My new found freedom from fares

Wednesday 6th November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

Thames Valley boost to Terminal 5

Saturday 2nd November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger French

 

Stagecoach’s new Designer X1

Tuesday 29th October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger French

Xpress Dundee done, (and Airlink)

Wednesday 16th October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger French

Farewell 48 after fifty years

Friday 11th October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

43 years later in Cornwall

Sunday 6th October 2019

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I picked up an old Western National timetable book for Cornwall when visiting the Isle of Wight Bus Museum last weekend. It’s always fascinating to see how bus routes have changed over the decades so as I was heading down to Cornwall over this weekend I took it with me to compare and contrast May 1976 with October 2019. Would things have improved or deteriorated?

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I arrived at Bodmin Parkway station bang on time on GWR’s grandly named Cornish Riviera train at 13:50 thanks to the generous time allowance still pertaining on the Great Western for a few more weeks until the faster acceleration of the new bi-mode Hitachi trains is built into a tighter schedule on the Penzance timetable in December.

IMG_0449.jpgThere’s a good connection with Plymouth Citybus route 11/11A which runs from Plymouth to Padstow via Bodmin and Wadebridge.

IMG_0419.jpgThe bus also arrived on time (at 14:05) for the 14:07 departure and it was good to see a busy bus with a fair few already on board and thirteen passengers in addition to myself making the connection from train to bus.

IMG_0448.jpgRoute 11/11A operates hourly (two-hourly on Sundays) but back in 1976, I’d have had a long wait to get to Padstow arriving on a train at 13:50 as Western National’s route 575 left Bodmin Road station (before it got renamed to a Parkway in 1983) at 11:30 then nothing until 16:00.

IMG_0608.jpgThere were also departures at 07:50, 09:55, 1650, 18:20 and 20:20 with a summer only extra at 13:30 on Saturdays. So not particularly convenient bearing in mind there was once a railway plying its way along the route to Wadebridge/Padstow many years ago. Today’s hourly bus is definitely an improvement.

IMG_0532.jpgIn Padstow I switched to First Kernow’s picturesque route A5 for Newquay branded as part of their Atlantic Coaster network for bus routes around the coast to Lands End and Penzance.

IMG_0476.jpgI caught the 15:35 departure from Padstow, one of nine daytime journeys (ten in the summer) giving a roughly hourly service.

It wasn’t the cleanest of buses; in fact it was filthy with plastic drink bottles rolling around the floor and no end of crisp packets and other detritus ….

IMG_0550.jpg…. but the views from the top deck are amazing……

IMG_0551.jpgWe left Padstow with about fifteen on board and picked up another half dozen or so during the eighty minute journey which is quite spectacular taking in a number of Cornwall’s north coastal beaches accessed by precarious narrow lanes and some steep twisty inclines.

The route also serves Newquay Airport offering an hourly bus service for passengers flying in or out on the few flights there but no takers today.

IMG_0574.jpgBack in 1976 I’d have only been able to get as far as Constantine Bay about twenty minutes after Padstow on the four journey a day route Western National route 574 – and indeed would have had to catch the last journey of the day at 15:25 too.

IMG_E0795.jpgNo chance of getting as far as Newquay with Western National. Constantine Post Office would have been it. However it may be the neighbouring Southern National bus company also ran between Padstow and Newquay but sadly I don’t have their 1976 timetable to check. I doubt the service was better than today’s A5.

(Update note: thanks to reader comments since publishing this post it seems there were indeed significant unserved gaps including between Padstow and Newquay – Southern National having been absorbed into Western National well before 1976.)

From Newquay I took advantage of the St Columb Major bus interchange – established in Western Greyhound’s time in this market town where buses taking various routes between Newquay and Truro provide handy connections for journeys across this part of Cornwall.

IMG_0602.jpgMy early evening connection on Friday wasn’t particularly well timed catching the 17:35 route 93 from Newquay (it continues to Truro) arriving St Columb Major at 18:00 then having a 38 minute wait for route 95 on to Wadebridge.

IMG_0636.jpgThis would have been another journey served by Southern National as the Western National map inside the timetable book unhelpfully indicates there are no bus routes – you’d think NBC good practice would have insisted a coordinated map and timetable book for Cornwall in those so called halcyon nationalised regulated days!

(See update note above – it would seem there was no link from Newquay/Columb St Major to Wadebridge in 1976.)

IMG_E0606.jpgAfter an overnight stop off I headed north from a bus busy Wadebridge on Saturday morning along the coast via Polzeath and Port Isaac on the four journey a day scenic route 96.

IMG_0643.jpgTwo journeys a day on this route seamlessly continue to or from route 55 at Delabole back round to Bodmin via Camelford and Wenfordbridge including the first journey I caught which left Wadebridge at 08:35. This finally arrives in Bodmin at 11:21 giving an almost three hour round trip with some short breaks in Delabole and Camelford.

IMG_0645.jpgWe took only four passengers on the 96 including a surfer who got off in Polzeath where we also paused to wait time, the driver explaining during busy summer months he can often be seriously delayed meeting traffic on the very narrow roads.

IMG_0655.jpgFive passengers travelled on the 55 which included a diversion along the route due to a road closure in St Breward.

IMG_0658.jpgThis time we weren’t so lucky on the narrow roads meeting a tractor and trailer necessitating our driver having to skilfully reverse for about a mile.

IMG_0669.jpgI can’t make a comparison with 1976 as this was still Southern National territory but my guess is the small villages served on the 55 probably had about the same level of service.

(See update note above: my optimism was ill founded – no services existed of the 96 and 55 kind in 1976.)

IMG_0671.jpgFrom Bodmin I took route 27 through to Truro. This double deck hourly service doesn’t take the most direct route clocking up a journey time just under two hours and taking in Roche, Stenalees, Bugle, Penwithick and St Austell.

IMG_0783.jpgIt even takes in a trip around the Cornwall Services on the A30.

IMG_0678.jpgComparisons with 1976 are tricky as the 27 is an amalgam of two separate former routes (527 and 529) which ran on this corridor serving the aforementioned via points in a more logical order. But the combined routes only ran as far as St Austell at the same hourly frequency as today and with no Sunday service whereas today’s 27 has five journeys every two hours on Sundays.

IMG_0780.jpgWestern National route 532 ran hourly between St Austell and Truro every hour with three journeys on Sundays so a slightly better effort in 1976 almost matching today’s service.

From Truro I headed down to Falmouth on the busy route U1 which forms part of the network serving Exeter University’s outpost at Penryn.

IMG_0706.jpgThis provides a half hourly service from Truro as far as Penryn then every fifteen minutes into Falmouth ….

IMG_0784.jpg…. comparing very favourably with Western National’s route 590 which only ran hourly back in 1976 demonstrating very effectively the important part students play in today’s contemporary bus networks.

IMG_E0785.jpgI then took a lovely rural route, the 35, from Falmouth down to Helford Passage and back.

IMG_0735.jpgThis is another route serving small communities along very narrow roads (after its done a an annoying detour of some narrow residential roads in Falmouth where no one got on or off – as well as getting stuck behind a parked ambulance necessitating a long reverse and diversion) and impressively running to an approximate hourly frequency ….

IMG_0782.jpg…. whereas it’s predecessor route 563 in 1976 only ran two-hourly with three extra journeys on a variant 564 in the high summer.

IMG_E0779.jpgOnly three passengers travelled south from Falmouth on the outward journey but the return did better with seven on board. I saw a later departure from Falmouth at the end of the afternoon which had a much better load on board. It’s a lovely route.

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My surprising conclusion from taking these few random journeys is today’s bus frequencies compare extremely well with 1976 either being the same or much better than applied forty-three years ago. Certainly the quality of bus provided is now quite outstanding. Who said buses, including rural buses, have got worse?!

IMG_E0786.jpgEven better the latest First Kernow timetable book is a masterpiece in presentation, far better than the 1976 offering, with full colour maps and all routes operated by First included from Penzance to Bude making it more useful than in NBC days.

IMG_E0787.jpgOne small criticism: I’d like to see town maps of places like St Austell and Falmouth where route patterns are quite complex and virtually impossible to work out – something the 1976 book did do well. Although I appreciate these can be found in the separate comprehensive timetable book produced by Cornwall Council but this is not so widely available.

IMG_0781.jpgI know First Kernow have a nice map of Falmouth, for example, as I picked up a leaflet aimed at students on the U1 which contained one.

IMG_0788.jpgIt would be good to include this in the main book too.

IMG_E0790.jpgIMG_E0789.jpgAside from that, 43 years on, Cornwall Council working with First Kernow are providing a bus network that’s never looked so good. Well done to all concerned.

Roger French

Britain’s shortest bus route

Wednesday 2nd October

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I travelled on Britain’s longest bus route from Glasgow to Skye at the beginning of last month so decided to give Britain’s shortest bus route a ride today.

That accolade goes to Rosso’s route 13 between Rawtenstall bus station and the business and retail park in nearby New Hall Hey.

An exchange on Twitter a few months ago highlighted this route after I pointed out in presentations I made to the Omnibus Society and Friends of London Transport Museum a while ago that London’s shortest bus route is the 389 from Barnet to Western Way with its twelve minute journey out and ten minutes back*.

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A strong contender to beat that is the Reading Buses operated route 153 in Henley-on-Thames which takes just nine minutes to complete its full circular route via Abrahams Road.

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 12.12.09.pngBut outdoing that in the bus route brevity stakes is the aforementioned Rosso operated 13 which also runs to a circular format and scheduled to take just two minutes to reach the furthest bus stop away from the bus station in New Hall Hey and a relatively generous four minutes for the ‘return’ continuing around the circuit back to the bus station.

IMG_E0379.jpgI reckon at six minutes for a round trip Rosso’s route 13 holds the crown of being Britain’s shortest bus route …. unless readers know different?

The route runs hourly from 08:55 to 17:56 and has all the hallmarks of being a tendered route fitted in between other peak commitments for the bus and interworked with another route – the hourly 7/8 which links Rawtenstall with Todmorden/Burnley and just happens to have enough stand time in Rawtenstall to nip around New Hill Hay and back in six minutes.

I couldn’t resist a ride round the circuit and having just missed the 12:50 departure this afternoon decided to walk around most of the route first to stake it out.

IMG_0357.jpgIntriguingly the first bus stop I came across was on the opposite side of the road to the anti-clockwise loop the bus now takes, so not surprisingly found a prominent notice explaining this was no longer a bus stop.

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IMG_0359.jpgPerhaps at one time the bus took a different route and used this stop. Strange also that the bus stop opposite where the 13 does stop just had a poster advising passengers to check the next bus by using a phone rather than a timetable.

 

IMG_0361.jpgThere’s just one other bus stop served exclusively by the 13 in New Hill Hay – just by the level crossing for the East Lancs heritage railway.

 

IMG_0389.jpgBack at the bus station the 13:50 departure arrived from Burnley on its previous journey on route 8 a few minutes ahead of the 13:46 scheduled arrival and I was initially surprised to see a double decker allocated.

 

IMG_0376.jpgThe driver had time to enjoy a short cigarette break then climbed back on the bus ready to depart at 13:50 and promptly closed the doors. Luckily he saw me in the queue of passengers waiting for other buses indicating I wanted to board.

 

IMG_0369.jpgTo say he was surprised is an understatement. He asked me where I was going in an incredulous voice obviously not expecting any passengers to actually ride an hourly bus route that takes around three minutes travel time to reach a destination!

 

IMG_0381.jpgI explained I’d just come for the ride round and popped upstairs as I heard him mutter something about ‘having to do a school run after this’ – hence the double decker, I assume.

 

IMG_0386.jpgWe reached the first stop on the anti-clockwise circuit around the business and retail park at 13:53.

 

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IMG_0392.jpgAfter a short pause there we continued back round to the bus station arriving on time at 13:56. Job done.

 

IMG_0356.jpgThere’s not much more to say about the journey. If I hadn’t had a Transdev Daytripper ticket it would have cost me a flat fare of £1.60 which I assume would be for the whole circuit although the driver wasn’t very forthcoming on that. Probably because no one has ever been daft enough to do it before.

Before leaving Rawtenstall I took a look at progress on building the long awaited and desperately needed new replacement bus station sited directly opposite the well worn, long expired current edifice.

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The new bus station looks good both architecturally and from a practical user viewpoint.

It can’t open soon enough and the old one deservedly obliterated.

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Roger French

* With thanks as always to Mike Harris for his superb London bus map of which this is an extract.  Buy a copy from Mike here.

Only Connect in Kent

Monday 16th September 2019

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Back in July I took a ride on Nu-Venture’s route 58 between Maidstone, East and West Malling and villages and hamlets close to Wrotham Heath in Kent before it was transformed as part of one of Kent County Council’s rural pilots.

The idea was to cut the route back from the town centre to Maidstone Hospital (on the western side of the town), run more frequently (hourly), provide connections and through fares to Arriva’s town bus routes into the town centre and introduce two smart new Mercedes Sprinter minibuses.

The new arrangements began the week after I visited, on 15th July, so I thought it would be a good idea to pop back and see how things were settling down a couple of months on.

The publicity leaflet produced by Kent County Council for the new look 58 makes much of the ease of connections to and from Arriva’s bus routes. It suggests the best place to connect is alongside South Aylesford Retail Park, a few stops before the bus reaches Maidstone Hospital ‘due to the presence of shelters and real time information’ but ‘passengers may change buses at any stop on the route of the 71/72 that they choose’.

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The leaflet also explains ‘in addition, passengers can also choose to travel to Maidstone Hospital where connections to Maidstone Town Centre can be made with Arriva buses 3 and 8’.

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I’d been a bit sceptical about how easy all this sounded and particularly noted there was no mention of through fares if you began your journey on an Arriva bus in Maidstone town centre and wanted to travel out to the villages near Wrotham Heath but undeterred I gave it a go this morning.

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My scepticism wasn’t misplaced. Down in the bowels of Maidstone’s dingy Chequers Bus Station the driver of the Arriva Kent bus on route 71A immediately had a puzzled look and said he couldn’t issue any through fares to Trottiscliffe (one of the hamlets served by the 58 on the circuit via Wrotham Heath) and had never heard of such an arrangement. I decided not to press the point so bought a single ticket to Aylesford for £3.70.

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We arrived on time eighteen minutes later and I waited for the Nu-Venture 58 to arrive.

It turned out I got off at the stop before the suggested official interchange point at Homebase, but this stop, outside a large Sainsbury’s, is also endowed with a shelter and real time information, albeit not working, so seemed a good place to wait.

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There was an up to date timetable for the 58 and even a bum perch to sort of sit on.

The 58 arrived on time and the driver helpfully sold me a £7.20 return to take me on to Trottiscliffe and back to Maidstone town centre but emphasised when I returned it was best to alight at the stop opposite Homebase to change on to an Arriva bus there as drivers may not expect me at other stops – he also recommended having the leaflet to hand to show the driver.

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I said I was thinking of going on to Maidstone Hospital and changing to a bus on route 3 or 8 there as included as an option in the leaflet. The driver cautioned me against that as he thought that would only work for concessionary passholders rather than paid for tickets as Arriva drivers on those routes wouldn’t be aware of the arrangement.

He was also aghast to hear the driver of the 71A couldn’t issue a through ticket as he understood all the arrangements had been made for that to happen.

When I travelled on the 58 before it was modified back in July there were six passengers who had no alternative options travelling on a journey around midday (one of four off peak journeys). Today there were three already on board when I got on in Aylesford (one went to East Malling and two all the way to Trottiscliffe); two boarded in Larkfield (one to West Malling and one to Leybourne) and four and a buggy travelled from West Malling to Ryarsh. But sadly it was just me on the return journey back to Aylesford/Maidstone Hospital.

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We passed the second bus on service 58 in West Malling in both directions and it looked empty each time.

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The 16 seater Sprinter buses are smart looking inside with Arriva Click type seats and decor although the two front most offside seats are comfy tip-ups rather than standard tip ups by the wheelchair/buggy area.

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Heading back into Maidstone I got off at the Homebase stop with an Arriva 71A right behind us (the timetable shows an arrival on the 58 at 15 minutes past the hour and the 71A leaving at 16 minutes past) so that connection worked well….

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…except there was an inevitability as I presented my ticket that the driver firmly advised (twice) ‘we don’t accept Nu-Venture tickets’.

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Luckily the Mercedes Sprinter was just pulling away so I pointed to the unusual nature of the bus I’d just got off (not being a standard Nu-Venture route) and also produced in a flourish the Kent County Council leaflet for the driver to read – especially the section about through tickets.

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Fair play she accepted my return ticket even though there was a bit of ‘against my better judgment’ about it and ‘I’ve never heard of it’ and ‘it’s the first time I’ve seen one of those’. I stood my ground as I wasn’t going to shell out another £3.70!

This Rural Transport Initiative is a bold move which includes a more than doubling of the number of journeys serving the villages and hamlets near Wrotham and East and West Malling with direct journeys still provided to retail sheds at Aylesford as well as Maidstone Hospital; it’s seen two smart new minibuses and regular drivers too. My journey today had nine instead of six passengers (back in July) which is encouraging although the empty return journey and empty journeys on the other bus less so.

But although the connections for onward travel to and from Maidstone are pretty good and may work well enough for passholders not worried about through ticketing, for the few passengers who pay fares it’s incumbent on Arriva to make sure drivers are briefed and through ticketing made easily accessible on ticket machines especially in the outward direction. Otherwise passengers having a similar experience to mine today will be put off travelling.

It might also be a good idea for Kent County Council to take down reference to route 58 on all the bus stops on the section of withdrawn route into Maidstone town centre.

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Roger French

Britain’s longest bus* route

Tuesday 3rd September 2019

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It’s about 230 miles long. It takes 7 hours and 50 minutes. It’s Scottish Citylink’s route 915 (or 916) from Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station all the way to Uig Pier on the Isle of Skye via Fort William and Kyle of Lochalsh.

I’ve travelled along this route a few times, but never from one end right through to the other in one go. Until today. Except, not quite, I actually hopped off at Portree for an overnight stop tonight keeping the last 30 minute ride to Uig for first thing tomorrow morning as there’s no ferry to North Uist from Uig on a Tuesday evening.

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Route 915/916 is a bus route in two halves. There are nine journeys a day between Glasgow and Fort William, with three continuing on to Kyle of Lochalsh and Portree and two of those go on to Uig. Those three journeys to Portree are joined by four more from near Invergarry (which start in Inverness), one of which also continues to Uig. So it’s a very good service for a such a sparsely populated area.

* There’s a very strong argument to say the 915 is not a bus route, more an express coach route, but passengers use sections of the route as they would a local bus service – for example we carried a passenger into Fort William from Ballachulish (27 minutes) and another from nearby Corran as well as a school lad from Fort William home to Spean Bridge, another home with shopping to Invergarry, one from Kyle of Lochalsh travelling just over the bridge to Kyleakin and two travelled from Broadford to Portree. You wouldn’t get that many local pick ups and set downs for short rides on an express service.

Furthermore the timetable lists 64 timing points for the journey which, stripping out the breaks totalling 78 minutes, means stops listed every 6-7 minutes. That has all the the hallmarks of a bus route rather than an express route to me. And Scottish concessionary passes are valid throughout. I rest my case.

Now that’s out of the way, here’s how my journey went today.

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The West Coast Motors coach (I agree the vehicle is not a bus!) arrived in its smart Citylink livery on the stand in Buchanan Bus Station at 09:25 in good time for the 10:00 departure.

Boarding commenced at 09:30, well, suitcases boarding commenced as in use of the under seat side lockers first for the four of us already waiting and the passenger door pointedly closed; then when no more passengers with cases turned up the driver decided to let us board and ticked us off his manifest list one by one.

Over the next twenty minutes our numbers increased until 24 were on board in very good time at 09:50 with three more boarding by 09:55 when we were all ready for the off with five minutes to wait.

Interestingly there were two groups of four on board, one group of three and four groups of two with eight passengers (and myself) travelling alone. Almost all were making leisure journeys and were of all ages with every decade of age from 20s to 80s represented; there were Scots, English and a fair few Germans.

The group of three Germans boarding at Buchanan Street hadn’t pre booked nor bought tickets from the open three person Citylink Travel Centre opposite our departure stand but the driver was happy enough to sell them tickets from his ticket machine …. for £76.50 (for three day returns to Glencoe). There was a bit of language confusion for a few minutes with the driver clarifying three times it wasn’t £17.50 he needed but £76.50, but they finally understood and coughed up in cash when finally it dawned how much it was.

Citylink is not a cheap option. Two passengers enquired what the fare to Portree was when we got to Tyndrum for our first five minute brief toilet stop.

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It turned out £42 single each was too steep for them and they headed off thinking what the alternatives might be (not a lot). I’d paid £46.50 for my single fare bought on line a month ago.

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I didn’t see anyone else pay by cash today – most had prebooked tickets, a few had the three day £49 pass (which is amazing value), and some paid by contactless or ApplePay.

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Before I forget again I just want to add an extra observation to yesterday’s blog to note only 5 of the 145 passengers on route 90 paid by exact fare cash into the fare box. Quite astonishing how things have changed.

Yesterday I spent 2 hours 44 minutes on an arc less than five miles from Glasgow’s city centre on route 90. Today in that time I was passing Glencoe!

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The two year old Irizar bodied Scania wasn’t lavish but was comfortable enough. I appreciated the seats not being too high backed to maximise views through the large windows.

I was a bit surprised there were no usb points, sockets or Wi-fi – most odd for such a modern coach on such a long route. There was a prominent digital clock which I like but annoyingly was five minutes slow. There were two TV style monitors and thank goodness they were switched off. A toilet was available at the rear which wasn’t excessively used bearing in mind we had a few toilet stops along the way.

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Four of the nine departures from Glasgow to Fort William take a route via Glasgow Airport. My 10:00 journey was one of those and we picked up two more passengers there making 29 in total on board. Extra time is allowed for the Airport route – we made it there in 20 instead of the 25 scheduled minutes and then rejoined the usual route by taking the Erskine Bridge over the River Clyde.

Having a pick up at the Airport is convenient for airline travellers jetting in but personally I’d never risk it because of the unpredictable nature of airline arrivals.

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After 45 minutes we’re near Balloch with Loch Lomond soon appearing between the trees on the offside. By 11:00 and for the next half an hour to Ardlui we enjoy unceasing spectacular views across the famous Loch as we take it carefully along the twisty and narrow A82 running alongside. Just after Ardlui our first two passengers leave us in Inverarnan.

By 11:45 we’re passing Crianlarich station with its famous refreshment room and with a journey time from Glasgow exactly comparable to how long ScotRail’s trains take to reach here.

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Our short leg stretching and toilet stop comes just up the road in Tyndrum where we arrive a couple of minutes early giving a nice 7 minute break for a short wander.

Immediately after we get going again at 10:58 we meet our first set of temporary traffic lights – these cause us a nine minute delay, which unsurprisingly we never fully recover from arriving into Fort William five minutes late. But not before we pass more scenic delights including the Tyndrum forests and for a while we pass alongside the West Highland line as it heads towards Bridge of Orchy.

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We pass at the end of Station Road and then let the railway leave us to deviate off towards Rannoch Moor and Corrour while we slowly climb the A82 towards Glencoe.

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Sadly low cloud and mist hid the best of Glencoe today but even so passing through this wonderful part of Scotland is quite breathtaking and there were many cameras up against the windows capturing the scene.

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Our first passenger since leaving Glasgow boarded at Glencoe Ski Centre travelling the 19 minute ride to Glencoe itself where we also said goodbye to our three German friends who I’m sure felt got their money’s worth from their £76.50 trip (including the ride back to Glasgow in the afternoon too).

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Fort William provides a welcome 45 minute break where we arrive at 13:20 with busy cafes in both the adjacent railway station and Morrisons but I’m back ready to board at 13:50 and our new driver has just opened the door for boarding. There’s a bit of a polite scrum at the bus stop between the fresh faced passengers and the old hands like me wanting to be reunited with the possessions we left on board to reserve our seats.

All gets sorted ready to depart at 14:00 although it’s 14:02 by the time we’re setting off with 28 on board.

The next stretch of route to Kyle of Lochalsh brings more wonderful scenery as we pass five lochs on the nearside (Lochy, Garry, Loyne, Cluanie and Alsh) as well as the forests and mountains along The Road To The Isles (aka A87).

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I reckon half the 28 on board from Fort William are my fellow travellers from Glasgow, and around half of those travelled on beyond Kyle of Lochalsh too with four alighting in Broadford, one in Sconsor and one in Sligachan; all on Skye. We picked up four in Kyle of Lochalsh and set down two and also set down five passengers in Dornie just before Kyle of Lochalsh.

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We ran about ten minutes behind schedule between Fort William and Kyle of Lochalsh which ate into our 23 minute break there but that still left enough time for a wander around to take in the splendid view of the Skye Bridge.

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I always enjoy the amazing scenery on Skye and the hours journey from Kyle to Portree never disappoints even on a low cloud day.

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As I mentioned above I decided to leave the journey at Portree when we arrived at 17:15 rather than continue to Uig as I would have needed to wait there for some time for a Stagecoach route 57C back to Portree and the fine rain drizzle and low mist wasn’t very enticing.

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I’ll be taking the first 915 tomorrow morning from Portree at 08:30 for the half hour ride to Uig to connect with the ferry over to North Uist and a day in the Outer Hebrides.

At Portree I noticed three fellow passengers had travelled, like me, all the 7 hours 15 minutes way from Glasgow and they also alighted. Three continued on to Uig but they’d boarded at Fort William (2) and Kyle of Lochalsh (1). Three new passengers boarded at Portree for that final leg to Uig.

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The Citylink 915 from Glasgow to Skye is a truly wonderful journey offering spectacular views all along the way. It’s well worth a ride.

Roger French

 

Ninety round Glasgow

Monday 2nd September 2019

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I’ve ridden round Birmingham (on both NatEx’s inner and outer circular bus routes); round Leicester with Centrebus; round Coventry before that city’s circular route (neatly numbered 360) got the chop so I thought it was time to take a ride on First Glasgow’s route 90, which almost completes an inner circuit of the city from Braehead Shopping Centre, west of the city centre close to the south bank of the Clyde round to Partick on the north side.

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Route 90 is not one of First Glasgow’s high profile city routes. Running only every half an hour it doesn’t warrant a bright splash of colour on a bespoke route livery; it qualifies only for a grey colour on First Glasgow’s useful colour coded network route map. Most vehicles used on the route today were Wright bodied Volvo single deckers, but I did spot a couple of double decks and one single deck with some vinyl remnants from the old Simplicity branding extolling frequencies of every ten minutes.

While route 90 might not be high frequency or high profile, as I found today, it’s certainly busy.

We left Braehead shopping centre quietly enough at 13:20 with just one passenger in addition to myself, but we soon picked up a handful more as we stopped by the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) – oddly not actually in the bus station itself – but alongside it.

It’s a bit of an endurance to ride the full 2 hour 16 minute journey, especially as we got significantly behind schedule; at one point being around half an hour late. Not particularly for any noticeable reason, just being busy. We finally arrived into Partick bus station, coincidentally with just one other passenger on board in addition to myself, at 16:04 instead of the scheduled arrival of 15:36.

In the meantime 145 passengers had got on at 44 bus stops, stopping at 20 more where passengers alighted. We carried one wheelchair and eight buggies, two at the same time as the wheelchair (one was folded).

Busiest bus stop was Forge shopping centre to the east of the city in Parkhead where 17 boarded while six adults and nine school children heading home got on at a stop in Springburn.

Aside from myself the longest journey undertaken by one passenger was from the QEUH to Celtic Park taking around 70 minutes. There was a lot of short journey lengths indicating the success of a circular route; our maximum load was 24 which was reached on three separate occasions with around 72 different passengers.

It’s an interesting way to observe the quite diverse nature of Glasgow’s inner suburbs and the people who live and work there. I don’t think at any point on the route we were more than 5 miles from the city centre – and that extreme was Braehead at the beginning – most of the route taken is only about 2-3 miles from the centre. . In addition to the QEUH we passed Glasgow Royal Infirmary, as well as Ibrox Park, Hamilton Park and Celtic Park. We passed through areas such as Govan where shopping streets are sadly dominated by shuttered up vacant shops and Hillhead with its well-to-do thriving cafe culture. We also passed a number of nice looking parks including the Botanic Gardens. We crossed the Clyde in the east as well as passing over and under a number of rail lines.

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It was a fascinating afternoon and I learned a lot about Glasgow I didn’t previously know, just from observing.

After a brief refreshment stop in Partick I caught one of First Glasgow’s flagship routes back to Braehead – the high profile route 77 running every 10 minutes from the city centre via Partick and the Clyde Tunnel, to QEUH, Baerhead and Glasgow Airport. It runs every 10 minutes as far as Braehead and half hourly beyond there to the Airport.

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Rather than 2 hours and 44 minutes, the 77 would get me back to Baerhead in just 18 minutes.

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Except I got off at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital to try the Stagecoach operated X19 Fastlink into the city centre via high profile bus lanes.

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IMG_9353.jpgThe branding is a bit lacklustre but there’s been serious investment in bus shelters and real time signs as well as the segregated bus lanes.

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It was an impressive fast ride even through the evening peak and brought an interesting afternoon to an end.

Roger French