I rode the secret TrawsCymru bus route

IMG_8137.jpgMonday 11th February 2019

I’m a great fan of the TrawsCymru high profile long distance bus routes crisscrossing the Welsh nation. They compliment the rail network and provide some great connections between distant communities at impressive frequencies.

I’ve travelled multiple times on all the routes numbered T1 to T6, and always enjoy the truly amazing and contrasting scenery each has to offer.

The idea has come a long way since the National Bus Company and Welsh Office initiated a single north-south TrawsCambria branded route 700 between Cardiff and Bangor in 1979 running only on Fridays to Mondays with National Welsh and Crosville each providing a vehicle.

Fast forward through three decades with many route introductions, withdrawals and changes to find the TrawsCambria brand being used on a growing network of individual routes of a strategic nature until 2012/13 when the Welsh Government, by then well and truly behind the initiative, introduced a renaming to the snappier TrawsCymru and importantly provided funding for new vehicles to use on the services with a bright exterior livery and excellent standards of comfort inside.

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IMG_7981.jpgSince deregulation it’s been tricky for the Welsh Government to subsidise and control routes which bus companies see as a commercial proposition in whole or in part across the network. For a time Arriva had a go at developing a small network under the CymruExpress brand. After that idea was abandoned the TrawsCymru network has stabilised and become well established.

An off the wall idea in 2017 to promote the benefits of the network and raise its profile was the introduction of free weekend travel for every passenger, much to the consternation of bus companies running parallel commercial bus routes over common sections of route. The Welsh Government are underwriting this ‘trial’ (which continues well into its second year) including compensating operators who can show loss of commercial revenue.

My eye was caught last summer by some online controversy concerning further plans for new east-west TrawsCymru routes across mid and north Wales. This included allegations of political bias that the new routes served favoured constituencies, a lack of transparency and procedures not being followed. All of which were denied.

In the event just one of the three proposed routes, the T12 between Machynlleth and Wrexham via Newtown, Welshpool and Oswestry reportedly began at short notice last September.

In a completely separate development last September, Stagecoach regained the tender for route 39 in the Brecon, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford corridor and agreed with the Welsh Government to link the route to the Cardiff to Brecon timetable on the T4 with an improved frequency bringing Hereford and Hay-on-Wye into the TrawsCymru network and renumber the extended 39 as T14. This route duly appeared on an updated TrawsCymru network map.

IMG_E8088.jpgMysteriously the new map omitted any reference to the T12. Indeed you’d be forgiven for thinking the T12 doesn’t exist with no mention of it on the TrawsCymru website at all, even now over five months since its introduction. It’s as if the route has done something wrong and must be kept a secret.

I decided to head over to Machynlleth and take a ride on it to check out whether it really does exist.

IMG_8249.jpgIt does.

The timetable can be found on the Lloyds Coaches website as well as Traveline. Intriguingly there’s no mention on the Tanet Valley Coaches website (checking their journey planner with two of the destinations served by the T12 returns a “no service exists” response) yet there are indeed 6-8 journeys on Mondays to Saturdays with Lloyds providing two buses (plus a peak school run along part of the route) and Tanet Valley three buses. The timetable states the route is funded by Powys County Council and TrawsCymru. The small print also confirms free travel is provided on Saturdays (there’s no Sunday T12 service) which together with the ‘T’ prefix route letter confirms it really is part of the TrawsCymru family.

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Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 19.38.42.pngI can understand why TrawsCymru branding has yet to be applied to the buses (costly to revinyl or repaint for what might be regarded as a trial route perhaps) but almost six months since introduction you’d have thought the network map could have been updated (especially as it was amended to include the T14), details could be included on the TrawsCymru website and branding could be applied at bus stops and shelters along the route as impressively applies elsewhere throughout the network.

In Newtown there’s a nicely branded poster for the T4  but no mention of the secret T12.

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IMG_8221.jpgInstead I found bus stops and shelters to be in a very poor condition and at Oswestry, for example, there was no mention at all of the T12 in the bus station information panel. Mind you, anomalously this section of the route is passing through England so perhaps Shropshire County Council prefer to keep this secret Welsh initiative an English secret too.

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IMG_8162.jpgThere was also a distinct lack of printed timetable leaflets ….. anywhere. I’m really puzzled how potential passengers are expected to find out about such a useful bus service let alone be enticed to use it.

I planned to catch the 0857 departure this morning from Machynlleth station where Lloyds Coaches occupy the nearby former Crosville (and subsequently Arriva Wales) bus garage.

IMG_8140.jpgMy heart skipped a beat when I consulted the Powys County Council departure listings at the bus stop stating the first departure on the T12 was two hours later at 1057 which would have thrown my onward travel plans into disarray. Fortunately I then spotted this was a separate listing for Tanet Valley Coaches’ operated journeys on the T12. I needed to look at the separate entry above it for the Lloyds Coaches’ operated journeys (you really have to be streetwise in bus schedules in Powys) and was relieved to see an 0857 departure duly listed.

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IMG_8145.jpgThe bus was reassuringly sitting on the garage forecourt after completing a school journey (handy contribution to the vehicle/driver costs) and pulled over to the bus stop spot on time.

IMG_8149.jpgI paid my £14 single fare to Wrexham, conveniently by contactless bank card, and asked the driver whether there was any provision for a toilet stop on the three hour thirty-eight minute journey that lay ahead. I wasn’t particularly relieved by the reply that “we have a nine minute break in Oswestry” as that wouldn’t be until after two and a half hours travelling but in the event there’s also a ten minute break in Newtown’s small bus station after an hour’s ride which proved timely and convenient! I’d like to add the driver drove superbly throughout the journey and is a credit to Lloyds.

My journey to Machynlleth on Sunday afternoon by train had entailed a rail replacement coach west of Newtown and I thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful scenery along the A470 so it was a pleasure to travel in the opposite direction on the T12 and enjoy the sights again from a different angle.

IMG_8335.jpgThe T12 pretty much follows the rail line all the way through Newtown to Welshpool where the former heads northeastwards towards Oswestry and Wrexham and the latter eastwards to Shrewsbury. The T12 also takes in the lovely town of Montgomery after Newtown.

IMG_8336.jpgWe took two passengers out of Machynlleth to nearby villages and after some miles of just me and the driver travelling together we picked up seven passengers at various stops on our way into Newtown.

IMG_8152.jpgAnother spell of solo riding followed from Newtown to Montgomery where one passenger boarded (travelling all the way to Oswestry) and that was it until Welshpool where five got on, two of whom soon alighted while three went to Oswestry as did six more boarding at various points either side of the Welsh/English border. Having emptied out in Oswestry again and enjoyed our little break one passenger boarded for Wrexham and another for just a short ride to the nearby town hospital.

Through Chirk there was some confusion among waiting passengers whether to board us or the following Arriva bus on route 2 behind. We take a more direct route into Wrexham which was favoured by two of the six passengers the other four opting for the all stops Arriva route 2, and finally as we entered Wrexham we picked up seven passengers at the hospital for the short ride to the town centre bus station so ended the ride with a respectable load.

IMG_8180.jpgInterestingly of the 32 passengers who travelled 27 were concessionary pass holders and five paid or had a prepaid ticket; 19 were female and 13 were male. Fairly typical of off peak travel characteristics most places these days. I wasn’t sure how the concessionary pass rules apply for the English boarders travelling across into Wales and vice-versa in these border areas – especially as we passed into England and back out again, but guess there’s some sensible knock for knock arrangement.

It looks to me as though the T12 has subsumed routes which previously connected some of the communities along the way, albiet possibly with an improved frequency. The free travel deal on a Saturday will be particularly attractive to younger people but that’s assuming they firstly know about the improved service, and secondly about the free fares. Neither of which are well publicised.

The T12 is a great addition to the TrawsCymru network of routes. With some proper promotion together with complimentary publicity for the Welsh rail network (one integrated map would be good – after all both are under the control of the Welsh Government); and some decent price offers – for example why not accept the Senior Railcard for a discounted fare on TrawsCymru for those English and Scottish visitors not in possession of a Welsh concessionary pass; and a proper makeover of the bus stops and shelters along the route – as has commendably been done elsewhere on the T1-T6 routes; and finally a nice attractive printed timetable leaflet with online information and an updated map ….. then who knows, the route could be the success it deserves to be!

Roger French

Rosso ride round round up

Sunday 10th February 2019

January 2018 saw Rossendale Borough Council become the latest in the dwindling band of local authority municipal owners to sell off its bus company. Transdev Blazefield were the successful buyers and twelve months on seemed a good time to have a look around the network and see what’s been happening.

Quite a lot is the answer.

In fact, a hell of a lot is the answer.

It was as recently as 2014 the much welcomed Best Impressions ‘Rosso’ makeover ousted the somewhat dated Rossendale Buses brand to brighten up the streets of Rossendale, Rochdale and Bury. I remember thinking how fresh and transformational the new bright red livery with its white and orange Rosso logo looked among a sea of First Bus light grey, faded pink and dull purple on a trip to the area a few years ago.

Yet now, less than five years later the Rosso brand looks underwhelming compared to the new colourful route brands (again designed by Best Impressions) launched during the first busy twelve months of Transdev Blazefield’s ownership.

Tottington Line was the first attractive new brand applied to a fleet of off the shelf sparkly new Streetlite buses introduced last April on route 469 shuttling up and down on the efficiently timed route between Bury and Tottington. I took a ride in its first week of operation last year and was very impressed. Ten months on it’s still looking fresh, smart and as welcoming as it did during launch week.

Three further new route brands were introduced last year; one on a fleet of new Versas for the 464 between Rochdale, Bacup, Rawtenstall and Accrington, another applied to the six Streetlites bought by Rosso in 2016 for the Rochdale to Littleborough circulars 456/458 branded as Lakeline while the third new higher profile route brand, ‘red4’, is for the Bury to Ramsbottom route.

Hollingsworth Lake on Lakeline 458 is a particularly lovely spot and all the better for now having a high profile branded bus route to make it stand out.

A recent revamp of the route includes an extra two buses an hour running direct as a 457 between Littleborough and Rochdale competing with First Bus route 457 (and 454) at four buses an hour along the same road.

Two more attractive brands were introduced last month: ‘trax’ for Bury to Rochdale routes 467/468 and ‘irwell line’ for the Bury to Rawtenstall and on to either Blackburn (481) or Burnley (483) routes.

‘trax’ uses four year old Streetlites transferred over from Burnley in an attractive orange livery while ‘irwell line’ has refurbished ‘as new’ Wright Eclipse bodied Volvo B7RLE which belie their twelve years age.

If you didn’t look at the registration plate you’d think you were in a new bus, helped by the excellent treatment of the interiors which all incorporate attractive easy to read maps, ticket prices and useful succinct information.

The key to successful cove panels is keep the message short and simple – these are exemplars of the very best.

By designing the interiors to a common house style it becomes obvious that the attractive new brands are part of the same ‘company family’.

My day’s travels round the Rosso network yesterday saw some excellent customer service skills from drivers, impressive punctual timekeeping and displays of attractive promotional timetable leaflets at bus stations making for a welcome contrast with TfGM’s bog standard black and white print outs.

However a word of praise for TfGM for their bus stations which really are the business. Relative recent builds at Rochdale and Bolton are hugely impressive – literally huge too. Together with Bury all three sites visited yesterday had manned information desks and a range of other facilities including retail and toilets.

It’s just a shame the toilets seem harder to enter and exit than Alcatraz! Still, it is only 20p a time but with no change given you need a pocketful of coins these cold winter days requiring multiple visits in a day (!) – not easy in a contactless world!

And of course these bus stations are in the Premier League compared to the appalling relic from the 1970s bottom of League Division 2 bus station in Rawtenstall. Thank goodness there’s finally news the Borough Council have plans for a replacement opposite the current dilapidated site. As Michael Watson tweeted, the current relic needs shipping straight to Beamish Museum! It’s not just past it’s prime, it’s “pushing up the daisies” as John Cleese would observe.

From my travels yesterday it’s evident Rosso has experienced an exciting first twelve months under Transdev Blazefield ownership and if I know CEO Alex Hornby* it’ll be an even more exciting (and ‘amazing’) second year ahead.

I have absolutely no inside knowledge or even any hint of possibilities but reports First Bus are seeking bids for their Manchester operations will surely be of great interest to Transdev, not least the operations between Bolton, Bury and Rochdale, which are a perfect fit for Rosso’s ‘South East Lancashire’ network.

However there are two counter considerations. While Manchester was noticeably booming when I arrived late on Friday afternoon the same can’t be said for the area north of the conurbation. Talk about the ‘death of the High Street’ is old hat for Rochdale. Closed shutters outnumbered open retail units when I visited some years ago before Metrolink got extended beyond the rail station and it didn’t look much different riding the tram down to the town centre yesterday.

Except to my pleasant surprise I was encouraged to see work well underway on ‘Rochdale Riverside’ adjacent to the transport interchange and tram terminus.

This “will create the prime core in the heart of the town centre” including “a M&S department store, retail and leisure units, kiosks, 6 screen cinema and an adjoining car park around inspiring public realm”.

If it achieves what a similar development called ‘The Rock’ has done in revitalising neighbouring Bury, then it could be the saviour of Rochdale as a place to visit. Good luck Rochdale Riverside.

The second factor is of course TfGM’s desire to introduce bus franchising which they’re currently spending an obscene amount of money (£11 million) investigating. Interestingly Mayor Andy Burnham has not actually fully committed himself to such a regime change so it’s all to play for as his initial mayoral term marches on a pace, ending in just over twelve months time.

The bus operators are fighting a rearguard action talking up plans for huge investment in electric buses (Stagecoach) and working together under a new ‘one bus’ brand to make it easier for passengers to navigate their way around.

I was expecting to see the new logo emblazoned across all colours of buses ousting the beloved (!) corporate Arriva, First and Stagecoach brands, but instead espied it among a plethora of window notice overload on a First Manchester bus. Surely that’s not it?

Unsurprisingly I didn’t see it sullying any Rosso buses from Transdev Blazefield and don’t expect to. Indeed it might just be that an opportunistic expansion with further excellent attractive route brands across this part of north Manchester and a plentiful supply of promotional leaflets is just the encouragement the Mayor needs to put any risky franchising plans firmly on the back burner.

It’s a risk I hope Transdev will be emboldened to take and let’s hope their bid offer is currently on its way to Aberdeen.

It’s looking like it’ll definitely be an interesting year two for Transdev Blazefield’s Rosso.

* which I do.

Roger French

railair & you’re there

Thursday 24th January 2019

IMG_7489.jpgThe recent launch of First Bus’s nine brand new Scania Irizar i6 bodied K-series coaches for its prestigous RailAir nonstop service linking Reading Station with Heathrow Airport attracted a shoal of positive comments on Twitter and in the trade press so I thought I’d give it a road test today.

IMG_7509.jpgAll the more so as I realised I’d never actually travelled on this bespoke route before; living in Sussex I don’t have much need to reach Heathrow from Reading, although back in my student days at Reading University in the early 1970s I remember trips up to London on Thames Valley’s (sadly rebranded Alder Valley in its ill fated merger with Aldershot & District) infamous routes A and B which took an age to reach London; and I really can’t remember whether one of them nipped into Heathrow to serve the airport on the way.

 

IMG_7481.jpgThese new coaches do look very smart indeed in their attractive Best Impressions designed livery. Sleek lines, lovely blue and grey colours and an attractive no-fuss typeface and logo with the slogan ‘railair & you’re there’. The professional design’s a world away from the busy bus-crash style message overload which befits some of First’s bus fleet in metropolitan areas (Leeds I’m looking at you!).

 

IMG_7511.jpgThe step entrance is noticeably nice and wide, and, naturally the coaches are equipped for wheelchair accessibility, although sadly three days advance notice is required if you want to travel in a wheelchair. It looked like it’s much more than a five minute job to remove the seats that make way for a wheechair.

IMG_7532.jpgThe gorgeous interior design matches the exterior and really is very attractive and welcoming, as are the 47 seats including twelve arranged around three tables spread through the coach. USB sockets are available as is wi-fi, although I couldn’t get a connection on my journey.

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IMG_7529.jpgThe seats really are the most sumptuous and comfortable I’ve travelled in for a long time, and all the more so for passengers making the transition from a Class 800 IEP train and its rather unwelcoming seat comfort and transferring in Reading over to this luxury and comfort for the onward journey to Heathrow. It even beats First Class on an 800.

IMG_7530.jpgAs I showed on Twitter this afternoon, there was a rather disturbing amount of vibration on the table surface as the coach tackled the uneven road surfaces, especially on the M4 where long term roadworks are upgrading it to a ‘Smart Motorway’. That aside, the coach really did glide along and I found it a smooth enjoyable ride. The plaudits are well deserved.

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IMG_7482.jpgOne or two observations and suggestions about RailAir: we set off exactly on time at 1300 and after seven minutes in free flowing off-peak Reading traffic reached the A329(M) at 1307, joining the M4 five minutes later at 1312. The motorway’s temporary 50mph speed limit impacted our speed until we reached the end of the roadworks by Junction 7 for Slough at 1325 when we speeded up, reaching the M25 at 1333 with a smooth run round to Terminal 5, our first drop off two minutes early at 1338 where four passengers got off and we left on time at 1340. Four more alighted on time at Terminal 2 at 1352 with our final two passengers deposited at Terminal 3 at 1358, just two minutes down. We reached Heathrow’s bus station at 1402 (instead of 1400), and the coach got ready for its 1410 departure back to Reading.

IMG_7537.jpgTen passengers may not seem many, (around the same number took the previous journey from Reading at 1240 – the service runs every 20 minutes) but at a fare of around £20 (for both single and return) that’s not bad going for an hours work.

I booked online in advance last night, but there are a few inconsistencies with the booking arrangement. The RailAir website advises passengers must book online at the latest by 5pm the previous day, yet I found I was able to book at about 8pm without any difficulty, so that seems an unnecessary restriction. Once you receive your email confirmation and ticket, it contains the instruction “YOU MUST PRINT YOUR TICKET AND SHOW IT TO THE DRIVER”. Not only is this in block capitals but is repeated twice more and a similar warning is contained on the website.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 19.30.58The only problem for me was my email came with a large promotional graphic which didn’t fully download in any event, which took up so much of page 1 of the 3 page email I MUST PRINT OUT that what looked like the all important QR Code was split between page 1 and page 2! Not being a computer expert and knowing how to change the settings I was a bit befuddled!

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 20.28.11.pngIn the event, the railair representative in the lounge at Reading Station confirmed it’s quite in order to simply show the email to the driver on a smartphone, and indeed my driver was very happy to see it that way!

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The inevitable ‘wet floor’ (it wasn’t) bollard too!

The reception area at Reading Station has also been given a much welcome Best Impressions designed makeover and really looks quite splendid inside with its TV screen showing the latest news, complimentary newspapers (The Times at that too), complimentary hot drinks machine, comfortable seats as well as seats to sit and work at. It made up for the ineptness of the website booking arrangement to be honest.

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IMG_7506.jpgAnother small inconsistency is that the only benefit of booking online is for an ‘Early Bird’ ticket, defined as booking more than three months before travel; otherwise, despite the messages, despite the 5pm cut off, there didn’t seem to be any difference between online prices and just paying in the lounge or to the driver.

I was pleased to see the main Railcards are accepted for a third discount, which meant my fare for a single journey was £13.20; which I ranked as good value for the service provided.

IMG_7525.jpgBearing in mind railair is operated by First Bus and GWR has long been in the hands of First Group, you’d think there’d be close working between the two companies. There’s a lovely railair leaflet I spotted at Reading, but I’d be surprised if it was to be found at stations westwards to the West Country and South Wales. Although I did spot a GWR leaflet giving details of links to many airports from GWR’s network which included mention of RailAir.

IMG_7480 (1).jpgThere are signs for the RailAir coach inside Reading Station and commendably departures appear on screens and therefore on apps too. I was surprised there wasn’t better signage directing you to the departure lounge as you exit through the barriers and would suggest this would help those unfamiliar that this gem is hidden behind M&S Simply Food’s central outlet.

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IMG_7410.jpgI would also suggest ways be found to include the service on National Rail’s journey planner. I caught the 1158 from Newbury arriving Reading at 1220 giving a good connection with the 1240 railair departure (had I needed it) which would’ve got me to Terminal 5 at 1320. However, if you put Newbury to Terminal 5 in the Journey Planner it will take you into Paddington and out again on the overpriced and extortionately expensive Heathrow Express arriving Terminal 5 twelve minutes later at 1332. Pay more and arrive later; I don’t think so!

Screen Shot 2019-01-24 at 19.43.13.pngThe long term future of RailAir is in some doubt with talk getting louder about constructing a new western link into Heathrow from the Great Western main line. At the pace of change on the rail network it will be some time before we see such a development, so in the meantime these new coaches are indeed very welcome; well worth a ride and you’re there.

IMG_7535.jpgRoger French

Battle for Bellfields begins as Guildford goes electric

Monday 7th January 2019

It’s all happening in Guildford this week. Stagecoach South introduced a fleet of nine ADL Enviro 200EV electric buses on the Guildford Park and Ride services today while, as predicted in my post on 16th November last year, the bus war between Arriva and Safeguard has escalated into Bellfields. I had a look at both developments this morning.

First the electrics and their high profile ‘glide’ brand. There are four Park & Ride sites in Guildford; they’re well used, being popular with both commuters and shoppers. The four car parks are all relatively close to the city centre with Artington, to the south on the Godalming road, only a seven minute journey from the bus station while Merrow on the Leatherhead road to the east has a twelve minute journey time. The other two car parks just off the A3 are equally close: Onslow in the west is ten minutes while Spectrum to the north is eight minutes. So I suspect these not particularly arduous journey times are ideal for the electric buses with their high capacity roof mounted batteries with overnight charging giving a reported 150 mile range.

Naturally the buses come with usb sockets and wifi, but on their current duties you’re hardly on the bus long enough to have time to sort out the plug-in lead from your bag, nor go through the logging in process for wifi. Handy facilities if the buses move on to other routes during their lifetime, I suppose.

The seat moquette is to Stagecoach’s brash “iron brew” colour specification or a cross between Aldi-meets-Tesco-meets-Sainsbury’s. I find it a bit overpowering in double deckers and much prefer the softer grey colour scheme used in the north west (on Service X2 – pictured below); but for the short ride, the seats are comfortable enough, and at least the colours brighten up a single deck interior, if a bit in your face.

Interior messages on the cove panels are thankfully large enough to actually be read and extol some of the virtues of the services as well as promoting Stagecoach’s longer distance routes from Guildford.

Most impressive of all is the quietness of the transmission/engine, the only noise coming from bumps in the road, which those aside, means the smoothness of the ride really does stand out. Quite a few passengers were commenting positively about the “new electric buses” and it was good to hear general positivity about the service. Well done Stagecoach and Surrey County Council – the buses have certainly raised the profile for Park and Ride – an essential ingredient in Guildford’s notorious traffic challenges.

Meanwhile, the residents of Guildford’s Bellfields estate woke up this morning to double the number of buses to take them on the 14-17 minute journey into the town centre. It was obvious to me that Safeguard were not going to take Arriva’s completely foolish incursion last November into the Park Barn estate and Royal Surrey County Hospital competing with their routes without reacting. They’ve been serving that area extremely well for decades so they’re not going to simply give up and allow Arriva to muscle in and take their business away.

A retaliatory competitive service against Arriva into Bellfields was therefore only to be expected. My view hasn’t changed since writing in November: “the only likely outcome” (of the incursion into Park Barn) “is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down route A) as it won’t be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ”.

I’ll go further now and suggest a likely outcome is Arriva will now capitulate, withdraw their Service 3 completely and cede Bellfields to Safeguard. There clearly aren’t enough passengers to support two twenty minute frequency services. There’ll be no generation. Of the two operators there’s no doubt Safeguard enjoy any brand loyalty such as it is, but in the main, passengers will catch the first bus that comes along, which by dint of timings is likely to be Safeguard (timetabled to run five minutes ahead of Arriva). On Saturdays Arriva only run half hourly to Safeguard’s new twenty minute frequency so one departure will have a Safeguard bus behind, and the other in front. Arriva run an hourly frequency on Sundays under contract to Surrey County Ciuncil.

Full marks once again to Surrey County Council who have displayed up to date timetables at all the bus stops along the route and in Guildford bus station – I doubt many local authorities would deliver up to date information so efficiently. Well done.

Today’s experience demonstrates once again how Safeguard, unsurprisingly, have that all important attention to detail spot on with new timetable leaflets for their 3S service on board both buses together with balloons and sweets for passengers as a novelty addition and friendly drivers, while Arriva were still running a “lumbering double deck” I mentioned last November (completely unsuitable for the route) and a branded single deck for MAX 34/35 routes! Hardly demonstrating commitment.

I’m beginning to wonder how long the entire Surrey outpost of the Arriva Kent operation controlled from Maidstone, will be sustainable. We’ve already seen Abellio Surrey give up and pull out …….

Roger French

The m1 arrives in Bristol

Sunday 6th January 2019

Today saw the launch of the third route in Bristol’s metrobus trilogy: the m1. And this is the biggy. Route m3 was first out of the blocks last May between Emersons Green and the city centre using a new bus only exit off the M32 for easy access to the University of West of England campus. This was followed in September by the former Long Ashton Park & Ride service rebranded and renumbered m2 and diverted to use some new fancy bus only roads and completely unnecessary guided busway sections (reviewed here).

In reverse number order, we now have the m1. From the gigantic leisure and retail park just off the M5 known as Cribbs Causeway in north west Bristol the m1 runs via Bradley Stoke in the north east and the University of West of England to the city centre then via Bedminster and Hengrove to terminate outside South Bristol Community Hospital having taken a whopping 85 peak minutes for an end to end journey. A Monday to Saturday 10 minute frequency impressively runs from 6am right through to 1am (20 minutely on Sundays). The extended peak running time means at least fifteen buses are needed to run the route.

Cribbs Causeway
South Bristol Community Hospital, Hengrove

Uniquely the route is being operated by Bristol Community Transport (BCT) under a fixed cost contract to First West of England who are taking the revenue risk. BCT is part of CT Plus which in turn is part of the expansive HCT Group (a social enterpise formerly known as Hackney Community Transport) who specialise in fixed contract operations. This arrangement is a win-win for all concerned. BCT get an extensive contract with no risk; First West of England get to develop revenue on a high profile new route overlaying their extensive Bristol city network rather than competition from a third party, and I suspect First are paying CT Plus less than if they’d operated it directly, and the local authorities, who have backed the metrobus concept and funded all the infrastructure, get an integrated package and their vision of a better quality bus service to tempt motorists out of their cars. With First West of England’s recent difficulties with staff shortages it’s also a sensible arrangement to contract out a significant resource uplift such as the m1.

It all sounds like a sensible arrangement with local operators working pragmatically together playing to their strengths and local authorities putting they money where their vision is. And the evidence is metrobus is working too. Coinciding with the m1’s introduction this week, a new timetable is being introduced on the m3 with peak hour with-flow express journeys (numbered m3x) using more of the M32 and shaving eight minutes off the journey time, due to overloading from Emersons Green and the Science Park.

I had a ride up and down the m1 today; it was encouraging to see so many people giving the new route a try (many buses ran full), and noteworthy how many families with young children were travelling. Extra buses were drafted on to the route to cope with the numbers travelling, helped by a first day free travel promotion – just the kind of thing to get people trying a bus route. I overheard many positive comments about the bus interiors and the service in general and I’m sure this bodes well. The interiors are nothing plush, but very smart, very comfortable and very practical. The usual usb sockets and wifi are available but sadly no next stop announcements were working on the buses I travelled on although I’m told they were working on other buses – no doubt some teething issues.

I’m always puzzled why some bus companies still go for large screens which block the forward view and the ones I saw weren’t providing anything useful – other than a reminder to exit via the rear doors which was displayed only once the bus had stopped.

Overlaying fifteen buses on to an already comprehensive city network without damaging profit margins is risky, but James Freeman, the well experienced managing director of First West of England, told me initially no reductions are being made to routes which now face competition from metrobus until things settle down. This is a very wise strategy as the m1 takes a different route to existing First buses at both ends of the route as well as a different route into the city. In Hengrove confusingly, existing buses into the city centre serve the opposite side of the road, and in one case (the 50A) is quicker than the new m1, so it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to this new high profile entrant. I suspect there’ll be both abstraction and generation and hopefully the latter will exceed the former (and by some margin – to cover fifteen buses!).

Confusingly some bus stops in Hengrove are served by traditional First bus routes but not the m1; the lady photographed above was politely advised by our driver who stopped to explain the situation.

The m1 serves the University of West of England, including the exclusive access to and from the M32, so the northern section of the route has a ready market especially as the m3 has shown, students are a great market to attract and respond in large numbers to improvements to bus routes.

Despite extensive stretches of bus lanes, the m1 running time has been expanded at peak times to cope with Bristol’s notorious traffic congestion. This is sensible, as even today, albeit with first day teething problems as drivers and passengers got used to the new arrangements, on one journey I travelled on we lost fifteen minutes on the northbound journey between Bedminster and the city centre, not helped by a delayed five minute driver handover – and at a bus stop not served by metrobus (not good!).

As with the m2 and m3, no tickets are sold by the driver. Every stop has a pod with clear instructions how to buy a ticket or to use a smartphone or smartcard.

The fleet of buses on the m1 are powered by gas. A nice touch, but I’m not convinced many passengers notice, and even if they did, it would make a difference to their travel arrangements. But it’s good to see alternative propulsion sources continue to be trialled.

All in all an exciting development and congratulations to all involved. It’s certainly worth a trip to Bristol to take a look.

Roger French

2018 Quiz Answers

1 What are passengers in Basingstoke soon to miss, that those in Leicester suffered a loss of in the summer?

Printed timetables …. as Stagecoach South announced they wouldn’t be printing timetables for upcoming changes next month. It follows Arriva Midlands doing the same in Leicester in 2018.

2 What did passengers do to force Stagecoach to convert express route X92 to plain 192 in Manchester?

Passengers kept boarding the peak hour limited stop X92 journeys and demanding drivers let them off at stops which the bus didn’t observe, forcing Stagecoach to relent and make all buses observe all stops. A Stagecoach spokesperson said “as a result of ongoing verbal abuse directed towards our drivers by passengers who pressure them to stop at (the 34) stops which the X92 does not serve”.

3 Why was Platform 13 unlucky for Jubilee Line passengers at Stratford?

London Underground introduced a new timetable and driver ‘stepping up’ arrangements meaning they could just use Platforms 14 and 15 for all departures which conveniently use the same island platform removing the need for passengers to walk back and around to Platform 13 for the next train if they just miss a departing train from those platforms.

4 Why did Sid come unstuck for spending £1 on his megabus journey?

The Advertising Standards Authority demanded Stagecoach remove the large £1 fare signs from coaches as not enough seats were sold at that price. Megabus have replaced them with other promotional features – e.g. usb sockets, wifi and a generic ‘mega value fares’.

5 Why were Arriva and Carousel back as one between Chesham and High Wycombe?

The previous coordination agreement that saw both companies share route 1 (Chesham to High Wycombe) broke down in 2017 and competition broke out instead, but they kissed and made up from January 2018 and the timetable once again became coordinated.

6 What new destination could you catch a train from St Pancras to but not back again?

Eurostar began running to Amsterdam but no agreement exists between the UK and Netherlands Governments for the UK Border Force to operate immigration facilities in the Netherlands so no return journey is yet running.

7 Which two towns had a new peak hour bus replacement service laid on for commuters as part of the ‘improved’ Thameslink service from 20 May?

Wellingborough and Bedford.  The new Thameslink timetable south of Bedford meant there was not enough time for some peak hour East Midlands Trains to stop at both Wellingborough and Bedford so a Stagecoach coach now provides a replacement facility.

8 Where could you find a South Western Railway train meet a stream train on summer Saturdays?

Core Castle….where South Western Railway ran journeys on the connecting line at Wareham to the heritage Swanage Railway on summer Saturdays, sadly disrupted by RMT strike action on a number of occasions.

9 Why weren’t train drivers seeing straight driving new electric ScotRail Class 385s between Glasgow and Edinburgh?

The curve in the windscreens led to drivers seeing “double vision” at night so modifications had to be made before the trains could enter service.

2018 Review, Awards and Quiz of the Year

Tuesday 18th December 2018

After my fortnightly French Connection column got ditched last summer, readers of Bus & Coach Buyer have reportedly been worried sick they’ll miss my ritual round up of the year with its concoction of fascinating facts, august awards and quirky quiz questions.  Fear no more. I’m delighted to report BusAndTrainUser has acquired the rights for this annual nostalgic feast, and not only that, has expanded the content to become multimodal. So welcome dear readers, especially first timers, to this event of events in the transport world……it beats all those Summits, Conferences and tedious Award lunches and dinners that bedevil the rest of the year.

Regular readers will notice one or two changes with this year’s ceremony. We’ve moved to an impressive new venue ….. yes, we’re in the cavernous passenger circulating area deep underground at Crossrail’s Farringdon station. Ever keen to raise much needed commercial income to prop up its booming deficit, TfL are renting this vast space out for corporate events until it one day might be used for its original purpose. It’s a real honour to be the first to gather in these prestigious surroundings for our Review and Awards Presentation luncheon so without further ado, let’s begin the proceedings.

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The only trouble is it’s taking the Deliveroo guy over an hour to carry all the food down the fifteen flights of stairs in the emergency stairwell; problems with the station’s electrics interfering with the signals on the Thameslink line above us mean the escalators have yet to be commissioned and passed safe for service, but I’m told testing continues.

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So before the soup arrives, here’s a quick reflection on the past year’s news, and a round up of what was in and who was out during the year.

In a nutshell

It wasn’t the best of years for trains with May Meltdown (no, not the Prime Minister but the 20 May timetable chaos), new trains delayed, refurbished trains delayed, station openings delayed, electrification delays, not enough trained train drivers, not knowing there’s not enough trained train drivers – it wasn’t so much see it, say it sorted during the year as didn’t see it coming, didn’t say anything and definitely not sorted. It wasn’t much better on the buses with delayed new bus rapid transit schemes and delayed entry into service of electric buses. 2018 was also a year for proud announcements about ‘Business Change’ and ‘organisational reorganisations’ as well as sparkly new app based ride sharing minibuses being introduced as last year’s sparkly app based ride sharing minibuses bit the dust as they ran out of funds. More authorities and bus companies thought the answer to encouraging more bus passengers was to stop producing printed information and literature designed to encourage more bus passengers but on a positive note hundreds of new buses hit the road (all billed as ultra environmentally friendly of course) and there surely will be hundreds of new trains hitting the tracks …… next year.

North American private equity investor Apollo Asset Management made a bid for First Group at what informed sources said was between £1.10 and £1.20 a share. First Group rebuffed the offer as “undervaluing the company” and “opportunistic” but pointedly the Group has not exactly improved its performance since with current share price at 81p making for continuing rumours about a break-up of the Group in 2019. It was the year when the Alice in Wonderland World of Economics finally hit the rail industry yet Transport Groups seemingly still reckon it makes sense to be involved. Not only do you spend millions trying to win a franchise, once you’ve got the green signal to go you have to pump in mega more millions to keep the show on the tracks; as First Group found with Trans Pennine Express during the year; as Abellio found with ScotRail during the year; as Stagecoach and Virgin found with East Coast during the year (losing it to LNER); as Arriva found with Northern during the year, as Go-Ahead found with GTR during the year; as …OK, this could get a bit tedious but you get the picture.

And on top of all that, if you ran trains, 2018 was the year to get slated by passengers, trade unions, politicians and the media for being incompetent fat cat money grabbing charlatans. I reckon CEOs of our transport companies must all have sadomasochistic tendencies to keep on trumpeting to their favoured City investors about the wonderful world of running trains for little, if any, financial or reputational reward.

In positive rail news, the much expanded London Bridge works ended (on time), the Bermondsey Dive Under opened; blockades at Derby and Liverpool Lime Street saw new or extended platforms and track layout and signalling installed while energised electrification finally reached Swindon and the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo reopened for business with South Western Railway..

Hello Goodbye

It was hello to Reading Buses in Slough as they and Courtney, picked up the pieces from First Bus withdrawals in the town and a goodbye to Stagecoach in North Norfolk with the admission its purchase of Norfolk Green had not been ‘bottom-line enhancing’ while Abellio bade farewell to Surrey, Whippet whipped off the Cambridge busway and Go-Ahead picked up First Bus left behinds in Clacton-on-Sea. Seaford & District packed in normal year round bus work as did Emsworth & District further along the south coast; Regal Busways and EOS packed it in in Essex as did Stephensons of Easingwold in North Yorkshire while Arrow Coaches of Brighouse ceased trading completely and Avon Coaches gave up on the Wirral due to Merseyside’s MyTicket for young people. It was goodbye and good riddance to Express Motors of Penygroes at the beginning of 2018 with its directors jailed for fraud later in the year.

Transdev completed the formal purchase of Rosso, Rotala bought Central Buses in the West Midlands but sold Wessex in Bristol to Stagecoach. Comfort DelGro bought New Adventure Travel in Cardiff and Newport, while Peter Shipp sold his beloved East Yorkshire to the Go-Ahead Group. Stephenson of Essex acquired NIBS Buses of Wickford and HCT bought Powells Bus and the Impact Group.

It was goodbye to bendy buses in Coventry, picking up passengers at ScotRail run station IBM and farewell Tim O’Toole from First Group and Charles Horton from “the troubled” GTR franchise, with Kevin O’Connor quitting Arriva as UK Bus managing director, while a whole host of managing directors departed Stagecoach including long standing Martin Sutton and Andy Campbell not forgetting Steve Burd, Tom Bridge and Philip Norwell, Justin Davies said farewell First Cymru, Kevin Carr retired from Go-Ahead, Elsie Turbyne left NatEx owned Xplore Dundee while Norman Baker both joined and left the Big Lemon as MD. Very sad and tragic news was the untimely passing of Paul Thomas, Stagecoach East Scotland’s MD at such a young age.

In brighter news it was a hello and welcome to the Transport for Wales franchise operated by Keolis and Amey while Arriva Trains Wales went into the sidings and a welcome hello to new bus stations in Lincoln and Gloucester and a much needed revamp and refresh of Preston’s Grade II listed whopper. Hello also to ScotRail’s Hitachi electric Class 385s (once their bendy windscreens had been straightened) and Stagecoach’s new no frills megasightseeing operation in London as well as hello to a feast of new bus brands including Cheshire Cat in Warrington, the welcome return of Badgerline in First West of England, along with Discover and Lynx, Tottington Line, Lakeline and Red 4 in Transdev Blazefield’s Rosso and York & Country around York while Thames Valley was resurrected by Reading Buses in Slough, Glider glided into Belfast, Chiltern Hundreds launched surprisingly enough in the Chilterns and Dragonfly flew into Hatfield as Foxglove and Lilac grew in Northampton all from UNO.

Hello also to First Group CEO Matthew Gregory, Network Rail CEO Andrew Haines, Patrick Verwer to head up GTR, Louise Cheesman became managing director of Hull Trains and new bus managing directors including Matthew Ashton at Arriva’s Yorkshire Tiger, David Bradford at NatEx West Midlands, Chris Coleman at Stagecoach Oxfordshire, Matt Cranwell at Stagecoach East Midlands, Ian Humphreys at First Manchester, David Liston at Stagecoach North Scotland, Christine McGlasson Xplore Dundee, Gareth Powell as Surface Transport Supremo at TfL, Andrew Sherrington at First Cymru, Heath Williams to Ipswich Buses, Robert Williams to CEO Reading Buses, Ed Wills at Go-Ahead Ireland while Martijn Gilbert moved from head honcho at Reading Buses to Go North East and Phil Medlicott moved from First Manchester back to Stagecoach Midlands. MD Musical Chairs at Stagecoach saw Matthew Cranwell move from Cumbria and North Lancs to East Midlands being replaced by Mark Whitelocks moving from North Scotland. Nusrat Ghani arrived as a Minister at the DfT while Andrew Jones returned after Jo Johnson was off.

Competition broke out in West Lothian as Lothian Country (aka as Lothian Buses) headed for Livingston to take on First East Scotland while in Guildford, international corporate transport giant Arriva inexplicably decided to compete with local family owned and well respected Safeguard on a town bus route.

Numbers of the Year

12   bus lanes in Coventry temporarily removed in 2017 were permanently scrapped.

£32   public funding per passenger journey (yes, that’s for each single passenger journey) on Huntington Association Community for Transport in 2014 according to an external audit.

25   % hike in charges for coaches at Edinburgh Airport from January. A stop for 10-20 mins increased from £8 to £10

70   days notice for bus registrations was announced by the DfT with 1 day’s notice of implementation in April

840  Britain’s most scenic bus route according to 827 votes cast in an online poll that attracted 15,000 clicks.

£1.8m  TfL’s deficit running buses per day in its updated business plan to 2022/23

£6m   TfL spend on toilets on 40 routes including a handsome ‘Turdis’ outside desirable houses in Biggin Hill

£11.5m  TfGM’s grotesque spend on exploring the case for franchising – you’ve got to laugh or you’ll cry.

£92.3m   Enforcement income from the Dartford Toll – total income £204.7m. Work that one out.

Right that’s 2018 for you. Now as it seems Deliveroo are still struggling and the lunch is running later than a Bombardier Class 710 train destined for the Gospel Oak to Barking line we’ll move straight on to the Awards and present the beautifully crafted trophies to our worthy winners …….

Please could all winners note there are no official photographs this year (cutbacks following the commitment to freeze the price of your admission ticket for four years) so instead, please remember to ingratiate yourselves with selfies immediately after picking up your trophies so we get maximum coverage on social media. It goes down so well with your passengers waiting for a delayed bus or train to know their favourite transport company has just picked up a well deserved award at a lavish presentation ceremony…..

So the waiting is finally over, here they are the ever prestigious, all new ….. BusAndTrainUser Awards 2018

Late And Over Budget But Hey It’s Open At Last Award

Our first Award has proved massively popular this year attracting a plethora of top quality entries. The judges decided to delay their decision well beyond the original announcement deadline but finally made their minds up just a few minutes ago that ….. the Bronze Award goes to Translink’s Glider bus rapid transit introduced in Belfast in September just a mere twelve months late; the Silver Award to a well deserving joint entry from Warwickshire County Council and Network Rail for the much delayed opening of Kenilworth Station having achieved the amazing feat of four previously delayed opening dates, but the winner of the prestigious Gold Award is unsurprisingly the TramTrain between Sheffield and Rotherham for its much delayed AND four times original budget achievement during the ten years of implementation planning.  

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The judges also wanted to make a special commendation award to the West of England partners involved in Bristol’s metrobus rapid transit project noting its introduction this summer had commendably been achieved after a doubling of costs over budget as well as managing impressive implementation delays including only two out of three routes up and running with one more to follow in the new year. The judges noted an entry for the 2019 Awards would therefore be entirely appropriate.

Next up another ever popular award….

Let’s Rearrange The Deck Chairs and Contemplate Our Navel Award

Another great range of entries including Stagecoach for taking managing directors away from their day job to work full time on a highly impressive sounding ‘Business Change Programme’; First Group for also taking key directors away from their day job to head up a project finding new ways to improve bottom line profits in its continuing ‘Transformation Programme’ and not to be outdone, and a worthy entry to the shortlist, Arriva launched proposals for wide ranging ‘Organisation Change’ so it can become the ‘mobility partner of choice’. Our fourth and final entry for the short list is the Confederation of Passenger Transport for announcing controversial proposals for business change to deliver a higher public profile using less resources (‘keeping all the benefits of membership but at less cost’ syndrome) that also saw off Simon Posner, CPT’s Chief Executive and Ian Morgan, its Chairman. The judges found it too hard to make a decision on this Award and so have brought in expert business change consultants to advise. A result is expected in due course.

Meantime it’s …..

The ‘I Told You So’ Back Track of the Year Award

Not surprisingly as financial clouds gather we’ve been inundated with entries. What made for an ego filled PR puff overbrimming with bullshit about the cutting edge of innovation in 2017 came back to bite the bank balance with vengeance this year. The judges managed to whittle the entries down to a short list of five: Stagecoach South East for abandoning their Mercedes Sprinter microbuses under the Very Little and Not That Often brand in Ashford in favour of standard buses; Bournemouth’s Yellow Buses for renumbering, rebranding and revamping its bus network following last year’s disastrous renumbering, rebranding and revamping its bus network; RATP for abandoning its loss making Slide app based ride share venture in Bristol; Esoteric Systems (with First West of England) for abandoning its loss making MyFirstMile app based ride share venture in Bristol ….. but the winner is….. Arriva for their unashamed audacity of only half abandoning the 2017 conversion of Hemel Hempstead’s town routes to completely unsuitable Mercedes Sprinter minibuses giving Bennetts End residents welcome relief as standard size buses were brought back. The good news is Arriva must surely be in the running for an unprecedented win of this award two years in a row if it finishes the job off by returning big buses for residents of Warners End and Gadebridge in 2019.

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Most Preposterous Quote of the Year Award

Always a popular award with multiple entries which the judges narrowed down to two joint winners. The first Award goes to Alison O’Connor Director of Corporate Affairs at Arriva on the roll out of the Group’s new logo. Alison reckoned “our new identity is more customer friendly and will support us as we develop our services to deliver the flexibility and choice that our customers want”. She went on to explain the “new identity supports our strategy for growth and our vision of becoming a mobility partner of choice while positioning Arriva more strongly in a changing transport market”. Yeah, right. 

And our second joint winner for preposterousness goes to former Transport Minister Jo Johnson responding to complaints of hard seats on the DfT specified Thameslink Siemens Class 700 trains wistfully told numb bum complainers they needn’t resort to bringing their own inflatable cushions as “the seats normally become more comfortable over time through use”.

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Most ridiculed Auto Announcement of the Year

There’s just one candidate way ahead of any other entry this year. Many congratulations to TfL for the fleet wide roll out of its “Please hold on …. the bus is about to move” announcement which played out thirty seconds after the front doors had shut and the bus was well on its way from the bus stop. The judges also commended GTR for its saturation coverage at stations and trains insisting passengers check their train times from 20 May….. just a shame any semblance of timetables which could be relied on were abandoned within hours of their introduction which brings us to our next Award……

Surely They Must Have Known Award

This new Award for 2018 has proved a hit with entrants. We have a joint entry from GTR and the DfT together with the Thameslink Industry Readiness Board for their “Not Realising The 20 May Timetable Will Go Belly-up Until A Few Days Before” entry; another joint entry from Network Rail, Northern Trains and Transport for the North for their “Realising The 20 May Timetable Was Going Belly-up Weeks Before But Carried On Regardless” entry and a third joint entry from Transport for London with Crossrail for their “Not Realising A Delay Of Well Over A Year Was On The Cards Less Than Four Months Before Introduction” entry. The judges decided the only fair way of deciding the outcome of this hotly contested short list was to put it back to the people for a people’s vote; but this may take time to organise so in the meantime emergency arrangements, including the army on stand-by, are being introduced while the award remains unawarded.

Award for the most controversial Award of the Year Award

This year’s Award for the most controversial Award of the Year goes to the National Rail Awards ‘Train of the Year’ Award. Social media was abuzz with controversy in the Autumn when Siemens collected Gold as its Class 700 trains for Thameslink where judged Top Train in the National Rail Awards run by Rail magazine. It didn’t go down too well with Brighton based commuters uncomfortably sitting on hard-ironing-board-backed, armrest-missing, no-leg-room, narrow seats with coffee and croissant in hand, no plug sockets for much needed battery charging and fancy information signs proving unreliable. Mind you the hundreds of suitcase wheeling tourists boarding at Gatwick joined by hundreds more commuters at East Croydon were well pleased to hear the news, adding their own congratulations, as they found ample space to stand in comfort for their shorter length journey.

Consult But Ignore The Responses And Do It Anyway Of The Year Award

TfL have been consistent winners of this Award year after year and it won’t come as a surprise to you all to know it’s the 2018 worthy winner too. Last year it was the ‘ignore feedback about cuts to frequencies on the Finchley Road and don’t withdraw route 13’ entry which won as TfL sneakily withdrew route 13 and renumbered the 82 to 13 hoping no-one would notice. This year’s winning entry is the ‘cut routes 10 and 23 from Oxford Street and 25 west of Holborn even though the original justifications …. Oxford Street pedestrianisation and Crossrail are not introduced. You’ve got to hand it to TfL no-one does ignore consultation responses quite like them and win awards for it. 

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Time for our penultimate award and it’s the ever popular….

Naffest Use of Social Media of the Year Award

Usually this Award category is dominated by Virgin Trains and LNER for their annoying over-hyped far-from-realty marketing and promotional use of Twitter, but this year the judges were so impressed with Arriva Click’s expansion into Liverpool and the associated outlandish messages Tweeted they’ve awarded all three trophies to them. The Bronze award goes for the Tweet which encouraged school children to take Arriva Click to school when no child rate fares are available; the Silver award for this gem of a naff promotional Tweet …. “#SundayFunday is better with free Wi-Fi, air conditioned transport and purse-friendly trips to the carvery. Extra gravy on those spuds please!” – just a pity you can’t get an Arriva Click on a Sunday as they don’t run … so not so much a Funday ….

IMG_E1209….while the Gold award for the audacity of trumpeting “fantastic demand” and blaming “high demand if your first day ride requests are postponed” (the truth being only three minibuses were on the road on Liverpool’s first day of Click and minimal journey requests were being made but the minibuses were not close by even those!). Fake News Of The Year.

IMG_E8791And our final award should have been announced much earlier in the proceedings, but sadly has been delayed and may not even be ready to be presented even now. But here’s a sneak preview of the rather extensive shortlist ……

Caledonian Sleeper for the delayed introduction of new CAF Mark 5 sleeper coaches … the judges were particularly impressed by the company teasing passengers by selling tickets for the planned launch in October before admitting the trains were nowhere near ready and would happen next Spring instead (full refunds were given); Virgin Trains East Coast (aka LNER) for building up expectations, as only their annoying PR style knows how, for the introduction of Azuma trains in December only to quietly drop the idea due to implementation problems; VivaRail for the delayed introduction of former District Line D Stock Underground trains (Class 230 in new money) to the Marston Vale Line; Trans Pennine Express for loco hauled Mark 5s being delayed (also teasing us with a plan, then aborted, to introduce older stock until delivery); ScotRail for the delayed introduction of a fleet of refurbished HSTs to the newly branded Inter7City (and teasing us with just one set which occasionally runs on tracks for passengers); GTR for Siemens Class 717s on the delayed Great Northern suburban routes; the already mentioned delayed Overground Class 710s for Gospel Oak-Barking; Northern Trains delayed Class 195s – all the aforementioned promised for December introduction and, of course, no surprise that the winner by a long delay is Crossrail for missing its December introduction date spectacularly, announcing an ‘Autumn 2019’ replacement and only weeks later changing that to an indefinite delay. A very worthy Delayed Gold Winner.

Many congratulations to all our worthy winners. Remember if you don’t enter, you can’t win, so make a promise now to enter for the BusAndTrainUser Awards 2019 just as soon as we announce we’re open for entries. Don’t delay it.

I’m sorry lunch has still not arrived but Delay Lunch Repay forms will be available as you leave, but to round off proceedings, I had hoped our special guest speaker Minister of Transport Nusrat Ghani would be here, but as is normal practice we have a video presentation made especially for such absentee eventualities …. it’s for your enjoyment and to remind you of 100 Bus & Train Events in 2018….. click here and enjoy.

Finally as no blogpost just before Christmas is complete without a few quiz questions, here are a few posers to ponder over for the next few days before the answers get posted……

Christmas Quiz

1 What are passengers in Basingstoke soon to miss that those in Leicester suffered a loss of in the summer?

2 What did passengers do to force Stagecoach to convert express route X92 to plain 192 in Manchester?

3 Why was Platform 13 unlucky for Jubilee Line passengers at Stratford?

4 Why did Sid come unstuck for spending £1 on his megabus journey?

5 Why were Arriva and Carousel back as one between Chesham and High Wycombe?

6 What new destination could you catch a train from St Pancras to but not back again?

7 Which two towns had a new peak hour bus replacement service laid on for commuters as part of the ‘improved’ Thameslink service from 20 May?

8 Where could you find a South Western Railway train meet a steam train on summer Saturdays?

9 Why weren’t train drivers seeing straight driving new electric ScotRail Class 385s between Glasgow and Edinburgh?

Answers at the end of the year, or if you can’t wait – click here as most of them appear in our 100 Bus & Train Events in 2018 video.

Thanks for coming. Safe journey home everyone. Take care up all those stairs!

Happy Christmas to you all.

Roger French

A Lifebelt for ailing Hayling Ferry

Saturday 3rd November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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Stagecoach’s circular routes 30/31 run every 15 minutes from Havant (twice an hour each way)

First Bus route 15 runs hourly and 16 less often from the Hard to Eastney Fort Cumberland

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

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The Portsmouth News positive headline

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

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

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

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

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

At the top of the Eastney landing stage

At the bottom of the Eastney landing stage

On board the ferry

At the Hayling Island turning circle bus shelter

On board the 149 bus

Aside from ferry times only First Bus 15 times on display on the Eastney side (no 149) …

…. and then not particularly well presented!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lovely turning circle on the Eastley side in action….

….while over on Hayling Island…..

….the 149 waits patiently for customers.

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

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

Roger French 3rd November 2018

Cambridge Busway confusion

Monday 29th October

There’s something not quite right on the Cambridge Busway.

That’s apart from a driver shortage impacting the reliability of Stagecoach services.

I arrived at the Cambridge Station stop this morning for the 11.47 Route D which uses the Busway towards St Ives as part of a combined 15 minute frequency with Route A as shown on the timetable on the Stagecoach website.

Route D is on the far right of the frequency block

Except the bus stop ‘real time sign’ showed a Route D departure at 11.51 (not 11.47) while the departure list in the shelter showed an 11.51 departure as Route A (not D) and the sign on the shelter showed Routes A and C (but no D) stop there even though C doesn’t.

Timetable listing favours Route A (no D) as well as an R

The bus shelter favours there being a Route A and C

Confused? I was. And even more so when I then spotted a timetable for Route A on the shelter showing only an hourly service.

Then the insecurity set in when 11.47 (and 11.51) came and went; the ‘real time display’ disappeared; and no bus had appeared.

Next the sign showed a Route A departing at 12.02 which at least married up with one of the timetable displays in the shelter and the website, so things were looking up.

Except 12.02 came and went, the display disappeared and still no bus.

Then we had a departure showing a Route A in ’13 mins’ indicating there’s a good chance this bus is actually coming (the one due at 12.17) and my assumption the previous displays had defaulted to timetabled scheduled time as no ‘real’ information had been received by the system. As both departures were obviously cancelled this is a particularly unsatisfactory way to communicate what is already an unsatisfactory situation! Open Data this is not.

No update information had been tweeted by Stagecoach East so at 12.06 I tweeted them to find out what was happening as my day’s travel plans were rapidly meaning Plan A bring aborted as well as the backstop Plan B and the backstop to the backstop Plan C.

As there wasn’t the courtesy of a reply and I detected understandable consternation among waiting passengers as we all watched frequent departures on smart Park & Ride buses from the same stop which only added to our frustrating wait, I tried another tweet at 12.17 as that departure wasn’t in sight.

in the event a rather full single deck finally arrived at 12.21 (the previous departure – if it ran – would have been at 11.32) and shortly after that Stagecoach East enquired if the bus had arrived.

As someone astutely observed; Twitter is supposed to work the other way around with bus companies providing the answers rather than asking the questions.

A couple of people kindly tweeted me letting me know about a useful app I could download showing the location of both Stagecoach and Whippet buses around Cambridge but as a non frequent visitor to the city there’s a limit to how many apps I want on my phone. I had been using the Stagecoach app too; but like the real time sign, it had defaulted to showing scheduled time for the cancelled buses on the ‘nearby buses’ screen which is particularly useless – that’s when I could get a good enough signal …..

Not a particularly helpful app when phone signal is dodgy

Later in the day I arrived at Huntingdon station and was puzzled to see the same phenomenon with discrepancies between timetables on display there too.

The large display on the shelter shows departures on Route B to Cambridge at 01 and 31 minutes past the hour …..

while a smaller display on the bus stop shows departures at 08 and 38.

The real time display seemed to be agreeing with 01 and 31 which is also reaffirmed by the website.

I’m sure all of this can be explained by different publication dates and out of date information not being taken down but it does highlight how confusing it can be for passengers and emphasises the challenge ahead with grand plans for Open Data …. as well as confirmation that driver shortages are back with us again in some parts of the country (maybe pinch a driver off the frequent Park & Ride to avoid two consecutive buses on the A/D being cancelled?).

Displays showing different commencing dates in Cambridge may be a factor

Roger French 29th October 2018

I just snapped!

Wednesday 17th October 2018

‘Snap is premium inter-city travel, on demand, using the UK’s best independent coach companies. All for pocket money prices. Snap was founded in 2016 by Thomas Ableman, former Commercial Director of Chiltern Railways and Product Director of National Express and has carried over 100,000 people since launch, with outstanding customer feedback (9/10 on line reviews are 5-star).’

That’s what the Company blurb says, so I thought it was high time I gave this 5-Star coach experience a try.

I’d been keeping a curious eye on Snap’s website for much of last year but entering London and Brighton as my ‘on demand’ preferred travel origin/destination it would always come back saying nothing was going my way.

I knew Nottingham to London was Snap’s test bed route so decided to give that a go but I could only ever find inconvenient (for me) afternoon/evening departures northbound from London.

The website implies I can be matched with other passengers going my way, but my experiences indicated it was more whether my travel would fit in with confirmed journeys already planned to run.

Snap was in the trade press a few weeks ago promoting a deal with Oxford Bus to sell tickets on that Company’s London service as well as news of a service expansion to Bristol where coincidentally the Young Bus Managers Conference was being held on 17/18 October so it proved an ideal opportunity to give Snap a go. (I know I’m not young and no longer a bus manager, but they let me attend conferences as a grand sounding ‘Patron’).

This time Snap’s website had been updated to include a drop down menu in the From and To fields confirming all the available options which also now include Birmingham, Cardiff, Leicester and Worcester and even including journeys between them and not via London.

You can choose any convenient time to travel but I’ve found the algorithm always comes back offering trips st times where booked coaches are already confirmed as running. No doubt if I was a group booking there’d be flexibility.

Prices are attractively cheap for most journeys with higher fares applying on obviously busier journeys as bookings increase. My Bristol fare departing London at 0900 was quoted at £5 when I booked last Wednesday … until I saw an offer of ‘first trip free’ so signed up for the promo code and saved myself a fiver.

There are a number of pick up/set down options available – my Bristol coach offered St Pancras International or Baker Street from London with four drop off points near Bristol city centre.

The adventure began this morning at St Pancras as I hadn’t even realised there are six coach bays underneath the platforms accessed via the corridor between the Left Luggage and Toilets.

It’s not the most salubrious waiting area but with a text letting you know your driver is on the way and a link to a vehicle tracking website, you could hang around in the station’s extensive shopping and refreshment area until just before departure time – although you’re asked to be there ten minutes before departure.

Ominously our coach was still at Southwark Bridge at 0902 with predicted arrival erroneously still showing 0900 at St Pancras.

In the event this morning’s boarding experience was anything but 5-Star as our driver didn’t arrive until 0935. Had it not been possible to track the coach struggling through London’s morning peak hour traffic such a long wait would have been very disconcerting.

By 0913 Robin had reached City Thameslink but no change on the 0900 prediction.

At 0935 Robin arrived at the security guarded entrance to the departure bays.

All eight of us boarded promptly being ticked off on the drivers smartphone screen listing and we were away at 0939.

Our 2017 vintage Scania 33 seater coach provided by Anderson Travel was certainly 5-Star. It had a real wow factor as you boarded coming complete with leather seats; tables for four; a midship double galley with ovens, microwave, drinks facility and the usual usb sockets and Wi-fi.

It drove smoothly and as we crawled along the Euston and Marylebone Roads towards Baker Street (where we picked up four more passengers) I could tell this was going to be an impressive ride quality.

Our driver apologised for the late arrival and after Baker Street made an explanatory announcement that ‘it had been one of those mornings: problems with the traffic, problems with the coach and problems with the phone’. Still, I think we were all pleased to be on our way at last and we were reassured a revised anticipated arrival time in Bristol of midday was on the cards (rather than the originally scheduled 1131).

So, as instructed, I sat back, relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the ride down to Bristol where we pulled up in the city centre at Rupert Street at 1219 – 48 minutes late.

In the event not only did I have a completely free and luxurious ride (the seat was ten times more comfortable than a Class 800 train) but I arrived much quicker than had I gone to Paddington this morning as problems with overhead wires meant no trains could run until repairs were completed around lunchtime.

Snap is an interesting idea. Thomas Ableman rightly describes the company as a Sales and Marketing platform. It aims to excel at getting customers and allows operating companies to concentrate on what he says they do best – operating coaches. As befits the way of the ride sharing world, passengers are asked to rate their journey between 1 and 5 immediately on completion by text and this helps Snap ensure they contract only the best operators.

Thomas points out that compared to the downturn in bus travel and the more recent downward trends in train passengers, inter-city express coach travel is on the up – quoting both National Express and Megabus enjoying growth. To successfully join in this growth, Snap’s challenge must surely be raising awareness that they exist. Unlike the established players, Snap doesn’t have high visibility branded coaches plying the motorways and into town and city centres.

My Anderson Travel coach had a small Snap vinyl near the front on both sides but it only acted as reassurance to those of us boarding than being anything meaningful to anyone else.

But, as Snap’s overhead are a tiny fraction of National Express and Megabus it doesn’t really matter if the company grows at a fairly slow pace from one travel market to another as demand increases from word of mouth and use of low cost social media and it continues to match demand and supply with dynamic pricing.

For non-time critical passengers on tight budgets who happen to be travelling where Snap have a platform, it’s an irresistible proposition. Luxury travel, smooth ride and excellent bespoke reassuring communications.

It’ll be interesting to see where Snap goes next. I’ll happily give it another go if a destination and departure time look convenient – mainly for the novelty of such luxury road travel at a ridiculously cheap price – so I hope Snap’s venture capital investors are equally happy too. I’m told firmly that they are.

Roger French 17th October 2018