Tuesday 22nd February 2022
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.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.
Next blog, Thursday 24th February 2022: Off the rails. The line that never was.