B is for Bracknell

Thursday 27th January 2022

Continuing my 2022 odyssey around England’s mid sized towns to check out their public transport offering brought me to the post war new town of Bracknell in the ceremonial county of Royal Berkshire. It’s surrounded by (clockwise) Maidenhead, Slough, Windsor, Egham, Woking, Camberley, Wokingham and Reading.

1998 saw a local government reorganisation with Berkshire’s administrative county swept away in favour of six unitary authorities resulting in Bracknell falling in the unitary Bracknell Forest Borough Council.

Bracknell’s population is around 85,000 with 40,000 more living in the wider Bracknell Forest Borough Council area including the villages of Binfield, Warfield and Winkfield to the north, North Ascot to the east and the small towns of Crowthorne and Sandhurst to the south. My travels last Friday included much of this wider Borough territory,

Bracknell has sizeable commercial and industrial areas as well as a significant retail offer in the town centre which has been developed to incorporate extensive pedestrianisation and the Princess Gate shopping mall complete with an abundance of multi storey car parks.

Residential areas in the south of the town have the highest population density and consequently enjoy more frequent bus routes than those in the north.

Bracknell station lies close to the bus station and town centre lying within the inner ring road. It’s served by South Western Railway’s trains running half hourly between Waterloo and Reading. Except a broken down London bound train at Virginia Water in the morning peak last Friday brought the line to a standstill with no trains able to operate through Bracknell until after midday.

The scene when I arrived at Virginia Water with the broken down train and rescue train stranded.

I’m told the rescue train was coupled up successfully but as soon as it went to move the brakes of the broken down train seized on this compounding the problem.

I made my way to Virginia Water on a Weybridge bound train which were still able to run in that direction and by 08:00 rail replacement buses had been summoned calling at stations between Staines and Reading.

So it wasn’t a good start to my day’s travels arriving in Bracknell much later than planned but the double deck bus ride through Sunningdale, Ascot, and Martins Heron (we missed out Longcross station) was an added unexpected bonus. And South Western Railway have refunded my peak hour return fare under Delay Repay, so every cloud, as they say.

There’s a prominent real time bus departure sign outside the station as you cross to reach the bus station which is a nice touch.

Bracknell has an unremarkable nine departure bay (in three drive-through rows) open air bus station with a long shelter the length of each row …

… and a pedestrian crossing point about a third of the way down.

There are a few basic seats by each departure point with a display showing departure times in a rather large case and a ‘real time’ sign. Many of the circular routes unhelpfully give the destination as Bracknell Bus Station.

There’s also a real time sign along the walkway along side of the bus station…..

… and a rather faded and out of date network map which could usefully be removed.

Buses in Bracknell are provided by Reading Buses through its Thames Valley Buses subsidiary, formerly Courtney Buses, until it sold out to Reading in Mach 2019. The Courtney name was dropped in April last year. Reading Buses also operate directly into the town in the form of routes 4/X4 from Reading and under the Green Line brand to Windsor, Slough, London (702) and Heathrow Terminal 5 (703). The only other bus company operating local bus routes into the town is White Bus with its five journeys a day route X94 liking Ascot with Bracknell and Camberley.

Most routes are financially supported by the Borough Council with just four commercially operated – 171/172 southern estates circular; 194 to Camberley; and the already mentioned 4/X4 to Reading; 702/3 to London and Heathrow Airport.

I was delighted to see a splendid array of bus timetable books on display in the small Thames Valley office in the bus station.

These include a book for Bracknell as well as others for Maidenhead, Windsor and Slough and Wokingham.

The Bracknell book is dated February 2021 (a couple of months before the Courtney name was dropped) so sadly is now out of date as Thames Valley have introduced a slimmed down network of supported routes during current Covid/driver shortage times.

This includes two hourly circular routes (numbered E1 and E2) running clockwise and anti-clockwise to replace three number of tendered routes (108, 150, 157/8) which have been temporarily withdrawn. As well as being in the timetable book these withdrawn routes still appear on the online route map for the town but no times are listed when you click on the route number in the listing.

There’s a separate map available showing routes E1 and E2 but it might be helpful to add some cross references between the two maps as a stranger to the town (e.g. me) may not realise this change has been introduced if you don’t read the latest news from last November.

A third temporary route E3 (shown in red) also replaces part of tendered route 150 on an hourly frequency.

Maps of routes E1-E3 are also posted on the window of the rather rudimentary office in the bus station as well as details of the changes to services.

The bus station also has an independently run café which seemed to be quite popular with its menu of traditional bus café fare…..

…. and there are public toilets ….

….. which I was pleased to see in the Gents, at least, (I don’t know about the Ladies) still includes a striking mural painted on the wall representing the nostalgic post deregulation days in the town which I first spotted many years ago. The toilets were clean and included sanitisation facilities.

Whereas Andover’s route network comprises short town routes from the bus station operating to a circle at the outer end, Bracknell’s road layout makes for a longer circle for the entire route length for most town bus routes in some cases taking advantage of a short stretch of bus only road enabling buses to easily pass from one residential area to another.

I recall this bus gate arrangement being introduced as a revolutionary step when the new town was being developed and indeed proved to be way ahead of its time.

Wrong branding

The upshot is the southern estates circular routes 171 (clockwise) and 172 (anti-clockwise) take just under forty minutes to do a rounder from the bus station and back again on a half hourly frequency (hourly evenings and Sundays). I took a trip around the circuit and it was the busiest journey of my travels with an average of eight on board at any one time and about fifteen travelling in total including some locally to and from the district centre at Great Hollands.

The biggest frustration was a ten minute delay as we attempted to cross the A322 between Birch Hill and Crown Wood by a large Sainsbury’s due to road works.

I also did a circuit on the northern ‘temporary’ circular, the hourly E1(clockwise)/E2(anti-clockwise) taking a slightly longer 46 minutes journey time for the rounder. We left Bracknell with four on board and picked another four up on our way back into the town centre. So not very busy.

The route takes in the large Tesco in the north of the town as well as extending out to the village of Binfield to the north west which is now almost part of Bracknell as house building continues.

We did a dog leg in the south west corner of the route to serve the relatively new area of Jennett’s Park where more house building is underway …

… and did a wander around Wildridings before arriving back at the town centre.

I’m not surprised it’s only an hourly frequency with few passengers travelling on the route and it might make for a sensible long term replacement for those temporarily withdrawn tendered routes.

Another route I took a ride on was the infrequent route 299. This only runs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with just five off peak journeys. The route takes a circuitous trajectory as it leaves and enters Bracknell before serving the community of Winkfield Row north east of Bracknell with two of the five journeys extending on a further loop to serve Winkfield village.

The route includes a dogleg to serve The High Pines which is one of those communities with individual pitches and small ‘mobile home’ type accommodation.

Even more interesting was the route through Warfield Park as we returned into Bracknell.

This really gave the feel of being Toy Town and I was looking out for Noddy, Big Ears and the gang as we meandered around the labyrinthine narrow roads among the mini sized homes.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it and it just seemed appropriate it was a mini sized bus on a mini sized service with just five return journeys, three days a week.

It took just over an hour to do the whole route from Bracknell back to Bracknell as I caught the lunch time journey (12:50) that includes Winkfield and consequently takes 13 minutes longer. Sadly only one passenger left Bracknell with me and she alighted after five minutes and the rest of the journey was just me and the driver until we got back to Toy Town and took one passenger from there to that large Tesco (an eight minute ride) and picked up two more passengers as we approached the town centre.

The other route I took was the 194 to Camberley.

This is normally a half hourly service but has been reduced to hourly due to staff shortages. Confusingly the ‘real time’ departure sign in Bracknell bus station was still showing departures for the half hourly service which undermines its credibility somewhat.

I had noticed the system had been updated to show routes E1 etc so it was odd this frequency change hadn’t been included in the upgrade.

Route 194 along with route 4 to Reading leaves Bracknell through the southern estates calling at Great Hollands and we left with about ten on board, half of whom alighted as we proceeded out of Bracknell but we did quite good business continuing south through Crowthorne and Sandhurst to Camberley. But it was a frustratingly slow journey taking 15 minutes longer than the scheduled 53 minutes.

I’d tried to catch the 11:55 departure from Bracknell but despite the bus being on the stand after arriving from its previous journey I overheard a conflab between the relieving and relieved drivers include something about “control telling me to be out of service” and to the consternation of waiting passengers he shut the doors, changed the blind from ‘194 Camberley’ to ‘Not In Service’ and drove off to the far side of the bus station with not a word of explanation.

It was all the more galling as I’d spotted a rather lovely looking pristine clean bus parked up in the bus station with a newly designed very smart branding for route 194.

I gave it a few minutes to see if the driver would return with that bus but nothing doing so as my itinerary was already in disarray due to the earlier train breakdown I gave up waiting for what was looking like a cancelled journey and headed off to do another route returning later for the 13:55 departure as described above.

I had originally planned to return from Camberley to Bracknell and Ascot on White Bus route X94 which starts at Frimley Park Hospital before Camberley then takes a more direct routing missing out part of Crowthorne on route to Bracknell but it only has five off-peak hourly journeys and I’d missed the last one back.

That new liveried bus really stood out not just because it looks very attractive (“drop dead gorgeous” as it’s renowned designer would say) but because it was so clean.

This was in marked contrast to all the other buses I saw on my visit which were filthy.

Some very much so.

I appreciate the dirty road conditions with salt, grit and general muck can play havoc with spray and I assumed the bus wash both at Reading and Bracknell must have been out of action, perhaps due to the low overnight temperature, as it didn’t look to me the dirt could have accumulated in just a couple of hours on the road having first seen them at around 10:00, but Reading Buses CEO Robert Williams kindly replied to my tweet confirming buses are washed every night and dirt does indeed “build up very quickly in the frosty weather, especially on rural routes”.

As always the White Bus buses I saw impressively lived up to their name, even later in the day and made for a stark contrast.

That bus on route 53 pictured above is the hourly service to Maidenhead and completes the network of inter-urban routes into Bracknell along with the 4/X4, 194/X94 and 702/3.

It’s a tidy network of both town and inter-urban routes and hopefully once Covid abates Thames Valley Buses can make its presence more effective by pursuing its brand makeover of the fleet…

… and bus stop plates, which still all carry the Courtney name ….

… with some displaying Thames Travel from the time that company ran some of the tendered routes in the town (eg what is now route 299).

The brand refresh looks very much a ‘work in progress’ with a number of different liveries …

…. but if that new look 194 branding is what the future holds, it’s looking good for Bracknell’s buses.

Finally for today, many thanks to everyone who emailed me a copy of Essex County Council’s monthly Transport & Travel Newsletter published yesterday. This contains the good news that Harlow’s bus station has been given a spring clean. And not before time too. It’s good to see action at last.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu

Next blog, Saturday 29th January 2022: Travels across Crossrail

18 thoughts on “B is for Bracknell

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  1. Bracknell, as one of the newer “New Towns”, has always seemed to struggle with bus services. Even back in Alder Valley and BeeLine days, frequencies were never much better than every 20-30 minutes on the town routes.
    It’s probably too late to try high-frequency minibuses now . . .

    Reading Buses must have recovered from any temporary staff problems, as getting at least 2 RRS buses out by 0800 is pretty good . . . especially with the blind displays ready programmed !! I daresay that the intention is to wash buses every night, but sorry, some of that dirt is a few days old now.

    And finally . . . are you becoming an “influencer”?? Your blog seems to stimulate action . . . DRT next??

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Always an interesting read but a few Copthornes have crept in where it should be Crowthorne. Quite annoying for those circulars to show destination Bracknell bus station at the bus station. Not helpful at all. Your example for the 194 seems to suggest that it will call at TRL before and after Crowthorne which seems unlikely. Doesn’t give a lot of confidence. I assume council run rather than bus operator?

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    1. I suspect the display suggests 194 calls at TRL both before and after Crowthorne is because it calls at TRL Northern Entrance at xx09, Crowthorne Pinewood Crossroads at xx10, TRL Western Entrance at xx11 and Crowthorne High Street at xx14. The display seems to be based on the main Crowthorne stop being Pinewood Crossroads while it is fairly obvious that it is in fact High Street.
      I’m afraid it is an example of no-one with a knowledge of the area actually looking at the displays to check that they actually make sense – similarly with Bracknell Bus Station being the ‘destination’ of the circulars. As this is a common issue with circular routes, one would have expected suppliers to have found a way round it by now.
      I feel its wrong to blame new graduates fresh out of university for this – all suppliers make a big thing of quality control and testing which should sort out this sort of thing before it goes live. That’s not to take the blame away from the local authority customers – but as has been pointed out ad infinitum, staffing has been cut back so much that acceptance testing is very low down on the list of priorities.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bracknell has also seen a few operators coming and going. First Berkshire was the main operator for Bracknell, but when Courtney started creeping in, there was a bus war on the main 194 route. After their withdrawal in August 2015, Stagecoach participated in taking over First’s route 94 and operate a 20-minute frequency. By March 2016, Stagecoach too withdrew from Bracknell.

    It’s also worth noting that the current 194 doesn’t just end at Camberley, because on weekdays a few journeys are extended to make return trips to and from Farnborough in Hampshire, where it serves the two colleges there (Sixth Form College and College of Technology) even during the holidays!

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  4. Assuming that it broke down on the platform at Virginia Water if they restored the west curve there then the line could be in action by going down the curve and onto the Weybridge line the driver changing cab by walking through the train and off in either the London or Reading direction.This would be slower and disruptive but at least the line would be open!Plus freight could use the curve too and I think that I have seen class 59 hauled freights around there.

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  5. What is odd is that whilst other routes have been reduced, the Warfield Park 299 has been considerably increased, partly I guess because it now continues beyond there to serve other areas.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yet again it is Real Time bus information that is anything but real time. These displays rarely work correctly.. In this case the displays were probably just showing the timetable informtion and not necessariily the correect timetable information and again this is pretty common

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Think about how much has to work correctly together in the background to get RTBI, and it becomes a miracle. A parody for the buses, the miracle isn’t so much what turns up, when, as that anything does at all.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. But its much better than nothing. And very useful for enthusiasts, for example today we can follow buses on the 5B, 75/A on their massive diversions because of the Torrington landslip.

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  7. Slight correction in that the “Green Line” 702 journeys to Central London are just two up (MF) at a time few have got up at these days, and two back daily, the 703 to/from Heathrow being the only regular service. And even those, as well as the already reduced 194 get cut as I too found out a few weeks ago! Yet apparently buses can be summoned at short notice for SWT rail replacement. The current Driver shortages are certainly making a bad situation a whole lot worse, and if not resolved very soon, I shudder to think of the consequences in hundreds of places such as Bracknell as passengers vote with their feet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, its going from bad to worse. Stagecoach reduced their Exeter services from Monday because of the shortage, but still lost about 100 journeys on Monday that could not be covered. Even small companies are being affected, Country Bus in Devon have given up one route in Exeter (gone to Greenslades), halved the Dawlish town service and are soon giving up the 360. And since those decisions, another 4 drivers have left for lorry driving. Also from this week Red Rose has suspended their Amersham to Aylesbury 55.

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    2. It could well be that there are part timers willing to be phoned up at short notice to do rail replacements, who have no interest in doing ordinary bus work. A lot of coach drivers hate bus work, especially if fares are involved.

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  8. Yes, its going from bad to worse. Stagecoach reduced their Exeter services from Monday because of the shortage, but still lost about 100 journeys on Monday that could not be covered. Even small companies are being affected, Country Bus in Devon have given up one route in Exeter (gone to Greenslades), halved the Dawlish town service and are soon giving up the 360. And since those decisions, another 4 drivers have left for lorry driving. Also from this week Red Rose has suspended their Amersham to Aylesbury 55.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t like the story of the cancelled 11:55 bus. Firstly because it shatters my illusion that Reading Buses are good guys, and secondly because it demonstrates a corporate arrogance towards passengers. Questions that arise are: why was the journey cancelled when the “relieving driver” and the bus and the passengers were all ready; why were the “control” not inform the passengers before the driver, with confirmation of the next available journey (and of course, as Roger says, why did the indicators not already show the journey as cancelled); why is there no functioning public address system at the bus station; and why, in its absence and in the implied absence of supervision, did the “relieving driver” not explain what was going on and apologise to the passengers? These points are at least as important as the vagaries of the bus washing schedule!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. What an altogether disappointing visit. Not sure if you’re familiar with Bracknell but the town centre has been transformed, it originally looked very much in keeping with the bus station. I’m sure if there had been the will then that makeover could have been extended to the bus and rail stations. It speaks of a local authority seeing public transport very much as an afterthought.

    Everything here seems to be a tale of a lack of attention to detail. Even more disappointing when Reading are generally considered to be one of the better operators. How confusing for anyone new to the area to be confronted with the various information failings you’ve highlighted let alone the cancelled 1155.

    Rail information may not be perfect but you can generally arrive at a station with a reasonable expectation that both timetable information & departure screens are correct including any cancellations. It’s an area bus companies desperately need to improve on.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Looks like the sheen of good management at Reading Buses has long since lost its lustre. And I simply don’t believe all those buses had been washed overnight as you were told Roger

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