Friday 15th October 2021
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.