Week 1: Here we don’t go again

Saturday 7th November 2020

Welcome back to another series of weekly updates of bus and train developments during lockdown. Now, where were we before that “Stay at home” regime was so rudely interrupted back in early July with our being encouraged to go out and about again.

Ah yes; my first journey was to enjoy Flixbus’s oddly timed arrival into the UK domestic express coach market with a trip on 9th July on their newly launched London to Portsmouth service. As I commented then, it was a bizarre decision to enter the market at that time, and no surprise the Portsmouth service lasted around ten days as this week comes news to my email in-box that Flixbus are halting their fledgling British domestic services.

Lucky I’m on their mailing list to find out about the discontinuation as the FlixBus Twitter feed still shows news of the 2nd May launch with its pinned tweet.

You have to try booking a journey within the UK to be advised no services are available – eg a Bimingham to London trip on Monday …..

And rather oddly by clicking on the link for more information brings up the rather depressing travel restricted situation across much of Europe, but no information about the UK – I know we’ve left but, come on FlixBus, don’t rub it in by ignoring us.

Meanwhile back in the UK both Megabus and National Express have reduced their networks from this weekend to an unidentifiable level as neither operator publishes timetables on their website; that would be far too helpful.

Instead you have to play a game of ‘battleships’ by putting in your origin and destination and seeing what comes up, if anything.

Trying that journey from Birmingham to London on Monday brings up just three direct journeys on National Express and a rather bizarre “1 Change” option…

I’m not sure why anyone would pay four times as much for the pleasure of leaving fifteen minutes later than a direct journey, change coaches in Heathrow Airport with a two hour wait, and spend 7 hours 20 minutes travelling, but that’s unintelligent software journey planners for you.

Megabus offer a rather inconveniently timed choice of two journeys ….

Other Lockdown 2 casualties so far include both open access Train Companies, Grand Central and Hull Trains who, without any Government financial support, have returned into hibernation for November.

Well, Grand Central has with their optimistic (and let’s hope not misplaced) “See you on December 3” sign off, whereas there’s no such indication of when Hull Trains might be back on track.

Thames Clippers have also dropped anchor for lockdown – so that’s worked out well for Uber’s sponsorship then.

On the positive news front, I see Hulleys of Baslow are still committed to their new route X57 across Snake Pass despite lockdown although an updated timetable is now in operation as tweeted last Sunday for improved timekeeping, including eliminating that loop around Norfolk Square in Glossop which I suggested in my recent review.

i just hope the Hulley’s team know what they’re doing as it really would be a great shame if the route was not able to survive the winter’s dearth of passengers so it can be there to enjoy next spring and summer. By the way, Hulleys, if you’re reading this, the X57 timetable needs updating on your website.

Oxford Tube are not only continuing through lockdown this time but are looking forward to putting into service their 34 brand new ‘Plaxton Panorama’ coaches now arriving from ADL. The £13 million investment was cancelled during lockdown 1, then resintated, and now being delivered in lockdown 2. Neat.

Photo courtesy Martin Gibbon

They look rather impressive. As is that £13 million, in the current circumstances.

Photo courtesy Martin Gibbon

This lockdown in England is obviously different from the first one with schools and universities open meaning travel continues for education and that “Avoid public transport” message has been replaced with a list of reasons why you can travel with “Avoid busy times and routes on public transport” – whatever that means – being the new mantra.

It’ll be interesting to see how passenger journeys compare during this first week especially as schools are in session – up to the end of October numbers travelling by bus were about 60% of pre-Covid. I suspect this week will see it fall back below 50%.

Another change is the certainty of Government funding support which is already in place and enables timetables to be maintained at current levels rather than reductions to weekend levels with frenetic action by schedulers to get revised drivers’ duties and rosters compiled as happened last time.

DfT’s Director of Local Transport, Stephen Fidler, wrote to all bus and light rail operators on Thursday indiciating service levels should remain unchanged. He wrote: “As you will be aware, the public is advised they must stay at home, unless they are travelling for work, education or for other legally permitted reasons. This is a broader set of circumstances than we saw earlier in the year and local bus, home to school transport, and light rail service levels will need to be maintained at operating levels which allow for this full range of essential travel and recognise the need for social distancing. I do not currently anticipate that the Government will be encouraging people to use or avoid any particular transport modes at a national level, although local transport authorities may need or wish to continue to develop local messaging as part of their travel demand management plans”.

In London that funding certainty only came at the eleventh hour and fourty-fifth minute (literally) on Saturday night just as the previous funding deal was expiring at midnight (the deal was signed off at 23:45 on 31st October). But the new ‘certainty’ only lasts until the end of March 2021, so expect to be back in the same political jaust in the lead up to the Mayoral elections next May. Great timing.

The wisdom seems to be the £1.7 billion deal is a good (as in ‘least worst’) outcome for Mayor Khan with the somewhat politically (and no doubt Treasury) inspired proposed expansion of the congestion charge to the North/South Circular Roads ditched (always a non-starter bearing in mind Johnson, when Mayor, scrapped the Western extension, and Tory MPs were totally against it) as well as fares increases equivalent to RPI+1% from January 2021 – something the Mayor would have had to face up to anyway, so he can now blame that on the DfT and the Government. Nice one.

Crossrail 2 gets kicked into the long grass (I don’t think we’re going to need it any year soon with travel demand projections being continually revised downwards with WFH [work from home] etc) and also welcome is the need for a a council tax precept to directly fund London style generous travel concessions – eg free travel for kids and those aged 60+ to pensionable age. About time too, say us provincial based tax payers.

TfL also have to make £160 million savings this financial year – that might be tough going bearing in mind the financial year ends in just five months – but I reckon a review of generous stand time in bus schedules might tot up a significant number of peak vehicles that could be saved (there always seem to be three at a terminus), as well as reviewing recent service expansions which have not been publicised and are carrying few passengers.

That might contibute a few millions for starters.

But why is it there’s always something crazy thrown into the pot? Shapps has ordered TfL to institute a ferry service across the Thames to make up for Hammersmith Bridge’s continuing closure. That’s going to cost a ‘bob or two’. Let’s just hope Chris Grayling isn’t put in charge of issuing the contract for it.

Staying in London, the latest news of how public transport has been found to be COVID free in tests was hyped up in the media this week. Continued tests by Imperial College show no Covid-19 found on surfaces and in the air on the Capital’s Underground and buses. This adds to research done by the RSSB who reckoned the chances of catching the virus on a train as 1 in 11,000.

I have to admit I’m not convinced by all this. I’ve had some unpleasant and uncomfortable experiences while travelling on trains including non-mask wearing young adults shouting, coughing and spluttering near me on trains and very little pro-active involvement of staff or British Transport Police. In fact only once on all the train journeys I’ve made over the last four months have I seen a BTP officer on a train and that was on a Cross Country journey between York and Durham on Wednesday morning. It felt quite a novelty.

Passengers have also commented how odd it is that LNER’s software allocates seat reservations – on one journey I made – first class from Edinburgh to Kings Cross last month, 8 of us were allocated seats relatively close together in half of coach K (the one shared with standard class) while coaches L and M were empty.

However, it was good news Shapps announced on his Twitter account (!) refunds will be given on Advance Tickets – and just in the nick of time too with lockdown restrictions meaning many travel plans have now had to change.

The trouble is with these announcements, they don’t seem to be followed through to advice and help ‘on the ground’. Here’s East Midlands Railway’s website current advice wrongly referring to the now abolished £10 admin fee….

They’re not the only ones – here’s GWR…

… and I’m sure the others are the same.

More welcome train news this week was the track being reopened at Carmont, south of Aberdeen, after August’s tragic and awful fatal train crash into a landslip. It must have been very poignant for rail staff taking trains over this stretch of track for the first time after the crash. Looking at photographs of the recovery and rebuild, Network Rail staff and their contrators have done a fantastic job getting things back open again bearing in mind the site’s inaccessible location.

This week’s round up can’t possibly conclude without reference to that controversial and high profile vote that’s been dominating the news and media for the last few days.

No, not that one. I mean the annual Twitter poll ‘World Cup of Tube Lines’ organised by YouTuber Geoff Marshall, which after knock-out rounds seeing all the real Tube lines cast aside earlier in the week has left a nail biting final between Thameslink and the DLR.

Neither of which are Tube lines of course, but they are displayed on the tube map – see the pedantic title of the wall chart above – or, in the case of Thameslink, will be displayed (from next month) in a radical but long overdue change in policy by TfL.

It’s just as well there wasn’t one of the all-too-frequent “track circuit failures” disabling the Thameslink Core yesterday as passengers were encouraged to get involved….

Photo courtesy Tom Bowell

The DLR were at it too.

Voting is agonisingly close so if you want to influence things, go vote.

Personally I can pass by a Twitter World Cup poll with a timeline flick of the finger but this is a good example of the power of brands. GoVia Thameslink Railway -v- Keolis/Amey doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Thameslink -v-DLR. And whichever line is declared the winner this weekend, one thing’s for certain, the winner will be the French company Keolis – as they’re a partner in both contracts/concessions and are in turn owned 70% by SNCF. So well done SNCF.

And finally for this week it’s a sad farewell to Arriva’s iconic bus garage in Stamford Hill, north London. It closed its doors for the last time last night. Except never say never, as they say, as it’s offically being ‘mothballed’ as it has been once before in 1995 only to reopen again in 2006. So who knows.

Photo courtesy BristolRE2007

Roger French

12 thoughts on “Week 1: Here we don’t go again

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  1. Here in Wales we will of course be coming out of our “firebreak” on Monday, with no travel restrictions within the country. Cardiff Bus timetables will revert to virtually a few service. Our local route has been operating at 50% capacity for the last fortnight and the buses I have travelled on have varied between empty and uncomfortably busy. TrawCymru seem to be reverting to pre-firebreak timetables as does TfW Rail though these may, I suspect, be more sparse than the “normal” ones.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s the usually double standards public transport passengers asked not to travel but motorists free to drive where ever they want and spreading the virus far and wide when they occasionally get out of their metal shells.


  3. Agree entirely regarding your experiences with BTP and their (lack of?) proactive policing of coronavirus regulations on the rail network. I’ve participated in their online customer satisfaction survey this week (sent to me via Transport Focus) which suffered from the inability to enter in depth answers due to very harsh restrictions on the amount of characters that could be inserted into each comments box. At my local east coast mainline station you are more likely to see private security guards, aka “Travel Safe Officers” patrolling rather than BTP.

    I also agree with your comment about both National Express and Megabus failing to put out clear and direct information about their current levels of service. It is not on for customers to have to attempt to book a ticket before they can find out whether a service is operating or not. It might sound odd, but I deal with both operators as part of my job. NX do at least keep me informed about timetable changes and route withdrawals, but usually it’s all a bit “last minute.com”. I’ve had to update their service timetable information FOUR times in the last ten days and that’s only involving TWO services. As for Megabus, because I too signed up for personal alerts, I tend to get an e-mail informing me about changes often a few days after they’ve occurred. This was exactly the case about their recent vehicle tracking system going live via their website and presumably also via an app. A useful tool if only all of their vehicles had working tracker devices. Oh, and as long as you know about their “secret” service numbers in order for the system to find your service. Try entering M20 for the Glasgow – Edinburgh – Newcastle – London service. Nothing? Now enter M20X as service number and see what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nothing would probably be better. The timetables aren’t necessarily correct. Customers still have to check through the ticket booking portal to confirm whether or not a journey can be made.
      For example, service 595 Edinburgh – London. Timetable says for today, Saturday 7th November there is “No Services”.
      Booking system says service 595 departing to London from Edinburgh at 20:15 and will sell you a single ticket for £47.00 + £1 booking fee.
      As I previously stated, because NX updated me about service reductions earlier in the week, I just happen to know that tonight’s southbound departure is the last one as the service is being (temporarily?) withdrawn due to the lockdown. The coach then returns back to Edinburgh on the last northbound 595 leaving London VCS on Sunday evening. Neither journey displayed in the timetable. This service had a timetable change as recently as Wednesday this week so I’d be surprised if there are any customers for this coach this evening.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m really puzzled why it is “unfair” to use the booking engine on a website to see if a journey is running, compared to looking on a timetable, especially when you say yourself that times are changing frequently and that the timetables NX had up were wrong? For long distance journeys the vast majority of passengers will search the booking engine, not look at a timetable, hence the “unadvertised” journey to Edinburgh will not be short of passengers due to it not being on the timetable! Surely you don’t try and find a timetable before booking a flight? I’m all for timetables for local bus services, where change is normally slow and travel options may be many and varied, but long distance is not the same, IMO.

        Also, the megabus coach tracker offers you M20X as the only option when you key in M20, so why is that a problem? The passengers tickets will say M20X on them too!


  4. Advance tickets: You have to read the tweet from Grant Shapps carefully. There are no refunds on advance tickets. What you can do is to change your ticket to another date without having to pay an admin fee. Or you can get a rail voucher (which cannot be exchanged for cash) to use when you travel again. The criteria here is that you have to have bought your advance ticket before lockdowns or tiers were announced – so it is quite a narrow subset of conditions

    NRE (https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations_destinations/coronavirus_refunds.aspx) says: From Sunday 01 November, Advance tickets purchased before restrictions were announced (31 October 2020), can be changed to another date and time without an admin fee (you will only need to pay the difference in fare if there is one), or – where possible – can be surrendered for a voucher or credit note for the value of the ticket, to use towards travel at a later date. Contact the original retailer of your ticket for details.

    Note that any Advance tickets purchased on or after 01/11/20 for travel between 01/11/20 and 02/12/20 will not be eligible for fee-free changes.

    However, it is still a good challenge that the info on the TOC sites may not be its most helpful. I believe that they are being checked over the weekend to identify any messages that are incorrect.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Minister signals green light to clear bottleneck for East Anglia trains

    Hopes are rising that the £500m upgrade of the region’s worst rail bottleneck will soon get the go ahead allowing more trains to run from Ipswich to Peterborough and more cross-country freight services to operate from Felixstowe.

    Improving rail lines through Ely is vital if more trains are to be able to run currently three lines split to the north of the station and these junctions are currently operating at capacity and it is not possible to run more trains through this section of track.


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