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depart from immediately outside the exit/entrance to the Terminal building but the main departure listing includes long withdrawn bus route numbers (60, 61, 71, 77 and 78) while an extra listing supposedly highlighting TfL operated routes also includes route 442 (operated by Carlone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

Train or plane to Edinburgh?

Friday 18th October 2019

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There’s rightly a lot of discussion about the impact of travelling by plane in the context of our global climate emergency; it pangs my conscious whenever I take a flight, and I don’t do it very often, and when I do it’s between London and Scotland, the Scottish islands or across the Irish Sea.

With my trip to Edinburgh earlier this week I decided to fly northbound and take the train southbound and see how the journeys compared for convenience, cost and time.

This is pertinent with LNER now running Azuma trains on four journeys a day between Edinburgh and London Kings Cross with many more journeys including to Aberdeen and Inverness becoming Azuma operated during the coming weeks as the old Class 91 and Mark 4 coaches and HSTs are withdrawn.

Living at the southern end of the Brighton Main Line means Gatwick Airport is a handy interchange point to fly north as I’m passing through in any event to get to and from London; this gives the plane an in built time advantage over the train which wouldn’t apply if I was beginning my journey closer to central London and had to make my way out to Heathrow, down to Gatwick, over to City Airport or even Luton or Stansted.

I also am unnecessarily cautious at allowing plenty of time at Gatwick even though I check in beforehand online, never have luggage to drop off, and never experience any delays to get through security. I’m sure I could easily arrive at Gatwick Airport station thirty minutes before a flight departure, even allowing for a transfer to the North Terminal and still easily catch a plane. But I never risk it.

IMG_1076.jpgEven though I find hanging around airports extremely frustrating I always seem to over allow time. And so it was on Tuesday afternoon when I was booked on the British Airways flight at 16:55 from Gatwick to Edinburgh; I reckoned I needed to catch the Thameslink train from Hassocks at 15:18 arriving Gatwick at 15:45.

Time for a coffee before going through security (I’ve learnt prices get hiked in outlets airside and don’t like getting ripped off) then to the x-ray machines where there was no queue and I was soon wandering through the walkway maze that houses the duty free perfumeries and oversized chocolate bar sales outlets to find a seat. I was in for a long wait as the departure screens were showing an hours delay to my flight with an expected 17:55 departure and “gate info at 17:02” (very precise).

As I whiled away the hour I worked out had I stayed on the 15:18 train, it would have got me to St Pancras at 16:30 so could have easily caught the 17:00 LNER departure from Kings Cross to Edinburgh arriving at 21:21.

I also mulled over the comparative fares. I’d booked my BA flight way back on 19th July (pretty much three months in advance) and consequently got a bargain price of £34.72. What’s quite extraordinary is £13 of this sum is Air Passenger Duty and BA also state £14.72 is a Passenger Service Charge (whatever that is) leaving just £7 as the actual fare for the journey.

By comparison I looked at the fares for the same journey if I’d booked on Monday, the day before travelling, and the price had shot up to £208 for economy class, and bizarrely a cheaper £169 for Business Class. Interestingly a later departure at 20:55 on Tuesday evening was showing a much more reasonable fare of just £40 for economy (£139 Business class) which for the day before, is not bad at all.

I also checked prices for the following day (ie 48 hours ahead) which quoted £44 on the 07:20 departure; £168 on a 17:30 departure and £208 for the 20:55 departure which just goes to show pricing is all over the place on planes depending on how many other passengers happen to be travelling.

British Airways operate three journeys a day between Gatwick and Edinburgh (one early morning, one late afternoon and one in the evening with precise times varying day by day). There are also eleven departures from Heathrow and ten (sometimes more, sometimes less) from City Airport. EasyJet fly 4 or 5 times from Gatwick, 3 or 4 from Luton and 4 or 5 times from Stansted and have a similar pricing policy. Overall there are around 37 to 40 flights a day from London’s airports to Edinburgh. LNER run 28 trains between the two cities.

Having contemplated all that, boarding finally commenced for my flight on Tuesday at 17:40 and we were all seated and ready to go at 18:00 pushing back ready for taxi-ing soon after that and we finally took off at 18:25 (luckily on the westerly runway so minimised taxi-ing time on the ground). Had I caught the 17:00 LNER train from Kings Cross I’d have been approaching Doncaster on the non-stop part of the journey with first station York (assuming that had no delays).

In the event, it took my BA aeroplane just twenty five minutes to be flying over Doncaster as the First Officer coincidentally announced on the PA that we were making good progress at 18:50 and as we flew over York a few minutes later, that LNER train had just pulled out of that station.

We landed into Edinburgh Airport at 19:25 pulling on to the stand at 19:30 and I was off the plane at 19:35 and on to a Lothian bus on Airlink 100 which left at 19:50 arriving into central Edinburgh by Waverley Station at 20:15.

At 20:15 the LNER train which had left Kings Cross at 17:00 was just north of Morpeth and arrived into Waverley just over an hour later at 21:19. Now, had I lived in London within say, half an hour’s journey from Kings Cross and had to make it out to one of the aforementioned London’s airports the timings would have been remarkably similar, albeit my plane comparison included that hour’s delay – but I’m finding that’s becoming quite a common occurence as airlines go for very tight turnarounds and little slack in the schedules making for delayed departures in the afternoons and evenings.

What time you gain in the air, you lose at the airport and getting to and from the airport (especially if you’re a cautious traveller on allowances for delays as I am).

IMG_1251.jpgLNER’s London to Edinburgh’s prices are also comparable to some of BA and EasyJet’s bargain basement rates and can even match that eye-catching £34.72 giveaway I got with BA, especailly if you book in advance as soon as the tickets become available, and have a Railcard, and travel standard class (which has comparable leg room and comfort to a BA or EasyJet plane in economy). For example, I booked the return journey I made on Wednesday at 12:00 from Edinburgh to Kings Cross only four weeks ahead on 16th September when the price quoted was £51 for standard class which is just £33.65 with a Railcard. I choose to upgrade to First Class at £80 and paid £52.80 with my Railcard.

I made a similar comparison with prices quoted if I’d booked just twenty four hours ahead and checked on Tuesday morning what fares were still available for the 12:00 journey. These were £70 Standard Class and £132.50 First Class before Railcard discounts. Even walk up fares are priced competitively with last minute airline prices with a super-off peak single Standard Class at £146.40 and an off-peak First Class £205 on the train.

And, of course, First Class does offer a complimentary dining option with proper crockery and cutlery and hot meals – something I’ll be writing about in more detail in an upcoming blogpost.

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So, my conclusion is, pricing is broadly comparable between plane and train, and for me, living close to Gatwick Airport, flying has the advantage over taking the train to Scotland if time saving is important (particularly for onward travel if relevant), but for the enjoyment of travelling you can’t beat the train. for those living closer to central London, I’d say the train wins every time when travelling to Edinburgh.

Roger french

 

 

Xpress Dundee done, (and Airlink)

Wednesday 16th October 2019

IMG_1123.jpgXplore Dundee, the National Express owned bus company in Dundee, launched a brand new airport express coach service back in June linking the city directly with Edinburgh Airport via the A90 and M90.

IMG_1120.jpgFour months on I thought it was a good time to take a look and see how it was doing so took a ride north from the airport earlier this morning and was pleasantly surprised and suitably impressed at how well it’s doing.

Airport services are notoriously hard to build custom for as they lack regular customers day in and day out; it takes a huge effort to get the service known in the marketplace and persuade passengers flying in and out of the airport to change their travel habits.

IMG_1122.jpgThis airport service, numbered X90 (although not prominently displayed), runs seven days a week every ninety minutes with an end to end eighty minute scheduled journey time meaning two coaches are needed to run the very intensive 24/7 service – with just one return journey missing in the middle of the night.

IMG_1232.jpgFares are reasonable for an airport service of this kind at £16 single and £22 return with advanced booking rates of £12 single/£18 return and other discounts for students and families. Scottish concessionary passholders travel free.

The X90 departs from stance E right outside the entrance to Edinburgh Airport’s terminal building, although the shelter is dominated by advertisements and promotional posters for First Glasgow’s route 600 I wrote about back in July.

IMG_1126.jpgThere is a timetable for the X90 displayed together with fares information.

IMG_1106.jpgI arrived in good time this morning to watch the 08:20 arrival from Dundee which came in at 08:12 and an impressive 22 passengers alighted.

IMG_1125.jpgThe driver supervised the unloading of luggage from the lockers and then got straight back in the ‘cab’ to load up the twelve of us waiting for the departure at 08:30.

IMG_1127.jpgI was a bit surprised to see a farebox by the entrance door of the coach and was relieved to see a contactless Ticketer ticket machine by the driver who confirmed cash was taken (as well as bank cards) and put in the box and reassured me change was available if needed.

IMG_1130.jpgIt all seemed a bit of an odd arrangement if drivers carry cash for change giving to have a farebox. Still, none of the eleven other passengers paid cash either as most had an advance ticket or a concessionary pass so the farebox was an irrelevance.

We left spot on time at 08:30 with a local radio station playing quietly on the driver’s in-cab radio and made our way via the A8 to the M90 and were soon crossing the new Forth Road Bridge.

IMG_1135.jpgThe road layout means it’s easier for Dundee bound buses and coaches to use this route rather than the newly classified ‘bus and coach only’ old Fourth Road Bridge.

IMG_1128.jpgThe coach was presentable and comfortable. Leg room was adequate. There was a toilet on board but no usb sockets nor wi-fi showing its age but it was a smooth non-stop journey, literally, all the way to Dundee where we arrived 70 minutes later at 09:40.

I noticed we passed the southbound coach on the M90 after exactly 35 minutes travelling indicating the 80 minute scheduled timing looks to include a generous ten minute allowance for delays. We hit the outskirts of Dundee exactly one hour after leaving the airport at 09:30.

IMG_1148.jpgAs we arrived at the terminus in Dundee which is at a stop midway between the train station and main city centre bus stops, there was already a good crowd of about 18 passengers waiting to board the next departure at 10:00.

IMG_1150.jpgThe arriving driver jumped out to help unload luggage for those from the airport and load luggage of waiting passengers while a fresh driver got in the cab to check tickets calling out those pre-booked should come on board first. It seemed a slick operation.

Twitter followers with local knowledge advise the service has been doing so well that duplicates have run in the afternoons which is very encouraging to hear.

IMG_E1258.jpgXplore Dundee certainly seem to be on to a winner with the X90 and a few more months of growth will no doubt see a frequency increase to hourly – certainly by next summer I would think. It’s heartening to see a new market being developed successfully especially as I didn’t detect a major spend on promotional collateral for the X90.

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Indeed I was flummoxed trying to find out about the service on the Xplore Dundee website with nothing about the service on the home page and to find the timetable I needed to know the route number for the Find A Timetable tab, which I didn’t know, so first had to Google search that!

IMG_1107.jpgAt Edinburgh airport I noticed when exiting both the domestic and international arrivals just past a stylised map of the Airlink network you’re directed to the exit towards the tram terminus and then have to walk back via the bus stops for Lothian’s 200/400 and 100 Airlink routes before reaching the X90 stance.

IMG_1111.jpgAt least the X90 is listed on the information displays inside the terminal though, if you look hard enough.

IMG_1112.jpgI also noticed if you turn right from arrivals rather than as directed left, you reach a more convenient exit right by stance E and interestingly pass by a ScotRail ticket vending machine (TVM) which is programmed to sell tickets to all stations and checking Dundee brought up an inclusive bus and train ticket using the Stagecoach 747 to Inverkeithing on its route to Halbeath Park and Ride. Ironically the TVM idle screen makes reference to ‘Xpress’ – the branding used by Xplore Dundee!

IMG_1113.jpgI doubt many passengers would spot this TVM, let alone use it for what is now a longer and more expensive journey to Dundee involving a change from bus to train so perhaps not surprising the X90 is doing so well.

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Whilst at the airport last night and this morning I also tried out Lothian’s new tri-axle E400 buses recently introduced on their Airlink 100 route which runs frequently between the airport and city centre.

IMG_1119.jpgThese really are massive beasts – more tri-axle mega sized Enviro 400s – and their new livery definitely gives them a classier presence than previously.

IMG_1092.jpgI travelled into Edinburgh yesterday evening and enjoyed the mood lighting upstairs until spotlights suddenly came on right above my head sitting in the front nearside giving a feeling of being rather under a floodlight – especially when they got even brighter when we stopped at a bus stop and the doors opened.

IMG_1095.jpgThe new interiors have done away with tables in favour of more plush seating with a deep red patterned moquette which looked a little dated when I first saw it but grew on me as I travelled and the seats were certainly very comfortable…

IMG_1101.jpg….except the back row of five on the upper deck which were far too upright and very uncomfortable.

IMG_1097.jpgIMG_1099.jpgAt the front of the upper deck there are five single seats on the nearside which makes for a larger circulation area at the top of the stairs.

IMG_1102.jpgThe lower deck has a large offside luggage rack as before, although I understand there are plans to extend this as it’s slightly smaller than previously existed. It looked pretty big to me but I know passengers are wedded to more and larger luggage in their travels than ever before. The buses also have centre exit doors.

IMG_1103.jpgAs with Lothian’s previous batch of tri-axles there are two large monitors at the front of the upper deck with one giving next stop announcements including, uniquely, sign language as the audio plays out, while the other has more generic marketing material as well as airline departures from the airport and estimated arrival times at upcoming stops by the bus, although last night this was erroneously showing the next journey rather than the current one.

IMG_1086.jpgI travelled back to the airport earlier this morning just as it was getting light so had the opportunity to see the livery close up. It’s classy.

IMG_1117.jpgIt’s definitely an improvement on what went before and I noticed the new brand colours have been followed through to signs and posters at the airport as well as the ticket office by the departure stance.

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I bought my £7.50 return ticket, which is good value, on Lothian’s mobile app and luckily spotted these are only valid once activated for five minutes so held back activating until I was confident the bus doors were opening and I could step aboard.

IMG_E1080.jpgUnlike First’s route 500 from Glasgow airport which takes the motorway and runs fast into the city centre. Lothian’s Airlink runs limited stop along the A8 past Edinburgh Zoo and Murrayfield stadium among the stops observed. Journey time is half an hour and it’s a fairly swish ride utilising bus lanes for much of the way.

I would imagine the interior could feel slightly claustrophobic on a very busy bus at peak times, but both my journeys last night and this morning were lightly loaded and I enjoyed smooth and comfortable rides on two very impressive looking buses.

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Roger French

New trains into service in 2019 Part 9: TPE’s Nova 1 (Class 802)

Saturday 12th October 2019

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GWR opted for a modest launch at Paddington and Bristol of their Hitachi Class 800 trains they call IET (Inter-city Express Train) two years ago; characteristically LNER went for the high profile with dry ice, Mallard, Flying Scotsman, bagpipes and more approach as they launched their Azuma branded version this spring and summer on the east coast mainline, but TransPennine Express (TPE) have once again gone for a very soft launch for their new Nova 1 branded bi-mode Class 802s. If you don’t follow specialist websites, you’d never know one was now out on the tracks.

In fact the first TPE Class 802 slipped out on 28th September for one return trip from Newcastle (06:03) to Liverpool and back (09:35). The second outing was today and luckily for me this coincided with a long planned visit to Leeds this weekend so I hopped on board and took an afternoon return journey up to Newcastle to try out this latest new train to hit the tracks.

IMG_1043.jpgUnsurprisingly the interior layout is similar to the GWR and LNER versions of the same class.

IMG_1032.jpgOn the all important seat comfort issue, it may all be in the mind (and for all I know the seats may all be the same, albeit with different moquette) but I found these Nova 1 standard class seats very similar to LNER’s Azuma and better than GWR’s IET …

IMG_1001.jpg…. with the first class seats more disappointing being akin to GWR’s and not as good as LNER’s.

IMG_1011.jpgNeither class of seat felt as good as I found on the loco hauled CAF built Nova 3 coaches I reviewed on 23rd September but as in that case, never mind comfort, it’s a real luxury to have a five coach train bringing much needed extra capacity across the Pennines as these trains supplant the busy three coach diesel Class 185s.

Boarding a Saturday lunchtime departure (13:52) from Leeds towards York and Newcastle and finding oodles of empty seats to choose from really was a treat.

IMG_1004.jpgLike the Nova 3 coaches there are plenty of tables as well as airline seats.

IMG_1006.jpgThe middle three coaches (B, C and D) have eight ‘tables for four’ with coach A having four tables as it also has a universal accessible toilet although there’s no wheelchair space in coach A.

IMG_1002.jpgThe two wheelchair spaces are in coach E where the first class seats can be found and where there’s also another universal accessible toilet.

IMG_1026.jpgI’m assuming the same arrangements for passengers using wheelchairs apply as explained in my Nova 3 review, that is, standard class passengers and their companion may use the spaces in first class and I guess strictly speaking miss out on the complimentary refreshments – which only amounts to tea, coffee, hot chocolate, cold soft drinks and biscuits/crisps/cake in any event.

First class seats are arranged 2+1 with three ‘tables for four’ and airline style single seats including the inevitable windowless places too at the ends of each coach.

IMG_1005.jpgI found the upright position of the first class seats rather too upright while the laid back option was a bit too laid back. I’m probably being far too finicky though!

These Nova 1 trains are bi-mode which comes in very useful on the route they’re on between Liverpool and Newcastle with its mixed running. The trains are in electric mode using a pantograph between Liverpool and Manchester Victoria then switch to diesel through Huddersfield and Leeds to York and then switch back to electric mode with pantograph on the east coast mainline to Newcastle. It’s the first time a train has switched modes twice on a journey.

Accelerating away from Leeds was impressive but even more so when we left York under the wires.

The train I caught was fleet number 820 207 which as you can see hasn’t yet had any vinyl treatment so looked rather anonymous and bare in its base grey colour.

IMG_1029.jpgI understand it was its first day out in service having done at least two weeks worth of testing ‘out of service’ so I was a bit surprised it had begun it’s revenue earning life in an undressed state.

This meant there was no indication which coach was lettered A, B, C, D or E for those passengers with reservations and coach E was only identified as first class if you knew what 2+1 seating signifies.

IMG_1038.jpgI sat in coach E on my trip from Leeds between York and Newcastle and back this afternoon and was never asked to show my ticket – not even when served with refreshments, which seemed a bit odd.

(I’d taken advantage of split ticketing, using both standard and first class, and buying ‘TPE only’ off-peak returns to travel Leeds-York standard class and York-Newcastle first class all for a Railcard £42.65 return – and managing to book it using one of Northern’s large size TVM’s thanks to help from my Twitter friend Lee Render who I met in Leeds and a ‘floor walking’ Northern team member.)

Heading towards Newcastle we picked up good loads at York, Darlington and Durham as well as stops at Northallerton and Chester-le-Street. At the latter the train manager made an inaudible announcement about the rear coach remaining locked due to a short platform (at least I think that’s what he said). Sadly neither the dot matrix signs or automatic announcements were working and I noticed there were no large tv type screens in the coaches as installed in the Nova 3 coaches.

IMG_1037.jpgThe electronic traffic light style reservation system was also not working so old style cards were inserted into slots on the seat backs.

IMG_1014.jpgThere are two three-pin sockets and one USB socket under each pair of standard class seats with each first class seat having both types of socket at the rear of the arm rests.

IMG_1010.jpgThere was Wi-fi but I couldn’t get it to register on my smartphone so gave up.

As on GWR and LNER there were cycle and large luggage stores….

IMG_1003.jpg… and vertical luggage racks at the coach ends.

IMG_1031.jpgThe standard class seat back trays are quite something …

IMG_1050.jpg… as is the snazzy carpet….

IMG_1007.jpgThe driver seemed to open the doors and it was noticeable as the Newcastle bound train pulled into Leeds how long it took between the train stopping and the doors opening – almost thirty seconds. It was better at other stations. The train manager seems responsible for closing the doors.

With a single leaf door at both ends of each coach (as in the Nova 3 coaches) instead of double doors one-third and two-thirds along each coach (on the class 185s) there’s a risk that dwell times will be extended.

However on my Liverpool bound return journey arriving into Leeds at 17:31 with a very busy load after we got hammered at York it was noticeable how relatively short the dwell time was (spot on the scheduled three minutes) and broadly similar to the Newcastle bound class 185 on the opposite platform.

IMG_1052.jpgThese Nova 1 class 802 trains are a great improvement on the class 185s they’re replacing not because there’s anything wrong with the 185s as a train, it’s just they’re out of their depth and lacking capacity for the job in hand.

TPE have got nineteen Nova 1 trains on order for both the Liverpool and Manchester Airport to Newcastle services which is due to be extended to Edinburgh in December, and together with LNER’s Azumas will make the northern end of the east coast mainline quite a class 800/802 stronghold.

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IMG_1035.jpgRoger French

2019 is the year of the new train. My previous new train reviews from earlier this year can be found here: 1 Class 707; 2 D Trains; 3 Sleepers; 4 Azumas; 5 Class 7106 Class 195 and 331; 7 Class 755; 8 Nova 1;

Farewell 48 after fifty years

Friday 11th October 2019

IMG_0955.jpgTfL’s next round of reductions to bus routes servIng central London begins tomorrow. This one is much less extensive than in June, involving changes to just a handful of routes, most significant of which is the complete withdrawal of route 48 between London Bridge and Walthamstow Central station.

Introduced as part of the big ‘reshaping’ change in September 1968, route 48 replaced parts of long standing routes 35 and 38A in the shake up to coincide with the opening of the Victoria Line. Now, just over fifty years later, route 48’s time is up and the nineteen buses it takes to run its ten minute frequency (12 minutely on Sundays) will be saved from the schedule; except it’s not a complete saving as there’ll be compensatory increases in vehicles needed for a short extension of route 388 from Liverpool Street down to London Bridge and, at the northern end, route 55 gets extended from Leyton Green up to Walthamstow Central while route 26 which parallels the 48 between Liverpool Street and South Hackney goes from every ten minutes to every seven-and-a-half minutes throughout its route between Waterloo and Hackney Wick.

I took a ride on route 48 yesterday for one last nostalgic time to see what the implications of all these short extensions and alternative parallel running might be.

IMG_0870.jpg Notices letting everyone know about the 48’s demise are stuck to the bus shelters in London Bridge and all reference to the 48 has been removed from the bus stop flag and timetable case. The notices explain the options of catching a newly extended 388 as far as Hackney, but as that routes uses Bethnal Green Road instead of Hackney Road between Shoreditch and Cambridge Heath, the suggestion is to hop off a 388 (or 149) and on to a 26 at Bishopgate (late correction on the notice by the look of it too!).

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 20.08.05.pngRoute 55 is the main alternative for the 48 once you hit the junction of Old Street and Shoreditch High Street as it parallels the 48 all the way to Leyton and as mentioned above will now continue on to Walthamstow Central.

Whereas the 55 runs every 7-8 minutes, the 388 is only every 12 minutes so passengers heading into and out of London Bridge face a reduction of one bus per hour compared to now, and ironically on my off-peak journey yesterday morning, that was the busiest part of the route as we took passengers towards Monument, Fenchurch Street, Liverpool Street and Shoreditch.

IMG_0871.jpgI noticed the bus stop route number tile removal contractors had already been along the route taking any reference to the 48 down and shuffling all the other tiles neatly along and up so the blank appears in the bottom right, but as always they left a few random bus stops untouched which I’m sure they do deliberately just to create anomalies and wind people like me up.

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There were already two New Routemaster buses screened for route 48 laying over at London Bridge when I arrived at about 10:20 yesterday morning and my bus pulled forward to the bus stop after another five minutes with twelve of us getting on board for the 10:27 departure.

IMG_0868.jpgI bagged the upstairs nearside front seat, with the offside seat already occupied by someone even more fanatical than me who was obviously going to miss the 48 so much he was videoing the whole journey for prosperity on his mobile phone through the front upper deck window; so that made at least two of us, as well as the driver, making the full journey through to Walthamstow Central.

The first stop at the southern end of London Bridge saw us pick up about another ten passengers making for around twenty or so on board. Heading north along Gracechurch Street towards Liverpool Street station and Shoreditch at a sedate pace it was soon evident we were going to have ample time in the schedule to complete our journey.

IMG_0878.jpgWe passed Liverpool Street at 10:39 arriving at Shoreditch Church at 10:44 which turned out to be six minutes ahead of our scheduled 10:50 departure. But it’s all about headway in London rather than strict adherence to a scheduled timetable, so we pressed on with no word from the controller to check our timings. We probably now only had about ten or a dozen on board as we continued north along Shoreditch High Street before turning east on to Hackney Road where we joined parallel route 55 (as well as the 26 which had been with us since before Liverpool Street) and pass close to Hoxton Station on the Overground East London line to Highbury & Islington.

Hackney Road brings us to Cambridge Heath station where our trajectory changes from heading east to due north again as we parallel another Overground line towards Enfield, Cheshunt and Chingford.

IMG_E0923.jpgA bus on route 55 overtakes as we stop to pick up a passenger and I was expecting we’d shadow each other for the rest of the journey except when we arrive at Hackney Town Hall at 11:00 the inevitable “the driver has been instructed to wait at this bus stop for a short time to help even out the service” announcement comes over the PA.

IMG_0917.jpg‘A short time’ turns out to be four minutes and as we reach Hackney Central Station a minute further on at 11:05 I notice we’re still four minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time of 11:09.

IMG_0925.jpgAnother bus on route 55 passes us as we round the Clapton Pond roundabout to head east again at 11:13 (scheduled time 11:18) keeping our sedate pace along the Lea Bridge Road and with around a dozen on board losing ones and twos here and there and gaining ones or twos who eschew the 55 in preference to us instead.

As we get closer to Leyton’s Bakers Arms more passengers catch us in preference to the 55 just in front as they obviously want to travel all the way to Walthamstow.

Our total load doesn’t increase very much and we pull into Walthamstow Central Station at 11:33 with sixteen passengers alighting including my offside front seat videoing buddy who’s captured the whole 66 minute journey and may even have uploaded to YouTube by now.

IMG_0942.jpgOur scheduled arrival was 11:45 so we made it to the Walthamstow terminus twelve minutes early and as a 48 was just leaving back towards London Bridge, my bus went to join two others on the allotted layover stand with a departure back south for my bus not until 12:01 making for a rather generous 28 minute layover!

IMG_0943.jpgAt Walthamstow there were more posters explaining the 48 would soon be a route of the past giving details of alternatives (including the 26 and 388 which go nowhere near Walthamstow of course) and a new 55 timetable panel was already in situ, but no mention on the bus stop flag – presumably another contractor does that.

IMG_0946.jpgI’d also spotted at London Bridge the spider map hadn’t been updated but the ‘where to catch your bus’ panel had….IMG_0869.jpg… whereas at Walthamstow Central, bizzarely, the opposite was the case with a new spider map (minus the 48) but a yet to be updated ‘where to catch your bus’ panel.

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IMG_0948.jpgPerhaps a different team look after central London to the suburbs, and yet another team do spider maps to the ‘where to catch your bus’ panels team. That would explain it.

From tomorrow the surplus New Routemaster buses from the 48 will start appearing on the 19 between Battersea Bridge and Finsbury Park as part of a mixed vehicle type allocation, which should confuse passengers about which door to board.

Aside from the 10 which bit the dust almost a year ago, the 48 is the next lowest route number to be lost from TfL’s non existent bus map but in reality, based on today’s experience, it isn’t going to be missed that much, provided the 388, 26 and 55 can do the business, which it looks as though they can.

It’s certainly a luxurious way of running buses having five of a route’s nineteen vehicle allocation standing idle at the termini at any one time together with sixteen minutes slack in the off peak running time; but that’s the unpredictable nature of traffic and the way contractual incentives in a franchised regime work in London for you.

Roger French