Three Dreaded Words

Friday 15th October 2021




October 2021: warning for February 2022 already

As you can see down here in Sussex Rail Replacement Buses are front page news again as GTR and Network Rail’s media machine begins the warm up warning to give rail passengers plenty of advance notice of next February’s nine day closure of the Brighton Main Line.

It’ll be the second nine day blockade between Three Bridges and Brighton (as well as Lewes) in three years; the previous one also spanning February half term week back in 2019.

Then the preparatory communications campaign warning us all of the armageddon nightmare of using rail replacement buses was so effective, passenger numbers fell off a cliff; although that was before we redefined “passenger numbers fell of a cliff” as happened in Spring 2020 of course.

But the understandable fear back in those halcyon overcrowded commuter train days of 2019 was a fleet of double decks would be no match for hordes of passengers piling off packed 12-coach trains at Three Bridges in the peak, so the message had to rightly be “don’t travel unless you have to” that week.

Flashback: February 2018

Stunned by a high profile organisational shambles at Redhill a year earlier in February 2018 when a serious under provision of rail replacement buses led to chaotic scenes with thousands of Gatwick and Brighton bound passengers stranded late into the evening on a winter Sunday, GTR and Network Rail bosses pulled out all the stops for the February 2019 week with no expense spared on a gold plated rail replacement operation.

Everything was thrown at it.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it either before or since.

There were buses and coaches galore, a specially built bus hub including a marquee and covered walkway from the station building installed at Three Bridges offering refreshments and well signed departure points for a whole host of routes and no end of high-viz clad, happy, smiling ‘journey makers’ to guide you on your way.

It was a textbook way of doing rail replacement correctly.

The only trouble was there were hardly any passengers.

That communications campaign had been too successful, and most folk stayed away.

But information provision was superb.

I waxed lyrically about it at the time. Twice.

I’m sure it cost a fortune to lay on, but everyone seemed to hail it a success. So why have things gone back to the bad old days again?

I was encouraged last summer to hear Sir Peter Hendy and other senior rail figures in pandemic webinar after online zoom session suggesting a “new way of doing rail engineering works” must be found now leisure travellers have flocked back to the railway outnumbering commuters. yet here we are, fifteen months on, and it’s the same old, same old.

My recent travel experiences by train at weekends have confirmed they’re now by far the new peaks on many rail lines. Sunday before last coming back from Cornwall, GWR’s ten coach Class 800 train was absolutely packed as was Southern’s twelve coach train from Victoria back to Sussex snd attempting a journey between Paddington and Victoria on the Bakerloo and Victoria lines was thwarted by access being closed at Paddington “due to overcrowding on the platform” and a huge queue waiting for the gates to reopen. I went looking for a 36 bus instead. And this at 18:00 on a Sunday evening. It’s the new peak time.

Meanwhile weekend closures on the rail network, as well as the Underground and DLR, continue unabated as though nothing has changed. Build Back Business As Usual.

I was reminded of this when travelling up to London last Saturday to enjoy the Route 93 Running Day.

Arriving at Hassocks Station on Saturday morning

The first rule of weekend rail travel in Sussex is: it’s compulsory to have access to the Internet. Information at stations about engineering works was done away with long ago in the name of saving costs and paper, not forgetting making a contribution to climate change. I kid you not. I saw a Tweet last year praising the costs saved from no longer producing the posters that used to tell passengers what engineering works were scheduled for upcoming dates, as well as pats on backs for reducing paper use and the impact on the environment.

And when consulting the Internet there’s no chance of finding an actual timetable. You have to be precise of when you want to travel so a Journey Planner algorithm can tell you what’s available at that time. And if you want to scan alternatives; tough, you have to enter the information in again.

The results that come back will then expose the bad news you’ll encounter a change of ‘train’, or more precisely a ‘bus’ for one segment of a journey you were expecting to be a through service. And the dread begins.

I love the way the Journey Planner will optimistically imply your train will connect with the rail replacement bus. For example, my journey returning from East Croydon on Saturday showed an arrival at Three Bridges at 17:31 with a connecting bus for Hassocks departing at 17:38.

That sounded good but while seven minutes might be sufficient for a slick train-to-bus change for a Journey Planner algorithm constructor, the reality is, unless the train arrives spot on time, you’re positioned in coach 8 of 12 so you’ll exit exactly opposite the stairs down from the platform, you head down the stairs smartly, you go through the open ticket gates, you exit towards the car park, you turn to your right, head down the slope, cross the access road, do a u-turn, walk the 400 yards towards the bus departure point in the car park, come across two long queues of passengers not knowing which queue is which, and if you’re lucky, the time is now 17:37 and you have a minute before the bus is due to depart.

But in practice as happened to me on Saturday, the train rolls in two minutes late at 17:33, I dash down the stairs, sprint into the car park, ignore the queues (as I’ve no idea what they’re for – maybe for ice creams?) and go to the front through the middle, arriving at 17:36 only to see a half loaded double decker departing and having a sinking feeling that’s my bus leaving early.

It was.

I then ask the high-viz adorned man on the other side of the metal barrier keeping passengers in their holding pens whether the bus to Hassocks has gone. He tells me yes, it’s just gone. I point out the time on my phone has just changed from 17:36 to 17:37 and it’s gone early. He seems not bothered at all. I ask him when the next one is. He tells me he doesn’t know. I ask people waiting in the queue to my right, where are they waiting for. They tell me: Brighton direct. I ask people waiting in the queue to my left where are they waiting for. They tell me: Lewes. Everyone for Hassocks and the other stops has gone.

I ask the man again when the next bus to Hassocks is and he says he’ll have to ask his colleague who’s just walked off towards buses parked up on the far side of the car park. I ask him why he doesn’t know and he says he’s just there for crowd control, aka keeping us in our places; aka leaning on a barrier.

Saturday afternoon: Brighton direct on the left, Lewes and stopping buses to Brighton on the right. But you have to ask someone to know that.

It turns out there’s only one person with a clipboard on the entire site who knows the times of buses and is in control of departures. He’s naturally far too busy to talk to passengers. He’s from Go-Ahead London’s commercial team. The other few high-viz wearing staff around seem to just be making it look as though things are organised and come from the ONTRAK agency GTR use to supplement their own staff at stations from time to time.

In today’s world of online information, tablets and smartphones, it’s the greatest irony that rail replacement buses are organised by someone with a clip board, and no other staff have any information about departure times they can pass on. Not a tablet in sight.

In today’s world of instant communications, unbelievably there’s no contact between platform staff and bus departure staff to advise if a train has just pulled in perhaps later than schedule, so hold a bus departure for a few extra minutes for the benefit of passengers transferring.

In today’s world of glossy messages from Global promoting products in every conceivable space on our transport network with expensive looking high-tech screens, train and bus companies can’t even afford a few backboards to tell passengers which queue is for which bus and what departures times can be expected. You have to resort to asking fellow passengers, who all give off a sigh of despair at the situation everyone has collectively found themselves in. A positive customer environment, this most certainly isn’t.

In today’s world of electronic destination displays how primitive it is that most buses simply show Rail Replacement in the blind with a yellow piece of A4 showing the destination in front of the dashborrd which can easily be missed by passengers boarding through the nearside door meaning the driver is asked continually “is this bus for…?” giving a bored looking nod of the head, either side to side, or up and down appropriately in response for the umpteenth time. My bus earlier in the morning from Hassocks to Three Bridges was typical of this – displaying Rail Replacement in the blind – which we all guessed it was – and the yellow card on the driver’s side of the windscreen you could hardly notice, and sure enough at every station every passenger asked … “are you for Brighton?” (No) or “are you for Three Bridges? (Yes). The A4 card is almost impossible to see once it gets dark too, which as winter is now fast approaching is for much of the operational time. You’ll notice the bus running number is positioned more prominently for boarding passengers than the destination! Operations trumps customer service! Classic.

In today’s world of next stop information displays in many buses we still live in a world of rail replacement bus drivers not calling out the name of the station they’re stopping at – which can often be away from the station building – eg at Balcombe, where in the pitch dark, for a stranger, I defy anyone unfamiliar with the area to know when they’ve arrived at the place to alight rather than the bus stopping at temporary traffic lights, or road junctions etc encountered along the way.

And while I’m in whinge mode, why do train companies insist on making no reference at all to what would normally be the ultimate destination on train departure boards when journeys are disrupted with bus replacement. For example how would a stranger heading for Brighton necessarily know they need to catch a train shown as departing for Three Bridges rather than East Grinstead? There’s no reassuring announcements on board that you’re on the right train with onward connections available at Three Bridges with replacement buses either. Just the usual auto announcement “this train is for Three Bridges; we will be calling at etc etc”. Until you arrive, when if you’re lucky to have an On Board Supervisor on board they’ll announce something.

Panoramic view of the Brighton queue stretching back to the station building on Sunday evening courtesy of Waldo Pierre

The stock answer from rail managers, Secretaries of State, Transport Focus, MPs etc about all this is always “direct trains on alternative routes are now being offered whenever possible so passengers don’t have to use rail replacement buses”, before adding, “these may take longer, but our research shows passengers prefer this to using a replacement bus”.

So that’s alright then?

Who are they kidding? Take last weekend, when direct trains from Victoria to Brighton were possible, but on a forever journey via Horsham and Littlehampton. It took 2 hours and seven minutes. Thats fifteen minutes more than to get to York from Kings Cross. It’s the equivalent of an average journey speed of 30 mph for over two hours for what would be a 60 mile direct trip.

A direct replacement bus is timetabled for 45 minutes from Three Bridges to Brighton while that ‘indirect-stay-on-the-train’ takes 89 minutes. No wonder the On Board Supervisor was advising everyone for Brighton to choose the former as we pulled into Three Bridges – albeit with no knowledge of how long the queue and the wait was for a Brighton bound direct bus. Which was huge.

I did notice a poster in Hassocks Station has recently gone on display advising of the upcoming works between East Croydon and Victoria this weekend, one weekend in November and throughout the Christmas and New Year period but it would be good to see similar high profile promotion of other weekend line closures (like the recent Three Bridges to Brighton/Lewes) rather than just online communications, especially now weekend rail travel is so significant.

Week long blockades do tend to get better promotion as these become much more common all over the railway network as an efficient way of completing major improvement works in a timely fashion – there was one between Three Bridges and Horsham in August, another between Hove and Brighton in September, there’s one between Tunbridge Wells and Hastings in the last week of this month and another coming up between Southampton and Bournemouth for the first week of next month.

These extensive programmes in normal times are great news for bus companies bringing a much welcome boost to profits, but in the current driver shortage crisis they must be a nightmare for operational staff to cover. Unsurprisingly it was noticeable last Saturday I didn’t see a single Brighton & Hove or Metrobus bus out on the job with a whole myriad of small bus companies and lots of different coach companies, many new to me, providing vehicles and drivers. Which gives rise to the thorny subject of PSVAR and accessibility issues.

Mind you, following my tweet last Saturday I received a message from one highly respected south east based bus company renowned for their expert and plentiful involvement in rail replacement telling me “Go-Ahead asked us to cover work on the Brighton Main Line last weekend – rates are rubbish and they leave it to the last minute. We politely declined as (name of rail company) plan months ahead and have us fully booked”.

Passengers have long memories of journeys when they’re inconvenienced in a big way, especially involving rail replacement. The successful February 2019 Brighton Main Line closure did wonders for enhancing the beleaguered operation’s usual poor reputation but was billed as enabling so much engineering work to be achieved in one go that umpteen weekend closures would be avoided. Which is the same justification for the upcoming February 2022 blockade too.

Yet, following last weekend’s closure (and there’ve been many others) I spotted online this week that the weekend after next (30th/31st October) there’s yet another full closure scheduled on the Brighton Main Line and this time, even more draconian in its impact, albeit less in distance. And I’m willing to bet less than 10% of the tens of thousands of passengers who’ll be impacted will know.about their significantly disrupted journey until they turn up at the station a week tomorrow. Not least Brighton and Hove Albion fans heading up early on Saturday morning to Liverpool.

It’s between Three Bridges and Gatwick Airport – so no ‘indirect’ trains taking double the journey time as an alternative are possible either. From all points south of Three Bridges to all points north of Gatwick Airport it’s train-bus-train or nothing.

Joy of joys I’m heading off to Yorkshire that weekend to fulfill a long standing commitment.

I’m already dreading it ..… and I’m someone who spends his life enjoying bus and train travel (but see PS added below).

It doesn’t feel we’re building back much better to me when it comes to those three dreaded words.

Roger French

PS: A quick update about my dread of the upcoming Three Bridges to Gatwick Airport disruption over the 30th/31st October weekend. In better news, I’m now advised that not all four tracks between these stations are being closed and a skeleton hourly Thameslink service will operate over the weekend between Brighton and Bedford. I reckon those trains are going to be extremely busy. Over crowding alert big time.

17 thoughts on “Three Dreaded Words

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  1. In my previous life I was involved with Rail Replacement buses at Metroline (and, although it was a while ago, I’ve maintained an interest).

    Concerning rates for operators . . . this is always driven by the rates paid by the railway TOC. A TOC will issue a tender for a job, seek bids, and the lowest bid will win the job. The tender will specify frequencies; number of buses per departure and so on. Staffing of interchange points will be left up to the successful operator.
    TfL work much the same way, although they will often supply Customer Information Assistants themselves (via agencies to actually procure the staff).
    The “Controller” is there to control buses and drivers, not to answer passenger questions . . . and I know from personal experience that, on a busy, complex job . . . it is necessary to concentrate fully on that. Why not provide a departure list for the stop assistants, and charge them with maintaining on-time departures? Too logical?

    I will also comment that the bus timetables and any connection times are almost always supplied by the TOC . . . very often with bus workings already shown, and woe betide if the operator tries to change them to make them more efficient or realistic!! And don’t get me started on standard running times on a Saturday at 0600; 1000; 1400; 1800 and 2200!!!

    It is desperately disappointing to learn that, despite the successful last big blockade, lessons still haven’t been learnt. GoAhead London have form in running RRS’s . . . it’s a major part of their business. but if rates from the TOC are low, it’s difficult to offer more.
    Ultimately, if you wany a proper job done, then you have to pay for it. If you want to save money, then accept it will go belly-up.


  2. My bug bear for replacement buses is delay repay. Most people don’t realise it is available, not because it is a bus not a train but if the bus itself is delayed. I had this on the Horsham blockade where we got caught in traffic and were 25 late arriving. Despite all the bus monitors at the stations it seemed nobody is responsible for logging the actual bus times and therefore my claim was rejected (automatically) because the system showed that the buses had arrived on time. Fortunately I had photo evidence of the delays and got my £1.70 at the second attempt.
    However, it isn’t all about me and I’m interested in what should be on the front of the bus. The rules say “rail replacement” with the card as you mention. However, this was set a long time ago when buses didn’t have the chance of displaying anything else. So if any reader was defining policy what would you do? While we are at it, another one of my hobby horses is marking the stop when it isnt at the station. Presumably Roger knows why the Brighton and Hove stop at Bishopstone “isn’t allowed” to have a Southern rail replacement bus stop flag when others, say between Chichester and Havant where buses similarly dont call at stations all do have them


  3. Thee Rail Regulator is now taking an interest in these constant rail works and the chaoes that frequently occurs i particular they have takn up issues with the East Anglian Rail works andf hve been told they have to improve

    e Office of Rail and Road has carried out a national report on Network Rail’s engineering programme looking at value for money and the disruption faced by passengers and other rail users.

    It singled out the number of “Late Changes” made to planned engineering work on the Anglia route which made it difficult for passengers to plan weekend rail trips. There have been major engineering works on the route over the last decade

    ohn Larkinson, Chief Executive, ORR said: “Improved planning, monitoring and delivery of possessions is essential in not only reducing disruption to passengers but also in reducing costs.

    “Network Rail has responded positively to the review and we have seen progress on a number of initiatives designed to address possession inefficiencies. It is important now that when these prove successful that they are consistently shared and applied across all of the regions

    Byh the end of 2021, we want to see a clear and time-bound plan with milestones for delivering on our recommendations, and we will closely monitor and track Network Rail’s progress.”


  4. Very good read Roger
    I agree, Rail Rep is usually a shambles. Take the DL-5 (District Line Wimbledon to Hammersmith) for example, I was travelling to Putney from Wimbledon a few weekends ago. I exited the station and headed straight for the DL-5 stop as I happened to know that the stop was just a temporary stop pole on the near side lane on the one way system. No one at the station to tell you where to go. Waited for 10 minutes, saw multiple DL-4 & DL-5 buses arrive and enter the one way system, but then they just vanished! I asked the Arriva controller (Arriva are main contractors) who stated it was a mess, as he had no idea where any non-Arriva subcontracted buses were! Finally a DL-5 turned around the corner, only to park in the bus lane to take a break. The Arriva controller walked up to the bus and a few minutes later the bus arrived at the stop. Everyone got on, and the bus departed. After travelling through the town centre, a few passengers asked whether this was the right way to Wimbledon Park. No, you need the DL-4 for that (DL-5 goes first stop Putney, whilst DL-4 stops at all stations inbetween). Problem was, nobody was told where the DL-4 stop was in Wimbledon, so they all waited at the DL-5 stop. The driver stopped at the next regular stop and let people off (maybe 30% of the bus alighted?). Admittedly the bus was a London one, so the powerblinds couldn’t show anything other than Rail Replacement. But still pretty poor that in this day and age passengers get no information and the service is awful. In my opinion, Southern CLJ to WCY is more organised, even though that starts at CLJ, where each TOC’s Rail Replacement boarding point is at a different stop surrounding the station


  5. At Edinburgh Waverley during engineering works, is it the fault of the customer arriving by train who asks for the “bus” to Aberdeen to be directed by station staff to Edinburgh Bus Station instead of one of the station exits for the Rail Replacement coaches. Or is it the station/TOC managements’ failure to fully communicate to their staff just what is going on in their business that impacts their customers?
    To compound the issue, couple line closures with a weekly strike by certain Scotrail staff and you get total chaos. There is the weird situation of fully manned Scotrail gate lines, plus tickets being sold for services suspended due to the strike action AND Rail Replacement buses covering some strike bound routes with customers still having no clue as to what is going on. A bit like the management and staff.


  6. My own involvement with rail replacement buses goes back some years now, but I confirm Greenline727’s comment that (unless things have changed) the bus timetables that came out from the TOC’s do not specify the times of trains the buses are connecting with, except sometimes where night-time operations are involved. So I remember back then we used to run single trips for First Great Western from, say, Worthing to Brighton, without knowing what time the train was supposed to arrive, or where from, so unless there were rail staff there on the day to liase with the bus driver he or she was simply left with the scheduled departure/arrival times for the bus. I guess in most cases, the connection was not made, but everyone at the railways was happy, so long as the destination board showed the right TOC logo.
    I myself had a recent more positive experience of rail replacement during a recent “blockade” of Horsham. Having got a bit stuck in Dorking because of the failure of a bus on the 93 route to Horsham to run (presumably staff issues), I went off to the station where the gent with the yellow jacket and clipboard was very helpful and knew the time of the next bus. This turned out to be a nice coach from a Crawley firm which duly departed at the time given. The only thing was, the heating was full on, and it was a hot day, but it all seemed to be running very efficiently.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think it’s remarkable that you mentioned ” Information at stations about engineering works was done away with long ago” as when I recently travelled to Shippea Hill, Lakenheath and Spooner Row (three stations that receive 1/2 trains per day maximum and are among the least used stations in the country) all three of these had up to date boards detailing the upcoming engineering works across the Greater Anglia network!


  8. We never suffered from this in the past. Certainly engineering work – my railway career started on a Sunday off loading passengers from train to bus at Tulse Hill, but never long closures, and why does it take 20 weekends? I suspect H&S gone mad! A local senior NR manager advised that they cannot cross a disused siding without taking possession first! You never hear of single line working which is still done abroad quite safely but oh no not over here far too dangerous. The TOCs don’t suffer a loss of revenue and many of TOCs are run by the bus bandits anyway! It can only get worse with GBR taking CONtrol 😦


  9. Commuting and business travel is well down but leisure travel is up but for how long whenm the paassengesr are treated to endless weekend rail workd and chaotic rasil replacement services

    With all the modern equipenmt for maintain track compared with the days of steam why are there so manmy rail works and why do they taker so long

    Can anything be learned from railways abroad they dont seem to suufer from endless rail worksd. A lot of he work is done serial fasjhion xannot more of it be done at once rather than over several weekends


  10. Case in point that it’s business as usual and passengers are just a nuisance is this weekend with the Victoria-East Croydon closure. You would think that Southern would run their fast Brighton services from London Bridge instead. Nope. They’re not bothering to run anything. So not only for passengers who would normally travel from Victoria or Clapham Junction do they have to go to London Bridge, but then have to travel on the slower Thameslink services.

    Passengers are still very much the same nuisance as they always have been on our railways.


    1. There will be a limited number of train paths out of london bridge, and it is better that southern uses them to provide a direct service to say eastbourne than to provide more direct services to somewhere that already has direct services in Brighton


      1. Point taken and understood! I’m just so used to the situation where TOCs seem to regard engineering works as an excuses to not to bother running anything.


  11. Looks like 30/31 October is likely to be busy for Network Rail as they are also carrying out work at Leeds.

    From my past experience on the 18 mile journey between Leeds and Keighley, there is usually a 30 to 40 minute gap between bus and train in the middle of the journey – when combined with longer road journey times, this extends a 30 minute journey into 90 minutes (at an average speed of 12 mph).


  12. Lots I could say here from past experience, but I’ll pick up on the standard running times issue. The railway computer systems are, of course, designed around the very fact that running times ARE standard. This means that the STP planner has to key bus times in manually if they are to deviate from this. The later that works are planned, and the more stretched the planner is, the less likely this is to take place, especially where buses are frequent..
    I think I’m also correct in saying that the computer system they use can auto generate the buses, but it will base this on the standard train-train connection time in the system. Again, overriding this takes significant time.
    I was lucky that the TOC I worked with were willing to understand these issues, and override things based on my suggestions.


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