert in engineering matters but as a passenger I know when I’m on a classy train suited to ‘inter city’ work and when I’m on a train which never quite seems man enough for the job.

The comparison between the quality ambiance offered by travelling first class in the HST compared to the 170 is stark. Aside from the already mentioned seats in the HST you have your own carriage with 32 seats well spaced out and all nicely lined up with windows together with a refreshment buffet area and luggage rack. This adjoins a small galley kitchen where hot soups and drinks are prepared and sandwiches kept as well as a stylish counter for those travelling standard class to make their purchases.

Whereas in a Class 170 you’re cooped up in one of nine seats at either end of the train immediately behind the driver’s cab with the associated traction buzzing noises. It doesn’t shout luxury. It must be an optical illusion but a Class170 just seems narrower than an HST too! The seats certainly are.

On the way up to Aberdeen it took the trolley man almost an hour to reach me in the front first class compartment and offered complimentary tea/coffee and a biscuit/cake. On the HST one of two refreshment hosts was passing through the first class carriage almost immediately on leaving Aberdeen offering hot soup with a roll as well as tea/coffee and sandwiches in addition to encouraging a visit to the help yourself buffet area for a wide selection of biscuits, cold drinks and fruit pots. If I’d travelled at breakfast I’d have been offered a hot filled roll, porridge or other delights.

I took the opportunity to also sample standard class seats which have been retrimmed into a smart ScotRail moquette and although are still to the high back design used in GWR days are comfortable by modern day seat standards with adequate leg room. More so than the Class 170.

I didn’t count but there must also be many more standard class seats with three whole carriages worth compared to the three coaches in a Class 170 set which also includes the two first class sections at either end. There also seemed to be many more tables in an HST – I counted ten in one coach with slightly fewer in the carriage with the accessible toilet.

A cyclist on board mentioned there is only a rack for two cycles and when they’re both in situ it’s a bit tricky to access one to remove it. He didn’t reckon there are any spaces in the power car.

Obviously the refurbishment has included sliding doors and finally doing away with opening windows to lean through to open the door by the outside handle – which is a bit of a shame but inevitable in today’s safety conscious world.

Taking an HST south from Aberdeen, as I’m doing now, is nothing new. LNER (and it’s predecessors) have been running them on this line for decades, but what is revolutionary and hugely welcome is ScotRail have obviously given a lot of thought into how to make train travel really feel good with great attention to detail in this refurbishment notwithstanding these trains are forty odd years old.

The eventual plan is to run refurbished HSTs between Aberdeen, as well as Inverness, to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow taking in Dundee, Perth and Stirling along the way (hence the 7 cities). Based on today’s experience I’m confident it will be a huge success in attracting more passengers and creating a great impression of train travel.

Sadly it looks like it’s going to be quite a while before all the refurbishments are completed, but it will definitely be well worth the wait.

Roger French

An Anglian Adventure

Thursday 14th March 2019

It began a month ago. A day out to Norwich to travel route 88 via Bungay and Halesworth to Southwold, where I’d catch the four-journey-a-day tendered route 90 which returns to Halesworth via a very circuitous route through some delightful Suffolk villages as well as the small town of Beccles. Both routes were formerly operated by Anglian Bus until the more recent decision by owners Go-Ahead to phase out that company name and brand in favour of neighbouring Konectbus. News had come that Konectbus had given notice to withdraw the 88 from 1st March following a resurgent First Bus competing on the route between Norwich and Bungay and “sustained losses of several million pounds on our Beccles based operations in the last few years”.

Evening and Sunday journeys are tendered by Norfolk County Council with the section of route between Halesworth and Southwold on the 88, as well as the entire 90, being Suffolk tenders so these needed longer notice periods and are continuing until the end of this month (the tendered bit of route 88) or Easter (route 90).

IMG_8602.jpgIntrigued by all this I headed off to Norwich to investigate. In the event things didn’t work out as planned. The journey I planned to catch on the 88 at 1205 from Norwich was cancelled at short notice due to staff sickness meaning an hours delay and a missed connection in Southwold to the infrequent route 90.

I quickly abandoned the idea of reaching Southwold, took the next 88 as far as Halesworth, and returned home by train from there. The enforced delay in Norwich gave me a chance to assess how Konectbus (and the former Anglian Bus) are doing some years on from Go-Ahead’s acquisitions in March 2010 and April 2012 respectively and inspired me to make plans for a longer return visit to further investigate bus operations in this part of East Anglia, which I was able to achieve this week.

This blog summarises my findings.

1. What are Go-Ahead doing in East Anglia anyway?

IMG_1666.jpgIt’s not surprising the wheels are coming off. The post deregulation history of PLC transport groups in East Anglia is not encouraging. First Bus have struggled for years throughout the region. Their Essex operations are down-at-heel befitting the struggling finances. Norwich based operations are looking better than for many a year (and amazingly now seeing off Go-Ahead on the 88) but they gave up on large parts of Suffolk and Norfolk years ago. Stagecoach tried its hand and failed spectacularly with Norfolk Green.

When the talk was a possible sale of municipally owned Ipswich Buses in the early 2010s it may have made sense for Go-Ahead to buy up a few small independents to build a presence in the region in preparation for a bid. A decade on it makes no sense to be running low margin tendered work at all. To be running substantial loss making operations in a largely rural area remote from other Go-Ahead operations is a complete nonsense.

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IMG_8584.jpgWhat’s more, the image doesn’t look good either. On the positive side the Travel Centre in Norwich bus station, staffed by Konectbus, looks smart and offers an impressive display of timetables covering all bus operators in the city, as does the Norwich Park and Ride operation but the state of the Company’s vehicles on other routes is anything but smart and leaves much to be desired.

IMG_8588.jpgWith one exception shown above (indicating the bus wash must have been working), buses were filthy and unattractive. Some were still in Bluestar livery which must look odd to passengers unaware of that award winning sister Go-Ahead company on the south coast. The image portrayed reminded me of a down-at-heel small time bus operator on the verge of going out of business rather than a subsidiary of a well regarded aspirational multi national transport group quoted on the stock market proud of its reputation. Shareholders wouldn’t be proud of this image nor should management.

IMG_8589.jpgIMG_8591.jpgIMG_8595.jpgMy next departure at 1305 on the 88 on my aborted day trip unimpressively left late because the driver failed to turn up on time meaning passengers experienced well over an hour to wait and of course there was a double load to load too, and for a route in its last couple of weeks operation was actually quite a decent load.IMG_8678.jpgIMG_8698.jpgDown in north Essex and south Suffolk Go-ahead owned Hedingham and Chambers (also both acquired in the 2012 Anglian buying spree) present a smarter image but there are odd inconsistencies in corporate livery. Despite my keen interest in these things I was confused what each brand/company was supposed to look like or whether they were supposed to look the same; goodness knows what passengers and potential passengers think. It’s a complete muddle.IMG_1385.jpgIMG_1221.jpgIMG_1103.jpgIMG_1239.jpgIMG_1092.jpgThe Chambers operated 753/754 trunk route between Colchester, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds seems well run as does the Hedingham run 88 (yes, another 88) between Colchester and Halstead (in a long standing joint operation with First Bus – from the days of Eastern Counties and Hedingham working together) and route 89 between Halstead and Braintree all of which I sampled, but these routes will never be double digit profit margin bankers for a PLC.IMG_1198.jpgMy advice to Go-Ahead is to get First Bus to agree a couple of hundred grand off the price of Manchester Queens Road and throw this lot in as part of a transfer deal. It would make for a sensible ‘Withdrawal Deal’ for Go-Ahead in Anglia. Another exit strategy would ironically be to sell the former independently operated routes back to, err, an independent operator (see below).

2. A mixed First Bus bag

IMG_1809.jpgI mentioned above that First Bus seem to have got their act together in Norwich now looking smarter and presentable. The high profile excel ‘X1’ route at one time from Peterborough to Lowestoft, now split into manageable sections, still brings quality looking buses into Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. While at one time Anglian Bus seemed to be running rings around First Bus on the Norwich, Beccles, Lowestoft corridor nowadays First’s X2 (fast) and X22 (via Loddon) provide four buses an hour (two on each route) making for a decent service which seemed well used on my travels.

IMG_1827.jpgLowestoft has always seemed to be low down the First Bus priority list whenever I’ve visited and this time was no exception.

IMG_1805.jpgIMG_1806.jpgThe hourly route 99 down to Kessingland and Southwold was characteristically operated by ‘W’ registration double deckers dating from 2000 giving a travel experience befitting of the east coast resort’s dated image.

IMG_1787.jpgThe bespoke livery variation used in Ipswich looks smarter than plain First Bus colours, if a bit dull, but with seat backs also branded for these operations I fail to understand the logic of where local branding fits into the First Bus strategy. There was a time Corporate HQ told us it was essential to have a nationwide corporate livery so that buses could easily and cost effectively be transferred around the country as needed (in addition to satisfying Aberdeen’s corporate ego). So what’s with the bespoke seats then?

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IMG_1605.jpgIt would be so much better if those Aberdeen control freaks just empowered managing directors to reintroduce proper local branding and really show what could be achieved in tune with the Anglian market.IMG_1599.jpgSadly First Bus still leave a lot to be desired when it comes to detail. I wasn’t impressed catching the early morning 0615 departure on route 64 from Ipswich to Aldeburgh after initially being reassured to find the bus already screened up and waiting on stand soon after 0600 only to find the driver saunter up to the bus at 0622 and load the six of us boarding, one of whom told me it happens every day. IMG_1590.jpgWe finally left ten minutes late at 0625 but by Woodbridge were already ahead of scheduled time so waited four minutes there, a further five minute wait at Wickham Market and finally arrived Southwold two minutes early.IMG_1610.jpgYou can easily take twenty minutes out of the scheduled time for that journey and stop regular passengers having to wait on a cold windy morning for the bus doors to open at the bus station. I tweeted this experience to First’s centralised tweeting operation; obviously didn’t receive any reply or apology, not even an acknowledgement. Frankly a contemptuous way to treat passengers.IMG_1165.jpgThe general impression of buses around Colchester is poor. Neither First Bus or Arriva’s presence in the town is particularly dynamic and enticing. IMG_1246.jpgThe bright spot is the First Bus run Travel Centre located fairly close to the main departure bus stops in Osborne Street. It contains an impressive display of timetable leaflets and even a network route map displayed on the wall (albeit requiring a minor updating, but at least this was admitted by way of a piece of paper stick to it).

IMG_1248.jpgIMG_1249.jpgWhat would really be helpful for passengers is timetables for routes run by other operators to also be displayed. I didn’t visit the First Bus Travel Centre in Norwich this time, but suspect the same policy holds good there too. It wouldn’t cost anything and would do a huge amount to promote public transport use overall, instead of making it so hard for passengers to obtain information.

First Bus are stepping in to cover the withdrawal of the tendered part of Konectbus 88 by extending their Lowestoft to Southwold route 99 (to be numbered 99A) on to Halesworth and Bungay where there will be connections to their commercial route to Norwich. The wheel really has turned full circle here with First Bus, or Eastern Counties, as it was, now regaining territory ceded to Anglian Bus, acquired by Go-Ahead and now throwing in the towel. Talking of Anglian Bus….

3. Active Anglian Independents

IMG_1075.jpgIMG_7003.jpgEast Anglia is fortunate in having a good selection of quality independently owned small bus companies providing key routes across the region. From the expanding Stephensons in the south of the region to Sanders Coaches in the north and many more in the middle.IMG_7107.jpgIMG_1844.jpgJulian Paterson, formerly of Konectbus now owns and runs the excellent Lynx in West Norfolk while Andrew Pursey formerly of Anglian Bus has started and runs Border Bus. I travelled on two of their three routes during my visit this week, the tendered four-journey-a day 521 between Aldburgh and Halesworth and the hourly (with extra morning journeys making for half hourly) 146 running fast between Norwich and Beccles where it competes with the already mentioned First Bus operated X2 and X22. It then continues to Carlton Coalville and Kessingland on the outskirts of Lowestoft before terminating in Southwold.IMG_1622.jpgThe lunch time journey I travelled on out of Norwich had a good seated load of twenty with around a third getting off in Beccles, half in Kessingland and just a smattering travelling all the way to Southwold. The 521 was less busy. In fact it was dire, which brings me to….

4. Suffolk County Council

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 10.29.51.pngI spent most of my time this week exploring Suffolk as well as in northern Essex with only shorter incursions into Norfolk. Suffolk is a delightfuly county but with many transport challenges not least the very low density of population. Aside from Ipswich and Lowestoft and their environs, and the smaller market towns of Beccles, Bungay, Bury St Edmunds, Halesworth, Saxmundham, Stowmarket, Sudbury and Wickham Market, away from the coastal communities of Aldeburgh and Southwold the county is characterised by hundreds of tiny hamlets connected only by circuitous narrow country roads. The rural transport challenge for the county is therefore huge, not helped by Suffolk deciding to save 20% of its £1.7million budget from April.

I read about discontentment with proposals to withdraw some off peak journeys on routes 112/113 which run from Diss (just over the border in Norfolk) to Ipswich operated by Galloway Travel Group (who run extensive coach tours and excursions as well as some local bus routes).IMG_1485.jpgApparently off peak journeys are at risk but I travelled on one of the few peak hour journeys leaving Diss at 1655 and arriving Ipswich at 1808. A deadly quiet Diss bus station is pictured above at 1645 approaching the evening peak. Three passengers boarded with me at Diss all travelling to the village of Eye just thirteen minutes south. For the next hour and four minutes until we reached Ipswich it was just me and the driver.IMG_1561.jpgIt’s not cuts to rural bus routes leaving passengers isolated, its passengers deserting buses leaving the buses isolated and running empty. My journey on the Border Bus operated tendered route 521 at 0855 from Aldeburgh to Halesworth was similarly sparsely loaded.

IMG_1631.jpgWe travelled empty all the way to the hamlet of Benhall Green where at 0929 we picked up four passengers and dropped them off five minutes later in Saxmundham picking a Mum and child up there and dropped her off seven minutes later in Yoxford. The rest of the journey taking around an hour was just me and the driver.

IMG_1857.jpgThe journey on the Konectbus 88 (soon to be a First Bus 99A) between Halesworth and Southwold at 1023 had just two passengers on board while the afternoon peak journey on route 90 leaving Southwold at 1638 travelled all the way to Halesworth via Beccles (a journey of 1 hour and 17 minutes) carried just two other passengers besides me and the driver and then only between the hamlet of Willingham and Beccles – a journey of around ten minutes. Border Bus have announced they’ll be stepping in to run partial replacements for the withdrawn 90 with new services 522 and 524 but with paucity of numbers travelling it’s a bleak future. Unsurprisingly a significant role is played by community transport in this region.

5 Community Transport

IMG_7310.jpgIt’s interesting to see up in West Norfolk one of the beneficiaries of the Stagecoach pull out in Kings Lynn has been West Norfolk Community Transport (WNCT) who’ve expanded their ‘Go to town’ branded bus routes, which now provide a significant part of the town’s bus network. It’s also interesting to see Ben Colson who owned and ran Norfolk Green heavily involved in WNCT who, with the already mentioned Julian Paterson and Andrew Pursey are three key people in making the Anglian bus scene a success. It also shows you can’t keep a good busman down; they just pop up in another exciting bus venture. Indeed Andrew also volunteers on the Committee of the Beccles and Bungay Community Transport who I had the pleasure of spending the whole of yesterday morning with travelling around their Wednesday only three rural bus routes between Halesworth and Beccles, all using the number 532.

IMG_1868.jpgI’d been recommended to travel on the routes by blogger Steve’s Bus & Train Page on Twitter (@busandtrainpage) and how right he was to encourage me to give them a try. I also found out another Twitter stalwart Tim Miller (@banditman59uk) is a relief driver for the route when regular Mick has a day off.

Driver Mick is a real gem. His knowledge of Suffolk is impressively huge. Being a local lad he regaled me with fascinating insights and information about the area as we travelled around.

IMG_1861.jpgThe Wednesday only route 532 really is a ‘lifeline bus service’. Yesterday around a dozen people travelled on the first journey from Laxfield, Heveningham and Huntingfield north into Halesworth for a morning’s shopping and other commitments. Two stayed on the bus for the next journey which runs via Brampton, Willingham, Sotterley, Wrentham, Rushmere and Mutford to Beccles which I joined. IMG_1865.jpgA lovely couple boarded along this part of the route with the husband helping Mick out to provide a commentary by adding historical background to the sights we passed – which were mainly churches – an amazing number too – all told, we passed 21 churches yesterday morning, some with just a few houses nearby. The one pictured below, a paticularly fine example, at the end of the route in Laxfield. As you can see, even the cars park in a colour coordinated way, the village is so pretty!IMG_1884.jpgAfter dropping our four shoppers off in Beccles from that trip it was time for Mick’s third run of the day back to Halesworth via even more tiny micro hamlets and churches (and the odd water tower) including Ilketshall St Andrew, Ilketshall St Margaret, St Peter South Elmham, All Saints South Elmham (you get the idea this used to be a very religously devout area!) and finally Rumburgh and Wissett; we picked up four regulars along the way who all had an hour and twenty minutes in Halesworth before return time, while we continued back to Laxfield to take ten passengers back home who’d come in on the first journey, bringing one regular back into Halesworth on the return.IMG_1875.jpgMick was off back to Beccles via the All Saints route but I left him there having completed the full circuit and having thoroughly enjoyed it too. One of the regulars who boarded in Wissett followed me into the library at Halesworth to find out more about why on earth someone from Brighton was riding around Suffolk’s rural countryside and we got chatting about the problems of rural buses and her concerns at being stranded if Suffolk County Council were to cut this vital once a week route. Apparently it’s up for review soon as the conract ends in the summer.

Encouragingly this minibus had carried the most passengers of all the tendered bus routes I’d travelled on during the last few days and I do hope her fears can be allayed. Suffolk County Council should be well pleased with the support the ‘BACT’ community transport receives from passengers as well as the great personal service Mick provides. Long may it continue. It’s a good example of how buses can continue to provide deep rural transport without the need to come up with new fangled ideas like app based DRT – just fund and run a scheduled low cost once or twice a week community minibus. Sorted.

Indeed the town route 511 in Halesworth is also operated by Community buses, this one by the locally based Halesworth Community Transport.IMG_1887.jpg

6. A couple of final thoughts

Firstly Suffolk County Council are reportedly considering saving £100,000 by ceasing to update and post bus stop timetables and information. This would be a huge mistake. Such information is vitally reassuring particularly for strangers like me to an area. Suffolk’s presentation is excellent – don’t change it.

IMG_1859.jpgSecondly there’s a vital need for East Anglia to follow Kent/Surrey/Sussex’s lead in establishing an all bus operator day ticket like the latter’s Discovery ticket. With a variety of small bus companies and a few larger ones (Ipswich Buses, First Bus and Arriva) it really would make for a passenger friendly way of travelling around rather than having restricted ticket availability to each operator. You need every passenger you can get – don’t make it hard. Perhaps Suffolk County Coiuncil could initiate discussions on such a proposal?

Roger French

 

 

 

 

 

A great Deal in Kent

Sunday 10th March 2019

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Garden of England. My journeys on two days last week included visits to both ends of Kent – to Dover and Deal on the Channel coast in the south east and to Sevenoaks close to the County’s western border with Greater London.

Both Stagecoach South East and Go-Coach Hire, the dominant bus companies in these two areas, are excellent bus operators for the following reasons…..

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.27.51.pngStagecoach’s attractive bus network in Kent is an excellent example offering comprehensive coverage for passengers as well as ‘behind-the-scenes’ operating efficiency for the company. It includes well used inter-urban links between main urban areas at good frequencies despite some recent reductions (and competition from Southeastern trains), as well as small bespoke town networks and a few great rural routes, some operated by double deck buses due to school peak requirements, which offer fantastic views across the Kent countryside.

Notable among these are the 11 (five journeys Canterbury – Westwood and Broadstairs via the delightfully named Plucks Gutter with its timing point The Dog & Duck), and 17 (hourly Folkestone – Canterbury via the lovely Elham Valley). There’s also the 18 (five journeys Canterbury – Hythe via Wheelbarrow Town) but this is scheduled for single decks. Still a great route though.

IMG_9552.jpgStagecoach South East also craftily link one route with another to provide helpful ‘cross-terminal’ journey opportunities. Southeastern Trains also do this with the rail network such you can get on a High Speed Train at St Pancras and travel via Ashford and Folkestone to Dover round to Deal and Sandwich where the train continues on to Ramsgate and Margate and back via Faversham to St Pancras where it arrives after a 3 hour and 33 minute round trip.

IMG_0722.jpgStagecoach run a ‘circular route’ called the Triangle from Canterbury to Whitstable and Herne Bay which is marketed as Triangle in addition to linking routes 4 and 6 which run similarly between Canterbury and Herne Bay via two different routes and where they link up to also provide a circular ‘triangle’.

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IMG_0797.jpgAnother good example of timetabled through working providing great travel opportunities are the routes I travelled on last Friday – the 80 and 81 which run two buses an hour between Dover and Deal (via slightly different routes – but both giving great views of Dover and its castle) and on to Sandwich (via Hacklinge or Eastry) where they turn into a 43 and continue westwards to Canterbury.

IMG_0860.jpgIMG_0863.jpgBetween Sandwich and Canterbury the 43 runs at an attractive twenty minute frequency with the extra bus an hour commencing in Ramsgate to provide a Ramsgate, Sandwich Canterbury service. It all fits together very nicely, and Sandwich is well worth a visit.

IMG_0942.jpgIMG_0939.jpgAnd best of all Stagecoach South East must be commended for their excellent colour coordinated marketing and publicity for these and the other bus routes they run throughout Kent. It really is a treat to find a colourful network map together with individual leaflets (almost as good as a book!) each with an individual clear map of the route in a geographic context and, where appropriate an extract from the network map to show other routes in the area. They really are exemplars of good timetable leaflet practice.

IMG_0728.jpgI also spotted the network map on display in major points such as Dover’s Pencester Road (albeit inside the now rather worn information office) and at Canterbury in a display case on the bus station’s concourse alongside the travel office with its display of timetables and other tourist leaflets inside.

IMG_0856.jpgAnd the icing on the cake is the colour coding follows through to large easy-to-see bus stop numbers on virtually every bus stop flag. They really were impressive to see and showed a level of attention to detail and excellent intent to provide clear information.

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Bus stop timetable displays are also easy to follow and understand and appeared at every stop.

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It’s so refreshing to see such excellent clear information and just goes to show it can be done.

As is the case around fifty miles over at the western end of the county in Sevenoaks. Here it’s interesting to see Go-Coach Hire Ltd go from strength to strength as they move from being a small time tender operator when they first began in the bus market just over ten years ago to now taking over from Arriva Kent as the network operator in this area.

IMG_0546.jpgOn previous visits to Sevenoaks I’ve been impressed with how Go-Coach have taken over the town’s bus station and proudly emblazoned their bright yellow and purple branding to brighten up what would otherwise be a rather dull wind tunnel of two departure bays.

IMG_0541.jpgThere’s a small travel office with an amazingly friendly and helpful member of staff and an excellent full display of timetable leaflets including those services operated by Arriva thereby providing a much welcome comprehensive coverage of routes operated in the area.

IMG_0656.jpgIMG_0658.jpgI was particularly impressed to see that the out-of-date no-longer-issued maps from Kent County Council which used to be on display in the bus station on previous visits have been replaced by up to date maps of Go-Coach’s network. I spotted them on bus shelters elsewhere in the town too.

IMG_0537.jpgThe bus stop plates also feature both Arriva and Go-Coach’s serves and all clearly presented to appropriate corporate style.

IMG_0572.jpgInterestingly from early next month Arriva Kent are throwing in the towel on local routes 1 and 2 from Sevenoaks to Dunton Green and Kemsing.

IMG_0550.jpgThey’re the routes Arriva converted to the horribly cramped Mercedes Sprinter minibuses a year ago. I had a ride in the first week and knew within a few minutes it would be a complete failure.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.15.47.pngCompletely unsuitable for the market and what a shame passenger numbers have obviously plummeted in response to such unattractive vehicles. On Wednesday when I visited larger buses had already supplanted the minibuses on route 2.

IMG_0649.jpgGo-Coach are taking over these routes as part of their expanding network and I hope their local connections and attention to detail in getting things right for passengers will attract enough passengers back to the routes to make it a commercial success for them.

IMG_4118.jpgIt’s interesting, nearly fifty years on from London Country Bus Services being formed in 1970 just how many bus companies now operate in what was the polo mint around London, and increasingly successfully too, after some traumatic times after deregulation and privatisation in the late 1980s. Metrobus in Crawley and Ensignbus in Grays come to mind as top class acts, but Go-Coach are making great strides to make this corner of Kent a great exemplar of how a small network operator can succeed.IMG_0585.jpgSadly, they often say, a bus company’s reputation is only as good as the last journey taken and my attempted journey with Go-Coach didn’t quite work out as planned on Wednesday; but company boss Austin Blackburn was on the case straight away as soon as he saw my tweet and made sure appropriate action was taken and apologies made – and that was impressive and just showed a caring owner giving attention to detail, which is what it’s all about. I’m already looking forward to a return trip and hopefully next time be successful in catching the Wednesday only tendered rural route 405 to West Kingsdown before it ends very soon!

Roger French

PS I spotted the information about Arriva Kent giving up routes 1 and 2 on their website and commendably they refer to the replacements being operated by Go-Coach Hire but a slip of the year shows the date in the headline as 2018 rather than 2019. It seems even when this is pointed out by tweet to Arriva last Wednesday, it still isn’t corrected on their website today. Attention to detail and reacting to feedback and all that…not!

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Home from scenic Scotland

Day 5  Sunday 3rd March 2019   Glasgow to Carlisle

I always look forward to a journey down the West Coast Main Line between Glasgow and Carlisle, or for a bit of variety, ScotRail’s alternative via Kilmarnock and Dumfries, but today I thought I’d try out the bus option. It takes much longer than the train but as the first of the two routes involved was awarded Best Bus Route in the Scottish Transport Awards 2018, with such an accolade under its belt, the X74 had to be well worth a ride.

IMG_0268.jpgRoute X74 is part of Stagecoach West Scotland’s impressive network of express bus routes, of which yesterday’s ride on the X76 from Kilmarnock to Glasgow was another. Whereas over in Stagecoach East Scotland territory their network of express routes is marketed under the ‘express city connect’ brand between Fife and Edinburgh, as well as some routes across to Glasgow and it’s airport, the West Scotland network linking Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway with Glasgow are each branded individually.

IMG_0264.jpgThe X74 runs hourly between Dumfries and Glasgow with twelve return journeys on Mondays to Fridays, the same with an extra in the early evening on Saturdays and eight journeys every two hours on Sundays. Journey time is two hours and ten minutes although the first journey into Glasgow on weekdays is given an extra twenty minutes to allow for peak hour congestion.

IMG_0353.jpgI caught the 1315 from Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Bus Station. The impressive looking three year old coach (a Volvo with Plaxton Elite body) arrived bang on time from its incoming journey at 1255 and unloaded a large number of passengers – I didn’t count but reckon it must have been pretty full, and many had luggage in the ground floor ‘under the upper deck’ compartment – not sure of the technical term for these things, but I realised how useful the storage area is, including space for bikes, and the upside is you get a great view from what feels like a top deck.

IMG_0271.jpgUnlike the X76 yesterday, these vehicles have e-leather seating – not as comfortable for me as the traditional cloth moquette as experienced on the newer X76. The front seat arrangement was a 3+1 layout which worked perfectly for me in the one, and a Mum and two kids in the three.

IMG_0272.jpgOur driver reappeared at 1309 and he got the 30 or so of us on board efficiently and we left on time at 1315. Within minutes we were on the M8 and then the M74 for a non-stop journey to our first stop at Hamilton bus station arriving on time at 1340 where Mum and the two kids as well as a few other passengers alighted.

Back the short distance to the M74 and south we go for another twenty minutes before coming off and doing a short circuit around Lesmahagow dropping a few more passengers off then back on the M74 for around 20 minutes more and a brief stop at Abington service area for no other purpose it seemed to me than “to comply with Department for Transport guidance – the service connects – the connection is guaranteed and passengers may remain on the vehicle” as the timetable states. What a load of baloney.

Anyway we’re back on the motorway which has now become the A74(M) but you’d not really notice the difference to the M74 as we sped down to Moffat where at least half our passengers alight and we wait time for a few minutes before retracing our route back to the A74(M) junction again and I’d expected us to continue on the minor road through Beattock to stop by the ‘Primary School’, as listed in the timetable leaflet, but instead we headed straight on to the A701 (which acts as a Beattock by-pass) and pretty much runs due south all the way down to Dumfries.

IMG_0338.jpgYou might think a bus route which runs down a motorway for the best part of an hour and a half would be a tedious ride, but nothing could be further from reality. The more you head south the more fantastic the scenery becomes, and nearing the Moffat turn off comes the familiar sight of the West Coast Main Line paralleling the road in the valley between mountains (or big hills – again technical terms may vary) and it was good to see the scenery from a different perspective to what I’m used to on the train.

IMG_0341.jpgThe A701 skirts the huge Forest of Ae which takes its name from the village called Ae. Must be the only place name in Britain just comprising two vowels; aside from the former London bus garage in Hendon!

IMG_E0532.jpgAs we entered Dumfries and Galloway territory I spotted what looked like an interesting network map and brand name displayed in a rather forlorn looking bus shelter with adjacent moss encrusted bus stop flag.

IMG_0342.jpgTurns out the ‘SWestransport’ brand is all about a partnership between local politicians and the NHS but their promoted website on the posters contains minutes of their Board meetings rather than any useful transport information. For that there’s a click through to the Dumfries and Galloway website where you can helpfully find timetables in route number order but unhelpfully no sign of the network route map.

IMG_0356.jpgFor future trip planning I took a photo of the map which was commendably on display in each shelter in Dumfries’s small bus station taking care to find one which hadn’t been defaced.

IMG_0356.jpgI was very impressed with the X74. I don’t know what criteria the Scottish Transport Awards use to judge what’s best, but it was a decent travel experience.

It was now time to finish off my journey south on Stagecoach’s route 79 down to Carlisle. Another hourly service* and two-hourly on Sundays taking around an hour and a half for the journey. * Half hourly between Annan and Carlisle.

IMG_0362.jpgThe 1550 departure had just six of us on board but we picked up a similar number in Annan and a few more in Eastriggs and Gretna Green who all mostly got off along the way so as we crossed over the border back into England there were just five of us left on board.

The 79 heads due west between Dumfries and Longtown along the B724 which parallels the newer A75. I’m guessing the B724 used to be the A75 as it was pretty much deserted of other traffic and we made amazingly good progress as well as serving the two or three tiny villages/settlements along the way.

IMG_E0534.jpgAs we arrived in Longtown, 27 minutes and nine miles north of Carlisle, we came up behind a West Coast Motors/Borders Buses X95 on one of the three journeys a day (on Sundays) from Edinburgh (one journey) or Galashiels (the other two) and in an unfortunate clash of timings followed each other all the way down the A7 into Carlisle.

IMG_0385.jpgDespite travelling many miles over the last five days from Kyle of Lochalsh to Gretna Green I’d seen a West Coast Motors bus or coach on service every day such is their amazingly large operating area!

IMG_0389.jpgI paid single fares on the X74 (£9.60) and 79 (£8.30) as the cheapest way to make the journey. Interestingly when I travelled on the aforementioned X95 from Edinburgh to Carlisle (changing buses in Galashiels) last October the through fare was just £7.80 and journey time (including a half hour in Galashiels) was four hours compared to a similar 4 hours and 7 minutes from Glasgow via Dumfries. Glasgow via Dumfries to Carlisle is 110 miles and Edinburgh to Carlisle is 92 miles.

Day 6  Monday 4th March 2019   Home from Carlisle

I always try and fit in at least two or three trips on the Settle-Carlisle line each year so today was a good opportunity for the first one of 2019. I’d left home on Wednesday with temperatures in the low twenty degrees so it came as a shock to see slushy snow on the streets of Carlisle this morning.

But all the better for seeing the splendid scenery heading south towards Settle with snow covered mountains followed, once the sun came out, by beautiful greens and browns across the landscape.

IMG_0410.jpgIMG_0403.jpgI ranked this line fifth in my recent Hundred Best listing and having travelled the first, second and fourth in as many days since Wednesday, it reaffirmed my scoring judgement. Definitely England’s best scenic line and just one point behind (as Nicholas Parsons would say) those top iconic Scottish lines.

IMG_0416.jpgArriving in Leeds I headed over to the bus station spotting some further recent welcome investment in new buses by First West Yorkshire sporting the smart colour coded green based ‘Leedscity’ brand and livery.

IMG_0449.jpgThe X10 running hourly between Barnsley and Leeds is another Stagecoach ‘express’ route initiative; this one introduced in November 2017. I tried it out during its first week so thought it was time to give it another ride to see how it was doing sixteen months on. It’s doing very well, I’m pleased to see.

IMG_0468.jpgThe journey time is an impressive 53 minutes making for an efficient timetable with seven minutes stand time at each end. The coach arrived into Leeds slightly ahead of time at 1154 and a good load of around 25-30 passengers alighted – not bad for a Monday lunch time in early March. My southbound departure at 1205 left with ten of us on board.

IMG_0510.jpgThe X10 departs from the coach departure bays in Leeds bus station which I guess is to give emphasis to its ‘coach’ quality of travel rather than the image portrayed by a standard double deck bus, although Harrogate & District’s famous route 36 exudes quality and manages just fine from the bus bays. Or maybe the departure charges are cheaper?

IMG_0512.jpgIt’s a shame I couldn’t find any timetable leaflets for the X10 either in the bus station area ….

IMG_0470.jpg…or in the coach section; mind you there weren’t any National Express leaflets either, possibly because they don’t print them anymore (all online and all that).

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IMG_0517.jpgBut at least there were a few on the coach itself (if you spotted them) and refreshingly some behind the counter in the South Yorkshire ‘PTE’ Customer Services kiosk in Barnsley bus station, where I noticed the former helpful and well stocked Information Centre has been relet as a betting shop. So much for making bus travel a responsible choice for positive lifestyles!

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IMG_1261.jpgThe X10 is a real treat to ride on. Within just a few minutes after leaving Leeds bus station you’re gliding down the M1 to junction 38 to serve the catchment area of Darton heading into Barnsley. Taking this route usefully gives the bus the edge over the train for people living in this catchment area as well as supplementing local bus services. The train takes 35 minutes (half hourly fast) or 54 minutes on an hourly stopper.

IMG_0524.jpgThe X10 single fare is £6 with an attractively priced £7 Explorer day ticket which is also available on Stagecoach’s other routes, thereby also competing with the train on price which costs £9.20 single £11.20 peak day return or £9.40 off peak. Railcard discounted fares are £6.10 single and £7.40 peak or £6.20 off-peak return.

My driver was very friendly and gave a smooth and enjoyable ride all the more so as I approved of his ‘best of the sixties and seventies’ compilation music choices which played out for the journey!

IMG_0525.jpgAs I’d bagged one of LNER’s bargain basement priced first class advanced fares from Leeds to return to London Kings Cross at 1415 I headed back to Leeds on one of Northern’s two-an-hour fast journeys and was soon in ‘Seat 29’ heading south to bring these six days of enjoyable travels to an end.

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IMG_0529.jpgNot before a quick hop over to St Pancras International for the Thameslink journey to Hassocks as the finale.

Roger French

A few days in scenic Scotland 2

Day 3 Friday 1st March 2019  Mull of Kintyre

When planning trips it’s not often I’ll schedule a long journey out and back by exactly the same route and mode of travel in one day. It’s always much more interesting to devise a circuit taking in different routes and scenery, villages, towns or cities along the way.

Today’s been an exception with an early start for the four hour citylink journey at 0625 from Glasgow to Campbeltown allowing four and a half hours there before a slightly longer return journey taking four hours and fourteen minutes back from Campbeltown to Glasgow at 1500 by exactly the same route in reverse. Both these journeys only run on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (at least at this time of the year).

IMG_9771.jpgThe reason’s simple. Citylink service 926 is a real stunner of a route, with something of interest to see at every twist and turn (and there are plenty) along the A82/A83 as these roads include some of Scotland’s finest scenery passing impressive mountains, lochs and forests.

IMG_9792.jpgThe 133 mile route is shown on the Google map below which shows by car it would take around three hours. The 926 heads out of Glasgow northwestwards towards Dumbarton continuing northwards alongside Loch Lomond to Arrochar then west to Inveraray and southwestwards through Achadunan and Furnace to Lochgilphead continuing southwards alongside Loch Fyne to Tarbert then south on the west side of Kintyre via Clachan and Tayinloan before reaching Campbeltown on the east side of Kintyre.

Each section of route offers up amazing views. Between Arrochar and Inveraray there’s a steady mountainous climb along Glen Croe sandwiched between Ben Donich and Ben Arthur before reaching the wonderfully named settlement called ‘Rest and be thankful’.

IMG_E0241.jpgThere’s mile after mile of beautiful lochside travelling and at the (almost) halfway point a short pause in the timetable allows a chance to stretch legs, buy a coffee and savour the delightful small town of Inveraray.

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IMG_9923.jpgAlthough only six boarded the 0625 in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street coach station we picked four more up through Hillhead and Anniesland including walkers and fishermen who spent much of the journey discussing their ailments including the problems of an ingrown toenail (too much detail for an early Friday morning for me). Around eight more passengers joined for some of the way during the journey but the return trip at 1500 from Campbeltown was much busier with around forty passengers using the coach including a maximum of thirty on board at any one time. Around half travelled all the way through to Glasgow with six boarding in Lochgilphead.

IMG_9832.jpgThe route is dual-branded for both citylink and West Coast Motors from the time when there was competition between the two operators. Now citylink take the commercial risk while West Coast Motors receive a contracted mileage rate. As well as taking passengers travelling a long distance, the route is effectively the local bus option between many of the settlements and Scotland’s concessionary pass provides free travel throughout. There are four journeys every day in each direction as well as the two extras on Fridays to Sundays I travelled on. Argyll & Bute Council don’t provide any funding for the route.

Citylink fares give fair value. My return was £31.10 and there’s a great offer of £49 for a three day rover ticket across the citylink network, which if I’d been a bit smarter I’d have bought as it would also have included my journey from Fort William to Kyle of Lochalsh (at £25.10) and I’d have had another day’s travel effectively free.

IMG_9835.jpgWest Coast Motors is a very smart operator. Despite the time of year and road conditions all their buses and coaches I saw were impressively clean – outside and inside. They’re one of Scotland’s top family owned independent operators having started in Campbeltown in the early 1920s.

IMG_9889.jpgI was intrigued to see their original depot and HQ site while in Campbeltown – a very understated affair, apparently originally a distillery and not what you’d expect from the investment the Company’s making in new vehicle’s sporting an updated smart livery for running local routes radiating from and around Campbeltown.

IMG_9895.jpgRecent expansion has seen West Coast Motors acquire Perryman’s in the eastern belt as well as taking over some of First Bus’s former routes in border territory which together with their operations in conjunction with citylink makes for an amazingly large geographic area of coverage from Carlisle and Berwick-upon-Tweed to Oban and the western tip of Mull and down to the southern tip of Kintyre, not forgetting the Glasgow sightseeing operation.

IMG_9896.jpgIt was to the southern tip of Kintyre – the Mull – I headed on route 444 to savour the ‘mist rolling in from the sea’ as Paul, Linda and the band famously implanted in our minds in that impossible-to-shake-off refrain. More so, that the nearest village served by bus to the Mull of Kintyre is called Southend – a more contrasting atmosphere to the more famous Essex coastal resort you could not find.

IMG_9907.jpgI can’t do justice to the wonderful scenery along the route south nor the peaceful atmosphere on arrival. It must be one of Britain’s best, if not the best, remotest bus terminus. Well worth the five hour trip from Glasgow to reach.

IMG_9902.jpgThe purpose of this transport themed blog isn’t to dwell too much on architecture and general tourism but I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around Campbeltown spotting interesting buildings as well as the memorial garden for Linda McCartney which is laid out very respectfully making for a fitting and poignant tribute.

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Day 4  Saturday 2nd March 2019   Bute and Ayrshire

I’d originally planned a full day enjoying the Isle of Bute. Arriving at Wemyss Bay, undoubtedly Scotland’s most attractive station, for the ferry over to Rothesay there was an ominous message on the wipe board in CalMac’s ticket office.

IMG_9993.jpgI couldn’t help notice how ‘HIGHLY’ had not only been underlined but promoted to block capitals. I decided to plough on but keep options open for a Plan B.

IMG_9982.jpgConnections between ScotRail’s hourly trains from Glasgow to Wemyss Bay and CalMac’s ferry to Rothesay on Bute are amazingly conveniently timed and you get to enjoy the gorgeous walkway down from the station area to the embarkation area. At this time of year there wasn’t much of a queue but you can imagine the crowds on busy summer days in the heyday of travel filling the curved walkway.

IMG_9988.jpgOur ferry was late leaving due to an unscheduled fill up from oil tankers alongside but we got underway around fifteen minutes late and were soon across the sea to Bute with an impressive thirty-five minute crossing time.

IMG_9992.jpgWest Coast Motors have been Bute’s bus operator for some years since Stagecoach withdrew from the island. They’ve got a small depot in Port Banatyne not far along the coastline north of Rothesay. I took the 90/490 route to take a look as we drove by, changing drivers outside before continuing to the terminus by the marina.

IMG_0110.jpgThe bus then heads south through Rothesay again continuing pretty much all along the coastline to Kilchattan Bay at the southern end of the island. What a lovely terminus this is. Desolate in winter but gorgeous in summer.

IMG_0147.jpgI was impressed to find an open and well stocked Visitor Information Centre in Rothesay and to find Argyll & Bute Council’s useful timetable book giving details of the 90/490 as well as two town routes and other infrequent bus routes on the island. The helpful VIC staff had stocks of the Council’s 2016/17 bus map under the counter and admitting it was out of date in detail kindly gave me a copy acknowledging it usefully provides a prospective of the island for visitors. Why oh why can’t such maps be kept up to date. OK, I know; it’s lack of finance.

IMG_0054.jpgAfter admiring the bus shelter in Rothesay’s Guildford Square opposite the ferry terminal I popped back to the ferry office to get an update on the ‘Amber Alert’. Not unnaturally the staff couldn’t give any assurances one way or the other but as the lunchtime clouds were darkening and the breeze getting distinctly breezier I decided to abort the original plan for more afternoon Bute exploration and avoid the risk of being stranded overnight on the island with just three OS maps, a tangerine, a chunky Kitkat and bottle of water in my bag. I hopped on the ferry just mooring and made it safely back to the mainland.

Twitter comes into its own at times like this and I’m grateful to ‘tartonterrior’ Kenny for reminding me about Stagecoach’s route 585 which starts at Greenock and ruffled McGill’s feathers for a while as it takes a coastal route through Wemyss Bay, Largs and Adrossan, to Irvine before continuing to Ayr. Just the job as the rain began lashing it down outside Wemyss Bay station.

IMG_0203.jpgI was pleased to see McGill’s trial Connect&Go local route up to Upper Skelmorlie (as well as Inverkip) is still connecting and going albeit now being funded by SPT and sticking with the original Dial-A-Ride concept rather than new fangled apps!

IMG_0192.jpgMy 585 arrived over ten minutes late but I’d managed to crack the real time updates on Stagecoach’s app (using over 5% phone battery power in so doing) and was reassured it was on its way. It turned out to be a busy bus and I managed to clear enough condensation from the windows to enjoy the coastal views for most of the way, but when we diverted into West Kilbride I did wonder if we’d ever get back on to the coastal road again such was the tortuous route taken around the houses. We changed drivers at Ardrossan and arrived in Irvine still over ten minutes late.

IMG_0201.jpgAs I’d enjoyed a ride on Stagecoach’s X77 between Ayr and Glasgow a year or so ago I decided to bail out from the 585 at Irvine and head over to Kilmarnock to try out the companion X76 from there to Glasgow. Stagecoach’s route 11 also links Ardrossan with Irvine but via Kilwinning (the 585 takes a more direct route) then continues to Kilmarnock. It runs every ten minutes seven days a week.

IMG_0209.jpgIt’s busy. Very busy, even with 67 plate double deckers to the latest Stagecoach corporate specification and a rather understated localised route branding.

And my final bus ride today was on the aforementioned X76 on the hugely impressive Plaxton Panorama double deck buses/coaches Stagecoach introduced last year.

IMG_0224.jpgThey really are head turners and must tempt motorists seeing them glide along the M77 to give the 15 minute frequency, forty minute travel time route a try.

IMG_0232.jpgThe interiors are equally impressive and I particularly like the traditional cloth seat moquette rather than the craze for leather-like material which I never find so comfortable. The usual usb points and Wi-fi are included and the whole journey experience was superb. Stagecoach really can deliver impressive vehicle investment around the country such as these fine vehicles.

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It’ll be time to start heading south tomorrow but I’m taking the slow route.

Roger French

A few days in scenic Scotland 1

Day 1 Wednesday 27th February 2019  West Highland Line

A quick, cheap Easyjet flight from Gatwick up to Glasgow for 1030, a ride into the city centre on First Glasgow route 500 allowing time for a wander to admire recent and welcome new arrivals in that company’s bus fleet and it’s soon time to see the ongoing redevelopment at Queen Street station before catching the 1220 for Mallaig with a portion for Oban – a train of two halves.

IMG_9547.jpgIMG_9478.jpgA two carriage train arrives into Queen Street from Oban on time at 1203 to form the rear portion for the 1220 to Mallaig but it’s not until departure time at 1220 that what will be the front two carriages (for Oban) arrive from the depot and join up and we’re allowed on board for a slightly delayed departure at 1225.

IMG_9589.jpgThe five hour twenty minutes train journey to Mallaig gets better as every hour passes. Luckily at this time of year the train isn’t very full so there’s plenty of room to swap sides for the best views as we make our way along the line.

IMG_9598.jpgThe magnificent Clyde on the left hand side, then Gare Loch between Hellinsburgh Upper and Garelochhead followed by Loch Long and then over on the right hand side, Loch Lomond as far as Ardlui.

At Crianlarich there’s time for a quick stretch of the legs on the platform while the front two carriages are uncoupled and head off to Oban first as we begin the slow climb towards the highest summit on the line at the delightful Corrour. But not before enjoying the wonderful horseshoe curve on the left hand side between Upper Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy and the deer enjoying the isolation of Rannoch Moor, watching out for the snow shelter just after that station, although not needed this month!

IMG_9636.jpgAfter Corrour the gradual descent passes the magnificent Loch Treig on the left hand side and the waterfall on the River Spean as the train approaches Roy Bridge not long before we enter Fort William for another brief stop as the driver changes ends and a crew change before we set off on the final leg to Mallaig.

IMG_9639.jpgI find this section of line even surpasses what’s come already and not just for Loch Eil and the now world famous Glenfinnan Viaduct both on the left hand side…

IMG_9643.jpg…..but the slow meander alongside Loch Eilt on the right hand side before continuing through mountain scenery to Arisaig, Morar (Britain’s most westerly station) and finally arriving in Mallaig at 1743. Every minute a delight.

IMG_9662.jpgAt this time of year there are no ferries to Armadale on Skye and the light is rapidly fading so I opted for a return journey in the dark to Fort William for an overnight stay.

Day 2 Thursday 28th February 2019  Fort William – Kyle – Inverness – Glasgow

Time to pick up some snacks for lunch from the large Morrisons adjacent to Fort William’s transport hub (it’s going to be a tight connectional day during eight hours travelling) before the 1000 departure on Citylink’s 916 service to Kyle of Lochalsh.

It seems strange to see Fort William devoid of Stagecoach buses. The beneficiary from last year’s exodus has been the smart looking locally based Shiel buses who’ve added the town’s local bus routes to its longer distance routes which include the wonderful route 500 to Mallaig which largely parallels the rail line being equally as scenic and well worth a ride.

IMG_9690.jpgFort William’s bus station sports eight stances grouped into four departure points from a long and sturdy shelter to provide passengers protection from the weather. It’s a touch desolate with minimal seating.

IMG_9677.jpgHi-Trans provides stop departure information for local bus routes and the Mallaig departures which the computer software confusingly refuses to acknowledge is Mallaig rather than the unhelpful destination for tourists of Hotel.

IMG_9674.jpgIMG_9675.jpgThe traditional timetable displays for Citylink look rather faint and forlorn are not in keeping with that Company’s smart image.

IMG_9676.jpgOn the upside there is a ‘real’ (actually ‘scheduled’) electronic display showing the next two or three departures from each stance which commendably is replicated in the adjacent station by the ticket office. The station also has an independent Travel Centre which had local bus timetables for Shiel buses as well as CityLink and Caledonian MacBrayne (ferry) timetables.

The Caledonian Sleeper rolls into Fort William at 0957 just three minutes before the 916 leaves for Kyle of Lochalsh and onwards to Portree and Uig on Skye. What a shame there’s not a better connection as it would give tourists much greater options to travel around this area by public transport.

IMG_9689.jpgHowever a new Lounge for arriving sleeper passengers (and departing passengers in the evening) has now opened and there’s the obligatory electronic totem point which lists the one departure of the day, as these now do having been installed at every station served by Caledonian Sleeper trains. An amazing expense for one train a day. Quite extraordinary. Compare this to many bus real time systems being turned off and left out of use by local authorities for lack of funds.

IMG_9682.jpgMy 916 coach arrives spot on time at 0951 giving passengers already on board a welcome break before departing again, especially if they’ve been in board since leaving Glasgow at 0650. The timely arrival was reassuring as I had my fingers crossed for an on time arrival into Kyle of Lochalsh at 1152 giving enough time for a leisurely wander from the bus stance to the rail station for the 1208 departure for Inverness.

IMG_9685.jpgI’ve still got bad memories of a southbound trip on the 916 last summer (from Uig to Fort William) which got badly delayed on route due to heavy traffic, many temporary traffic lights along the way as well as getting stuck behind an abnormal load taking the same route!

Luckily today our driver made good progress keeping impeccably to time helped by sparse traffic and only two temporary traffic light sections both of which we got green lights on approach and sailed through.

IMG_9687.jpgOur coach was from West Coast Motors with legal lettering showing ‘Craig of Campbeltown’ and not surprisingly drivers changed over in Fort William. Our fresh driver decided to do his paperwork and logging on with the door firmly closed letting passengers reboarding, after their leg stretching and fag break, first followed by us newbies. There were only nine of us in total leaving Fort William.

IMG_9693.jpgThe closed door seemed a touch rude and unfriendly but our new driver made up for it by driving smoothly during the entire journey and giving a great ride.

IMG_9713.jpgCitylink’s 916 is undoubtedly Britain’s most scenic bus route (it was voted second in last summer’s internet poll). It rivals the West Highland rail line offering alternative views of Loch Lomond as well as Glencoe before Fort William and on my journey, the spectacular scenery alongside Loch Lochy and Loch Garry before continuing along the famous Road to the Isles.

IMG_9729.jpgThe 1208 ScotRail departure from Kyle of Lochalsh was ready and waiting in the platform as our coach pulled in to the nearby town centre bus stop. A wander through Kyle before boarding gave time to pick up a coffee.

IMG_9730.jpgWe left spot on time which was another timely reassurance as on arrival in Inverness I only had six minutes before the Glasgow train I was booked on departed.

When I compiled my Hundred Best Train Journeys at the end of last year there was no question that the Kyle of Lochalsh would come near the top, if not the top spot. It’s a well deserved second to the West Highland Line to Mallaig and it’s scenic delights never disappoint.

IMG_9744.jpgToday the low early Spring sun made for some spectacular reflections in Loch Carron which had to be seen to appreciate and can’t easily be represented by a camera phone photograph through a train window. It really was quite a splendid ride made all the better for keeping to time and arriving in Inverness at 1442 for an easy cross platform interchange with the 1448 departure to Glasgow.

IMG_9755.jpgThis three coach Class 170 was busy even at this time of year and the intended introduction by ScotRail of refurbished HSTs on this and other ‘Inter7City’ routes is a masterstroke of marketing and route development.

The Highland Line offers wonderful mountainous views through the Cairngorms and came in at number 4 in my listing (behind the Oban section of the West Highland Line).

IMG_9761.jpgIt’s been a brilliant first two days in Scotland with a few more to come.

Roger French

Skylarking on skylink

Sunday 24th February 2019

No bus company does route branding as well as trentbarton (as they like to be called, with no capital letters). trentbarton were the original bus route brand masters and have retained that crown trailblazing regular investment in impressive new vehicles, upgrades and refreshes to the brands and an eye for getting the detail right which many others could learn from.

I spotted they’d launched an additional skylink brand between Nottingham and East Midlands Airport last summer so decided to take a look at how the brand fits into the ‘really good bus company’* family of brands. (*A tag line that now seems to have been dropped, even though they are still ‘really good’).

IMG_9396.jpgUnsuprisingly skylink buses are clean, smart, attractive and comfortable and ride well. Drivers are smartly turned out, friendly and helpful. The brand is consistently applied on the livery and bus interiors with timetable leaflets available. All hallmarks of trentbarton’s consistent quality operation.

IMG_9384.jpgIMG_9385.jpgThe new skylink runs every 30 minutes through Clifton as it heads southwestwards out of Nottingham including the adjacent large Park and Ride terminus at the southern end of the tram network, before joining the A453, Remembrance Way, and running fast to the airport taking just over half an hour for the end to end journey.

IMG_9388.jpgThis skylink is not to be confused with the other skylink which runs every 20 minutes from Nottingham via Long Eaton and taking just under an hour to reach the airport, where one journey an hour terminates, another continues to Coalville and the third heads south to Loughborough via Kegworth.

IMG_9393.jpgThat skylink is not to be confused with a third skylink which also runs every 20 minutes, but from Derby via Alvaston and Castle Donnington to the airport in 42 minutes before continuing to Loughborough (either two an hour via Kegworth but to a slightly different route to the second skylink above, or one an hour via Diseworth) and then fast in just 28 minutes more to Leicester.

IMG_9436.jpgAs you’d expect from trentbarton, all three skylink branded routes sport the same family style with just the colours varying Derby sporting yellow; Nottingham and Clifton a grey on blue and the original Nottingham via Long Eaton a lighter blue.

IMG_9391.jpgAs you’d also expect bus stop plates are smartly turned out all along the routes with the three skylink routes nicely identified, particularly important on the outskirts of the airport where the two Nottingham skylinks depart from opposite sides of the road.

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It all comes across as being part of one nice happy coordinated family of skylink routes, all promoted on the trentbarton website….

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…and in the timetable leaflets for both the yellow and blue/grey routes.

skylink.jpegExcept there’s one subtle differentiation I stumbled on when working out the best ticket to buy to have a ride on these routes.

Unlike airport bus routes in cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Bristol which are dedicated to airport travellers and consequently generally charge a premium fare, the trentbarton two original skylinks also serve as handy local bus routes connecting communities along the way so charge standard rate fares and are shown as part of the bus network. The new skylink charges £6.50 single (trentbarton’s maximum fare) compared to £5.20 on the slower original route, but still good value for residents of Nottingham jetting off from the airport. The Derby skylink charges £4.70 for a single from Derby to the airport.

Even better trentbarton’s £6.50 zigzag day ticket (although not valid before 9.30am Mondays to Fridays) is also valid so gives great value for passengers changing buses in Nottingham, from Mansfield for example.

However, as I found out on Saturday when boarding the yellow skylink in Derby bus station, zigzag is bizarrely not valid on that route …. unless you upgrade to a ‘zigzag plus’ for another £3.50. You see, despite outward appearances of a family brand, and the route appearing on the trentbarton network map, yellow Derby skylink is operated by Kinchbus a sister subsidiary company of trentbarton and not trentbarton, although both companies are owned by Wellglade.

IMG_9435.jpgIt’s a small point in the grand scheme of the great things trentbarton do, and they truly are one of the shining beacons of bus industry good practice, but it’s a niggle enough for me to write about it now, and I suspect it does niggle a lot of passengers who don’t spot the finer print of legal lettering on the side of a branded bus, and have got a bus into Derby from further afield, for example Ashbourne or Alfreton inending to zigzag their way to the airport.

IMG_9451.jpgIt just seems unnecessarily anomalous that the single fare to the airport is 50p cheaper on Derby skylink than Nottingham skylink (and £1.80 cheaper than Nottingham Clifton Fast skylink) but £3.50 more expensive if you come from somewhere else and change buses in Derby rather than Nottingham.

Just to add to the skylink brand confusion, the blue Nottingham via Long Eaton skylink is promoted on the Kinchbus website on its network map!

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Wellglade are introducing contactless payments with new Ticketer machines including a London style daily and 28 day cap at the appropriate rates for those tickets. At the moment only the Kinchbus Derby skylink and the joint route branded as Pronto (with Stagecoach) between Nottingham and Chesterfield have the new Ticketer ticket machines able to offer this facility. It will be interesting to see how this catches on as the new ticket machines are rolled out. For now, you have to remember to touch out on the Ticketer machine by the driver as you alight, whereas with trentbarton’s proprietary smartcard branded as Mango, there’s a touch out device located in a convenient spot on the last stanchion on the nearside before the door as you alight.

There’s no indication on either trentbarton or kinchbus websites how quickly this will be rolled out to other routes, but the enthusiastic and helpful James who was in Twitter Control for both branded companies on Saturday was effusive in his helpful explanations of the new set up, if perhaps a little premature. He also tried to justify the different ticket validities between trentbarton and kinchbus, explaining the companies are independently managed, as he replied in a helpful way, from both companies Twitter accounts!

 

As always it was good to spend  some time in both Derby and Nottingham over the weekend and, zigzag ticket anomaly aside, see quality bus operation.

Roger French

Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 2.

Thursday 21st February 2019

IMG_8850.jpgIt’s reminded me of London 2012. Aside from the brilliant athletes and the behind-the-scenes organisational excellence it was the deployment of Games Makers which made for such a positive and enjoyable visitor experience despite mega crowds and challenging transport logistics before and after events.

IMG_8863.jpgWhen the wash up review of this week’s Brighton Main Line shut down is carried out, aside from the fantastic work performed around the clock by the engineering Orange Army and the hard working rail staff and bus and coach drivers I’m sure it will be the high-viz wearing Customer Service teams with their cherry smiles and friendly greetings who’ll long be remembered by passengers for creating a positive atmosphere to the extended travel experience. They really performed well and added a much needed shine to a challenging travel week.

IMG_9265.jpgThe team on the Three Bridges gateline deserve a special shout out with their pointy foam hands and chanting regime advising arriving passengers from buses the platforms for Victoria and London Bridge departing trains (sung to a catchy rhythm too – and in tune) and as trains arrived another catchy refrain pointing passengers on to the bus hub. If only every day could be like that!

IMG_8901.jpgThe team at Brighton, if perhaps more reserved, were also happy and cheerful. On Monday Theresa was doing a brilliant job handing out freebies and the whole team there were making sure everyone felt welcomed and valued as passengers. This positive experience will be long remembered but, of course, only by those passengers who actually braved the disruption warnings and ‘Carried On Travelling’ this week.

IMG_8862.jpgIt was clear by first light on Monday morning the vast majority had heeded the familiar repetitive advice for many months to ‘Plan Ahead’ and duly planned and took a complete week off travelling.

IMG_8851.jpgBuses were prolific; passengers not so. Better that than the other way round of course. The average load on buses I saw on my travels on a circuit from Hassocks via Brighton, Lewes, Haywards Heath, Three Bridges then back via all stations to Hassocks between 0700 and 1000 on Monday morning was around six. There were buses everywhere. At one point around 0830 at Hassocks so many buses and coaches were arriving and departing, as well as many others parked up on stand by, the car park-come-bus station became semi-gridlocked with staff suggesting to ‘control’ a bus reduction be considered.

IMG_8846.jpgI found the impressive Three Bridges Bus Hub marquee completely deserted at 0900, as it was on Tuesday at 1800 when I also called by…… until a London originating train came in and off loaded its passengers who the ever helpful cheerful Replacement Bus Makers happily shepherded to the waiting buses and within minutes it was all quiet again.

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IMG_8959.jpgAs the week’s progressed, passenger numbers haven’t noticeably increased but the number of buses and coaches has continued to provide a quite extraordinary level of service. A bus spotters paradise – and yes, camera weilding enthusiasts were out in force.

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IMG_8904.jpgNeither has the enthusiasm of the Replacement Bus Makers diminished – my trip to Three Bridges this morning, Thursday, found the whole team in fine form (and voice) welcoming us all off the buses and guiding us to the trains.

IMG_8939.jpgOn Monday I was blitzed with freebies and goodwill gestures including a branded water container (at Brighton), giant cookies, biscuits, hot chocolate sachet and mobile phone suction thingy and a £3 coffee voucher. By Thursday the giveaway novelty had worn off a bit, but I still picked up a free delicious cookie and £3 voucher for coffee by nipping into the Bus Hub on my way to London – and on the way home this evening.

IMG_8908.jpgQueueing time warning notices prominent on Monday in Brighton had been removed as redundant by Wednesday; as had the zig-zagging queuing system; both sensible contingencies which proved overly pessimistic. Thankfully.

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IMG_9225.jpgI wonder if the ’60 minutes queueing time’ was actually just a clever ruse to show how well everything was going. If so, it worked a treat.

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Here are a few observations and suggestions for next time based on my travel experiences this week through until today, Thursday – it’ll be plain sailing from now as even when trains are running, Friday’s become the new weekend for London commuters.

1. The ‘Brighton Three Bridges fast’ conundrum.

IMG_8972.jpgThere’s been much angst on Twitter about the lack of advertised non-stop buses between Brighton and Three Bridges as usually run during weekend closures. Buses bombing down the A23 are a regular sight at weekends but this time weekday commuters were only given the option of a half hourly train service via the West Coastway, Littlehampton and Arun Valley line arriving in Three Bridges an hour and a half after leaving Brighton which compares unfavourably to the 23 minutes it normally takes a fast direct train to reach Gatwick Airport.

IMG_8878.jpgJourney planners also gave the option of an all stations stopping replacement bus requiring a change at either Hassocks or Burgess Hill, coincidentally also timetabled to take one and a half hours end-to-end. In peak hours there was a further option to switch buses at Hassocks on to a fast non-stopper (which saved about half an hour), and from Brighton journey planners showed stopping buses running only as far as Balcombe which of course was a complete nonsense. That was a deliberate ‘fake terminus’ as all buses leaving Brighton had Three Bridges as their displayed destination which was obvious to everyone from the start so led to an information credibility issue. Furthermore the ‘Employee Handbook’ handed to everyone involved included details of non-stop ‘Ghost Buses’ running every 10 minutes at peak times and every 20 minutes off-peak between Brighton and Three Bridges. In the event it looks as though these were kept on stand by rather than running them for fear if they became too well known they’d prove too popular and blow a hole in the pool of available buses and be beyond the capacity of the Three Bridges Bus Hub. By Thursday this had become official public policy as the reasons they weren’t running and explained in the media.

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Publicly the ‘Ghost Bus’ existence was always denied to encourage passengers to take the Littlehampton diverted train or stopping bus options; or faced with that extra hour and more travel time, not travel at all. There’s no doubt Brighton passengers lost out big time (literally) because of this. I would suggest a better policy, when it was obvious most passengers had heeded warnings and weren’t travelling by first thing Monday morning, would have been for the Ghost Bus non-stoppers to run to minimise the inconvenience for Brightonians. I think this would have been hugely appreciated and removed one of the two biggest negatives of the week (the other being compensation – see below). I don’t think it would have overwhelmed the resources and doubt it would have made any difference to passenger numbers once people had committed themselves to the week off. It could have worked.

2. Haywards Heath and Hassocks peak travellers won hands down.

IMG_8894.jpgUnlike Brighton, both Haywards Heath and during peak hours, Hassocks, were blessed with their own bespoke non-stop buses and coaches to Three Bridges. The former ran to an impressive 6 minute frequency at peak times (20 minutes off peak) with the latter every 20 minutes. I tried both out and was impressed by the efficient end to end journey times achieved. From Hassocks we took just 33 minutes (on the 0900 from Hassocks – so admittedly after peak hour traffic had died down) comparing favourably to the all stops Thameslink train normally taking 22 minutes.

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The Hassocks driver took the normal route into Crawley via Southgate Avenue and Hawthorne Avenue whereas the Southdown PSV driver on the Haywards Heath journey (lovely bus by the way) took the M23 and worryingly headed east at the Crawley junction 10 before doubling back by the Copthorne Hotel which perceptively was going out of our way, but in the event didn’t take too much longer approaching Three Bridges from the east instead of the west. Tonight, my homebound coach from Three Bridges took that same route in reverse and was probably the same congested exit from Crawley as via Southgate Avenue.

IMG_8880.jpgLewes passengers were also given an option of taking a bus to East Grinstead and a train from there which was a clever idea; I’m not sure how many used it, but the other ‘avoid over burdening Three Bridges’ idea of running a Hassocks to Crawley service (originating in Hove) failed spectacularly and ran pretty much empty; passengers being understandably reluctant to use Crawley as an interchange hub.

IMG_8893.jpgOne niggle about Haywards Heath: it seemed unnecessarily confusing to have northbound buses to Three Bridges departing from two locations; non-stop fast buses left from outside the main entrance while the stoppers via Balcombe left from the side entrance in Boltro Road.

IMG_8891.jpgI asked a forlorn looking and lonely Replacement Bus Maker standing on the corner where to catch a bus to Three Bridges (just to give him something to do) and he advised me to go to the side entrance, which luckily I ignored. This was the only example of duff information I experienced though, every other query was accurately handled.

3. Coordinate roadworks and restrict parking

IMG_8932.jpgAn extra 240 buses and coaches added to Sussex’s congested roads, even taking the half term non-school run factor into account, is quite a challenge. The transport challenges surrounding the 2012 Olympics worked so well because everyone pulled together to ensure maximum capacity was provided. Special ‘Games Lanes’ ensured free flowing traffic for those needing it.

IMG_9280.jpgIn Sussex this week it would have been good if known congestion hotspots caused by awkward parking or roadworks could have been tackled in a coordinated way to ensure replacement buses got priority. Ideally, temporary traffic lights and roadworks on busy routes should have ceased where possible and temporary parking restrictions added at pinch points such as in Burgess Hill near Wivelsfield station as shown below.

IMG_8935.jpgOutside Three Bridges a high profile police presence helped ensure buses could exit fairly easily, especially during the busy evening peak period. It was good to see both the British Transport Police and Sussex Police actively on site. If only that could be more the norm!

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4. Southern ‘marketing’ shoot themselves in the foot

Southern’s marketing department scored a spectacular own goal by scheduling promotional adverts on social media every day this week enticing passengers to get out and about and “Discover a Hidden World by Train”. Surely they’d notice colleagues in the comms department had spent the best part of a year persuading passengers not to travel this week? Not so much the ‘hidden world’ but the ‘hidden train’ with Southern’s main line normally teeming with passengers completely shut. Left hand and right hand etc etc.

5. Unrealistic journey times

IMG_9236.jpgIf the replacement bus schedules had been for a registered local bus service the Traffic Commissioner would have had a field day. Running times (as advertised in journey planners) showed no allowance for predictable peak hour congestion. A complete ‘no no’ when running bus services. Realistic timetables are now mandatory, ‘congestion’ is not a valid excuse. I caught the 1705 all stops departure from Brighton to Three Bridges on Wednesday with a twenty minute scheduled journey time to Hassocks. After crawling through Brighton’s peak hour congestion we’d only reached Preston Circus by that time, taking forty minutes to reach Hassocks. If I’d been going to London and allowed myself a planned connection at Three Bridges from the journey planner I’d have been very upset at the delay. And of course, no chance of Delay Repay!

6. Presentation

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My fellow Buses magazine columnist Phil Stockley has coincidentally written in the March issue just published about the importance of creating a positive image of bus and coach travel to rail users at times of rail replacement and he’s dead right.

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag this week with some superbly presented buses and luxury coaches giving an excellent image but I regret to say also some filthy buses too. Bearing in mind the lovely weather this week there really is no excuse for not presenting nicely clean buses with windows you can see out of. The Go-Ahead London bus I travelled home on on Wednesday evening could have usefully had a trip through the nearby Metrobus bus wash at Crawley depot or one of Brighton & Hove’s garages.

IMG_9233.jpgIt’s also hugely frustrating when the window interiors mist up, and for strangers very hard to know where they are if wanting to alight at on-street stops for intermediate stations. Our driver ignored the advice in the Employees Handbook to call out the names of stations as we stopped, which didn’t help.

IMG_9241.jpg7. Too technical looking

IMG_8785.jpgThe rather strange letter codes for the bus services displayed at posters at each station were a bit confusing and seemed superfluous. They weren’t displayed on the vehicles and no one referred to them. A bit of an unnecessary complication it seemed to me. Indeed it would have been better to display the timetables for the various routes so passengers could see which suited them best.

8. The price bugbear

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I covered this in Part 1, but would like to end this review by returning to it again as it is understandably controversial. When a service is disrupted to the extent it has been this week it’s only fair some compensation regime be applied. Of course the DfT (who are the revenue masters for the GTR contract) won’t want to create a precedent for elsewhere or future rail replacements on the Brighton line but the fact of the matter is there’s been no ticket checking whatsoever this week, barriers at Three Bridges have been open and passengers have just boarded and alighted buses at intermediate stations on the street or in car parks in some cases (eg Wivlesfield) some distance from a ticket office or machine. I doubt many passengers purchased tickets for their bus journey; it’s been pretty much an unofficial free travel zone. So why not make it one officially and generate that all important goodwill among passengers. A compensatory refund to season ticket holders for tickets to the affected destinations would also be appropriate. Of course, the anomaly would be passengers using the diverted Brighton trains via Littlehampton as you could hardly give free travel in that wider area, which in turn might mean overloaded buses up the A23 again. Which only goes to show, it’s not an easy one, but I do think passengers needed some goodwill gesture beyond a cookie and coffee voucher.

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

Goodwill is all important, because, there’ll be more rail replacements of this scale in the years ahead. Passengers should be under no illusion that this unprecedented shut down is it, and from now on it’ll be dream travel on the Brighton Main Line with everything fixed for the future. Growth in passenger numbers is expected to continue in the next decade and there are already firm plans for major work at Gatwick Airport to build a new larger concourse with bigger platforms 5 and 6, eight new escalators and five new lifts but the one to watch out for is the Croydon Area Remodelling Scheme (CARS).

Think London Bridge and you won’t be far removed from the scale of what’s planned. The whole of East Croydon station will be demolished (yes, I know it’s only just lost all the hoardings and scaffolding from its full refurb ….. and that new footbridge is coming down too) and rebuilt with two extra tracks aside a new platform. A new high level concourse will match London Bridge’s for size and there are plans for a huge over development to help fund it all. London Bridge’s track realignment and sort out included just one new ‘dive-under’ at Bermondsey. The Croydon project will see 16 (yes 16) dive-unders to sort out the tracks heading towards Selhurst and Norwood Junction. It’s reckoned the whole scheme could take 6-10 years to build.

So, all in all it’s probably good that this ‘Biggest Rail Replacement ever’ just ending has worked well with excellent organisation, huge resources and enthusiastic staff. It’s been an interesting week and perhaps a useful taster for what’s to come further up the line in the years ahead!

 

Oh; nearly forgot, one final thought … let’s just hope there’s no mishaps over the weekend which will cause any overrun into Monday morning. Us passengers can be an unforgiving lot, and with no free cookies, coffee vouchers and cherry Replacement Bus Makers around on Monday it’ll be carnage on the reputation front.   Fingers crossed.

Roger French

Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 1.

Sunday 17th February 2019

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 15.00.18.pngIt’s been publicised for over a year; preparations have been going on behind the scenes for much longer than that. It was originally planned to happen last October. Now we’re finally on the cusp of the biggest rail replacement ever as the nine day Brighton Main Line closure is hours away from its first real test. Tomorrow, Monday, heralds a five day working week with no trains on one of the country’s busiest commuter main lines between Brighton and Lewes and Three Bridges.

Weekend closures are nothing new for Brighton line commuters south of Three Bridges. Thirteen of the eighteen weekends between 5/6 January and 4/5 May 2019 are marked down for closures to some extent. Weekend leisure travellers are well used to bus replacements or long detours via Littlehampton over the last few years. But this is the first time regular weekday commuters will be hit with journey times to London typically more than doubling from around an hour to two and a quarter hours or more.

The original plan was to close the lines in two school half term weeks, last October 2018 as well as February 2019, but after the May 2018 timetable meltdown rail top brass realised that a level of disruption of such scale coming weeks after a summer of chaos and cancellations would break the resolve of even the most hardened Brighton commuter. The October closure was scrapped and replaced with additional weekend closures.

With reliability returning to the line during the late summer and autumn and more journeys added back to the timetable in the December 2018 change, it was felt, not unreasonably, that the February half term shut down should go ahead.

The work is being promoted as part of the Brighton Main Line Improvement Project which was bequeathed £300m by the Department for Transport for a ‘Thameslink Resilience Programme’. This particular work is grabbing £67m of that pot and will see tunnels relined to prevent leaks, signalling upgrades, replacement and upgrades of conductor rails, shoring up cuttings and embankments, fence replacements as well as deep cleans at the closed stations.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 15.05.50.pngThe Project team are regularly tweeting photographs from up and down the line of the vast orange army hard at work already, just in case any of us were wondering what was going on. Expect the rail industry PR machine to be in overdrive over the next week with more amazing statistics of what’s being achieved. I can’t help having a cynical smile at the use of language for projects of this kind. If I get an engineer in to fix a new part to my washing machine, I don’t call it ‘improvement works’ I call it a repair. The norm should be a railway that works properly. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘improvement works’ to reach that status. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking after a nine day closure as well as umpteen weekends of disruption I don’t just want to know that the advertised service is now ‘improved’ as in it’s going to be as it should be anyway. I’d have preferred ‘improvement’ to mean having more trains and better comfort on board. These are what we used to call ‘engineering works’.

But you can’t argue with the concept of a nine day closure being better than having countless weekends of disruption throughout the year (although it seems like we have close to that anyway) and I can see the logic in ‘blockade management’ for efficient completion of the work. And it makes sense to choose half term week.

So what can we expect tomorrow?

IMG_8798.jpgHaving had a look round the Three Bridges Bus Hub (to give it its technical name) today I must say I’m mightily impressed. GTR and Network Rail have definitely pulled out all the stops (well actually they’ve put a number of stops in – and all clearly labelled too! More on that shortly). Chastened by appalling publicity for weekend rail replacements which went disastrously wrong between Redhill and Gatwick Airport last year with insufficent buses and staff, this time round there won’t be problems because of a lack of resources. There are high viz wearing ‘helpers’ and buses and coaches everywhere.

IMG_8797.jpgThe numbers tell the story. Around 250 buses and coaches, 500 bus drivers and control staff and an extra 300 temporary agency staff have been hired for the duration. That’s bigger than the whole of Reading Buses as a bus company, for example.

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IMG_8809.jpgThe Three Bridges Bus Hub is an impressive bus station under a substantial marquee with seven bus stops and an extra one spare and all departure points are clearly labelled with destinations served.

IMG_8795.jpgThere’s seating, toilets and a refreshment area. There’s a counter with activity books for children and free giveaways for adults. There are staff aplenty to guide you every step of the way. And they were all smiling and looked to be enjoying their work.

IMG_8805.jpgIMG_8804.jpgIMG_8807.jpgA footbridge and covered walkway has been constructed to take passengers leaving trains and heading for bus connections over the roadway to avoid bus and pedestrian conflict, but if flat crossing is needed, there are marshalls on hand to help. I spotted staff happily carrying bags and suitcases for passengers.

IMG_8796.jpgIMG_8813.jpgIMG_8841.jpgThere was even a police presence outside the station directing traffic. Yes, I know! Well, actually they were preventing ‘kiss and drop’ passengers clogging up the normal bus stop right outside.

IMG_8843.jpgRather ominously as you enter the walkway to the footbridge and over to the marquee you’re greeted with “queuing time” posters and the first one warns of an hour’s delay! Crikey, I really really hope tomorrow doesn’t see that contingency being needed.

IMG_8790.jpgIMG_8792.jpgIMG_8794.jpgIMG_8800.jpgIMG_8802.jpgMuch thought has obviously gone into planning the replacement bus routes, but the planners seem to be following a principle of lowering expectations and aiming to over deliver. That philosophy works in normal business but I’m not sure it’s the best policy at times of serious disruption to the norm. For example, Twitter was alive on Friday with complaints there are no fast buses between Brighton and Three Bridges. And the publicly available information indeed confirms this as being the case. But behind the scenes there are fast buses, it’s just that they’re trying to encourage Brightonians heading for Gatwick Airport, East Croydon and London to use the diverted trains via Littlehampton and the associated extended journey time, rather than over filling the buses up the A23.

There’s a logic to this, as you can’t possibly replicate the capacity of a Class 700 Thameslink train or a 12 coach Class 387 Gatwick Express leaving Brighton at 7.30am with the same capacity on buses and coaches. Spreading the load is a good idea. But I do think it would be better to be honest with passengers, as they’ll soon find out the options and realise fast buses are running, and will probably be a quicker option and act accordingly and be scornful of the lack of clear information.

For my own home station, Hassocks, there are no fast buses advertised to Three Bridges yet there are, as you discover when you get to Three Bridges. It’s inconsistencies like this which annoy people.

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IMG_8806.jpgPosters at stations advising of journey times are helpful, but again they’re giving rather pessimistic times compared to what reality will be. It’s also a pity such posters weren’t available weeks ago, rather than just appearing on Friday. We’ve been told to “plan ahead” by on train announcements played out every hour for the past six months yet how could you have properly planned ahead without such vital information as journey times?

My other bugbear is the lack of compensation for passengers. There’s a section at the back of the comprehensive ‘Employee Handbook’ given to the hundreds of staff involved in the project called ‘Delay Repay’ which states coldly “There will be NO ADDITIONAL COMPENSATION for customers” (yes, it’s even in block capitals). This is a poor show. GTR must be receiving compensation as part of its management contract from the DfT for the extra costs being incurred during this period. The many bus and coach companies involved in providing the 250 replacement vehicles will all be making a profit margin. The coffee and tea vendors, the marquee providers, the footbridge installers, the agency staff providers, the contractors for Network Rail, all the suppliers of the equipment being used to replace track, signals, tunnel roofs and conductors rails, the sub contractors, the sub sub contractors will ALL be making a nice tidy profit over these nine days. Yet the passengers – the ones who are actually being inconvenienced going about their daily lives – get nothing. We’re not even allowed to use the cheaper Thameslink ticket on a Southern train arriving at Three Bridges after an hours additional journey only to find it’s that brand and colour of train that’s departing first. This really is shameful and penny pinching on a £67m project.

It would have done wonders for goodwill if a token five per cent price reduction had been introduced for the week, or a flat £1 off ticket prices from stations affected plus some reimbursement for season ticket holders.

As it is it will only be the most hardened commuters who I suspect will be out tomorrow. The talk on the platforms and trains last week was of people taking the week off, working from home or staying up in London for the duration. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up quieter than a Christmas to New Year period and many of those buses and coaches, some of which have come all the way from the Go-Ahead Group’s Gateshead based bus company, Go North East, will not all be needed nor will queueing times stretch back to that 1 hour mark!

We’ll soon see in Part 2 of this blog…….

Roger French