Train or plane to Edinburgh?

Friday 18th October 2019

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There’s rightly a lot of discussion about the impact of travelling by plane in the context of our global climate emergency; it pangs my conscious whenever I take a flight, and I don’t do it very often, and when I do it’s between London and Scotland, the Scottish islands or across the Irish Sea.

With my trip to Edinburgh earlier this week I decided to fly northbound and take the train southbound and see how the journeys compared for convenience, cost and time.

This is pertinent with LNER now running Azuma trains on four journeys a day between Edinburgh and London Kings Cross with many more journeys including to Aberdeen and Inverness becoming Azuma operated during the coming weeks as the old Class 91 and Mark 4 coaches and HSTs are withdrawn.

Living at the southern end of the Brighton Main Line means Gatwick Airport is a handy interchange point to fly north as I’m passing through in any event to get to and from London; this gives the plane an in built time advantage over the train which wouldn’t apply if I was beginning my journey closer to central London and had to make my way out to Heathrow, down to Gatwick, over to City Airport or even Luton or Stansted.

I also am unnecessarily cautious at allowing plenty of time at Gatwick even though I check in beforehand online, never have luggage to drop off, and never experience any delays to get through security. I’m sure I could easily arrive at Gatwick Airport station thirty minutes before a flight departure, even allowing for a transfer to the North Terminal and still easily catch a plane. But I never risk it.

IMG_1076.jpgEven though I find hanging around airports extremely frustrating I always seem to over allow time. And so it was on Tuesday afternoon when I was booked on the British Airways flight at 16:55 from Gatwick to Edinburgh; I reckoned I needed to catch the Thameslink train from Hassocks at 15:18 arriving Gatwick at 15:45.

Time for a coffee before going through security (I’ve learnt prices get hiked in outlets airside and don’t like getting ripped off) then to the x-ray machines where there was no queue and I was soon wandering through the walkway maze that houses the duty free perfumeries and oversized chocolate bar sales outlets to find a seat. I was in for a long wait as the departure screens were showing an hours delay to my flight with an expected 17:55 departure and “gate info at 17:02” (very precise).

As I whiled away the hour I worked out had I stayed on the 15:18 train, it would have got me to St Pancras at 16:30 so could have easily caught the 17:00 LNER departure from Kings Cross to Edinburgh arriving at 21:21.

I also mulled over the comparative fares. I’d booked my BA flight way back on 19th July (pretty much three months in advance) and consequently got a bargain price of £34.72. What’s quite extraordinary is £13 of this sum is Air Passenger Duty and BA also state £14.72 is a Passenger Service Charge (whatever that is) leaving just £7 as the actual fare for the journey.

By comparison I looked at the fares for the same journey if I’d booked on Monday, the day before travelling, and the price had shot up to £208 for economy class, and bizarrely a cheaper £169 for Business Class. Interestingly a later departure at 20:55 on Tuesday evening was showing a much more reasonable fare of just £40 for economy (£139 Business class) which for the day before, is not bad at all.

I also checked prices for the following day (ie 48 hours ahead) which quoted £44 on the 07:20 departure; £168 on a 17:30 departure and £208 for the 20:55 departure which just goes to show pricing is all over the place on planes depending on how many other passengers happen to be travelling.

British Airways operate three journeys a day between Gatwick and Edinburgh (one early morning, one late afternoon and one in the evening with precise times varying day by day). There are also eleven departures from Heathrow and ten (sometimes more, sometimes less) from City Airport. EasyJet fly 4 or 5 times from Gatwick, 3 or 4 from Luton and 4 or 5 times from Stansted and have a similar pricing policy. Overall there are around 37 to 40 flights a day from London’s airports to Edinburgh. LNER run 28 trains between the two cities.

Having contemplated all that, boarding finally commenced for my flight on Tuesday at 17:40 and we were all seated and ready to go at 18:00 pushing back ready for taxi-ing soon after that and we finally took off at 18:25 (luckily on the westerly runway so minimised taxi-ing time on the ground). Had I caught the 17:00 LNER train from Kings Cross I’d have been approaching Doncaster on the non-stop part of the journey with first station York (assuming that had no delays).

In the event, it took my BA aeroplane just twenty five minutes to be flying over Doncaster as the First Officer coincidentally announced on the PA that we were making good progress at 18:50 and as we flew over York a few minutes later, that LNER train had just pulled out of that station.

We landed into Edinburgh Airport at 19:25 pulling on to the stand at 19:30 and I was off the plane at 19:35 and on to a Lothian bus on Airlink 100 which left at 19:50 arriving into central Edinburgh by Waverley Station at 20:15.

At 20:15 the LNER train which had left Kings Cross at 17:00 was just north of Morpeth and arrived into Waverley just over an hour later at 21:19. Now, had I lived in London within say, half an hour’s journey from Kings Cross and had to make it out to one of the aforementioned London’s airports the timings would have been remarkably similar, albeit my plane comparison included that hour’s delay – but I’m finding that’s becoming quite a common occurence as airlines go for very tight turnarounds and little slack in the schedules making for delayed departures in the afternoons and evenings.

What time you gain in the air, you lose at the airport and getting to and from the airport (especially if you’re a cautious traveller on allowances for delays as I am).

IMG_1251.jpgLNER’s London to Edinburgh’s prices are also comparable to some of BA and EasyJet’s bargain basement rates and can even match that eye-catching £34.72 giveaway I got with BA, especailly if you book in advance as soon as the tickets become available, and have a Railcard, and travel standard class (which has comparable leg room and comfort to a BA or EasyJet plane in economy). For example, I booked the return journey I made on Wednesday at 12:00 from Edinburgh to Kings Cross only four weeks ahead on 16th September when the price quoted was £51 for standard class which is just £33.65 with a Railcard. I choose to upgrade to First Class at £80 and paid £52.80 with my Railcard.

I made a similar comparison with prices quoted if I’d booked just twenty four hours ahead and checked on Tuesday morning what fares were still available for the 12:00 journey. These were £70 Standard Class and £132.50 First Class before Railcard discounts. Even walk up fares are priced competitively with last minute airline prices with a super-off peak single Standard Class at £146.40 and an off-peak First Class £205 on the train.

And, of course, First Class does offer a complimentary dining option with proper crockery and cutlery and hot meals – something I’ll be writing about in more detail in an upcoming blogpost.

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So, my conclusion is, pricing is broadly comparable between plane and train, and for me, living close to Gatwick Airport, flying has the advantage over taking the train to Scotland if time saving is important (particularly for onward travel if relevant), but for the enjoyment of travelling you can’t beat the train. for those living closer to central London, I’d say the train wins every time when travelling to Edinburgh.

Roger french

 

 

Xpress Dundee done, (and Airlink)

Wednesday 16th October 2019

IMG_1123.jpgXplore Dundee, the National Express owned bus company in Dundee, launched a brand new airport express coach service back in June linking the city directly with Edinburgh Airport via the A90 and M90.

IMG_1120.jpgFour months on I thought it was a good time to take a look and see how it was doing so took a ride north from the airport earlier this morning and was pleasantly surprised and suitably impressed at how well it’s doing.

Airport services are notoriously hard to build custom for as they lack regular customers day in and day out; it takes a huge effort to get the service known in the marketplace and persuade passengers flying in and out of the airport to change their travel habits.

IMG_1122.jpgThis airport service, numbered X90 (although not prominently displayed), runs seven days a week every ninety minutes with an end to end eighty minute scheduled journey time meaning two coaches are needed to run the very intensive 24/7 service – with just one return journey missing in the middle of the night.

IMG_1232.jpgFares are reasonable for an airport service of this kind at £16 single and £22 return with advanced booking rates of £12 single/£18 return and other discounts for students and families. Scottish concessionary passholders travel free.

The X90 departs from stance E right outside the entrance to Edinburgh Airport’s terminal building, although the shelter is dominated by advertisements and promotional posters for First Glasgow’s route 600 I wrote about back in July.

IMG_1126.jpgThere is a timetable for the X90 displayed together with fares information.

IMG_1106.jpgI arrived in good time this morning to watch the 08:20 arrival from Dundee which came in at 08:12 and an impressive 22 passengers alighted.

IMG_1125.jpgThe driver supervised the unloading of luggage from the lockers and then got straight back in the ‘cab’ to load up the twelve of us waiting for the departure at 08:30.

IMG_1127.jpgI was a bit surprised to see a farebox by the entrance door of the coach and was relieved to see a contactless Ticketer ticket machine by the driver who confirmed cash was taken (as well as bank cards) and put in the box and reassured me change was available if needed.

IMG_1130.jpgIt all seemed a bit of an odd arrangement if drivers carry cash for change giving to have a farebox. Still, none of the eleven other passengers paid cash either as most had an advance ticket or a concessionary pass so the farebox was an irrelevance.

We left spot on time at 08:30 with a local radio station playing quietly on the driver’s in-cab radio and made our way via the A8 to the M90 and were soon crossing the new Forth Road Bridge.

IMG_1135.jpgThe road layout means it’s easier for Dundee bound buses and coaches to use this route rather than the newly classified ‘bus and coach only’ old Fourth Road Bridge.

IMG_1128.jpgThe coach was presentable and comfortable. Leg room was adequate. There was a toilet on board but no usb sockets nor wi-fi showing its age but it was a smooth non-stop journey, literally, all the way to Dundee where we arrived 70 minutes later at 09:40.

I noticed we passed the southbound coach on the M90 after exactly 35 minutes travelling indicating the 80 minute scheduled timing looks to include a generous ten minute allowance for delays. We hit the outskirts of Dundee exactly one hour after leaving the airport at 09:30.

IMG_1148.jpgAs we arrived at the terminus in Dundee which is at a stop midway between the train station and main city centre bus stops, there was already a good crowd of about 18 passengers waiting to board the next departure at 10:00.

IMG_1150.jpgThe arriving driver jumped out to help unload luggage for those from the airport and load luggage of waiting passengers while a fresh driver got in the cab to check tickets calling out those pre-booked should come on board first. It seemed a slick operation.

Twitter followers with local knowledge advise the service has been doing so well that duplicates have run in the afternoons which is very encouraging to hear.

IMG_E1258.jpgXplore Dundee certainly seem to be on to a winner with the X90 and a few more months of growth will no doubt see a frequency increase to hourly – certainly by next summer I would think. It’s heartening to see a new market being developed successfully especially as I didn’t detect a major spend on promotional collateral for the X90.

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Indeed I was flummoxed trying to find out about the service on the Xplore Dundee website with nothing about the service on the home page and to find the timetable I needed to know the route number for the Find A Timetable tab, which I didn’t know, so first had to Google search that!

IMG_1107.jpgAt Edinburgh airport I noticed when exiting both the domestic and international arrivals just past a stylised map of the Airlink network you’re directed to the exit towards the tram terminus and then have to walk back via the bus stops for Lothian’s 200/400 and 100 Airlink routes before reaching the X90 stance.

IMG_1111.jpgAt least the X90 is listed on the information displays inside the terminal though, if you look hard enough.

IMG_1112.jpgI also noticed if you turn right from arrivals rather than as directed left, you reach a more convenient exit right by stance E and interestingly pass by a ScotRail ticket vending machine (TVM) which is programmed to sell tickets to all stations and checking Dundee brought up an inclusive bus and train ticket using the Stagecoach 747 to Inverkeithing on its route to Halbeath Park and Ride. Ironically the TVM idle screen makes reference to ‘Xpress’ – the branding used by Xplore Dundee!

IMG_1113.jpgI doubt many passengers would spot this TVM, let alone use it for what is now a longer and more expensive journey to Dundee involving a change from bus to train so perhaps not surprising the X90 is doing so well.

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Whilst at the airport last night and this morning I also tried out Lothian’s new tri-axle E400 buses recently introduced on their Airlink 100 route which runs frequently between the airport and city centre.

IMG_1119.jpgThese really are massive beasts – more tri-axle mega sized Enviro 400s – and their new livery definitely gives them a classier presence than previously.

IMG_1092.jpgI travelled into Edinburgh yesterday evening and enjoyed the mood lighting upstairs until spotlights suddenly came on right above my head sitting in the front nearside giving a feeling of being rather under a floodlight – especially when they got even brighter when we stopped at a bus stop and the doors opened.

IMG_1095.jpgThe new interiors have done away with tables in favour of more plush seating with a deep red patterned moquette which looked a little dated when I first saw it but grew on me as I travelled and the seats were certainly very comfortable…

IMG_1101.jpg….except the back row of five on the upper deck which were far too upright and very uncomfortable.

IMG_1097.jpgIMG_1099.jpgAt the front of the upper deck there are five single seats on the nearside which makes for a larger circulation area at the top of the stairs.

IMG_1102.jpgThe lower deck has a large offside luggage rack as before, although I understand there are plans to extend this as it’s slightly smaller than previously existed. It looked pretty big to me but I know passengers are wedded to more and larger luggage in their travels than ever before. The buses also have centre exit doors.

IMG_1103.jpgAs with Lothian’s previous batch of tri-axles there are two large monitors at the front of the upper deck with one giving next stop announcements including, uniquely, sign language as the audio plays out, while the other has more generic marketing material as well as airline departures from the airport and estimated arrival times at upcoming stops by the bus, although last night this was erroneously showing the next journey rather than the current one.

IMG_1086.jpgI travelled back to the airport earlier this morning just as it was getting light so had the opportunity to see the livery close up. It’s classy.

IMG_1117.jpgIt’s definitely an improvement on what went before and I noticed the new brand colours have been followed through to signs and posters at the airport as well as the ticket office by the departure stance.

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I bought my £7.50 return ticket, which is good value, on Lothian’s mobile app and luckily spotted these are only valid once activated for five minutes so held back activating until I was confident the bus doors were opening and I could step aboard.

IMG_E1080.jpgUnlike First’s route 500 from Glasgow airport which takes the motorway and runs fast into the city centre. Lothian’s Airlink runs limited stop along the A8 past Edinburgh Zoo and Murrayfield stadium among the stops observed. Journey time is half an hour and it’s a fairly swish ride utilising bus lanes for much of the way.

I would imagine the interior could feel slightly claustrophobic on a very busy bus at peak times, but both my journeys last night and this morning were lightly loaded and I enjoyed smooth and comfortable rides on two very impressive looking buses.

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Roger French

New trains into service in 2019 Part 9: TPE’s Nova 1 (Class 802)

Saturday 12th October 2019

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GWR opted for a modest launch at Paddington and Bristol of their Hitachi Class 800 trains they call IET (Inter-city Express Train) two years ago; characteristically LNER went for the high profile with dry ice, Mallard, Flying Scotsman, bagpipes and more approach as they launched their Azuma branded version this spring and summer on the east coast mainline, but TransPennine Express (TPE) have once again gone for a very soft launch for their new Nova 1 branded bi-mode Class 802s. If you don’t follow specialist websites, you’d never know one was now out on the tracks.

In fact the first TPE Class 802 slipped out on 28th September for one return trip from Newcastle (06:03) to Liverpool and back (09:35). The second outing was today and luckily for me this coincided with a long planned visit to Leeds this weekend so I hopped on board and took an afternoon return journey up to Newcastle to try out this latest new train to hit the tracks.

IMG_1043.jpgUnsurprisingly the interior layout is similar to the GWR and LNER versions of the same class.

IMG_1032.jpgOn the all important seat comfort issue, it may all be in the mind (and for all I know the seats may all be the same, albeit with different moquette) but I found these Nova 1 standard class seats very similar to LNER’s Azuma and better than GWR’s IET …

IMG_1001.jpg…. with the first class seats more disappointing being akin to GWR’s and not as good as LNER’s.

IMG_1011.jpgNeither class of seat felt as good as I found on the loco hauled CAF built Nova 3 coaches I reviewed on 23rd September but as in that case, never mind comfort, it’s a real luxury to have a five coach train bringing much needed extra capacity across the Pennines as these trains supplant the busy three coach diesel Class 185s.

Boarding a Saturday lunchtime departure (13:52) from Leeds towards York and Newcastle and finding oodles of empty seats to choose from really was a treat.

IMG_1004.jpgLike the Nova 3 coaches there are plenty of tables as well as airline seats.

IMG_1006.jpgThe middle three coaches (B, C and D) have eight ‘tables for four’ with coach A having four tables as it also has a universal accessible toilet although there’s no wheelchair space in coach A.

IMG_1002.jpgThe two wheelchair spaces are in coach E where the first class seats can be found and where there’s also another universal accessible toilet.

IMG_1026.jpgI’m assuming the same arrangements for passengers using wheelchairs apply as explained in my Nova 3 review, that is, standard class passengers and their companion may use the spaces in first class and I guess strictly speaking miss out on the complimentary refreshments – which only amounts to tea, coffee, hot chocolate, cold soft drinks and biscuits/crisps/cake in any event.

First class seats are arranged 2+1 with three ‘tables for four’ and airline style single seats including the inevitable windowless places too at the ends of each coach.

IMG_1005.jpgI found the upright position of the first class seats rather too upright while the laid back option was a bit too laid back. I’m probably being far too finicky though!

These Nova 1 trains are bi-mode which comes in very useful on the route they’re on between Liverpool and Newcastle with its mixed running. The trains are in electric mode using a pantograph between Liverpool and Manchester Victoria then switch to diesel through Huddersfield and Leeds to York and then switch back to electric mode with pantograph on the east coast mainline to Newcastle. It’s the first time a train has switched modes twice on a journey.

Accelerating away from Leeds was impressive but even more so when we left York under the wires.

The train I caught was fleet number 820 207 which as you can see hasn’t yet had any vinyl treatment so looked rather anonymous and bare in its base grey colour.

IMG_1029.jpgI understand it was its first day out in service having done at least two weeks worth of testing ‘out of service’ so I was a bit surprised it had begun it’s revenue earning life in an undressed state.

This meant there was no indication which coach was lettered A, B, C, D or E for those passengers with reservations and coach E was only identified as first class if you knew what 2+1 seating signifies.

IMG_1038.jpgI sat in coach E on my trip from Leeds between York and Newcastle and back this afternoon and was never asked to show my ticket – not even when served with refreshments, which seemed a bit odd.

(I’d taken advantage of split ticketing, using both standard and first class, and buying ‘TPE only’ off-peak returns to travel Leeds-York standard class and York-Newcastle first class all for a Railcard £42.65 return – and managing to book it using one of Northern’s large size TVM’s thanks to help from my Twitter friend Lee Render who I met in Leeds and a ‘floor walking’ Northern team member.)

Heading towards Newcastle we picked up good loads at York, Darlington and Durham as well as stops at Northallerton and Chester-le-Street. At the latter the train manager made an inaudible announcement about the rear coach remaining locked due to a short platform (at least I think that’s what he said). Sadly neither the dot matrix signs or automatic announcements were working and I noticed there were no large tv type screens in the coaches as installed in the Nova 3 coaches.

IMG_1037.jpgThe electronic traffic light style reservation system was also not working so old style cards were inserted into slots on the seat backs.

IMG_1014.jpgThere are two three-pin sockets and one USB socket under each pair of standard class seats with each first class seat having both types of socket at the rear of the arm rests.

IMG_1010.jpgThere was Wi-fi but I couldn’t get it to register on my smartphone so gave up.

As on GWR and LNER there were cycle and large luggage stores….

IMG_1003.jpg… and vertical luggage racks at the coach ends.

IMG_1031.jpgThe standard class seat back trays are quite something …

IMG_1050.jpg… as is the snazzy carpet….

IMG_1007.jpgThe driver seemed to open the doors and it was noticeable as the Newcastle bound train pulled into Leeds how long it took between the train stopping and the doors opening – almost thirty seconds. It was better at other stations. The train manager seems responsible for closing the doors.

With a single leaf door at both ends of each coach (as in the Nova 3 coaches) instead of double doors one-third and two-thirds along each coach (on the class 185s) there’s a risk that dwell times will be extended.

However on my Liverpool bound return journey arriving into Leeds at 17:31 with a very busy load after we got hammered at York it was noticeable how relatively short the dwell time was (spot on the scheduled three minutes) and broadly similar to the Newcastle bound class 185 on the opposite platform.

IMG_1052.jpgThese Nova 1 class 802 trains are a great improvement on the class 185s they’re replacing not because there’s anything wrong with the 185s as a train, it’s just they’re out of their depth and lacking capacity for the job in hand.

TPE have got nineteen Nova 1 trains on order for both the Liverpool and Manchester Airport to Newcastle services which is due to be extended to Edinburgh in December, and together with LNER’s Azumas will make the northern end of the east coast mainline quite a class 800/802 stronghold.

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IMG_1035.jpgRoger French

2019 is the year of the new train. My previous new train reviews from earlier this year can be found here: 1 Class 707; 2 D Trains; 3 Sleepers; 4 Azumas; 5 Class 7106 Class 195 and 331; 7 Class 755; 8 Nova 1;

Farewell 48 after fifty years

Friday 11th October 2019

IMG_0955.jpgTfL’s next round of reductions to bus routes servIng central London begins tomorrow. This one is much less extensive than in June, involving changes to just a handful of routes, most significant of which is the complete withdrawal of route 48 between London Bridge and Walthamstow Central station.

Introduced as part of the big ‘reshaping’ change in September 1968, route 48 replaced parts of long standing routes 35 and 38A in the shake up to coincide with the opening of the Victoria Line. Now, just over fifty years later, route 48’s time is up and the nineteen buses it takes to run its ten minute frequency (12 minutely on Sundays) will be saved from the schedule; except it’s not a complete saving as there’ll be compensatory increases in vehicles needed for a short extension of route 388 from Liverpool Street down to London Bridge and, at the northern end, route 55 gets extended from Leyton Green up to Walthamstow Central while route 26 which parallels the 48 between Liverpool Street and South Hackney goes from every ten minutes to every seven-and-a-half minutes throughout its route between Waterloo and Hackney Wick.

I took a ride on route 48 yesterday for one last nostalgic time to see what the implications of all these short extensions and alternative parallel running might be.

IMG_0870.jpg Notices letting everyone know about the 48’s demise are stuck to the bus shelters in London Bridge and all reference to the 48 has been removed from the bus stop flag and timetable case. The notices explain the options of catching a newly extended 388 as far as Hackney, but as that routes uses Bethnal Green Road instead of Hackney Road between Shoreditch and Cambridge Heath, the suggestion is to hop off a 388 (or 149) and on to a 26 at Bishopgate (late correction on the notice by the look of it too!).

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 20.08.05.pngRoute 55 is the main alternative for the 48 once you hit the junction of Old Street and Shoreditch High Street as it parallels the 48 all the way to Leyton and as mentioned above will now continue on to Walthamstow Central.

Whereas the 55 runs every 7-8 minutes, the 388 is only every 12 minutes so passengers heading into and out of London Bridge face a reduction of one bus per hour compared to now, and ironically on my off-peak journey yesterday morning, that was the busiest part of the route as we took passengers towards Monument, Fenchurch Street, Liverpool Street and Shoreditch.

IMG_0871.jpgI noticed the bus stop route number tile removal contractors had already been along the route taking any reference to the 48 down and shuffling all the other tiles neatly along and up so the blank appears in the bottom right, but as always they left a few random bus stops untouched which I’m sure they do deliberately just to create anomalies and wind people like me up.

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There were already two New Routemaster buses screened for route 48 laying over at London Bridge when I arrived at about 10:20 yesterday morning and my bus pulled forward to the bus stop after another five minutes with twelve of us getting on board for the 10:27 departure.

IMG_0868.jpgI bagged the upstairs nearside front seat, with the offside seat already occupied by someone even more fanatical than me who was obviously going to miss the 48 so much he was videoing the whole journey for prosperity on his mobile phone through the front upper deck window; so that made at least two of us, as well as the driver, making the full journey through to Walthamstow Central.

The first stop at the southern end of London Bridge saw us pick up about another ten passengers making for around twenty or so on board. Heading north along Gracechurch Street towards Liverpool Street station and Shoreditch at a sedate pace it was soon evident we were going to have ample time in the schedule to complete our journey.

IMG_0878.jpgWe passed Liverpool Street at 10:39 arriving at Shoreditch Church at 10:44 which turned out to be six minutes ahead of our scheduled 10:50 departure. But it’s all about headway in London rather than strict adherence to a scheduled timetable, so we pressed on with no word from the controller to check our timings. We probably now only had about ten or a dozen on board as we continued north along Shoreditch High Street before turning east on to Hackney Road where we joined parallel route 55 (as well as the 26 which had been with us since before Liverpool Street) and pass close to Hoxton Station on the Overground East London line to Highbury & Islington.

Hackney Road brings us to Cambridge Heath station where our trajectory changes from heading east to due north again as we parallel another Overground line towards Enfield, Cheshunt and Chingford.

IMG_E0923.jpgA bus on route 55 overtakes as we stop to pick up a passenger and I was expecting we’d shadow each other for the rest of the journey except when we arrive at Hackney Town Hall at 11:00 the inevitable “the driver has been instructed to wait at this bus stop for a short time to help even out the service” announcement comes over the PA.

IMG_0917.jpg‘A short time’ turns out to be four minutes and as we reach Hackney Central Station a minute further on at 11:05 I notice we’re still four minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time of 11:09.

IMG_0925.jpgAnother bus on route 55 passes us as we round the Clapton Pond roundabout to head east again at 11:13 (scheduled time 11:18) keeping our sedate pace along the Lea Bridge Road and with around a dozen on board losing ones and twos here and there and gaining ones or twos who eschew the 55 in preference to us instead.

As we get closer to Leyton’s Bakers Arms more passengers catch us in preference to the 55 just in front as they obviously want to travel all the way to Walthamstow.

Our total load doesn’t increase very much and we pull into Walthamstow Central Station at 11:33 with sixteen passengers alighting including my offside front seat videoing buddy who’s captured the whole 66 minute journey and may even have uploaded to YouTube by now.

IMG_0942.jpgOur scheduled arrival was 11:45 so we made it to the Walthamstow terminus twelve minutes early and as a 48 was just leaving back towards London Bridge, my bus went to join two others on the allotted layover stand with a departure back south for my bus not until 12:01 making for a rather generous 28 minute layover!

IMG_0943.jpgAt Walthamstow there were more posters explaining the 48 would soon be a route of the past giving details of alternatives (including the 26 and 388 which go nowhere near Walthamstow of course) and a new 55 timetable panel was already in situ, but no mention on the bus stop flag – presumably another contractor does that.

IMG_0946.jpgI’d also spotted at London Bridge the spider map hadn’t been updated but the ‘where to catch your bus’ panel had….IMG_0869.jpg… whereas at Walthamstow Central, bizzarely, the opposite was the case with a new spider map (minus the 48) but a yet to be updated ‘where to catch your bus’ panel.

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IMG_0948.jpgPerhaps a different team look after central London to the suburbs, and yet another team do spider maps to the ‘where to catch your bus’ panels team. That would explain it.

From tomorrow the surplus New Routemaster buses from the 48 will start appearing on the 19 between Battersea Bridge and Finsbury Park as part of a mixed vehicle type allocation, which should confuse passengers about which door to board.

Aside from the 10 which bit the dust almost a year ago, the 48 is the next lowest route number to be lost from TfL’s non existent bus map but in reality, based on today’s experience, it isn’t going to be missed that much, provided the 388, 26 and 55 can do the business, which it looks as though they can.

It’s certainly a luxurious way of running buses having five of a route’s nineteen vehicle allocation standing idle at the termini at any one time together with sixteen minutes slack in the off peak running time; but that’s the unpredictable nature of traffic and the way contractual incentives in a franchised regime work in London for you.

Roger French

Pros and cons of franchising

Thursday 11th October 2019

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I spent an enjoyable couple of days this week helping to run the twice-a-year Young Bus Managers Network conference. It’s always an inspiring event to attend with such encouraging positive energy and enthusiasm emenating from around 80 to 100 young people in their twenties and thirties; some fresh faced into the industry from University this autumn while others exuding much more experience including career progression to operations, commercial or engineering managers from driver and the engineering shop floor.

This time we were based in Croydon and enjoyed a busy 25 hour period from lunchtime on Tuesday to mid afternoon on Wednesday with site visits to Arriva’s Croydon bus garage and Purley Way iBus control centre and fascinating talks and presentations from leading bus industry directors including Transport Commissioner for London, Mike Brown, managing director for Go-Ahead London, John Trayner and managing director of UNO Bus Jim Thorpe as well as three of our own Network members giving a presentation and other speakers on legal and regulatory compliance and an update on the latest DfT quarterly statistics for the bus industry.

IMG_0839.jpgThe task for the conference’s regular workshop session immediately after lunch was topically for the young managers to come up with three benefits of a “London style” franchise model for running buses, as well as three disbenefits. The report back after the group discussions brought forward an interesting selection of ideas which included…….

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Benefits of a public authority controlled bus network with private bus companies contracted to run specified routes at predetermined fares and ticket acceptance were assessed to be:

For the passenger: integrated travel with simplified pricing and no restrictions on ticket acceptance; a unified brand identity with consistent standards; potential for greater stability in the network during the life of tendered contracts.

For the local authority: potential to actively use buses to achieve modal shift from cars as part of an overall transport policy; accountability for public officials and local politicians overseeing the tender procurement process; potential to take a lead in handling customer service directly (as TfL does); direct link between bus provision and infrastructure requirements eg bus lanes.

For the bus company: a guaranteed income stream at fixed profit margins with no revenue risk; no expenditure incurred on marketing and publicity; all bus companies are judged by the same standards; bus companies can focus exclusively on customer service; entry into the market may be easier if tenders are let on a route basis

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Disbenefits were assessed to be:

For the passenger: entrepreneurial spirit and therefore innovation and creativity is stifled and likely to be absent with the public sector naturally more risk averse than the private sector; localised political pressure leading to skewed decisions about the network rather than it being market led; buses being dependant on political colour; lack of competitive pressure could mean higher (not cheaper fares) and less service provision.

For the local authority: taking the revenue risk (which is alien for a local authority culture) means harder to budget and can lead to short term decisions to correct shortfalls – but may not be possible due to contractual issues; the requirement for public funding will rise.

For the taxpayer: increased public funding will likely require higher taxation.

For the bus company: entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and creativity dies; failure in the tender market could mean loss of business; employees face uncertainty when contracts change hands; bus companies work for the contractor rather than directly for the customer; if tenders let on network basis may be difficult for small bus companies to enter the market.

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A lack of time meant these were just headlines from each group’s deliberations and a number made the point the benefits listed above for the passenger and local authority can also be achieved by effective partnership working between authority and bus company as exemplefied in towns and cities where there’s been consistent growth in passenger journeys for many years. Obviously for me, Brighton & Hove comes to mind but there are many other examples around the country, particularly where there’s a strong market for student travel where growth and innovation are endemic. In such places, the local authority can concentrate on the all important infrastructure issues and complimentary policies on parking and car restraint rather than having to be concerned at day to day revenue risk of running a bus fleet, something they’re not usually equipped to deal with.

This is all very timely with Transport for Greater Manchester embarking on its formal public consultation about plans for buses in that conurabtion. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.

Finally, off topic, I couldn’t let the opporunity pass over dinner on Tuesday evening to share my hobby horse with Mike Brown of there being no map for TfL’s bus network either online or in print form. Surprisingly enough he agreed with me, which just goes to show even a Transport Commissioner can’t always achieve what he knows is right to be done!

Roger French

 

43 years later in Cornwall

Sunday 6th October 2019

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I picked up an old Western National timetable book for Cornwall when visiting the Isle of Wight Bus Museum last weekend. It’s always fascinating to see how bus routes have changed over the decades so as I was heading down to Cornwall over this weekend I took it with me to compare and contrast May 1976 with October 2019. Would things have improved or deteriorated?

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I arrived at Bodmin Parkway station bang on time on GWR’s grandly named Cornish Riviera train at 13:50 thanks to the generous time allowance still pertaining on the Great Western for a few more weeks until the faster acceleration of the new bi-mode Hitachi trains is built into a tighter schedule on the Penzance timetable in December.

IMG_0449.jpgThere’s a good connection with Plymouth Citybus route 11/11A which runs from Plymouth to Padstow via Bodmin and Wadebridge.

IMG_0419.jpgThe bus also arrived on time (at 14:05) for the 14:07 departure and it was good to see a busy bus with a fair few already on board and thirteen passengers in addition to myself making the connection from train to bus.

IMG_0448.jpgRoute 11/11A operates hourly (two-hourly on Sundays) but back in 1976, I’d have had a long wait to get to Padstow arriving on a train at 13:50 as Western National’s route 575 left Bodmin Road station (before it got renamed to a Parkway in 1983) at 11:30 then nothing until 16:00.

IMG_0608.jpgThere were also departures at 07:50, 09:55, 1650, 18:20 and 20:20 with a summer only extra at 13:30 on Saturdays. So not particularly convenient bearing in mind there was once a railway plying its way along the route to Wadebridge/Padstow many years ago. Today’s hourly bus is definitely an improvement.

IMG_0532.jpgIn Padstow I switched to First Kernow’s picturesque route A5 for Newquay branded as part of their Atlantic Coaster network for bus routes around the coast to Lands End and Penzance.

IMG_0476.jpgI caught the 15:35 departure from Padstow, one of nine daytime journeys (ten in the summer) giving a roughly hourly service.

It wasn’t the cleanest of buses; in fact it was filthy with plastic drink bottles rolling around the floor and no end of crisp packets and other detritus ….

IMG_0550.jpg…. but the views from the top deck are amazing……

IMG_0551.jpgWe left Padstow with about fifteen on board and picked up another half dozen or so during the eighty minute journey which is quite spectacular taking in a number of Cornwall’s north coastal beaches accessed by precarious narrow lanes and some steep twisty inclines.

The route also serves Newquay Airport offering an hourly bus service for passengers flying in or out on the few flights there but no takers today.

IMG_0574.jpgBack in 1976 I’d have only been able to get as far as Constantine Bay about twenty minutes after Padstow on the four journey a day route Western National route 574 – and indeed would have had to catch the last journey of the day at 15:25 too.

IMG_E0795.jpgNo chance of getting as far as Newquay with Western National. Constantine Post Office would have been it. However it may be the neighbouring Southern National bus company also ran between Padstow and Newquay but sadly I don’t have their 1976 timetable to check. I doubt the service was better than today’s A5.

(Update note: thanks to reader comments since publishing this post it seems there were indeed significant unserved gaps including between Padstow and Newquay – Southern National having been absorbed into Western National well before 1976.)

From Newquay I took advantage of the St Columb Major bus interchange – established in Western Greyhound’s time in this market town where buses taking various routes between Newquay and Truro provide handy connections for journeys across this part of Cornwall.

IMG_0602.jpgMy early evening connection on Friday wasn’t particularly well timed catching the 17:35 route 93 from Newquay (it continues to Truro) arriving St Columb Major at 18:00 then having a 38 minute wait for route 95 on to Wadebridge.

IMG_0636.jpgThis would have been another journey served by Southern National as the Western National map inside the timetable book unhelpfully indicates there are no bus routes – you’d think NBC good practice would have insisted a coordinated map and timetable book for Cornwall in those so called halcyon nationalised regulated days!

(See update note above – it would seem there was no link from Newquay/Columb St Major to Wadebridge in 1976.)

IMG_E0606.jpgAfter an overnight stop off I headed north from a bus busy Wadebridge on Saturday morning along the coast via Polzeath and Port Isaac on the four journey a day scenic route 96.

IMG_0643.jpgTwo journeys a day on this route seamlessly continue to or from route 55 at Delabole back round to Bodmin via Camelford and Wenfordbridge including the first journey I caught which left Wadebridge at 08:35. This finally arrives in Bodmin at 11:21 giving an almost three hour round trip with some short breaks in Delabole and Camelford.

IMG_0645.jpgWe took only four passengers on the 96 including a surfer who got off in Polzeath where we also paused to wait time, the driver explaining during busy summer months he can often be seriously delayed meeting traffic on the very narrow roads.

IMG_0655.jpgFive passengers travelled on the 55 which included a diversion along the route due to a road closure in St Breward.

IMG_0658.jpgThis time we weren’t so lucky on the narrow roads meeting a tractor and trailer necessitating our driver having to skilfully reverse for about a mile.

IMG_0669.jpgI can’t make a comparison with 1976 as this was still Southern National territory but my guess is the small villages served on the 55 probably had about the same level of service.

(See update note above: my optimism was ill founded – no services existed of the 96 and 55 kind in 1976.)

IMG_0671.jpgFrom Bodmin I took route 27 through to Truro. This double deck hourly service doesn’t take the most direct route clocking up a journey time just under two hours and taking in Roche, Stenalees, Bugle, Penwithick and St Austell.

IMG_0783.jpgIt even takes in a trip around the Cornwall Services on the A30.

IMG_0678.jpgComparisons with 1976 are tricky as the 27 is an amalgam of two separate former routes (527 and 529) which ran on this corridor serving the aforementioned via points in a more logical order. But the combined routes only ran as far as St Austell at the same hourly frequency as today and with no Sunday service whereas today’s 27 has five journeys every two hours on Sundays.

IMG_0780.jpgWestern National route 532 ran hourly between St Austell and Truro every hour with three journeys on Sundays so a slightly better effort in 1976 almost matching today’s service.

From Truro I headed down to Falmouth on the busy route U1 which forms part of the network serving Exeter University’s outpost at Penryn.

IMG_0706.jpgThis provides a half hourly service from Truro as far as Penryn then every fifteen minutes into Falmouth ….

IMG_0784.jpg…. comparing very favourably with Western National’s route 590 which only ran hourly back in 1976 demonstrating very effectively the important part students play in today’s contemporary bus networks.

IMG_E0785.jpgI then took a lovely rural route, the 35, from Falmouth down to Helford Passage and back.

IMG_0735.jpgThis is another route serving small communities along very narrow roads (after its done a an annoying detour of some narrow residential roads in Falmouth where no one got on or off – as well as getting stuck behind a parked ambulance necessitating a long reverse and diversion) and impressively running to an approximate hourly frequency ….

IMG_0782.jpg…. whereas it’s predecessor route 563 in 1976 only ran two-hourly with three extra journeys on a variant 564 in the high summer.

IMG_E0779.jpgOnly three passengers travelled south from Falmouth on the outward journey but the return did better with seven on board. I saw a later departure from Falmouth at the end of the afternoon which had a much better load on board. It’s a lovely route.

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My surprising conclusion from taking these few random journeys is today’s bus frequencies compare extremely well with 1976 either being the same or much better than applied forty-three years ago. Certainly the quality of bus provided is now quite outstanding. Who said buses, including rural buses, have got worse?!

IMG_E0786.jpgEven better the latest First Kernow timetable book is a masterpiece in presentation, far better than the 1976 offering, with full colour maps and all routes operated by First included from Penzance to Bude making it more useful than in NBC days.

IMG_E0787.jpgOne small criticism: I’d like to see town maps of places like St Austell and Falmouth where route patterns are quite complex and virtually impossible to work out – something the 1976 book did do well. Although I appreciate these can be found in the separate comprehensive timetable book produced by Cornwall Council but this is not so widely available.

IMG_0781.jpgI know First Kernow have a nice map of Falmouth, for example, as I picked up a leaflet aimed at students on the U1 which contained one.

IMG_0788.jpgIt would be good to include this in the main book too.

IMG_E0790.jpgIMG_E0789.jpgAside from that, 43 years on, Cornwall Council working with First Kernow are providing a bus network that’s never looked so good. Well done to all concerned.

Roger French

Britain’s shortest bus route

Wednesday 2nd October

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I travelled on Britain’s longest bus route from Glasgow to Skye at the beginning of last month so decided to give Britain’s shortest bus route a ride today.

That accolade goes to Rosso’s route 13 between Rawtenstall bus station and the business and retail park in nearby New Hall Hey.

An exchange on Twitter a few months ago highlighted this route after I pointed out in presentations I made to the Omnibus Society and Friends of London Transport Museum a while ago that London’s shortest bus route is the 389 from Barnet to Western Way with its twelve minute journey out and ten minutes back*.

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A strong contender to beat that is the Reading Buses operated route 153 in Henley-on-Thames which takes just nine minutes to complete its full circular route via Abrahams Road.

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 12.12.09.pngBut outdoing that in the bus route brevity stakes is the aforementioned Rosso operated 13 which also runs to a circular format and scheduled to take just two minutes to reach the furthest bus stop away from the bus station in New Hall Hey and a relatively generous four minutes for the ‘return’ continuing around the circuit back to the bus station.

IMG_E0379.jpgI reckon at six minutes for a round trip Rosso’s route 13 holds the crown of being Britain’s shortest bus route …. unless readers know different?

The route runs hourly from 08:55 to 17:56 and has all the hallmarks of being a tendered route fitted in between other peak commitments for the bus and interworked with another route – the hourly 7/8 which links Rawtenstall with Todmorden/Burnley and just happens to have enough stand time in Rawtenstall to nip around New Hill Hay and back in six minutes.

I couldn’t resist a ride round the circuit and having just missed the 12:50 departure this afternoon decided to walk around most of the route first to stake it out.

IMG_0357.jpgIntriguingly the first bus stop I came across was on the opposite side of the road to the anti-clockwise loop the bus now takes, so not surprisingly found a prominent notice explaining this was no longer a bus stop.

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IMG_0359.jpgPerhaps at one time the bus took a different route and used this stop. Strange also that the bus stop opposite where the 13 does stop just had a poster advising passengers to check the next bus by using a phone rather than a timetable.

 

IMG_0361.jpgThere’s just one other bus stop served exclusively by the 13 in New Hill Hay – just by the level crossing for the East Lancs heritage railway.

 

IMG_0389.jpgBack at the bus station the 13:50 departure arrived from Burnley on its previous journey on route 8 a few minutes ahead of the 13:46 scheduled arrival and I was initially surprised to see a double decker allocated.

 

IMG_0376.jpgThe driver had time to enjoy a short cigarette break then climbed back on the bus ready to depart at 13:50 and promptly closed the doors. Luckily he saw me in the queue of passengers waiting for other buses indicating I wanted to board.

 

IMG_0369.jpgTo say he was surprised is an understatement. He asked me where I was going in an incredulous voice obviously not expecting any passengers to actually ride an hourly bus route that takes around three minutes travel time to reach a destination!

 

IMG_0381.jpgI explained I’d just come for the ride round and popped upstairs as I heard him mutter something about ‘having to do a school run after this’ – hence the double decker, I assume.

 

IMG_0386.jpgWe reached the first stop on the anti-clockwise circuit around the business and retail park at 13:53.

 

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IMG_0392.jpgAfter a short pause there we continued back round to the bus station arriving on time at 13:56. Job done.

 

IMG_0356.jpgThere’s not much more to say about the journey. If I hadn’t had a Transdev Daytripper ticket it would have cost me a flat fare of £1.60 which I assume would be for the whole circuit although the driver wasn’t very forthcoming on that. Probably because no one has ever been daft enough to do it before.

Before leaving Rawtenstall I took a look at progress on building the long awaited and desperately needed new replacement bus station sited directly opposite the well worn, long expired current edifice.

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The new bus station looks good both architecturally and from a practical user viewpoint.

It can’t open soon enough and the old one deservedly obliterated.

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Roger French

* With thanks as always to Mike Harris for his superb London bus map of which this is an extract.  Buy a copy from Mike here.

OS at 90

Monday 30th September 2019

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Waiting for the ‘off’ on Saturday morning from our Southampton hotel

The Omnibus Society marked its 90th anniversary over the weekend with its annual Presidential Weekend offering a brilliant programme of events based in the Solent area. Around a hundred members from all over the country attended the weekend hosted by this year’s president, Andrew Wickham, managing director of Go South Coast.

It’s a fantastic achievement for the OS to have reached its 90th anniversary and to mark the occasion a special souvenier publication has been produced charting its development from formation in 1929 by such legends as Charles F Klapper and Charles E Lee through to the present day.

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Throughout this time dedicated volunteers have recorded route and timetable developments of the country’s bus network from Shetland to Lands End as well as highlighting how bus types have changed through the decades. A bi-monthly national magazine, localised regional branch bulletins as well as regular meetings, visits and tours held around the country ensure members are kept well informed and receive an outstanding service from the modest annual subscription.

The Omnibus Society is held in great respect and regard by senior professional bus managers and directors with a keen interest in the industry. I can speak from personal experience to confirm it’s an absolute privilege and honour to be asked to hold the prestigeous role of President of the Society for a year and it was impressive to see eleven past presidents gathered in Southampton for the Presidential Dinner on Saturday evening with Sir Peter Hendy CBE (President in 2004) giving a forthright and highly pertinent address setting out his thoughts on the bus industry.

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Past Presidents included 1988 Trevor Smallwood (Badgerline); 1996 Peter Shipp (EYMS Group); 1997 Charles Marshall (OK Travel); 1999 Stephen Morris (Buses magazine); 2005 John Owen (Thamesdown); 2009 Philip Kirk (Oxford Bus); 2010 Mark Howarth (Western Greyhound); 2012 Roger French OBE (Brighton & Hove); 2017 James Freeman (First West of England); 2019 Andrew Wickham (Go South Coast) and ….
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…. 2004 Sir Peter Hendy CBE (Transport for London).

A recent development for the Omnibus Society has been the establishment of a sister charity, the Bus Archive, under the expert stewardship of Philip Kirk, my former colleague managing director at Oxford Bus, now also retired. This has combined the treasure trove of historic ‘official’ documents and archives from bus companies previously looked after by the Kithead Trust with the huge collection of timetables and other archives and memorabilia held by the OS. It’s a textbook example of collaboration between professionals with direct industry experience and those with a much welcome passionate interest in buses.

This year’s Presidential Weekend has been a huge success with superb organisation and a varied and interesting programme for all of us attending. Many thanks to Andrew Wickham and his team for being so patient and giving up their time to show us around Bluestar, Hants & Dorset Trim and Southern Vectis’s premises in Eastleigh and Newport, Phil and Gareth Blair who were on hand to share the history of Xelabus with us (based next door to Bluestar in Eastleigh) as well as the volunteers at the Isle of Wight Bus Museum who gave up their Sunday morning to show us around its extensive collection now housed in the former Southern Vectis bus garage in Ryde. We also had a fascinating Saturday afternoon exploring the extensive maintenance works on the former British Rail site at Eastleigh now run by Arlington Fleet Group Ltd.

Thanks also to the OS volunteers who organised the admin and I understand the heroes are David Grimmet and Michael Meilton who deserve a big pat on the back.

Today’s programme included a visit to the Eclipse busway between Gosport and Fareham operated by First Hampshire.

Here’s a selection of photographs from Saturday and Sunday to give a taste of the fascinating programme we enjoyed. I should also say a sincere thanks to those of you who took the trouble to let me know how much you enjoy reading these blogposts; it was lovely to meet you and heartening to know you get as much pleasure reading these words as I do writing them.

There are no photographs from the Arlington visit as we were asked not to publish any in a public forum, but I’ve copied one or two from their website.

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One of our two chariots from Southampton to Eastleigh was this former Thamesdown Northern Counties bodied Daimler CVG6.
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With the other this excellent example of the Bristol VRT with ECW bodywork which were once prolific in National Bus Company’s subsidiaries’ fleets.
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Bluestar is based in Eastleigh and also runs an extensive network of routes under the unilink brand for the University of Southampton, also open to any passengers wanting to travel.

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Hants & Dorset trim, unsurprisingly has a huge selection of trims – this is just a small selection of moquettes for many bus and train companies.
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Hants & Dorset Trim also do major body repair work and repaints. This £140K investment in a series of three scaffolding set ups enables staff to work safely at height on upper bodies and roofs.

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I was personally delighted to see Andy Collins, who began his career at Brighton & Hove as an apprentice, is now one of the leading managers at Hants & Dorset Trim and doing a brilliant job.
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Nexxt door to the Bluestar premises in Eastleigh is independently owned Xelabus the smart famiy run company by Phil and Gareth Blair.
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The vehicles from the Isle of Wight Bus Museum’s collection to take us around the Isle of Wight on Sunday included….
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… this ECW bodied Bristol K …..
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…this Bristol LH with “DP” seats…
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…and this Bristol RE in Southern Vectis “privatisation” livery.
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Also on hand to take us from East Cowes to Ryde was this former Southern Vectis Bristol VRT now sporting a livery for Damory.
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Some displays from inside the Isle of Wight Bus Museum….

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No visit to the Island would be complete wihout a ride on the 1938 “heritage” former London Underground Bakerloo Line trains, or should I say, train, as there’s now only one serviceable train left on the Island Line pending delivery of the just announced refurbished Class 484 (former District Line trains).
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And in Newport garage it was lovely to see ‘The Old Girl” – Southern Vectis’s 80 year old Bristol K – still going strong
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Southern Vectis run an open top fleet bassed at the Mountjoy outstation close to Newport.
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Southern Vectis also runs an extensive network of school contracts all over the Island under the Vectis Blue brand. Here some are based alongside the Isle of Wight Bus Museum in Ryde….
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… with others at the Mountjoy outstation…..
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… where we had an enjoyable stop off …..
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and also saw this tree-lopper with pertinent wording on the side.

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A smidgeon of what goes on at the Arlington Eastleigh site.

Roger French

 

 

Electric shock on rear seats

Thursday 26th September 2019

IMG_0165.jpgMetroline, the Singapore based ComfortDelGro owned bus company, which operates a large network of bus routes for TfL across north and north-west London has been in the news recently as they roll out an expensive new fleet of 67 all electric battery-rechargeable double deck buses. Having read glowing coverage in the trade press, I decided to take a zero emission bus ride with industry colleagues yesterday afternoon.

In keeping with Metroline’s policy of dual sourcing their fleet from manufacturers they’ve added interest by buying 36 BYD ADL Enviro400 buses for route 43 which operates out of Holloway garage and 31 Optare Metrodeckers for route 134 from Potters Bar garage.

IMG_0164.jpgThe buses are being introduced gradually on to both routes as they are delivered and passed fit for service. The first BYD/ADL bus began operating on the 43 between Friern Barnet and London Bridge on 1st July with that route currently about 80% converted to all electric running. The first Metrodecker appeared a few weeks later on the 134 (North Finchley to Warren Street) on 19th August with that route currently having around 20% electric bus operation.

IMG_0115.jpgIntroducing electric buses is no easy task; it’s not like topping up your mobile phone battery by just plugging it into any handy three-pin socket overnight. Recharging a fleet of buses can mean a whole new sub-station and associated infrastructure having to be installed, as happened at Holloway garage back in 2017 when Metroline first began running BYD ADL Enviro200 electric single deck buses on route 46.

This entailed removing the roof from part of a building, knocking part of it down, concrete piling to a great depth and then rebuilding around a newly installed transformer. Several miles of overhead cabling also had to be installed.

It’s been a bit simpler at Potters Bar as the Optare Metrodeckers have chargers mounted on the vehicles which need just a small plug on the wall, whereas the BYDs need large five-foot charging stations. Another benefit at Potters Bar is a sub-station with enough capacity was already in place close by.

Another issue is timescales. Tender bids to run bus routes are submitted to TfL many months in advance and typically around a year’s notice is given to a successful operator. But liaising with UK Power Networks to get the charging infrastructure upgraded, any necessary planning permissions and everything else that’s needed to get started can take up to two years. For example at Holloway two kilometers of road had to be dug up to run a cable from Archway down to the garage – the work is still not complete so in the meantime, Metroline have had to secure other power from the grid.

Each bus takes about two and a half hours to fully charge and then has a range of between 150 and 200 miles, enough for a typical day’s operation on routes 43 and 134. The charging process must be quite labour intensive swapping buses round every few hours.

Bearing in mind all this, it’s not surprising to read Ian Foster, Metroline’s Group Engineering Director, explaining in the trade press that once infrastructure costs are factored in electric buses are “nowhere near commercially viable”.

All the more so when looking at the purchase price of a new electric bus compared to a Euro 6 diesel alternative. Electric single decks are currently priced around £340K versus £165K for a typical diesel equivalent, so bearing in mind a diesel double decker is £230K, the price for an electric double decker must be coming in at least approaching £400K if not more. That’s a lot of money; and a lot of passenger journeys needed to pay for it.

So how does a £400K bus rate when taking a ride.

IMG_0101.jpgFirst impressions of the new Optare Metrodecker were very favourable with a brightly lit entrance area in front of the driver’s cab.

IMG_0102.jpgBut just past that is a rather odd back lit panel on the stairs which only serves to highlight the ‘official’ (very) small print notices. I would have throught something better could have been arranged for this eye-cathing welcome space?

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The bus gives a smooth ride and is definitely impressively quiet. Not only because there’s no engine noise to speak of but it was good to see there were no rattle noises either. Travelling upstairs gave a pleasant journey, but if I didn’t know, I don’t think I would know I was on an electric bus. But maybe that doesn’t matter.

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The BYD ADL was similarly quiet in the ‘engine department’ but did have a slightly annoying rattle or two coming from the front offside window housing …

IMG_0145.jpg… and some of the workmanship around this area was noticeably slapdash on both the offside and nearside.

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The ambiance and decor is fairly typical for a new London bus on both bus types. The BYD ADL was noticeably lighter by using pale blue formica for the side panels and a large rear window upstairs ….

IMG_0141.jpg… whereas the Metrodecker uses a darker material for the plastic type panels….

IMG_0106.jpgAs befits London it’s all a bit clinical and utilitarian – not particularly welcoming – and there are some odd mouldings here and there on the Metrodecker …

IMG_0110.jpgBearing in mind the amount of money spent on this whole electric project – the infrastructure and the vehicles themselves – why oh why is the seat comfort and layout on both vehicles so poor. It reminds me of Thameslink – where billions have been invested in infrastructure improvements and new trains yet seat comfort for passengers is dire.

Take a look at the rear seat arrangements on the Optare Metrodecker below….

IMG_0108.jpgIMG_0107.jpg… not exactly inviting on that back row of five is it? And not much room for legs when all four of the double facing seats are occupied but, that’s pretty good compared to the abomination at the rear of the BYD ADL described below.

The Optare Metrodecker has 63 seats compared to the BYD ADL offering 67 seats, but frankly when you see the rearmost four (of the five) seats in the lower deck that extra capacity is of no benefit.

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In fact I’d go as far as to say, they’re the worst lower deck seats I’ve ever encountered on a bus; and this on probably the most expensive to manufacture bus I’ve travelled on!

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The above photographs show not only the restrictive legroom but also the way the seats have been shoehorned in between the rear gubbins of the bus and the wheel arch.

I can only assume the designer has never travelled on a bus. Can you imagine a car manufacturer selling a car with rear seats configured like this? It would be much better to reduce the seating capacity by four than subject passengers to such contortions. Impressive, it isn’t – any quodos from taking a zero emission journey is lost by the severe discomfort of the ride in those seats.

One other comparison between the two buses are the forced air vents along the cove panels in the BYD ADL, which bring a degree of air flow (there are also opening windows) but are a little noisy when in full flow mode.

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These were absent in the Metrodecker.

Both bus types have usb sockets fitted to the rear of seats which is a welcome development for London’s buses and hopefully will become standard, even though many journeys in the Capital are fairly short in nature, it’s a handy facility for those with ‘battery anxiety’ when taking a longer journey.

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It’s great to see investment in different bus propulsion and steps being taken to address the important issue of air quality and the DfT’s financial support for such initiatives is very welcome but I remain sceptical whether these schemes will succeed in encouraging more passengers to use buses unless as much effort is put into improving the interior comfort as into infrastructure and charging resources at garages.

Roger French

 

 

New trains into service in 2019 Part 8: TPE’s Nova 3

Monday 23rd September 2019

IMG_9918.jpgIt’s not often we get to travel on a brand new loco hauled inter-city train in the UK, but that’s what’s quietly being rolled out across the Pennines right now as First Group’s Trans Pennine Express franchise soft launches its fleet of thirteen smart new Spanish built Nova 3 trains.

Originally planned for introduction at the end of 2018, then delayed to the ‘New Year’, then ‘Spring 2019’, then July 2019 … due to ‘technical issues’ with the Mark 5A designated coaches, the trains are at last entering service for passengers to take a ride.

Built by CAF (they of teething troubled Caledonian Sleeper coaches fame – as well as the impressive new Class 195/331 trains with Northern) the five coaches making up each train comprise one exclusively for first class users as well as passengers using wheelchairs with the other four all standard class with lots of tables.

They really do feel like an inter-city train.

One benefit of the Class 68 locomotive at the front is the much quieter ride inside the coaches than was experienced on the Class 185 diesel units they’re replacing. The locomotive is also noticeably more powerful with impressive acceleration.

Another much welcomed improvement is the significant increase in capacity provided on these very busy cross Pennine routes. A three coach 185 replaced by a five coach loco hauled train has got to be the best news.

The Nova 3 trains are being introduced on TPE’s Scarborough to Liverpool and Middlesbrough to Manchester Airport runs and normal arrangements will see the Class 68 locomotive at the front end on westbound journeys with the Driver Trailing Cab in the rear of Coach A; with the latter leading the way when heading east.

IMG_9884.jpgOn my sample ride from Leeds to Manchester this morning it was noticeable how most passengers opted to travel in the front two standard class coaches (D and C) behind first class (E) which were quite busy with the rear two coaches (B and A) almost empty. Old habits; but I’m sure it’s a different story at peak times and as more new trains are introduced passengers will quickly learn to spread out along the platform and be ready to board through the single doors situated at the ends of each coach rather than double doors located one-third/two-thirds of each coach as applied on the Class 185s.

IMG_9892.jpgThere are a very welcome fourteen tables seating four people in coaches D and C, eleven in coach B and six in coach A. And in even better news, most tables in D and C align with windows.

IMG_9887.jpgSadly it’s not possible to achieve this consistently in coaches B and A.

IMG_9894.jpgThere’s a largish luggage rack at the ends of each coach and a small toilet at the ends of coaches B, C and D.

IMG_9890.jpgThe universal access toilet is in Coach E, and in a new development, Trans Pennine Express have located a space for a wheelchair and companion either side of the central aisle in Coach E, the first class coach.

IMG_9898.jpgPassengers using a wheelchair (and any companion) will receive complimentary coffee and a biscuit even if paying only standard class fares in Coach E but will have to upgrade to first class “to receive the full catering offer” I’ve only ever received a coffee and biscuit when travelling first class with TPE so I’m not sure what the “full catering offer” actually is. I doubt it’ll ever be worth upgrading for.

IMG_9896.jpgThe first class coach E is well laid out with thirty comfortable seats (much comfier than on the Azuma/IEP trains) in 2+1 style and again offering many more seats than on the Class 185s. You also get a lighted lip at the window end of the table; just for show as it doesn’t really light anything up.IMG_9897.jpgSeats in standard class looked nice but were not particularly comfortable – I reckon numb bum syndrome will take hold if making a long journey. I’ve sat in much better seats in well spec’d buses.

IMG_9888.jpgThere’s a bike storage area for four bikes at the western end of coach B and when these spaces are not reserved (which they need to be – no just turning up with a bike) they can be used for buggies (there are also tip-up seats) and luggage storage.

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IMG_9912.jpgThere are large information screens at the ends of each coach and a rolling PIS text type roof mounted screen over the gangway doors and in the middle of the carriage.

IMG_9906.jpgThe screens were showing the usual next station information and other stuff; but teething problems meant the current displayed time was off-puttingly an hour slow and no details were given of onward connections at stations when that screen appeared in the cycle. Obviously teething troubles with the systems.

IMG_9908.jpgThere are automatic audio announcements over the PA before and after each station which are clearly audible.

Traffic light digital seat reservations are included but they weren’t working this morning and I understand there are plans to introduce the notoriously unpopular ability to reserve a seat on the journey later this year (‘maybe reserved on route’ will apply to designated seats) although some seats will also be designated as always being available (unless they’re already occupied!). I really can’t unsderstand the logic of this so called ‘innovation’. All it does is create angst.

IMG_9904.jpgDuring the current phased introductory period of the new trains TPE are doing their best to match up seat reservations made on a Class 185 with the same designated coach and seat on a Nova 3. Inevitably this won’t always work re forwards/backwards window/aisle specifications though.

Thirty-two of the 261 standard class seats are designated ‘priority’ – situated at the ends of the four coaches. These have more leg room but sadly some don’t offer much of a view!

IMG_9916.jpgThere’s a usb and three pin socket (with the single pin on top) in the middle under each pair of seats and Wi-fi is available although wasn’t working on my journey in some of the standard class coaches. Where it was working it was labelled as CAF rather than TPE, but again something that I’m sure will be sorted as the trains settle in.IMG_9904.jpgLeaving the train is through the end of coach doors where there are two big, bright buttons to press.

IMG_9917.jpgThere’s a catering trolley service although it didn’t come round this morning between Leeds and Manchester, but this may be due to some earlier problems with the train diagram this morning – the train got seriously delayed in Leeds on its way to Scarborough due to a passenger  being taken ill and was curtailed at York so the journey I caught had only begun in York instead of Scarborough.

I very much enjoyed my journey this morning. It made a welcome change to travel on a TPE train between Leeds and Manchester that wasn’t packed out, and it was particularly enjoyable to travel in what felt like a real inter-city train.

IMG_9909.jpgOnce the fleet is fully introduced I look forward to seeking out a suitably bargain priced first class advanced ticket to travel from one end of the route to the other and give all aspects of the service a try. In the meantime there’s just one new train out on one working each day although it’s expected a second will hit the tracks this week.

They’re well worth taking a ride on. Overall, another impressive new train.

Roger French

2019 is the year of the new train. My previous new train reviews from earlier this year can be found here: 1 Class 707; 2 D Trains; 3 Sleepers; 4 Azumas; 5 Class 7106 Class 195 and 331; 7 Class 755.