Cumbrian travels between LNER and Virgin

Tuesday 30th April 2019

IMG_5056.jpgMy Funday in Furness yesterday exploring three small islands off England’s north west coast came sandwiched between two other great travelling days.

I travelled up the East Coast Main Line from Kings Cross to Newcastle on Saturday with LNER (always a favourite journey) to meet the lovely members of the Northern Branch of the Omnibus Society who politely let me indulge myself by sharing about 600 photographs I’d taken over the last six years of travels illustrating Britain’s best bus routes. They even seemed to enjoy it as much as I did, which is always encouraging.

After an overnight stay in the Capital of Geordie Land I headed over to Carlisle on Sunday. My original plan was to take the famous Arriva and Stagecoach jointly operated scenic route 685 now branded Cross Pennine with buses in a smart Best Impressions designed livery especially as I’ve yet to do this journey on a double deck, which Stagecoach now deploy to the route.

The perceived wisdom among OS members was the double deck isn’t allocated on a Sunday which coupled with the need to change buses in Hexham (there are no through journeys on a Sunday) and a tight onward connection in Carlisle persuaded me to switch to train instead – a journey I ranked 38th when I compiled my Hundred Best Train Journeys listing at the end of last year.

IMG_5090.jpgCheaper and quicker too. And the scenery from the train window is just as delightful especially looking north as the tracks follow the course of the River Tyne as it gradually gets smaller and more meandering as shown above.

IMG_5086.jpgI wasn’t too disappointed to find the 1255 from Newcastle to Carlisle arrive from Middlesbrough in platform 7 being a Pacer especially as it was a refurbished one with more comfy seats and there won’t be many more opportunities to travel in these workhorses of the tracks before they’re withdrawn by the end of the year. What did surprise me was just how busy the journey was with pretty much all seats taken on the two car train leaving Newcastle and lots of luggage too. Although, as expected, a few got off at the MetroCentre, they were replaced with boarders. The majority of passengers were travelling all the way to Carlisle.

IMG_5087.jpgInterestingly the new timetable from 19th May includes an extra train an hour between Newcastle and Carlisle on weekdays giving three per hour to Hexham and two to Carlisle (strong competition for the hourly 685) but there’s no increase in frequency on Sunday which based on my albeit limited experience would suggest would be welcomed by passengers.

At Carlisle I changed to the Cumbrian Coast line to skirt all the way around the coast to Barrow in Furness. I ranked this journey sixteenth place in my Hundred Best Train Journeys and this latest experience didn’t change my mind. It’s an incredibly enjoyable experience.

IMG_5139.jpgIt’s not quick, by any means; two and a half hours to Barrow and another hour beyond there to Lancaster but it’s well worth the ride for mile upon mile of coastal views as well as changing landscapes inland as the Lake District’s western peaks become visible from time to time.

IMG_5149.jpgUntil last May there was no Sunday service between Whitehaven and Barrow and a restricted twelve hour operational day on weekdays due to the high cost of manning that section with old manual signal boxes and at least three old style manual level crossings (one at Silecroft station) and two more south towards Millam where the tracks cross the A585.

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IMG_5183.jpgA real anachronism in today’s tech rich world and all the more so as nuclear waste is regularly carried on the line in connection with the Power Station at Sellafield.

IMG_5155.jpgWith a new franchise commitment from Northern there’s now a regular hourly Sunday service until around 1800 hours and it was encouraging to see over a dozen passengers on board my journey (1616 from Carlisle) south of Whitehaven.

To add to the charm of the line there are also some lovely coastal request stations, sections of track with severe speed limits and connections at Ravenglass for the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway which is well worth a visit.

That was Sunday; I’ve described Monday’s Furness travels, and so to today, Tuesday …..

Having enjoyed my Furness island hopping yesterday, today has been another wonderful travel day renewing my association with one of the Lake District’s most scenic bus routes: the brilliant Buttermere circular route 77 and 77A.

IMG_5701.jpgNarrow roads and steep inclines restrict the routes to small vehicle operation and Stagecoach allocate Optare Solos with 28 seats.

Experience of previous packed journeys has taught me to get up early and catch the first departure of the day at 0830 from Keswick if you want to really savour a quality travel experience. Fortuitously this is a 77A (which against normal convention takes a clockwise routeing with the less frequent 77 going round anti-clockwise) and this offers the best views out of the nearside windows of Derwent Water, Buttermere and Crummock Water with good forward views of the Honister Pass too. The journey seldom has large numbers travelling.

IMG_E5717.jpgIndeed this morning we left with just two on board, in addition to myself, picking two more and a dog up in nearby Portinscale. They’d all alighted for a morning’s walk by the time we reached Honister where we picked three more up, two of whom went to Buttermere and one returned to Keswick.

IMG_5795.jpgBy comparison on returning to Keswick not long after 1000 the queue was already forming for the 1030 departure which would see a bus on both 77 and 77A routes, and just as well, as there were passengers standing as both buses left.

IMG_5887.jpgIMG_5904.jpgThe 77A runs hourly 0830 to 1130 then two-hourly until 1730 while the 77 runs two-hourly 1030 to 1630. It takes two buses to run the timetable with a third needed between 1030 and 1117. Concessionary passes dominate, especially at this time of year with schools and colleges in session.

The drivers use all their skills to negotiate the twists and turns along the narrow roads including hairpin bends and challenging inclines. Luckily this morning there wasn’t much other traffic but this changes as the summer approaches.

The journey takes around an hour and three quarters – it’s the best 105 minutes in a bus.

Returning to Keswick I watched the busy departures between 1015 and 1030 thinking just how busy these routes are even for a Tuesday in April.

IMG_5886.jpgIMG_5881.jpgIt shows what can be achieved with an attractive network of routes well marketed with an abundant supply of timetable books readily available to pick up on board buses and at many locations throughout the area.

IMG_5133.jpgI lost count of the number of passengers I saw clutching their timetable book and no doubt getting inspired to make more journeys. Managers in bus companies adopting the foolish mantra ‘it’s all online’ really need to get out more and see how it’s done and works a treat.

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I took the Gold branded X4 from Keswick over to Penrith and am writing this as I return home, this time on the West Coast Main Line with its glimpses of the Lake District’s finest.

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A few final thoughts and suggestions for Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancs who must be congratulated for doing such a great job.

This summer’s timetable book is a much slimmer version than previous years which has no doubt reduced print costs but while losing some of the information about boat tours is no great loss, I do think it’s regrettable to omit those routes which reach Keswick from the north (73, 554) as well as Penrith (104, 563), the 208 Keswick to Patterdale and 755 Bowness and Windermere to Morecambe. Although shown on the network map these routes become the poor relations without promoting their times.

IMG_5630The queuing arrangements at Keswick bus terminus are very chaotic when things get busy and I noticed a lot of bad feeling among passengers who’d been queuing and waiting but lost out in the scrum with a risk of not getting on board as the buses drew up. It needs to be made clear which side of the bus stop pole and flag to queue and this should be strictly enforced to maintain discipline and a fair outcome for everyone.

IMG_5879.jpgAs the much travelled and great walking enthusiast Ray Wilkes observed on Twitter it would also be good to put pressure on Cumbria County Council to install bus shelters here too.

A fantastic few days sampling the best of travelling with class acts from LNER, Northern, Virgin Trains, Stagecoach (Cumbria and North Lancs) and valiant efforts from Blueworks to keep their show on the road.

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Finally, I appreciate my Twitter followers will have read most of this on Sunday and earlier today as I tweet ‘live’ updates during my travels but it’s been pointed out to me many blog readers don’t do Twitter, so here’s a summary of my travels especially for you.

More exciting travels to come over the next couple of days.

Roger French

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