Sunday 10th July 2022
Ian kindly suggested Margate as a suitable M for my fortnightly A-to-Z wanders and I almost took him up on it but its proximity to neighbouring Ramsgate and the urban sprawl of Thanet made me question its suitability due to my criteria of choosing ‘independent’ mid size towns where possible and his other suggestions of Maidstone, Medway and Middlesbrough are also on the largish size, so I got up early last Saturday morning to head for Macclesfield in East Cheshire which seemed to tick the necessary boxes only to check my emails and read one from Zak suggesting M could be for Maidenhead. “It’s got the lowest bus patronage in the country and has a good mix of First, Arriva, Railair, Reading Buses” he wrote, which intrigued my enquiring mind as to why should this Berkshire town, famous for its proximity to the River Thames and its MP being Theresa May, have such low bus patronage? I set off to find out.
From Paddington I had a choice of a 39 minute journey on the newly branded half hourly Elizabeth Line or a 32 minute ride on GWR’s half hourly semi-fast train to Didcot Parkway. I chose the latter (and came back on the former). I wondered why the 08:57 departure from PAD was so packed with very posh looking over dressed passengers until realising Saturday was Henley Regatta weekend and they were all heading to Twyford, the next station beyond Maidenhead, for the branch line to Henley.
Arriving at Maidenhead on the station’s five platforms astride the two fast lines and two slow lines plus the branch line that heads off to Bourne End and Marlow I found the connecting hourly train waiting departure. A couple of passengers made the connection which involves using the subway to change from platform 3 to platform 5 but there’s a convenient six minutes allowed for that.
Maidenhead station gives the impression of being nicely looked after with a refreshment kiosk on platforms 4 (for London) and 5 (for Marlow) which was open all day on Saturday. It’s a GWR managed station so doesn’t have TfL’s roundels as many other (TfL managed) stations now do on this line. This care doesn’t seem to stretch to looking after the payphones on platforms 2/3 and 4/5 which are definitely passed their sell by date.
There’s a side southern pedestrian entrance/exit from the station on to Shoppenhangers Road with the main entrance/exit to the east on the main A308 Braywick Road which has had a makeover in recent years with improved ‘public realm’ and space for taxis and dropping off/picking up.
The bus stop immediately outside on Braywick Road has a shelter with timetable departures shown as a long list which is good but a bit overwhelming for a visitor just arriving in the town.
There’s also another bus stop just round the corner in Grenfell Road used by other routes from the town centre to the north of the town.
Maidenhead’s town network of bus routes is operated by Thames Valley the reinvigorated name now used by Reading Buses for the former Courtney operated routes the company bought out in March 2019. Since my visit to ‘B is for Bracknell‘ back in January, there was evidence the Thames Valley branding was now much more dominant with its coloured variations for some routes, although one or two seemed to be on the wrong route, perhaps partly because of inter-working between routes for scheduling efficiency.
There’s a very helpful map on the Thames Valley website which is always a boon to working out which route goes where. As you can see there are four main town routes – two to the north and two to the south – which doesn’t sound many for a town of around 70,000 population. All the more so when you realise three of them run hourly (pinkish 3; purple 8 and grey 9) and the fourth (green 7) running half hourly – although last Saturday it had reduced to hourly due to driver shortages. There’s also an hourly off-peak Monday to Saturday projection of routes 16/16A from the town centre to St Mark’s Hospital serving roads which otherwise wouldn’t have a bus.
That’s probably the first clue of why bus use per head of population is so low in the town; bus route frequencies are low too. But having spent the day travelling over each route it’s clear the frequencies match the demand and unless a company was brave enough to do a “Harry Blundred” on the town – a reference to the minibus pioneer in the late 1980s who flooded Exeter (and a few other towns) with high frequency converted vans into minibuses – at huge commercial risk, then nothing is going to change. Reading Buses know how to run high profile branded frequent bus routes where the demand is there – it’s home town is testament to that – but the market for bus travel in Maidenhead is just not there in the same way. Density of housing is far less in Maidenhead than Reading and although a lot of commercial development is currently taking place in Maidenhead’s town centre it’s small fry compared to Reading’s town centre which acts as a regional retail magnet, including for residents of Maidenhead as well as the location of considerable employment, a large ‘county’ hospital and a university.
Maidenhead was once administered within Berkshire County Council, but this was abolished in a 1998 reorganisation when it was replaced by unitary authorities including the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, based at the Town Hall in Maidenhead.
You get an idea of the level of disinterest the Royal Borough takes in public transport within its environs by its webpage on ‘Transport and Streets’ and the subpage entitled Public Transport which offers advice on concessionary fares and ‘Bus Route information’ which in turn states “Below are some of the most popular bus routes within the borough. If your route is not listed please visit one of the bus company websites below.”
Listed are just six routes across the whole Borough, two of which are inter-urban routes serving Maidenhead – half hourly route 4 operated by First Bus between Maidenhead, Slough and Heathrow Airport ….
….. and hourly route 37 operated by Arriva between Maidenhead and High Wycombe.
The only link to a website at the bottom of that page is to Reading Buses’ site – which doesn’t include the Thames Valley routes in Maidenhead – they’re listed on a separate website (not linked to). There’s also no links to Arriva or First Bus’s websites.
Interestingly there’s also no reference to the town routes operated by Thames Valley Buses on the Royal Borough’s website, which perhaps is another clue to the low patronage – a rather blasé attitude of the local authority.
Bus stops and timetable displays look to be the responsibility of the local authority and where they are displayed the latter are to the usual format of colour coded routes showing departures each hour, but on my travels I also noticed quite a number of bus stops with blank displays or vandalised cases.
Electronic displays are installed in the bus shelters in Frascati Way – effectively the main ‘bus station’ for the town – a dual carriageway west of the commercial centre ….
….. which didn’t look like “real” times, and there’s a rather dated looking and ineffective free standing display showing departures which are impossible to read, and really needs removing.
The bus shelter displays at these key bus stops aren’t exactly inspiring to attract passengers either.
After the Frascati Way bus terminus buses head off on a slightly circuitous routing taking a couple of minutes to reach a bus stop in the section of High Street just east of the pedestrianised section by Market Street.
On my journeys on town routes 3, 7, 8 and 9 this is the stop where we picked up most passengers. On one journey someone got on at the next stop by the library, but otherwise that was it, indicating the bus network is very much a one trick town centre destination and one with few trip attractors located elsewhere. Another factor in explaining the low use.
It was noticeable most passengers were seen travelling on route 7 – the one which runs half hourly – although, as already mentioned, on Saturday every other journey was missing and passengers on board were having a grumble. “It’s all becoming unreliable again” was one comment which shows that despite details of which journeys are cancelled online, not everyone consults this.
It doesn’t take long to get from the town centre to the outer terminus of these town routes. Route 3 for example only takes 24 minutes to do a round trip to Highfield Lane and back – eleven people travelled on the 11:23 from Frascati Way last Saturday.
Route 7 takes around 20 minutes to its Woodland Park terminus in the south east of the town and had around 15 passengers on board and a similar number back into town at about midday.
Route 8 operates in two halves to the north of the town with 10 travelling to the Halifax Road area (to the west) at 12:30 and four back again and only four travelled from the town centre over to Boulters Lock (to the east) and just one travelled back in. Boulters Lock was very busy with luxury looking craft passing along the River Thames.
I doubted many had used the bus to get to the moorings.
It takes about an hour to do a round circuit on route 8 whereas the fourth and final town route, the 9, operates an anti-clockwise circle to the north of the town taking just over half an hour – the 13:55 journey took seven passengers out and brought two back in.
The most quirky route I travelled on was rural circular route 234 which on Saturdays runs just two journeys aimed at shoppers with departures from Frascati Way at 10:15 and 12:45. It takes about an hour to do the full circuit via the delightful villages of White Waltham and Waltham St Lawrence.
The driver was a bit puzzled when I boarded the 10:15 journey but I explained I was just along for the ride – he seemed pleased for the company as he explained he didn’t think we’d see any other passengers, and he was almost right, as we completed most of the circuit without anyone boarding until we got back to the A4, where other routes also provide an option, and we picked up three passengers.
Mondays to Fridays sees a few other journeys added to the timetable, but I can’t see Saturday’s timetable continuing much longer based on this experience.
As already mentioned First Bus and Arriva operate inter-urban routes 4 to Slough and Heathrow (which departed with single figure loadings) and 37 to High Wycombe (with few passengers spotted on board as buses departed) respectively while Thames Valley run routes 16/16A to Windsor on an hourly frequency to nearby Bray and then via slightly different routes across the Borough as well as route 15 to Slough via Taplow, Eaton Wick and Eaton with just four journeys a day.
I took a ride on routes 15 and 16 back in November 2019 so didn’t include them in my itinerary this time, as I blogged about that trip at that time.
It’s been years since there was a regular inter-urban bus service between Reading and Maidenhead – a deficiency which has always puzzled me, although I appreciate there’s a good train service, but that applies to the link to Slough which manages to support the hourly route 4 already highlighted.
Thames Valley operate a four/five journeys a day Saturdays only route 127 between Maidenhead, Twyford and Reading that also operates via Sonning so takes about an hour whereas the train takes only 15 minutes. On Mondays to Fridays sister route 128 operates to Wokingham rather than Maidenhead.
And that’s about it for public transport in Maidenhead other than to mention RailAir which Zak referenced in his email. This previous non-stop service from Reading station to Heathrow Airport now diverts off the M4 to call at Bray Wick Cemetery which is about a mile south of Maidenhead rail station on the A308. The current timetable is to a rather unmemorable 35 minute frequency but for anyone living in the area, it does provide a quick 27 minute journey into Reading (or 45 minutes to Heathrow).
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu