Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 4.

Tuesday 22nd February 2022

A deserted Hassocks at 07:30

I was up bright and early yesterday morning taking a few rail replacement rides to see how Brighton Main Line commuters were faring on their first weekday of the blockade without trains.

It was soon apparent, as in 2019, extensive pre-blockade publicity had done its job at encouraging passengers to avoid travelling for the week. In fact, I saw far more passengers travelling over the weekend than yesterday which says something about the way the weekend leisure market for rail travel is now more important than weekday commuting.

Notwithstanding this, the number of buses and particularly coaches thrown at the first Monday of this nine day track closure was hugely impressive. In fact there were so many vehicles on hand it was challenging for operational staff to know what to do with them all. At one point the Three Bridges ‘bus hub’ became overwhelmed with buses and coaches, much more so than passengers.

Yesterday saw extra non-stop buses to intermediate stations added to the timetables for the ‘working week’ as well as two additional routes. One from Lewes via Cooksbridge to East Grinstead provides an alternative for travelling to East Croydon and London instead of via Three Bridges and the other from Seaford, Bishopstone and Newhaven Town to Uckfield connects with trains to East Croydon and London from there.

However, it’s not easy to find out about all these options as no actual timetables are available online let alone displayed at stations or in print. You have to resort to using a journey planner to find out what’s operating, which is far from ideal. (Update 09:20 : thanks to Robert in the Comments, I’ve now found Table Q buried on the Southern website here – which shows the details. )

The notion the public can’t understand timetables so let’s not make them available is totally false. It’s much easier to weigh up different travel options by looking at the full range of journeys depicted on a traditionally laid out timetable than faffing around with journey planners.

A good example, which came up during the 2019 blockade, is in the off peak between Brighton and Three Bridges when the journey planner will only show replacement buses which stop at the intermediate stations rather than the non-stoppers. Whereas in reality every 15 minutes both a non-stop bus/coach and a stopper bus/coach leave at the same time.

The former takes about half the time of the latter and can mean passengers catch an earlier onward London bound train from Three Bridges.

I was told in 2019 this was done to “nudge” passengers to use the trains that are running from Brighton via Littlehampton and the Arun Valley line to Three Bridges and London so as not to overload the replacement buses. Indeed there were posters promoting this alternative at Brighton station last time.

This time there are no posters and this lengthy journey time alternative seems to have been played down especially as there are so many buses and coaches contracted in to provide what’s needed.

This journey via Arun Valley takes 84 minutes, coincidentally the same time journey planners show the stopping bus takes. But a non-stop journey I made from Three Bridges to Brighton on Saturday morning did it in just 40 minutes – much quicker than the scheduled hour (non stoppers were shown as operating over the weekend) and less than half the 84 minutes for the stoppers.

Mind you one driver contacted me to recommend I take a look at the situation in Brighton during the late afternoon at weekends when traffic gridlock meant buses were taking half an hour just to travel between the station and Preston Circus.

Traffic was free flowing yesterday morning and the operation between Brighton and Three Bridges was running very well with plenty of empty bus and coach seats. One driver commented it was odd double deck buses were often allocated to the non-stoppers with their 45 mph maximum speed down the A23 while coaches capable of higher speeds up to 62 mph were to be found on the stoppers.

My observations showed vehicle allocations were mixed and I guess the extra capacity provided by double deckers can come in useful on the non-stoppers.

To supplement the 15 minute stopping service from my local station, Hassocks has been blessed with additional 20-minute frequency non-stop peak hour journeys to Three Bridges and I took a ride on the 07:30 departure yesterday morning. It was given a schedule journey time of 45 minutes (the stoppers take an hour) but we comfortably did it in 25 minutes meaning I could easily have caught the 08:01 Thameslink to East Croydon had I needed to rather than the 08:21 the pessimistic journey planner predicted.

Interestingly that 25 minute journey time on the nice coach from Farleigh Coaches (of Rochester) compares very favourably with the 22 minutes a Thameslink train normally takes – and the seats are luxurious compared to the usual ironing boards. Something to think about. A shame only three passengers were able to appreciate the superb service. I suspect it was because very few passengers knew it was running and so efficiently too.

I understand the Lewes to East Grinstead journeys were also fairly lightly loaded this morning. Certainly those I saw after the morning peak were very quiet.

However, winner of the the Least Used Replacement Bus Service Award must be the hourly Lewes to Plumpton only service.

After leaving Lewes and taking a 20 minute layover at Plumpton, the mini-coach continues on to Haywards Heath to provide a link from Plumpton northwards.

The same applies in the reverse direction with a Haywards Heath to Plumpton trip followed by a wait of 20 minutes and then continuing with a Plumpton to Lewes journey. Which is all a bit odd, although it obviously deters Lewes to Haywards Heath passengers from crowding out the smaller size coach.

Only one passenger boarded the 09:30 departure from Lewes yesterday morning and both the driver and dispatcher seemed surprised at how busy it was.

I also took a coach from Three Bridges via Haywards Heath to Lewes yesterday morning. Myself and six other passengers were queuing for the 08:06 departure. It didn’t pull up at the ‘bus hub’ departure point. Neither did the 08:16 by which time a few other passengers had joined us, although the marquee was looking distinctly quiet for a peak hour Monday morning.

At 08:18 a controller type person arrived shouting out for Lewes passengers to follow him and we were led out into the parking area where a stand-by coach from Hayes (Middlesex) based City Circle was dispatched to take us on our journey.

The driver was studying maps and setting his satnav for the journey ahead, which I find never instills confidence as you board but at least means we wouldn’t get lost.

As we left it became evident one explanation for the lack of an 08:06 departure might have been coach congestion all around the ‘bus hub’ with so many buses and coaches on the scene. Our driver mumbled something about being sent out just to free up space.

He seemed most put out when we arrived at Haywards Heath and no-one got off, telling the dispatcher there he should have been told to go gone straight to Lewes, but I mentioned to him perhaps it might be because passengers at Haywards Heath were wanting to travel to Lewes and indeed we picked four more up.

We arrived into Lewes after an hour’s journey – about the scheduled time.

Lewes had things well organised with plenty of high-viz wearing, clipboard wielding helpers on hand.

I was told some stand by vehicles were parked up at the depot in Ringmer in case of need, which certainly meant there was enough space by the station itself.

As well as a surfeit of buses and coaches it was also noticeable yesterday there’s also no shortage of staff.

And the foam hand wavers and smiling faces are back, especially at Three Bridges.

Even intermediate stops at Cooksbridge and Preston Park have high-viz wearing helpers at bus stops on the main roads. Mind you not surprisingly they didn’t look to be exuding the jolly happy spirit as their colleagues closer to refreshment and toilet facilities at Three Bridges and Brighton.

At Preston Park one staff member was kept occupied by taking a record of the registration number and departure time of every vehicle.

Also a shout out to one of the team at Hassocks who made sure everyone waiting in the warm in the ticket office were called whenever a bus arrived and he escorted them to it, which made for a much better arrangement than queuing in the cold.

Back at Three Bridges the three departure doors in the ‘bus hub’ marquee used over the weekend had been rearranged to make for five exits to include queuing space for the Hassocks peak hour direct journeys ….

…. as well as some peak hour journeys which just call at Haywards Heath and Preston Park, although the former doesn’t get a mention on the signs.

This may be partly why there was greater congestion around the ‘bus hub’ yesterday morning as all five departure points are closer together than the space needed for five coaches.

Meanwhile the coffee stall was looking rather lonely.

As was the entire marquee – for 08:00 on a weekday morning.

And you can’t get away from the branding. It’s everywhere. Even the door to the temporary toilets in the ‘bus hub’ is on brand.

One problem I noticed in 2019 and is once again evident at Three Bridges is issues caused by the closure of the station car park and drop off/pick up point. As last time, Southern have arranged to use the car park behind the Snooty Fox pub opposite the station and although this is signposted on the approach road, Haslett Avenue, drivers from the east in particular – on the opposite side of the road to the pub – don’t notice it and it’s not easy to access from that direction.

The consequence is there’s a constant parade of cars pulling up to drop passengers off, as well as taxis from further afield. The same for picking up too.

High viz wearing staff are on hand to warn motorists off, but it’s a constant process. In fact, I’d say they are probably some of the busiest staff in the project.

Along with those smiling over-sized foam hand wavers.

Finally, my award for the best turned out vehicles, including cleanliness, presentation and comfort of ride must go to Hayes based City Circle.

They have a large number of coaches committed to the operation and all looked immaculate with clear signs letting passengers know where they were going, including a helpful list of intermediate stations.

It’s a shame some bus companies don’t programme their electronic destinations to show where the bus is going, which would be more useful than trying to be clever at showing the Southern logo….

… something like this one is much more informative for passengers, especially as the service is replacing both Southern and Thameslink!

As in 2019 it’s obvious a huge amount of organisation and detailed preparatory work has gone into this extensive operation deploying significant resources to ensure it works well, to say nothing of the engineering work on the tracks and that new public footpath underpass that’s going on.

All things considered it’s proving a success and indeed with the challenging weather conditions yesterday morning it was ironic passengers experienced a much better service south of Three Bridges than north towards London where trains were delayed and cancelled due to a 50 mph speed limit imposed and other storm related issues on the tracks.

I wonder if we’ll see another nine day blockade in the future? I’m sold on the idea of it being preferable to interminable weekend closures especially if proper resources are deployed as they are this week and as they were in 2019. I just wish proper timetables were publicised and published as I feel sure many commuters from stations like Hassocks have no idea this week’s peak service is just as good (if not better) than normal with a more frequent service than since Christmas, better seats to travel in and comparable journey times albeit including a change at Three Bridges. And let’s face it, it’s also free to use as no one bothers with checking tickets. Indeed I overheard one customer helper at Brighton telling London bound passengers not to worry and buy their tickets at Three Bridges.

In conclusion I was impressed with my travel experiences both on Saturday and yesterday and well done to everyone involved. But I’m left wondering what a Thameslink Class 700 train was doing in Brighton’s platform 5 yesterday morning.

it’s got a long wait until it’ll be Bedford bound early next Monday morning.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.

Next blog, Thursday 24th February 2022: Off the rails. The line that never was.

28 thoughts on “Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 4.

Add yours

  1. Let’s see if I can correctly recall your mantra from the past:
    “It is better to under-promise and over-deliver than to over-promise and under-deliver.”
    I’d say that the people that organised this RRS have read this, and more importantly, have acted on it.

    If you are not too busy this week . . . perhaps an evening at Three Bridges in the PM peak might be informative? There may be more passengers around!!

    In random Bob-vein . . . Garston Bus Garage is no more . . . the remains have gone to that great landfill somewhere in the Home Counties. As one who worked there for LCNW in the good old bad old days . . . Goodbye, old friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I absolutely agree about timetables vs journey planners. The latter fall down badly if there is some incident and a connection is missed, for example, or if you decide to stop off and complete the journey later; whereas a timetable shows all the options.
    Journey planners also usually allow a big minimum time for interchanges, and may miss a ‘tight but possible’ connection.

    However, journey planners do sometimes find unexpected but possible routes; best practice would seem to be that both options are easily available – together with clear maps, way-finding signs, and help-points where you need to change. After all, just as different people find they learn in different ways, different passengers prefer different ways of finding out about journeys: some love maps, some work by knowing the names of places, some can cope with standard timetable layouts, some find a simple list of departures easier to deal with. At stations, and at bus stops with shelters, there should be room for all of these – and maybe there should be shelters at all bus stops!

    And I, too, can’t understand why all the options, stopping and direct, are not made clear to everyone. Re the Lewes-E.Grinstead express buses (coaches?) – wouldn’t it be nice if they were part of the standard timetable!

    Many thanks for another very readable and, in general, re-assuring blog.

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  3. Dear Roger, I don’t know if you’ve seen this one. https://www.hemeltoday.co.uk/news/transport/how-hard-is-it-to-get-across-hertfordshire-without-a-car-3578324 It reinforces my view that we have to think in terms of lifestyles if we want to get people out of cars.  For example, as a Brightonian (currently exiled), if I want to go to Arundel or Petworth – two lovely days out by car – it’s a nightmare of slow journeys and changes.  In the old days buses 10 or 22 would do the job directly, and when I was a kid we often did these trips.  Thank goodness for the 11-12-13 group of Brighton and Hove, but there is nothing like that for West Sussex other than the 700.  If you miss out on the good things in life by giving up a car, why would you do that?  It is not enough to provide a decent bus to my everyday destination.  We need good links between towns when the railway can’t do it. With regard to Brighton-Arundel, the railway could do it if a chord was put in between the West Coastway and the Mid-Sussex line, so that reversal at Littlehampton was no longer needed.  So many benefits from such a simple connection, planned by the SR in 1939 but never implemented.  I have listed the benefits (in a letter to Rail magazine, but expanded here) as follows: It would be situated on open country (seemingly occupied with greenhouses when last seen) and should be a relatively low-cost project, giving significant benefits and opportunities, including:

    • Restoring a rail link between Horsham and Brighton that was severed in 1966 when the direct line was closed; • Allowing the Victoria-Sutton-Horsham service to be extended to Worthing and Brighton.  This would give new travel opportunities for the people of south-west London, Surrey, Horsham and Arundel to the coast at Worthing or Brighton; • In the reverse direction it would give people from Brighton and Worthing a welcome new direct train link to Arundel – a popular day out by car, but decidedly off-putting for public transport users – as well as to Horsham and south-west London; • In that role it could potentially attract some Brighton and Worthing passengers away from the overcrowded Brighton Main Line.  Many of those from Brighton who change to go west at Three Bridges (for Horsham), Gatwick Airport (for Dorking), East Croydon (for Sutton) or Clapham Junction (for other south-western destinations) could potentially benefit; • Its availability as a low-cost diversionary route when engineering works close portions of the Brighton Main Line.   It could be relatively quick to implement and be available in advance of any approved works to expand capacity on the Main Line, adding greatly to passenger convenience at that time.The new Horsham–Brighton route thus created could be economical to operate.  The London–Horsham services via Sutton could be extended to Brighton.  The stopping pattern would need to be worked out, but should include Pulborough, Arundel, Worthing, Shoreham and Brighton, with intermediate stops as necessary to dovetail with, and perhaps partially replace, existing services.’ This would be a commercial opportunity to develop the railway service offer in the light of the UK’s climate change commitments, which will require greater use of railways.  More than that, it would have regional economic benefits.  It would particularly benefit Worthing, as the nearer town and seaside resort on the new link.  Worthing’s economy could do with a boost, and an important new transport link could be just the ticket.  Schemes such as this will be a test for the new Great British Railways.  The new era should give new opportunities to gain benefit from our huge past investments in railways, which can be expanded in tweaks such as this to make better use of capacity, earn more income, give more attractive public transport alternatives to private car use, and strengthen local economies. So that is an additional thought that I am pushing, but my main aim in this mail was to show you the link about Herts and make the general point, that he makes, about the need for bus networks in the context of people’s lifestyles, needs and opportunities, and not just about A-B, if we are to really challenge car ownership and use, and level up the population. Thanks for listening!  Your blog is great. All the best, Martin Kerridge

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    1. The Arundel Chord is an often discussed enhancement but I didn’t realise it went back as far as 1939. It never makes the business case and maybe these days there are fewer air crew living in Worthing that spend their mornings queuing at the Washington roundabout. Certainly the reversal at Littlehampton is an annoyance at times like these and a journey time killer.

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    2. Oh dear . . . Berkhamsted to Hoddesdon . . . I wonder how many people would actually want to make that journey? What is more worrying is that he hasn’t referenced Intalink at all, which makes me question his researches. His picture in Berkhamsted even shows one of the Intalink Infomotion points!!

      An Intalink Explorer ticket would’ve cost £9, so saving at least £4 over his bus fares, plus the trip from Hertford to Hoddesden would’ve been free. We don’t know his itinerary, but (and using the Intalink Journey Planner):
      500 Berkhamsted > Hemel Hempstead: 0919-0936.
      300 Hemel Hempstead > Hatfield: 0941-1040.
      341 Hatfield > Hoddesden: 1121-1205.

      I agree that 2 hours 46 minutes isn’t brilliant, but it’s not bad. By risking tighter connections, 2 hours 17 minutes is “just” possible. By car, and avoiding the M25, the journey times out at around 55 minutes.

      I used to trave to Intalink meetings from outside Watford . . . by car, I’d allow 45 minutes to ensure an on-time arrival. I don’t live on the 724 route, so any bus journey would be impractical, and after the meeting, I’d frequently go on to Potters Bar Garage for work.

      Lifestyle is important, as is practicality . . . if I wanted to do a full days work, the car was the only choice for me.

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      1. Over forty years ago, some of us used the bus to get around, and worked on the bus! We managed a full days work. I know some people can be a bit slow on the uptake, but…

        More seriously, a (thankfully former?) bus scheduler who doesn’t use buses. Could that be anything to do with the well-rehearsed timetable problems?

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  4. Roger

    Are you not being a little unfair on Southern Railway in saying that there are no timetables available on line for the replacement bus services this week? Whilst I accept that they take a bit of finding, timetable Q will give you all the bus services from Hassocks as well as the connecting trains forward from Three Bridges. Similar information is available on the East Coastway timetable which shows the replacement bus services from Lewes to East Grinstead and Seaford to Uckfield. But whilst the information is available on line to those who seek it I agree that the bus times ought to be publicised at the stations.

    Despite this comment I enjoyed reading your blog and if I can fit a journey in later this week I will try the replacement bus services for myself.

    Kind regards Robert

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  5. Quote “Oh dear . . . Berkhamsted to Hoddesdon . . . I wonder how many people would actually want to make that journey?”

    How do you know when n there is no service to do that journey. Even you have had to admit the public transport in Herts is so bad you have to use a car. A variant of the 724 could provide a useful service to Berkhamsted and place in between

    It should be a lot easier to travel around Herts by Bus. From Cheshunt and Waltham Cross it is even worse. Hatfield, WGC, St Albans and Stevenage are not that far away but getting to those places by public transport is a nightmare the only real option is the car

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    1. I’m not sure, just the “if it’s there we’ll use it” argument works (except for rail replacement where money to pay for it is apparently no object). It needs more effort across the board, but the passengers are forgotten. Often passengers are made to feel an inconvenience. Why should the customers have to do all the work? That’s rarely a successful model, except for a desk jock.

      Seeing the example set by many in management, it’s hardly surprising that the operational staff don’t care either. Why should they? That some of them so obviously do is a great credit to them. No thanks to the management.

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  6. Do I get “Eye-spy” points for spotting a Bournemouth yellow bus on the Rail Replacement service?
    (You mentioned this in Part 3).

    Or even double points…as it was behind a tow-truck in the Pease Pottage service area on Monday afternoon!

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  7. Bus V Car

    Bus

    – Infrequent and unreliable
    – Probably have a long walk to the nearest bus stop
    – Probably need to change bus and have a long wait for a connecting service
    – Expensive for the service you get
    – Frequently do not run when you want to travel or go to where you want to travel
    – Poor to non existent connection with Rail
    – No evening services
    – No Sunday Services
    – Difficult to get shopping home

    Car

    – High Capital cost
    – Cheaper than bus
    – Can travel when you want to and go where you want to
    – Parking can be expensive and difficult

    To attract people to buses more services are needed and they need to be frequent
    People that do not have cars and now more likely to shop on lime as it is far more coinvent than the struggle to get anywhere by bus

    Large shopping centre should provide a home delivery service so you do not have to carry heavy shopping around (Not talking supermarkets here). It could be another revenue stream for buses as bus companies have plenty of spare buses in the evening and at weekends

    Without significant change the spiral of decline of bus services will continue. It need more thinking outside of the box

    Do Bus routes have to follow the same pattern all day ? In the morning its is commuters and school trips. In the say time it is shopping trips and Evening and Weekends it is leisure although buses are pretty much out of that now as there are almost no service then

    Currently buses are a transport mode of last resort. Most people would not use them if they had alternative transport

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    1. Another negative for the bus during these Covid times in winter – freezing to death as the windows are wedged open. I’d rather get very cold, though, than catch Covid or any other lurgy. So I avoid journeys by bus that are more than ten minutes when it’s cold. A friend emerged off a bus shaking from the cold recently, his journey on it was more than an hour.

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  8. I wonder whose idea it was to direct passengers from Seaford and Newhaven to Uckfield given the unreliability of the class 171 Turbostars and the frequent terminations at Crowborough resulting in gaps in the service to Uckfield due to the single line sections. On the first two days there have been occasions when buses have arrived at Uckfield to meet cancelled trains. As a punch line the journey time to London is longer than going by train to Lewes for onward connection by bus to Three Bridges or East Grinstead.

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  9. Your Haywards Heath experience reminds me of the 2007 and 2008 Lincoln blockades where there were real problems with bus drivers randomly ignoring scheduled stops en route because they’d decided they should be allowed to run non-stop from origin to destination, or at the very least not bother with stops that weren’t on main roads.

    Unfortunately because those intermediate stops were all in rural villages with unstaffed stations it was always a case of the passengers word against the drivers, which meant unhappy people all round and the fabled poor rail replacement journey experience got even worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Essex Smurf . . . harsh and personal, as you often are. Here’s a question for you . . .

    Two possible (former) commutes (18 miles): one by public transport involved walk; train; train; bus and took 1 hour 45 minutes . . . the alternative by car took 30-45 minutes depending on traffic. Which one would you take??

    My point was that public transport needs (now more than ever) to concentrate on known passenger flows, and not to try “blue-sky” schemes.
    The money being wasted by Kent CC on DRT schemes (very close to £600K per year) could be much better spent on boosting town service frequencies . . . double a 20-minute service to 10 minutes, and watch the passengers come . . .

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  11. In the 2019 blockade, I was one of the rail replacement coach drivers, shuttling between Crawley and Hassocks. I was not greatly loaded.

    In 2022, I was one of the passengers journeying from Brighton to the West End, on Sunday 20 February. Both trips worked faultlessly.

    Both were well signed, well staffed, well organised and worked. The overall journey time was not significantly greater than a conventional slow service from Brighton to Three Bridges, even notwithstanding the strong winds on Sunday.

    Double decker uphill, luxe coach southbound. Fine.

    I was debating about whether to use the Littlehampton diversionary route but having read your earlier pieces, chose the road route – and glad that I did.

    Thanks for your reporting.

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  12. Planning Failure

    A report from the Transport for New Homes group has identified that, in the dramatic house-building boom that’s going on, nobody is thinking about buses.

    Peterborough, has a new development on the edge of the city I drove could barely accommodate a car, let alone a bus, with cars parked on verges both sides of the road. As the report identified, nor have new developments got any shops or pubs, nor any civic amenity.

    The same pattern is everywhere. Estates of homes are being built everywhere which are not only inaccessible by any bus, but compound the problem by not providing any driveway, much less a garage. Instead, they have ‘allocated parking places’ for one car per household, guaranteeing that the access roads will be double-parked.

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  13. EV Infrastructure

    Whilst in London and the large cities the cost of putting in EV charging is probably acceptable outside of these areas it will be difficult to justify the cost off putting in EV charging and in many rural areas the grid may not even be up to it

    It is probably more sensible to provide shared facilities possible at bus stations and bus hubs

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  14. The vehicles are certainly being sourced from far and wide. I travelled on the 23.02 All Stations from Three Bridges on Tuesday night which was operated by a “The Green Bus” bus, a company which is based in Birmingham and specialises in school transport. It is also half-term this week there as well!

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  15. There is no excuse for not checking tickets. When there were long term rail replacement services between Preston and Blackpool for the electrification work, station staff were diligently checking passengers’ tickets before allowing them to get on the bus.

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  16. Public consultation opened over Kent County Council’s proposed bus cuts

    A public consultation has been set up over proposed cuts “supported” bus services around Kent.

    Eleven local services in the county are at risk from Kent County Council’s plans to reduce its £6m budget for services to £4.3million.

    The county council has proposed to cut about 48 contracts, marking around 37% of the total number of services supported by KCC.

    The KCC document shows that in Maidstone and Malling the biggest saving will come from the X1/X2 services between the County Town and West Malling/Kings Hill. This comes in at £207,721, while a KCC could save £126,000 by cutting the Maidstone to Grafty Green route.

    The X1/X2 weekday services between Kings Hill and Maidstone are at risk, along with the 208/209 from East Peckham, near Tonbridge, to Pembury.

    Other routes at risk include 8, 9, 343, 344 and 345 in Sittingbourne Rurals; the 58 from Addington to Maidstone and 17 from Folkestone to Canterbury.

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