Another rural pilot in Kent

Friday 12th July 2019

IMG_3687.jpgKent County Council’s fourth ‘Rural Transport Initiative’ gets underway on Monday next week so earlier today I took a ride on the last weekday operation of the old order to get a sense of what this one’s all about. (My write up of the first three pilot schemes can be read here.)IMG_3703.jpgThis latest ‘Initiative’ involves truncating the Nu-Venture operated rural route 58, which serves villages around West and East Malling off the A20 from its current Maidstone town centre terminus to instead only run as far as Maidstone Hospital where from Monday passengers will have to change buses on to other bus routes which Arriva operate for the remaining four mile journey into the town centre.

It’s about an eighteen minute ride from the Hospital to the town centre and to offset the negativity of passengers having to change buses the County Council and Nu-Venture are promoting a more frequent timetable on the shortened route 58 around the villages.

The current timetable (above) which ends tomorrow includes just three off peak journeys into Maidstone (aside from a peak journey primarily aimed at scholars which will continue to operate as a through journey as now) and four journeys suitable for returning. However, the new timetable boasts seven journeys to and from Maidstone Hospital which offers pretty much an hourly service except for a gap around 15:00 when it looks like one of the two buses is tied up with a school journey.Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 20.13.14.pngResidents of Addington, Trottiscliffe, Wrotham Heath, Ryarsh and Birling as well as West and East Malling will have a much greater choice of journeys from Monday but if they want to travel all the way to Maidstone town centre there will be a time penalty in changing buses.

IMG_3767.jpgThe recommended point to make the change is alongside Aylesford Retail Park on the A20 where there’s a bus shelter and real time information rather than continuing for another six minutes to the Maidstone Hospital terminus but Kent County Council’s leaflet also helpfully explains “passengers can choose to change buses at any stop served by a different bus service that operates to their end destination”.

IMG_3726.jpgArriva operate four buses an hour on routes 71/71A and another hourly 72 between the Retail Park and the town centre while there’s a twenty minute frequency on route 3 and an hourly route 8 to and from Maidstone Hospital. The Kent County Council timetable leaflet gives details of connecion times towards Maidstone which as you can see in the timetable above are a bit tight at either just one minute, or a bit inconvenient at 16 minutes on most journeys.

As always with these things it’ll be the return journey when there’ll be the most angst as astute passengers will need to allow enough time to make the connection with the fixed departure on the 58 they’re aiming for else risking missing the bus and endure an hour’s wait for the next one. You won’t be best pleased if that happens more than once and could easily be dissuaded from travelling again.

Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 20.16.07.png

Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 20.16.14.png

The Kent timetable leaflet highlights suggested arrival times from the 71/71A at the Retail Park (with either a long 23 minute connection or 8 minutes) but rather unhelpfully doesn’t show what time these buses leave Maidstone town centre which is an unfortunate omission.Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 20.19.19.pngKent and the operators have commendably arranged for the issue and acceptance of through tickets so passengers will not have to pay more, but I suspect this arrangement only applies on journeys towards Maidstone and passengers boarding an Arriva bus on the 71/71A/72 or even the 3/8 in Maidstone town centre asking for a fare to Addington will be met with a blank stare by the driver. I chatted to Norman Kemp at Nu-Venture this afternoon about this and he was seeking clarification from Kent County Council on what arrangements have been made with Arriva for people boarding in the town centre and wanting a through ticket. The timetable leaflet is somewhat silent on this point!Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 20.28.13.png

The new regime from Monday involves Nu-Venture operating two 16-seater Mercedes Sprinter minibuses on the truncated route 58 which from my observations earlier today will be well able to cater for the numbers travelling as well as being more appropriate vehicles for the narrow lanes on part of the route – we met a few vehicles while on route which necessitated them reversing to let us through.

IMG_3707.jpgI rocked up this morning for the departure to Addington and Trottiscliffe from Maidstone at midday at the first stop outside Boots, which was just as well as the driver wasn’t able to change the £10 note I offered for the £7.20 return fare, which also struck me as a bit on the pricey side.

Luckily there was six minutes until departure so I offered to go and buy something in Boots to acquire some change but what to buy for up to £2.80 when you only have a couple of minutes to decide and end up in a queue behind a customer querying the balance on her Advantage card! I made it back to the bus just in time at 11:59!

On the positive side the driver handed me a leaflet explaining the changes and the new timetable from Monday which was very helpful.

We left with seven other passengers on board but five alighted before we reached Maidstone Hospital so will be able to travel on other Arriva bus routes from Monday and won’t miss the 58 disappearing.

At the Hospital two gentlemen boarded in a state of consternation asking the driver why he was so late. It turned out they’d been looking at the new timetable not realising it hadn’t started yet so were expecting us at 11:34 whereas we’d arrived at 12:17. Our driver handed them a copy of the new timetable leaflet so hopefully they’re now better informed of the new arrangements and when they start.IMG_3688.jpgI had noticed new timetables had already been posted at bus stops along the route together with a poster explaining the changes and I’d also spotted there were no 58 times showing at the Boots bus stop (photographed below), assuming the service had already been withdrawn from there. It’s always difficult to get timetables posted at bus stops exactly as routes change, and on balance it’s better to have new times a day early than old times a day late, but the ideal is to change over on a Sunday of course. In the old days I remember London Transport used to print the commencing date across the timetable in outline print which gradually faded over time!IMG_3706.jpgAt the recommended new changeover point at the Retail Park by Sainsbury’s we picked up three new passengers but two stayed with us for only a couple of stops along the A20 and they also have other bus options from Monday; the third alighted in East Malling so, together with the two gents from the Hospital who got off at West Malling will benefit from the new more frequent service. One more passenger who’ll benefit boarded at West Malling and travelled to the village of Ryarsh.

However two passengers who’ll find Monday’s timetable less convenient are the two still left on board after Ryarsh who’d boarded in Maidstone town centre. These two teenagers alighted at Ford Place , a rather nice Grade II listed property just before we reached Wrotham Heath (photographed below).IMG_3789.jpgRoute 58 operates on a large one-way loop through Addington, Trottiscliffe and Wrotham Heath before returning through Ryarsh and Birling then Leybourne and the Mallings to Maidstone. On our return journey we took one passenger from Ryarsh to West Malling and two more from West Malling to just after East Malling – they’ll also have a more frequent bus from Monday.

But that was it. Not exactly overloaded, and two 16-seaters will easily be able to cope from Monday.

Kent County Council reckon this new “feeder bus” arrangement, coupled with the greater frequency of service, is a possible way forward for rural communities. I have my doubts there’ll be the generation of passengers needed to justify the extra mileage and staff costs as well as committing more vehicle resource than currently, but it’s encouraging to see both Nu-Venture and the Council giving this a try, and with a guaranteed one year funding for the pilot, it will at least have time to settle down and residents become used to the new arrangement and hopefully give it a try.IMG_3776.jpgThe villages we passed through (eg Trottiscliffe above) were certainly “desireable” and “high end” (in Estate Agents parlance) and if more rural bus passengers can be generated from the palatial residences we passed then we certainly will be on the way to solving the rural transport challenge. I reckon it’s going to be the need to change buses that will be a downer on the potential, especially with those connectional times. It really needs to be ‘feeding’ a more frequent “turn-up-and-go” bus to stand any chance of success.

The fifth and final Pilot involves a similar feeder service to the east of Maidstone involving Nu-Venture route 13 and Arriva route 59 but this is delayed until the Autumn pending highway and utility works needed to create a change-over point for the feeder bus.

Well done to Kent and Nu-Venture for giving this a go and good luck. I told Norman I’d take a ride some time soon on the truncated 58 to give the new arrangements a try out, so I hope my scepticism about that through fare from the Maidstone end proves unfounded!

Roger French

New trains in 2019 6: Northern’s Class 195 and 331

Wednesday 10th July 2019

IMG_3671.jpgIt was a pleasure to travel on Northern Rail’s new CAF Civity trains yesterday afternoon and this morning. They come in two flavours – a diesel version known as Class 195 and an electric version known as Class 331 – but otherwise they’re exactly the same train with only a pantograph and engine to tell them apart. IMG_3666.jpg

They’re impressive trains.

They’re built by CAF, the Spanish train builder that’s behind the troublesome new sleeper coaches although these Northern Rail trains obviously don’t come with en-suite showers and other complications for overnight travel so hopefully won’t have as many teething problems to iron out! Having said that, CAF were contracted to have these new trains into service with Northern Rail by October 2018 with delivery of the full order complete by December 2018. Still, ten months late for the introduction is pretty good the days and I understand deliveries should be complete by early next year.

The first test for me as a passenger for any new train these days has to be seat comfort. Thameslink Class 700s, GWR IETs, LNER Azumas and GWR and GatEx Class 387s have all righty garnered poor feedback in the seat comfort department and I was hoping these new trains would set a more positive experience.IMG_3629.jpgI’m pleased to report they do. They’re still not on a par with the luxury you now enjoy on many well equipped buses (eg the new TrawsCymru bus I experienced on Monday) but these Class 195/331 seats do seem to have a smidgeon more padding than recent examples with better quality seat covering and this together with a very attractive design seems to make a noticeable difference.IMG_3657.jpg

It’s also good to see a liberal supply of tables in each carriage – there are six in the middle coach area between the doors with a pair of priority seats at either end while in each coach end there are two tables and eight pairs of airline style seats.

I found the interior layout very welcoming being light and airy and those bright blue seats especially pleasing.IMG_3662.jpgI took a ride on a three coach Class 195 from Manchester Piccadilly down to the Airport and back to Oxford Road yesterday afternoon and a trip from Leeds to Doncaster in a four coach Class 331 this morning.

Both journeys are local stopping journeys (the former originating in Windermere and returning to Barrow) and both were busy.

Aside from the seats and tables one noticeable feature as you board are the wide doorway vestibule areas leading into the saloon.IMG_3632.jpgThere’s a tip up seat here ….IMG_3656.jpg….. but the area is also useful to store over-sized suitcases passengers now wheel around especially on the Airport run….IMG_3634.jpg…. as well as prams.IMG_3661.jpgIt’s a good idea and works well on Thameslink where there’s a very wide area around each set of doors.

On Thameslink Class 700s the seats are squashed together with narrow width room to allow maximum gangway space for standing, luggage etc. It’s good to see these Northern Rail trains have seat arm rests in between with a decent dividing space, although this necessarily means the gangway is standard size rather than extra-wide.

The consequence of the extra wide door vestibules is that seats and tables don’t line up with windows but you can’t have everything. Some line up perfectly so those passengers with a penchant for lining up can try and grab these seats.IMG_3641.jpgDisappointingly there’s just one 3-pin plug socket underneath each pair of seats which seems a bit penny pinching especially as it’s now becoming common to also see usb sockets – sometimes two per socket (on GWR refurbished trains, for example).IMG_3640.jpgObviously Wi-fi is fitted and free to use with a simple sign in procedure and seemed to respond well too – good to see the train sector catching up with buses at long last.

There’s provision for ‘traffic light’ style seat reservations which will be something new for Northern Rail when pursued although I can’t see it being necessary or helpful on a commuter route between Doncaster and Leeds for example but perhaps makes sense to Windermere and some other destinations served by Northern Rail.IMG_3642.jpgThere’s only one toilet per train (on all the 2, 3 and 4 coach versions) which is surprising especially on a four coach train – and it’s right at one end of the train too. It’s to the latest accessibility standards. Alongside this are four tip up seats as well as two standard seats by the area for a wheelchair outside the toilet door.IMG_3642.jpgTwo cycles can be carried in the non wheelchair driving/accessible toilet end of the train.

On both the 195 and 331 the train conductor opens and closes the doors at each station which with his/her duties collecting fares means a busy agenda. IMG_3635.jpgAt Adwick station this morning a passenger using a wheelchair boarded necessitating the conductor having to leave his door control at the other end of the train, scuttle down to the other end to get the ramp out, then back to the other end to close the doors from the control point he’d started with and once we were off he was back collecting fares from everyone who’d boarded before we reached Doncaster where there are no gates. He was a busy man. Protracted discussions between Northern Rail and the RMT re duties for on board staff are still not resolved, but there must be a better way.

These new trains also have Automatic Selective Door Opening capability when needed.IMG_3645.jpgThere are large open/close buttons for passenger door control with a red light shining continuously when the doors are shut switching to the green being lit when the doors can be opened.IMG_3655.jpgThere are decent sized screens showing the destination and next stop as well as the usual tedious notices/information which scroll round. The screens weren’t working on the Class 331 this morning.IMG_3644.jpg

Northern Rail are introducing an impressive total of 101 of these smart new trains in the coming months. They’ll transform rail travel across the north. There’ll be 25 two-car with 33 three-car Class 195s and 31 three-car with 12 four-car Class 331s. About half of this new fleet have so far been delivered to Northern Rail by CAF.IMG_3637.jpg

Overall I was impressed with the smoothness of ride and the ambience on board and these trains get a big thumbs up from me. I look forward to proudly travelling on them all over Northern Rail’s extensive area from Lincoln to Chester and Nottingham to Windermere in the future.

IMG_3651.jpg

Roger French

My previous new train reviews from earlier this year can be found here: 1 Class 707; 2 D Trains; 3 Sleepers; 4 Azumas; 5 Class 710.

Three Staffordshire bus rides

Tuesday 9th July 2019

IMG_3432.jpg Welcome to a fourth day of travelling to tick off various ‘to do’ routes, destinations, new buses and trains which began with an early start from Llandrindod Wells on the first 06:18 journey which starts its journey at this lovely station and continues beyond Shrewsbury as a stopping train through to Crewe arriving at 08:50.

It’s quite a trek on a one coach Class 153 and I was expecting we’d get inundated with commuters heading into Shrewsbury and then Crewe for nine o’clock.IMG_3433.jpgIt turned out to be a quiet journey. We’d only collected ten passengers by the time we reached the main line at Craven Arms and picked up just a few more both there and the next station, Church Stretton, before arriving in Shrewsbury for 07:57 so a bit early for commuters; but that’s all you get in the Heart of Wales Line’s limited timetable until a 10:14 arrival (and then 13:32) which is probably too late for being at work. One passenger, along with myself, went all the way from Llandrindod Wells to Crewe but otherwise everyone got off at Shrewsbury and we collected a new cohort from there and the next six stations heading to Crewe.

The Heart of Wales Line is a wonderful experience; I ranked it eleventh in my Hundred Best Train Journeys compiled at the end of last year, and it certainly deserves that placing offering spectacular views, lovely quirky well kept request stop stations, and, as I found yesterday, great bus routes which parallel part of it.

IMG_3439.jpgFrom Crewe I headed south easterly on the line via Stoke-on-Trent to Derby alighting at Uttoxeter as I wanted to travel on three Staffordshire bus routes on my ‘to do’ list: First Potteries route 32 from Uttoxeter back to Hanley bus station in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, followed by route 18 across to Leek, and finally a route operated by Aimée’s, the 109, up to Macclesfield.

This three and a half hour zig-zag trip worked well with good connections and offered interesting contrasts between bus companies, routes, scenery and bus stations.

Taking the latter first, Uttoxeter has a functional bus station with ample room for the four stands around a parking area for the principal departures operated by Midland Classic, D&G Bus, Trentbarton and First Potteries. But I couldn’t help noticing the bus parking area seemed to be commandeered by crews of refuse trucks meeting up for a chat and a break. First there was one, then two and then a third joined in.IMG_3533.jpgHanley has a very impressive bus station with around twenty-five stands in a head-on semi-circular layout with some parking bays for buses laying over on the apron. IMG_3541.jpgIt’s obvious much careful thought has gone into the architectural design of the structure, the practical bus manoeuvring area and the passenger circulating area which is an extremely pleasant space to wait.IMG_3540.jpgIMG_3546.jpg Toilets had changed to being on ‘free vend’ since my last visit and were clean and presentable. There’s a small convenience store/coffee shop, but I noticed a lack of timetables posted on the wall although each departure stand had a screen showing the next three departures, and there were lists posted showing which service departed from each bay in service number order.IMG_3545.jpgThere’s a lovely large and airy unmarked travel office with two members of First Bus staff behind the counter and a display of timetable leaflets including both First Potteries and the D&G Bus booklet.IMG_3544.jpgThere seems to be a good relationship between First and D&G Bus throughout the Potteries. IMG_3613.jpgFinally, Leek bus station; well, let’s correct that from the start, it’s not a bus station, more a collection of poorly marked bus stops or stands along a depressing looking side street (stands are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, then a gap, and then 8).IMG_3615.jpg

Stands 5, 6 and 7 have disappeared as has the waiting room where they once stood outside; that’s been bricked up, but just to tantalise waiting passengers, the sign’s been left in place.IMG_3612.jpg

To finish off the poor image, the timetable displays in a poorly lit, dirty and almost unreadable case aren’t even posted straight. I haven’t seen such poor bus station presentation since, well, um, yesterday as it happens, in Merthyr Tydfil.IMG_3607.jpg

And some people clamour for more public authority control of public transport!

I didn’t get to Macclesfield bus station on this visit as I bailed out at the rail station noticing a late running Cross Country train for Manchester was just arriving, so managed to just catch it, but I’ve experienced the bus station on previous visits and I’d just say it’s a poor, a very poor, imitation of what Hanley has achieved – and much smaller at that too.

IMG_3494.jpgThe 32, 18 and 109 bus routes are very pleasant ones to travel along with some great views across the Staffordshire countryside.IMG_3538.jpgThe 32 wasn’t very busy out of Uttoxeter but we picked up a good load as we approached Hanley.IMG_3537.jpg

Cheadle, the halfway point, looked a very nice town to explore; I must return some time.IMG_3557.jpg

The 18 is one of First Potteries key inter-urban routes running every 20 minutes to Leek with single deck Scanias. Sadly the seats, bizarrely and for no discernible reason, are all branded ‘Scania’ (I can’t imagine any passengers thinking “you know what; I must go out and buy a Scania truck”) ….IMG_3602.jpg…. and must rank even more uncomfortable than the ironing boards in Thameslink trains, and that’s saying something.IMG_3603.jpgWe had a reasonable load as we headed to Leek on the thirty-five minute journey, and although much of the route is built up, there were some great views to see as well.

Finally to route 109, Leek to Macclesfield.

Aimée’s had the makings of a friendly image when I first spotted a bus in the company’s two-tone pink/crimson livery ….IMG_3610.jpg… before spotting the nearside skirt panels.

IMG_3611.jpgThen I thought Leek had a variety of different small independent bus companies…

IMG_3608.jpguntil I noticed all the legal lettering was for the same Aimée’s …IMG_3609.jpg… and most displaying the same advert for taxi drivers for an obviously associated company.IMG_3616.jpgAs you can see Aimée’s timetables for the four routes it runs from Leek were posted behind the driver on the bus I travelled on …

IMG_3617.jpg… and it was a step back in time to see the ticket machine ….

IMG_3621.jpg

…. and my driver proudly showed me his original cash bag too.

IMG_3623.jpg

We left on time at 13:35 for the fifty minute run to Macclesfield with six on board, aside from me.

There’s a nice direct route north on the A523 between Leek and Macclesfield and I was a bit surprised to see it took fifty minutes for the thirteen miles. A poor average speed of 15 mph on a fast A road.

But to my consternation we headed south, rather than north, out of Leek. It turns out we do a twenty minute tour of the town’s residential areas before heading towards Macclesfield, but tellingly none of the six on board alighted, and we picked no one up except almost at the end of the circuit, within walking distance of the ‘bus station’, two passengers boarded – obviously sensibly avoiding the round-the-houses tour and walking the short distance from the town centre where we’d been twenty odd minutes previously!

This is just the kind of compromise local authorities have been forced to indulge in (mixing town routes with inter-urban routes) to try and save money in their plummeting tendered bus budgets but they end up pleasing no one and upsetting everyone – it just puts off longer distance passengers, and in this case, attracted no local passengers either. This coupled with the appalling bus station really makes all the positivity from well meaning groups such as the bus industry sponsored Greener Journeys and Catch The Bus Week wheezes ring hollow to me.

Shortly outside Leek we deviated on another dog leg to serve the village of Rudyard which cost us another five minutes, but at least two of our eight passengers alighted. Everyone else went to Macclesfield and no one else boarded.

IMG_3627.jpgBut I enjoyed the journey and once again saw some lovely Staffordshire scenery.

From Macclesfield my late running Cross Country train (“20 minutes late due to a late running South Western Railway train in Bournemouth”!!) got me into Manchester Piccadilly just in time to catch one of Northern’s brand new Class 195 trains introduced into service only last week, but I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

Roger French

Across the Valleys to mid Wales

Monday 8th July 2019

Today’s been a varied travel day starting with a Pacer and Class 37 hauled commuter train in the Cardiff Valley, followed by a journey on a brand new inter-urban bus up a Welsh valley then three more bus rides across the tops of the valleys, a poorly patronised but impressive express bus ride from Swansea to Carmarthen and ending the day on a rural bus route further into mid Wales plus a train ride on the Heart of Wales line to Llandrindod Wells with just me on board.

Phew.

Let’s start at the beginning. Transport for Wales are still running a lot of Pacer trains on the Cardiff Valley lines. You only have to stand on Cardiff Central or Queen Street stations for a short while and you’ll soon hear the familiar Pacer style screech as they come and go.

IMG_2959.jpgMy early morning trip up to Bargoed at 06:50 from Queen Street this morning was no exception and for a contra-peak journey had a moderate load although only three of us travelled the full 45 minute ride to Bargoed.IMG_3004.jpgThere’s no early morning journey to get you all the way to the terminus at the head of the valley at Rhymney where I was aiming to pick up one of the two southbound peak journeys now operated by a Class 37, so I settled on Bargoed which is fifteen minutes down the line. The first journey which shuttles just to Cardiff Central and is destined for a Class 37 at 07:43 was a Pacer joined to a Class 150 this morning as driver training is not yet complete on the 37s; but the second 37 designated journey, the 07:42 from Rhymney (07:57 from Bargoed) duly appeared with the distinctive sound and shape of this fine diesel locomotive pulling four traditionally blue and grey liveried coaches. It was quite an early morning sight.IMG_3398.jpgThis journey has been retimed by 3 minutes (was 08:00) but you’d never know from the printed and online timetables but this was just one of many timetable inconsistencies I stumbled on during today which the unwary traveller could be caught out with.

Despite the issue of manual doors (particularly their shutting at stations) we made good progress and kept to time until just before Cardiff Queen Street where red signals were our downfall arriving into Cardiff Central nine minutes late.

IMG_3028.jpgIMG_3030.jpgIt started off quiet but was soon a busy trip with plenty of standing passengers by the time we reached Cardiff.

Commuters seemed used to the new arrangements which have been operating for a couple of weeks now and the guard gave regular announcements about how to open the doors and posters were also displayed at stations. I doubt many people took notice and everyone was coping fine.

IMG_3006.jpgTransport for Wales have introduced these ‘Thunderbird’ type arrangements to release other trains for conversion to meet looming accessibility deadlines at the end of this year. That’s looking like a very tight timescale to me, and as mentioned above, there are plenty of Pacers still around and new train deliveries are running notoriously late. Still in the meantime it’s great fun to take a commute on a ‘proper train’ and well worth a ride (there are two comparable journeys in the evening peak back from Cardiff to Rhymney).

IMG_3033.jpgIMG_3034.jpg

It was a complete contrast to follow this with a ride on one of the twelve smart new Volvo B8 MCV bodied buses introduced last week by Stagecoach for Traws Cymru on routes T4 and T14.

IMG_3061.jpgThe Welsh Government have stumped up £2.1 million for Powys County Council to buy the new buses which feature very comfortable seats (train companies and the DfT please note)…IMG_3063.jpg…..extensive luggage space …IMG_3071.jpgusb, Wi-fi (although my phone wouldn’t connect) and the latest innovation – seat back down lighting – the purpose of which I’m still struggling with…

IMG_3074.jpgIMG_3075.jpgI caught the 09:10 from Cardiff to Hereford route T14 which is the joining together of three previously separate routes to provide a handy through service. Five of us travelled to Merthyr Tydfil via Pontypridd, so it was a quiet run but an extremely impressive fast journey arriving into Merthyr Tydfil just after 10:00 – it would have taken fifteen minutes longer by train!.

The ride was smooth and comfortable and by using the segregated dual carriageway A470 for most of the way you feel you’re really making progress in a way the train can never do. The T14 along with the T4 and the Stagecoach branded X4 journeys provide an impressive 15 minute frequency between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil which is well promoted on the buses…IMG_3059.jpg….and in Merthyr Tydfil bus station…

IMG_3094.jpg……except that there’s a bit of brand confusion …IMG_3073.jpg…..although it was impressive to see leaflets on board the bus ….IMG_3062.jpg…..but not helped by an out of date poster in Merthyr Tydfil bus station by the departure stand.IMG_3093.jpgSadly that was just one of the negative images of Merthyr’s bus station. What an absolute dump. This bus station gives a simply appalling impression of bus travel.IMG_3086.jpgI tweeted a dozen or so photographs this morning so won’t include them all here; just a small selection to give blog readers an idea of just how bad it is.IMG_3088.jpgIMG_3103.jpgIMG_3096.jpgThere are plans to build a new bus station and encouragingly work is due to start this year. It can’t come soon enough.

But in the meantime Stagecoach you don’t cover yourselves in glory with this type of presentation…

IMG_3101.jpgIMG_3085.jpg….nor displaying out of date and misleading timetables (route 6 has different tunes to those shown).IMG_3105.jpgIt’s no good trumpeting a smart brand on buses if crucial timetable information is out of date.IMG_3124.jpgLet’s hope the new bus station doesn’t follow Cardiff’s example where I see the former site right outside the station is now redeveloped but no sign of the new replacement bus station next door getting underway.IMG_3035.jpg

From Merthyr Tydfil I took route 6 across the top of the valley to Aberdare and from there route 8 over another valley top to Glynneath.IMG_3152 (1).jpgIMG_3110.jpgIt’s a route I’ve done before and serves up some great views along the way.IMG_3150.jpgIMG_3213.jpgCatching a bus from Aberdare’s bus station is a much more positive experience than Merthyr – I particularly liked the departure listings including a helpful map.IMG_3153.jpgIMG_3154.jpgAnd full marks to Stagecoach for having Aberdare timetable books on both buses I travelled on.

IMG_3112.jpg

In Glynneath I took the hourly First Cymru X7 which runs down the valley via Resolven to Neath and then via a quick route into Swansea. Most passengers got off in Neath and I was the only passenger travelling through with five others boarding in Neath.IMG_3231.jpgThis route (along with others) is branded Cymru Clipper and has obviously recently been renumbered into a new family of lower X numbers along with the similar X8 to Banwen, in the neighbouring valley. IMG_3223.jpgExcept all the bus timetables displayed at every stop we’re still showing X55 and there were even two old out of date posters inside the bus advertising the old route numbers including the X58 (now X8).IMG_3250.jpg

It seems First Cymru joins Stagecoach South Wales in being a bit tardy when it comes to updating information. The great Information ‘Open Access’ revolution may be coming, but let’s get the basics right first please

My next journey was to Carmarthen and I’d originally planned to get back on the tracks and take the train but as we pulled into Swansea’s bus station I spotted the three journey a day Traws Cymru route T1S which runs fast up the M4 and A48 taking just 53 minutes.IMG_3280.jpgThe T1S connects with the hourly T1 from Carmarthen on to Aberystwyth to provide a through facility from Swansea but it very much needs better promotion. The Traws Cymru website is a bit clunky to use and there were no T1S leaflets available at the First Cymru information counter in the bus station. IMG_3325.jpgPerhaps not surprising therefore only four of us travelled all the way through to Carmarthen. As the Welsh Government pay for this service, as well as overseeing Welsh trains, it would seem a good idea to provide combined timetables and integrated ticketing. You know the kind of thing the private sector is always being chastised for supposedly not doing.

After a refreshment break in the delightful Carmarthen I caught the 17:50 route 280 to Llandovery. IMG_3389.jpgThis route has been on my ‘to do’ list for a few years and it didn’t disappoint with some splendid views across to the Brecon Beacons National Park.IMG_3381.jpgWe took ten passengers home from Carmarthen with just three on board as we left Llandeilo where we picked up two more. By Llangadog they’d alighted and the remaining three got off between there and Llandovery, where I was the only one left. IMG_3392.jpgLlandovery is a lovely small Welsh town and a great setting for a bus terminus even if it is just a car park.IMG_3396.jpgFrom Llandovery I took a train at 19:43 for my last journey for today on the gorgeous Heart of Wales line, north to Llandrindod Wells where I’ll stay tonight. IMG_3399.jpgI was the only passenger all the way from Llandovery to Llandrindod Wells tonight. If this had been a bus route it would’ve got the chop by now. But this is a train, so as it costs about ten times or more the cost of a bus, it continues!IMG_3429.jpg

It’s been a very enjoyable day’s travels.IMG_3430.jpgRoger French

Devons’s top circular bus and train tour is back

Sunday 7th July 2019

IMG_2834.jpg

Here’s a great way to spend five hours on a summer Sunday: enjoy one of the best circular journeys in Devon, if not the whole of Britain. It takes in three top rail lines and a brilliant bus route skirting a National Park.

The circular route can be based on either Exeter or Plymouth with the three train journeys in the circuit being the summer Sunday only route between Exeter and Okehampton (known as the GWR Dartmoor Line); the Tamar Valley Line from Gunnislake to Plymouth and the West Country main line from Plymouth back to Exeter including the infamous Dawlish Wall. The missing bit between Okehampton and Gunnislake is filled with the Sunday only 279 bus route, which after an absence of three years, I’m delighted to say, is back up and running again this summer thanks to funding from the Devon and Cornwall Community Rail Partnership. I couldn’t resist taking a ride around the circuit today to celebrate the 279’s return.

Even better this 125 mile circular route can be enjoyed for the price of a Devon Day Ranger at £13 for the trains (£8.20 Railcards) plus a bargain £3 for the 279 bus as a special concession rate for passengers holding rail tickets. Like the 271 yesterday, this route is deemed a ‘tourist route’ by Devon County Council and National Concessionary Passes are not valid (even though they are valid on routes 79 and 118 which cover the same route on Mondays to Saturdays).

IMG_E2762.jpgSadly the old Dartmoor Sunday Rover ticket which gave extra value by combining both bus and rail travel on journeys around and across Dartmoor was withdrawn after 2015 and hasn’t reappeared – although this didn’t include trains on the main line.

IMG_2760.jpg

If you want a Sunday morning lie-in take the 11:08 GWR departure from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton which arrives at 11:54 giving plenty of time to connect with the only departure on the 279 at 12:20 which continues beyond Tavistock through to Gunnislake.Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 10.29.03.pngBut it’s well worth taking the first train of the morning from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton at 09:04 arriving at 09:50 giving plenty of time to take a ride on the Dartmoor Railway heritage line where they often run a former Thumper train (on my previous visit) ….

IMG_7520.jpg…..or an eclectic mix of locomotive and carriages including a Brake Van which you can travel on with a great forward view when being pushed from behind and an amazingly friendly guard called Don who gave a running commentary as happened this morning on the 10:15 from Okehampton….IMG_2688.jpgIMG_2691.jpg ….and takes you to Meldon Viaduct and which is well worth a visit.

IMG_7526.jpg

IMG_7527.jpg

IMG_2731.jpgAlternatively the Exeter to Okehampton train stops at Crediton and Sampford Courtenay stations along the way both of which are interesting stop-offs to explore.

Crediton station is on the Barnstaple line and has some lovely heritage signs and posters and is lovingly maintained.

IMG_E2998.jpgIMG_3010.jpgSampford Courtenay is one of Britain’s quirkiest stations; only open in the summer; sees just the four trains each way, each Sunday; has a grass covered platform; has no facilities whatsoever other than a bench seat; has a locked gate to the platform which the guard on the first train of the day unlocks and the guard on the last train of the day locks up. (Interestingly two passengers were waiting to access the station and board the train when we arrived this morning.)

IMG_2684.jpgAnd that’s about it for facilities. It’s about a four mile walk to Okehampton if you choose to get off at Sampford Courtenay – the photo below was from a previous visit.

IMG_7510Okehampton station itself is about a ten minute walk from the town centre but there’s a popular cafe in the station which does a brisk trade on a Sunday with rail enthusiasts, walkers and cyclists and there are stalls selling railway memorabilia for the heritage Dartmoor Railway.

It was great to see the GWR trains busy today – 30 passengers were on the first train and a good load was waiting to board the return journey to Exeter.IMG_2686.jpg

IMG_2810.jpgThe return of the 279 bus route after its three year absence is very welcome as not only does it make this circular tour possible but it’s a great scenic route in its own right.

IMG_2832.jpgThe timetable is fairly limited but the 12:20 journey to Gunnislake is ideal with train connections at both ends if you’re doing the circuit anti-clockwise from Exeter as are the two journeys from Gunnislake at 10:05 and 14:00, for a clockwise circuit, which connect with trains from Plymouth as well as at Okehampton (see timetable below).

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 19.03.57.pngGo-ahead owned Plymouth Citybus operates the route from its small depot in Callington. It follows the A386 from Okehampton towards Tavistock all along the western perimeter of Dartmoor save for a couple of deviations to the west to serve Bridestowe and Lydford.

The last time I travelled on this route (when it was numbered 187 rather than 279) was in the summer of 2015, when it was operated by First Bus and they still had a presence in this part of Devon. It wasn’t First Bus at their finest and not surprisingly they quit Devon soon affter this uninviting, unkept and filthy Dennis Dart appeared on what should be a lovely tourist route! An appropriate epitaph to the old style First Bus in Devon.

DSCF8076.jpg

DSCF8080.jpgIMG_3291.jpgThere were nine of us on the 12:20 journey this afternoon all doing the same round trip, which was quite an impressive turn out. Another passenger boarded just outside Okehampton and travelled to Tavistock. Our driver observed it’s the most he’s seen as no one travelled last time he did the trip. He’s based at Liskeard depot as no-one from Callington wants to do the Sunday rest day work containing the 279!

The former route 187 included a diversion to serve the tourist attraction of Morwellham Quay between Tavistock and Gunnislake. It’s a former copper mine, which is now a “working” museum (along the Beamish lines) including a fascinating train ride into one of the old mines. Sadly the updated 279 no longer serves this attraction but continues direct to Gunnislake arriving at 13:45 for the GWR train departure at 13:58 for Plymouth.

We made good time on the journey this afternoon and arrived into Tavistock with enough slack for a fifteen minute leg stretch pause in the bus station and even leaving there on time arrived Gunnislake five minutes early so there’s plenty of time to include Morwellham Quay on the way if desired.

IMG_2836.jpgOn a previous visit to Gunnislake station in Spring 2018 I noticed the old 187 timetable for Summer 2015 (its last year of operation) with its more frequent service was still on display in the bus shelter and I tweeted Plymouth CityBus to let them know. Frustratingly it was still there this afternoon and sadly there was no mention of the new 279 timetable.

IMG_2838.jpgIMG_2840.jpgThis is very unfortunate particularly as there was superb information at Okehampton in both the station and the authentic bus stop outside.

IMG_2687.jpgIMG_2771.jpgThe contrast couldn’t be more stark.

The Tamar Valley Line between Gunnislake and Plymouth is my favourite Devon branch line with its narrow twists and turns as it follows the valley down through the delightful villages of Calstock and Bere Alston. This section of the line was originally built as a narrow gauge railway to serve the extensive copper mines in the area so when it was upgraded to standard gauge it wasn’t surprising the train brushed against trees and bushes lining the tracks, and still does in places.

IMG_2237.jpgThe viaduct over the River Tamar at Calstock is just one of the spectacular sights on the journey….

IMG_2934.jpg….and it’s also worth looking out for the two ungated level crossings which are very unusual for a full size passenger rail line in regular use.

IMG_2918.jpgAt Bere Alston the train reverses back from the stub of the line (which used to continue to Tavistock and Okehampton) before continuing south down the valley to the wonderful Bere Ferrers (and note the ‘Beer Ferris’ spelling on the former signal box in the photograph below!).

IMG_2220.jpgNow here’s a station well worth stopping off at and having a look around if you have time.IMG_2222.jpg

IMG_2221.jpgNot only is the station itself done out in splendid heritage signs and posters but Chris Grove who lives in the former booking office owns the neighbouring land which he’s turned into a Heritage Centre with an eclectic mix of railway carriages, diesel locomotives, a yard crane, turntable, a fully working signal box controlling the adjacent track which although only 300 yards long can accommodate three engines running at the same time, as well as a model railway layout, exhibitions, memorabilia, paraphernalia and more.IMG_2223.jpgIt’s a fascinating place and if you’re really keen, Chris offers accommodation and meals in some of the carriages.IMG_2209.jpgI didn’t have time to visit today but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit when passing through last weekend and Chris was a great host.

IMG_2204.jpgCarrying on down the Tamar Valley the River becomes impressively wider as it’s joined by the River Tavy with the rail line bridging over the latter just before the rivers join.

IMG_2938.jpgThe line then continues under the Great Western main line with restricted views of the famous Royal Albert bridge behind the not so famous road bridge ….

IMG_2943.jpg….before the branch joins the main line itself just after St Budeaux Victoria Road (alongside St Budeaux Ferry Road on the main line). Continuing into Plymouth there are magnificent views of the Dockyard as this section of the tour comes to an end.

IMG_2946.jpgIt’s a summer Sunday afternoon, so expect the last leg of this circular trip to be busy; the main line ride from Plymouth to Exeter. I’ve taken many journeys back from the West Country on a Sunday afternoon and the train is invariably packed even before it leaves Cornwall. The Gunnislake train arrives into Plymouth at 14:43 with a handy fifteen minute connection on to the 14:58 GWR train back to Exeter St Davids arriving there at 15:57. However, this train comes up from Penzance and is notorious for being ‘rammed’.

This afternoon, I instead opted to take the next eastbound departure from Plymouth at 15:12 which is a GWR train crucially starting its London bound journey there so a much better chance of a decent seat.

IMG_2948.jpgIt arrived into Exeter at 16:07 just ten minutes later than the Penzance originating train did.

IMG_4722This final leg of the circular tour provides a lovely hour’s scenic ride through Ivybridge, Totnes, Newton Abbot and Teignmouth before the crème de la crème, the gorgeous section of line through Dawlish.

After that it’s back into Exeter after a wonderful day in Devon.

However, I’m now heading on to Bristol and Cardiff for more bus and train travels tomorrow.

Roger French

PS It was great to meet blog reader David also doing this round trip today as well as Phil from Modern Railways magazine who was enjoying a return ride on the Gunnislake branch this afternoon.

PPS Just to let you know the great lengths I go to capture photographs for this blog included last weekend’s visit to Bere Ferrers Heritage Centre when Chris kindly offered for me to capture the GWR train coming into the station from a vantage point high up on one of his heritage signals – note the high viz, so it was perfectly safe for me to do that – indeed it was a great honour as Chris said no-one other than him had climbed up before!

A spectacular bus ride to Widicombe in the Moor

Saturday 6th July 2019

I thought it was high time I ticked off more bus routes on my lengthy ‘to do’ list compiled from the many suggestions kindly passed on from various sources, not least Twitter, which qualify for the accolade of being the Best of British Bus Routes. So for the next few days that’s my mission beginning this weekend in Devon….

IMG_2542.jpg….. with the Summer Saturday only route 271 from Newton Abbot to Widicombe.

It’s operated by Country Bus – the trading name of Alansway Coaches who have built up a sizeable amount of tendered bus work in this part of Devon from their base on the Heathfield Industrial Estate just outside Newton Abbot.

IMG_2536.jpgStand in Newton Abbot’s ‘bus station’ (bus stops either side of the bus only Sherborne Road) for a short time and aside from Stagecoach it soon becomes obvious just how dominant Country Bus has become in the local market.

IMG_2518.jpgRoute 271 runs four times a day but only on Saturdays from June to mid September – that’s sixteen days in all. One minibus covers the schedule.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 19.03.11.pngInterestingly no concessionary passes are valid on this route, it being deemed by Devon County Council who fund the service, to be a tourist route. Instead pass holders get a £1 discount on the round trip fare of £5, paying just £4. My experience this afternoon indicated this policy certainly hasn’t deterred seniors from travelling. Indeed, I suspect they value the service even more by handing over cash to travel. Two seniors on my journey paid up, like me, to just enjoy the trip right around the circuit which takes an hour and forty-five minutes. It’s certainly well worth it.

Journeys leave Newton Abbot railway station at 08:55, 10:55, 13:40 and 16:10 calling at the bus station in Sherborne Road five minutes later.

The route then follows the Stagecoach half hourly route 39 north to Bovey Tracey about twenty minutes from Newton Abbot on the A382 towards Mortonhampstead. Bovey Tracey’s a delightful small town come large village on the River Bovey and buses do a complete circuit of the residential area to the east of its commercial centre in both directions.

IMG_E2670.jpg

Route 271 then heads off to the west along the B3387 to Widicombe in the Moor via Yarner and Haytor which truly is a magnificent road to travel along and admire the wonderful scenery as you enter the Dartmoor National Park.

IMG_2668.jpgI travelled on the 13:40 departure from Newton Abbot this afternoon and there were five of us on board as we left although one didn’t travel far getting off at an exclusive looking private school, Stover School, just outside the town with another passenger joining us at Bovey Tracey getting us back to five again, although he alighted at the Moor’s Visitor Centre just past the hamlet of Haytor Vale where the Moor proper begins.

IMG_2600.jpgWe picked up four more here and when we got to Widicombe one got off and there were eight waiting to board who’d all obviously travelled out on one of the two morning journeys and had enjoyed a walk across the wonderful scenic countryside.

IMG_2604.jpgAfter a short pause in Widicombe in the Moor we retraced our route up the steep narrow access road for a couple of miles before turning sharp left and heading up a narrow unclassified road, along which, after a few more miles we picked up three more walkers who’d travelled out this morning.

IMG_2629.jpgWe then turned right along the narrowest of roads for the longest duration I think I’ve travelled along – it even beat some of the narrow roads in Pembrokeshire used by the Strumble Shuttle.

IMG_2623.jpgInevitably we met a car coming towards us which had no option but to reverse some distance to enable us to pass.

IMG_2622.jpgAt the village of Manaton one of the five passengers who’d got on at Newton Abbot alighted and we picked up three more making for twenty on board.

IMG_2610.jpgI heard the driver telling the lady alighting that he’d look out for her on the next and last journey of the day and he reassured her there’d be room but “I’m expecting the journey to be busy”. It had obviously been a busy first two journeys this morning; and it’s great to see that.

IMG_2627.jpgThe photographs here cannot do justice to the amazingly spectacular scenery this bus route offers; sadly the bus windows were not particularly clean, especially the back window, but I still found it exhilarating and I rank it as one of the best scenic bus routes I’ve travelled on. It was also lovely to see so many Dartmoor ponies freely roaming around too.

IMG_2609.jpg

IMG_2611.jpgIt seems a shame the route only runs on a Saturday as I would have thought it would be just as popular on a Sunday with both walkers and people just enjoying the ride around. The fact that everyone pays a fare means the revenue is as it is with no discounted reimbursement issues.

IMG_2632.jpgUnfortunately the bus was not accessible having a three step entrance rather than being low floor so there was no provision for a wheelchair despite the capacity stating there was.

IMG_2631.jpgThe standing capacity showing as zero indicates Country Bus are using the ‘get out’ clause of the vehicle being classified as a ‘coach’ so will only be caught by the accessibility legislation from next January when it will become illegal.

IMG_2547.jpgThe interior of the vehicle also had an odd pair of seats which made for an unkept appearance.

IMG_2548.jpgThat aside, it was a very enjoyable ride around with a friendly and helpful driver, expertly driven and scenery to die for. It was very encouraging to see it so well used too and not a free ride in sight. Definitely a bus route ‘to do’.

IMG_2618.jpg

I was planning to head on from Newton Abbot to Exeter on the quick and direct Stagecoach route X64 via the A380. It was showing on the network map on Stagecoach’s website …

IMG_E2664.jpg…. but entering X64 into the ‘Timetable’ look up brought no results. I’m grateful to John Crowhurst, who also encouraged me to ride the 271, for explaining the X64 has been replaced and revised and the section of route between Totnes, Newton Abbot and Exeter is now numbered 7.

IMG_2637.jpgI’m not sure how you’re supposed to know that as even the map dated April 2019 in what’s left of Exeter bus station is showing the X64 still operates.

IMG_2660.jpgAnyway we made good progress on the 41 minute journey to Exeter thanks to the free flowing A380…

IMG_2648.jpg…and arrived at the now truncated Exeter bus station where redevelopment of much of the former land is now well under way.

IMG_2654.jpgIMG_2657.jpg

IMG_2655.jpg

Roger French

Railway rides in Aviemore and Launceston

Friday 5th July 2019

There are over 150 standard and narrow gauge ‘heritage’ railways operating in Great Britain. Most are run by enthusiastic volunteers who put in many hours of dedicated service. I try and visit one or two every few weeks on my travels and have managed to tick off a long list, but there are still more to do.

Over the last couple of weeks I paid a visit to two more on my ‘to do’ list at extreme ends of Britain: The Strathspey Railway at Aviemore on 22nd June and Launceston Steam Railway in Cornwall on 30th June. They’re quite different in character but both offer a great visit.

The Strathspey Railway

IMG_1733.jpgThis operates from Aviemore Station on an adjacent platform alongside the main line used by ScotRail, LNER and Caledonian Sleeper trains between Inverness and Perth.

The route taken by Strathspey Railway trains is in fact the original main line north to Inverness which opened in 1863 taking a more easterly route via Boat of Garten and Broomhill – the two stations now restored on the line. The original line continued via Grantown-on-Spey to join the Inverness and Aberdeen railway at Forres.

IMG_1764.jpgThe line’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1892 when a new more direct line from Aviemore to Inverness was built via Carrbridge, which are the tracks used by the main Highland Line today. The Strathspey line consequently lost it’s reason for being but it hung on well into the 20th century before closing completely by 1968 with tracks lifted and abandoned.

The Strathspey Railway Company was formed in 1971 to restore the southern part of the abandoned line and now regularly runs trains from Aviemore via a lovingly preserved station at Boat of Garten and on to Broomhill, a more basic but still interesting station (photographed below).

IMG_1749.jpgMore recently tracks have been extended beyond Broomhill for about another mile where the train comes to a stop and the engine transfers to the other end via a parallel track before returning to Broomhill.

The aim is to continue extending the track as far as Grantown-on-Spey which will be a fantastic achievement when realised.

IMG_1732.jpgThe running season operates between April and October (as well as Santa Specials and some extra days in February) with continious daily operation from mid June to early September. There’s the usual special events, dining experiences and occasional vintage diesel railcar days. Three return journeys operate on the Standard Service with an additional Sunday lunch return.

It takes about an hour and a half to do a round trip back to Aviemore with breaks at both Boat of Garten (for water replenishment) and Broomhill stations. The railway covers just under ten miles of track.

IMG_1742.jpgA standard adult return is £15.75 with cheaper fares for seniors and children. The day I visited saw coach parties taking a one-way ride as part of their tour of Scotland and I guess this is a popular source of income for the railway.

IMG_1741.jpgIMG_1740.jpgIt’s very easy to visit the Strathspey Railway by public transport with the main Highland line serving Aviemore station but there are also regular bus and coach services passing by between Inverness and points south including the impressive ‘citylink gold’ route.

IMG_1774.jpg

Launceston Steam Railway

IMG_2243.jpgThis enchanting railway in Launceston is a narrow gauge steam railway covering around two and a half miles along the Kensey Valley westwards to the hamlet of New Mills. It covers the trackbed of the old North Cornwall Railway which at one time linked Padstow with Waterloo. Originally opened in 1892 it closed in 1966.

As well as the London & South Western Railway to Padstow, the Great Western Railway also had a station in Launceston, right alongside but with separate tracks and buildings, which linked the town to Tavistock and Plymouth.

IMG_2244.jpgThe gauge is 1ft 11.5inches with open and closed carriages hauled by one of three steam engines including Lilian who started it all off when the line was established in 1983.

IMG_2239.jpgThis was thanks to Nigel Bowman, a keen enthusiast who, when aged 19, found Lilian in Penrhyn Slate Quarry in North Wales and bought her for £60 at the same time the railway through Launceston was closing in the 1960s. Nigel rebuilt Lilian in a foundry by his parent’s home in Surrey while he was undertaking a teacher training course.

By the end of the 1960s Nigel had decided to abandon a career in teaching and instead looked for a suitable spot to run a steam railway with his beloved Lilian. This brought him to Launceston and with full support from the local Council and help from friends Nigel established the narrow gauge railway on the recently lifted trackbed of the North Cornwall railway.

IMG_2245.jpgThe first train ran on Boxing Day 1983 after a lot of hard work and thanks to the Royal Navy Armaments Depot in Plymouth coincidentally wanting to dispose of its narrow gauge railway in the Docks.

The railway has gradually been extended westwards and in 1995 reached New Mills where there’s an adjacent Farm Park offering “fun for all the family especially for toddlers and younger children”.

IMG_2258.jpgTrains run on Sundays to Fridays from mid May to the end of August and on Monday to Fridays around Easter, September and the Autumn half term. There’s an hourly service with a round trip taking about 35 minutes.

A standard adult return is £11.25 with discounts for seniors, children and families.

IMG_2254.jpgThere’s a lovely cafe and gift shop at Launceston station including a fantastic book shop on the first floor with an amazing collection of transport books – I came away with two books but could easily have bought many more. Over the road from the cafe is a fascinating Transport and Engineering Museum with a range of items to interest the engineering fanatic.

There’s also accommodation available alongside the station in a cottage which sleeps four and includes free rides on the railway during your visit including a ride on the steam engine.

IMG_2240.jpgLaunceston can be reached by both Stagecoach route 6A (from Exeter) and GoCornwall (Plymouth Citybus) route 12/12B (Plymouth to Bude).

Both these railways are well worth a visit if you’re in the area; I’m glad I did. (I took a few video clips while on the Launceston Steam Railway which you can view here.)

Roger French

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

railair takes off from Guildford

Wednesday 3rd July 2019

IMG_2280.jpgBus and coach routes serving airports have expanded greatly over the last few decades with a seemingly constant stream of new initiatives.

I wrote about the recent upgrade to First Glasgow’s route 500 between Glasgow Airport and the city centre last month while over at Edinburgh Airport, Xplore Dundee have started a new route linking Dundee and the airport, First Bus have doubled the frequency of their route 600 linking West Lothian and Lothian Buses now run four different routes serving Edinburgh itself. Down at Bristol Airport, Stagecoach introduced Falcon to and from the south west a few years ago while First improved the local service from Bristol itself.

London’s airports (aside from ‘Southend’ of course!) have also benefited from new initiatives including Stansted where competition has seen a plethora of coach options from various parts of central London. Heathrow Airport has been well served for many years but First Berkshire reckon they’ve spotted a gap in the market from Guildford which they’ve bravely filled with a brand new hourly coach service which started on Monday.

IMG_2276.jpgThe newly branded railair RA2 service joins the long established RA1 from Reading, also operated by First Berkshire, and upgraded with swish new coaches earlier this year (reviewed in a previous blog). Indeed some of the displaced coaches from that route have found a home on this new Guildford service.

The Reading railair route, as the brand name implies, is well known for its handy connections to and from the airport for passengers travelling by GWR train from South Wales and the West Country. The same idea lies behind the new RA2 with passengers using South Western Railway trains from Portsmouth and Southsea on the Petersfield line, as well as Farnham and Aldershot now having a more convenient way to access Heathrow without the inconvenience of going into London and back out again.

The new link also provides a more convenient route for Reigate and Dorking residents using GWR’s North Downs line and changing at Guildford.

Route RA2 runs hourly from around 04:00 to 22:00. The route itself is pretty simple using the A3 and M25 with a short wiggle near Guildford town centre to serve The Chase near to the University of Surrey. Terminal 5 is served but not Terminal 4 and the route’s terminal bus stops are right alongside the exit from Guildford station and in Heathrow Airport’s central bus and coach station. Pointedly it doesn’t serve Guildford bus station.

IMG_E2301.jpgAllowance has been made in the schedule for variable motorway traffic conditions with daytime journeys given 65 minutes increasing to 75 minutes in the peaks. The first early morning journey is given 52 minutes.

The service takes three coaches with a fairly tight ten minute turnaround at Heathrow and a more leisurely 41 minutes in Guildford.

It’s £9 for a single fare if bought in advance by app, online or as an add-on to a train ticket and £10 if paid on the coach. This is in line with the general practice of premium charging for airport fares but also exposes the comparable fare from Reading at a whopping £20 online, albeit that’s for a greater distance.

The comparable single fare on the National Express RailAir shuttle from Woking station is £10.50 single although this reduces to a more attractive £6 if booked four weeks or more in advance.

IMG_2305.jpg

I took a ride on the 11:00 departure on the RA2 from Guildford this morning. The coach was already on stand when I arrived at 10:45 with one passenger on board and another just boarding. The driver was chatting to a high-viz wearing First Bus employee who offered me a leaflet when he saw me hovering and taking photographs.

It’s nice to see Surrey County Council have updated the ‘Bus Stand’ (sic) with an RA2 number ….

IMG_2288.jpg

…. and there’s a standard RA2 Surrey County Council style timetable with First Bus railair promotional messages in the timetable case.

IMG_2287.jpgI do hope they update the grotty frames alongside though (which I’ve tweeted about for years now). The driver and his high-viz companion thought this was in hand when I mentiond it to them, which if so, really will be a step forward.

IMG_2286.jpgSadly no further passengers arrived before we left spot on time with just the five of us on board (that’s including the driver and his high-viz helper). We passed the bus stop at The Chase slightly ahead of time – eight minutes running time from the station is very generous in the off peak – and I was impressed that we glided by the RHS Wisley stop on the A3 exactly on time at 11:18 as Google maps ominously showed slow going on the M25.

IMG_2308.jpg

Most of the journey around the infamous M25 south west quadrant was consequently at a steady 40 mph but we still arrived into Terminal 5 at 11:40 compared to the scheduled arrival time of 11:53 so even in the off peak there’s plenty of slack to allow for motorway delays.

IMG_2309.jpgOur high-viz wearing friend alighted here as we continued around Heathrow’s western perimeter …

IMG_2312.jpg…. and reached Heathrow’s Central Bus and Coach Station eleven minutes ahead of time at 11:54 and the two passengers alighted with me. An overall journey time of 54 minutes – only two minutes more than that best time allowance for that first departure at 03:40!

IMG_2350.jpgIt was an impressive ride; even though the M25 was a bit crowded traffic was at least flowing. However, that road is notorious for its gridlock and I reckon coaches will struggle to keep to time on a busy Friday afternoon and evening as well as negotiating through Guildford’s congested traffic including that section of route by the University.

The interior of the coach, despite dating from 2013/4 was very welcoming and comfortable. A lot more so than anything you get on modern trains these days. There were four tables with forward and backward facing seats and a total capacity of 44.

IMG_2318.jpgThe coach was nice and clean with working plug sockets and WiFi which kicked in after a little time albeit with the usual requirement for an email address to be entered for access.

The key to this route’s success is getting it known among rail passengers on the Portsmouth & Southsea line via Petersfield. Portsmouth passengers already have the Woking RailAir link which has been around for a while and is well promoted, so this new service needs South Western Railway to do its bit by plugging the alternative via Guildford. Interstingly end to end journey times are comparable whether via Woking or Guildford.

South Western Railway is of course run by First Group (in conjunction with MTR Europe) so in theory this should be easy, but the industry is littered with examples of non-joined-up-ness between train and bus so I’m not holding my breath.

The attractive leaflet for the Guildford railair states you can buy a rail add-on: “click or ask for Guildford Railair add-on when making an advance purchase rail ticket or buying from a ticket vending machine or ticket office”. I tried buying an advance purchase ticket online from the SWR website but the only add-ons it offered me were a bicycle reservation or a PlusBus.Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 19.01.27.pngStill it’s early days and there’s lots of time to get details like that sorted, and the Reading service certainly works well, although that does have a much larger catchment area and the fare is more than double the Guildford price!

IMG_2274.jpg

A big accodale to First Berkshire for launching this new initiative and giving a brand new service a go. Good luck

Roger French

 

DaRT about in Dengie

Saturday 29th June 2019

IMG_2185.jpgBack in April I took a ride on the bus route formerly known as the ‘Wiltshire Wigglybus’ between Pewsey and Devizes – a traditional rural bus route combined with a Dial-a-Ride flexible option and wrote about it here. Yesterday I thought it might be interesting to sample a similar type of rural bus service branded as DaRT over in the Dengie peninsular in Essex.

(The small ‘a’ in DaRT comes from the Essex County Council website to indicate, I assume, the D, R and T stand for Demand Responsive Transport but I noticed the branding on the bus was DART rather than DaRT.)

The Dengie peninsular is the bit of Essex between the River Blackwater (to the north) and River Crouch (to the south) jutting out south east of Chelmsford. It’s a sparsely populated part of the County, which most people tend to avoid unless they’ve got business or leisure there, making it very challenging to provide attractive public transport. It’s a lovely part of the country, topologically rather flat but with an attractive tranquil air about the area.

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 20.39.15.pngFortunately there is a train service operated by Abellio run Greater Anglia along the southern edge of the peninsular from Southminster which connects at Wickford with the Southend-on-Sea to Liverpool Street service in the off peak, albiet at an annoying off-peak forty minute frequency, although there are convenient through trains to London in the peaks. Bus services to the small communities across the peninsula are a mix of a traditional route operated by First Essex, school buses and two DaRT routes funded by Essex County Council.

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 20.51.16.pngThe First Essex route is a traditional half hourly trunk service numbered 31 running between Chelmsford, Maldon, Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch (together with four minor route variations denoted as B, C, X and the Sunday 33).

Screen Shot 2019-06-29 at 05.49.54.pngDaRT 4 provides links between the small villages in the north east of Dengie such as Bradwell and Tillingham with Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch while DaRT 5 does the same for villages across the middle, eg Cold Norton, Latchingdon and Althorne.

The idea behind DaRT is like a shared minibus-come-taxi service. This is how the Essex County Council website explains it…

It’s mainly DaRT routes 1, 2 and 3 which operate in the rural area north of the County which run to a completely flexible route pattern (around Braintree and West Uttlesford) whereas on Dengie, DaRT 4 runs more like a traditional bus route with a fixed route and timetable while DaRT 5 has a fixed route but with no timetable. Both routes are operated by Ace Taxis using minibuses.

I was a bit put off by the “there must be sufficient volume of passengers with similar itineraries” clause in the ‘instructions’ wondering how you’re fixed for travel if there aren’t (sufficient volume) so decided to play it safe by trying out DaRT 4 and travelled to Tillingham yesterday (in the east of Dengie) on the Friday only shopping journey run between school trips by Fords Coaches of Althorne from Chelmsford.

This off-peak weekly shopping journey from Dengie alternates between a fortnightly route 3 from Tillingham and a fortnightly route 6 from Althorne and Burnham-on-Crouch and both return from the bus stops adjacent to Chelmsford Market at 13:30. I was impressed to see a good crowd of shoppers already waiting by 13:15.

IMG_2120.jpgBy 13:25 the bus had arrived and twenty-eight boarded ready for the journey home. Everyone just piled on the bus without showing any tickets or passes and I guess the transactions had all been sorted on the outward journey with it being a rarity for anyone to be making a single journey back to Tillingham on the return. I surprised the driver by not only explaining that’s what I was doing but also needed to pay rather than have a concessionary pass. A single for £4 seemed fairly good value.

IMG_2124.jpgIMG_2149.jpgIt was one of those chatty buses where everyone knew everyone and all wished each other fond farewells as they alighted at bus stops along the route. We left Chelmsford spot on time and were due to arrive in Tillingham at 14:45 so I wasn’t unduly worried that my connection on to the DaRT 4 minibus gave six minutes before that departed at 14:51 having begun its journey at Bradwell Waterside.

Route 3 also went via nearby Bradwell-on-Sea which was a delightful village with a lovely Bedford vintage bus on a wedding private hire outside the church…

IMG_2177.jpg… but I got concerned that by then with all the prolonged fond farewells we were six minutes behind schedule making for a tight connection in Tillingham just down the road. I kept an eye out for the DaRT minibus to come into view behind us and sure enough it appeared just as we entered the village of Tillingham….

IMG_2178.jpgI strategically placed myself downstairs by the driver and asked if he wouldn’t mind waving his hand out the cab window to indicate I needed the bus which was just as well as the body language of the minibus was definitely not to hang around looking for passengers…

IMG_2179.jpgLuckily the driver got the message and beckoned me to come back and board before he continued overtaking the double decker and within seconds we were on our way to Southminster and Burnham-on-Crouch.

IMG_2180.jpgThe driver didn’t seem interested in wanting me to pay a fare and drove off straight away at some speed while chatting to the passenger on board returning home from his day’s fishing.

I’d rung the operator, Ace Taxis, earlier in the morning when in Chelmsford to book my journey as instructed but was told I needn’t do that as it’s just like a bus service. I guess with a fixed timetable …

….. and a standard sized 14 seat minibus …..

IMG_2181.jpg… that’s the case with this route although when we got to Southminster there was a bus and driver change ….

IMG_2183.jpgIMG_2186.jpg…to a smaller taxi-sized minibus with a self-opening door which I guess is more often used on the flexible booked DaRT 5 route ….

Our fisherman friend had got off at the bus change in Southminster so it was just me and the friendly new driver travelling on to Burnham-on-Crouch where we did a loop around a residential area and picked up a waiting passenger (Peter, who’s “on the bus committee”) before arriving at the station where I got off as they continued to the terminus at the Clock Tower, a little further on, before returning on the next journey back to Bradwell Waterside for one more return trip. It didn’t look to me that it was going to be busy.

So the DaRT idea left me a bit confused as to whether it’s a bus or a taxi; whether it’s fixed or flexible; whether it’s for passengers travelling singly or a minimum group required. But at least it’s providing rural transport in a difficult to serve sparsely populated area, and good on Essex for doing just that. I hope the sparse loadings were not typical.

Meanwhile the shoppers special route 3 (and 6) to Chelmsford obviously bring in useful income for Fords Coaches to supplement a school contract while also providing a useful service for around thirty people living in Dengie.

Roger French

New sleeper turns into a bad dream

Tuesday 25th June 2019

IMG_6371There’s something seriously amiss with Caledonian Sleeper’s train service.

I’ve blogged about the new Mark 5 coaches a couple of times recently (here and here) highlighting the teething problems I encountered, in particular no water in the en-suite shower in my supposedly swanky new ‘Club’ room on two of the three journeys as well as a number of other niggles.

These included an emergency stop and losing all the electrics when heading south around Preston in the early hours of Tuesday 4th June. The sharpness of the braking followed by an eerie silence and two or three attempts to reboot the train’s control systems over the next ten minutes was enough to wake most of us up and a consequential disturbed night.

We got going again on that occasion and thankfully arrived into Euston with no further incidents. Not that trip anyway, but a much more serious fault necessitating another emergency stop happened a week later on Tuesday 11th June as the Lowlander service headed north to Glasgow and Edinburgh coming to a sudden halt in Stafford. This resulted in serious damage to the train’s wheels such the train couldn’t continue and coaches had to be summoned in the early hours to take passengers on to Glasgow and Edinburgh by road. Not a particularly edifying or attractive proposition when you’re probably already dressed for bed and maybe even nodding off.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.35.12.png

Every night since that incident two weeks ago Caledonian Sleeper have been cancelling one of the journeys, either northbound or southbound between either Glasgow or Edinburgh and London. Alternative options for booked passengers offered by Caledonian Sleeper are either taking a daytime Virgin Trains journey or a replacement overnight coach on the motorway; neither option being particularly acceptable when it’s likely you’ve already made onward travel plans or have other commitments necessitating overnight travel.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.38.37.png

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.39.49.png

An overnight coach on the motorway is hardly an acceptable alternative when you might have paid £230 for a new en-suite single room or even £335 for a double room, albeit Caledonian Sleeper are giving full refunds, but it’s likely many passengers would prefer flying as an alternative with a night in a hotel, I know I would, but that doesn’t seem to be on offer as a alternative.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.42.26.pngCaledonian Sleeper have been making much of the luxury offered by their new deluxe sleeper coaches, offering a “timeless experience”; it’s just a pity “timeless” is turning out to be “trainless”. The problem being expectations have been seriously raised with Caledonian Sleeper hyping up their new ‘hotel-on-wheels’ at five star prices – it’s £395 for a Club double room on the Highlander between London and Fort William/Aberdeen/Inverness for a single night journey (and no Railcard discounts are available), that’s just shy of £800 for a return journey or ‘two nights stay’ – and for that you expect five star service, not ‘replacement road transport’.

Even if everything is running smoothly you’d think paying £395 for a night’s sleep, albeit coupled with a 570 mile journey, would include more than just one complimentary hot drink with a measly breakfast. I was taken aback to find a few coffee granules, a cup of hot water and UHT milk sachets came at a charge of £2.70 on top of that £395 fare – what an absolute rip-off. You even get unlimited complimentary coffee in the cheapest Travelodge deal.

With the ongoing teething problems it obviously made sense for Caledonian Sleeper to pull the planned introduction of Mark 5 coaches on to the Highlander service which had been scheduled for the beginning of this month (and which was already well delayed from the planned 2018 launch). It’s now been pushed back to “early July”, (update… Wednesday 26th June – just announced now put back to September) but for some time passengers have been booking their journeys assuming new en-suite rooms at the significantly enhanced prices as advertised on the glossy Caledonian Sleeper website only to later receive a refund on the difference between new and old pricing as disappointed passengers are told it’s the old coaches for them, for now.

Mind you that’s better than having the disaster that is the new rolling stock at the moment, but even those trusty old coaches are showing signs of age and lack of investment making it feel like very poor value for money as well as unreliable.

On my LEJOG trip with Geoff and Vicki last week our Inverness train had standard toilets out of action while the accessible toilet next to the lounge coach had no water making it unhygienic and unacceptable. At about 6pm prior to the train leaving Euston a text was received advising there’d be no lounge car that evening thereby meaning no refreshments available, but when we got wind from other sources that may not be the case, I rang Caledonian Sleeper to query it only to be told the email had been sent out in error and there would be a lounge coach after all. There was no explanation when I asked why a corrected email hadn’t been sent leaving a feeling of shambolic incompetence.

Even worse the Fort William section of the train that evening developed an engine fault in the West Highlands meaning passengers arrived into Fort William over three and a half hours late after 13:30.

There was then a hiatus for Friday night’s southbound journey from Fort William when it was announced the train was cancelled due to “staff having insufficient rest” following the late arrival that morning so “guests” (Caledonian Sleeper’s corporate spin is still insisting on calling us all ‘guests’ despite clearly not being able to run a hotel) were told on social media they’d have to travel by coach (“replacement road transport”) over to Edinburgh, arriving in the middle of the night, with a transfer on to the train from there.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.19.23.png

A further tweet advised arrangements had been made for refreshments to be available at the Jury’s Inn in Edinburgh where “guests” could also wait before boarding the train, but twitter was awash with disgruntled passengers saying coach drivers dropped them off at Edinburgh Waverley station with no mention of hotel refreshments.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.20.21.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.20.35.pngAgain, it gives the impression of total incompetence.

Meanwhile it wasn’t much better on the southbound service on Friday night either with new coaches on the Lowlander service coming to a halt at Acton Bridge just south of Crewe with passengers having to make their way down to London once Virgin Trains and West Midlands Trains got going in the morning.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.07.03.png

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.07.16.pngThese latest disasters on Friday came just twenty hour hours after there was confidence on Thursday wheel problems on the damaged train from 11th June would finally be fixed for the weekend …

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.58.24.png

…. with Caledonian Sleeper tweeting things “are due to return to normal”.

It’s turned out not to be the case with the Glasgow bound journey cancelled last night yet again.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.00.01.png

This raises the question of why other sets of new coaches are not being introduced into service. Somewhere sidings must be full of new coaches bearing in mind the new trains were due into service on both the Lowlander and Highlander services from 2nd June. This implies there are still issues with the new trains yet to be resolved beyond problems with wheels damaged on 11th June.

I can’t help thinking Serco – the company running the Caledonian Sleeper franchise – are completely out of their outsourcing depth running this specialist type of train service. It’s all very well hyping up running a luxury ‘hotel on wheels’ but is it practical? Is the business model charging exhorbitant five star prices, raising expectations for a high standard of service, achievable on an overnight train between London and Scotland? Sadly Caledonian Sleeper is rapidly gaining a reputation worse than Fawlty Towers.

Serco must be losing a fortune over the present shenanigans (although I’m sure there’ll be some contingent liability passed on to the Spanish manufacturer CAF too) but it shouldn’t be forgotten the sleeper service attracts massive public subsidy to keep it going. OK, there are far fewer passengers impacted than in the GTR or Northern Rail fiasco last May but proportionately the disruption per journey is far worse. A 25% failure rate on the Lowlander service at the moment.

Yet taking a look at the Caledonian Sleeper website it’s as though nothing is wrong and it’s all sweetness and light. Where’s the contrite apology from the managing director at what has become a complete shambles of a service? Not a word, just the same continued hype. Quite extraordinary head-in-the-sand PR.

I feel sorry for the stressed out staff on the trains and in customer service, sorry, “Guest Service Centre” where “Guest Ambassadors” work. Word of advice Serco. Ditch the ridiculous corporate hype and get back to basics of delivering a proper service. And you really have got to do much better at letting passengers know what’s happening more in advance than you’re doing; it’s not like catching a commuter train home; canacelling an overnight sleeper means huge distruption to people’s travel plans possibly including ruined holidays.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.21.18.png

Unsurprisingly Caledonian Sleeper’s reputation is currently being trashed every day on Twitter.

Tuesday 25th June, midday update: as I publish this blog, there’s no word from Caledonian Sleeper whether tonight’s Lowlander service will run as normal or which of the four portions (Glasgow/Edinburgh – northbound/southbound) will once again be cancelled. A quite extraordinary way to run a train service, let alone a sleeper service.

Roger French