DRT Slides into Ealing

Friday 15th November 2019

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It’s all change in the world of Bus Demand Responsive Transport (DRT). This week sees the final foray for Arriva Click’s pioneering ‘pilot’ in Sittingbourne and Zeelo’s scheme for pilots (and others) living in Crawley and working at Gatwick Airport. The former ends tomorrow having been launched with much fanfare back in March 2017 (quite a long ‘pilot’ then) and the latter packed up today after just three months operation.

No-one with any grasp of the economics of public transport (or new fancy terms such as ‘integrated mobility solutions’) will be surprised these initiatives have failed. It really was obvious from the start the DRT business model simply doesn’t stack up; as I’ve written and explained a number of times in these blogs and in my quarterly Inside Track column in Buses magazine.

But lessons are seldom learned and as Sittingbourne bites the dust Arriva are already announcing they’ll be announcing another DRT scheme some place else very soon – update: just heard this will be in Watford. More fool them; unless they’ve convinced another Local Authority and Developer (as in Leicester) to hand over Section 106 money to financially prop up the operation for a couple of years.

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TfL are also intent on splashing the cash (they haven’t got) on loss making DRT trials. And not only on one heavy loss making DRT venture in Sutton launched in May, but from this Wednesday starting the promised second year long trial based in Ealing.

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This one is supported by Slide – the company behind the financially disastrous ridesharing DRT/taxi venture in Bristol that was withdrawn a year ago – being run by RATP Dev as a ‘pilot project’ for just over two years from July 2016. I’d only just got round to deleting that Slide app from my smartphone so had to download this latest ‘SlideEaling’ version as I headed over to Ealing this morning to give it a try as I spotted a news release from TfL on Wednesday announcing the new service began that very day – not exactly giving much forewarning!

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Whenever I travel on these new DRT ventures I get mixed feelings hearing the optimism of the drivers. Today was no exception with Will, Ovi and Pat, on the three journeys I made, all amazingly positive about their career change and the future success of the venture which on the one hand is great to hear, but I fear their naivety will lead to disappointment in a few months time.

I don’t like to pop their positive bubble and I hope behind the scenes senior managers at RATP Dev owned London Sovereign, who are running this operation for TfL, are not giving them false hope.

There’s no way this operation is ever going to succeed; it’s only hope is for some equalities or diversity issue to come up which could justify TfL spending vast sums on keeping the service going after its twelve month trial.

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The software for this scheme is provided by MOIA rather than Viavan as used in Sutton (as well as used by Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up and Arriva Click). It has a few detailed differences; for example there are no texts to say your vehicle is shortly arriving nor afterwards asking for feedback. MOIA prefer to use their app to show the vehicle approaching the pick up point by way of an icon on a map with a timed countdown alongside. That’s snazzy but it does mean you need to keep looking at your phone screen if you want an update, rather than wait for the text as per the Viavan system. I read that MOIA is “the flagship mobility services subsidiary of the VW Group”.

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SlideEaling are also using MAN minibuses rather than the more common Mercedes favoured elsewhere. They’re Euro VI so are Ultra Low Emission Zone compliant.  They have just ten seats (which will be ample) and a rear tail lift for wheelchair access which will slow things down compared to boarding through the side door.

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Seats are comfortable with moquette rather than leather and laid out 2+1. There’s a wide entrance by the door but it does involve a step up. Not so easy for the less agile. Quite extraordinary not to be running low floor accessible minibuses.

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Inevitably there’s usb but I didn’t find Wi-Fi but these days I prefer the former and am not bothered about the latter, especially on short journeys when it’s too much faff to log in.

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London Sovereign have ten of these minibuses for the service (with legal lettering for London United) housed at RATP’s engineering base in Twickenham. Five vehicles are used during the day with the spare five vehicles entering service with late turn drivers as the five early turn drivers take their buses back to base, so a bit inefficient on the capital employed front.

The operating day is an extensive 06:00 to 01:00, seven days a week. Yes, really. TfL certainly know how to splash the cash when it comes to DRT trials. The five vehicles will be covering a large part of the London Borough of Ealing from Southall in the west to the North Circular in the east and from the A40 down to Boston Manor on the southern Borough boundary.

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Everything else is pretty much the same as in Sutton with rides costing £3.50 a go with a daily cap of £10.50, a weekly £35 cap and a monthly top whack of £105. Additional passengers booked at the same time pay £2 a ride. The system doesn’t accept Oyster or contactless and although journeys are encouraged to be booked and paid for through the app, there is a phone number given for people without smartphones and an operator will book the journey for you and let you know pick up location and estimated time, but after that you’re on your own, with no further updates.

Children under 13 are not carried unless with an adult and those aged 13 to 16 need parental or guardian consent to register with the service.

Freedom Passes and English National Concessionary Travel Scheme Passes need to be pre-registered by email when a six digit coupon number will be provided within 24 hours which can be entered into the app to provide a full offset to the cost of each journey giving a ‘nil balance’. I applied yesterday and received a reply within three hours. The coupon lasts for 180 days (it also refers to 1,000 journeys, but I won’t be travelling that often) so I assume I need to apply for a new coupon number halfway through the twelve month trial if I want to continue enjoying a free personal taxi service across Ealing.

My first journey this morning was from Ealing Broadway to Boston Manor. I booked it at 10.35 with an expected arrival within 8 minutes at a pick up point at Bus Stop D on Haven Green just a stone’s throw from the station exit.

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One annoying thing about the booking software is despite putting the “destination” icon in the exact place I want to go, it comes back with “16 Cawdor Crescent” rather than something a bit more user-friendly like Boston Manor. I appreciate this is because the minibus won’t be actually taking me to the front door of the station at Boston Manor which is tantalizing just over the scheme boundary, but it assumes I know where Cawdor Crescent is, which I don’t.

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The app also gives an estimated range for the journey time, in this case of between 11 and 21 minutes, which seemed a bit vague. Anyway Will duly drove up within the expected waiting time, and I was well impressed to hear I was his second passenger of the day. So a busy day for him!

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There’s a fleet number in the top nearside corner of the front so you can be sure you’re boarding the correct vehicle. Whereas Viavan lets you know the driver’s name, MOIA doesn’t, so that’s a helpful feature.

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His dashboard mounted tablet with its zoom in map showing directions took us along some very narrow residential streets for the Boston Manor bound journey. The software seemed to be doing everything possible to take us on a route that avoided any main road.

We duly arrived in Cawdor Crescent after a 12 minute ride and I bid farewell to Will who’d been driving big buses on and off for a number of years with Metroline as his last employer, so he had high hopes for this new venture.

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I wandered around to Boston Manor station and caught a Piccadilly Line train the two stops to South Ealing to reposition myself for my next journey to Greenford Broadway which I ordered at 11:12am.

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Again, despite landing the “To” icon exactly in the middle of the crossroads of Greenford Broadway, the software wanted to take me to Clifton Road, which I was also told was a 1 minute walk from 424 Greenford Road. Sounded good, so I booked it and was told my “Slide arrives in 12 min”.

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I was impressed that the route to be taken by the incoming vehicle to pick me up took account of the roadworks right outside South Ealing station and that Dorset Road, a 2 minute walk from where I was at “82A S Ealing Road” aka South Ealing station was closed as part of the works.

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Ovi arrived ten minutes later and we set off with an expected journey time range between “17-29 min ride”. Interestingly that worse case 29 minute scenario was almost as long as the TfL Journey Planner recommendation of catching a 65 to Ealing Broadway and changing to an E10. Suffice to say the Journey Planner didn’t know about Slide.

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I was chatting to Ovi and found I was his first passenger of the day. He’d also been a big bus driver, but for him, with London Sovereign itself so no employer change had been needed. I then noticed a screen immediately behind the driver which showed my initials alongside the drop off destination and the estimated time.

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I guess this might be useful if there’s more passengers on board (some hope!) as you can see the order of when you’ll expect to reach your destination. As Andrew Garnett pointed out on Twitter it’s a shame the manufacturer’s sticker hadn’t been removed!

As you approach the drop off, the screen changes to add a reminder “don’t forget your personal belongings”.

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Another repositioning via TfL big bus route 92 down to Ealing Hospital where at 12:06 I ordered my third and final ride of the day to take me right up into the north east corner of the Borough, just a stones throw from Hanger Lane gyratory and Underground station.

IMG_2968.jpgI was wondering whether the pick up point at Ealing Hospital would be by the bus stops for routes 92, 282 and 483 within the hospital grounds and sure enough it came through as at “TfL Bus Stop – Ealing Hospital” but prior to that confirmation it was insisting I was trying to book “from Denman Avenue” which must be an internal hospital road as the icon was definitely in the hospital grounds.

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Even more bizarre the destination drop off was shown as “Hail & Ride Section” which was a “O min walk” from “112 Garrick Cl’. I just wanted Hanger Lane!

It would be another “23-37 min ride” and “Slide arrives in 7 min”. Which it did.

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And surprisingly was a blue liveried minibus, but otherwise the same as the previous two internally.

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Pat, my driver, explained five of the minibuses are coloured blue and five white as a base colour. He wasn’t sure why; he was just pleased to see me, as he’d been on an early shift and I was his very first customer at 12:15.

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Like Will and Ovi, Pat had had big bus driving experience during his career and had been attracted to the innovative nature of this service which he had great hopes would be a success although he admitted he was getting worried about not having had any customers all morning until I came along.

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There was a bit of a gremlin in the ‘drop off’ screen behind the driver seemingly on the wrong display ratio.

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Pat also had some confusion as we rounded the Hanger Lane gyratory when he thought his tablet was showing to head south down the North Circular instead of back round on to the westbound A40, so just to be sure he went round the gyratory a second time and it became obvious the directional arrow in the top left hand corner was indicating an instruction in the distance shown, rather than immediate.

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Confusion sorted and I duly arrived at my destination of “Hail & Ride Sec…” after a 25 minute ride just over the optimistic range of the predicted “23-37 min ride”.

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Pat explained that he’d been waiting at his chosen spot all morning for a customer and it only then dawned on me that whereas Viavan’s software designates a spot where it’s optimal for drivers to wait, the MOIA software allows drivers to wait anywhere of their choosing. This seems an odd way of working as Pat admitted, first thing in the morning the drivers could all end up waiting close by each other in one corner of the Borough. He explained a controller can see where they all are and can ask them to move, but that’s hardly an efficient and cost effective way of working. I thought the software was supposed to remove the requirement for a costly controller; albeit someone also needs to be available to book phone requests from non smartphone owning passengers too.

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So, another DRT launch, another handful of solo journeys in my (now, free to use) personal taxi, and no doubt more hyped up trade press coverage to come. I see the Confederation of Passenger Transport and the Campaign for Better Transport were busy sending out missives to politicians and the trade press this week calling for innovative DRT type schemes to be funded and supported as the salvation of rural transport. I wish they’d get out of their offices and see DRT in action, lest we have more wasted funding prior to more DRT ‘pilots’ being terminated as hopeless causes.

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Roger French

 

 

Heathrow funds more bus routes

Thursday 14th November 2019

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It’s becoming notable how many new and improved bus routes are being introduced with financial support from Heathrow Airport offering better connections for staff and airline travellers. Anyone would think there’s a third runway in the offing.

I wrote about First Bus’s new RailAir link from Guildford to Heathrow when it kicked off back in July. Earlier this month I wrote about the much improved timetable introduced a couple of weeks ago on Thames Valley branded route 10 to Datchet, Windsor and Dedworth and yesterday I caught up with a couple more initiatives now up and running thanks to the ever generous Heathrow Airport Ltd.

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Route X442 began on 10th August providing a direct quick link from Staines rail station pretty much non stop along the A3044 past the massive reservoirs straight to Terminal 5. It supplements the more circuitous route 442 via Ashford Hospital, Stanwell and Stanwell Moor which has also seen an improved timetable with late evening journeys and a new Sunday service. Both routes 442 and X442 are operated by Carlone with swanky Mercedes minibuses with the usual leather type seats, awful leg room, especially over the wheel arches, but a handy usb socket in the side panels.

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Surrey County Council have also chipped in to facilitate the improved service and Spelthorne Borough Council (in which Staines resides) has aspirations for a ‘Southern Light Rail’ scheme which “will form part of the Oyster card network”. Recent press reports state the Council “had been given the nod to proceed with its bid” for such a scheme. I guess when you have a Masterplan which builds a new runway, eliminates communities by bulldozing hundreds of homes, diverts rivers and roads, burrows the M25 into a tunnel and goodness knows what else, a light rail connecting Staines into the airport is almost petty cash consideration. But, in the meantime for Stainesites and Heathrow workers using SWR trains to the station, it’s the new look X442 for now.

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I took a ride around lunchtime yesterday from Terminal 5 out to Staines and back again. It’s a tight run taking thirteen minutes pretty much non-stop. The half hour frequency is operated by just the one minibus, and one driver, who notwithstanding the punishing regime was amazingly cheerful (even handing me a promotional pen with timetable) but he did admit the constant up and down the same bit of the A3044 does get to him towards the end of the shift in the afternoons.

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The first X442 journey leaves Staines station at 06:33 and continues until 19:03. There’s an hours gap mid morning and mid afternoon when passengers are directed to use the circuitous 442 instead which is appropriately diverted via the station (where it doesn’t normally go – preferring the bus station for the rest of its approximate 90 minute frequency timetable). The 442 also covers for the missing X442 in the evenings and on Sundays.

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I was the only passenger on the 12:32 journey from Terminal 5 to Staines station but on the return trip leaving the station at 12:45 we picked a passenger up in the High Street who deliberately let the First Berkshire route 8 go by as she was pleased to tell the driver the cheaper fare on the X442 saved her £2. She reckoned a few of her colleagues had also twigged about the cheaper fares and made the switch. First’s route 8 also provides a fast half hourly link from Staines to Terminal 5, albeit serving the town’s bus station rather than the rail station.

The cheaper fares and the regular frequency will make the X442 an attractive link for the airport’s workers to and from Staines and the half hour frequency is generous but necessary if connections to trains at the station are going to be convenient. It’s quite an investment, but there again, Heathrow Airport can no doubt afford it.

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The second new route to Terminal 5 only began last week, so it’s still early days. Operated by Reading Buses/Thames Valley route 459 provides a link to Iver just over the border in Buckinghamshire and also takes in Langley (twice on each journey).

CEO of Reading Buses, Robert Williams has explained the full service is not set to begin until next February, but in the meantime the five off-peak journey a day Monday to Friday taster timetable runs between 09:38 and 14:28 and has been “mobilised exceptionally quickly for the various authorities and will build everything up as things progress”.

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The Reading Buses news release issued a couple of weeks ago says “the new route will be implemented in three phases as we trial different bus types”. Phase one started on Monday of last week and runs until 20th December using a full electric bus with the service “completely free to use”.

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Phase two runs during the month of January and “we will use one of our single deck buses that run on compressed natural gas”.

Phase three from 3rd February sees “the full timetable introduced which will include a service running from 3am until after midnight, and of course, include weekends. From phase three, full fares will be in operation”. This full service will be run by a Euro 6 diesel engine bus.

This is an intriguing way of starting a new bus route; I’ve never come across anything quite like it before, and am not sure I understand the logic behind the various phases nor why the three month lead in period until the full timetable.Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 15.25.55.png

Route 459 takes in part of First Berkshire’s route 7 through Langley and I wonder if they will be pleased about this new interloper once the full timetable is introduced next year. For now, the five off-peak journeys are hardly a threat and unsurprisingly yesterday when I had a ride around on the 11:38 from Terminal 5 we left with no-one on board.

The online route map (above) shows “certain journeys only” making a detour via Langley before commencing the anti-clockwise circuit via Iver and we followed this route and the timetable shows all five journeys do so; perhaps this will change once the full timetable is implemented.  It certainly adds to the sense of going round in circles for people travelling to Iver.

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When we got to Iver station we picked up a passenger who thought we were First Berkshire’s route 3 to Uxbridge where she was heading to (presumably) change on to TfL’s route A10 to get to Heathrow Central Bus Station for Terminal 2, so she was well pleased to discover she was on a free-to-use bus (for now) to Terminal 5 where she could make a (free) connection to the Central bus station. She was the only passenger but there didn’t seem to be much publicity for the 459 at bus stops as we went along the route, so that wasn’t surprising.

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I spotted a timetable attached to a bus stop pole in Iver itself, but there was nothing displayed in bus shelters in Langley or through Colnbrook and no bus stops plates had the 459 number added.

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I commented last week about the appalling dearth of helpful information about bus departures at Terminal 5 itself and wasn’t surprised to see no mention at all of the 459 anywhere yesterday.

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It seems quite bizarre that Heathrow Airport are funding at considerable expense these new services, including the 459 and the improved route 10, yet there’s absolutely no mention of these initiatives. Quite how people are supposed to find out about them I really don’t know.

Terminal 5 compares very poorly with the Central Bus Station where there are at least displays advising you where to catch buses and coaches, and their destinations.

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Compare the above with this disgraceful display at a Terminal 5 bus stop.

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While at the Central Bus Station, I picked up a copy of the acclaimed Local Bus & Coach Guide (edition 2 dated 1 July 2019) and this is a real gem with a regional map showing bus routes to and from the airport, who operates what, and what special fare deals are available for airport staff.

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Hopefully another edition will be published soon with all these latest initiatives included. And Terminal 5’s departure bays will get some much needed attention.

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Roger French

Road testing AIR

Thursday 7th November 2019

IMG_2670.jpgSeeing the photos online I was already hugely impressed by the sheer presence of the magnificent looking Alexander Dennis built Plaxton Panorama tri-axle coaches launched by Scottish Citylink on their AIR branded service between Glasgow and Edinburgh Airport towards the end of last month.

Costing a cool £400,000, each of the five vehicles entering service seats 75 giving a capacity increase of just over a third compared to the single decks being replaced which have hitherto run the service.

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Peter Knight, Citylink’s enthusiastic and dynamic Operations Director, suggested I gave it a couple of weeks or so before heading up to take a ride as the new buses are being drip fed into service as they become available. I thought today would be a good day to give it a try and luckily on arrival at Edinburgh Airport only had to let one of the two single deck coaches out in service go before one of the three smart new double decks on the road turned up.

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They look every bit as impressive in the flesh as the photographs portray. Edinburgh Airport is getting used to tri-axles following Lothian Buses’ recent upgrade of its Airlink service but the bright and sleek AIR livery takes image to a whole new level. My good friend Ray Stenning at Best Impressions has really come up trumps with this latest creation.

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Step on board and the interior is equally impressive. There are two staircases to the upper deck, one in the traditional location immediately behind the driver on the offside with a 180 degree climb and turn ….

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…. and another at the rear nearside by the rear access door for wheelchair users immediately in front of the rear luggage compartment.

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With this rear door only in use for wheelchair users there’s not really much to be gained from using the rear stairs as you still need to make your way through the lower deck to the front door to exit.

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I like the comfortable seats, the generous leg room (for a 75 seater), the decor and lighting, including contrasting colour floor, arm rests and smart moquette. You can tell a professional designer has been at work. It really does show.

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There are above seat reading lights, usb sockets, Wi-fi, seat back trays and smartphone holders.

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On the lower deck there are two slim width tables for four at the front with wireless charging.

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I like the light grey surround by the front entrance …..

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….. which contrasted with the darker lower deck interior behind the stairs especially without the interior lights on …

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I’m not so keen on the front upper deck ‘next stop’ display box, although at least it’s not a full on monitor completely blocking forward views.

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It’s good to see all these refinements becoming standard for new vehicles being introduced by enlightened operators determined to raise the quality bar to attract passengers. These vehicles for once almost do deserve the self awarded accolade in their launch news release of being ‘state of the art’ and ‘game changing’.

I say ‘almost’ as to be really ‘state of the art’ and ‘game changing’ a manufacturer really needs to crack the condensation and misting up problem when it rains, especially on the front upper deck windscreen.

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Granted it was raining during the journey but that’s not unusual for a Scottish November morning. The demisters above the windscreen were blowing cool air down but the ones along the bottom blowing up were pretty ineffective.

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Things did improve for a while but it soon misted up again. Hopefully this is just new vehicle teething problems. For me, a real ‘game changer’ would not only be effective demisters but upper deck windscreen wipers too.

The AIR service is operated for Citylink by West Coast Motors. Introduced in 2013 it runs a daily half hourly frequency from 04:45 to 18:15, hourly until 22:15 then hourly through the night as a diversion of the route 900 Glasgow to Edinburgh service. Journey time is around an hour.

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For a miserable mid November morning I was impressed to see a decent load catching the 10:25 departure and a similar number on the next 10:55 departure which I caught from Edinburgh Airport.

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The route follows the M8 across to Glasgow with a stop soon after leaving the Airport at Ratho Station before joining the motorway.

About halfway along the route we pulled into Harthill Services to observe a stop and set down a DHL employee from the airport and where I understand there’s an adjacent Park and Ride site which is handy for both AIR and the 900.

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The only other stop is just off the motorway at the swish ‘out-of-town’ barrier controlled business campus called Maxim Park (also given the Eurocentral name) with its massive car parking but as a nod to sustainability also facilitating a bus stop for AIR, the 900 and a few other bus routes.

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We picked up one passenger but I’m sure peak time buses are potentially busier with commuters helpfully complimenting the airport market.

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We had a smooth run into Glasgow and arrived at the busy Buchanan Bus Station pretty much on time.

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I noticed a wide area to the nearside of the parking up bay for the service had been marked up and barriered off to allow for the unloading of luggage which is either through a nearside door at the very rear or a flap into a smaller locker above the rearmost wheel.

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This looked a little awkward to me, especially at Edinburgh Airport where luggage loading and unloading had to be squeezed in the very narrow gap alongside the shelter. At both the Airport and in Glasgow a member of staff was on hand to do the loading and unloading.

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A £12.50 single fare (£21 return) is about average for a service of this kind, and these splendid vehicles certainly make you feel you’re getting a superior, comfortable, smooth, value for money ride. Which you are.

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Well done to Peter and the Citylink team. The bar has definitely been raised for airport coach quality.

Roger French

My new found freedom from fares

Wednesday 6th November 2019

IMG_E2402.jpgToday’s been an auspicious day for me. It’s not my birthday but by dint of political chicanery back in 2010, my postcode and date-of-birth numbers have today, at last, come up in the concessionary bus fares entitlement lottery. There are now 8,500,001 people in England enjoying free travel on local bus routes all over the nation.

In 2017/18 884,000,000 journeys were made by those 8,500,000 passholders (as well as a further 900,000 people with a disability) within the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS), working out at 1.8 journeys per passholder each week. That figure was a reduction of 4.8% on the previous year in 2016/17. I’ll soon reverse that trend!

Had I been born just four years before I actually was I would have been admitted into the Free Bus Pass Club nine and a half years ago. That’s because us post war baby boomers born in the first half of the 1950s got caught up in the Government’s controversial increase-the-female-pension-age-from-60-to-66 policy to which the entitlement of a concessionary bus pass for both males and females became aligned from 2010.

Between my 60th and 65th birthday the entitlement date for a pass seemed to get further and further away as the transitionary period accelerated faster than my ageing. Still, on the upside, at least being a 1954 babe means I’ve only had to wait until aged 65 and 7 months. Had my Mum and Dad waited a few more months before my conception, I’d have had to wait right through until aged 66 – more than another five months away.

Then there’s my postcode. By a quirk of fate arising from Margaret Thatcher’s Government publishing a White Paper in 1984 which saw the deregulation and privatisation of the bus industry I ended up staying (and thoroughly enjoying) a career running buses in Brighton for the ensuing thirty years. Had the 1985 Transport Act never come about, I’d no doubt have continued a career involving a move from one job to another all around the country, as I did in the nationalised 1970s and early 1980s, and who knows, might have ended enjoying retirement with a postcode in Scotland, Wales, Merseyside or London. In that case I’d have been enjoying free travel within those areas 5 years and 7 months ago when I hit 60; as all residents aged 60 and over in those areas continue to do today. Indeed lucky Londoners aged 60 and over can travel on the Underground, DLR and trams as well as buses to work and, after the morning peak, on trains too.

Conversely my home county, West Sussex, is one of two-thirds of local authorities offering the stautory bare minimum set by Government under ENCTS. Around a third of local authorities allow (and fund) pass holders to travel before 09:30 on Mondays to Fridays and slightly more also allow journeys after 23:00. Some also allow travel on trams where operated.

My new found freedom from fares is all thanks to the Concessionary Bus Travel Act 2007 which improved the previous half-fare travel concession throughout England (which itself had been introduced from 1st April 2006) to free travel beginning from 1st April 2008.

It costs approximately £1.12 billion per annum to provide the statutory minimum local bus travel concession in England (including London) but the whole business of grants to local authorities and reimbursement to bus operators is obscure and opaque. Since 1 April 2011 all funding for ENCTS has been wrapped up within the Formula Grant each local authority receives from the Department for Communities and Local Government and is indistinguishable from other funding awarded to Councils.

Reimbursement rates bus operators receive are an even murkier affair. I’ve yet to meet a bus manager happy with their reimbursement arrangement. I’ve yet to meet a local authority officer happy with the funding received from Government to reflect concessionary pass use. Legally bus companies should be no better or worse off as me and the other 8,500,000 passholders travel around. If the scheme were to end tomorrow, some of us would still travel but pay full price adult rate fares including day and longer period tickets; I certainly would! But how many others would and how many journeys would simply disappear because they were no longer free is not known, no matter how much research into generation factors is undertaken.

Consequently in a world where local authority funding is in a downward spiral, the pressure is on Finance Officers to reduce reimbursement rates paid to bus companies which in turn undermines the financial viability of some of the very journeys passholders depend on.

Those 884,000,000 journeys made in 2017/18 attracted funding for bus companies of £888,000,000. That’s pretty much a £1 per journey. (In London it’s 80p and in shire councils on average it works out at £1.14). One bus manager in a Home Counties bus company was telling me recently he receives 94p per journey. No wonder he can’t afford to run a shoppers special dominated by ENCTS passholders to Bluewater in Kent with a two-thirds full 45 seater bus bringing in the grand sum of £56 revenue (there and back). It hardly stretches to cover the cost of diesel used.

Personally, from today I’m going to be quids in with my new pass (and now receiving a statutory pension too). So far this year I’ve spent £403.21 (the odd penny was for last Tuesday’s ride on Stagecoach’s new X1) on bus fares in England. That’s for 153 journeys in England (I’ve excluded journeys in London which I usually use a Travelcard for; on Go-Ahead Group buses which I receive a retired staff pass for and for journeys in Scotland and Wales which my ENCTS pass won’t cover), so that works out at £2.63 per journey, which means for the likes of Arriva, First, Stagecoach, Transdev and a whole host of small bus companies I’ve travelled with this year, if they only receive that average reimbursement of £1.14 per journey for my travels in the coming years it’ll be a reduction of 57%. While local authorities where I travel, which have previously not had to worry about my wanderings in their territories, will now have to hand over an average £1.14 each time I’m in town (or village) and travel by bus.

I’ll be better off; bus companies and local authorities will be worse off. The Government won’t provide any more funding as they’ll assume as I begin my life of ENCTS travelling, someone else, somewhere else will be ceasing theirs, either through ill health or death. And they’re not far wrong, pass take up rates are broadly stable while absolute numbers have been declining as the qualifying age has been rising.

The whole issue of whether concessionary bus travel has been a good thing is mired in controversy. There’s the ‘we’ve paid our taxes all our lives and deserve some benefits in retirement’ argument and the ‘it reduces social isolation and enhances personal wellbeing and mobility’ as well as the ‘it achieves modal shift as older people are not driving their cars and can still get about’. The Greener Journeys campaign funded by the Big Groups reckons the scheme is great not only for those reasons but for the industry as well; yet at the same time bus companies and local authorities are overseeing reductions in bus journeys for reasons often related to poor reimbursement rates for concessionary travel. It’s naive to think any scheme dependent on Government funding is ever going to be satisfactory. Ever.

Anyway, I’ve at last come of ENCTS age, and intend to make the most of it. I can only apologise to colleagues in the industry; henceforth they will no longer be properly rewarded for my custom.

To celebrate my new ‘oldie’ status today I took a train well before the 09:00 Senior Railcard watershed at my local Hassocks station thereby handing extra money over to Southern Rail (which ironically goes straight to Government in that management contract style ‘franchise’ meaning I’ve more than funded my bus travels today) so I could be in Hertfordshire by 09:30 with my newly issued pass to try it out.

I started my new fares free regime off with a wander around Herts, Bucks and Beds spreading the funding reimbursement requirements around a few local authorities and bus companies.

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Hemel Hempstead seemed a good place to begin but the day didn’t work out as originally planned due to North Western Railway running late, but at least I didn’t have to worry about wasted money on operator specific day tickets I may have already bought on my phone as plans changed.

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My very first concessionary journey kindly funded by Hertfordshire County Council was just a short trip into Hemel’s town centre on Arriva’s route 500. I think I noticed from the passenger boarding in front of me this would only have cost me £1.10 paying full fare so just a teaser to start.

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Next up was a trip across to Luton on Centrebus route 46 which would have cost me £4.20 yesterday, but today Hertfordshire County Council funded me.

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My bus fare savings are increasing as I then head over to Milton Keynes on Stagecoach route 99 which costs £6.40 single. Thanks Luton Borough Council for finding that.

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Then to Flitwick on the newly improved hourly timetable on Grant Palmer’s route 34 and with an impressive load too, and a brand new bus. Milton Keynes Borough Council will be picking up the tab for that journey giving Grant Palmer £2.36 (I understand – so nicely more than that £1.14 average) instead of the £6.30 I would have paid them had I travelled yesterday.

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I then had a fascinating impromptu interlude with a guided tour of Grant Palmer’s garage in Flitwick thanks to Thomas Manship (it’s a great family owned bus company) who’d spotted my travels coming in his direction on Twitter, before taking Thameslink down to Luton where I took my fifth and final freebie of the day.IMG_2552.jpg

And the most expensive too, at £12 single for a ride on Arriva’s Green Line 757 to Victoria, another reimbursement requirement for Luton Borough Council.

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If I’d replicated today’s travels yesterday it would have cost me £30 in single journey bus fares as interestingly no day ticket would have covered my varied operator/geographical area/journey itinerary. As it is I paid nothing and three local authorities (Herts/Luton/MK) will probably be handing over around a tenner – I’ve no idea what the precise reimbursement arrangements are especially for the 757, but I suspect they’re not generous.

However, I only made these journeys today because I received my new concessionary pass, so in fact Arriva, Centrebus, Stagecoach and Grant Palmer are better off no matter how much they get reimbursed as I wouldn’t have planned a day out incurring £30 worth of fares.

That’s the vagaries of ‘generation factors’ for you and why it’ll always be controversial.

Roger French

Thames Valley boost to Terminal 5

Saturday 2nd November 2019

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Reading Buses owned Courtney Buses are making significant changes to bus services for the Windsor to Heathrow corridor this weekend. The improved timetable and revamp includes a smart new branding with buses sporting an updated Thames Valley livery for colour coded routes.

I travelled over to the eastern end of what we used to know as the Royal County of Berkshire yesterday to take a look before the new arrangements kick in.

I understand the greatly improved timetable for route 10 between Dedworth, Windsor, Datchet and Heathrow Terminal 5 starting tomorrow is being funded by Heathrow Airport as part of its continuing commitment to increase public transport use to and from the airport.

From my grisly experience of Terminal 5’s bus station yesterday I reckon the Airport needs to invest in brightening the place up and making the information displays more helpful and up to date as a top priority if it’s really serious about getting air travellers and airline staff to use the bus. It will be far more effective than funding an expansion of a little used bus route.

IMG_2228.jpgHeathrow’s Central Bus Station has a long shelter which is far too narrow to keep the many waiting passengers for local buses dry and warm in poor weather conditions, but at least being in the open air it has natural light. Terminal 5’s catch-a-bus experience offers a truly dark and dismal under-a-terminal-building wait which is anything but attractive. And if that subterraneum blues isn’t bad enough, information provision is simply dire.

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There’s a foreboding array of bus stops lined up numbered from 1 to 31 across a barrier sperated two lanes catering for a full range of journeys with buses to car parks, car hire and hotels as well as traditional bus and express coach services. The latter depart from immediately outside the exit/entrance to the Terminal building but the main departure listing includes long withdrawn bus route numbers (60, 61, 71, 77 and 78) while an extra listing supposedly highlighting TfL operated routes also includes route 442 (operated by Carlone Buses) but no mention of routes operated by First Berkshire and Reading Buses owned Green Line and Courtney Buses. There’s also no mention of the more recent innovation – a fast route X442 between Staines and Terminal 5 operated by Carlone Buses.

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Can you imagine if such a cavalier approach to information display applied inside Terminal 5 for British Airways’ flight departures – showing gate numbers for flight departures that had long been withdrawn and no information about some flights about to take off?

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The whole waiting environment is inhibiting and off putting. No wonder I saw bus after bus with minimal loadings arriving and departing including the recent RailAir initiative from Guildford (First’s new route RA2) with just one passenger on board; and the 10:32 departure on Carlone operated route X442 never showed up at all.

In the absence of  “where to catch your bus” information you have to wander up and down the bus stops to see which routes depart from which stop and then the situation is confused by bus stop flags displaying incorrect route numbers or a lack of route numbers.

The situation is not helped by First Berkshire running a half hourly circular route numbered both 8 and 9, with the former number linking Terminal 5 with Windsor (via Staines) where it changes into a 9 to return via Slough and direct to Terminal 5 (in both directions). It’s easy when you know the logic of it all, but totally baffling without any information to explain it. Furthermore there’s a slower route 7 to Slough via Langley every 20 minutes and then there’s the hourly Green Line 703 also direct to Slough. Passengers have a great travel choice but it’s not much good if they can’t easily see where and how to take advantage of it.

I arrived to catch the about-to-be-withdrawn 10:40 journey on route 11 which follows the same route as route 10 as far as Datchet then continuing to Slough instead of Windsor with a journey time of forty minutes. It was unnerving to see the bus stop timetable showing this as a journey numbered 10 and operating to Windsor but I remained confident noting the display is dated 27 May 2018 therefore being many months out of date (and this immediately outside the UK’s premier airport’s newest terminal!).

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My confidence was boosted while waiting when a confused passenger asked me where to catch the bus to Slough showing me an app on his smartphone displaying the upcoming 11 departure. He didn’t seem interested in my trying to persuade him to catch the First Berkshire route 9 at 10:30 direct to Slough which would get him there in 24 minutes, let alone knowing which stop it departs from as there’s scant mention of it and I was reluctant to go for another wander up and down the bus stop line looking for it.

IMG_2233.jpgLuckily he seemed happy to join me on the longer more rural and reservoir spotting ride on the 11 which at least helped the number of passengers to reach four including us Slough bound two, a flight attendant heading home to nearby Poyle and another passenger to Datchet. Based on that experience I don’t think this rather oddly timed one-off off-peak journey a day to Slough is going to be missed in the new timetable. That’s a shame, as it’s quite a quirky ride along narrow lanes nestling between the M4, the SWR operated Windsor and Eton Riverside railway line and an array of reservoirs.

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Aside from that Slough journey, the current route 10 timetable includes four very early morning journeys from Dedworth and Windsor via Datchet and Wraysbury to Heathrow Terminal 5 (arrivals at 04:45, 05:35, 06:35, 07:04) with the first two journeys starting back at Bracknell where Courtney’s main depot is based. These are presumably timed for airport staff and passengers on early departing flights. The timetable for the rest of the day is less attractive with long gaps between arrivals at Terminal 5 at 08:45, 10:32, 12:12, 14:02, 16:22, 18:23, 19:44, 21:44 and 23:44.

But it’s all change from Monday when there’ll be a consistent and improved hourly service on the 10 from Dedworth and Windsor until around 17:00 (including a new early arrival into Terminal 5 at 03:48) with evening journeys after that reduced to arrivals at 18:27, 19:37 and 22:05.

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Some of the early morning journeys currently run via the village of Horton (between Datchet and Pyle) but this link will cease due to lack of use with all journeys running via Sunnymeads and Wraysbury.

Between Windsor and Dedworth the hourly timetable on the 10 is co-ordinated with a reduced hourly (currently half-hourly) timetable on route 2 (Slough-Windsor-Dedworth), although between Slough and Windsor the new route 2 hourly timings are close to the Green Line 703 times so not particularly convenient.

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There’s a rather attractive slimline timetable book for the Slough and Windsor area available containing the new timetables and a route map. This also helpfully includes a cooridnated timetable between Dedworth and Windsor for routes 2 and 10, but strangely I can’t find a link to it online where only the separate timetables are shown.

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A new-look darker Thames Valley livery is being rolled out to replace the Courtney brand name and I spotted a number of buses with their new vinyls ready for Monday’s expanded route 10 being used on other routes as well as doing some route training for drivers.

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It looks as though some inter-working between the half hourly route 5 between Cippenham and Slough and the revised hourly route 2 between Slough and Windsor/Dedworth is envisaged with buses carrying a combined branded livery.

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After my route 11 experience I took the opportunity to take a circular ride on Thames Valley (née Courtney Buses) route 15 to Maidenhead then round to Windsor on route 16 and back to Slough on route 2.

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Route 15 was one of the routes given up by First Berkshire in January 2018 who ran it as far as Eton Wick however Courtney Buses saw merit in extending four of the ten journeys a day across Dorney Common and Dorney to Maidenhead.

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Although we carried about a dozen passengers to Eton and Eton Wick, sadly only two continued on to Maidenhead. However, route 16 back to Windsor via the lovely village of Bray as well as Holypot and Dedworth was much busier and looked to be a nice little money-spinning hourly service.

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My short trip back to Slough on route 2 was with only around half a dozen other passengers perhaps indicating why that frequency is being reduced from two to one bus an hour albeit with Green Line 702 and 703 also providing one bus an hour each as well.

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Except, as highlighted above, it’s not very well coordinated. For example departures from Windsor to Slough from lunch time into the afternoon are at 15, 35 and 38 minutes past each hour.

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It makes sense for Reading Buses to consolidate its acquisition of Courtney Buses earlier this year with the set-up it began at the beginning of 2018 in Slough when it first introduced the Thames Valley brand for two of the routes (2 and 5) it took over when First Berskshire withdrew. Courtney Buses was a respected family owned company which has done a lot of good things to revitalise the network left by First in the Bracknell and Maidenhead areas but I suspect it’s been an interesting challenge over the last six months to bring standards up to those commonplace in the main Reading Buses operation.

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I noticed a few oddities yesterday including a bizarre display across three in-bus monitor screens explaining why an increase in fares was being introduced in March 2019 …. eight months ago. 

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I was also intrigued that dogs still pay fares in this part of Bark-shire! Still at least it’s a Rover ticket.IMG_2338.jpg

It certainly brings back fond memories to see the Thames Valley name back on buses running between Slough, Maidenhead and Windsor and the new livery is attractive and colourful, a bit more sombre than the interim one introduced in early 2018 but I understand it’s part of a family of brands including the Newbury & District set up over on the western side of Berkshire.

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With First Berkshire also using colour coding for their routes based on Slough, the town is turning into a very bright place for buses. Long may that continue.

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Roger French

 

Stagecoach’s new Designer X1

Tuesday 29th October 2019

IMG_2139.jpgIt’s good to see Stagecoach introducing another new commercial inter-urban bus route with the Group’s Yorkshire company trailblazing a brand new service between Chesterfield and Nottingham this week.

The new X1 provides an attractive alternative to the long standing Pronto branded route Stagecoach East Midlands operate jointly with TrentBarton running every thirty minutes via Mansfield. The X1 takes a shorter more westerly route via Clay Cross and Alfreton as well as using a section of the M1. It also offers a much quicker journey between Alfreton and Nottingham than TrentBarton’s half hourly Rainbow 1.

IMG_2071.jpgThe X1 timetable offers an hourly frequency on Mondays to Saturdays and every ninety minutes on Sundays with an end to end journey time taking around 80 minutes depending on the time of day.

IMG_2207.jpgOperated by three double deck buses based in Chesterfield to the 2014 version of the Stagecoach Gold specification (Wi-fi and pretend leather seats but no usb), the first weekday journey heads down to Nottingham as early as 05:27 to provide a 06:54 return with the last southbound journey at 18:50 and 20:15 back. Saturday’s timetable starts about an hour later but includes a late evening northbound departure back from Nottingham at 23:00. A 12 hour day from 08:30 to 20:30 is available on Sundays.

IMG_2025.jpgThe X1 has kicked off this half-term week with an eye-catching fare offer of just 1p single so I couldn’t resist taking a ride today to try it out.

IMG_2078.jpgI arrived at Nottingham’s Victoria bus station in time to catch the 13:06 departure to Chesterfield. The bus was due to arrive on its previous journey into Nottingham at 12:55 and was only a few minutes late having brought in a good load from Chesterfield.

IMG_2148.jpgJulie from Stagecoach Yorkshire had been busy handing out timetable leaflets for the X1 to passengers passengers waiting in Nottingham’s Victoria bus station and was impressively promoting the new service to everyone passing through.

IMG_2069.jpgA large banner also helped to draw attention to the new route and it was good to see the departure bus stop flag and timetable case had been updated.

IMG_2024.jpgAlthough the TrentBarton departure stand listing hadn’t yet been updated …

IMG_2026.jpg…. but they did have a supply of leaflets alongside their travel information window in the bus station.

IMG_2065.jpgAround 25 passengers boarded the X1 and we set off on time at 13:06 picking up a few more at bus stops on the way out of the city centre.

Bus stop flags had all been updated in both Nottingham and once we’d passed into Derbyshire and it looked as though new timetables were on display too.

IMG_2137.jpgWe joined the M1 at junction 26 at 13:30 and continued for ten minutes to junction 28 where we left to do a 6-7 minute double run to serve the vast East Midlands Designer Outlet.

IMG_2124.jpgThis Outlet is dominated by a massive free car park ….

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…. with the bus stop for the X1 a bit of a walk from the shops but on the upside the bus won’t get stuck in a queue of cars seeking out an empty space.

 

IMG_2135.jpgWe lost a bit of time passing through a busy Alfreton and temporary traffic lights near Clay Cross cost us a couple of minutes so we pulled into Chesterfield at 14:30, six minutes late. It’s quite a tight schedule although differential running times through the peaks will help.

We must have picked up about a dozen passengers during the journey indicating interest already being generated on only the second weekday for the service.

 

IMG_2074.jpgSome of the passengers were abstracted from TrentBarton but the novelty of a 1p fare all this week has undoubtedly also helped and half term week is always a good time to launch a new service especially with the build up to Christmas in the coming weeks as shopping centres get busier.

Julie was telling me the idea for the service came from a number of different travel demands including students, shoppers and commuters, particularly the quicker journey between Alfreton and Nottingham thanks to the X1 using the M1 and taking just over 45 minutes (longer at peak times) compared to 80 minutes on TrentBarton’s Rainbow 1.

Julie pointed out a passenger catching the 17:15 X1 from Nottingham would be in Alfreton by 18:14 but not until half an hour later at 18:45 on the similar timed 17:15 departure on Rainbow 1. Mind you, they’d arrive at Alfreton station half an hour earlier at 17:43 if they caught the 17:17 Northern train from Nottingham but that might depend how convenient the stations are located at each end of the route for their end-to-end journey.

East Midlands Railway and Northern Trains provide a half hourly train service between Nottingham and Chesterfield (the hourly Norwich-Liverpool and hourly Nottingham-Leeds) taking between 33 and 38 minutes (depending on calling patterns) but the bus is likely to have more convenient picking up points. Stagecoach’s £7 day ticket offers savings on the Any Time day return of £18.80 (any train) or £15.40 (Northern trains only) and the Off Peak day return of £14.80 (any train) or £12.10 (Northern trains only).

I usually get a feeling quite quickly whether a new route is likely to be a success. Whereas I think the M2 introduced by Stagecoach South East between Canterbury and North Greenwich I reviewed back in July is going to struggle, I have a good feeling about the X1, rather like the X10 introduced by the same Stagecoach Yorkshire between Barnsley and Leeds two years ago which seems to be doing well.

I think the omens are good for the X1. It will be interesting to see if TrentBarton react to protect their Alfreton market.

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Roger French

There’s a new Kid on the Brooke

Saturday 26th October 2019

IMG_1652.jpgTfL’s policy of redeploying buses from Zone 1 routes into the suburbs moved forward a couple more centimetres today with the launch of brand new route 335 linking the expanding residential development at Kidbrooke with Blackheath and North Greenwich for its ‘Millennium Leisure Park’ (basically posh looking sheds with retail, restaurants, cinema etc), Jubilee Line station and ‘O2’ Arena (and a cable car).

It’s the second new suburban route to be introduced since June’s major cull of central London bus routes. I took a ride on the new 301 between Woolwich and Bexleyheath not long after it’s July introduction, but today was the inaugural day for the 335 and I’m delighted to report bus stop flags have had the 335 treatment and timetables have appeared in the cases on each bus stop. Bonus points all round.

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IMG_1600.jpgIt’s a pity online and bus stop displayed spider maps haven’t been updated, but they seldom are.

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TfL consulted on proposals to link Kidbrooke with North Greenwich back in April and May. This included two options – either Option 1, a standard all stops route via Rochester Way/Kidbrooke Park Road and Blackheath Royal Standard, or Option 2, a quick non-stop route via the western end of the A2 and A102 shaving at least five minutes off the end to end journey time.

Screen Shot 2019-10-26 at 16.15.03.pngIt turned out 65% supported or strongly supported Option 1 which provides more travel options and supplements routes 132 and 108/422 on common sections to Blackheath and on to North Greenwich, while 50% supported or strongly supported the quicker Option 2 indicating it obviously wasn’t a binary choice. 16% opposed or strongly opposed Option 1, while 20% opposed/strongly opposed Option 2.

So Option 1 had it and luckily that was TfL’s preference too.

The scheduled end to end journey time is around thirty minutes and the route has kicked off with an impressive 12 minute frequency from 05:00 to 00:30 with a 15 minute headway after 21:00 (and all day on Sundays).

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Seven double decks are being used on a schedule which includes generous stand time – I noticed a bus was on the stand when we arrived at Kidbrooke and one was just pulling on to the departure bus stop at North Greenwich as we pulled in to the arrivals bus stop.

IMG_1777.jpgThe route is operated by Arriva London’s bus garage in Dartford. It hasn’t been tendered in the usual way as it’s compensation for Arriva’s loss of the recently withdrawn route 48 (London Bridge to Walthamstow Central).

A start up route of this kind anywhere but London would come with a major marketing, promotion and PR launch to actively sell the route to passengers. TfL don’t do ‘selling’ though; they hardly do ‘informing’ as mentioned above, spider maps hadn’t been updated to let passengers know where the route goes visually.

IMG_1602.jpgI asked at the Information kiosk in North Greenwich bus station (it was closed on my first pass through at 09:45 but had opened by my return at 11:45) if there was any information or leaflet “about the new bus route to Kidbrooke” and was met with a completely blank look from the staff member behind the glass telling me the information is at the bus stop. However I spotted a supply of timetable leaflets in a rack for Stagecoach’s new M2 route to Canterbury and asked for one, so didn’t come away empty handed and was reassured actively marketing new bus routes is still a thing.

IMG_1772.jpgUnfortunately the marketing suite in the Kidbrooke residential development was closed too and unsurprisingly I couldn’t see any attractive looking leaflets promoting the new 335 bus route inside on the coffee tables.

IMG_1673.jpgI’m sure word will spread about this new travel option for Kidbrookeians especially as without any traffic delays, such as this morning, it only took twenty five minutes to make it down to Kidbrooke and that included a five minute stop in Annesley Road (just north of Kidbrooke) from 10:02 to 10:07 ‘to regulate the service’ – can’t have passengers arriving early at the terminus!

IMG_1628.jpgObviously loadings were low on this first morning and most passengers looked quizzically as the bus pulled up at bus stops served by other bus routes. But buses were carrying between half a dozen to a dozen passengers, although many may have been abstracted from parallel bus routes.

I was a bit surprised the 335 didn’t make a call at Kidbrooke station in either direction this morning (it’s listed on TfL’s website as a stop), but this may be because trains were replaced by buses for engineering works today although there seemed to be plenty of room at the bus stops by the station entrance and I spotted a bus on route 178 coming out of the slip road as we passed by.

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The massive Kidbrooke development straggles both sides of Kidbrooke Park Road and the 335, like the other longer standing (thirty years) Kidbrooke terminating bus route B16 (from Blexleyheath) serves both areas by a loop arrangement as shown in the map above. There’s also route 178 which only serves the eastern side, except not today, as it passes through from Lewisham to Woolwich and was double decked only last December.

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Route 335 will normally travel around the eastern loop both towards the terminal stop on the western side and on the return journey to North Greenwich, except it’s a shame repairs to a minor road, Ryan Close, on the eastern side during the past week meant today’s inaugural operation had to miss out this section of route.

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IMG_1668.jpgI had a wander around and it seemed to me a bit overkill with only minor repairs on half the road although it’s likely the roadworks were coming to an end. Despite it having been bus less for a week I found passengers waiting at stops expecting a bus to come around.

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I was kept quite busy letting everyone know there were no buses – few people bother to read notices placed in timetable cases.

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Back at the Kidbrooke terminus on the western side, it looked like some ‘officials’ were getting their photograph taken in front of a laying over bus to mark the auspicious occasion of a first day launch.

IMG_1650.jpgIt also looked as though Arriva’s Dartford garage has added an allocation of ferry cars to whisk drivers up and down the A2 for meal and duty reliefs.

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And I thought it was a missed opportunity that the bus shelter at the terminal point didn’t have any promotional information about the new 335 nor even an out of date spider map. Perhaps this will change in the coming weeks.

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The area known as Kidbrooke used to comprise a large housing development called Ferrier Estate which was built between 1968 and 1972 and sadly gained a reputation for crime and a lack of social cohesion. Controversially the whole area was flattened between 2009 and 2012 and is now being slowly rebuilt with 4,400 new homes, 300,000 square foot of commercial and retail space, a school and parkland.

IMG_1674.jpgIt’s pleasing to see TfL have resisted being taken in by Berkeley Homes’ misappropriate branding of the area by calling it Kidbrooke Village, preferring to stick with the long standing plain Kidbrooke on bus destination blinds.

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There’s nothing ‘Village” about Kidbrooke. Just look at the scale of property development now underway which even includes some secure underground parking.

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It will be interesting to see whether residents opt for the new route 335 and Jubilee Line option of reaching London Bridge, especially as southeastern can whisk passengers there in a third of the time in just sixteen minutes from the adjacent station.

IMG_1671.jpgIt’s only fair to point out the development does also include some tastefully landscaped parkland, and to end on a positive, it is excellent to see a new bus service being introduced at such a high frequency and still relatively early on in the development.

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Roger French

Another Gatwick Express rip-off

Friday 25th October 2019

Spoiler alert: the postman delivered a National Rail Voucher for £6.70 this morning.

IMG_1565.jpgI wrote about the outrageous rip-off fares policy on the Gatwick Express back in May, but the other day I came across another pricing scandal from this past-its-sell-by-date train brand.

I was buying a ticket in the Gatwick Express run ticket office in the station at the Airport and was astounded to see not only was I being compulsorily overcharged by 50% for my journey but a member of staff gave me incorrect information that that overcharge was correct.

It was back on Friday 4th October and I was heading down to Cornwall for the weekend having already purchased an advanced ticket online from GWR between Reading and Bodmin Parkway returning from Truro to Paddington on Sunday 6th October.

Due to no trains running south of Three Bridges on the Sunday (so much for February’s 9-day Brighton Main Line blockade meaning no further major closures for weekend engineering works this year) I decided to drive to, and park at, Gatwick Airport for the weekend and take the train from there to Reading.

IMG_1547.jpgSo I arrived in the very busy ticket hall at about 08:30 in good time to catch the 09:03 GWR operated departure via Guildford to Reading. As always there was a long queue at the ticket office windows, but there’s a whole bank of ticket vending machines (TVMs) available and I soon reached the head of the queue for those and began my screen pressing.

IMG_1564.jpgThere were two options for an off-peak single ticket to Reading; an “any permitted” which would allow travel via London costing £34.50 and the much cheaper “via Gomshall” option I wanted for £19.70. This tallied with my research before leaving home, and that the latter with my Senior Railcard discount would cost a reasonable £13.

I wonder how many passengers are flummoxed by the use of Gomshall as the via point on the TVM screen especially as the 09:03 doesn’t stop there and it’s a somewhat obscure station especially for non local travellers to know about.

IMG_1574.jpgWhen I came to select the tab for Senior Railcard on the screen, it was faded out meaning it was unavailable. I caught the attention of the “floor walking” here-to-help-you-high-vis-wearing GatEx member of staff nearby and asked him how I could get the Senior Railcard tab to be “live” for my journey to Reading via Guildford to which he told me “Senior Railcards aren’t valid until 09:30”.

IMG_1578.jpgWhen I protested this was not the case – Senior Railcards are valid for journeys within the London & South East area at the time when an Off Peak Day Return becomes available rather than a blanket rule.  He was quite adamant: “from Gatwick the start time is 09:30 and you’ll have to catch the next train to Reading at 10:00” for my Railcard discount to be available.

IMG_1573.jpgThere was no alternative but to pay the £19.70 as I had to catch the 09:03 to make my Cornwall bound connection in Reading. Still mystified by the “computer says no” attitude of the TVM as well as what I felt was wrong advice from the floorwalking GatEx ticket expert, I asked the on board GWR guard/train manager when he came round to check tickets on the 09:03 journey when my Senior Railcard was valid from and he gave the even more incorrect reply “from 10:00”.

All this advice is of course complete bunkum. Senior Railcards are available for travel after 09:00 (for travel wholly within the London and South East area – for journeys to, and completely, outside of that area, they’re valid at any time) but there are restrictions from Gatwick into London (and within the London area) where the peak hour is deemed to continue until 09:30; but crucially there is no restriction for journeys such as Gatwick to Reading via Guildford.

IMG_1571.jpgTVMs are programmed to overcharge passengers like me buying tickets before 09:30 – in my case £19.70 instead of £13. This is a right royal rip off; not helped by completely false information being given out by staff members, wrongly claiming the TVM is correct, and whose job it is to know the rules and regulations. What hope have passengers got?

I took the matter up with Gatwick Express when I returned home after the weekend on Monday 7th October explaining the whole experience in writing and asking for a refund of the additional £6.70 I’d been forced to pay.

I received the following email back by return:

Dear Sir/Madam

We appreciate you taking the time to contact us. 

Please accept this acknowledgement as confirmation that we have received your query. We have received a large number of enquiries as a result of the national power outage which occurred on August 9th and so you may experience a delay in receiving a response. We thank our customers for their patience.

There is no need to chase us for a reply as we will get back to you as soon as we can and our aim is to provide a full response within 20 working days. Please do not reply to this email.

You may also refer to our FAQs at https://www.gatwickexpress.com/help-and-support/contact-us/faq

Kind regards

Gatwick Express Customer Relations

Bearing in mind the power outage had no impact on Gatwick Express back in August, it seemed strange two months on to still be using this as an excuse for tardy responses, but of course, passengers in the know, know that GatEx is the same company as Thameslink (which did suffer major disruption from the loss of power) when it comes to Customer Relations, but when it comes to ticket pricing the official line is they’re completely different operators to justify the extortionate fare differentials and restrictive ticket inter-availability.

In the event, notwithstanding the untimely lowering of expectations of a timely reply, I received a fuller email reply from Linda A nine days later on 16th October when she wrote:

Dear Mr French,

Thank you for contacting us regarding your recent purchase at Gatwick Station. I am sorry that you were unable to apply your Railcard discount to your tickets.

As the Off Peak times vary on different routes, the Ticket Machines are set up in such a a way that you are unable to  purchase and Off Peak ticket prior to 09:30. This is to avoid passengers being able to purchase the incorrect ticket for their journey and incurring a penalty fare.

I can see that the 09:03 service is Off Peak and therefore I would be happy to send you 6.70 in National Rail Vouchers .Before I am able to do this could you also please send us a screenshot of your Railcard?

For future journeys if you need an Off Peak Ticket prior to 09:30 we would advise you to purchase the ticket in advance online for collection at the station. This will avoid any additional costs for yourself.

We look forward to hearing from you, and once again please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused.

Kind regards,

Linda A

Linda’s advice to buy online is a standard get out used by GTR to complaints of this kind. I’ve received the same reply when I’ve pointed out the TVM at Hassocks doesn’t allow Senior Railcard discounts for journeys to stations outside London and the South East leaving before 09:00.

It’s an even more ridiculous retort with regard to an airport station where many passengers are returning from a holiday abroad … imagine the scene in the hotel on the Costa Del Sol at the end of a holiday – “have we got all our bags packed dear?”; “yes, all packed but I must just go on line and buy our tickets for the train home to Reading for when we land at Gatwick as GTR’s computer programmers are too lazy to amend the software so it can enable a Railcard discount by destination chosen in addition to time of day”; “right oh dear, I’ll wait while you do that, no rush as we’re on holiday.”

It also says a lot about GTR’s lack of trust in its passengers that (a) it sets ticket machines up “to avoid passengers being able to purchase the incorrect ticket for their journey and incurring a penalty fare”…… so it’s perfectly OK that I have to purchase an incorrect HIGHER PRICED ticket for my journey but not OK for passengers to be able to buy a cheaper price; (b) the implications of Linda’s admission I need to purchase my ticket in advance online to “avoid any additional costs for yourself” is that if I don’t buy in that way I will incur additional costs; (c) if I purchase online I don’t have to show my Senior Railcard to anyone, yet Linda wants me to go to further trouble and inconvenience by sending a screenshot of it before she’ll trust me enough to send me a refund of the money her Company wilfully and knowingly set up a system to overcharge me; (d) Linda makes no reference to the member of staff misleading passengers with incorrect information – best to let him continue giving out incorrect advice to passengers, I assume.

I sent a screenshot of my Senior Railcard back to Linda when I returned home from Edinburgh the next day after receipt of her email, on 17th October.

On 20th October Linda’s colleague Corrie Simmonds replied more informally to advise:

Dear Roger, 

Thank you for taking the time to provide a copy of your Railcard.

I can confirm that I have requested for £6.70 cashable National Rail Vouchers to be sent to you. Please allow up to 10 working days for these to arrive.

I hope that this information is helpful. 

 Kind regards,

 Corrie Summers

And, the reason I’m relating this to you today, is that exactly three weeks since I was overcharged I’ve now received the recompensing £6.70 in National Rail Vouchers so finally resolving the matter. What a way to run a railway.

This whole franchise really is misselling at its worst and even more scandalous, the DfT knows it and allows it.

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Roger French

Go-Coach trailblazing in Sevenoaks

Wednesday 23rd October 2019

Small independently owned bus companies are a vital part of the industry. They serve small size towns and rural areas which other plc group companies cannot reach.

They’re becoming increasingly important as the Groups try and reverse falling margins. These small businesses are usually run by dedicated passionate individuals working very long hours for minimal reward. That’s why I was relieved to hear good sense has at last prevailed in Guildford with Arriva Surrey deregistering its competitive routes which were destabilising the long established and much admired Safeguard company, which has been in business for over ninety years.

Go-Coach Hire based in Sevenoaks is another such bus company, although much younger than Safeguard – it was set up by owner Austin Blackburn in 2008 – but over the ensuing eleven years has established itself as a much respected player on the bus scene. This is undoubtedly due to the dedication, enthusiasm and passion that Austin has brought to the business.

I had the pleasure to spend some time with Austin this morning as he wanted to share his innovative ideas to embrace a new style of taxi-bus operation for introduction next Spring.

It was very impressive to see behind the scenes at Go-Coach’s base in Sevenoaks. Austin is an engineer by profession and has worked for a myriad of bus companies during his long career which led to him establishing his own ‘Bus Doctor’ business in 2001. This led to an interest in the school contract market and acquiring a coach in 2008; then three coaches and soon after the bus business was born in 2009. It’s now a sizeable operation with over fifty vehicles and a PVR of 42.

Austin works a seventy-two hour week starting very early each morning to oversee the runout from the company’s Swanley outstation, then driving a school bus himself before taking the bus on to the Sevenoaks base to begin his day job of attending to the fleet’s engineering needs with his six fitters and two apprentices, purchasing the necessary spare parts, checking in with the operational and administrative team then taking the school bus back out in service in the afternoon.

It’s a busy day but you soon realise Austin’s engineering experience is a vital ingredient to the success of the business. He proudly showed me a 58 plate Optare Versa he’d purchased from RATP for an absolute bargain price which he’d made look as new (both on the outside and ‘under the bonnet’) together with another being cannibalised for spares.

But what was equally impressive for someone with an engineering pedigree was Austin proudly showing me the large sized maps he displays at all the main bus shelters in the town showing his Sevenoaks bus network and fares information as well as describing to me the changes being introduced next month and the positive reasons for each one. And that these had been discussed at a public meeting he’d arranged for passengers to come along to and give their feedback and comments.

Go-Coach’s branding is certainly bright and stands out, not least in Sevenoaks bus station which the company manages and where the information is presented clearly, including a manned travel office with one of the most friendly and helpful members of staff you’ll find anywhere.

IMG_0656.jpgSevenoaks is not an easy town in which to run buses. Austin explains his business is roughly two-thirds commercial and one-third tendered/contracted which is commendable for this part of prosperous England. Key to success is that every vehicle has busy peak school journeys in its schedule.

IMG_4083.jpgThere was a bit of a skirmish between Go-Coach and Arriva a couple of years ago on local routes and ironically just as Go-Coach backed down, Arriva made the mistake of introducing the completely inappropriate Mercedes Sprinter minibuses on the two routes ending in them abandoning the routes altogether which Go-Coach have now picked up and will shortly be marketing as part of a revitalised town network with routes numbered 1 to 8.

As if all this wasn’t impressive enough, it’s Austin’s plans for a Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) operation for Sevenoaks and part of its hinterland which are really capturing the imagination.

Whilst the Government hints it will be dangling inducement finance for swanky DRT trials and Arriva invest goodness knows how much in Click’s flawed business model, Austin has been quietly beavering away in his ‘spare time’ (in between school runs, engineering, stores, bus stop displays and other duties) to come up with a credible plan to replace an infrequent rural route; add new Special Education Needs (SEN) peak hour transport; take over off-peak commitments for Age UK; and introduce a new bespoke service for wealthy City bound commuters using Sevenoaks station with a fleet of four brand new seven-(leather)-seater taxis under a Private Hire licence rather than an O licence.

It’s an ingenious plan which he’s already in advanced stages of discussions with Kent County Council and Sevenoaks District Council with a view to phasing it in from next May.

The secret financial ingredient to its business success is packaging together statutory and publicly funded work (the SEN contracts), off peak work funded by the third sector (Age UK), replacing a full sized bus with smaller vehicles more appropriate for sparsely loaded subsidised rural routes but running more frequently and taking a commercial risk in developing growth from the commuter market. What a brilliant example of entrepreneurial flare.

The plan for the ‘DRT’ style rural routes is to serve five segments of the hinterland on just one day of the week each thereby being able to run a more intensive service with the three taxis (one spare) than if the whole area was covered each day. That seems like a good compromise to me as it gives a better quality of service but admittedly on a reduced number of days.

It’s also possible this model will be ideal for taking over the Sevenoaks Taxi Bus to East Hill Farm currently funded by Kent County Council as part of a trial for a number of rural services across the County which I reviewed when it was introduced back in June, following the withdrawal of the once a week route 405 which Go-Coach used to operate.

IMG_0806There are still lots of refinements yet to come to get the model right such as how much to rely on app based, phone based or turn-up-in-person-in-the-bus-station requests for the DRT elements or whether to use a fixed timetable as well as implications of what fares to charge to keep within taxi type regulations which requires everything to be pre-booked …. but that was the joy of my visit this morning to brainstorm ideas with someone as passionate and committed to delivering a good service as Austin.

As he said you have to adapt to keep ahead of the game and it’s good to see a small independently owned bus company innovating just as impressively, if not more so, as the big Groups. And just after I left him to travel home via Edenbridge on the Wednesday only single journey rural route 238 via Chartwell and Cowden to Holtye Common (coincidentally it carried a taxi load of just seven passengers), Austin was back in engineering mode changing a fuel return pipe on a Mercedes Solo – “a fairly miserable job” he observed.

Roger French

AZUMA reaches Lincoln

Monday 21st October 2019

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LNER’s flagship AZUMA trains started running between Lincoln and London Kings Cross today. They’re journeys which previously just ran between Newark North Gate and Kings Cross now projected back to start at Lincoln, so they’re not new journeys on the actual East Coast Main Line (ECML).

They provide a significant boost for people living, working or visiting Lincoln who now have four daytime journeys direct to and from London in addition to long standing peak hour journeys (07:30 from Lincoln and 19:06 return from Kings Cross) which LNER continue to run for now with an HST.

There’s also a peak hour direct train from Lincoln (07:05) to St Pancras via Nottingham and return (at 18:05) operated by East Midlands Railways but this takes almost three hours – an hour longer than via the ECML.

As you can imagine LNER rolled out the Azuma PR and marketing launch machine in Lincoln this morning to mark the occasion but it was noticeably low key compared to Azuma roll outs seen elsewhere during the summer. IMG_1369.jpgIn fact although some razzmatazz was laid on for the first Azuma departure bound for Kings Cross at 11:18, this was all being quickly packed away at midday when I arrived on the first Azuma into Lincoln from the south (the 10:06 from Kings Cross). Twitter commentators also observed that only invited guests had been able to get close to the goodie bag action too.

IMG_1382.jpgI looked around for some colourful leaflets promoting the exciting new journeys that now leave Lincoln for London at 11:18, 13:23, 15:26 and 17:14 but all I could find in Lincoln station’s ticket office was the standard LNER timetable and a leaflet about the Azuma trains themselves.

IMG_E1385.jpgIMG_1383.jpgThe extra London journeys are shown in LNER’s May timetable booklet and they’re coded to show they’ll start at a date in the future to be confirmed on the website.

And thinking about the timings of the new southbound direct journeys, that first one at 11:18 doesn’t arrive into Kings Cross until 13:23 which is a bit late for a day out especially if you want to get the last new Azuma direct train back which leaves Kings Cross at 16:06.

It seems to me the new timetable is more geared to bringing people into Lincoln for a day out than taking people down to London. As said, my 10:06 train from London arrived into Lincoln at midday and there’s a new return at 17:14 giving a nice five and a bit hours to ‘do Lincoln’.

Southbound passengers do have earlier train options than 11:18 by either changing at Newark North Gate or via Sleaford and change at Peterborough – for example, there are options at 10:16 via the former (arrives Kings Cross at 12:22) or 10:18 via the latter (arrives Kings Cross 12:40).

It would seem a good idea if EMR and LNER could collaborate and produce a nice attractive leaflet showing all the Lincoln London travel options.

IMG_1289.jpgThe plan is to run five coach Azumas on these new direct Lincoln journeys and this morning my train left from the north end of Kings Cross platform 0 where a ten coach train that had arrived earlier had been split.

IMG_1287.jpgWe left exactly on time at 10:06 as the 10:03 to Leeds was also leaving slightly late and it was interesting to see us both enter the two bidirectional tracks together through the middle portal of Gasworks Tunnel especially as the Leeds train was unusually an HST and another HST was leaving through the western portal at the same time bound for sidings; and all this just six minutes after an HST left on the 10:00 to Inverness.

By the time we were north of Copenhagen Tunnel we were in the correct order behind the Leeds train as we were stopping at Stevenage but that wasn’t.

One odd thing was our formation was in reverse form with first class (coaches D – half of – and E) at the front, so as we pulled into Stevenage, Peterborough and Grantham passengers had to make a mad scramble up and down the platform as they were waiting at the lettered signs marked for the normal formation with A/B at the front.

IMG_1293.jpgIt was also noticeable that despite being only five coaches we stoped at the extreme north ends of the platforms (as a ten coach train would) to line up with the letters (had they been correct) so passengers had much further to walk back to the station buildings and exits which are generally in the middle platforms.

The first class catering offer and menu is the same as on all LNER trains but sadly no hot food was available on my journey ‘due to a problem in the kitchen’. Luckily the ‘problem’ didn’t include the toaster and the usual biscuits, crisps and fruit were handed out.

The catering team alighted at Newark North Gate, the pantograph came down and the driver turned the diesel engine on as we headed off around the curve by the infamous Newark flat crossing (with an orange army platoon on hand) …IMG_1296.jpg… and on to the tracks towards Lincoln where we passed the southbound 11:18 from Lincoln held at a signal until we cleared the single track curve.

IMG_1327.jpgThat train then headed into Newark North Gate where it would wait from 11:45 until the long standing scheduled path with departure at 11:56, adding eleven minutes to the overall journey time.

IMG_1357.jpgMy midday arrival into Lincoln was four minutes ahead of the 12:04 scheduled time and there were 92 of us on board as we pulled in; so not bad for a first journey.

IMG_1370.jpgI’m sure these new direct journeys will prove popular as people do prefer direct travel over changing trains on journeys of this kind. It’s just a shame there’s not an earlier southbound off-peak departure before 11:18 for now.

It’s interesting to receive a comment below that perhaps LNER are not fully committed to the Lincoln Azuma project – that would certainly explain the somewhat limp launch – and the franchise commitment to further enhancements.

Roger French