Sunday 13th February 2022
Having explored a couple of southern towns to kick off this year’s A to Z of public transport provision in small to mid sized English towns last month I thought I’d better level up and select this month’s two contenders in the north. And what’s more they’re both cities rather than just plain old (or new) towns.
Which brings me to Carlisle with a population of around 75,000 in the city itself and another 30,000 living in the wider district making it a very similar size to Bracknell, which I explored a fortnight ago. But, spoiler alert, bus use and the network of buses in considerably better as is the significant rail network.
Carlisle is administered by a two tier District (City) Council as well as Cumbria County Council both headquartered in the city and has a long and distinguished history going back to Roman times not least due to its strategic location just eight miles south of the Scottish border and at the confluence of three rivers (Eden, Caldew and Petteril).
Not surprisingly, unlike Andover and Bracknell, Carlisle is also an important junction on the country’s rail network being at the apex of six wonderfully scenic railway lines.
In clockwise order heading north is the line to Glasgow via Dumfries and Kilmarnock served by ScotRail which leaves the second scenic line – the West Coast main line at Gretna Green, the latter being served by Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Third up heading east is the line to Newcastle operated by Northern Rail as is the renowned line through Settle to Leeds. The West Coast main line heading south with Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express trains offers spectacular views through Penrith, over Shap and on past Oxenholme and finally the Cumbrian coastal line operated by Northern is a joy to behold and always worth a ride round to Barrow-in-Furness and the long way round to Lancaster.
As well as all this with around nine passenger trains per hour there are regular freight trains passing through making the station a popular choice with enthusiasts.
The station building itself is impressive. Both externally and internally following a complex refurbishment including renewing hundreds of glass panels in its roof.
Avanti West Coast manage the station and do a good job doing so too. It’s always a pleasure to visit.
Immediately outside the station are reminders of Carlisle’s rich history with castlesque battlements and a row of bus shelters for catching the city’s busy network of bus routes heading north and west of the city as well as the starting point for two lengthy inter urban routes heading north into Scotland – Border Bus route X95 which links Carlisle with Galashiels and with a change there on to Edinburgh…
… and which is a truly wonderful route to travel on …
… and Houston’s route 382 to Lockerbie.
Neither route are frequent with the X95 providing six journeys a day (only four run through from Edinburgh to Carlisle in the southbound direction, and none northbound; and just three journeys on Sundays) and four journeys on route 382 (three on Sundays).
Other inter-urban bus routes are all operated by Stagecoach and depart from the Stagecoach run bus station just a short walk from the railway station in Lonsdale Street. It’s a shame the X95 and 382 can’t be made welcome there so everything would be in one place.
There’s a small waiting room with a hatchway to where staff are in a ‘back office’ if you have an enquiry, and, don’t tell the corporate bosses at Stagecoach HQ, but there’s also a display of timetable leaflets for passengers wishing to obtain helpful information in print. Wonders will never cease.
It was almost a full house of leaflets too, and I even picked up a winter timetable booklet for bus routes through The Lakes from one of the buses I travelled on.
There’s also some handy information on display outside the building for when it’s closed, including maps.
Although it’s a shame the map showing the wider Lake District network doesn’t include the inter-urban routes from Carlisle to the north and east.
Stagecoach’s inter-urban bus routes from Carlisle include (in clockwise order) route 79/179 to Annan (half hourly) and Dumfries (hourly); the Cross Pennine 685 operated jointly with Arriva to Brampton (half hourly) and Newcastle (hourly); route 104 to Penrith (hourly); route 554 to Keswick via Wigton (four journeys); route 300 to Workington (hourly); and route 400 to Sillouth (two-hourly).
Route 300 was once treated to an upgraded Gold brand, and the Cross Pennine 685 enjoyed a Best Impressions smart bespoke branding a few years ago which was initially applied to buses (certainly Arriva’s single decks) but sadly all this has now gone. Mind you, I didn’t see any ‘school bus’ yellow liveried buses denoting inter-urban routes so that was a plus.
I’ve travelled on all these inter-urban routes bar the 400 on previous occasions so decided for my visit to the city on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning earlier this week to concentrate on having a good look at the city’s local bus route network. And there’s a nice coloured map to show where they all go.
The six routes operate cross city, in most cases with loops at the terminal ends, and link together residential areas which need a similar level of service including frequencies of 7-8 minutes, 10, 15, 20, 30 and 60 minutes. So it’s quite a clever network which works well and appears to be very efficient to operate as well as meeting passengers’ travel needs.
Almost all routes are operated by Enviro 300 single deck buses in either standard or new style Stagecoach livery. I spotted one bus (pictured below) with remnants of the once smart local branding which adorned the previous fleet – it was still displaying the logo devised for the branding.
Other buses still carried a personalised rear behind the driver …
… giving a local feel and creating interest but I got the impression these will also soon be gone as sadly the drive to centralised corporatisation at Stagecoach with no scope for localism continues.
One bus had some timetables in the leaflet rack including just one left of the Lakes booklet which I helped myself too.
Cumbria County Council do a good job at displaying lists of departures at most bus stops – and in very large print too.
Some bus stops in the city centre also show return times from the outer terminus too.
As you’d expect, I managed to find one display where attention to detail was lacking (see the left hand column of hidden times in the photo below), but generally they were pretty good.
Even if they religiously list every single departure even on a very frequent route making for very long lists of times.
On the other hand bus shelters were a disgrace. I’m guessing they’re the responsibility of the District Council rather than the County but there’s clearly no budget for cleanliness nor keeping on top of graffiti.
Almost all bus shelters out in the residential areas are covered in graffiti making for an unpleasant environment to wait. There’s no way the image of bus travel depicted above is going to attract motorists over to buses.
In the city centre the shelters didn’t seem to be so badly impacted but mainly because they’re clear panels but I question whether this is the most comfortable arrangement for passengers to sit and wait for their bus?
There’s a conglomeration of five northbound bus stops close by the station in English Street with more modern shelters ….
….. at the southern end of the main shopping area which includes The Lanes covered over shopping centre, while at the northern end are further bus stops grouped together adjacent to the indoor market building.
Here there is even a network map on display for the city’s bus routes. Which is good to see.
There are also a number of where to catch your bus diagrams at various city centre bus stops and the bus station, although this one fooled me as the orientation was the opposite to what you’d expect with what was showing on the left (eg bus stops J and Q) actually to your left in reality.
Lowther Street connects the Market Hall bus stops and The Crescent/English Street which includes a very effective contra-flow bus lane which is a huge help to enable city bus routes to take a direct routing through the city in a southbound direction.
The southbound bus stops by the station at The Crescent have natty protrusions into the road to facilitate level boarding.
Some timetable cases in the city centre are filled with so much information and announcements it’s difficult to know where to begin reading. I kind of think the effectiveness of whatever is trying to be conveyed is simply lost, as shown below.
I took a ride on most of the city’s bus routes including some on Sunday afternoon and others during the morning peak on Monday and into mid morning up to lunch time. Passenger numbers were obviously fairly low on Sunday but Monday morning showed some good loadings.
Not surprisingly one of the busiest routes is the 61/61A which links Morton Park (61) and Morton West (61A) in the south west (each every 15 minutes) via the city centre and London Road to Harraby in the south east every 7-8 minutes, and just to make it easy for passengers, buses only display route number 61 when heading to Harraby when originating from Morton West where they show 61A in that direction.
Morton Park also benefits from the 15 minute frequency route 62 which heads north after the city centre to Lowry Hill from where every other bus continues further north to Kingmoor Park. Loadings on the northern part of this route were fairly light.
Route 67 was another busy one running every 10 minutes between Belle Vue in the west via Cumberland Infirmary (two nostalgic names together) and the city centre to Upperby in the south. One double deck is allocated to this route to help with school loadings.
Routes 60 and 76 both run every twenty minutes. My journey on the former from Sandsfield Park (in the west) carried the best load of the day – a late morning journey with 22 on board, mainly because we ran in front of a 67 and 61 where the routes share a common section of road towards the city centre.
Buses then continue to Carleton Clinic via London Road south of Harraby. As you can see this route is operated by Optare Versas which have transferred from Fife and have some rather nice seats.
In contrast my journey from St Anns Hill (in the north) on route 76 was the quietest with just one other passenger boarding along with me. It fared a bit better crossing the city to Durranhill via the University of Cumbria’s buildings.
Finally route 69 runs hourly linking Edentown with Holme Head being operated with a Solo reflecting the low numbers using that route.
It’s a tidy city network and was being well run in my travel experiences. Only one bus was more than five minutes late. All journeys seemed to be running too. And a day ticket at £3.50 is excellent value.
Of my AtoZ travels so far in Andover, Bracknell and Carlisle it’s no contest with Carlisle topping the leader board for bus use and frequency of service. Will upcoming D beat that? Find out in a couple of weeks.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.
Next blog, Tuesday 15th February 2022: The crazy world of rail ticketing.