Thursday 12th May 2022
Back in January I blogged about the decision by Reading Buses to suspend its Tiger branded route 7 between Reading and Fleet from 17th January. Problems with long term roadworks necessitating a lengthy diversion and few passengers travelling were cited as reasons as well as every bus company being desperately short of drivers at that time.
While numbers travelling weren’t great when I travelled just prior to the withdrawal I could see there were enough people using the bus to villages such as Swallowfield (6 miles south of Reading) who’d have no alternative transport options that would force the local authority to act.
In the event a couple of months later Wokingham Borough Council found some Section 106 money to enable a reduced timetable to be reinstated for six months albeit with the service truncated at Riseley (one and a half miles south of Swallowfield) with the route no longer continuing further to Hartley Wintney and Fleet.
Last Friday I took a ride on the same journey I rode on Friday 14th January – the 12:35 from Reading – to see what the result would be.
In January 11 passengers travelled beyond Spencers Wood (where there are alternative options – route 8/9) with five alighting in Swallowfield, one in Riseley, three in Hartley Wintney and two in Fleet.
This time after Spencers Wood there were just four on board. One alighted in Swallowfield and three in Riseley. we’d left Reading with 11 passengers of whom four got off in Reading and three in Spencers Wood.
I also got off in Swallowfield as I spotted a woman waiting on the other side of the road for the bus to return and head back to Reading and thought it would be a good opportunity to do some market research and have a chat with her.
She told me how devastating it had been during the two months without a bus and she was worried about its potential withdrawal later in the year when the current six months funding runs out. She told me it would mean having to move. I decided it was politic not to mention all the funding through Bus Improvement Plans elsewhere as well as the Rural Mobility Fund millions.
We waited a long time for the bus to return and it was just as well we both knew it must be between Riseley and Swallowfield (we’d obviously seen it head south) as it was another village with no phone signal making it impossible to check online or on the App as we’re constantly encouraged to do.
On the way out the bus had arrived late into Reading at 12:37 from its previous journey, left at 12:40, five minutes down, and left Swallowfield heading to Riseley at 13:06, two minutes down, but eventually arrived back from Riseley at 13:20, seven minutes late. “It’s always running late“ my new found passenger companion told me and certainly it appeared the running time is tight – we arrived back at Reading station at 13:52, ten minutes late, and seven minutes after the bus was due to leave on its next journey back south which only goes as far as Spencers Wood.
The next journey back to Swallowfield and Riseley is not until 15:50 – there are just five a day – which was not convenient for my friend as she was only going to the library to return books and didn’t need two hours – interestingly her perception of how long she’d have to wait was three hours.
Three passengers were on the bus as it arrived from Riseley with four boarding in Spencers Wood prior to where route 9 joins then four more as we headed into Reading.
I’d been impressed that Reading Buses had retained all the high profile ‘Tiger’ branding for route 7 on bus stop flags and timetable cases and the bus was still in Tiger livery, albeit still implying the route continues beyond Riseley to Fleet – perhaps there’s some wishful thinking there?
Similarly the interior map diagrams continue to depict the pre January route rather than the truncated situation that’s applied since 22nd March.
I was also highly impressed to see a large stock of a colourful timetable leaflet for the route on display on board ….
…. but having picked one up was taken aback to see it was showing the pre withdrawal timetable showing journeys running to Fleet.
Even more bizarre it’s dated 3rd January 2022 just two weeks before the route was suspended.
All rather odd; as well as somewhat misleading.
At least the roadside timetables are up to date.
And good to see some fares information posted too.
Route 7 is clearly not a commercial proposition for Reading Buses and with cash strapped councils it highlights the somewhat incongruous situation where rural bus routes carrying passengers in modestly small numbers are facing withdrawal forcing residents to consider lifestyle decisions such as moving out of their long standing village home while, at the same time, new services are being introduced to other villages (eg Cockley Cley south of Swaffham) where there haven’t been any bus routes for almost sixty years and no-one is in the habit of travelling by bus.
It’s a funny old world.
For a moment I thought it had come back this week, to Fleet I mean. Our bus stops all have notices on them still, saying it is suspended until 30 April. I am ready to put timetables back into Fleet Library if it does come back. As a non-driver we are stuck here without it, but I realise that bus riding is very much a minority habit here until perhaps we get petrol rationing! Hampshire has a very different attitude to that of Surrey, who have even put back a few evening and Sunday journeys as described in their latest timetables. They would blame the Treasury for ther lack of funds.
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On the Reading bus site the timetable heading still shows it as going to Fleet but the actual timetable does not. It still shows a fare chart showing fares to Fleet but the PDF timetable and PDF of the Route have disappeared
Another oddity I have never seen before is the timetables on the Web site use the 24 hour clock whilst the PDF’s use AM & PM. Logically you would generate the PDF off of the raw data. I can only assume Reading buses produce the PDF’s manually which is a poor use of time
Cutting the route back so drastically will reduce passenger numbers even further as the route will be of little use to anyone given it is so infrequent particularly if anyone wants to travel beyond Spenser Wood
I suspect when the money runs out the route will disappear
Thought needs to be given as to how to attract passengers. Most companies have no real understanding of the market
Readings BSIP seems to show bus travel in Reading held up relatively well whilst there was a big drop in rail travel. That could indicate more people working from home so potentially more people might travel locally
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You’d presumably have the times stored as time variables in a database in which case they could easily be read in either format so I don’t see much of a time difference – I really hope they aren’t doing manual pdfs nowadays
Thanks for this report. Fleet (40K population) is reasonably, though not excessively served by train: half-hourly to London / Basingstoke; buses are infrequent, in all directions. To get to Reading, change at Basingstoke – again on to a half-hourly service – but, due to poor connections, the overall journey (station to station) takes an hour (same as to Waterloo) – by car it’s half that.
I’m not suggesting the whole rail time-table be re-cast around the need for a quick Fleet-Reading journey, just that (1) only when inter-urban services are offered at least every 15 minutes, will we see significant transfer from car to public transport, and (2) there is an opportunity for an enterprising, innovative, customer-friendly bus company to fill in a gap in the inter-urban network for which rail is at present making a poor-quality offer.
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It’s timetables in the 12 hours clock.It seems in England every step forward we slide back!
With Wokingham, Hampshire and Surrey all having missed out on BSIP funding I’m afraid the future for this service and others in the area does look a bit grim.
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I can add a little bit more detail to some of the points.
I am not sure where the reference to S106 funding is coming from, I’ve seen a few references to it elsewhere too, but my understanding is that it is direct revenue support creditably being provided by Wokingham Council to help preserve the network. Some of the funding was previously funding the evening and Sunday service to Riseley. It is a temporary arrangement until a wider review is completed at the end of the Bus Recovery Grant period, including the leopard 8/9 extensions to Spencer’s Wood which are partly S106 funded.
The current tiger 7 timetable was designed to meet a specific brief to replicate the old times as closely as possible without going beyond the boundary. I am actually quite hopeful that something new and exciting can come out of this for the Riseley section by looking at the network as a whole.
Sadly the lack of interest from Hampshire to help mitigate the devasting impact of the roadworks means that permanent damage has been done to the Fleet section. It’s getting harder to see that section being restored. It currently remains suspended due to driver shortages and being a very lightly used service, hence not updating the branding. I’m not sure how some of the old leaflets made their way onto the bus though – they’ll be gone pretty rapidly! Maybe it was a glimmer of hope from someone somewhere that the old timetable can be restored…. but also was an inidcation of our intent to continue producing and distributing printed material in leaflets and at the roadside.
As Roger’s experience shows, even the 30 minutes scheduled for a trip to Riseley on a route with significant bus priority infrastructure is difficult to achieve (although there are three sets of roadworks in Reading town centre at the moment which are not helping, and improvements to the bus priority in Reading will be coming through the new BSIP funding), there is still little chance of a bus getting between Reading and Fleet in 30 minutes in the off peak, let alone in the peak, or for a competitive fare compared to the highly subsidised rail link.
With regard to automated PDF’s and leaflets, I hope nobody is suggesting we follow the Arriva and Stagecoach examples as I can’t see what benefit that would bring! It’s pretty easy for our designers to import data and switch things between 12 and 24 hour clock formats to suit the medium.
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Many thanks for all the additional information and clarification Robert.