Britain’s most southerly bus stop…

… and other west Cornwall travels.

Thursday 8th August 2019

IMG_6670.jpgHaving travelled up to Cape Wrath last month to visit mainland Britain’s most northerly bus terminus I thought it was time to take a look at the most southerly bus stop.

It’s located at The Green, Lizard, just north of Lizard Point itself, where First Kernow’s route L1 terminates.Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.33.46.pngScreen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.35.20.pngRoute L1 runs almost hourly from Helston down to The Lizard (there are a couple of two-hour gaps in the morning timetable) with most journeys projected back to start from Redruth Station’s Platform 3.

IMG_6494.jpgThat’s where I began my travels, having taken GWR’s Night Riviera sleeper from Paddington on Monday evening.

The train arrived on schedule into Redruth at 07:22 giving a generous connection time to include breakfast before the 08:00 departure on route L1, except Redruth’s one of those towns that remains firmly closed at that time of the morning. Not an open café or coffee shop to be had.

The upside was it gave time to meet Redruth Station’s gorgeous friendly resident cat, Hector….IMG_6511.jpgIMG_6519.jpg….. and admire the signs directing passengers to the bus stop outside the station ‘for Helston & Culdrose’, quaintly called Platform 3 complete with a ‘3’ in former BR corporate style.

IMG_6441.jpgIMG_6446.jpgIMG_7158.jpgThis is from the time the innovative Truronian bus company branded the route The Helston Branch Line in the 1990s which is still displayed on the bus stop.IMG_6449.jpg

National Rail show bus departures to Helston from Redruth and there are fares in the rail database to ‘Helston Bus’ (way below First Bus current prices I’m sure) but you can’t buy one from the ticket office or from a ticket vending machine so it’s all a bit anachronistic as usual with these things.

Truronian sold out to First Bus back in 2008 and it’s only recently with the reinvigorated First Kernow that the smart new Lizard branding (another Best Impressions masterpiece) and new route number L1 have arrived.

My itinerary included a visit yesterday to the Helston Railway itself where a dedicated band of volunteers toiling away for the last fifteen years have amazingly reopened about a mile and a quarter of track south towards Helston from the hamlet of Prospidnick.

IMG_7053.jpgIMG_7050.jpgIMG_7051.jpgThere are ambitious plans to extend the line further south but it’s going to take a long time and much more hard work.

In the meantime the railway is open two or three days a week and was proving very popular yesterday with families enjoying their visit of a half an hour’s round trip including time at the southern end of the line at Truthall Halt.

IMG_7062.jpgIMG_7063.jpgIMG_7060.jpgThere’s the usual shop and cafe in a former DMU located at Prospidnick…..IMG_7047.jpg….which is a twenty minute walk from Crowntown (along an overgrown footpath and country lane) where the two hourly route 38 passes on its run between Helston and Camborne so careful planning is needed to visit the railway by bus and fit in with both bus and train times. I think I was the only one yesterday morning.

But it’s worth it to see Prospidnick Halt station in the middle of a wood on a narrow viaduct and admire the work of the volunteers.IMG_7046.jpgThe Helston branch left the mainline just west of Camborne; it closed to passengers in 1962 so for the past 57 years the bus has been the only way of reaching Helston and south on to The Lizard peninsula.IMG_6507.jpgJourney time from Redruth to The Lizard on the L1 is 83 minutes including eight minutes stand time in Helston. The 08:00 journey took eight of us from Redruth as far as Helston and a similar number south from there with most alighting in the village of Mullion.

One passenger alighted at the scenic Poldhu Cove bay ….IMG_6527.jpg…. but only one other passenger joined me all the way down to The Lizard. I’m sure the journey is much busier on a schoolday and I noticed a double deck in Lizard branding on another journey indicating school children are a key market for this route.IMG_6726.jpgBritain’s most southerly bus stop is next to The Green with surrounding gift shops and eateries. The arrangements for where buses stand and wait seemed confused with the driver of my incoming journey stopping alongside The Green (photographed below) but the driver of the next journey reversing alongside the stop itself as photgraphed above.IMG_6654.jpgI had just enough time for breakfast and a brisk walk down to the lighthouse and Lizard Point itself before returning to catch the next bus back which operates via the hamlets of Ruan Minor and Kuggar (with nice seating in the shelter) …IMG_6731.jpg… and then the outward route in reverse to Helston and Redruth. It became a very busy journey with all seats taken and we arrived back in Helston fifteen minutes late necessitating a change to my original planned itinerary – this happens a lot in Cornwall – experience has taught me to allow at least a 15 minute buffer for late running across Kernow land but I still ignore my own advice sometimes with the consequential need to replan on the hoof.

I decided to catch the already mentioned two-hourly route 38 from Helston to Camborne and in contrast to the L1, I was the only passenger on the entire 34 minute journey leaving Helston at 11:57. (I travelled on the same journey again yesterday after visiting the railway and there were six others on board).IMG_6757.jpgCamborne bus station is adjacent to First Kernow’s main offices and bus garage for Cornwall.

IMG_6765.jpgIMG_7066.jpgIMG_6780.jpgIt’s pretty basic with lots of signs telling passengers to stand behind the barriers, and there’s staff coming and going through a door marked PRIVATE, but otherwise not much to report.IMG_6770.jpg

One bright spot in an otherwise somewhat depressing waiting area with no seating is a bright map and timetable display.IMG_6768.jpgI also noticed the low flour easy access arrangement from the bus station saw-tooth layout doesn’t allow for the door behind the front wheels layout on the smart new Optare Solos.IMG_6783.jpg

My next journey was another quiet run on the four-journeys-a-day route 39A (note the incorrect Lizard branded bus photographed below) across to Penzance via a delightful rural route through lovely Cornish villages such as Relubbus, Goldsithney and Rosudgeon on the B3280 as well as a double run to serve Perranthnoe.

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Penzance bus station was given a makeover a couple of years ago and is now a very pleasant place to wait with a functional shelter and departure bays.IMG_6785First Kernow have done a fantastic job displaying maps and timetables in the shelter… IMG_6830.jpgIMG_6831.jpg… and the Council have included electronically displayed upcoming train and bus departures.IMG_6832.jpgIMG_6833.jpgIt’s a shame the dedicated First Bus Travel Shop has closed …IMG_6839.jpg…. but it probably made financial sense to utilise the adjacent Visitor Information Centre which has a great display of timetables and yet another helpful network map.IMG_6788.jpgIMG_6786.jpg

Despite many previous visits to Penzance I’d never fitted in a walk out to nearby St Michael’s Mount so put that right on Tuesday by catching the Atlantic Coaster branded open-top route A2 to Marazion.IMG_6880.jpgThe A2 continues to St Ives where it morphs into an A3 around the coast to Lands End changing again there into an A1 to complete the circuit back to Penzance. The full circular ride takes 3 hours, 40 minutes and many people make a day of it breaking the round journey up into bite sized chunks.IMG_6885.jpgI’m pleased to have ticked off St Michael’s Mount which was very busy during the period when low tide allows access and despite the excellent bus service there were all too many cars parked in fields on the edge of Marazion.IMG_6881.jpgIMG_6882.jpgMarazion is also served by the hourly route U4 one of four routes First Kernow run for the University of Exeter’s campus at Penryn just north of Falmouth.IMG_6899.jpgAnd commendably these run during college holidays and are popular with tourists and locals.

I took the U4 back to Helston where I finished off Tuesday’s travels with an early evening ride on the last journey of the day on route L2 from Helston to the south west corner of the Lizard peninsula at Coverack – which is particularly scenic as the road descends to the bay around triple narrow hairpin bends …IMG_6991.jpg… and St Keverne. We took about half a dozen workers home and brought back about the same number of tourists on the return journey. The bus arrived about 15 minutes late into Helston – and didn’t make the time up during the journey or back again. It was an incorrectly Atlantic Coaster branded bus.IMG_6982.jpgThere are only six journeys a day on the L2 four of which continue to or start from Truro.

I stayed overnight in Helston and after yesterday’s enjoyable morning on the Helston Railway and taking the 38 again into Camborne I took a ride on one of the two bus services between Camborne and Redruth which take a circuitous route around the residential areas between the two towns.IMG_7071.jpgRoute 46 runs hourly and takes around an hour to reach Redruth having headed westwards first, then north and then south (repeating a few times) as it generally meanders eastwards. I reckon a detailed map of this and sister hourly route 47 would be a great help to demistify where the buses actually go – the network map isn’t much help as illustrated by an enlarged extract below. There are maps showing “where to catch your bus in Camborne” and maps showing limits of zone tickets, but there really needs to be a town bus map showing roads traversed. (Update….see PS at the end of the blog).Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 11.59.54.pngThe 46 continues every two-hours beyond Redruth to Truro via a lovely rural route including Gwennap, Perranwell and Devoran.

I alighted in Carnon Downs, about ten minutes south of Truro on the Falmouth road, to catch that part of route L2 (from Truro) to Helston I didn’t travel on Tuesday. This includes some incredibly narrow country lanes for a double decker to negotiate, especially in the Stithians area.IMG_7121.jpgThe bus was already six minutes late leaving Carnon Downs and negotiating traffic on these narrow lanes meant twelve minutes late arriving into Helston just in time to see my planned connection on route 35A to Falmouth departing – will I never learn!

Instead I caught the eastern end of route U4 from Helston across to the Penryn campus where it connects with the more frequent U1/U2 into Falmouth – except the U4 was ten minutes late and just as we pulled in, the connecting bus pulled away without letting passengers transfer as advertised.IMG_7139.jpgMore positively the Penryn campus bus stops are well laid out with clear signs indicating where to catch the various bus routes.IMG_7135.jpgIMG_7138.jpgThe U4 branded route is a later addition to join the original U1 and U2 routes as can be seen from the outdated and updated maps on the sides of the latest buses now in service.IMG_6838.jpgIMG_7022.jpgIMG_7154.jpgI headed back over to Redruth on a north westerly bound late running U2 which arrived into Redruth just as a T2 was leaving for Camborne and St Ives and despite two passengers jumping off the arriving U2 and frantically waving their arms at the T2 driver, he chose to ignore them and drive on.IMG_7159.jpg

I caught the T1 that followed about fifteen minutes later bound for Penzance and ended my Kernow bus travelling there before catching the Night Riviera sleeper train back to London arriving into Paddington early this morning.

Five reflections on the last couple of days’ travels:

1. Transforming Travel

Many of us mocked the totally inappropriate ‘Transforming Travel’ tag line First Bus used to describe themselves in the early 2000s. It was rightly derided. I remember travelling around Cornwall on buses which any bus operator should have been ashamed to have in their fleet. The photos below were taken between 2012 and 2014. No wonder Western Greyhound virtually wiped First Bus out of the County.Penzance - August 2014 049.jpgCornwall - October 2012 023.jpgNow travel truly has been transformed and after an incredible turnaround in vehicle investment a resurgent First Kernow are running an extremely modern fleet on which you feel proud to travel.

2. The route network has been simplified with core routes increased in frequency and attractively marketed. Routes T1 and T2 in particular now stand out as prime routes as do the U1-U4 university network. The excellent timetable book with colour coded maps for the whole County is readily available if you know where to look, although I’d like to see it placed on buses as Stagecoach do in the Lake District. It could usefully have more detailed town plans showing routes in places like Helston, Camborne and Redruth where the networks are confusing to understand. (Update- see PS at end of the blog)

3. First Kernow’s route branding has also come on leaps and bounds and is also now excellent and really stands out compared to how it looked a few years ago as shown below.Cornwall - October 2012 042.jpgDevon-Cornwall - August 2013 075.jpgBut much greater care is needed on vehicle allocation. As noted above, I saw an Atlantic Coaster on a Lizard L1 and another on an L2; as well as a red Tinner on a blue U4; a Lizard on a standard route 38. Because the brands are so high profile, these incorrect allocations cause confusion and undermine the whole branding.IMG_6923.jpgIMG_7130.jpg

4. Timekeeping is very susceptible to late running. This isn’t just summer traffic; nor just meeting traffic on narrow lanes and taking ages to pass; it includes time taken to deal with passenger queries and ticket issuing and is also a consequence in some cases of insufficient stand time between journeys. IMG_1400There are plans to coordinate First Kernow’s bus timetables with the new improved regular half-hourly GWR train service on the main line from December. If integrated timetables are the name of the game it needs a rethink of whether bus schedules are currently realistic, otherwise passengers are going to miss connections.

5. The prices charged by First Kernow are not cheap. The £15 day ticket (£13 on the App) is one of the most expensive in Britain. But the more you buy, the cheaper it gets with 2-days at a better value £18, three for a reasonable £23 and a bundle of five for just £30 or twenty for only £100. The latter are more designed for residents than short stay visitors and assume a bus passenger has cash flow of £100 available.IMG_7133.jpgThe most flexible yet top-secret ticket is the ‘Ride Cornwall’ which gives bus as well as train travel throughout the County. This ticket has had a recent chequered history – at one time it was anomalously cheaper than the bus only day ticket but due to First Bus refusing to advertise its existence, very few people were aware of it. Matters came to a head at the beginning of this summer with First Kernow no longer accepting ‘Ride Cornwall’ tickets until GWR (and Cross Country) increased the price, which they’ve now done to £18 for a day; and in a stingy move withdrawn previously available one-third off discounts with Railcards. This is a great shame bearing in mind the desire to integrate bus and trains across the County. There’s still no mention of it at all on any First Kernow printed literature (including a leaflet entitled ‘price & ticket guide’. or online; nor can I find a reference to it on GWR or Criss Country’s websites but full marks to Go-Ahead’s Plymouth Citybus, who also accept and issue it, and at least reference it under Tickets; Day Tickets; Other Tickets on their website.

You have to wonder whether bus and train companies are serious about modal integration when they completely fail to even mention such tickets, let alone promote their use.

Finally, it was a pleasure to once again enjoy west Cornwall by bus over the last couple of days. I hope the real and significant improvements continue in the coming months and years.IMG_6862.jpg

Roger French

PS I’m very grateful to both Chris and Paul who have been in touch since posting this blog to advise that town plans are available in the Cornwall Council produced public transport guide, which indeed they are, and I’m pleased to show an example of the Camborne and Redruth pages below…IMG_7170.jpgIMG_7172.jpg

Three days in Dorset and Somerset

Monday 5th August 2019

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My little trip on the GWR train between Taunton and Bishops Lydeard on Saturday was a good opportunity to sample some great bus rides across Dorset and around Somerset on my way there and back making for a lovely long weekend’s travels.

Planning bus journeys in Somerset is quite a challenge as the County Council has long given up on buses providing no printed or online information at all; no wonder passengers are scarce too. Luckily First Bus provide a very helpful map of their network and if you happen to know South West Coaches is big in the area, their website includes a helpful list of bus routes operated so it’s possible to scan down this and see if anything fits into a travel plan.Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 09.10.22.pngNeighbouring Dorset County Council isn’t any better with Go South Coast (‘more’) and First Wessex admirably filling the information gap but details of any smaller operators running tendered bus routes are almost impossible to find.

Experience on the road provides further interesting contrasts between approaches to bus stations and facilities to encourage or discourage bus travel as we’ll see.

FRIDAY

To begin my Taunton bound journey on Friday I took the train along the south coast via Southampton to Poole. Setting off before 09:00 and travelling via the Brighton Main Line changing at Clapham Junction would have set me back £53.10 whereas travelling via Barnham along the West Coastway line taking the same journey time is a bargain £27.80 peak hour price by comparison.

IMG_5302.jpgPoole bus station has a bright and welcoming ‘more shop’ where two helpful ‘Travel Advisors’ are on hand to help you and there’s a great selection of timetable books and leaflets to entice and encourage you to travel.

IMG_5300.jpgI particularly like the Purbeck Breezer booklet which promotes the growing band of brightly branded routes serving the Isle of Purbeck area operated by ‘more’ (nicely numbered 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70). No wonder all the buses I saw were extremely busy – this is how you successfully sell bus travel.

IMG_5304.jpgOnline just doesn’t cut it in the same way (First Essex, First West Yorkshire, Arriva Leicester, TfL take note). The standard ‘more’ timetable book is also excellent with some great maps both by route and for the whole network.

IMG_E6398.jpgIMG_E6399.jpgA shout out also to First Wessex who produce a similar excellent timetable book with some first class maps covering their routes and network in Dorset. And it was really good to see it available in the ‘more shop’ too. Pats on backs all round.

IMG_5338.jpgI caught the 11:50 route X8 from Poole to Blandford Forum. This ‘more’ operated double deck route runs hourly and pretty much operates north westerly the whole way via the A350 save for a small diversion around Sturminster Marshall. The journey takes 37 minutes to Blandford where the bus then does a circuit of this lovely market town’s northern residential area before arriving back at the Market Place 26 minutes later.

IMG_5345.jpgSister Go South Coast company Damory operates a minibus on an X8A which as the number implies, operates an anti-clockwise circuit twice every hour so Blandford is pretty well served.

IMG_5370.jpgIt’s a thing in this part of the country for bus routes to have an ‘X’ route number. South West Coaches operate a two-hourly X3 north to Shaftesbury, Damory operated a two-hourly X12 south to Dorchester and Weymouth and First Bus (Buses of Somerset) operate an X10 west to Yeovil (which was my next bus at 13:55). But none of these routes are limited stop in nature as is often implied by using an ‘X’.

IMG_5400.jpgThe X10 runs two-hourly and takes 1 hour 50 minutes for the journey to Yeovil with a four minute pause in Sturminster Newton after 43 minutes. From Stalbridge the more frequent hourly route 58 (Wincanton to Yeovil) joins the X10 for the final forty minutes of the journey on the A30 via Sherborne. This was the most used section of route particularly between Sherborne and Yeovil. Before that we had slim pickings and the route was distinctly rural in character passing through such delightful Dorset villages with unusual names such as Shillingstone, Okeford Fitzpaine and Child Okeford.

Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 14.30.54.pngOver the border in Somerset, Yeovil has a busy little bus station with South West Coaches the dominant operator.

IMG_5495.jpg The old order when First Bus reigned supreme can still be seen from the legacy Travel Shop, now closed…IMG_5448.jpg…..and a very traditional waiting room complete with a wall of old style (empty) timetable cases.IMG_5443.jpgHowever more positively the adjacent ‘office’ had boxes of the splendid Buses of Somerset timetable books and high-viz wearing staff were only too willing to hand over a copy …IMG_5533.jpg… and I spotted a supply in the kiosk selling magazines and sweets as well as printed A4 timetables for the South West Coaches Services looking very prominent alongside copies of this week’s TV Choice magazine – great product association!

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Although the bus station shelters were unattractively grubby creating a down-at-heel impression timetables are on display in most of them and there are signs showing which routes departs from each bay.IMG_5497.jpgThere was also a comprehensive timetable display for South West Coaches.

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My next bus was the 16:15 route 54 to Taunton. This route runs every 90 minutes taking just over an hour and a quarter heading northwards via the Roman Town of Ilchester and Somerton before continuing west via Langport to Taunton.

IMG_5574.jpgWe left with about a dozen passengers a few travelling all the way to Yeovil. The busiest of the three journeys I travelled on. You get some great views for many miles across the Somerset scenery along the way too.

IMG_5588.jpgIt had taken just over nine hours to reach Taunton after leaving Hassocks station including an enjoyable hours break in Blandford Forum for lunch and forty minutes to have a wander around both Poole and Yeovil. A very pleasant way to enjoy the scenery along the south coast and across Dorset and Somerset.

As a long serving Go-Ahead employee I enjoyed a complimentary ride on the X8 but for the X10 and 54 where the end to end single journey price was £6 on each route it was cheaper to buy the First Bus (Buses of Somerset) day ticket on their App for £11.

IMG_5699.jpgIt can’t be easy running buses in Taunton especially with a disinterested County Council but hats off to First Bus for giving the network a boost in 2014 with the bright Buses of Somerset brand. These brand makeovers often flag after a few years but five years on I was impressed it’s still going strong and looks cared for. You can tell there’s someone in charge who’s on top of their job, and in this case it’s Aled Williams a young, bright, enthusiastic and energetic manager who looks after Buses in Somerset as Operations Manager.

He’s so on top of things that my tweeted observations received courteous explanations about any minor shortcomings I’d observed which I much appreciated.

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I was very impressed to see not only supplies of the excellent Buses of Somerset timetable book on display in the waiting room (open until 18:30 hours on Mondays to Fridays too) …IMG_5736.jpg…but also GWR timetables and Devon County Council bus timetable books for neighbouring areas, and even the full county bus map which is hard to obtain in Devon!IMG_5645.jpg

There was even an Onward Travel poster for Taunton Station in the window…

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… and where else can you see large colour coded maps and summary departure times by route on a bus station wall? (Answer: nowhere I know of).

IMG_5649.jpgThe waiting room seats all conveniently point towards the departure bays, but I noticed no one was sharing one of the rather cosy seats with a stranger!

IMG_5648.jpgMargins are tight in Somerset so buses are often cascaded from other areas served by First Bus meaning it’s a challenge to keep buses on brand but I received an explanation from Buses of Somerset’s Twitter feed that the Atlantic Coaster brand (from Cornwall) I saw on one bus would soon be adapted as one had already been done; and very smart it looked too when I saw it shortly after.

IMG_5639.jpgIMG_5806.jpgA rather tatty interior on another bus transferred from its former life on the Glasgow Airport shuttle route 500 would soon be refurbished I was told, which again was an impressive exercise in communications, and interestingly the layout included extensive luggage racks which are ideal for route 28 linking Taunton rail station with the popular Butlins holiday centre at Minehead.IMG_6157.jpgIMG_6158.jpgIn contrast I very much liked the smart new Park and Ride livery which matches the branding used for on street directional signs around the town centre – a nice coordinated touch.IMG_5714.jpgIMG_5819.jpgAll this shows what can be achieved if you have a dedicated locally based motivated manager with a passion to do a good job. I experienced one or two unreliability issues while travelling around over the weekend but overall I was impressed with what’s been done in challenging bus territory. Well done Aled.

SATURDAY

After my train ride to Bishops Lydeard and back on Saturday I headed west from Taunton to Tiverton on the Buses of Somerset three-journeys-a-Saturday (five on Mondays to Fridays) seventy-minute long route 22 via Wellington. A more frequent service runs out of Taunton on the same route also numbered 22 (and 22A) as far as Wellington and just beyond.

Ironically my bus was one of the Park & Ride branded ones as that operation had been upgraded to double deck to help with the crowds expected to visit the Taunton Flower Show – another nugget I learnt from the Twitter feedback following my comments.

IMG_5938.jpgRoute 22 uses the A38 heading south west out of Taunton and makes good progress but picks up few passengers after Wellington. The route diverts off the main road to serve Uffculme using some very narrow lanes before reaching the outskirts of Cullompton where it’s joined by the more frequent Stagecoach route 1/1A from Exeter into Tiverton. Most passengers on this busier section of the route gravitate around the Stagecoach bus timings and probably aren’t aware of the 22’s sparse existence.

Tiverton bus station can be described as basic. There is a long bus shelter across the narrow passenger ‘concourse’ and the head-on stands are well used. There’s a timetable display in the shelter by each stand and a wooden perch bench. That’s about it. I didn’t see anywhere to obtain a timetable but I only had a few minutes to scout around.

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I’d been a bit worried about only having an eight minute connection in Tiverton arriving at 12:37 and aiming to catch the 12:45 departure on the three-journey-a day route 398 to Dulverton. I’d no need to fret; we arrived into Tiverton bus station on time and the Dartline driver of the 398 was enjoying a chat with other colleagues further up the bus station.

IMG_5952.jpgThere are only three departures from Tiverton which go all the way to Dulverton, taking an hour. Three others go as far as Brampton, about half way along the route.

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Just one journey a day, the one I was on, does an extended loop after Brampton to serve the villages of Shillingford, Claypits and Morebath along more narrow rural roads.

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We left Tiverton with ten passengers, five got off in Brampton, one in Shillingford and four alighted as we approached Dulverton. A fairly typical midday rural route.

IMG_6057.jpgDulverton is a beautiful village within the Exmoor National Park; sadly it’s off the beaten public transport track, but then this is subsidy-free Somerset.

IMG_6011.jpgIt enjoys the three-journeys-a-day route 398 from Tiverton in the south, the six-journeys-a-day route 25 from Taunton in the east operated by Buses of Somerset and the bus I was next catching, on the three-journeys-a-day route 198 to Minehead to the north operated by Atwest, a Community Bus charity.

IMG_6105.jpgThe 198 has all the hallmarks of once being a through service from Tiverton to Minehead straddling both Devon and Somerset council areas. An inevitable consequence of the divergent policies towards support for bus services between the two Counties has meant splitting the route with the southern end, numbered 398, largely in Devon, supported as a tendered bus route by that authority, whereas the northern end, numbered 198, in Somerset is left to a Community Bus charity to provide as best it can. The minibus used by Atwest is supplied by the County Council, albeit non wheelchair equipped, because priorities are elsewhere in Somerset.

I realised route 198 would be operated by a limited capacity minibus when checking the departure timetable posted on the bus stop in Dulverton and spotted this rather alarming and off putting notice.

IMG_5984.jpgFor a bus service running three times a day, and the last journey of the day leaving Dulverton at 15:01 this was somewhat disconcerting and does nothing for reassuring visitors they’ve made the right decision to travel by bus.

IMG_6086.jpgAs I had time on my hands and had explored Dulverton, ate my picnic lunch and it was starting to drizzle with rain I decided to catch the bus on its southbound journey from Dulverton to the village of Brushford at 14:45 and stay on the bus for the return journey through to Minehead and be sure of a seat.

This also gave me time to chat with the driver as we waited in Brushford for the return journey; he laughed at the thought of the bus overloading and couldn’t understand the notice, saying he’d never known it to be busy in the last three years since Atwest had been running it!

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I suspect this was a very old notice which has succeeded in putting off more passengers than it’s encouraged, particularly as I also spotted a notice above the timetable case advising of a diversion due to a road closure almost two years ago – I did my bit for community service and unfixed the notice and binned it.IMG_6085.jpg

Routes 398 and 198 pretty much head due north on the A396 from Tiverton to Minehead (the towns are geographically on the same line of longitude) by following the lovely Exe Valley. It’s a delightful route to take and highly recommended. Route 198, like the 398, makes some deviations off route, two journeys in each direction head west to serve the villages of Winsford and Exford but sadly not the journey I was on. I made a note to return another time and catch one of those journeys as it looks a spectacular ride.

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From Minehead I headed back to Taunton on Buses of Somerset’s busy route 28. As mentioned earlier it serves the popular Butlins complex at Minehead as well as the West Somerset Railway terminus.

IMG_6149.jpgIMG_6118.jpgIt’s a ninety minute busy journey and passes Dunster, Watchet and Bishops Lydeard stations on the West Somerset Railway on its route into Minehead.

I’d used another £11 Somerset day ticket for my two Buses of Somerset journeys (22 and 28) and paid separately for my journeys on the 398 (which was a bargain at just £3.50) and 198 (£4.50 + £2 for the ride down to Brushford).

SUNDAY

IMG_6167.jpgI’d been wanting to have a ride on the First West of England open top bus routes 20 from Burnham-on-Sea to Weston-Super-Mare and 1 from Weston-Super-Mare to Sand Bay for some time and never managed to fit it into a travel schedule so yesterday, Sunday, I caught the first departure on Buses of Somerset route 21 from Taunton to Burnham-on-Sea at 08:00 to connect with the first departure on route 20 at 09:20 to Weston-Super-Mare.

IMG_6214.jpgIMG_6227.jpgThe timing connection worked superbly, but annoyingly not the ticketing. You can use a Buses of Somerset Day Ticket on the 21 to Burnham-on-Sea (as First Bus Buses of Somerset operate that route) but you can’t use it on the 20 (as First Bus West of England operate that route). This is confusing and could do with sorting by allowing the Somerset day ticket to include West of England’s network too. Burnham-on-Sea is in Somerset after all. Indeed over half the route of the 20 is within Somerset County Council with the northern end in North Somerset, a unitary authority. It’s bad enough having restrictions between operators let alone between subsidiaries with similar branding and names of the same overall company.Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 09.10.46.png

Commendably Buses of Somerset include the 20 on their wonderful network map available online, in the printed timetable and on the wall of Taunton bus station, but there’s no indication the route falls outside the remit of the day ticket, compared to the other routes shown.

Route 20 is a lengthy route for an open-topper taking seventy minutes for the journey to Western-Super-Mare. It’s busy too, helped by the various holiday parks, caravan and camp sites as well as adventure parks along the seafront between Burnham-on-Sea and Brean before heading in land via Lympshaw and into Weston-Super-Mare.

IMG_6234.jpgIn Weston-Super-Mare I hopped on the shorter open-top route 1 which runs every half an hour to Sand Bay.

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This is a very spectacular ride around the coastline to the north of Weston-Super-Mare with some tricky narrow roads especially through the village of Kewstoke.

IMG_6361.jpgIt wasn’t so long ago that this route was operated by the competitor called Crosville which expanded in Weston-Super-Mare taking advantage of the period when First Bus lost their way. But now, as in Cornwall, the tables have turned and a resurgent First West of England has seen off the smaller competitor and is back with a vengance in Sand Bay.IMG_6331 (1).jpg

It’s a fantastic route, taking just over twenty minutes for the single journey and well recommended. The route back from Sand Bay provides a great view of the abandoned Birnbeck Pier (see in the distance in the photograph below)…

IMG_6350.jpgIMG_6372.jpg… (it’s not just Brighton with a ruined pier) and passes through the tree lined road also in the distance in the photograph above …IMG_6366.jpg… the yellow road in the map below. 

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A wonderful way to end a lovely three day travelling in Dorset and Somerset. This shop front spotted in Weston-Super-Mare summed up how I felt.

IMG_6391.jpgAll that was left was to head back to the station and home with GWR.

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Roger French

A day in Lothian

Wednesday 31st July 2019

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Edinburgh’s a great city to visit and for those of us with an interest in public transport it’s always full of interesting developments, whether it be new low floor coaches on inter-urban express routes, mega-size tri-axle double deckers on city bus routes, buses which accommodate bicycles, new electric trains to Glasgow, new refurbished HSTs to Aberdeen, and growing competition between the regions two major bus operators – all of which I’ve blogged about in the last twelve months.

With more developments on that competitive front in recent weeks I thought it was time to spend a day travelling around West Lothian and see what’s occurring. It proved to be as fascinating as ever.

Route 600

IMG_5036.jpgI began at Edinburgh airport by taking First Bus route 600 which takes a circuitous route to Livingston and Whitburn. This has recently seen a frequency increase from hourly to half hourly and received eye catching branding.

IMG_4980.jpgThere’s a prominent bus stop immediately outside the terminal building dressed in promotional branding for the service despite it being shared with Xplore Dundee’s recently introduced Airport Xpress running every ninety minutes.

IMG_4979.jpgA branded double decker arrived from its previous journey about ten minutes before departure time.

IMG_4995.jpgOnly three or four passengers alighted and I was told by the driver as I boarded through the open door he wasn’t ready for me to board and wandered off into the terminal building closing the doors behind him. At the 10:40 departure time he reappeared.

IMG_5079.jpgI’d tried researching the best tickets to buy for my travels online at home. I never find the First Bus website easy to navigate but under the Tickets tab found some options for day tickets available for purchase on the smartphone app. It looked like I needed a Zone L and M day ticket which by reference to a map under the map tab showed me it would cover the geographic area I’d be in. At £7 this seemed good value so I bought one ready for use.

Nothing on those webpages indicated it wasn’t valid from Edinburgh Airport on route 600; but I spotted that restriction later in the small print on information about route 600. Undeterred I guessed the restriction was only for boarding at the Airport itself so asked the driver if the Zone LM day ticket I had was excluded from the whole length of the route and if not, could I buy a single ticket to where it does become valid.

His communication skills were not the most erudite I’ve encountered and he let it be known it wasn’t valid and that was that and insisted I buy a single to my destination, Livingston, for £7.

IMG_5080.jpgI wasn’t convinced but went along with his unhelpful approach to customer service and we set off with just me on board. As the journey progressed and the 600 took on the characteristics of a rural route through West Lothian my frustration increased as I found the promised usb sockets not working and Wi-fi not connecting.

As luck would have it an inspector boarded during the journey and he confirmed my supposition was right that I should have been sold a single ticket to the first stop after the Airport from where my Zone LM ticket was valid. I made it clear I wasn’t happy to have forked out an extra £7 unnecessarily and he advised me to contact the First Bus head office in Falkirk and they could tell me how to obtain a refund.

I’ve blogged about the impossibility of dealing with ticket enquiries on the phone to First Bus before but I gave it a try out of curiosity but my instinct was right; after navigating two ‘press 1 for etc etc’ menus which pretty much listed the same options twice and hanging on for about five minutes I gave up.

I decided to abandon this bus at Broxburn from where the Inspector told me I could get the hourly 29 to Bathgate, my intended destination after Livingston.

IMG_5103.jpgThe next bus to arrive was the Lothian half hourly X18 (stopping bus Edinburgh to Bathgate and Whitburn) so I jumped on board and activated my Lothian £9 Day Network Ticket on their App which I’d also bought last night and headed off to Bathgate.

Green Arrow

IMG_5116.jpgI wanted to try out Lothian’s latest competitive strike in West Lothian – their new EX1 (Bathgate) and EX2 (Linlithgow) express routes to Edinburgh.

IMG_5120.jpgThese are a significant investment by Lothian compromising eight new Volvo coaches to a unique specification with a centrally located lift for access for passengers using wheelchairs.

IMG_5135.jpgThey have 49 very comfortable seats and offer a very smooth ride. Naturally usb and Wi-fi are fitted.

IMG_5130.jpgBoth routes began on 30th June so it’s early days but I found loadings to be worryingly low for the fifth week. A half hourly frequency is provided on both routes across a 06:30 to 20:00 day (hourly to 18:00 on Sundays).

IMG_5226.jpgBoth routes use the motorway (EX1 on the M8 and EX2 on the M9) for about ten minutes of the approximate 45 minute journey time. Buses run pretty much non-stop into Haymarket and Edinburgh with just three stops observed east of the motorways. This gives an impressively quick journey into and out of the City but it does mean the catchment area is restricted to either Bathgate or Linlithgow.

I suspect the main competition the EX1 and EX2 are pitted against is ScotRail’s trains on both routes but with fast electric trains, comparable journey times are around twenty minutes, although the coach has greater penetration of residential areas particularly in Linlithgow where the route heads off the main road to serve a well-to-do housing area.

IMG_5187.jpgHowever at the City end of the routes Lothian have chosen to terminate the EX1 and EX2 in the West End rather than add resources by continuing through Princes Street to the east side.

The Exchange terminal point is not particularly prominent and even more odd was there being no timetable information for these high profile new routes in the timetable case…IMG_5139.jpg… although the bus stop flag had been updated.IMG_5140.jpgOver in Linlithgow I spotted one bus stop timetable referring to X2 rather than EX2.

IMG_5194.jpgThe coaches didn’t have supplies of timetables on board either and even more bizarre I couldn’t find the timetables on the Lothian Country website – only a dated reference to the new routes ‘being launched’. I’ve subsequently been advised there’s a bespoke Green Arrow website containing all the details, but it seems odd not to include information on the Lothian Country site too, or even a link across.

The new coaches are superb to travel on but I wonder why Lothian didn’t take up the more practical arrangement to incorporate low floor access as Stagecoach have done with their Plaxton built ‘semi coaches’ as I reckon it’ll take quite a time to get a wheelchair on and off through the centre door access and lift.

IMG_5123.jpgI also wonder about the Green Arrow branding as this doesn’t particularly stand out on the coaches and appears an added complication to the Lothian Country brand which is used to describe all the ticket options.

IMG_5121.jpgA tie up with CityLink is highlighted on the coach sides and rear but not mentioned in the timetable leaflet or online so I’m not sure what it actually is.

IMG_5136.jpgI caught the 12:08 EX1 from Bathgate to Edinburgh driven by a very nice driver called Gill who normally drives standard Lothian Country routes but was covering the EX1 and EX2 just for today. I was the only passenger.

Later I caught the 14:55 EX2 Edinburgh to Linlithgow and return at 15:51 but this time there were five other passengers including one who got on by RBS’s extensive offices on the outskirts of Edinburgh all travelling to Linlithgow. It was just me on the return journey though. From what I could see through tinted windows of coaches we passed, these loadings were pretty much typical.

We had a driver changeover in the residential part of Linlithgow at Springfield Primary School on the outward journey with the drivers using a Lothian van from the depot.

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This is certainly another bold expansionist investment by Lothian, and I appreciate its early days, but I reckon it’s going to take a lot of growth to get these two routes to a sustainable future.

Bright Bus Tours

IMG_5146.jpgIn between my EX1 and EX2 rides I sampled the First Bus competitive fight back in the heart of Edinburgh – their newly launched foray into the city sightseeing market under the new Bright Bus Tours brand.

IMG_5145.jpgWaverley Bridge has long been the centre of open top tour buses which until now have all been operated by Lothian despite the plethora of brands and tour variations.

IMG_5156.jpgNow First Bus are aiming for a slice of this lucrative market by offering a cut price (£10 instead of £16) tour of the City. Buses depart every ten minutes on a 75 minute circuit with a multi-language pre recorded commentary. It’s pretty standard open-top sightseeing stuff.IMG_5152.jpgIt was all very orderly and chummy on Waverley Bridge while I was there with both companies flooding the market with street sellers and handing out leaflets. IMG_5168.jpgIf anything I reckon Bright Bus Tours were more prominent in their on brand colours ….

IMG_5165.jpg…. but the established brands seemed to be the more popular with customers.

IMG_5159.jpgIt looks to me as though First Bus will easily capture a slice of this huge market and probably make a small contribution against the pure direct costs, especially as they start winding down around 16:00 with buses returning to the depot, which I assume is over at Livingston adding quite a bit of dead mileage and time.

It was noticeable that First Bus are emphasising price ….

IMG_5166.jpg… whereas this isn’t mentioned on Lothian’s buses…

IMG_5167.jpg… although they have the advantage of prominent comprehensive static displays …

IMG_5151.jpg… with Bright Bus Tours keeping it simple …

IMG_5153.jpgI’m not sure whether Bright Bus Tours will be a commercial proposition in the dead of winter; but by then the sustainability (or not) of the EX1 and EX2 might also be more apparent.

It’s certainly interesting times in Edinburgh and West Lothian.

More in the next blog.

Roger French

Crossing Hammersmith Bridge

Monday 29th July 2019

IMG_4853.jpgA much needed new service began carrying passengers over Hammersmith Bridge from this morning. With the Bridge closed to all motor traffic including buses since 10th April this new service is provided by a lovely man called Frederick peddling a smart electric Pedi-Cab. And very efficient it is too.

IMG_4852.jpgI only stumbled on Frederick and his Pedi-Cab this morning by accident as he was promoting it to passers by on the south side of the Bridge. With TfL announcing more changes to bus routes which used to cross the now closed Bridge from this Saturday (3rd August 2019) I thought it might be interesting to pop along and see how things had settled down since the hiatus immediately following the sudden closure three months ago. TfL didn’t cover itself in glory back in April with an appalling lack of updated information at bus stops and on buses.

Bear in mind although they’re called ‘temporary bus route alterations’, it’s ‘temporary’ as in ‘expected to last for at least three years’ and probably longer while discussions continue over how to fund the repairs needed to the Bridge. The word on the street this morning was at least £100 million is involved – which I guess is not that much in the context of being only about two times the cost of an aborted Garden Bridge.

IMG_4833.jpgIt was the sudden nature of the closure in April which seemingly caught everyone out rather than any surprise at the closure itself. It had been known for many years all was not well with the structure of the Bridge. Five main bus routes used to use the Bridge but in the southbound direction traffic marshals restricted buses crossing to strictly one at a time through a manned barrier at what must have been a significant cost (and as seen in a photograph taken over a year ago below).

IMG_6091.jpgTwo of those five bus routes (33 and 485) now have to terminate short of the Bridge on the south side, one bus route (72) terminates short on the north side of the Bridge, a fourth is diverted to double back south from the Bridge to terminate in Barnes Pond (419) and the fifth route (209) has been diverted away from the Bridge completely at Barnes to terminate instead at the next bridge downstream, Putney Bridge. Bus passengers are encouraged to walk across Hammersmith Bridge as the quickest way to pick up a bus to continue their journey.

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Posters at bus stops explain “it’s about a twenty minute walk” which is a bit pessimistic (I did it in about fifteen), but not unrealistic for a slow walker leaving Hammersmith Underground Station and walking all the way to pick up a southbound 33 or 485 in Castelnau, the main road heading south.

IMG_4756.jpgTfL have also laid on a ‘temporary route’ numbered 533 which links Hammersmith bus station, adjacent to the Underground Station round to the Barnes area south of Hammersmith Bridge by crossing the next bridge upstream, Chiswick Bridge. Three buses provide a daily half-hourly frequency from 04:50 to 01:30. It’s timetabled to take twenty-four minutes from the north side of Hammersmith Bridge to reach the south side via Chiswick Bridge, Barnes Bridge station, and Lonsdale Road before returning in a loop via Barnes Pond back to Barnes Bridge station, Chiswick Bridge and Hammersmith.

IMG_4802.jpgI’d heard that passenger loadings on the 533 were low and this morning found typical carryings about eight passengers per single journey; it was evident the service was welcomed by those using it.

It was also evident in the off-peak there’s plenty of running time and although an hour is allocated for a full round trip I noticed buses arriving back into Hammersmith at least four to five minutes before the next one had departed.

IMG_4764.jpgI can imagine traffic during peak hours makes a world of difference though especially around the notorious Hogarth roundabout on the Great West Road and a peak vehicle requirement of three would almost certainly be required.

IMG_4796.jpgThe change being introduced from this coming Saturday, 3rd August, is to the short stub of a route 209 which used to run from Mortlake to Hammersmith – in history it’s the western end of the famous route 9 from Liverpool Street to the lovely bus garage at Mortlake.

As noted above, since April this has been diverted in Barnes to operate to Putney Bridge instead but very few people have been using it and public pressure has persuaded TfL to have a rethink and restore the route back to its original route from Barnes and continue towards Hammersmith Bridge terminating on the south side along with the 33 and 485.

Screen Shot 2019-07-29 at 19.46.55.pngThe 209 currently runs at a generous daytime frequency of every six minutes to Putney Bridge with a journey time of only 18 minutes. I saw many buses running up and down the route with very few passengers on board this morning, bearing out the public comments.

So in a bizarre move when the 209 reverts back to Hammersmith Bridge south side as a terminus from Saturday, TfL are replacing the lost section of the ‘temporary route’ to Putney Bridge with another new ‘temporary bus route’ numbered 378 running every 12 minutes; with the restored routed 209 reduced slightly to every 8 minutes. I really can’t see this new route 378 performing any useful function at all with much of it already covered by route 485 between Barnes and Putney.

Screen Shot 2019-07-29 at 19.46.13.pngThe changes to bus routes have been criticised for being confusing to passengers. This wasn’t helped initially by a lack of information, but even this morning, over three months on from the Bridge closure, buses were running round with blank destination blinds (419s unable to show Barnes Pond on its extended and diverted route away from Hammersmith)….

IMG_4765.jpg…. and buses on the 33 unable to show the terminus on the south side of Hammersmith known as Castelnau…

IMG_4832.jpg…. and inevitably Spider Maps haven’t been updated, prominently displaying out of date and inaccurate information at all the affected bus stops!IMG_4807.jpg

Even more confusing, and from one extreme to the other for TfL, new timetables were already on display at bus stops in Barnes for the new route 209 applicable from this Saturday – no wonder a passenger came up to me as I took this photograph asking if I could help her understand what was happening….

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It’s good to see TfL responding to feedback though, but when residents catch the rerouted 209 towards Hammesmith, they’ve still got to walk over the Bridge from Castelnau.

Which brings me back to Frederick. Local residents were vociferous at a recent public meeting saying there should be better provision for transport options to cross the bridge other than walking, cycling or taking a long detour on the 533 bus via Chiswick Bridge, especially for those who find mobility challenging.

This has led an enterprising local resident in Barnes to start up a new electric Pedi-Cab service and employ Frederick to peddle across the Bridge as often as he can carrying up to two passengers at a time paying £2 for a single ride.

IMG_4838.jpgThe plan is for Frederick to be joined by three more Pedi-Cabs in September when it’s hoped the service really will take off providing an attractive on-demand frequency and a decent alternative to getting cold and wet walking over the Bridge in the Autumn and Winter.

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Initial hours of operation are from 08:00 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 21:00. In the morning the Pedi-Cab waits for business on the south side of the Bridge and in the afternoon on the north alongside the Apollo, opposite one of the entrances/exits to the Underground station. IMG_4851.jpgIt’s a great idea and I’m sure it will catch on with residents wanting to save the walk and in some way it’s suprising the rickshaws which ply their trade annoyingly in Oxford Street haven’t also caught on to the potential market in Hammersmith.

IMG_4839.jpgKey to its success will be frequency and getting those extra Pedi-Cabs up and running. IMG_4843.jpgIn the mean time Frederick was doing a superb ambassadorial job selling the new service this morning and his courtesy, politeness, enthusiasm and positivity really was impressive – it persuaded me to take a ride; the company Ginger running the service has found a gem in Frederick and I hope it’s a success.

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Roger French

 

 

A south Suffolk saunter

Friday 26th July 2019

I incorporated Wednesday’s ride on Buckland Buses’ splendid 1929 Dennis on route 250 between Aldeburgh and Thropeness into an enjoyable couple of days saunter around the lovely countryside in south Suffolk.

IMG_4394.jpgOn Tuesday morning I caught the stopping train to Ipswich out of Liverpool Street at 11:04 as far as Marks Tey. It’s impressive to see the efficient use of track capacity on the fast lines out of Liverpool Street since May with a flotilla of trains pathed within minutes including the new ‘Norwich in 90’ only stopping at Ipswich leaving at 11:00; the normal hourly Norwich leaving at 11:02 with stops at Colchester, Manningtree, Ipswich and Diss then the train I caught with calls at Stratford, Shenfield, Chelmsford, Hatfield Peverel, Witham and Kelvedon. This train is followed out of Liverpool Street by a Southend Victoria train and then one to Clacton-on-Sea.

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Added to this efficiency is a three minute connection at Marks Tey to an hourly train on the single track branch line to Sudbury, which I easily made along with about a dozen other passengers.IMG_4395.jpgThis is a lovely branch line which I ranked 85th in my Hundred Best Train Journeys not least because it passes the quirky East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne station with the Museum’s trains occupying the southbound platform which hasn’t been used for many years. The other station on the branch is at Bures just outside Sudbury.

IMG_5886.jpgGreater Anglia have sensibly placed a poster at Marks Tey explaining its policy on maintaining connections – the ten minutes allowance covers the stand time of the train on the branch within its hour’s cycle and obviously prevents knock on delays for further passengers – it was good to see this being stated even if the absolute background detail wasn’t fully explained.

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In Sudbury I wandered over to what is called a bus station (at least there are toilets) and three stops with shelters (albeit very grubby) and timetables showing departures. It’s a Go-Ahead Group bus hand-me-down spotters delight with former front line buses from around the Group now enjoying a second life at Group owned Chambers and the independent Beestons.IMG_4399.jpgIMG_4405I enjoyed a ride on a former Scania demonstrator on Beestons operated route 91 to Ipswich and noted it had oddly been fitted with a farebox alongside the driver for exact fares.IMG_4407.jpg This puzzled me for an inter-urban route and as contactless wasn’t yet in operation despite the Ticketer ticket machine displaying the symbol I handed my £5 for the single fare over to the driver who issued a ticket in the traditional way. Beestons didn’t reply to my tweet asking about the farebox and contacless so I am still mystified what the policy is.

IMG_4408.jpgRoute 91 takes 75 minutes for the 21 mile journey via Hadleigh to Ipswich; buses currently run every 90 minutes, but will be changing to two-hourly from the beginning of September, although an improved hourly frequency will be incorporated into the new timetable between Hadleigh and Ipswich.

It’s one of those routes where the first fifteen minutes is spent wandering around the town’s residential streets heading away from the direction of travel, presumably at one time covered by a separate town service of sorts. We dropped about a dozen passengers off with their shopping and sped on to Ipswich with a handful of us left on board. This driver wasn’t hanging around. Once the bus leaves the environs of Sudbury it’s a pleasant run eastwards through the Suffolk countryside. I was particularly impressed with the village of Boxford which looked very attractive and quintessential rural England.

Arriving into Ipswich’s Old Cattle Market bus station at 14:00 a First Bus single decker was just leaving proclaiming it to be a ‘Felixstowe Flyers’ with a high profile promotional flash on the side and in a striking non First Bus corporate livery, which just goes to prove such marketing works, as it encouraged me to change my original plans and seek the service out for a ride.

The attractive timetable leaflet for the 75, 76, 77 and X7 which runs between Ipswich and Felixstowe has helpful maps explaining the route variations at the Felixstowe end and the timetable shows a twenty minute frequency is overlaid with an hourly fast (pretty much non-stop) X7 via the A14 giving a journey time to central Felixstowe of just 35/36 minutes – comparing favourably with 46/48 minutes on the stopping routes.

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Having missed the 14:00 X7 departure I caught the 14:20 all-stops 75 and was impressed with the good load of passengers throughout the route.IMG_4449.jpgWe were a bit late into Felixstowe’s Great Eastern Square, due at 15:06, so I just missed being able to photograph that branded X7 I’d seen at 14:00 in Ipswich heading back at 15:10.

Screen Shot 2019-07-25 at 20.26.12.pngIt gave me a chance to have a look around Felixstowe and particularly the greatly slimmed down rail station, now a shadow of its former past glory.

Great Eastern Square is actually the former station building now converted into small independent retail units with a car park out the back where once trains would have arrived on the tracks. The one platform now left is on the other side of the car park meaning passengers have to walk a fair distance to the main road outside.

IMG_4451.jpgThere’s an hourly train that shuttles up and down between Felixstowe and Ipswich timetabled to take 26 minutes. The 15:24 arrival brought a good load of passengers in and left at 15:28 with another busy train load.

IMG_4455.jpgThere’s plenty of people travelling between Ipswich and Felixstowe – I popped down to the seafront and reminded myself how attractive this coastal resort is.

IMG_4483.jpgIt was approaching 16:10 and I eagerly waited the next X7 back to Ipswich. I was waiting outside the cinema, the stop before Great Eastern Square, and the slightly late 16:00 route 77 picked up most of the dozen or so waiting passengers just as the X7 arrived with just four of us getting on board – not very impressive – and while I was pleased to have a top deck view on the journey back I was a bit surprised not to see the branded ‘Felixstowe Flyers’ bus on any of the other X7 journeys observed later that afternoon.

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One journey was operated by one of the rather smart looking Ipswich Reds branded buses which should now operate route 60….

IMG_4534.jpg… and another by a standard liveried bus…..

IMG_4601.jpgI can only assume vehicles on the X7 interwork with other routes across the late afternoon and evening peak which is a shame to lose the bespoke brand promoting what could be a decent alternative to the train and the all-stops bus routes. And I regret not being able to include a photo of a Flexistowe Flyers branded bus here despite trying to track it down, but I’m indebeted to the Central Suffolk Bus Blog (worth checking out) who included an explanation and recent report that the one vehicle so branded does appear on other routes around the network…

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As a slight digression, it was observed on Twitter after I posted a photo of the Ipswich Reds livery correctly on route 60 that it resembles the livery now being used by First Cymru in Swansea. Here’s an Ipswich reds…

IMG_4430.jpg…and here’s a First Cymru….IMG_3282.jpg…. which only goes to show you can’t keep a good livery down and it makes sense for the First Ipswich/Eastern Counties marketing people to copy and adapt a smart livery from a sister company (for now) in the same Group.

Back to the Ipswich to Felixstowe market … an off-peak day return on the train without a Railcard is £6.10 while a return on First Ipswich is just 30p cheaper at £5.80. The peak train fare is only 20p more at £6.30 with a weekly season at £24.90. On First Ipswich it’s £22 (£21 on an mTicket) for a weekly ticket I’m not sure these savings are enough to tempt rail users to give the X7 Felixstowe Flyers a go. Perhaps some more attractive fare offers and better fleet allocation and branding would help?

 

Wednesday morning was the day to travel to Aldeburgh for my vintage bus ride and I planned catching the First Ipswich route 800 which connects the town’s two Park & Ride sites from the west (Copdock, London Road) through the town centre to the east (Martlesham) every 15 minutes. One journey an hour is extended further east via Woodbridge to Rendlesham adding a half hour trip which effectively means an out of town route is efficiently dovetailed into the Park & Ride service by adding just one extra peak vehicle.

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My 800 left Ipswich town centre at 08:21 and was due in Rendlesham at 09:16 allowing a very comfortable 19 minute connection with the vintage bus leaving at 09:35 to begin its day’s operation with a positioning journey to Aldeburgh.

IMG_4656.jpgHowever despite a modest load our journey got progressively behind schedule and after we hit crawling traffic by Kesgrave High School were over 15 minutes late when we reached the Park & Ride site at Martlesham.

My driver seemed oblivious to the lateness of the journey continuing to drive in a fashion I would describe as ultra cautious and he even left the cab at the Park & Ride bus stop to have a chat with the driver on the bus waiting to return to Ipswich and then wentv to check no one was waiting in the waiting room – even though we were heading away from town, so the chances were extremely remote – he was obviously a very thorough employee and I decided the risk of getting even more late as the journey continued (and getting stranded in Rendlesham) was too great and so decided on a Plan B by bailing out at Melton Station to catch a Greater Anglia train on the East Suffolk line two stations north to Saxmundham where there was a good connection to a First Ipswich 64 to Aldeburgh.

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IMG_4662.jpgMelton is a small station with nothing much to comment on, other than it’s in need of a makeover with all its station name boards looking distinctly faded and unloved. They were barely legible. I’m sure Greater Anglia have it in hand as Saxmundham was sporting smarter signs even though the former station building was still behind barriers following fire damage eighteen months ago.IMG_4669 (1).jpg

IMG_4667.jpgTo cut what’s becoming a long story short, I was waiting for the bus on route 64 in Saxmundham High Street and started to get twitchy that it hadn’t arrived…

IMG_4671.jpg….when I spotted a tweet from First Ipswich advising of a breakdown on the 64. Although there’s no timing point of 09:05 on the journey I was waiting for (it left Ipswich at 08:50), I deduced (correctly) the tweet was referring to my bus, especially as it was now around ten minutes after it’s scheduled arrival, so I took the nuclear option of sourcing a taxi to take me the last twenty minute ride over to Aldeburgh in time to pick up the vintage bus at 11:10.

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And as you may have read I arived in Aldeburgh in time to enjoy a lovely ride on Buckland Buses 1929 vintage Dennis bus and just as we were about to leave an empty First Ipswich bus screened for route 64 arrived which was obviously a replacement for the broken down bus showing how route branded buses can sometimes end up on wrong routes for sensible reasons. And good to see First Ipswich doing their best to recover from the breakdown. But it had been a morning of unplanned events and regretfully missing that forty minute ride on the Dennis from Rendlesham to Aldeburgh.

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After enjoying the vintage ride I headed back to Saxmundham on Border Bus route 521, which takes a circuitous and very pleasant route, (and which I wrote about back in March) …

IMG_1624.jpg… and then to Ipswich on a nice air conditioned Class 170 which made a nice change for the East Suffolk line and a welcome respite from the hot weather.

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Roger French

Back in time 90 years in Aldeburgh

Wednesday 24th July 2019

IMG_4694.jpgThere are lots of wonderful heritage railways all over the country attracting thousands of visitors enjoying a nostalgic train ride. Most are run by volunteers with maybe just a few paid staff and are hugely successful. Who doesn’t enjoy a ride-back-in-time rekindling memories of how things used to be?

Although running days with vintage buses have become quite common these days heritage bus routes running regular services are few and far between. Cumbria Classic Coaches run a great network of once-a-week bus routes with their fleet of wonderful old buses throughout the summer based on Kirkby Stephen, some routes even run all year round; while Quantock Motor Services runs a fantastically scenic weekday route 300 between Minehead and Lynmouth during the summer with a vintage Bristol single decker and Seaford & District has run vintage buses on Sundays between Lewes and Pevensey in recent years but not this year. Sadly the Tuesday only vintage bus route 127 between Ripon and Hawes ceased a couple of years ago.

IMG_4695.jpgBritain’s oldest bus still in regular use (that’s the claim) dates from 1929 and started operating again from today on the summer only route 250 along the Suffolk coast between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness.

I went along this morning to sample a ride and it was well worth the effort especially as my trip over to Aldeburgh this morning was bedevilled with mishaps (more on those in the next blog).

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The 1929 Dennis ‘E’ Type is operated by Buckland Coaches based in Rendlesham. It’s a small set up with ten coaches together with the Dennis, christened Ermintrude, which owner Tony Buckland found back in 1987 in a night club in Stoke-on-Trent about to be demolished and with the bus destined for scrap. It was originally owned and operated by Accrington Motor Services and subsequently passed through many owners with various uses in later decades (including with a travelling circus) and its condition deteriorating.

Tony has lovingly restored Ermintrude and obviously takes great pride in her excellent appearance and sound mechanical condition, including an original 4-cylinder Dennis petrol engine, righthand gate-change crash gearbox, centre throttle pedal and push-on handbrake. It’s an amzing amount of hard work that’s gone into the restoration.

IMG_4677.jpgThis will be the fifth year Tony has operated route 250 along the Suffolk seafront. It runs on Wednesdays and Sundays up to 1st September including Bank Holiday Monday. The timetable incorporates a 40 minute frequency between 10:30 and 15:50 with a half hour break for lunch. At the beginning and end of the day at 09:25 and 15:50 the bus runs in service to and from the Buckland Coaches garage in Rendlesham via Tunstall and Blaxhall.

IMG_4674.jpgJourney time between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness is about twelve minutes but the extended route to Rendlesham takes another forty minutes. A £5 day ticket is available as well as single fares issued from an original Setright ticket machine. No concessionary passes are valid.IMG_4690.jpgTony and conductor Owen (who also drives Ermintrude in the afternoon and works full time at Buckland) were both in fine form today.

Both took a turn at expertly cranking the engine to start turning at the termini (no electric starter motors in 1929), here’s Tony showing his professional technique ….

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…. and Owen expertly changed the blinds just as would have been done ninety years ago (no roller blinds in those days let alone electronic displays!).IMG_4706.jpg

The 29 seater bus was way ahead of its time with separate forward entrance and rear exit – or was it the other way around – to minimise stop dwell time and I noticed Tony expertly doing hand signals out of the cab window.IMG_4680.jpgI’m grateful to Twitter friend Steve (@BusAndTrainPage) (also check out his blog) for alerting me to this service and he joined me for a ride this morning and we were both impressed with the seat comfort offered from ninety years ago.

IMG_4691.jpgIMG_4692.jpgIt was good to see prominent timetables on display at temporary bus stops along the route commendably provided by Suffolk County Council and an attractive leaflet was available and Owen was handing them out to many interested passers by.

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Even though this morning was the first day’s operation there were a few passengers on board and others taking an interest. Ermintrude not surprisingly turns heads and attracts camera phones as she travels up and down this section of Suffolk coastline.

IMG_4702.jpgIf you’re in the East Anglian area in the next few weeks it’s well worth taking a ride on route 250 (the number harks back to an original Eastern Counties bus route on the same road) along this delightful scenic coastline and meet the friendly Tony and Owen – both Aldeburgh and Thropeness are beautiful places to visit too.

IMG_4704.jpgIf you’re unable to make it, you can take a ‘virtual ride’ by viewing this YouTube video.

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More Suffolk travel experiences in the next blog.

Roger French

On the M2 on the M2 … and a 301

Monday 22nd July 2019

IMG_4219.jpgYou have to hand it to Stagecoach. Whenever they give a new commercial service a go, they don’t hold back. Their South West Falcon introduced in 2016 linking Bristol with Plymouth was a massive investment involving a fleet of brand new coaches running hourly during the day as well as night journeys. It was a huge commercial risk which I’m pleased to see seems to have paid off.

This week sees another high profile brand new inter-urban express route take to the road, this time pioneered by Stagecoach South East and operating between Canterbury and North Greenwich for the O2 as well as a handy connection to the Jubilee Line for onward travel into central London.

Screen Shot 2019-07-22 at 19.26.26.pngAppropriately numbered M2, the route also serves a stop near Faversham town centre, the Hempstead Valley shopping centre, a stop in Rainham (the Gillingham ‘Rainham’) as well as Chatham’s bus station and Maritime quarter.

The ambitious timetable provides an hourly service seven days a week with a first Monday to Friday journey as early as 04:55 from Canterbury (even 06:40 at weekends) and a last daily journey back from North Greenwich as late as 23:10. That’s very impressive for a start up route and very much in the Stagecoach mould of throwing everything at it from the start.

Journey times vary from a best off-peak end-to-end 1 hour 54 minutes to a peak congestion blighted time of 2 hours 22 minutes.Screen Shot 2019-07-22 at 20.12.41.pngFive vehicles are needed to run the service and I understand there’s one spare available. They’re nine year old Volvo B9R/Plaxton Elites which have been around the Group a bit having seen service in East Scotland as well as elsewhere. They’re decent coaches though and very suitable for this latest venture. There’s the usual Wi-fi and a three pin plug socket per pair of seats and an on board toilet at the rear.IMG_4227.jpgTime comparisons with the rail alternative are not particularly favourable bearing in mind Canterbury and Faversham both enjoy High Speed trains whisking you to St Pancras (best time to Canterbury is 56 minutes) but whereas HS1 passengers are stung with premium ticket prices Stagecoach can offer more attractive fares.

Advance booking on the M2 is available through the Megabus website and there are also pay-on-the-coach fares (including contactless). A single from Canterbury to North Greenwich starts at £8.50 (online off peak including £1 booking fee) increasing to £10 (pay-on-coach). Fares on the first three peak departures from Canterbury are higher at £12 (online) and £15 (pay-on-coach). There are no m-Ticket options through the Stagecoach App. Fares from Medway reduce to £7 (online) and £8 (pay-on-coach) with peak fares £10 (online) and £12 (pay-on-coach). There are unspecified discounts available for students with ID and seniors with concessionary passes.

An Anytime day return from Canterbury to St Pancras on the train including the HS1 premium sets you back £72.70 with off-peak costing £38.90. However a weekly Anytime season is £167.40 which for five days travel works out at £33.48 per day, and if you take the non HS1 version it’s £139.60 or £27.92 per day, although journey times are much longer – it takes as long as the M2. Interestingly though, the £27.92 works out cheaper than paying two peak singles on the M2 coach at £30 (although it’s £24 online). I can’t see any availability of return tickets or commuter weeklies on the M2 advertised online and strangely there’s no reference to fares at all in the timetable leaflet; nor any reference to fares on the rather understated vehicle livery.

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I took a ride on the 11:50 from Canterbury to North Greenwich this morning to see how the new service is bedding in.

Thanks to Highways England closing the M2 motorway yesterday for ‘essential maintenance’ putting the kibosh on Stagecoach’s inaugural day for the M2 coach route (it ran to a curtailed timetable and route) today was the first day offering a full service on the M2 on the M2 (if you see what I mean).

It’s always a bit scary running a brand new service during its first few days especially one as intense as the hourly M2, as despite all the planning, organisation and pre launch publicity and marketing, passengers may simply not appear. It can be a bit dispiriting.

Although I was the only passenger this morning on the 11:50 departure the driver was very friendly and very upbeat and positive about the new service. Indeed, he’d left his job at another well established coach company running commuter coaches between Kent and London just so he could be part of this new venture. That impressed me. I hope his confidence and optimism is well placed.

He drove at a very steady pace and despite leaving a couple of minutes late we passed the Perry Court stop in Faversham spot on time at 12:08. This stop is on the A251 (off the A2) just before junction 6 on the M2 which we joined.

I appreciate the time penalty of doing a circuit of Faversham town centre might be unattractive, but I wonder if there could be a bus stop located slightly closer for the convenience and attraction of serving Faversham. Perry Court didn’t look particularly convenient. It would also proivde an excellent non-stop Faversham to Canterbury service although I appreciate there’s already the half-hourly 3X taking just 24 minutes for that journey,

We were then on the M2 through to junction 4 where we came off to serve the Hempstead Valley shopping centre. We arrived five minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time of 12:33 so it made me wonder whether a tour of Faversham town centre could be accommodated after all – it would probably only take about the five minutes we sat at Hempstead Valley.IMG_4147.jpgOnward to Chatham bus station where we arrived ten minutes ahead of the scheduled departure at 11:59. There’s definitely some cautious running time allowances in this timetable.IMG_4210.jpgWe left via the Dockyard and Maritime quarter and then through the Medway Tunnel which brought us on to the A2 and the forty minute ride to North Greenwich. Traffic was as busy as usual even at lunch time as we neared Greenwich and the Blackwall Tunnel approach road and we lost five minutes negotiating the traffic light junctions before reaching the North Greenwich terminus alongside the Underground station and O2 at 13:49 instead of 13:44.IMG_4224.jpgThe driver and bus had stand time of 21 minutes until the return journey to Canterbury leaves at 14:05.

Stand time at Canterbury in the off peak is a very generous 54 minutes; all credit to Stagecoach for starting the timetable off with a very cautious and generous timing allowance which will help ensure reliability, subject to the random nature of traffic delays on this busy road corridor.

IMG_4146.jpgIt was good to see timetable leaflets and other literature available inside the coach as well as in Stagecoach’s Canterbury travel shop and I also spotted supplies and information at Chatham bus station (bottom right).IMG_4217.jpg

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Bus stops had been updated with reference to the M2 as well as departure times at Canterbury and Hempstead Valley but the fancy electronic signs at Chatham bus station were all blank as usual.IMG_4212.jpgIt also didn’t surprise me to see TfL make no reference to the new M2 at North Greenwich. They really are hopeless.

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It’s very welcome to see another big investment in a new commercial service by Stagecoach and it’s obvious a lot of thought has gone into the planning and logistics of the M2 and it was good to see publicity was prominent along the route. Well done to everyone involved. But, as always with services of this kind, it’s a HUGE market to serve. On the one hand this shows the potential – Canterbury, Chatham, Greenwich, the O2 and connections to London are all great places to visit and they’re all on the M2’s radar – but on the other hand it shows the enormous challenge of getting the service known by potential passengers across such a massive market.

I do think the fares package may need some adjustment, particularly the need for discounted returns and perhaps weekly tickets to attract commuters. It seems odd not to publicise fares more dramatically including whatever the discounts are for students and seniors.

I understand there’ll be a full review of the service after six months. I reckon it’ll need at least a year, and probably eighteen months to two years to really established itself and see if there is a sustainable commercial market. Oxford Bus pulled the plug within six months of starting their Oxford to Birmingham coach service in 2016. I always thought that was a bit too early; I hope the same doesn’t apply here. You have to be patient and be prepared to spend an awful lot on marketing and raising awareness. In this regard, while I like the ‘Stagecoach express’ brand and logo on the coaches, I do wonder whether the places served, the frequency and some reference to price needs to be incorporated more prominently to raise the profile.

Good luck and I wish the new service every success.

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While I was out and about today I popped from North Greenwich over to nearby Woolwich to take a ride on another new service – TfL’s route 301 which began on the Saturday before last running between Woolwich and Bexleyheath.

IMG_4379.jpgIt’s not very often TfL introduce a brand new service; these days it’s all about cut backs in frequencies and direct journeys, so it makes a pleasant change to try out a new bus route in London, and even more so one that runs every 12 minutes (15 minutes evenings and Sundays) and from 05:40 through to 01:00. Not bad going for a route that effectively parallels four other routes along the way rather than carving out any new territory. No hopper fare for passengers here; they can now travel through from Woolwich via Plumstead, Thamesmead, Abbey Wood and Long Lane to Bexleyheath without changing.

End-to-end journey time is 38 minutes off peak rising to 46 minutes in the peak. You’d expect on a 12 minute frequency to need about eight or nine buses to make that work. This being TfL land the PVR is actually 10 buses.

It’s strange this route has been introduced now as it was designed in conjunction with the opening of Crossrail; forming part of the consultation surrounding changes to bus routes in south east London for when Crossrail comes to Abbey Wood. The fact that’s been delayed until at least later next year makes it’s hard to see why the 301 needs to run now. Indeed this afternoon we left Woolwich on time at 14:48 with just one other passenger on board, who I think, like me, was just trying the route out.IMG_4260.jpg The lack of passengers wasn’t surprising bearing in mind we left Woolwich following a bus on the more frequent (every 10 minutes) route 472 which we parallel as far as Thamesmead…..IMG_4265.jpg… then followed a bus on the more frequent (every 10 minutes) route 244 which we parallel to Abbey Wood …..IMG_4266.jpg… then did pick one surprised passenger up as we paralleled the 15 minute frequency route B11, where we also came unstuck for a while in the rather narrow New Road by meeting a B11 coming the other way – whose driver got out to help us reverse…IMG_4298.jpg

IMG_4301.jpg… and then as we joined the fourth and final route to parallel for out last section – the 401..IMG_4363.jpgThere was no 401 to tailgate but there were still no passengers. Rather frustratingly we we got held at a bus stop to regulate the service at 15:18 ….

IMG_4303.jpg….only to get going again and get held again to regulate the service at 15:23…IMG_4333.jpg

… and even more frustratingly that wait was at the last but one stop on the route…

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According to the timetable we weren’t due into Bexleyheath until 15:30 so far better to keep me and the other passenger waiting at the penultimate stop just outside until the due time! That’s London buses for you.

I can’t see the 301 doing anything more than the 472, 244, B11 and 401 have been doing for some time. Once Crossrail trains start running it’ll likely be a different story.IMG_4368.jpg

It was interesting to see some unofficial publicity for the 301 on display in Bexleyheath, albeit partly covering up an out of date spider map in Bexleyheath. Good to see someone taking the initiative and interesting to see the annotated additions. IMG_4371.jpg

Although bus stops and timetable cases had been updated along the route, spider route maps were devoid of any reference to the 301; but that’s no surprise. It took me a little time wandering around Woolwich to find the right bus stop, but eventually I tracked it down.IMG_4234.jpg

Roger French

Britain’s remotest bus terminus

Wednesday 17th July 2019

IMG_3973.jpgIt’s been a bucket list ambition for a few years. Travel to mainland Britain’s most north westerly point at Cape Wrath and visit by far the remotest bus terminus alongside its famous lighthouse.

You can’t get more remote than the end of an isolated eleven mile single track road which has no other road connections. It starts at a jetty slipway served only by a passenger ferry, passes no civilisation for eleven miles, and ends at a lighthouse where just two people live in adjacent accommodation.IMG_3975.jpgArriving at Cape Wrath you’re further north than Moscow and Vladivostok. You’re closer to the Arctic Circle than you are to London. Head due west and you’ll reach Newfoundland.

I’ve long wanted to try the unique bus route which takes you to Cape Wrath. The trek entails a ten minute walk from the main A838 road, a couple of miles south of Durness, to the jetty where the summer only passenger ferry (Britain’s smallest passenger ferry) takes you across the Kyle of Durness from where the minibus begins the spectacular ride along the eleven mile winding and hilly, rough surface narrow track to Cape Wrath itself.

IMG_E4092.jpg‘Track’ is very much the description of this ‘road’. Built in the second half of the nineteenth century to take nothing wider than a horse and cart and service the lighthouse it’s still as narrow and to the same unmade up rough surface as its original state. It’s officially adopted by Highland Regional Council and known as the U70 road – it’s marked on Ordnance Survey maps as an unfenced track. Unsurprisingly Google’s camera car hasn’t driven it.

IMG_3993.jpgThere are passing places but many are now too soft or dangerous to use. It’s said there are only about five effective places along the entire eleven mile track where a minibus could pass. It’s essential therefore for the minibus drivers (there are often two buses in use with a third spare) to keep in touch by radio to make sure they don’t meet away from those passing places. Luckily there’s no other traffic.

It takes just over an hour to travel from the jetty to the lighthouse – that’s an average speed of around 10mph which reflects the track surface conditions and the skill of the drivers. Tyres don’t last more than one summer season.

IMG_4035.jpgThis journey has unique all over it. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in Great Britain. It’s simply the best public transport experience I’ve ever had; and I’ve had a few. It breaks through the quirkiness scale barrier.

It beats anything I’ve enjoyed travelling through Britain’s most scenic National Parks. It beats the amazing journeys I’ve taken in the Outer Hebrides, Shetlands and Skye. It even beats the most spectacular railway journeys on the West Highland and Kyle of Lochalsh lines.

It’s simply the best.

The journey does need careful planning and an element of good luck to successfully accomplish it. Fortunately James, who runs the bus service, maintains a very helpful website which explains the logistics of the journey (VisitCapeWrath) setting out what to expect and he’s even available on the phone to give reassuring advice as I found a couple of times when I gave him a ring to check finer details.

The luck element includes for the ferry crossing: avoiding severe weather and an extreme low tide and for the minibus ride: the military not closing the road as the area is used for live bombing exercises (thankfully not usually during the summer), and more pertinently there being enough people at the time you want to travel to justify the minibus running – a minimum of six is desired.

It’s probably safest to stay overnight in Durness and take the first ferry across the Kyle of Durness in the morning at about 8.45-9.00am. That way you have more chances to make the journey during the day if the aforementioned criteria aren’t met. But that’s not easy when you’re a BusAndTrainUser on a public transport schedule to such a remote part of Britain with few options.

IMG_3857.jpgI took the 10:41am train from Inverness yesterday morning on the Far North Line (to Wick) as far as Lairg arriving 12:20pm. That departure is an easy connection from the Sleeper’s arrival from Euston although on this occasion I took the easyJet option the previous day from Gatwick (cheaper and quicker although I ended up paying for an expensive overnight stay in tourist filled Inverness on Monday).IMG_3863.jpgDurness based Far North Bus company runs the once a day route 806 providing a great connection from Lairg station at 12:25pm and the bus will wait a decent time in case the train runs late.IMG_3864.jpgRoute 806 is one of my favourite bus routes. The scenery is spectacular with lochs, mountains and forests and no more than two dozen houses spread along the 37 miles single track A838 road heading north westwards out of Lairg towards Durness.

IMG_3871.jpgMy friendly bus driver Danny was a bit concerned to hear my travel plans included Cape Wrath due to the exceptionally low tide that afternoon and I took his advice and rang the ferryman to check things out as we travelled along and Danny even kindly stopped the bus to improve mobile reception.

Previously, James the Cape Wrath minibus owner, had been a bit non committal about timings and when I got through to ferryman Malcolm he advised the next ferry was at 2pm and after that it would be 3.30pm but only if there were enough people travelling but at least he reassured me the tide would be OK. We were due to arrive at about 2.30pm.

In the meantime there was plenty of time to chat with Danny as he drove along this wonderfully scenic road from Lairg which after an hour reaches Scotland’s main south to north road from Ullapool to Durness at Laxford Bridge.

Here the minibus heads temporarily south down the A894 towards Ullapool to serve the village of Scourie. This dog-leg takes ten minutes before turning round and retracing the road back to Laxford Bridge and heading north until it reaches the turning westwards for Kinlochbervie Harbour which adds another ten minute detour before turning round and retracing back to the main road again. That’s forty minutes added to the journey to serve these two locations.

Yesterday I was the only passenger for the entire journey so the added mileage was unnecessary but passengers have boarded and alighted in both places on previous trips, so you never know. Returning to Lairg on the bus this morning five passengers boarded in Scourie.

After another twenty minutes heading north we reached the turning for the Kyle of Durness ferry and Danny very kindly drove along to the jetty itself rather than drop me at the road end as he was still concerned whether the ferry would be running and I might end up stranded.

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It was about 2.35pm and no ferry was in sight and the rather unhelpful information board said the next ferry would depart at 2pm!

IMG_3885.jpgI began to think my luck had run out and the ferry had packed up beaten by a low tide and paucity of passengers. But then a small boat appeared in the distance across the narrow channel of water stretching across the Kyle and I also spotted a minibus coming down the hillside to the jetty on the far side. It turned out Malcolm uses the time in between the infrequent short ferry crossings to do some fishing but he was now back in ferry mode.

He brought back four passengers and a couple of bikes but I’m not sure how much fish! This was about 3pm and Malcolm explained he’d be crossing again at 3.30pm if there were six people by then and promptly drove off in his van.

IMG_3894.jpgI was pleased and relieved to see a young holidaying couple from Northern Ireland and their lovely dog had now arrived so we were halfway to our quorum and when Malcolm returned at 3.30pm miraculously three more passengers had arrived and we set sail.IMG_3899.jpgIMG_3901.jpgIt really was an extreme low tide; halfway across skilfully navigating the very narrow channel of water Malcolm asked us all to sit at the front end of the boat as it had started to ground! Luckily that worked and we arrived at the far side jetty just as another minibus came down the track with a dozen returning passengers.IMG_3904.jpgTwo of our number decided they’d enjoy a walk rather than take the minibus but Stuart, our minibus driver, was happy to take just the four of us and dog on the journey to Cape Wrath. Thank goodness!IMG_3910.jpgBut not before Stuart checked the position of the other minibus which as it happened wasn’t far away returning empty to the jetty so we waited for that driver to arrive and then we were off.IMG_3921.jpgThe area to the Cape has been officially dubbed Europe’s ‘Last Great Wilderness’ and you soon see why. The steep gradient as the narrow track winds its way up from the jetty is just a foretaste of the amazing journey ahead.

IMG_3925.jpgSmall marker posts along the track count down each of the eleven miles to the lighthouse. After a couple of miles you reach the beginning of the Cape Wrath Bombardment Range with its high profile warning signs and barrier arm to prevent any further movement when the military are practising manoeuvres by firing live ammunition and dropping live bombs. It’s the only range in Western Europe where thousand pound bombs are live fired and any NATO member can use it.IMG_3995.jpgStuart pointed out a crater just a few feet from the track as we passed by which appeared after a bombing exercise making you realise how necessary those barriers are.IMG_3941.jpgThe Ministry of Defence own one of the very few properties alongside the track and have refurbished it for use as a base and accommodation during exercises.IMG_4030.jpgIMG_4029.jpgOne other property we passed is used as a summer home, but Stuart observed sometimes only for a couple of weeks a year and one or two other properties have clearly been abandoned.

There are a few bridges to carry the track over small rivers luckily just wide enough to take our minibus. “It showed great foresight by the original track builders” Stuart quipped.IMG_4026.jpgIMG_3997.jpgThe newest bridge was built by the Royal Engineers and Royal Marines as recently as 1981. Before that minibuses had to navigate a ford at this point. It’s said in the early days of the minibus service it was common practice for the driver along with a willing passenger to wade out into the river with a rope strung between them marking the width of the vehicle and if the water stayed below knee level it was safe for the minibus to cross.IMG_4039.jpgAfter about seven miles you get a view of the almost hidden beautiful Kearvaig Bay on the northern coastline.

IMG_3989.jpgThis must be one of the most gorgeous bays that’s rarely used save by a few intrepid walkers including the two women who opted to walk from the ferry and were still heading there when we passed them on our return (you might spot them below) – but it looked as though it would defintely be worth their effort.IMG_4034.jpgContinuing on to Cape Wrath the track enters what is its most exciting and challenging section. With four miles to go we leave the firing range and cross Kearvaig Bridge offering just four inches clearance for our minibus.

The track continues to follow the contours of the landscape but at the tenth mile the track is carved out of the valley side incorporating a sharp drop to the nearside and a soft verge. This section is called the ‘Wall of Death’. Stuart’s driving skills made it look easy but I wouldn’t like to try it!

IMG_3947.jpgThe track finally reaches the Cape Wrath lighthouse and the end of the journey.

IMG_3953.jpgIMG_3956.jpgJames has organised things so you have about 45 minutes to wander around and take in the sheer wonderment of reaching this exposed extreme north western tip of the country …. by bus. There are spectacular views towards the Arctic Circle northwards…

IMG_3969.jpg…. and westwards to the North Atlantic…

IMG_3981.jpgThe lighthouse has only been automated since 1998 and now lies deserted except for John and his daughter who live in the adjacent somewhat ramshakle property.

IMG_3978.jpgIMG_3979.jpgThey provide refreshments and a few souvenirs in the Ozone cafe in their property and you have to marvel at the logistics they surmount of no mains water, gas, electricity or sewage connections, nor mobile phone signal yet running a small commercial business reliant on the small number of tourists who make the journey and then buy something!

IMG_3957.jpgIMG_3976.jpgIMG_3977.jpgThey bring all their supplies, including water, from Durness once a week where their post is also kept. Rainwater is harvested for the toilet and washing – there’s a notice in the bathroom to use sparingly!

We passed John’s daughter about four miles along the track from the jetty where she can just pick up a mobile signal so was spending the afternoon online shopping on the back seat of her car!

IMG_4036.jpgBack at the lighthouse John has an interesting collection of abandoned vehicles and we passed another minibus he used to use, parked up along the track and awaiting the fitting of a part after it broke down some time ago.

IMG_3970.jpgIMG_4010.jpgThere were also a few sheep who apparently now roam wild as they’ve learnt to out manoeuvre the farmer’s sheep dog by escaping to precarious ledges on the cliffs and are now well separated from the flock on the other side of the firing range.IMG_3983.jpgThe lighthouse’s massive foghorn hasn’t sounded for many years but you can just imagine the sound it used to make on a night of thick fog and blowing a force ten gale as often relaid on Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast!

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Our journey back to the jetty was as enjoyable as the outward by seeing all the spectacular views from a different angle including steep inclines up instead of down and Stuart continuing with his fascinating commentary.

IMG_4041.jpgMalcolm was waiting for us at the jetty as we arrived soon after 6.30pm and Stuart left the minibus overnight alongside the other one already parked up and joined us for the trip back over the Kyle of Durness which was now much faster flowing with the tide well in.IMG_4066.jpg

IMG_4061.jpgStuart’s driving day was done having completed three return trips and he kindly gave me a lift into Durness to save the lengthy walk. This is his eighth season of driving one of the Cape Wrath minibuses and he obviously enjoys it and provides a truly great experience for visitors.

IMG_4069.jpgWe chatted on the way back to Durness and he agreed with my thoughts that there’s huge potential to increase business and make the ‘visitor experience’ even better. Publicising a definitive timetable for departures on James’s website and at the jetty would be reassuring as would booking tickets online and taking bank cards. The current cash only return ticket price is £7.50 paid on the ferry and £13 on the minibus.

IMG_4073.jpgI got the impression Malcolm independently guards his revenue stream and suspect he would resist agreeing to a combined ticket and perhaps making things a bit more streamlined.

I’ve thought about it a bit more since yesterday and now think the quirkinesses of the whole arrangement is part of its charm, and who’d want the remoteness of the Cape to become overrun with tourists; in fact I hesitate at writing too effusive praise here about just how fantastic and brilliant an experience it was for fear too many readers will follow in my tracks.

Luck was on my side yesterday – I was out of the military practice season, the weather was stunningly idyllic, that low tide wasn’t too low, the departure time of 3.30pm just fitted my schedule and five fellow passengers turned up just at the right time.

Perfect.

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Absolutely perfect.

IMG_3964.jpgI don’t think I’m going to trounce this travel experience any time soon.

Roger French

PS You might be wondering how James gets the three minibuses over to the Cape with no road access and only a tiny pedestrian ferry. They’re taken over at the beginning of each season and brought back at the end on a special motorised pontoon barge which crosses when the sea conditions are just right – a calm, wind free day. Diesel fuel is brought over as needed in 25-litre drums during the season. The photo below is taken from a splendid guidebook on sale for just £3 by David M Hird and well worth buying if you’re thinking of visiting.IMG_E4104.jpg

Another rural pilot in Kent

Friday 12th July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

Three Staffordshire bus rides

Tuesday 9th July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally to route 109, Leek to Macclesfield.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French