OK, let’s get this writing journey underway. First up, a few miscellaneous reflections on last week’s travels……
Monday 18th June to Oxenholme and the new West Coast Railways operated fill-in part-time train service to Windermere while Northern continues its May Timetable Meltdown. It certainly got the media coverage. It was overrun with train buffs and the tourists were also loving it. Meanwhile the official rail replacement buses were doing sterling work showing what an efficiently organised bus and coach operation can look like when trains hit the buffers.
I love a heritage type diesel loco hauled train operation as much as the next self respected train enthused gent in his sixties but in the wider picture of running a modern attractive public transport offering in one of the Country’s most iconic tourist areas how can the DfT possibly justify coughing up £6,000 a day (that’s north of £2m equivalent a year) for this escapade on one short stretch of railway while Cumbria County Council have axed all socially needed bus routes in the County for lack of public funding. It’s from the same barmy school of public transport finances as TfL’s fairground joyride between North Greenwich and Royal Victoria soaking up subsidy while well used bus routes throughout the Capital are having their frequencies cut for lack of funds.
You can’t beat the throaty sound of a Class 37 loco of course, but what really impressed me about the ride to Windermere was the West Coast Railway employee walking through the train with an armful of the splendid Stagecoach timetable books for the Lake District handing them out to passengers with such gusto and positivity. It was a delight to witness and even more so to see many similar comments on Twitter where others remarked the same on their journey. I couldn’t help contrast this with Arriva’s’ latest misplaced boast that to help save the environment they’re ceasing production of printed timetables in Leicester. A sure fire contender for Dunce Decision of the Year Award at the year end. If I were Nigel Eggleton running First Bus in Leicester I’d be distributing printed timetables like confetti all over the city; never mind any impact on climate change.
Tuesday 19th June was not the highest point of my travelling week. I’d put my trust in Arriva Kent (although actually it’s their separately owned New Enterprise business – ‘low cost unit’ and all that) taking me on what looks like a delightful once-a-week rural bus journey through the wonderful Weald of Kent villages ending in Sandhurst, a small settlement east of Hawkurst. I do love a quirky bus ride. As Twitter followers will know it ended in disaster as although I arrived at the terminus in good time, the driver decided not to call there on the return journey back to Sandhurst and I was left high and dry.
However, I forgive the driver. He’s probably never taken anyone in all his route 24 driving experience to the Lockmeadow bus shelter and terminal stop alongside Maidstone’s down-at-heel Tuesday and Saturday market. So he’d hardly be expecting to pick up a bus geek out on a jolly for the return trip. What really got to me was Arriva’s tweet response to my enquiring where the bus was.
In complete defence mode ^JW told me “there have been no reported issues regarding this service”. Err, what part of “I’m reporting an issue” don’t you understand ^JW? It got worse. I’d clung desperately to the national Arriva customer helpline for help – the first minute or so spent taking in the extensive geographic options (not helped by Kent turning out to be Option 7) then landing on a customer service option only to give up after waiting over 13 minutes. The ever unsympathetic response from the Arriva Tweet Hub (probably based in Luton) admonished me as ‘the maximum wait time was 8 minutes”. Oh not it wasn’t. Still at least I could log it all formally on an online form.
The only positive outcome was my catalogue of woe emailed to Oliver Monahan, Arriva’s MD for Surrey and Kent, received a first class response including profuse apologies and commitment to pursue matters. I was impressed; the kind of reply I’d have sent back in the day when things went seriously awry in Brighton & Hove, as they inevitably do from time to time in the transport world. It’s how you deal with such hiccups and put them right that matters, usually more than the original mess up as well as making sure there’s no repeat performance. Complaints and feedback are nuggets of gold. Always have been, always will be.
Thursday 21st June was Midland Main Line meltdown day. Much more than the usual Thameslink chaos due to a signal failure in the Luton area. You might have seen photos online of passengers rebelling in St Albans. I got caught up in it at St Pancras having planned to travel to Matlock and across to Sheffield by bus.
In all the chaos at STP I must say the East Midlands Trains staff were excellent with regular PA announcements explaining the background and keeping everyone calm. Alternative options via the East Coast Main Line were explained. I opted for this as there was clearly enough disruption to last a morning on the MML. It’s unfortunate that on boarding the Virgin Trains East Coast train at neighbouring Kings Cross you get the usual diatribe of what tickets you can and cannot use with no reassurance about Midland Main Line passengers in unfamiliar territory. Another example of rail staff not being as up to speed with fast changing developments in disruption as app-wielding online-enabled passengers. Time and again this comes through in Transport Focus surveys, yet we don’t seem to get improvements.
In a change of travel plans I made it eventually to Leeds and met up with the delightful All The Stations crew of Geoff and Vicki who with the RDG’s help were once again doing their best to promote train travel by marking the longest day (still 24 hours I know – but maximum daylight hours!) by riding Britain’s longest train journey from Aberdeen (0820) to Penzance (2143) operated by Cross Country.
Geoff and Vicki are the charismatic couple who visited all 2,563 National Rail stations last summer managing to amass more positive coverage for rail travel than the RDG and any train company’s off-beam PR stunts and campaigning has achieved, ever. They were on top form as always, enthusiastic, energetic and a delight to be with as I travelled down to Derby on board. It’s a shame this Cross Country journey may be axed in the current review as part of the consultation for the next franchise. Edinburgh to Plymouth doesn’t have the same ring to it. You have until 30th August to comment here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/cross-country-rail-franchise
The impressive new platforms at Derby are now looking almost ready for the extensive summer blockade which will see track, points and signal updates aplenty to enable better journeys through this rail hub in coming years.
Saturday 22nd June and back to Sheffield to sample three wonderful bus routes through the Peak District. But first one of those all too frequent train travel niggles. When the seat reservations are down. Even worse when a 5 coach train set is substituted for a longer train at the last minute. The usual bad feeling at every station along the route with passengers demanding “that’s my seat” being retorted with “well she’s in my seat over there” and “there ARE no seat reservations” with “but I’ve got a reservation”. Why oh why the message can’t be passed up the line so an announcement is made at stations BEFORE passengers board about reservations being caput, I really don’t know.
The highlight of the day was undoubtedly riding High Peak operated route 65 from Sheffield across the wonderful Peak District scenery to Buxton. A full bus by the time we were on the outskirts of Sheffield but with just six full fare payers. It’s mostly a tendered operation and currently being reviewed by Derbyshire County Council. Now is not the appropriate place to comment on the economics of the concessionary fare scheme, but I couldn’t help think this really would be a commercial goldmine of a service if commercial fares were charged and it was properly marketed as a tourist route ideal for walkers, visitors as well as locals. Yet a cash strapped county council ends up struggling to both pay the fares of most of the passengers travelling and finding the money to pay for the bus and driver. Doesn’t add up to me.
A quick ride down to Bakewell on the soon to be cut back TransPeak branded Manchester to Derby well established bus route before catching TM Travel run 218 back via the magnificent Chatsworth House and grounds to Sheffield. Transpeak will be running only between Buxton and Derby from next month. Not surprising in view of the new Northern Railway improved half hourly Buxton to Manchester timetable; assuming it’s one of the routes running as scheduled. The 218 is another well used route by visitors to the National Park and although TM Travel have some swanky liveried single decks especially branded for the route, perhaps it’s the weekend loadings, for it was nice to see double decks out doing a roaring trade.
Sunday 23rd June and to get away from it all a day trip to the wonderfully remote Berney Arms request stop station (more like an old style ‘Halt’ – there’s not even a bin bag fluttering in the breeze) situated on the Norfolk Broads. There are no road connections, just a rough footpath across a field. Although very limited journeys call at the station during weekdays and Saturdays (two in each direction), on Sundays there’s a two hourly service between 0800 and 1600 making for many travel possibilities combining a trip to this “must visit” station with a splendid walk in the surrounding Broads.
The sound of silence is something to be heard once the train leaves you on the minimalist platform as is the wonderful clickety-click you hear as the train approaches from afar to pick you back up again. A visit is highly recommended.
I love quirky station posters and these two from the platform are my all time favourites. One advising “you are here” and the other offering a job opportunity with a media company. How totally bizarre. I wonder how many applicants they’ve had from passengers waiting for a train at Berney Arms. I’m thinking of applying. I’ll let you know if I get the job in a future blogpost.
Next blog post coming soon is especially if you’re feeling down. A Pick Me Up.
Roger French 25th June 2018