My Hundred Best Train Journeys 3

Sunday 2nd December 2018

Back on track(s) again to describe thirty more wonderful train trips, ranked 31-60 in My Hundred Best Train Journeys.

For the Top 30 previously published click here and here.

31 Exeter – Exmouth

I love this journey not only for the truly superb views as the train trundles along the east side of the River Exe towards Exmouth – not surprisingly they’re just as delightful as travelling down the west side towards Dawlish – but also for the quirkiness of Lympstone Commando request station.

IMG_2341There was a time when alighting here was strictly a no no, unless you had business at the Royal Marines training centre adjacent to the station. Forbiddingly high fences topped with barbed wire together with a manned entry gate put paid to any thought of wandering from the platform. Of course you could alight and simply wait on the platform for the next train – it is after all a public station on the National Rail network – but it wasn’t encouraged.

IMG_2339Now a public footpath has been constructed alongside the tracks from the previous station, Exton, so you can now officially board and alight at Lympstone Commando without worrying about prying eyes provided you keep to that footpath! And ignore the forbidding sign still in situ.

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32 Ipswich – Lowestoft

Felixstowe - January 2014 012Suffolk is an underrated county in the scenic beauty stakes but a ride on the East Suffolk Line will soon correct any such descriptive misunderstandings. ‘The line links villages, ancient treasures, and some of the best walking and cycling countryside in Suffolk. From historic Ipswich, travel to Woodbridge and be intrigued by the picturesque tide mill on the River Debden’ – well, that’s the enticing blurb from Greater Anglia’s website. And it’s quite right, Woodbridge is splendid with its lovely views alongside the River Deben flowing out to sea, as is the rest of the journey along the Waveney Valley all the way to Oulton Broad South where you travel along the southern boundary of the Norfolk Broads National Park before reaching the eastern most point of England at Lowestoft, sadly a shadow of its former station self.

IMG_8141I have a vivid memory as a child of a train journey from Liverpool Street taking us via Lowestoft and on to Gorleston-on-Sea (the station’s long since gone) for a summer holiday. Sadly that line along the coast to Great Yarmouth was closed in 1970 – but at least there’s a lovely retro sign still displayed at Lowestoft Station as a reminder of the old days.

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33 Halifax – Hebden Bridge – Rochdale/Burnley

IMG_8665We’re in that lovely part of England where West Yorkshire meets Greater Manchester across the Pennine peaks, moors and reservoirs. The train takes you alongside the River Calder, the Rochdale Canal and the River Roch for pretty much the whole journey and pretty is definitely the word. It’s also worth taking a ride up to Burnley where the tracks divide at Hall Royd Junction just east of Todmorden as it’s a delightful climb up via Cornholme and Holme Chapel with splendid views across Heptonstall Moor. You can now retrace your journey along the track of the new Todmorden curve to continue to Rochdale.

There’s also nowhere better to break this gorgeous journey for a stop off than Hebden Bridge and savour the delightful heritage and preservation of this fine station.

IMG_8667Moreover, you can hop on the Keighley Bus Company’s B3 bus route through Bronte Country on a wonderful journey via Haworth to Keighley (and include a ride on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway too) before returning to Hebden Bridge to conclude the ride westwards. Truly splendid.

34 Oxenholme – Windermere

We’ve travelled round the western side of the Lake District (the Cumbrian Line at entry no 16); we’ve zoomed up the West Coast Main Line and glimpsed the eastern side (entry no 7) now we’re wandering up the “no through road” that is the line from Oxenholme to Windermere. Any disappointment that trains only take you so far into the wonderful Lake District is made up by the fantastic network of bus routes Stagecoach provide from outside Windermere station, not least the famous 555 northwards via Grasmere to Keswick.

IMG_1202This line hit the news in the summer when West Coast Railways stepped in with loco hauled rolling stock while Northern Trains went through its post 20 May 2018 timetable meltdown. It certainly made a change from the usual trains and brought home just how many tourists use this line – the trains I travelled on were packed and they definitely weren’t all train enthusiasts.

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35 Leeds – Huddersfield – Manchester

IMG_8839This line is much more than the rail equivalent of the M62 across the Pennines. It certainly feels as busy as the M62, but rather than battling with fellow motorists, you battle with fellow passengers on a Trans Pennine Express train. If you’re lucky you’ll manage to bag a seat and enjoy some great views especially between Slaithwaite and Marden (look out of the right hand side for Moss Moor and Rishworth Moor in the distance). If you’re very lucky and choose a quiet time to travel you’ll be able to switch from one side of the train to the other as the best views vary during the journey. Be warned though, almost immediately after Marsden there’s the 3 mile long Standedge Tunnel which doesn’t offer such good views!

Huddersfield 1 - June 2010It’s definitely worth breaking the journey at Huddersfield not only for a chat with the key member of station staff – Felix the Cat – but also to marvel at the huge station building and the way the outside has been rejuvenated with rising fountains out of the paving stones.

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36 Stockton – Newcastle

IMG_1762This is a great journey for taking in the delights of the splendid Tees to Tyne coastline, especially between Hartlepool and Seaham. Hartlepool’s got a bit of a quirk about it too. If you fancy seeing how to spend around £4 million on a grand ‘transport interchange’ with impressive bus shelters, walkways, real time signs etc all adjacent to the station building, as happened in 2010 (see below), then its worth a nose around.

Northumberland - September 2014 071Unfortunately it’s unlikely you’ll see any buses since they nearly all serve the main town centre instead. You can almost count the number of buses that serve the station per day on the fingers of two hands.

Further on the train passes through Sunderland which must be one of the darkest and dingiest stations on the network but then the journey redeems itself again as it re-enters the light and crosses the River Wear on an impressive bridge sharing tracks with the Tyne & Wear Metro all the way to Heworth and then into Newcastle.

37 Shrewsbury – Hereford – Newport

IMG_1416From Shropshire through Herefordshire to Monmothshire. This train journey takes you through two fine English counties before arriving into the south-eastern corner of Wales. It’s a delightful ride as the scenery varies along the way, but is always characterised by extensive views across vast expanses of countryside. Stations at Ludlow, Leominster and Abergavenny are a delight and stop off at Craven Arms for a delightful weekend ride on the Shropshire Hills Shuttles – minibuses which take you around Long Mynd and Stiperstones.

IMG_1516For train buffs there’s the wonderful signal box just outside Shrewsbury to get the journey off to a great start and if you want to really spoil yourself take the ‘Gerald of Wales’ train which currently runs once a day from Holyhead to Cardiff in the morning serving breakfast and returning in the late afternoon/evening serving dinner. Seat reservations are highly recommend to avoid disappointment. The new Transport for Wales franchise has plans to increase the number of journeys.

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38 Newcastle – Carlisle

You’ll have gathered by now as well as coastal train journeys I also love following the course of rivers as I look out of train windows, and none more so than this journey along the River Tyne as it heads inland towards Hexham and Haltwhistle.

IMG_1615I also love the Haltwhistle station name; for some reason, I’ve no idea why, it always makes me smile whenever I travel to or through it. Even more bizarre are the platform shelters at stations along the line, all emblazoned with a large platform number (either 1 or 2) sign.

IMG_1657A great multi modal way of enjoying this journey is to take the jointly operated Arriva/Stagecoach Cross Pennine branded route X65 which also runs from Newcastle to Carlisle to Newcastle via Hexham and Haltwhistle. I reckon a bus/train ticket aimed at tourists would be just the job – out by bus and return back by train, what’s not to like?

39 Chester – Holyhead

IMG_4018Another lovely journey with coastal views all along the north Wales coastline. The journey begins alongside the River Dee and there’s an odd sighting between Flint and Prestatyn of the abandoned passenger ferry ship, the Duke of Lancaster, moored in Llanerch-y-Mor; worth looking out for – you can’t miss it. For much of the journey after Rhyl the tracks vie with the expanded A55 dual carriageway for the narrow space along the coastline; luckily for most of the journey the tracks win but for a short stretch just before Colwyn Bay road engineers managed to swing the road over the railway, along the coastline and then back under the tracks again after about a mile – it’s an amazing feat of engineering.

However the highlight of the journey comes at Conwy. Just after the station the tracks cross the River Conwy and you get a magnificent view, and pass right alongside, Conwy Castle.

IMG_4620Almost as exciting is the next stage of the journey after Bangor when it’s into Anglesey across the Menai Strait on the impressive Britannia Bridge.

I’ll name check the first station in Anglesey as I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Yes, it’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Except it isn’t really; it’s all a bit attention seeking, over-hyped and contrived, but still worth a stop off for a selfie!

IMG_5996The journey terminus at Holyhead is another ‘shadow of its former self’ station and looks rather forlorn, forgotten and seen better days. A rather sad end to what is otherwise another lovely coastal journey.

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40 Carlisle – Kilmarnock – Glasgow

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 18.36.25This journey is the alternative to the main West Coast Line. It’s not for those in a hurry taking 2 hours 22 minutes which coincidentally is exactly double the 1 hour 11 minutes journey time by travelling direct, but it’s well worth giving it a go, for the lovely scenery which Dumfries and Galloway offers as you wander through Gretna Green and on to Kilmarnock. Some journeys link up with the Newcastle – Carlisle line (entry no 38) to provide a through four hours of scenic enjoyment.

41 Gloucester – Severn Tunnel Junction

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OK, perhaps this is the journey alongside a river to beat all journeys alongside a river. After leaving Gloucester (check out the amazingly long platform there) the train heads towards Lydney and Chepstow and it’s absolutely essential to grab a seat on the nearside in the southbound direction for fantastic views of the meandering River Severn as it grows from a meandering stream (OK, not quite, but you get the picture) into a torrenting river flowing into the Bristol Channel. You get some great views of the two Severn Bridges on the horizon too.

42 Llanelli – Pembroke Dock

South Wales - August 2013 014And yet another coastal ride to rival Dawlish, Cambrian, Cumbrian and the East Sussex Coast. The views across Carmarthen Bay are superb as is the scenery alongside the River Tywi as it meanders towards Carmarthen. The journey takes you past the request station called Ferryside, so named presumably because a ferry dating back 1,000 years used to ply across the estuary to the village of Llansteffan. Sadly the ferry ceased in the 1950s but this summer, thanks to a £300,000 Coastal Communities grant it was back again with what’s described as “something 007 like” – a boat with wheels which is as happy in the water as it is driving up the shore. Definitely something for my to do list next year to check it out.

IMG_4199Carmarthen has an interesting turnback station arrangement with two platforms from where the tracks continued on to Newcastle Emlyn and Aberystwyth until closure in 1965. So for this journey it’s a change of end for the driver and we’re back through Whitland and branch off south-westwards towards the lovely resort of Tenby and finally to Pembroke Dock; probably the most understated terminus on the network, hidden away in a narrow residential street.

43 Preston – Colne

Colne 2 - October 2013Colne is the dead-end to beat all dead-ends and in the nicest possible way. After travelling for 70 minutes from Preston on a line which has the claim to fame of the most delightful sounding station names along the journey (Pleasington followed by Cherry Tree as well as Church & Oswaldwistle) ….

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IMG_8947…you finally arrive at the buffers from where at one time trains would continue via the village of Earby over to Skipton. Ah, those must have been the days, and indeed it’s one of the rail reinstatements campaigners won’t give up on. It was only a few years ago I travelled to Colne and the driver had to lean out the cab at the final level crossing to pull on a piece of string strategically hanging alongside the track at cab window level which would operate a red light to stop traffic crossing its path. Fantastic. Sadly now replaced with more conventional technology.

44 Folkestone – Dover

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 16.49.40The way the track hugs the coastline overlooking the busiest shipping lane in the world that is the English Channel on this train journey is very reminiscent of the section of line between Dawlish and Teignmouth as it travels through arched gaps in the cliffs and two short tunnels. That’s why it’s a special journey, and one well deserved within my Best Fifty Train journeys.

45 Buxton – Manchester

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I’ve already commented on the delightful bus routes in Derbyshire when highlighting entry No 30 (Derby – Matlock), and if you took up my suggestion of travelling on the TransPeak bus from Matlock to Buxton, as it no longer continues to Manchester via the traditional A6 the obvious alternative is to jump on a Northern train at the wonderful Buxton station and admire the scenery from the train window instead. You won’t be disappointed.

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IMG_6859Buxton is a lovely quirky station as shown in these photographs and still shows signs of the golden age of railways when trains did continue from Matlock entering Buxton across viaducts still in place today. Freight trains are still a regular site at the nearby Dove Holes limestone quarry using the tracks up to the Hope Valley line at Edale.

Many of the stations are really delightful with some wonderful floral displays, not least the self procalimed Capital of the Peak, Chapel-en-Le-Firth – one of three stations with Le in its name.

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46 Truro – Falmouth

IMG_4139Back to the West Country branch lines for this journey down to Falmouth which includes the novel passing loop at Penryn where the single track line allows trains to pass and both serve the same extended platform. It’s just as well it works efficiently as the end to end running time for this journey is very tight requiring very precise timekeeping. Don’t be tempted to alight at Falmouth Town, as the murals at Falmouth Docks (the terminus) are well worth a look.

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47 Norwich – Berney Arms – Great Yarmouth

Anglian-Cumbria-Aberdeen - June 2012 047As I compile this list, the section of track from Reedham to Great Yarmouth via the infamous Berney Arms is closed for some months while track and signals are upgraded. This is a great shame for lovers of manually operated old style level crossing gates as can be seen above in action at the lovely Brundall station along the route.

IMG_1884When the works are completed, you really must add this to your bucket list of train journeys, not particularly for the scenery – it’s as unexciting as crossing Romney Marsh in Kent – but just so you can alight at Berney Arms one of Britain’s wackiest stations with no road access and only a footpath across fields to the nearby Broads or onwards to Burgh Castle and eventually Great Yarmouth. Sadly the nearby pub to the station with its only access either by boat or on foot closed down a year or two ago; perhaps not surprising given its remote location.

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48 Cardiff – Ebbw Vale Town

A rail line reinstatement success story. Reopened as recently as 2008 to Ebbw Vale Parkway and reaching the Ebbw Vale Town terminus seven years later in 2015, trains are now so busy the train company has to double up units with at least two conductors on board to try and collect all the revenue. It’s a lovely twisty ride round one bend after another as the train climbs the Ebbw River valley towards Ebbw Vale.

IMG_3076There’s a cable car lift to take you from the station up to the town centre to top off your ride, but whenever I’ve travelled it’s sadly been out-of-order (I see online it’s been closed 252 times over a three-year period), but it’s easy to wander to the nearby bus stops and take a Stagecoach X4 bus through the town and on to the Heads of the Valley road before taking you down to Merthyr Tydfil or Pontrypridd either for an alternative train ride back into Cardiff, or stay on the bus which also continues there.

49 Brockenhurst – Lymington Pier

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I haven’t been on this line for a year or so and my memories of recent journeys were when it was the last outpost of slam door carriages in the south. Not only that but the station at Lymington is a wonderful cross between a station and a heritage railway museum and is well worth a visit to compliment a lovely journey, particularly the first short section between the Pier and Town stations with full on views of Lyminton Marina. A lovely circular trip includes the ferry across to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight and then a Southern Vectis bus to Newport and on to Shanklin returning on the train to Ryde Pier (see entry 54 below). Even better, if you have the time, take the open top Needles Breezer to Alum Bay (including the ride up to the Battery) then route 12 to Newport.

50 Corby –  Melton Mowbray

Corby - May 2014This is the first ‘Parliamentary Train’ entry in my Hundred Best Train Journeys, and good to see it bookend the top fifty. It’s certainly not because of the rather clinical architecture of Corby station (photographed above), but purely because of the wonderful Welland Viaduct (also called the Harringworth Viaduct after the nearby village) and the amazing views across to Eyebrook Reservoir and beyond which are truly stunning.

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It’s well worth making your way to Corby for the one departure of the day which leaves at 0926 on Mondays to Fridays and travels this route. There’s a southbound journey from Derby at 1625 (or closer to Corby, from Melton Mowbray at 1709) but that’s only worth a ride in the Spring to Autumn when it’s light.

51 Leeds – Morecambe – Heysham Port

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This line, known as the Bentham Line (it passes through Bentham), shares the same tracks as the Leeds – Settle – Carlisle (entry no 4) as far as Long Preston just north of Hellifield before branching off on its own western course through some delightful North Yorkshire and Lancashire countryside and calling at the superbly named Giggleswick (always makes me smile) and the next station, which is of course Clapham – no, not the more famous Junction, but just plain Clapham. After a couple more stations the train crosses the West Coast Main Line and arrives at Carnforth (already visited on the Cumbrian Coast Line – entry no 11) before nipping down to Lancaster. Only half of the eight journeys a day then reverse back up the line and turn off to Morecambe (photographed below) but there is an hourly shuttle train which runs between Lancaster and Morecambe providing the main link to the resort.

Morecambe 1 - July 2014

Best of all is the one shuttle journey a day which continues on to Heysham Port. It leaves Lancaster at 1249 (MS) arriving 1317. The absolute best bit, and the reason to make the journey is to see the driver jump down from the cab and change the points (shades of Liskeard-Looe, except it’s the guard’s job there) after leaving Morecambe  where the train retraces its route for a few yards before turning almost 360 degrees southwards again towards Heysham. The same happens on the reverse journey into Morecambe after the train heads back at 1320 after only a three-minute turnround (times are slightly different on a Sunday), so there’s not long to soak up the atmosphere at Heysham Port – mind you as you can see from the photograph below, there’s not much atmosphere to soak up!

Heysham Port 1 - July 2013

52 Salisbury – Exeter

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It’s odd that there are long sections of this important rail route that are single track, making for timekeeping challenges when disruption occurs, as it’s all too easy for knock on effects as one late train impacts on another and so on. There are some lovely stations along this route including Tisbury and Templecombe and Yeovil Junction where there’s a handy connecting line to Yeovil Pen Mill on the Weymouth to Castle Cary line. This junction is now used by South Western Railway trains (and SWT before, who started the trend) of linking Salisbury with Castle Cary on a circular routing a few times a day.

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The journey takes you through the beautiful countryside offered by Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon (photographed above between Axminster and Honiton – spot the roof of the Stagecoach bus on the parallel route 4)

53 Aberdeen – Inverness

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This journey north starts from the far northern end of one of Aberdeen’s longest platforms and heads straight into a tunnel under Aberdeen’s commercial centre. This contrasts with the rather pleasant brightness of the station’s passenger circulating area.

The first time I took this journey involved an early morning departure heading north from Aberdeen and I couldn’t understand why the train was so packed until everyone got off at the first station, Dyce, where there are major industrial and employment opportunities. The rest of the journey which takes a north then north-western arc until a few miles south of the north coast overlooking Moray Firth at Elgin where it takes a western trajectory towards Nairn and Inverness. Interestingly the tracks pass close to both Aberdeen and Inverness airports, but the nearby station at Dyce is not particularly convenient for the former and there’s no station for the latter. Not surprisingly Stagecoach do well with a bus route to both airports, as well as routes to Fraserburgh and Peterhead in the north-east corner of Aberdeenshire which are also completely by-passed by the train.  It’s a great train journey, though, and well deserving of a 53rd placing.

54 Ryde Pier Head – Shanklin

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Yes, this is the ride specifically for the train. Oh, and also for the first half mile as the train clutters along Ryde Pier to Ryde Esplanade station. It’s a real nostalgic trip back in time to when Underground trains cluttered and swayed as these carriages from 1938 still do all the way down to Shanklin. When the Isle of Wight steam railway is running, trains stop at Smallbrook Junction which is another station to add to the list of having no road access; indeed not any access, as the only way out (or in) is on a steam train.

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Sadly the only passing loop now in use is at Sandown, two-thirds of the way down to Shankin so instead of a half hourly service, it offers a less attractive 20/40 split. There’s talk of introducing former London Underground D stock to the line in the new guise of Class 230 trains. It certainly won’t be the same peering into the sidings and sheds at St John’s Road, Ryde as you pass through the station and not see the spare 1938 stock any longer.

55 Horsham – Barnham

IMG_5213This journey through the wonderful South Downs provides some spectacular views of Britain’s newest National Park especially as the train heads between Pulborough, Amberley and Arundel along the Arun Valley. There are some fantastic views of Arundel Castle (just above the Stagecoach bus in the photograph above) as well as the River Arun.

Amberley is another station depicting a lovely mural, this one showing a Southdown bus appropriately as the wonderful Amberley Museum is alongside the station with its transport theme and is a must visit.

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IMG_5208Barnham is a surprisingly busy junction station as trains meet from Bognor, Littlehampton and the West Coastway and is well worth a look around.

56 Hull – Scarborough

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My favourite station on this journey is Bridlington where it’s definitely worth breaking off to savour the lovely restoration and refreshment facilities, making for quite a contrast with Filey a little further on which is not worth breaking your journey for.

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On arriving at Scarborough wander over to platform 1 and marvel at the longest station platform seat in the country, if not the world. It really is worth a wander and a photo.

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57 Leeds – Harrogate – York

The Leeds to Harrogate part of this journey has bus competition from probably Britain’s most luxurious buses on the Transdev Blazefield route 36 running every 10 minutes. But Northern have recently introduced nicely refurbished former ScotRail class 170 trains which are a huge improvement on the old Pacers and there are plans to increase the frequency too. It’s a lovely journey from West Yorkshire into North Yorkshire and both Harrogate (where there’s an interesting car park next to the station and footbridge arrangement photographed below) and Knaresborough are worth a stop off to explore, not least for Betty’s Tea Rooms in the former.

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The line doesn’t promote its ultimate destination at either the Leeds or Harrogate end of the route as it’s quicker to get a direct train but if you’re not in a rush it’s well worth a ride and don’t forget to work in a trip on the 36 too!

58 Brighton – Seaford

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Lewes is a lovely station full of charm and the line to Seaford follows the course of the River Ouse to Newhaven where the town’s three stations includes one of the shortest distances between two stations Newhaven Town to Newhaven Harbour as well as the quirky short stub to Newhaven Marine which is very much a closed station with a platform out of bounds and demolished station buildings (to the left of the signal box shown below) yet is still officially open – indeed it has a Parliamentary Train except no passengers can board it.

IMG_5217Further along the single track to the small single platform terminal station at Seaford with views out to the Channel, the penultimate station is Bishopstone with its amazing Art Deco architecture with a strong hint of the Charles Holden designs for Piccadilly Line Underground stations. Indeed it’s said it was modelled on Arnos Grove. It’s looking a bit unloved and sorry for itself these days.

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The rather isolated station at Southease between Lewes and Newhaven is handy for walkers taking the South Downs Way which crosses the railway at the station, and where there isn’t much else.

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59 York – Scarborough

Another journey to marvel at a meandering river – the River Derwent – as the train heads eastwards to the coast. Indeed for a few miles it literally twists and turns along the banks of the river as it passes Kirkham Abbey before reaching Malton station, notable for its sole platform for trains in both directions. If you didn’t marvel at the longest seat in the world when you journeyed into Scarborough from Hull (entry no 56) then now’s the time for a good long sit down (literally).

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60 Norwich – Sherringham

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This journey is notable for the link to the lovely Bure Valley railway along the delightful River Bure at Hoveton and Wroxham, the call at Cromer with its reverse out again manoeuvre (a resort sadly past its prime although worth a stop off for a nostalgic stroll down the pier) and the rather basic terminus at Sherringham consisting of just a platform and shelter …..

Sherringham 2 - January 2014……..except the track continues across a level crossing (including through a delightful seating area, as photographed below) to provide access to the North Norfolk Railway. Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 19.13.24From Sherringham as well as the option of taking the North Norfolk Railway to Holt there’s the Coasthopper bus along the north Norfolk coast to Wells-Next-The-Sea for an onward connection to the Coastliner 36 route to Kings Lynn run by Lynx making for an adventurous circular day out from London.

The final part 4 of My Hundred Best Train Journeys (no 61 – 100) will be posted later this month.

Roger French

The battle for West Lothian

Wednesday 28th November 2018

A right royal bus battle is underway in West Lothian with more salvos being fired this weekend.

At the beginning of August First Bus gave their extensive network based on Livingston a good old sort out introducing a simplified route pattern offering quicker journeys and new links into Edinburgh’s city centre and airport. It left a few gaps but none, it was claimed, that were well used. Meanwhile Lothian Buses, under its Lothian Country brand, decided to not only fill those gaps but also expand its western flank into Livingston and onward to Bathgate, Armadale and Blackridge with new competitive routes challenging First’s new network.

I’d read all the PR spin from both companies about the changes so thought I’d pop up there yesterday and take a look to see what’s occurring. I sussed something was afoot earlier in the summer when I spotted the virtually anonymous branded bus pictured below outside Edinburgh Park station – the terminus of the former First Bus Service 21A – part of the convoluted network that’s now been much simplified.

This is no David and Goliath battle as I recently saw in Guildford; First Group may be a multi-national multi-modal giant but it has a huge financial debt burden round its neck from past follies meaning any network developments are forensically scrutinised while Lothian Buses is hardly a minnow – they’re in Scotland’s Premier League of bus operators by size as evidenced by recent phenomenal expansion…..taking over First Bus routes ceded in Mid and East Lothian; taking over a former Stagecoach route to Queensferry and quadrupling the number of airport services they run in addition to its long established extensive network throughout the city and significant sightseeing operations. This latest expansion has been introduced in three phases beginning in August with the latest route introduction commencing this weekend, with some new all night journeys on another route on Saturdays.

On Sunday the Lothian Country network will have grown within just fifteen weeks from nothing to operating five major routes with a peak requirement of thirty vehicles meaning additional annual costs looking for new revenue north of £3 million. Quite a task, particularly when, on the whole, First Bus do a good job in this area and the recently revised network has been a positive development. To use a TV quiz show analogy, this is not The Chase where the all conquering Beast or Governess trounce aspiring contestants, this competition is more akin to Pointless – in every meaning of the word.

IMG_4997First Bus may have retreated in recent years from many areas across Britain and still struggle in others but I detect renewed energy in Scotland under the leadership of the impressive and much experienced Andrew Jarvis. I don’t see First Bus waving the White Flag in West Lothian whatever Lothian Country may wish.

Many of First’s buses are branded with the long established West Lothian brand in a rather smart two tone dark blue livery but there’s evidence of work in progress to introduce a new brand for the two main Edinburgh corridor routes 23/X23 and 24/25 to a similar scheme now becoming familiar in many parts of the country.

It’s unfortunate that in the meantime, just when First should be making maximum impact, there’s a bit of a hotchpotch of double decks and single decks in various liveries on the network and route branding is far from effective, but I’m sure it’ll all look good when repaints are completed – as can now be seen in Bristol for example.

If there’s evidence of exciting initiatives locally, there’s the usual shortcomings from First’s all dominating centralised overhead operations including their usual unhelpful website and mobile app where you need a degree in computer software to find the information you need. For example prices of day tickets involves far too many clicks to work out zones and options – and after all my searching I couldn’t find the ticket I wanted to buy on the mobile app – the £7 day m-ticket for both Edinburgh and Livingston zones so I had to buy it from the driver at the higher price of £7.50. Not ideal when you’re dealing with intensive head to head competition where prices should be well promoted, never mind unavailable.

Lothian Country have more or less matched First’s headline ticket prices although this being Lothian there’s their usual inflexibility disallowing customers wanting to buy a single m-ticket (the only bus company that insists on a £10 minimum purchase) and while they’ve bundled the purchase of day tickets into attractively priced offers (eg their equivalent to First Bus £7.50 day ticket can be bought five for £25 or twenty for £95) their use is restricted: “m-ticket bundles can be used on any non-consecutive days within 180 days” – get your head round that one!

Both operators use an exact fare cash box system on board and Lothian are working hard to play catch up to First Bus who’ve offered contactless for a while – contactless readers are installed on Lothian’s buses but not yet activated. Not being able to buy the £9 all Lothian day ticket (including Airlink which I wanted to use later in the day) on my smartphone app and unable to use contactless on the bus, I ended up having to stuff a £10 note into the farebox for my £9 ticket (hence the inclusion of my wallet in the second photo below!). So for both operators I ended up paying over the odds for my ticket! So much for competition making for keener prices.

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I won’t bore you with describing all the competitive hot spots in detail but in summary there are three main markets – Edinburgh to Livingston by two different routes; within Livingston itself; and between Livingstone and westward to Bathgate, Armadale and Blackridge. There’s also a market for cross Livingston traffic – eg Bathgate to Edinburgh (and both First’s established and Lothian Country’s developing networks are designed to provide such journey options) but make no mistake rail dominates that market with frequent trains taking a fraction of the time on two electrified lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow (one via Bathgate through the north of Livingston and the other via Shotts, to the south of Livingston). I haven’t seen such a large car park at a station as at Bathgate for a long while and unlike when Google peered down on it, when I went by yesterday it looked very full.

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The epicentre of this competitive spat is Livingston. It lies 15 miles to the west of Edinburgh (30 miles east of Glasgow) and has a handy nearby access to the recently completed M8 linking both cities. It’s Milton Keynes on steroids; not least its ‘Town Centre’ which is a huge complex of shops, restaurants, cinema and ‘leisure’ options and over one hundred ‘Designer outlets’. Buses use the north/south road about a third of the way along in the aerial photograph below. Facilities for buses and passengers are basic and functional offering the usual contrast with the polished floors and commercial ambience inside the shopping centre. There are real time signs at each departure bay and an ability to wait under cover on the west side with smaller shelters at each stop on the east side.

Built in the early 1960s Livingston’s twelve residential districts surrounding this monolith of a ‘town centre’ have been commendably designed around cul-de-sac type roads with plenty of pedestrian walkways providing links to distributor roads (shown in yellow below) making for fairly sensible bus route options but the car inevitable dominates thanks to over-sized car parks around ‘The Centre’ offering cheap parking.

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.21.27First’s revamped and simplified network serving Livingston has retained long established route patterns which obviously reflect passenger travel patterns, so it’s a bit surprising Lothian have chosen to run different route patterns which while having the advantage of offering new journey opportunities, on the downside can seem somewhat circuitous and I have doubts whether the demand is really there for such links. For example my journey on the half hourly X27/X28 took around 45 minutes from Bathgate before reaching Livingston’s ‘bus station’ followed by a futher 55 minutes for the journey to Edinburgh.

As we toured around Livingston’s residential districts it was noticeable how many people were opting for the First Bus in front (in one district it was a 23, in another a 26) although Lothian Country seemed to do well picking up passengers from the huge St John’s Hospital complex.

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First Bus’s main 15-minutely route from Bathgate (Service 25) takes a quicker 33 minutes to reach Livingston and First runs an hourly X23 journey to Edinburgh taking 56 minutes while four buses an hour on the 23 or 24/25 take 64 or 66 minutes via two different routes.

For those that like maps, and who doesn’t, here’s the revamped network run by First Bus:

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 11.12.03and here’s the network run by Lothian Country (note the wiggly [light blue] route of the X27/X28 through Livingston mentioned above):

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.37.37to which the latest route, the half hourly X18 joins this weekend which interestingly bypasses Livingston completely and provides a direct link from Armadale and Bathgate into Edinburgh, something First Bus don’t provide:

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 12.40.11But the journey time from Armadale Station to Edinburgh is 90 minutes which compares unfavourably with the train’s 38 minutes, and I wonder if there’s enough demand for shorter hops along such a route. No doubt time will tell, as will the assessment of how this overall additional thirty buses on to the West Lothian bus network fairs. It’s certainly a bold move, and something the industry has not seen on this scale for many years.

As I observed in the case of Arriva’s challenge to Safeguard in Guildford last week, the incumbent operator has an advantage over any interloper if they’ve built up loyalty and familiarity. Admittedly I travelled off peak yesterday, but fifteen weeks on I would have expected to see buses busier than they were if this is going to be a financially sustainable operation for Lothian. I suspect it won’t be.

Roger French

PS Coming soon to this blog …. My Hundred Best Train Journreys 3 – don’t miss it – an amazing collection of another thirty fantastic journeys, these ranked 31-60.

Switched on Harrogate

Friday 23rd November

Hats off to Transdev Blazefield owned Harrogate Bus Company for getting their brand new fleet of electric buses for the town’s network of local bus routes on to the road and into service.

Unlike London’s all electric Waterloo garage where buses only charge up back at base, this scheme introduces ‘opportunity charging’ while buses layover in the bus station in between trips to keep the batteries topped up.

Stagecoach have electric buses which charge up in Inverness bus station (but it takes forever) while Arriva introduced ‘charging plates’ in the road at the termini for a route in Buckinghamshire, with TfL introducing a similar scheme in north east London for a handful of buses, but this is the first time opportunity charging has been introduced in such a big way and via overhead prongs.

As well as Harrogate bus station infrastructure has also been installed for the buses at the nearby Starbeck bus garage for overnight charging in a more conventional way.

Ambitious innovative schemes such as this one in Harrogate are never straightforward to introduce so full credit to Alex Hornby and his team for their commitment and hard work to make sure the inevitable frustrations are overcome.

I remember the trials and tribulations with the power company in Brighton to get even one roadside real time information sign connected up to a power supply so I can imagine the challenges involved in wiring up three large charging points in Harrogate bus station.

Indeed, there are still delays in commissioning the electric substation at the bus station so the bus manufacturer Volvo has loaned the large diesel generator which was previously used on the one bus trial earlier this year at Greenhithe in Kent.

This hums away as it does it’s stuff and is not as efficient as a proper mains substation, taking longer to recharge each time, nor obviously is it as environmentally friendly. But at least it’s enabled the scheme to get going rather than returning buses to the Starbeck garage for recharging during the day.

Operators with gas buses have faced similar infrastructure delays and frustrations but once sorted (I’m told the substation will soon be operational) it really will be the business and the whole project is very impressive.

The Volvo buses themselves have a real wow factor. You can’t fail to notice their quietness, impressive acceleration and smooth ride. It’s obvious much thought has gone into the interior design and layout to create a pleasant travelling environment to match the environmental credentials of the propulsion.

Nice touches include ample legroom, comfortable seats with a very attractive moquette, benches with contactless charge points over the rear wheels, bus stop push buttons on the insides of seats, a nice front view window in the seat behind the driver and two well proportioned rubbish bins including one for recycling as well as the usual usb points, Wi-fi and next stop announcements and some 2+1 seating.

All this is topped off by a very smart and attractive external livery promoting the Harrogate electrics brand. Ray Stenning and his team at Best Impressions have come up trumps once again with another desire creating package.

As well as the inevitable teething problems from a new bus fleet not least one with a new power and charging arrangement (as explained above) with incumbent driver and engineer unfamiliarity, my visit this afternoon coincided with the usual Friday traffic congestion that besets towns like Harrogate. So instead of a fifteen minute frequency on route 3 to Jennyfield, and half hourly on each of the 2A, 2B (Bilton) and 6 (Pannal Ash) – the four local routes involved – there were some delays and gaps in service but interestingly I picked up an empathic and positive approach from passengers who rightly seem pleased their bus company are investing significant sums in an impressive fleet of buses which will make a contribution to better air quality in their town.

Congratulations to Transdev for backing this extremely bold innovative initiative in Harrogate and to Alex for overcoming the many hurdles to deliver an impressive result.

I’m sure the remaining teething problems will soon be overcome and Harrogate electrics will be the obvious choice for Gold in the UK Bus Awards ‘Environment Award 2019’ this time next year.

Roger French

Go South Coast – a multi award winning exemplar

Tuesday 20th November 2018

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Photo courtesy © The Bus Industry Awards Limited

Many congratulations Andrew Wickham and all the team at Go South Coast.

They’ve only just gone and added yet another award to their bulging trophy cabinet this afternoon at London’s Troxy: the prestigous UK Bus Awards 2018 Bus Operator of the Year; having won top Shire Operator of the Year and pipped Nottingham (top City Operator) and Ensign Bus (top Independent) in the final play off.

It’s been an Award filled six weeks for Go South Coast; picking up David Begg’s National Transport Award for Bus Operator of the Year on 11th October, the magazine Route One Award for Large Bus Opeator of the Year on 31st October and climaxing today with the UK Bus Awards’ top accolade.

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Not only that, but Andrew and his team were also victorious in the same categories in both the Route One and UK Bus Awards last year making for a record breaking quintet of award winning trophies and, may I say, all richly deserved too.

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UK Bus Award Winners 2017 – photo courtesy © The Bus Industry Awards Limited

Unlike the usual crop of other worthy winners: Nottingham, Reading, Lothian, Brighton & Hove, Ensign Bus which all have a well defined geographic urban area at the heart of their business, Go South Coast is a very diverse company with a varied portfoilio of brands and operations within its remit which makes its award success all the more worthy of praise.

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A diverse portfolio includes buses running every 3 minutes between Poole and Bournemouth (m1 and m2 also winning the Sustained Marketing Award this afternoon)……..
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…… to one return journey three days a week from Lockerley to Romsey

These range from the original Wilts & Dorset core now branded as ‘more’ (based on Poole) and Salisbury Reds; urban operations in Southampton as Bluestar and Unilink, the infamous and much loved Southern Vectis on the Isle of Wight, the 2017 addition of Thamesdown Buses now branded Swindon’s bus company, not forgetting small coach and contract operations as well as tendered bus routes run by Damroy and Tourist Coaches in deepest Dorset as well as the former coach company Excelsior and some National Express contracts.

And to top off all of that there’s part of a former central engineering works which rose out of the ashes of the original failed Frountsource privatisation of National Bus Company’s southern engineering sites now successfully trading as part of Go South Coast as Hants & Dorset Trim, specialists in refurbishment, repairs, conversions, retrims and paint jobs. You don’t get much more diverse than that portfolio.

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Andrew (left) with former Opertations Director Ed Wills (now with Go-Ahead Ireland) and Alex Chutter, General Manager Swindon with the new look Swindon bus company

Andrew has led Go South Coast as managing director since 2011 having perviously been its operations director between 2003 and 2009. In 2009 he was promoted to managing director of Plymouth Citybus for two years on its aquisition by the Go-Ahead Group. Aside from that brief interlude, Andrew has therefore amassed fifteen years of continuity with Go South Coast overseeing many developments including the fall out from the original Dorset tender contract which didn’t quite work out as expected; more recently the aquisition of Thamesdown and it’s turnaround into a thriving urban operator and importantly, and key to any successful bus company, an evovlution of continuous improvements and investment in quality alongside nuturing excellent relationships with local authorities and other stakeholders.

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Damory – part of a multi-modal international transport group PLC but still ‘Dorset’s great local bus company’.

Andrew will modestly say this award success is down to having an excellent team. There’s no doubt Go South Coast has some highly motivated, top quality managers and a huge team of committed and enthusiastic staff providing excellent bus and coach operations in Wiltshire, Dorset and parts of Hampshire; but they’re motivation comes from being led by a passionate, energetic, committed leader who inspires his team and offers that all important encouragement to achieve the best.

Andrew exudes these qualities and well deserves the recognition that comes from this unprecedented award success. His dedication and commitment is infectious and I’m delighted to see his hard work being recognised.

At the launch of the latest buses for Bluestar in Southampton earlier this month

It’s not easy. I was chatting to Andrew a couple of weeks ago at the launch of Go South Coast’s latest £4 million investment in nineteen impressive ADL Enviro 400 double deckers for Bluestar route 18. I mentioned how important it is for a managing director to be able to ‘get his (or her) arms around a bus company’ (structurally and geographically). Andrew admitted it wasn’t as easy as it once was following recent expansions but these Award wins demonstrate his industry peers rightly have admiration in a job well executed despite the challenges from a growing business.

It’s not as if Go South Coast has the market to itself either. Competition with First Bus in Southampton and Yellow Buses in Bournemouth and Poole has actually raised the quality of bus provision rather like it has done in Oxford for many years, rather than go down market.

Go-Ahead’s readiness to invest in Swindon, which the Borough Council was unable or unwilling to do, has been to the benefit of bus provision in that town and competitive spats with Stagecoach have now subsided with each company concentrating on what it does best.

Where Go South Coast has a monopoly, particularly on the Isle of Wight, it continues to invest in quality improvements and provides a comprehensive network, including, uniquely, an intensive service on Christmas Day which must surely confound critics of the deregulated market which allegedly ‘leaves people isolated in their homes’.

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The popular Needles Breezer at Alum Bay – a must ride, if you haven’t done it
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The three New Forest Tours are an excellent way to explore the National Park

Go South Coast also knows all about the tourist and the leisure market with some great services on the Island as well as operating three extremely popular routes throughout the New Forest National Park during the high summer season and the year round Stonehenge tourist bus from Salisbury.

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The Stonehenge bus provides a popular public transport link from Salisbury

The Company’s network of inter-urban routes across parts of Dorset provides important connections between a range of destinations on impressive and comforable vehicles and are well marketed; not surprisingly they’re well used and popular. Travel Centres in Swindon, Salisbury, Southampton, Poole and Newport are well stocked with timetable leaflets and there’s a handy timetable book for the network of routes based on Poole and another for the Isle of Wight, produced twice each year.

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The popular X3 linking Salisbury with Bournemouth is just one in a network of inter-urban routes run by ‘more’

Every time I’ve travelled I’ve found Go South Coast staff to be courteous and friendly, not least when I’ve made bizarre requests for the bus to stop for a few minutes in the village of Nomansland so I could record I’d been there (another service with one return journey running just three days a week route!).

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In Romsey
In Nomansland

All in all a great example of how a company with a diverse portfolio of services in a challenging market in southern England can thrive when given the backing of investment from a Group plc and is led by a first rate managing director given the necessary autonomy and a great team.

A true exemplar for the bus industry to showcase. Congratulations once again.

Roger French

Will competition safeguard buses in Guildford?

Friday 16th November

Head to head bus competition broke out in Guildford last week. It won’t last; one operator will blink first – read on to find out which.

Long established family owned Safeguard Coaches runs circular routes 4/5 linking the city centre with Aldershot Road, Park Barn and the Royal Surrey County Hospital. Eight years ago they also ran part of route 3 serving Bellfields but back in 2010 Arriva, who also operated buses to both areas, took over the route to Bellfields exclusively leaving Park Barn exclusively to Safeguard. I’m not sure whether this arrangement was something of interest to the Competition Authorities at the time, but the local media certainly took an interest.

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From the local Surrey media

In the event, the “arrangement” is now history as Arriva have crashed back into Park Barn with a ten minute dedicated service (Route B) at the same time as revamping a longer cicular route (service 26/27) which also served the Royal Surrey County Hospital and an area called Stoughton. Now RSCH gets its own ten minute dedicated service (Route A) while Stoughton has its own fifteen minute frequency Route C.

The spark for Arriva’s Park Barn incursion came a few weeks ago when Stagecoach were given rights by the University of Surrey to run buses through the campus which had previously been served by Arriva on their now abandoned circular 26/27. The replacement route A now has to bypass the campus using what’s known as The Chase which also treads on the toes of Safeguard’s route 4/5.

Furthermore part of Stagecoach’s new network (Route 2) provides competition between the city centre and Stoughton to Arriva’s new Route C (old 26/27).

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The new Arriva A B C routes
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The long established Safeguard Coaches circular 4/.5 routes
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Stagecoach runs circular linked routes 1/2 taking in the University, Hospital and Stoughton

Passengers have never had a better service with well over twelve buses an hour running direct between the city centre and the Royal Surrey County Hospital and up to twelve an hour between the city centre and Park Barn estate. Bus fares have also come plummeting down. One thing’s for sure, despite the Hospital being a busy attractor for passenger journeys and Park Barn being what we euphemistically call ‘good bus territory’, there’s definitely not enough passengers for the high frequencies now on offer.

I feel sorry for Safeguard. They’re rightly regarded as a quality independent operator (because they are); a winner of industry awards; and well respected by the local community and passengers who use the 4/5 route – which meets the needs of the area well. They’ve provided an excellent service in Guildford for ninety years and route 4/5 is a quality local route of which they should be proud.

I’ve got sympathy for Arriva. It must have been disheartening to be chucked out the University campus which I’m sure was lucrative to serve on its 26/27 circular and the incursion from Stagecoach in Stoughton must be unwelcome. I appreciate the attraction of making good the loss with an incursion into Park Barn, but it simply won’t work out for them.

Good for Stagecoach who must have been working closely with the University to gain exclusive access rights to the campus and introducing what looks like a decent mini network linking the University with its catchment areas.

I’m impressed Surrey County Council have obviously worked hard to get all the bus stop flags and timetable cases updated with new route numbers and timetable displays even including large index displays and departure signs in Guildford bus station. Full marks to them for that and what a shame their comprehensive timetable book for Guildford only published and valid from 1 September (coinciding with the new Stagecoach routes 1/2) is now out of date.

Arriva have produced an attractive timetable leaflet for the A, B, C routes available in their travel shop in the bus station but it was a shame there weren’t any available on the buses I travelled on today. I wonder if they’ve done a house-to-house in the affected areas to promote the new routes?

Safeguard also have an attractive full colour timetable leaflet for the 4/5 (commendably Arriva have copies on display in their Travel Shop) and a small additional leaflet promoting extra buses to and from the hospital and its cheaper fares.

As always in these things it’s attention to detail that’s important – not one of Arriva’s strengths. For example the internal cove panels in one of the buses I travelled on was promoting an out of date 0844 telephone number and season tickets for the full Guildford wide network rather than the new less-than-half-price tickets (bizarrely called ‘seasonal tickets’ – will they only last until the Spring?) available on routes A, B, C.

A promotional poster inside Arriva’s Travel Shop

Safeguard on the other hand have high profile posters promoting their lower prices by the entrance of every bus – including bargain fares for NHS staff and their timetable and promotional leaflets are available on board buses. Also impressively their contactless payment option has a weekly and four-weekly cap built in. That’s quite an incentive to stick with one operator for your week’s or month’s travelling and as the incumbent operator with a long history of serving Park Barn and the Hospital, I’d be surprised if passengers desert them.

Certainly my observations today, which I appreciate are only at the end of week 2, indicate far too few passengers using Arriva’s new Route B and there’s certainly not enough potential to grow the market sufficiently to sustain both this and the 4/5. I can’t conceive Safeguard ever capitulating, they look financially sound enough to sustain this unwelcome onslaught. The only likely outcome is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down Route A) as it wont be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ.

Routes A and C look like a good idea – it simplifies what was a rather convoluted 26/27 circular but if I’d been Arriva I’d have also redeployed resources from the 26/27 (and used the transfer in of more modern single deck buses from elsewhere) to boost and protect the service to Bellfields – providing a more attractive offer than double decks lumbering round every twenty minutes – it wasn’t that long ago the great hope for Bellfields was the ridiculous Mercedes Sprinter minibuses, but that ended in disaster as the buses were totally unsuitable; I can’t help thinking double deckers are just as unsuitable to the other capacity extreme and I’d be very wary of a locally based family owned highly respected operator reinventing history and returning to that pre 2010 arrangement of serving Bellfields!

A double deck on Route 3 to Bellfields today
The Mercedes Sprinters were completely unusable and withdrawn from route 3 last year

One to watch with interest in the coming months.

Roger French

My Hundred Best Train Journeys 2

Thursday 15th November 2018

Following the top ten listing in Part 1, welcome to the next twenty most wonderful train journeys around Britain – they’re part of my Hundred Best Train Journeys. Read along for the rides ……

11  Shrewsbury – Llandrindod – Swansea 

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After the Cambrian Coast line entry in tenth place, we’re still in Wales for number 11 – the scenically spectacular Heart of Wales Line. In addition to the gorgeous Welsh mountain scenery, this journey offers the intrigue of a multitude of request stations, beautifully well kept country stations and the very best station to alight and board right across Wales (yes it even beats that slightly contrived 58 lettered one in Anglesey – which we’ll come to later in the list); it is of course the quirky named Sugar Loaf.

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Not only is it well worth getting off at Sugar Loaf to savour its isolation and remoteness but also to enjoy the surprised expression on the train guard/conductor’s face when you ask for the train to stop there. And you simply can’t beat the fun of hailing the next train with a clear signal to the driver from such a rarely used station. When I visited it last year, I was taken aback while exploring the platform to be joined by a man who’d just arrived from the nearby road. I don’t know who was more surprised: him to see me, or me being joined by another potential passenger. In the event it turned out he was from the local community group who look after the floral displays and keep the platform tidy at this and other stations; so we had a lovely chat all about Sugar Loaf and the line.

There are many other wonderful stations along the line – one journey (the 0604 from Swansea to Crewe) serves the most stations in Britain at 41, including 16 request stops. Transport for Wales have plans to increase the number of journeys per day along the line (currently there are only four through journeys with a couple of shorts from either end) but in the meantime careful planning is needed if you want to get off and explore the stations, but some are served by buses, including the main stop at Llandrindod (Wells) right outside the station, making for other great journey opportunities.

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Llandrindod Wells

12  Sheffield – Manchester

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The single track alongside Dore and Totley

Criss-crossing the Derbyshire Peak District by bus is a particular favourite pastime of mine, and right up there with the best of those bus scenic busters is taking the train along the Hope Valley Line. It’s quite bizarre for such a major strategic route that the line is reduced to a short stretch of single track through Dore and Totley which can sometimes cause delays, especially if an express then gets caught behind a stopper, but if you’re just travelling for the pleasure of the scenery it gives more time to relish the scenic delights as the train passes along the seventeen miles between Totley Tunnel and Cowburn Tunnel – ticking off the delightfully named stations through Crindleford, Bamford, Hope and Edale.

13  Glasgow – Stranraer

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Old style BR corporate identity on display back in 2013

Sadly since the ferries left for a new terminal further up the coast, Stranraer is a shadow of its former self; almost a ghost station, but it’s certainly worth the journey down there from Glasgow to enjoy the coastal views through Troon and Prestwick and the gorgeous countryside views particularly on the thirteen mile single line stretch once you leave Ayr.  There’s a lovely signal box at the penultimate station, Barhill, where driver and signalman swap tokens. There are now only four direct journeys per day from Glasgow to Stranraer (and two back) with others starting/finishing at Kilmarnock and some only going as far as Girvan, missing out the Barrhill section; which is not to be missed.

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The highest station on the line is Barrhill

If you want time to explore the desolation of Stranraer – it’s worth a nose round to see how things used to be – don’t worry that the train usually turns round quickly and there’s a long wait for the next one, as there’s a lovely ride back along the coast to Ayr on Stagecoach bus routes 360/60.

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The desolate ferry terminal on the left and a pair of semaphore signals on the right

14  Liskeard – Looe

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Trains set off heading north from the Looe bound platform at Liskeard which is at right angles to the main line

I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to disclose this early on that all the Devon and Cornwall branch lines appear in my Hundred Best Train Journeys, and it won’t come as a surprise that leading the pack is the delightfully quirky and scenic Looe Valley Line. What other line begins with the train heading in a northerly direction to journey south, travelling in a full 360 degree large circle (clockwise), downhill, for about 5 minutes (passing under the main line) before ending up pointing northwards again; only to top this manoeuvre off on only two of the twelve journeys a day by continuing a short distance further northwards to call at the rarely used station of Coombe Junction Halt. Oh, and then the train guard/conductor jumps down from the train and manually resets the points so the train can head south again. Only in Cornwall; only in Britain!

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Not only all that, but the train then follows the course of the lovely East Looe River passing three more delightfully named request stations: St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, Causeland and Sandplace until the river gradually widens until the West Looe River joins almost opposite the station terminus at Looe. You simply haven’t been to Cornwall unless you’ve fully explored the lovely Looe Valley Line.

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15  Plymouth – Gunnislake

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This Devon branch line, the Tamar Line, may not have as many quirks as Liskeard-Looe, although it also passes under a superb viaduct carrying the main line and has a reverse manoeuvre along the way (at the wonderful Bere Alston – where the line once continued to Tavistock and Okehampton, and who knows, the pipe dream of reinstatement may one day come true) but for me it has a well deserved fifteenth place in this list for the wonderful views over the Rivers Tamar and Tavy, as the line twists and turns pointing east, then west, then north and repeat (many times) up the valley to Gunnislake.

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Bere Ferrers

Both Gunnislake and Calstock stations are also served by Plymouth Citybus route 79 offering a great view of the railway line crossing the River Tamar at Calstock. Bere Ferrers is also a wonderful station to explore with a heritage centre and adjacent vintage train.

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The viaduct carrying the Tamar Line over the River Tamar at Calstock

16  Lancaster – Barrow-in-Furness – Carlisle

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Are they paintings? No, they’re windows.

For me the Cumbrian Coast Line has many similar characteristics to the Cambrian Coast Line (at No 10): hugging the coastline with glorious views out to sea and wonderful mountain scenery inland.

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The infamous clock at the infamous Carnforth

Within a few minutes of setting off from Lancaster you arrive at the infamous Carnforth station which is definitely worth exploring for a Brief Encounter before hopping back on the next train as it leaves the main West Coast Line for the coast.

Skirting round the western edge of the Lake District on the Cumbrian Coast Line is a wonderful way to spend three and three quarters hours of your life; you certainly won’t regret it.

Even before reaching Barrow-in-Furness the views over Morecambe Bay are a tasty aperitif for what’s to follow as the train passes over the 528 yard low level Arnside Viaduct over the sands ….. then cruises into the wonderful Grange-over-Sands station with its window views over the sands …. then continuing round what is almost a 360 degree loop to serve Barrow-in-Furness …. then heading north along the coast …. but not before another fifteen mile ride around Duddon Sands …. then to Ravenglass which is a lovely stop off to ride the spectacular Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow gauge railway …. and then of course there’s the infamous Sellafield a few miles north with its barbed wire and security fences making it clear you’re not welcome unless you work there, which many local people do, as busy trains heading north from there at shift change times testify.

Pick your journey carefully as some entail connections in Barrow-in-Furness and some offer the opportunity to ride behind a Class 37 or Class 68 loco in old coaching stock for a real nostalgic ride back in time.

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A Class 37 passes over a low bridge at Ravenglass

17  Newcastle – Edinburgh

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Sun rising over the east coast as the 0540 from Edinburgh heads south

Whatever else, make sure you’re sitting on the coastal side when making this journey. Superb glimpses of the coastline tease you as you journey north until the train approaches Berwick-upon-Tweed where the full magnificence of its spectacular viaduct and crossing the Tweed on the Royal Border Bridge is a sight to behold, as is the sight of the original road bridge (Bridge End). After that, many welcome glimpses of the coast become more frequent as you head north towards Dunbar and Scotland.

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Looking east to Berwick-upon-Tweed from the viaduct

My favourite journey on this line is the first early morning southbound departure from Edinburgh to Kings Cross which leaves as early as 0540. But it’s well worth getting up early for; uniquely the train only calls at Newcastle making the 393 mile journey to London in precisely 4 hours (averaging 98 mph) and on a summer’s morning you see the sun rising in the east over the coast as breakfast is served and you head down to Newcastle – bliss.

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18  Llandudno – Blaenau Ffestiniog

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Betws-y-Coed

Another stunner of a Welsh line; and another with only six journeys a day but well worth planning an itinerary around. The line follows the course of the River Conwy southwards as far as Betws-y-Coed from where it heads west along the River LLedr but be prepared for a complete change in scenery once the train nears Blaenau Ffestiniog and emerges from the 2 mile long Ffestiniog tunnel. You arrive in slate country and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else on the rail network.

At Blaenau Ffestiniog there are cross platform connections with the Ffestiniog Heritage Railway which is well worth a trip as are the bus routes which run up and down either side of the Conwy Valley between Llandudno and Betws-y-Coed. Betws-y-Coed is also worth a stop off to explore including the miniature railway alongside the station.

19  Sheffield – Penistone – Huddersfield

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A Pacer arrives at Penistone

We’re talking serious South Yorkshire scenery here; until you slip into West Yorkshire, then you’re talking serious West Yorkshire scenery. When I travel along this line in addition to admiring the scenery, I often wonder if many passengers notice the subtle change of branding and logos between the stations east and south of Penistone (South Yorkshire) and west and north from Denby Dale and on to Huddersfield (West Yorkshire). As often as not, it’s been a Pacer when I’ve made this journey adding that unique charm only a Pacer can provide as it trundles along with the Peaks and Moors in the distance on the left hand side heading Huddersfield bound.

20  St Erth – St Ives

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A busy St Ives station

Back to Cornwall for this short five mile branch line, which gets overrun with passengers in the summer thanks to sensible traffic management arrangements which keeps cars out of St Ives and instead enforces parking at the Park & Ride site at Lelant Saltings the first station after St Erth.

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It’s another journey where it’s essential to sit (if you can find a seat in the busy summer months) on the coastal side (that’s the offside as the train leaves St Erth) for maximum sea views as the train scurries along to St Ives, where there’s only the most basic platform as a terminus. Don’t forget to walk up the hill to the bus station where there’s one of Britain’s most scenic bus turning areas, and maybe take an open top bus all the way round the coast via Lands End to Penzance, or if you’re short of time take the quick way via St Erth and Crowlas.

21  Edinburgh – Aberdeen

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Waking up and looking out of the window on the Caledonian Sleeper wending its way towards Aberdeen as the sun rises

We’ve already enjoyed the first past of this route as far as Ladybank on the Inverness journey along the Highland Line (No 4 in the Hundred Best Train Journeys) but now we’re keeping to the east coast as we head to Aberdeen to enjoy the fantastic journey over the Tay Bridge (a spine chilling moment whenever I cross and recall reading about the terrible  1879 disaster) and take in the lovely city of Dundee and on to Montrose and Stonehaven before arriving at Aberdeen.

22  Oxford – Worcester – Hereford

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The somewhat large station at Hereford

This line always intrigues me as it’s neither a main line or a branch line. It’s a wonderful hybrid which despite some track doubling, still has potential delay inducing single track sections as well as delightfully named stations including Ascott-under-Wychwood, Moreton-in-Marsh and Honeybourne where there’s a line off to serve the MoD depot at Long Marston and who knows, maybe one day the reinstatement of the long lost connection to Stratford-on-Avon, which really would make for a joined up railway.

The journey continues through both Worcester’s stations (the delightful Shrub Hill, with all it’s charm and old style signals, and also Foregate Street) before continuing through more rich English countryside via Great Malvern and Ledbury before terminating at the lovely market town of Hereford.

23  Swindon – Cheltenham

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The once proud offices of British Rail’s Western Region hiding the start of the scenic Swindon to Cheltenham line from the station behind

There are only three stations along this beautiful line – Kemble, Stroud and Stonehouse – and each has a character of its own and the scenery, especially to the north of the line, is another example of Englishness at its most countrified which is a good enough reason for its placing here in the list.

24  Westbury – Bath Spa

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Westbury’s a lovely interchange station in its own right, and surprisingly busy for the size of town as five rail lines converge and a freight marshalling yard is nearby; but it’s the section of line after Trowbridge towards Bath Spa which always brings me joy as it follows the gorgeous River Avon as well as the parallel Kennet and Avon Canal. and serves the amazingly well looked after stations at Bradford-on-Avon, Avoncliff and Freshford. The views are absolutely stunning. I’ve caught the one morning GWR operated train from Brighton which wends its way all along the coast to Southampton then inland via Salisbury, Westbury to Bath Spa/Bristol (a three and a half hour marathon) just for the fifteen or so minute delight of this section of track.

25  Exeter – Barnstaple (and Okehampton)

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Another Devonshire branch line delight, with wonderful scenery and a real treat to arrive at Barnstaple station with its retro signage and heritage atmosphere.

I’ve cheated and added the spur from Crediton to Okehampton to this entry – it only runs just a few journeys on Summer Sundays and uses the same tracks from Exeter as far as Crediton, and to be honest you don’t see much as the hedges and trees either side of the single track to Okehampton itself are thick and mature, but Okehampton station even tops Barnstaple for retro delight (and a connection to the Dartmoor heritage railway).

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Okehampton with the Dartmoor Railway using the platform on the left
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Okehampton can get very busy when the GWR train arrives

The one intermediate stop at Samford Courtney wins the prize for Britain’s most basic station with absolutely no facilities at all, save for a locked gate which the train guard on the first train of the day unlocks.

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Back to the Barnstaple branch and just saying how lovely the Devon scenery is – along the whole journey – count the number of times the track crosses the lovely River Taw – bet you lose count!

26  Glasgow – Wemyss Bay (and Gourock)

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Wemyss Bay

This train journey enjoys such a high entry for one simple reason: Wemyss Bay station. It has to be the most delightful station across the whole network. Stunningly attractive with magnificently designed curves and circles and not a straight line or corner to be seen. I’ve been a few times now, and love it more every visit. I also like the quirkiness of another station along the line called IBM. What at one time was a thriving industrial area owned by said technology company is now a barren wasteland with ghostly empty buildings, and as I found, when exploring the area, entails quite a circuitous and lonely route for pedestrians down to the main A78 road to Greenock for the bus.

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Another addition to this entry is the short six mile stretch of line heading further west, past the junction where the Wemyss Bay line heads south at Port Glasgow, continuing to the terminus at Gourock along the Firth of Clyde. It has such interesting station names including Bogston, Cartsdyke and Fort Matilda and a lovely view of the Clyde.

27  Eastbourne – Ashford International

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Class 171 trains pass at Rye before the single track section ahead towards Ore

Not as famous as the Dawlish Wall, nor the Cambrian or Cumbrian coastal lines, but nevertheless this lovely East Sussex coastal line offers wonderful views of the English Channel and the south coast’s characteristic beach huts and fishing huts as the train passes from Pevensey Bay and Normans Bay, through Cooden Beach to the massively long platforms at Bexhill and then the quirky St Leonards Warrier Square located between Bopeep Tunnel (lovely name) and Hastings Tunnel (each almost a mile in length). After Hastings and Ore, there’s the wonderfully dense wooded section of single track line with the short platformed, isolated, and little used stations of Three Oaks and Doleham before arriving at Winchelsea and Rye (well worth a stop off and explore). After that the scenery changes once again as the train crosses the Romney Marsh to the characterless and much expanded terminus at Ashford.

This line has two-car Class 171 diesel trains which, aside from the Uckfield line, are unusual for Kent and Sussex. It’s unsurprising that Doleham sees so few passengers (it’s East Sussex’s least used station) as on a Saturday only the first and last trains in both directions make a stop – so you have to leave on the 0558 to Ashford and can only return on the 2357 arrival back making for quite a long day out! (Mondays to Fridays offers more sensible departures to Hastings at 0755 and 0917 with a 1718 arrival back.)

28  Redhill – Guildford

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It’s for the North Downs. They’re beautiful. They really are. Views from both sides of the train are worth clocking but I always prefer the north side and get those full on views through Dorking and Gomshall – which incidentally has one of the most extensive ramped footbridges I’ve ever seen anywhere on the network.

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29  Paddock Wood – Maidstone

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This is another train journey alongside a delightfully scenic river. In this case the River Medway as it wends its way north towards Maidstone (and eventually to Sheerness and the sea). The train provides an hourly service from Tonbridge to Strood but it’s the twenty minute ride alongside the Medway and passing through stations Beltring, Yalding, Wateringbury and East Fairleigh which is the really stunning section of track (sit on the right hand side heading north for best views).

30  Derby – Matlock

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Book-ending the top thirty is the delightful journey from Derby into the wonderful Peak District town of Matlock. I love the first station after leaving the main line at Ambergate, called Whatstandwell, not only for its quirky name but because it’s the closest station to the Tramway museum at nearby Crich.

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The line follows the Derwent Valley along with the A6 and river to Cromford before a tunnel brings you to Matlock Bath (famous for the Heights of Abraham) and Matlock itself, where there are connections to the Peak Rail Heritage Line further up the valley, or to the lovely TransPeak bus route on to Bakewell and Buxton to connect back to the rail network.

Watch out for Part 3 of my Hundred Best Train Journeys (31-60) next month.

Roger French

My Hundred Best Train Journeys 1

Sunday 11th November 2018   Part 1 of 4.

This started out as my top ten favourite train journeys but I quickly realised I couldn’t possibly do justice to all the many fantastic rail lines across Britain by being so limited. It quickly grew to a top twenty, then thirty as favourites easily clicked away on the keyboard. It wasn’t long before I’d passed fifty, and so it seemed a natural progression to carry on until the hundred milestone was reached. I’ll post the list in four bite-sized chunks over the next few weeks. Here’s that original top ten, to kick things off.

1.  Glasgow – Fort William – Mallaig

It won’t come as a surprise that Scotland features heavily in the top slots – five of my top six train journeys are north of the border, with many more entries throughout the list.

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The famous Horseshoe Curve between Upper Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy is a delight – this photo was taken from the train wending its way around the curve.

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The West Highland Line running between Glasgow and Fort William and on to Mallaig is the obvious and very worthy winner of the coveted top spot; not only is it recognised as Britain’s most scenic rail line by most commentators, but it’s renowned around the world. There’s nothing better than taking the Caledonian Sleeper from the hustle and bustle of Euston and waking up the next morning to the beauty and remoteness of Rannoch Moor as the train trundles alongside moors, lochs and mountains to Fort William.

This can be particularly evocative in the winter as the sun rises above snow covered ground and deers scamper in the distance. Another favourite journey is the early departure from Mallaig at 0603 during the summer months. You often have a whole carriage to yourself to enjoy the spectacular scenery of this section of the line before a handful of early commuters board at stations closer to Fort William.

This truly has to be top of any Bucket List of train journeys.

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Looking back on the famous Glenfinnan on an empty early journey from Mallaig

2.  Inverness – Kyle of Lochalsh

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It’s a close run thing for the top spot with the Kyle of Lochalsh line a very strong runner up. In fact whenever I take a ride on this line I always end up having a debate with myself whether actually this line surpasses the West Highland Line; but then when I have another trip out to Fort William I know, that Kyle’s place is definitely second. It has its own delightful characteritics including some gorgeous scenery and quirky stations.

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3.  Glasgow – Oban

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Many trains from Fort WIlliam and Oban join and split at the brilliant Crianlarich station for the journey to Glasgow

Now some might say, this is a cheat as much of the line (Glasgow – Crianlarich) is the same as the Fort WIlliam/Mallaig line; indeed many trains split or join together at Crianlarich. But, it’s my list, and I decide the rules, and I reckon there’s enough beauty to behold on the line to Oban north of Crianlarich to justify a third place entry in its own right. Indeed, it was the very first train ride I made in Scotland, way back in the early 1970s taking holidays as a teenager on a remote island off Mull. This necessitated what was then a loco hauled train to Oban which included a refreshment stop of about 15 or 20 minutes at Crianlarich so passengers could use the platform tea room and toilets. That’s why it always has a special place in my memory.

4.  Edinburgh – Inverness

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I specify Edinburgh, but it could equally be the train from or to Glasgow, although the latter struggles to live up to the spectacular coastal views and the Forth Rail Bridge experience between Edinburgh and Perth. It’s the section of line north of Perth to Inverness which gives this train journey a well deserved fourth place as it takes in the spectacular scenery through the Cairngorms National Park. I really can’t wait to ride the refurbished HSTs ScotRail are soon introducing on this line (and others). It’s also another great journey to take on the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston and wake up through the Highlands.

5.  Leeds – Carlisle

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My top rail line in England just has to be the Settle-Carlisle. Not only is the scenery just superb, the Ribblehead Viaduct a must-see, the stations kept in wonderful heritage conditions but from many of the stations there are wonderful bus journeys to take too. Garsdale has links to Hawes; Dent has a community bus to Kendal which is just totally stunning; Cumbria Classic Coaches run heritage journeys from Kirkby Stephen to a range of destinations in the summer; and there are also great connections at Settle, Skipton and Keighley. I even made a trip to and from Appleby this summer.

6.  Inverness – Wick

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You need to sit on the coastal side of the train for maximum scenic enjoyment of the Far North Line, but beware, unlike the Stagecoach X99 bus route, which hugs the coast the whole way, the train diverts inland for many miles offering alternative views. It’s not a journey for those in a hurry either which adds to its charm as you head towards the northernmost point on the rail network. I often use the line to and from Lairg where there are quirky bus route connections on to the north west tip of Scotland at Durness, as well as Tongue.

7.  Lancaster – Glasgow

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You may find it odd that the main lines out of London, which form the backbone of Britain’s rail network (East Coast; West Coast; Midland Mainline; Great Western,Great Eastern and north out of Marylebone), don’t feature in my Hundred Best Train Journeys – well, certainly not the southern sections – this is probably because they become all too familiar as I find myself travelling along these tracks so many times every year; but I think it’s also because the scenery towards the northern ends far eclipses anything ‘down south’ and none more so than on the West Coast Line which is why this takes a very deserved seventh place in my list. The Lake District, Shap, the northern most Pennines all pass by as the railtracks criss-cross the M6 on it’s spine route linking Scotland with the south. My eyes are glued to the window the whole journey until we reach the outskirts of Glasgow.

8.  Middlesbrough – Whitby

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Danby

I always try and include this journey in my itneraries at least once, if not twice, every year as I never tire of the wonderful views it offers across the North Yorkshire Moors and along the River Esk which the line follows for many miles. It’s another line which offers some great bus connections, not least Arriva’s X93, which also runs between Middlesbrough and Whitby before providing a handy connection on to Scarborough, and Transdev Blazefield’s Coastliner 840 from Whitby via Goathland (of Heartbeat fame) to Malton and York/Leeds – voted Britain’s Most Secnic Bus Route earlier this year. I’ve also connected with the wonderful Moorsbus weekend network by using Danby station on the line which was fun, and of course tracks are shared between Grosmont andf Whitby with the wonderful North Yorks Moors heritage railway.

9.  Exeter – Penzance

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And not just for the Dawlish Wall moment either. I love the build up to that infamous section of track as the train leaves Exeter and hugs the River Exe spotting the ferry from Starcross which crosses the river to Exmouth and the ice cream stall at Dawlish Warren and then you know the Wall is ahead. The delights keep on coming as the journey continues to Plymouth, the Royal Albert Bridge with the spectacular views down to the harbours on both sides of the River Tamar and then into Cornwall; a quick look at Bodmin Parkway to see if the heritage rail line is running (having done the same at Totnes); the rolling Cornish scenery; the wonderful view of Truro Cathedral. It’s a superb ride, and there’s nothing better than a comfortable leather First Class seat in a GWR HST too…..for just a little while longer!

10  Machynlleth – Pwllheli

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Preparing to leave Machynlleth for the journey along the Cambrian coast to Phllheli

My first (of many) best rail lines in Wales just makes it into the top ten, which is pleasing, as it is a fantastic journey to make. It starts way back in Birmingham and runs via Shrewsbury on a pleasant enough route, as is the leg down to Aberystwyth, but the Cambrian Coast line proper really only starts at Machynlleth as it unsurprisngly hugs all along the Cambrian Coast up to Pwllheli. In fact parts of the line even surpass the Dawlish Wall, and I’m wondering whether I should swap the order around now I think more about it. This line, after all, has a number of quirky request stops which I’ve used a few of, as well as connections to heritage trains at Tywyn, Fairbourne and Porthmadog and the Traws Cymru T3 bus across to Wrexham from Barmouth.

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The quirky Dovey Junction where there’s limited access and trains meet from the Aberystwyth and Pwllheli branches

Watch out for My Hundred Best Train Journeys – numbers 11 – 30 to follow in Part 2.

Roger French

First for fare frustration

Thursday 8th November 2018

There was a bit of unfinished business in my last blogpost about the Hayling Ferry; I thought I’d pursue the outstanding query of the cost of a return ticket on the First Bus route 15 between Portsmouth city centre and the Ferry. I’d bought a £3 single from the driver but forgot to ask if there was a return, and what the price is. I like to know these things.

In the old days it was easy to find information about bus fares; you’d ring the City of Portsmouth Transport Department who had access to a fare book “for staff use only” and someone would look it up and soon let you know the answer. You’d think in today’s data rich world of telephone helplines, 24/7 social media, transparency of facts and a world wide web of information, it would be even more simple to find out the price of a bus fare?

Spolier alert: it’s one big frustration. If you want to avoid wasting the next few miniutes reading what happened. Look away now.

I began my search online with the First Bus website. Not renowned for its user friendly layout, the obvious place to look, having narrowed my search down to the Portsmouth area page, was in Tickets.

‘Travelling with First around Hampshire has never been easier” the ticket blurb encouragingly begins. “We’ve got a wide range of First bus tickets available to suit your needs, whether you travel every day or only now and then, on your own or with the family, we have just the ticket for you.” Nice and friendly and localised too; but I’m not fooled. Guess what, it’s the same blurb for every area! Sadly no mentioned of return tickets but there is a ‘Ticket Prices’ tab to click on:

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Return tickets seem just not to be the done thing (which, actually is the case, if only they’d say so!).

There’s the usual ‘contact us’ option; as any customer facing business these days has to at least portray an impression of wanting to hear from customers, even if Finance Director exec types question the cost justification of such niceties, and First Group is no exception.

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As an aside, clicking on Lost Propery takes you to a few further options, the top one of which is “please use the contact form on our help and support page” which doesn’t take you to the “contact form” as you’d expect, but back to another menu that looks like this:

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And you end up in a perpetual loop of menus; still at least the glove and umbrella have been found, poor teddy though, still lost; and now a wallet too!

Also, as an aside, clicking on “Help with our apps’ takes you to a rather stark warning about problems with mTickets dated 7 September 2018 at 0830 – well at least it reassures us that “we are working …. to get normal service resumed as soon as possible”, so that’s alright then…. over two months later.

Back to my mission to find out the price of a return ticket, I obviously go for ‘Get in touch’ and my heart sinks as I find a form with lots of  ‘* Required’ fields needs completing; but then I discover if I click my way to the second menu with the ‘Get in touch’ icon on the left hand side (as opposed to the right hand side) it takes me to a ‘Help and support’ telephone number. Result! And what’s more, not only is it an 0345 number (included in my call plan), it’s impresively open at weekends. It’s Saturday afternoon and I give it a try.

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“Welcome to First Bus.  To put you through to the right advisor, please let us know why you are calling today.

If you’re are planning a journey with us and would like information on bus routes or times please press 1.

If you have lost an item on one of our buses please press 2.

If you would like to talk to us about mobile tickets please press 3.

IF you would like to talk us about your e-ticket please press 4.

If you’ve had an accident on one of our buses that you would like to report please press 5.

If you would like to provide feedback on one of our services or drivers please press 6.

If you are experiencing a delay with your journey with us please press 7.

If you’re a First Bus employee and you have recently received a letter from HMRC or other Government Departments regarding a change to your benefits and would like to discuss this further please press 8.

Alternatively you can also visit firstgroup.com or our social media team for information about our services.”

As there was no option: ‘if you want to find out the price of a bus fare’, I plumped for Option 1:

Inevitably another menu…..

“For Scotland please press 1

For England and Wales please press option 2”

I went for Option 2 …….

“Please visit www. traveline.co.uk and/or call 0871 200 2233; calls cost 12 pence per  minute plus your phone company’s access charge.”

Not only was I pretty sure Traveline don’t do fares and prices (that would be far too helpful) and as I’ve long objected to being forced to pay a premium telephone charge to a business to find out about a product I want to buy from that business I decided to redial and to go for option 6 (to provide feedback) thinking they might just be able to help.

After a five minute wait (the usual “we’re experiencing a high volume of calls”) a very pleasant sounding man answered and after establishing which part of the country I wanted fares information about asked me to hang on before coming back a minute later to explain he didn’t have the information but would put me through to the ticket department which would be able to help,

Woah, result (almost). After a few rings an auto announcement answered advising the department was closed at the weekend and would reopen on Monday. A close encounter with an answer, but not quite there.

Incidentally, as another aside; had I pressed Option 1 for Scotland, instead of Option 2 for England and Wales, I’d have got through to a First Bus telephone enquiry service for Scotland at no additional cost. Why the discrimination for those of us south of the border?

As I’d drawn a blank for now, I deciced to have a go at the online form. For a company displaying a distinct lack of interst in customers on-line, First Bus has a peculiar obsession at wanting full contact details including full name, postal address, telephone contact number, email address and confirmation I’m over 16 before giving a space to describe the query and the usual ‘submit’ button. Having duly volunteered all my details and submitted my fare query, up pops the auto acknowledgement that it’s been received and I can expect to hear back within fourteen days once investigations are complete.

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Obviously a fare query is not the simplest of matters to bottom out and as it’s only Thursday of week 1, no reply so far, but I live in hope something will turn up either in my in-box, on the phone, or even my postal address once all the investigations are complete.

Forward to Monday morning and my excitement is growing. I leave it until a decent 8.30 am and then redial the 0345 number; except I realise I’m not sure which Option I almost got to speak to on Saturday – I haven’t heard about e-tickets (Option 4) so plump for Option 3 identified as the mTicket helpline. Five minutes later a knowledgable woman answers except her knowledge turns out to be limited to any technical queries about mTickets and she can’t help with something complex like wanting to know a return ticket price, but she’s confident I need Option 1. When I point out that’s just telling me to redial the premium rate Traveline number she’s insistent that’s what I need and following my further protests she realises she’s got an awkward one here, so I back off and review tactics.

Reassuring myself the money wasted on a call to Traveline will be worth the investment in research for future experience I throw caution to the wind and dial up 0871 200 2233. A quick answer and I’m immediately told “we don’t hold fares information”. I protest I’d been directed to call for that very query by someone at First Bus’s call centre and am reassured they were wrong and I need to dial 0345 646 0707 and it’s Option 3. When I explain that’s where I’ve just come from and I’ll end up in a perpetual loop of redialling I’m told that’s definitely the number and option I need.

On the plus side that interlude in my life only took 90 seconds and cost me 37p.

I redialled 0345 646 0707 but decided to go for Option 4 as I was also intrigued what an e-ticket was. I forgot to time the hold time, but after the usual half a dozen or so auto encouragements to find out what I need to know from http://www.firstgroup.com (if only) I was through and began by asking what an e-ticket was? The gentleman answering was a bit taken aback and didn’t know either, and it dawned on me that perhaps I’d misheard that extra ‘e-” and I’d luckily got through to the ticket department after all.

It seemed the courteous gentleman was going to be able to help me too, and after a couple of minutes came back with a definitive answer that the cost of a return ticket is £4.20.

Not bad eh?

I wasn’t totally convinced, and decided to check that information via social media, tweeting First Portsmouth the next morning at 9am.

I had low expectations for an instant response, but just under 2 hours later back came a ‘sort of’ reply giving an ‘around £3.50’ answer which seems improbably low for a £3 single and almost certainly a guess, but a more helpful explanation about the definitive £4.20 answer on the telephone I’d received – the £4.20 as the day ticket price is obviously a maximum cut off for any return, if returns do exist anyway.

It’s a pity the day ticket wasn’t sold more positively for the great value it offers, rather than being the return price advised by the person in the ‘ticket department’. Up selling this wasn’t.

So that’s it. Job done. I’ll update this post if and when (if ever) I receive a reply back from the on-line form.

Just a few action points:-

1. Tell the mTicket department that Traveline don’t give out fares information.

2. Tell Traveline it’s Option 4 (not 3) for First Bus fares information.

3. Rerecord the answerphone message to make it more clear Option 4 is for ‘Ticket prices and fares’ so it can’t be misheard as ‘e-tickets’ – give the number a try and see what I mean – it definitely sounds like “if you would like to talk to us about your e-ticket”…. to me.

4. Tell the weekend team answering calls not to put callers through to departments that don’t work weekends. It just adds to the frustration.

5. Tell the social media team not to give responses like ‘around £3.50’ – it either is £3.50 or it isn’t.

6. Sort out the system for receipt and response of on-line forms with queries and review whether fourteen days really is an appropriate deadline for straight forward enquires.

7. Put fare tables on-line like other bus companies do. They might just be of help to people like me who like to know how much the product they’re buying costs.

8. Sort out the many inconsistencies on the First Bus website.

9. Take down the warning about mTicket problems dated 7 September assuming all is now fixed or change the wording about fixing it ‘as soon as possible’.

10. Reflect on whether it really should take me to point these ten things out?

Roger French

A Lifebelt for ailing Hayling Ferry

Saturday 3rd November 2018

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There’s a handy passenger ferry which connects the south western tip of Hayling Island with the south eastern tip of Portsea Island across Langstone Harbour. It only takes a couple of minutes to cross and saves Hayling’s residents a 12 mile detour via Havant and Cosham to reach the commercial centre of Portsmouth and Southsea. But as I found when I last made the crossing in August 2017, it’s not particularly convenient as both landing stages are isolated with the nearest bus routes turning a fair way short necessitating a two mile walk from the closest bus stop on Hayling Island and about a mile on Portsea before you find a bus stop where buses stop. No wonder very few people use the ferry and it struggles to stay in business.

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Bus turning circles almost adjacent to both landing stages give the clue that once upon a time buses joined up with the ferry to connect the communities, and now, thanks to £20,000 funding from Havant Borough Council’s Community Infrastructure Levy, buses are once again providing connections for a six month trial.

It’s taken a long time to bring this renewed bus/ferry integrated travel option to fruition; and sadly before you know it, it’ll all be over again. I wish I could report otherwise, but after giving the trial service a whirl yesterday afternoon, I’m afraid it’s a ‘No’ from me for going through to the next round.

You can’t fault the commitment and effort made by all the parties involved who’ve endured a long and painful struggle to try and join up the bus and ferry dots on the map.

Not surprisingly Stagecoach rebuffed suggestions their circular routes 30/31 connecting Hayling Island with Havant four times an hour should divert off route for the two mile hike to the western landing stage; after all, it would destroy the routes’ even frequency and economics, while First Bus were naturally reluctant to stretch routes 15/16 eastwards beyond their Fort Cumberland terminus in Eastney with the potential to make the timetable unworkable for no appreciable gain in passengers.

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Stagecoach’s circular routes 30/31 run every 15 minutes from Havant (twice an hour each way)
First Bus route 15 runs hourly and 16 less often from the Hard to Eastney Fort Cumberland

After months of endless discussions, it was finally Havant Borough Council’s £20,000 sweetener to fund a community bus shuttling around Hayling Island providing a link to the ferry every hour together with Langstone Harbour’s halving the harbour fees paid by the ferry (and a levy on each passenger) that finally clinched a deal amid much congratulatory appreciation from everyone involved for a bright new future.

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The Portsmouth News positive headline

In the event, the aspiration for an hourly community bus didn’t quite work out and instead Portsmouth City Coaches (a new name for the old established Emsworth & District bus company) are running just a Monday to Friday peak hour only circular route (numbered, for nostalgia reasons, 149) aimed at commuters.

Route 149 harks back to the long established open-top route operated by Southdown

Plaudits to First Bus though; they’ve hacked the western end of route 15 between the Hard Interchange (with its adjacent Gunwharf Quays shopping outlets) and the city centre and instead gambled on an extension of the route at the eastern end to the ferry’s landing stage; and what’s more this runs hourly throughout a Monday to Friday day (well, except for a 1600 departure) providing more ferry connectional opportunities – it’s a shame their online map has only been updated at the western end though, leaving the ferry still looking isolated at the eastern end!

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First Bus’s online map has deleted the western end of route 15 to The Hard but not added the all important new eastern extension to the Ferry landing stage.

That map goof aside, it was good to see an abundance of posters and announcements around the ferry landing stages and onboard the ferry itself as well as the bus on route 149. Users of the ferry can’t possibly be unaware something new is on offer. I’m not sure though whether the all important non-users will be similarly briefed – whether the £20,000 has stretched to an attractive house-to-house leaflet drop on Hayling, for example.

At the top of the Eastney landing stage
At the bottom of the Eastney landing stage
On board the ferry
At the Hayling Island turning circle bus shelter
On board the 149 bus
Aside from ferry times only First Bus 15 times on display on the Eastney side (no 149) …
…. and then not particularly well presented!

This six month trial has been hyped as a “use it or lose it” opportunity, so well done to everyone involved for raising the profile and getting the local media on board too. But as always with these things, the devil is in the detail. Has anyone worked out what is actually on offer to tempt passengers to travel aside from a logical looking straight line on a map surpassing a non sensical inland detour? Regretfully it would seem not.

Imagine I fit the perfect target market of a commuter living on Hayling Island with a job in the centre of Portsmouth and want to use the new ‘Ferry Bus Connections’.

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The options are to catch the 0625, 0725 or 0825 route 149 from Eastoke Corner which will see me arrive in Portsmouth via the Ferry and route 15 an hour later at 0727, 0827 or 0927.

An overall 62 minute journey seems an awfully long time for a three minute ferry crossing. And bizarrely for a scheme that’s meant to save journey time, it doesn’t. If instead, I caught the 0635, 0715 or 0800 Stagecoach route 30 from nearby Mengham Corner on Hayling Island to Havant and hopped on the Coastliner bus to Portsmouth I’d arrive, in the first two examples at 0731 and 0811 – in just 56 minutes, being 6 minutes quicker than the new much heralded direct route. (The 0800 journey arrives 0912 – due to a longer connection in Havant so does take 10 minutes longer). Similar comparisons apply for the afternoon three journey options involving the 149.

What’s more I could get one of Stagecoach’s Mega or Dayrider tickets costing just £6.90 for a day or £21 for 7 days (m-ticket prices). Compare that to the non-integrated ticket option via the ferry – which sets me back £2 both ways on route 149; £5.50 for a day return on the ferry and £3 both ways on the 15, making for an eye-watering £15.50 for a day’s travel. A modest saving can be had on the ferry by buying a 10 trip ticket for £25 (effectively a working week’s travel, or £48 for 20 trips) and it may be there’s a slight discount on the 15 with a return ticket (this being First Bus and as it’s a Saturday, when I’m writing this, it’s impossible to find out); but I reckon it’ll be no more than a £1 saving making for a total bus and ferry five day price coming in at a whopping £70 which doesn’t quite entice me compared to Stagecoach’s £21, especially when it could be quicker too.

There is, of course, an even quicker journey option. Havant’s rail station is just a convenient three or four minute walk from the bus station and there just happen to be trains departing to Portsmouth & Southsea ten minutes after the Stagecoach route 30 arrives into Havant bus station – how good is that, making for an overall journey time of 41 minutes (from the 0635 bus); 50 minutes (from the 0715 bus) and 49 minutes (from the 0800 bus). Not only is this the quickest option, but the ticket prices are cheaper than the new bus and ferry option too – thanks to the wonderful PlusBus which happens to cover Hayling Island for either just £2.90 for a day or £10 for a week. Adding those prices to the Havant to Portsmouth & Southsea rail return of £5.10 for a day and £22.80 for a week gives integrated travel for £8 for a day or £32.80 for a week – less than half the bus/ferry option and a third quicker too!

And that, is why the six month trial; notwithstanding the £20,000 funding boost, is doomed to fail. Why would anyone choose to pay more for a longer journey?

I write this with a heavy heart, as I’d like nothing better than to see those lovely turning circles back in action permanently, so if, like me, you’re a fan of such manoeuvres – hurry down to Hayling Island over the next five months, while the trial lasts. Although sadly with darker mornings and late afternoons the prospects of seeing much in the light are not good.

The lovely turning circle on the Eastley side in action….
….while over on Hayling Island…..
….the 149 waits patiently for customers.

It’s a shame the Community Infrastructure Levy couldn’t have stretched further to fund an hourly 149 bus all day, as originally intended, and much tighter connectional times at the landing stages with good communications between bus and ferry (in case of delays) to try and shorten overall journey times. With the low numbers travelling, it might also have been worth making the service attractively cheap (the revenue at risk must be minimal), or even completely free for the six month trial. That just might have generated some serious interest which could have been nurtured to become sustainable.

What I saw yesterday is a very good try at reviving things but sadly it’s a definite ‘No’.

Roger French 3rd November 2018

Top 10 Show offs

Tuesday 30th October 2018

img_3601The Euro Bus Expo show opened at Birmingham’s NEC today for its biennial showcase of what’s hot in the bus and coach industry. I popped along for a stroll round the stands; here are ten exhibits that took my fancy.

1 Navaho Technologies Ltd’s displays

90C7BA04-C91A-46C8-89B2-36985B40D9C5These guys were demonstrating attractive bright new displays with built in gizmos which can provide useful information like how long until the next bus comes on a Bus Full destination sign and a live map showing where the bus is travelling when on a diversion.

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Some of their work is already being trialled by TfL on a range of vehicles and routes. They’ve also updated their ‘seats available’ gizmo which detects people as they pass a sensor to go upstairs. I’ve no idea how much all this techy stuff costs but it’s impressive.

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2 Mellor’s Strata

2B710F98-AAC2-48BF-9E4B-146538FB47DBi really like what Mellor have done with the Mercedes Sprinter – creating a practical and comfortable small bus for both urban and rural services.

9AD6802C-AC04-49D1-95DB-D19C2B5F9128This larger Strata Ultra takes minibuses to the next level. Very smart and swish. A million miles from that ‘riding in a welfare vehicle’ feeling.

3 Ticketer

CDFC1228-8631-4154-AF4C-DD6227531B9DIt seems to me like it was only a few years ago if you wanted to buy a ticket machine you had the choice of Almex or Wayfarer. Then Ticketer hit the industry by storm and now they’re everywhere.

They had by far the most imaginative stand in Hall 5 including an astronaut in full spaceman costume (seen here with Passenger Transport magazine’s Andrew Garnett).

As a passenger I like the simplicity and quickness of using contactless on Ticketer or reading a QR code on an m-Ticket or paper day ticket.

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4 McKenna Brothers electronic timetable

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We hear about the Internet of Things coming our way with new 5G signals enabling our fridge to automatically order a pint of milk and other exciting developments so surely it can’t be long before the humble bus stop paper timetable is replaced by an electronic version?

B0DC173A-81FB-4A9C-BDE3-28CD4F807A5ASo it was good to see McKenna Brothers leading the way with this innovation – be good if they can make it as bright as their super destination blinds too.

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5 Comfy seats

2255586D-D097-417C-827D-877EC81F0D42As well as on board the gleaming new buses on show there were some impressive displays of comfortable seats from a number of manufacturers.

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9E147CAD-CF50-40BC-B799-6C3518632645It’s encouraging to see such a step change in seat quality – passenger ergonomics are definitely taking centre stage as well as requirements for battery recharging and coat hanging. What a shame some train companies (or perhaps more accurately, their civil servant masters) don’t share the same thinking.

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6 Hanover Displays – now in colour

E3FDEE1B-7690-4BE5-9CC4-1475F43A3821Something else that’s come on leaps and bounds is the quality of electronic destination displays including the use of colour. Lewes based Hanover have had a long association with Brighton & Hove Bus Company and it’s good to see they’ve now got decent coloured displays available.

C08E596B-1194-40F6-AC0B-9CA2743CB7F2The latest bright LED destination displays really do make a bold statement as a bus approaches as well as standing out to non users on busy streets in town centres (TfL please note).

7 Electric; Gas; Hydrogen

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It wouldn’t be a bus and coach show in 2018 without some impressive alternative fuel powered buses on display. Optare were showing off their new Metrocity and Metrodecker EV vehicles bound for London – and now with an impressive 150 mile range (enough for a whole day’s operation) …..

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….while Scania had the 100th Enviro400 City biogas double deck bus bound for Nottingham …

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… as Wright’s had the very first Hydrogen powered double deck on their stand (including a very mini version of their ‘w’ logo on the front lower panel.

8 Schedules

One of my first jobs when joining West Riding in Wakefield 43 years ago as a management trainee was to spend a few weeks in the company’s schedules department. Four people spent all day, pencil in hand, pouring over huge graph paper (it seemed like at least A1 size) trying to get the best vehicle and crew utilisation.

It wasn’t long before clever people invented computer software to make the task so much easier. Now, companies such as Omnibus with its Omnitimes link schedules into many other systems and have now even launched cloud based software with interesting new functionality, but my eye was caught by these impressive screens showing ‘what ifs’ devised by Optibus and which impressively give you a resource and cost update as you make any changes. Made me quite nostalgic for doing a bit of scheduling again!

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9 Nostalgia corner

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Talking of nostalgia it was nice to be taken back in time on a couple of the stands and be reminded of launch vehicles of bygone times. They also remind us of just how far we’ve come.

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10 Best Impressions

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Ray with colleague Ed Cameron

I’ve saved the Best until last. You just can’t beat Ray Stenning and his team for creating desire and promoting the bus. It’s no coincidence that most, if not all, of the award winning renowned successful companies, brands and routes have the hand of Best Inpressions behind them. Long may that continue.

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One final thought. As I hopped on and off all the gleaming new buses on display with all their latest gizmos and comfort attributes and which will soon be out on Britain’s roads attracting and impressing passengers, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the most prominent message on entry on a few of them is a stark Exact Fare farebox. In this contactless, m-Ticket, smartcard world perhaps it’s time for a change and give change?

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Euro Bus Expo is on until Thursday 1st November at the NEC in Birmingham if you’re reading this when published. Wonder what they’ll call the next one in 2020!

Roger French     30th October 2018