LEJOG: As it happened

This is the story of how a journey on the Longest Day of the year from Lands End to John O’Groats by ground public transport (that’s bus and train) unfolded in real time.

The original plan, as described in Wednesday’s (19th June) blog was to complete the end-to-end journey in just under 24 hours.

Except, that plan was so last month. Literally.

This adventure has been a long time in the making and on the way down to Penzance last night I realised First Kernow’s updated timetable for route A1, introduced for the summer on 26th May, means the planned departure from Lands End at 1334 has been retimed to depart six minutes later at 1340 which, together with an added six minutes running time to allow for summer traffic delays, makes for an arrival into Penzance at 1445 instead of the original time of 1433.

This gives an almost impossible tight four minute connection between bus and train at Penzance with our GWR train leaving for Plymouth at 1449.

Team LEJOG had a bit of a conflab late into the night on the Sleeper from Paddington …. at least as far as passing Swindon around 0130 this morning …. and we decided to forget about achieving any sub 24 hour timings with inherent risks of a missed connection even before we’d left Cornwall and enjoy a more relaxed travel lifestyle by taking advantage of the now more frequent hourly summer A1 timetable (it was two-hourly) and start our adventure an hour earlier this morning on the 1240 from Lands End rather than the risky 1340, and be happy with a 24 hour 45 minute end-to-end journey time.

So here we are…….it’s now….

Thursday 20th June

0755 And all’s well.

GWR’s Night Riviera brought us to Penzance spot on time having left Paddington last night at 2345.

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IMG_1265.jpgIt’s a really lovely refurbished sleeper too. It may not have the en-suite options now offered by Caledonian Sleeper (together with their troublesome teething problems), but it’s still a very pleasant ambiance both in the berths and the lounge car.

IMG_1266.jpgI thought it a bit odd the window blind above the hidden sink had been replaced by a sticky cover over the window which I didn’t like to peel off so was unaware where we were on the journey especially in Cornwall in daylight but apparently its a temporary fix for a broken blind.

IMG_1271.jpgThe lounge car is very nice and I must say I prefer it to the new Caledonian Mark 5 lounge car. This one also has a mix of seating layouts ….

IMG_1273.jpgIMG_1269.jpg…. as well as impossible to sit on bar stools …

IMG_1268.jpgwhich apparently are perch places ‘to lean against’ rather than sit on – pleased that was clarified for me in time!

IMG_1274.jpgEnough chit chat about Sleeper trains, it’s now ‘Breakfast in Penzance’ with a few hours spare before beginning our travel adventure proper in Lands End at 1240.

It was lovely to meet up and have breakfast with Karen and Phil who are All The Stations supporters and are currently on holiday in Cornwall and kindly gave us a lift down to Lands End in their hire car.

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1240 Lands End

After the obligatory photographs to prove we are here ….

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IMG_E1328.jpg… it’s time to begin the adventure on our first bus the 1240 First Kernow A1 to Penzance. We left a couple of minutes late but no worries as our revised schedule gives us more time in Penzance.

IMG_1374.jpgIMG_1381.jpgAnd we also met the lovely Tony who coincidentally is also heading to John O’Groats raising money for Guide Dogs. He’s taking a route via London and the Caledonian ‘Highlander’ Sleeper to Inverness (as we’re catching that same train but from Crewe) and then he’s taking the (later) train to Thurso tomorrow morning rather than the Stagecoach X98 bus.

IMG_1380.jpgAll good so far as we enjoy the lovely Cornish countryside and the narrow roads (Porthcurno below!).

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1315

Word of advice for any LEJOGers … allow plenty of time for delays on the A1 bus route especially through Treen….

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1400 Penzance

We finally made it into Penzance fifteen minutes late at 1359 and 30 seconds due to all the traffic delays and as Tony with his guide dog Gaynor are booked on the 1400 to Paddington, our bus driver kindly stopped right by the entrance to the station and Geoff jumped off to sprint ahead to try and hold the train for a few seconds with Tony, Gaynor, Vicki and I rushing along behind…

IMG_1410.jpgThe train was just leaving ….

IMG_1411.jpgbut then came to a halt so we chased up the platform thinking the train manager in the rear cab had seen us ..

IMG_1414.jpg…. but to no avail, it was a brief emergency stop and the train headed out again leaving Tony behind.

IMG_1415.jpgLuckily he has now arranged a Plan B to catch the 1449 to Plymouth with us and then jump on the next train from there to Paddington arriving 2039 so he should just make it to Euston for the Highlander leaving at 2115 to Inverness.

We’ll see him again when we board that train ourselves in Crewe so for now we have a little time to relax……

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….before our smartened up Class 150 takes us via ‘all the stations’ to Plymouth leaving at 1449 as per our original plan.

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And Tony and the lovely Gaynor are with us…

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1725 Plymouth

First a big shout out to Dominic at the Rail Delivery Group. who is monitoring our progress on social media, and GWR who held Tony’s train to Paddington at 1657 as our stopping train from Penzance was running four minutes late and arrived tantalisingly close at 1655. Pleased to say Tony and Gaynor and all the other connecting passengers easily made it.

IMG_1429.jpgWe had a more sedate connection on to the 1725 Cross Country train to Leeds which we’re with as far as Tamworth at 2119.

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2135 Tamworth

A great on time journey with Cross Country to Tamworth where we’ve changed from the upper level to the lower level on to the West Coast Main Line.

Four kind hearted well wishers have met us with plentiful provisions, including Martin who’s driven up from south London – what a lovely surprise.

IMG_1437.jpgJust time for some selfies with Geoff and Vicki as our next Virgin Trains arrives to take us on to Crewe.

IMG_1441.jpg2220 Crewe

There’s something a little eerie about waiting on a deserted Crewe station from 2217 to 2350 with everything closed but as well as the Tamworth provisions we now have more food delivered by another well wisher, Serf, alerted by Sarah, who lives nearby to Crewe.

It’s amazing and heartening to see the widespread admiration for Geoff and Vicki’s fantastic work documenting their travels on YouTube from supporters literally all across the country.

IMG_1443.jpgI’m still not sure what the point of these info-screens are, but at least they brighten up the platform.

IMG_1445.jpgI pressed the green ‘i’ button but nothing happened.

At least we know the Caledonian Sleeper to take us overnight to Inverness is on its way and, importantly, on time.

2350 and here it arrives, all sixteen coaches….

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Friday 21st June 2019

0000 Good night

0412 Good morning as that reassuring clunk and jolt, when you’re asleep on the Caledonian ‘Highlander’ Sleeper, lets you know it’s train split time in Edinburgh. This time I resisted the temptation to look out through the window blind in my berth at the deserted platform, save for high-viz wearing railway staff working hard to separate the train into its three separate portions to head north, and just carried on drifting in sleep until ….

0420 I was conscious we’d left Edinburgh and were moving but now we’ve stopped and my mind woke up and also clicked into gear thinking – why have we stopped, we mustn’t be delayed into Inverness. Luckily the pause was only for a short while and the wonderful ‘Real Time Trains’ website is showing us as waiting at a red signal at Haynarket junction for about eight minutes just now and a consequential four minutes late running as we’re now back on the move again and thankfully with a predicted on time arrival into Inverness.

0440 Good night.

0540 Perth

One minute early arriving into Perth. All looking good.

0700 The Cairngorms

I know they’re now getting on a bit but I love these old style lounge cars and there’s no better way of seeing the beautiful scenery Scotland offers.

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IMG_1527.jpgMore importantly Tony and Gaynor are now awake and up …

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0814 Tomatin passing loop

We’ve made it to the passing loop at Tomatin on time and great to see the LNER Kings Cross bound train pass by just now also on time so now we have a clear track ahead into Inverness and are confident we’ll make our vital connection on to the X98 at 0850.

0840 Inverness

Our Sleeper is arriving into Inverness on time so it’s all good for the connection on to the Stagecoach X98 to Wick at 0850.

IMG_1530.jpgNot only that but a big surprise to be met off the train by Sir Peter Hendy, Chairman Network Rail (who was attending the AGM of the Friends of the Far North Line that morning) – thanks so much Peter for taking the trouble to meet us – even though we were dashing through for the bus it was a delight to stop and have a quick chat.

IMG_1375.jpgThen it was fond farewells to Tony and Gaynor and that dash to the X98 at the nearby bus station.

IMG_1532.jpgAnd another thanks – to Daniel and David, top bosses at Stagecoach North Scotland, for making sure our connection was made …

IMG_1541.jpg… and the right ticket was issued – a through ticket right to John O’Groats.

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So now it’s the penultimate leg to Wick.

1130 Berridale Braes on the A9

In good news the expected delay at the long term roadworks on the A9 at Berridale Braes didn’t materialise as we passed through just now…

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… catching a green phase not long after arriving …

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…. but in not so good news we’re almost 15 minutes behind schedule anyway making that 15 minute connection in Wick looking tight.

However we’ve just arrived at ….

1135 Dunbeath

Where there’s a driver changeover and a little bit of stand time ….

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….and its now 1140 and we’re off again now only ten minutes down so looking good again.

1220 Wick

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Yes! We’ve arrived in Wick on time after all the delays on route and so now it’s on to the final leg – the 1235 route 177 to John O’Groats – it’s a Friday only school kids special – apparently a 66 seater with 64 kids on the ‘manifest’ so we’re banking on some kids not turning up today as there’s three of us and another passenger waiting!

1240 The Last Leg

In Wick our 177 has arrived with plenty of room and we’re off on the final leg to John O’Groats with the stop watch showing 23 hours and 57 minutes.IMG_6843.jpgIMG_1634.jpg

And there’s plenty of room on board too.

Nearly there!

1313

Tantalising close.

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But we’re doing a figure of eight type route to drop the school kids off!

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1325

John O’Groats

Made it.

24 hours 41 minutes 41 seconds

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IMG_E1721.jpgIt’s been an epic journey and in such great company. Huge thanks to Vicki and Geoff for joining me…

… and so pleased they managed to get both hats bringing an 874 mile journey to a celebratory end.

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Having done the usual touristy stuff we’re now heading down to Thurso in a taxi to meet up with Tony and Gaynor and make sure they get safely on the route 80 bus up to John O’Groats for the end of their journey.

Here they are arriving at Thurso station….

IMG_1682.jpg …..and catching the 80 on their final journey leg to John O’Groats.

IMG_1684.jpg1630 Thurso

A welcome bite to eat has gone down well and we’re taking the late afternoon train from Thurso back to Inverness which brings this story to an end.

Thanks for reading.

Roger French

LEJOG: The plan

Wednesday 19th June 2019

IMG_7207.jpgTo celebrate a year of blogging and the upcoming Longest Day of the year I’m heading down to Cornwall on GWR’s Night Riviera sleeper train tonight to begin an epic 24-hour Lands End to John O’Groats trip by bus and train beginning tomorrow, Thursday, afternoon.

Scotland - June 2014 079.jpgOn most weekdays, this famous journey can be accomplished in exactly 24 hours using ground based public transport; leaving Lands End at 13:34 on a First Kernow bus on route A1 and arriving John O’Groats excactly twenty-four hours later, coincidentally also at 13:34 on the Stagecoach route 77 arrival from Wick.

Over that twenty-four hours the journey involves taking the A1 bus to Penzance then a GWR train to Plymouth followed by a Cross Country train to Tamworth, a Virgin Train to Crewe and then the Caledonian Sleeper overnight to Inverness from where the Stagecoach X98 bus takes you to Wick to connect with that bus on route 77 to John O’Groats.

The timings are tight in places and it will be touch and go whether everything works out as planned along the way; but there’s no Plan B.

IMG_7210.jpgThe A1 arrives Penzance at 14:33 giving a fairly comfotable 16 minute connection to the GWR train leaving at 14:49. This arrives Plymouth at 16:51 and the Cross Country departure is at 17:25 through to Tamworth arriving there at 21:18. Another comfortable 17 minute connection there on to the Virgin train at 21:35 and into Crewe at 22:17 for the Caledonian Sleeper at 23:50.

The crunch connection comes in Inverness with the Sleeper due to arrive at 08:39 on Friday morning while the Stagecoach X98 is scheduled to leave the nearby bus station for Wick at 08:50 allowing just 11 minutes. Fingers will be kept firmly crossed that this connection works, as a late arrival by the Sleeper will scuppour the schedule completely.

On arrival into Wick on the X98 at 12:20, the 77 which normally leaves at 1305 doesn’t run on a Friday schoolday at that time, as schools in the Highlands finish at lunch time on Fridays. so instead there’s a 177 schooldays only journey from Wick Community Campus at 12:35 which will arrive John O’Groats at 13:25 shaving nine minutes off the 24 hour timing making for a LEJOG attempt at 23 hours and 51 minutes.

DSCF8142.jpgExcept another crunch point will come on that X98 journey as there are currently frustrating delays on the route at the infamous scenic Barriedale Braes coastal hairpin bends with road re-aligning works in full swing. Here’s hoping there’ll be no more than a fifteen minute hold up on the three hour thirty minute journey from Inverness and that vital connection to the 177 isn’t missed.

There is an official Guinness World Record held for this journey. Roy Bromet made it in 24 hours and 4 minutes in June 2016, so although this adventure is just for fun, it’ll be interesting to see if thirteen minutes can be shaved off this timing and a new record of 23 hours and 51 minutes achieved.

First Kernow, GWR, Cross Country, Virgin Trains, Caledonian Sleeper, Stagecoach North Scotland – is down to you!

I’ll be posting a live updated blog during the journey and for those who subscribe by email, you’re welcome to check out progress along the way by visiting either this blog’s home page or Twitter. A full blog will be posted out to subsribers at the end of the journey.

And it’s not just me; the lovely All The Stations couple Geoff and Vicki are coming along too, which must be a good omen for success. A brilliant Longest Day lies ahead.

Roger French

 

Rural pilots take off in Kent

Tuesday 18th June 2019

Kent County Council’s ‘Rural Transport Initiative’ using ‘Taxi Buses’ has begun so I thought I’d take a look to see how it’s going.

It’s early days but there are already signs of interest building in the rural communities now enjoying public transport either for the first time or after quite a gap since bus routes last ran. And it’s not surprising passengers are happy as the new timetables see journeys running every weekday with more journeys than ran before.

Kent County Council have committed £0.5 million funding for five pilot schemes spread across the county with each trial running for twelve months. Schemes in Maidstone and West Malling have yet to start but the first three in Sevenoaks, Sandwich and Tenterden are now up and running.

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IMG_0799.jpgFirst to launch was the Sevenoaks Taxi Bus at the beginning of the month. Now in its third week this really is a taxi-sized ‘Taxi Bus’ using an eight seater private hire licensed vehicle operated by Maidstone based Express Cars.

The service links West Kingsdown and the isolated East Hill Residential Park with Sevenoaks. East Hill was previously served by the Wednesday-only one-return journey-a-week route 405 operated by Go-Coach Hire. I blogged about that route just before it was withdrawn back on 3rd April. After a two month gap with no service to Sevenoaks at all, East Hill residents can’t believe their luck they now have three return journeys a day, five days a week.

Even better, residents in the tiny hamlets of Stansted and Fairseat (beyond West Kingsdown off the A20/M20 north of Wrotham) have a ‘bus’ service for the first time – probably ever – as this new route continues beyond West Kingsdown down the A20 to serve these micro-communities.

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Kent County Council have astutely specified the off-peak only timetable to slot between a peak commitment to transport children with special needs to school meaning a big chunk of the vehicle and driver costs are already funded. Passenger revenue on the three return journeys between 09:30 and 14:45 merely needs to cover the marginal costs of the extra mileage and any other off-peak ad-hoc private hire work the vehicle has now foregone.

That’s just as well as there’s a bit of a problem with this service being limited to just those eight seats – six of which are in the rear (three facing each other) and two alongside the driver with the middle seats distinctly ‘cosy’ and with tight leg room in the front.

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IMG_0775.jpgWednesday, being ‘market day’ in Sevenoaks and the traditional day for the erstwhile route 405, is already proving crunch day as more than half a dozen regulars from East Hill could often be found on the 405 whereas now, it’s pot luck whether  they’ll get on as no pre-booking is allowed. I hear passengers have already been turned away on Wednesday last week.

Obviously the hope is passengers will spread themselves out across the journey options during the week, but old habits die hard and it’s not easy to second guess who might travel when. It also takes no account of new passengers being generated by the more frequent service.

IMG_0797.jpgIndeed, when I travelled yesterday a resident in Fairseat came out to meet us when we arrived and chatted to Jay, our driver, about using the new service and when she said she might try it on Wednesday he explained it would be a busy day but at least she’d be getting on at the terminus so would be alright (heading towards Sevenoaks, at least).

IMG_0796.jpgThere’s one great thing about this new service and that is regular driver Jay. He’s an absolute gem; totally customer centric and firmly committed to making this pilot a success. He’s had bus driving experience with Arriva and Nu-Venture as well as running his own taxi and is absolutely ideal for this new role.

Jay’s already suggested a very sensible change to the timetable (which is being implemented once the registration notice period has elapsed) as it’s proven to be far too optimistic with running times ostensibly compiled assuming no passengers boarding and no allowance for meeting traffic on what must be the narrowest roads any registered bus travels along in the Country.

IMG_E1250.jpgAside from one passenger making a journey from the big Sainsbury’s on the outskirts of Sevenoaks back to East Hill (who’d come out on the first journey to shop there for some cigarettes while Jay continued on with three other passengers to the bus station) no-one joined us on the 10:15 from Sevenoaks to Fairseat or the journey back again at 11:00 yesterday morning, yet we only just kept to time.

As Jay pointed out, once Express Cars ‘O’ licence application for the service becomes effective, he needs the 45 minute break when he gets back to Sevenoaks after the second journey in from Fairseat for drivers’ hours requirements so an adjustment to the timetable is urgently needed. Jay’s sensible plan is to route the 10:15 Sevenoaks to Fairseat journey direct along the A25 and A227/A20 (ie effectively dead running) as well as the 13:15 journey back from Fairseat as these journeys serve no real function as the purpose of the route is to provide a shopping facility in Sevenoaks – on those journeys you’ve only enough time to nip into a shop for a packet of fags (as we saw) rather than a linger around the shops.

The slackened timetable will not only ensure Jay has a proper break but give the much needed time for passengers, mainly elderly, to board and alight as accessibility is not particularly brilliant in the eight-seater not least because of the manually operated door. There is a facility for a wheelchair to be accommodated but it would be a right old faff to accommodate it and mean even less seats available. Ideally, once the O licence comes through a proper sized minibus (12-16 seats) with low floor access and remotely operated door is required for a route like this except the roads really are very narrow.

IMG_0795.jpgAnd I do mean narrow.

IMG_0800.jpgVery narrow.

IMG_0803.jpgIt was always a breath-holding moment when the old 405 went out to East Hill and West Kingsdown but at least it was just one return journey a week, now it’s three return journeys, five days a week (until Jay’s change takes two of those single journeys away) and as you can see we met a few cars along the way.

I was pleased to see timetable leaflets for the new service available in Go-Coach Hire’s travel office in Sevenoaks bus station and a new timetable was posted at the bus stop at East Hill (along with the Thursday only 422 to Gravesend) …..

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…. although the 405 still appears on the flag!

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Good luck to Jay in making this pilot work; if anyone can, he can.

 

IMG_0901.jpgKent’s second ‘Taxi Bus’ began operating on Monday of last week over in the eastern side of the county based on Sandwich. This ‘Taxi Bus’ is more bus than taxi using an Optare Solo sixteen seater operated by Britannia Coaches who run an extensive fleet of luxury coaches and minibuses/coaches based in Dover and the eastern side of Kent.

IMG_0877.jpgThis pilot is a route of two halves to the villages of Staple and Northbourne/Mongeham either side of Sandwich. A real Sandwich sandwich. Like Sevenoaks, the timetable looks tight with perpetual motion from the moment it kicks off at 09:30 until it finishes for the day after four round trips at 15:30. A spare minute is allowed each time the bus passes Sandwich’s impressive Guildhall but eight minutes in a six hour operating day is cutting it tight.

IMG_E1252.jpgAt least passenger access is much better on the Solo than a taxi, and on my journey out to Staple at 13:40 we took four passengers home including one with a four-wheeler walking aid. I was impressed to see Britannia drivers turned out very smart in their uniform and I noted a shift changeover when I boarded at 13:40.

IMG_0842.jpgAfter dropping the four ladies off in Staple and we turned round to head back we picked up another passenger who took us as far as the edge of Ash where she got off to catch the Stagecoach route 43 from there to Canterbury – just what the team at Kent County Council had in mind for this kind of service. The only trouble is there’d be no connection for her return journey; still, it’s a start.

IMG_0908.jpgBack in Sandwich for the next trip at 14:21 down to Northbourne and Mongeham we picked up a couple taking a ride around the complete circuit like myself just out of curiosity, but no other passengers.

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IMG_0808.jpgMongeham is almost part of Deal, the bus pretty much touches the outskirts of that town to turn round where it meets the Stagecoach routes 80/81 which connect Dover and Sandwich (and on to Canterbury). I understand Northbourne lost its regular bus a couple of years ago, so there’s been much cheering and flag waving to see the Sandwich TaxiBus bring public transport back.

IMG_0918.jpgThere are Stagecoach branded bus stops along the route as well as in Staple as a school bus operates through all these villages, but not much good for off-peak shopping trips, so the new service is naturally being warmly welcomed.

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On to the third pilot over in Tenterden.

IMG_1021.jpgThe Tenterden Hopper, as it’s called, began this week so my visit earlier today was only on its second day. I made reference to these four new routes in my blog about the demise of bus routes 293 and 294 last week, so it was interesting to try them out now they’re operational. Although no ticket machines have been set up yet on this route, so I benefited from introductory free rides!

IMG_1022.jpgWhereas the Sevenoaks trial comprises a taxi running under a Private Hire licence and the Sandwich scheme is a minibus under a full O Licence held by a substantial coach company, the Tenterden initiative involves a charity running a minibus under a Section 22 Community Bus Permit arrangement. The Tenterden Social Hub (previously known as the Tenterden & District Day Centre) runs a fleet of small minibuses to bring its clients to the club building in the centre of Tenterden, and the Tenterden Hopper is a new string to their bow.

The 16 seat minibus with a rear tail lift for wheelchairs used on the four new rural routes open to the public has been bought especially and unlike in Sevenoaks is not used on peak workings before and after.

IMG_0980.jpgTwo of the four routes, lettered B and C, are based on the former routes 293 and 294, albeit the former no longer serves Wittersham as this is served by the regular Stagecoach 312 bus route. Route A to Shirkoak and the Rare Breeds Centre (both near Woodchurch to the north east of Tenterden) and Route D to Benenden and Iden Green (to the south west of Tenterden) are new innovations.

IMG_E1251One return journey operates on each of the four routes in turn (A to D) providing around two and a half to three hours in Tenterden for shopping before the return trip. Whereas the 293 and 294 only ran on Mondays and Fridays new routes A, B, C and D run all five days, Mondays to Fridays.

IMG_1020.jpgI had a ride on both the new routes A and D and unsurprisingly for day 2 was the only passenger. It was good to meet up with Owen from the Tenterden Social Hub who was route learning the drivers and taking a keen interest in how the new service he now has responsibility for was settling in.

I have my doubts about both these new routes making an impact. On Route A, the Rare Breeds Centre looked a fascinating place to visit if you’re on a school trip but I can’t see the departure at 09:30 from Tenterden (arriving at the Centre at 10:00) with a return at 13:15 appealing to many families who need to make their way into Tenterden for 09:30.

IMG_1249.jpgThe other objective, Shirkoak Park is another mobile home residential park just north of Woodchurch and although the minibus travels a couple of hundred yards up the drive from the main road to better serve it, back on the main Bethersden Road is Stagecoach’s route 2A which operates around 9 to 10 times a day (approximately every two hours) between Ashford and Tenterden. The original plan was for the minibus to encircle the Park but Owen was concerned the road was too narrow and found a sensible turning point not far up the entrance road.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 19.36.53.pngInterestingly Owen also explained this morning’s first run picked up around ten passengers from there who had all been waiting for the 2A! They obviously went back on the 2A (at 12:25) as we carried no-one on our 13:00 journey.

IMG_1029.jpgI couldn’t see any justification for running route A bearing in mind, aside from the Rare Breed Centre, it’s all served by route 2A.

The same was true for route D too. I travelled on the first journey from Tenterden at 11:45. The route operates via the (private) Benenden Hospital at ‘East End’ which sounds as though it might be a good trip generator but the hospital has a long standing arrangement of running a bookable shuttle connection from both Headcorn and Ashford stations. The route then continues via the narrowest of Kent lanes (including a 6 foot 6 inches width restriction) to Benenden itself where there are other bus connections to Tenterden including Hams Travel route 297 which operates seven journeys a day.

IMG_1169.jpgRoute D then continues the short distance to turn at the hamlet of Iden Green but this has a number of established once/twice a week routes to Maidstone (route 24 on Tuesdays), Tunbridge Wells (route 255 on Wednesdays and Fridays), Tenterden and Rye (route 293 on Thursdays) and Tenterden (route 299 on Fridays). I doubt adding a shopping trip every day of the week to Tenterden is going to make any impact among the 380 people who live in Iden Green (photographed below).

IMG_1117.jpgDuring our trip Owen made the pertinent observation the route via that narrow road (which to me smacks of someone designing the route with a map in an office) could be amended by using a slightly different route (continuing via Goddards Green Road and New Pond Road – see map below) which we tried on the way back and was indeed much more suitable, albeit it would miss out part of Benenden but as mentioned above thus is well served by route 297. I really don’t understand the reason for route D.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 19.16.04.pngMy suggestion would be to abandon the A and D and link routes B and C to run a cross Tenterden route from Rolvenden Layne to Appledore running three or even four journeys a day rather like in Sandwich, giving passengers more options for either a shorter or longer stay in Tenterden. It might also enable an earlier finish for the bus than the current 16:00 so it could be utilised on some other work for the day centre at the Hub and be more cost effective.

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As I highlighted in my previous blog, Kent County Council explain that ENCTS passes are valid for travel but donations of £1 are welcomed “to help with the financial sustainability of the pilots”. Otherwise there’s a single fare of £2 adult (£1 child) in Tenterden and £3 (adult) with a £5 return in Sevenoaks and Sandwich.

It’s been interesting to see these three different models (Taxi; O licence minibus; Community Minibus) in action and credit to Kent County Council for trying something positive to support rural transport. I look forward to trying out the Maidstone and West Malling pilots when they get going next month.

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Roger French

293 and 294 bow out in Kent

Tuesday 11th June 2019

Yesterday was the final time routes 293 and 294 connected various Kent villages with Tenterden. The routes’ withdrawal are a consequence of Kent County Council’s slimmed down funding cut to uncommercial bus services following its ‘Big Conversation’ consultation about rural transport last year.

I’d been alerted to the withdrawals on social media and checked operator Hams Travel’s website to get clear confirmation the routes would be withdrawn from this coming weekend with new arrangements commencing 17th June.

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Checking the Hams Travel website further showed a comprehensive listing of timetables for various routes they provide on behalf of Kent County Council in the Tunbridge Wells, Hawkhust and Tenterden areas, including route 293.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 22.34.46.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-09 at 22.34.58.pngIt was six years since I’d last taken a ride on the Thursday route 293 from Tunbridge Wells to Rye. Back in 2013 it was operated by a company called New Enterprise which was owned by Arriva; and indeed used Arriva liveried buses.

Romney Marsh - August 2013 007.jpgIn view of its imminent withdrawal I decided to take another ride and made the journey back from Rye to Tunbridge Wells on Thursday last week to see how many people were travelling. Rye’s always busy on a Thursday because it’s the town’s traditional market day. The old Maidstone & District depot in Station Approach has long gone but the market continues as its always done on land opposite and in front of the rail tracks.

IMG_0039.jpgI’m not sure why the market attracts so many people, and an amazing number of visiting coaches but I guess most are exploring the town itself with its rich history and lovely narrow streets full of interest.

IMG_0037.jpgThe Hams Travel 293 sets off on its return journey to Tunbridge Wells at 1345 and the driver pulled up at the bus stop in good time to load all twenty of us, including many shopping trolleys and a wheelchair.

IMG_0045 (1).jpgAs I stepped on the bus after everyone else had boarded, the driver was quite taken aback to have a cash paying passenger on board and had to get back into his cab, from helping everyone on the bus, to issue me with a ticket. Concessionary passes rule here.

IMG_0047.jpgIt’s a two hour six minute run back to Tunbridge Wells across delightful scenic Kent countryside.IMG_0049.jpgIt was obvious from the start that everyone on the bus knew everyone and a right old social club atmosphere was evident, indeed far noisier than I’ve known many school buses. Sweets were passed round; comments made about fellow passengers but only after they’d got off (“I’m sure they cut each other’s hair – with pudding bowls – they look identical”; “it’s such a shame, she looks worse than last week”) making me pleased to be going all the way to Tunbridge Wells and be the last one to get off minus comments.

I was very surprised just how far everyone travelled on the 293 to Rye. We first headed north towards Appledore and dropped our first passenger in the tiny hamlet of Stone-in-Oxney (twenty minutes after leaving Rye) on the border of Romney Marsh. No-one got off in Tenterden, unsurprising as Stagecoach run a more regular route 312 between there and Rye via a quicker route, but three alighted in Rolvenden (fifty minutes from Rye) and another in the nearby Rolvenden Layne which necessitated a dog leg off our route to serve this isolated community. Five alighted in Hawkhurst (75 minutes from Rye); two in Kilndown (93 minutes); two in Pembury (almost two hours from Rye) and five at various stops as we entered Tunbridge Wells.

IMG_0044.jpgOddly amongst all the banter on board there was no talk about this being the penultimate time the bus would run down to Rye; and I was intrigued to overhear titbits of conversation that there was another route 293 being withdrawn rather than this one. I asked the driver when getting off, but he wasn’t entirely sure but thought there was another journey on a Monday that was facing the chop and this one is indeed continuing.

I was intrigued this wasn’t clarified on Hams Travel’s website which made no reference to another journey on the 293 or indeed the 294, so on my way home I called Hams Travel to find out more. I was told by the person answering they had no knowledge of bus routes and I needed to speak to Nick at the other garage in Flimwell but he’d be out on a school journey so it would be best to ring back the next day.

I tried Nick again last Friday but he was out again, so left my number to call me back. In the meantime having found no reference to the demise of routes 293 and 294 on Kent County Council’s website I called the advertised contact number for their Highways and Transport Department. I reckon I must have been the first person to call Kent H&T about buses as the person answering was completely thrown by my request to be put through to the person who oversees tendered bus routes. She insisted I needed to speak to the bus company; but I insisted they were unable to help and there must be someone there who contracts bus companies to run buses and who could help me. She asked me to hold on.

Having consulted with her manager she advised me firmly but completely incorrectly I “needed to speak to the Borough Council”. I decided to use the nuclear option of searching the online database of Notices and Proceedings for the London and South East of England Traffic Area around about early April to check out whether Hams Travel had deregistered with the Traffic Commissioners the withdrawal of the 293 and 294 – I opened up each of the fortnightly publications from late March to mid April and checked section 3.5 for ‘Cancellations of Existing Services” – as any passenger would know to do of course!

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And there it was, and indeed referring to the 293/294 running circular routes from Tenterden and a further search in the Traveline database finally gave me two return journeys which were being withdrawn (although you’d never know they only operate on a Monday and Friday …. unless you changed the specified date in the drop down box and realise those are the only two days the details appear)…..

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It turns out there’s a “short 293” which takes a forty-five minute circular route from Tenterden via the Stagecoach 312 to Wittersham and then almost parallels a section of the Thursday route from Rye to Tunbridge Wells (hence using the same route number) via Stone-in-Oxney and Appledore and back again to Tenterden, while the 294 is a Monday only short trip from Tenterden to the isolated hamlet of Rolvenden Layne and back.

I decided to head back to Tenterden in the pouring rain yesterday morning to check out these two bus routes on their final Monday.

IMG_0149.jpgI caught the first of the two circular “short 293” journeys at 1031 from Tenterden. Sadly a lose wire had shorted out the destination blind, but I realised it must be the 293 by stepping on to an empty bus. The driver managed to overcome his surprise at a passenger without a concessionary pass and work out what I needed to pay for a circular round trip without a terminus at the other end – I could have got a return ticket, but that would have included another trip on the second circular journey which I didn’t need, so we settled on a single back to Tenterden!

IMG_0158.jpgIt was a lonely run with just me and the driver until we got to Stone-in-Oxney and the same high-viz wearing passenger who got off the bus there on Thursday from Rye to Tunbridge Wells with his shopping trolley was back out again for more yesterday – good to see he was making full use of the very limited journeys a week open to him from that hamlet.

IMG_0159.jpgAs we deviated via some narrow residential roads arriving back in Tenterden we picked up three more passengers for their short ride to the shops and there was much talk about the bus being withdrawn, except that the friendly and knowledgeable driver said it was being replaced from next Monday by a new service run by something called the Tenterden Social Hub using a minibus. Not only that, it would be running every day, Monday to Friday, as will the 294. Our driver was mystified how Kent County Council could be saving money by replacing a twice a week service carrying four passengers with a daily service, as was I.

IMG_0150.jpgSo I wandered off to seek out Tenterden Social Hub based in Church Road and find out more. It was fairly easy to find their offices where they had a printed timetable leaflet available giving full details of the new arrangements from next week. It’s all part of Kent County Council’s Rural Transport Initiative – and I’ve now been able to find the relevant webpage (you won’t find it under ‘Bus Travel’ on the ‘Travelling around Kent’ page – that would be too obvious). A new link has been added at the bottom of that page taking you to ‘Rural transport initiatives’ which gives full details, not only of the Monday to Friday new timetables to the hamlets around Tenterden but also taxibus schemes in Sevenoaks (which began last week) and Sandwich (which began yesterday).

IMG_E0255.jpgInterestingly Kent County Council explain fares are £2 per journey but “we encourage ENCTS passholders to pay a voluntary contribution of £1 per journey to help with the sustainability of the 12 month pilot, however, ENCTS passes will be accepted in the usual way”. It’s the first time I’ve seen a County Council promoting voluntary donations for bus fares. I seem to recall Peter Shipp’s EYMS got a strong telling off from the DfT by doing something similar in East Yorkshire a few years ago.

It’s going to be an interesting twelve month pilot; I’m not a great fan of taxibuses (not easy to get on and off and not enough room for shopping etc) but at least Kent County Council is trying something different in place of a traditional twice-a-week under-used rural bus. I have my doubts running five days a week will generate more passengers though. It might also be worth briefing the staff who answer the phone in the relevant department about it too, as it’s no good saying “ring the bus company” if you don’t lnow who the bus company is. The leaflet needs wide distribution in each area being served too rather than just available in a back street office.

Before leaving Tenterden I popped back to wave off second and last 294 journey of the day and was pleased to see Hams Travel’s resourceful driver had managed to sort out the lose wire and got the destination screen almost working again. He left with the three passengers he’d brought in on the earlier incoming journey from Rolvenden Layne.

IMG_0226.jpgAnd to finish the story off, I was pleased to finally receive a call back from Nick yesterday afternoon who confirmed the “long 293” (Tunbridge Wells to Rye on Thursdays) was continuing as normal and when I explained it had been a bit confusing to see a notice online and in the bus that the “293” was being withdrawn he acknowledged the point saying the wording had subsequently been clarified “on social media” about which 293 journey was being withdrawn (although I doubt that reached the target market). The reason there was no reference to the “short 293” and 294 on their website was he’d put the new timetable up online a while ago as it needed reprinting and left out the 293 and 294 as they were under notice.

Stranraer update

Before ending this post, a small update from Stagecoach West Scotland who replied today to my email complaint about the 408 not operating from Stranraer to Kirkcolm last Monday afternoon, when I gave up after waiting ten minutes. Melissa explained the journey did run, although she didn’t say when. Apparently it was delayed “due to an operational issue”. Turns out I needed a mobile phone signal and checked the App.

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 17.30.12.pngNo mention of my request for a part refund of the day ticket I purchased and couldn’t fully use!

Roger French

All steamed up in Ongar

Sunday 9th June 2019

IMG_0065.jpgThe Epping Ongar Railway is having one of its popular steam weekends this weekend and I took a ride to the end of the Central Line to have a look.

IMG_E0098.jpgThanks to Roger Wright’s ownership interests, you can always count on decent bus connections from right outside Epping Station to North Weald using Roger’s extensive London Bus Company fleet of heritage London buses.

IMG_0096.jpgRTs and an RMA were among the vehicles out today providing a half hourly service between Epping and North Weald with some journeys continuing to Ongar and even Shenfield and they were all as busy as usual.

IMG_0056.jpgOn the railway EOR had three steam engines providing an hourly service from North Weald east to Ongar as well as west to Coopersale where the line currently terminates in the middle of a forest but with no alighting or boarding facilities. It takes fifteen minutes to travel from North Weald to Ongar and around half that time to Coopersale along the single track line.

IMG_0066.jpgThe three steam engines on parade yesterday included Met 1 (photographed above) famous for the honour of working the last steam-hauled London Transport passenger train in 1961 and now a regular attender at steam events in the London area from its base at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre ; 4270 (photographed below) a GWR 2-8-OT which spent its entire career hauling heavy coal trains in South Wales and now resides at the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway; and 5197 (phoptographed further down the page) USA S160 a 2-8-0 locomotive designed for heavy freight work across Europe but spent much of its career in China before a life of preservation normally based on the Churnet Valley Railway.

IMG_0060.jpgOngar is the original ‘start-of-the-line’ of the Central Line; the shuttle ‘Tube’ service between Epping and Ongar closed twenty-five years ago in 1994. It’s a nice Underground quirk that despite this all distances on the system are still measured from the zero mileage post situated literally at the end of the line at Ongar station.

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IMG_0080.jpgBlake Hall station (between North Weald and Ongar), renowned for only having six passengers a day, closed back in 1981 when it was converted into a private residence and very nice it looks too as you steam by on the train.

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IMG_0067.jpgThere’s a great surprise inside the station building at Ongar this weekend as the brilliant railway painter Malcolm Root has a small exhibition displaying some of his original paintings in the ‘Penny Salon’, and how lovely it was to meet Malcolm there too.

IMG_0077.jpgHis paintings are renowned for capturing an amazing level of detail not only of the locomotive and train itself but the whole atmosphere of the wider setting including people and other vehicles all in the period style.

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IMG_0075.jpgThe whole atmosphere on the Epping Ongar Railway yesterday was also brilliant helped by the dedicated staff and volunteers who take their roles impressively seriously as well as a great mixture of fine engines and old carriages reminding of a time when seats really felt grand to sit in and always lined up with windows.

IMG_0069.jpgThere are aspirations to extend the EOR beyond Coopersale to terminate just before the current Epping Underground station at a new platform and station called Epping Glade. This would be a great addition and be a tremendous boost for the railway but it will be sad to see route 339 lose its raisin d’être.

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Well done to Roger Wright and everyone involved at Epping Ongar Railway and London Bus Company for putting on a great event once again.

The three day steam weekend continues today, so depending on when you read this and where you live, why not pop along, or make a note of the next ‘1940s Steam Weekend’ on 22/23 June.

Roger French

Elevated views on the 500

Friday 7th June 2019IMG_9924.jpgIt’s been a long time waiting but finally First Bus have allocated much needed double deck buses on their high profile Glasgow Airport Express route 500.

Ten smart new buses began operating the 24/7 shuttle link between the airport and city centre from the middle of April so I was pleased to take a return journey on my visit to Glasgow earlier this week and give the improved service a try out.IMG_9929.jpgIn the world of extreme news release adjectives, First Bus was clearly beyond excited back in April as they launched the new buses. They’re “ultra-low” emission (Alexander Dennis E400 city with Euro VI diesel engines) and have “luxury padded seating” (the seats certainly look bright and were comfy) as well as “new state-of-the-art” wireless charging facilities on both tables and seatbacks (sadly my phone is bog standard wired charged only) and they’re on the “premium” Glasgow Airport Express (it’s certainly not cheap) and will double the capacity on these “popular” services (now that is true, I’ve always found the buses busy, even with standing passengers on the erstwhile single decks on previous journeys).

Mark Johnston, Glasgow Airport’s Managing Director showed he was also on message with more superlatives including raving about the double deckers: “I’m sure our passengers who choose to sit in the upper deck level will also appreciate the elevated views these new models bring”.

IMG_9942.jpgHe’s right, of course, you do get wonderfully elevated views, and why I’m a great advocate of double decks; mind you, it might have been better not to have plastered the graphics over the glass to annoyingly interfere with those elevated views from certain seats.IMG_9938.jpgThere was a time when First Bus and Arriva (when they still ran in Scotland) competed on the Airport run to the city centre, but for some years now it’s just First Bus which greets you with its tented covered bus stand right outside the exit of the main terminal building. One of the most convenient bus boarding points I’ve ever found at a British airport.IMG_9473.jpgA day return ticket on the Airport Express isn’t cheap at £12 (that’s on the First Bus App; it’s £13 from the driver with singles at £8 App and £8.50 driver) but I suspect Glasgow Airport takes a fair cut of that in departure charges.

IMG_9928.jpgThis time I began my return journey at the city centre end of the route so coming out of Central Station I went in search of a bus stop. It didn’t take long to find one in nearby St Vincent Street (I already knew the answer), but I reckon some prominent signs at the station exit might be helpful for transiting passengers unaware of where to catch the airport bus.

An Airport Express 500 was due at 17:50 and I got to the bus stop a few minutes before. The service is advertised as running “from every 10 minutes” and with a journey time of fifteen minutes. 17:50 from a busy Glasgow city centre is probably not the best time to try out the timekeeping promise of a service and indeed no bus arrived until just after 18:05.

IMG_9909.jpgAt the next stop another bus passed us meaning peak hour bunching; once we hit the motorway a stretch of slow moving traffic meant the journey time was inevitable extended to nearer twenty-five minutes.

IMG_9919.jpgPerhaps a more realistic journey time for peak journeys needs advertising for the reassurance of flying passengers who cut things fine, although the small print in the leaflet does explain “Airport – city in just 15 mins*” is “*To Bothwell Street (off peak)”.

IMG_9922.jpgThe leaflet also explains “Service 500 features luxury seating, tables with wireless charging, luggage storage, USB charging at every seat and free 4G WiFi”. The buses live up to that promise and are a great improvement on the single decks.

IMG_9931.jpgMy journey was impressively busy perhaps reflecting the headway gap and it was noticeable the bus that passed us was pretty much empty but helped out at the next stop allowing us to pass without stopping and head off to the motorway and airport.

IMG_9915.jpgMy only disappointment was the “state of the art contactless enabled” ticket machine didn’t like reading my day return ticket QR code from the App on my smartphone; making an off putting beep and red light, but the driver reassured me it was a software issue preventing the machines reading day tickets.

IMG_9932.jpgThere’s an extensive luggage rack on the lower deck and a monitor on the upper deck which on one journey simply played out a graphic of the Airport Express logo, but on my second journey also included some promotional messages which I couldnt make out from a distance. I really don’t know why bus companies bother with these things.

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As I got off at the airport I noticed some “slightly revised” timings had been introduced three weeks ago which no doubt regular passengers were pleased to be advised about but probably went over the heads of the majority of occasional passengers for a “buses from every 10 minutes” service.

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As well as five tables on the upper deck there are three single seats opposite the stairs to make extra gangway room for passengers still with their luggage …

IMG_9933.jpg….and the centre protrusion on the back seat of these buses (an odd Alexander Dennis characteristic) has also been usefully labelled as a handy place for carry-on baggage rather than being mistaken for an uncomfortable child seat!

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After a wait at Glasgow Airport I caught a bus back at 1855 and with a clear run this really did take just 15 minutes to Bothwell Street close by Glasgow Central Station. That was impressive. There are aspirations for a fancy rail based link to the Airport in some quarters; with a high frequency bus route taking just 15 minutes this would be a complete waste of money.

With these new excellent buses from First Bus, a nice bus lane on the M8 into and out of the city centre is all that’s needed now. Job done.

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Roger French

 

 

 

A day in Stranraer and The Rhins

Thursday 6th June 2019

IMG_9889.jpgIt may not rank as high as the West Highland Line, the Kyle of Lochalsh Line or the Far North Line in the great Scottish Scenic Rail Lines stakes but ScotRail have rightly designated the line down to Stranraer as a Scenic Rail Journey and very justifiably so too.

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 09.51.10.pngWhile I was in Glasgow on Monday in between consecutive night sleeper train travels I took the opportunity to take another ride down to Stranraer and remind myself why I ranked it thirteenth in My Hundred Best Train Journeys when compiling that list at the end of last year.

IMG_9883.jpgIt’s not that Stranraer itself is a must-visit destination, sadly the town is well past its prime now the Belfast ferry has moved further up the coast, leaving desolation where lorries and cars once formed their orderly queues before boarding.

IMG_9887 (1).jpgIt’s also not that the first part of the journey south from Glasgow is particularly scenic either. It’s not.

It’s not that the trains are spectacular either; they’re unrefurbished Class 156s similar to those that could be found on the top rated scenic lines in the West Highlands and Far North prior to those being revamped and improved. But they do offer tables and great window views, so I’m not complaining.

IMG_9894.jpgThe line’s scenic reputation comes from the eighty minute ride south of Ayr on the single track section through the lovely stations at Maybole, Girvan, and Barhill.

IMG_9896.jpgIt’s not that there are lochs. Nor mountains. Nor huge spectacular valleys.

IMG_9898.jpgIt’s just mile after mile of stunning Scottish countryside with rolling hills, rivers and plenty of lush green landscape.

IMG_9892.jpgThe Stranraer timetable is not particularly attractive either. It’s an approximate two-hourly frequency but only three journeys start in Glasgow (six hours apart at 0808, 1413 and 1813) with most of the other journeys starting in Kilmarnock. Even those Glasgow journeys are bettered by taking a later train on the more direct route to Ayr, saving twenty minutes, and having a handy 6 minute connection in Ayr to the earlier leaving Stranraer train that went the slower route via Kilmarnock.

As my sleeper arrived late into Glasgow at 0815 on Monday morning I had no option but to catch the 0830 to Ayr and connect there with the Stranraer train that had left Glasgow earlier at 0808 via Kilmarnock.

Sadly though, Monday morning was not a good start to the week for ScotRail with a number of incidents including cows on the line to Ayr necessitating slow cautionary progress resulting in a 16 minute late arrival in Ayr thereby missing the Stranraer train which hadn’t been held for the sake of leaving ten minutes later if it had waited for us.

IMG_9815.jpgStill, on the upside I had a bit of time to look at the major work now in progress to renovate and make safe the hotel above Ayr station which began as an emergency measure a few months ago when the building was suddenly declared dangerous necessitating the complete closure of the station and rail lines in the area at great inconvenience.

IMG_9813.jpgIt turned out eight of us bound for Stranraer were left stranded in Ayr and in view of the two hour wait until the next train staff summoned an eight seater taxi which arrived in twenty minutes and we set off for the eighty minute drive down to Stranraer, which aside from the wait, took about the same journey time as the train.

IMG_9816.jpgI’d travelled this route before on Stagecoach’s route 60/360 and it’s a great scenic ride with some lovely coastal views contrasting with the more inland route taken by the train, so it made for an interesting and welcome variation.

I’d never ventured west of Stranraer before and decided to put that right on this visit and explore the hammer head shape every geography student is familiar with when drawing the coastline of Great Britain.

screen-shot-2019-05-31-at-15.41.57This headland peninsular is officially called The Rhins but apparently the locals don’t call it that. It protrudes out towards Belfast in the south western corner of Dumfries and Galloway.

IMG_E9821.jpgLuckily when I was in Dumfries earlier this year I took a photograph of a bus map displayed in bus shelters in the town as in the frustrating absence of finding a bus map online to refer to, this proved invaluable in working out which bus routes to travel on to explore both ends and both sides of The Rhins. Update is I found the online map after publishing this post thanks to a helpful reader – see below for more explanation.

IMG_0360.jpgThe timing worked perfectly to travel on the 1155 one-return-journey four-day-a-week departure on the McCullochs Coaches operated circular route 412 from Stranraer to Leswalt, Envie and Galdenoch (see map above).

IMG_9825.jpgThis was a lovely thirty-five minute run with just me and one other passenger who alighted in Leswalt leaving just me to enjoy the trip round. The route was slightly curtailed due to a road closure but it was still an enjoyable and quiet rural ride.

IMG_9827.jpgThe Fiat minibus has an interesting staggered 2+1 seat layout ….

IMG_9826.jpg…. and a livery which seems to be the base colours for the ‘south west of Scotland transport partnership’ brand as I saw another bus wearing similar colours and sporting a logo to that effect on route 500 to Dumfries operated by Stagecoach.

IMG_9886.jpgWhen I’d investigated the SWesttrans.org.uk website previously it just linked to a collection of minutes and agendas of Partnership Board Meetings. Most odd. However, I’m pleased to update following publishing this report someone has kindly pointed out the link to “Service Information” on the website which has a further link to Dumfries & Galloway timetables as well as a link under “Sustainable Travel” to the bus map referred to above. Why do authorities make it so hard to find these things?!

Back in Stranraer I switched to one of Stagecoach’s routes in the area, the 407, which runs all the way down to the southern end of The Rhines at Drummore.

IMG_9879.jpgThis eight journey a day route is shared with McCullochs Coaches who operate two school journeys and Wigtownshire Community Transport who operate a journey at 1700. We took nine passengers as far as Sandhead which is half way along the 44 minute journey (see map above) but the second half was just me on board although we brought two back from Drummore and another half dozen from Sandhead on the return.

IMG_9881.jpgStagecoach also operate route 408 up to Kirkolm to the north of The Rhines but sadly the 1410 departure didn’t arrive, or more possibly the driver of the 407 when he got back to Stranraer st 1402 didn’t change the blind. There’s one other route, the 387 to Portpatrick on the west coast which is shared between Stagecoach, DGC Buses and Wigtown Community Transport and a convoluted town route in Stranraer, the 365, which Stagecoach also operate.

Another quirky bus feature of Stranraer is the Ulsterbus garage a long way from its normal Northern Ireland territory but historically here for the Glasgow to Belfast service via the ferry, which as highlighted already, has moved further north.

IMG_9820.jpgHaving enjoyed the scenic rides up and down the ‘hammer head’ I decided to head back to Glasgow on the 1500 ScotRail departure from Stranraer; the scenery as far as Ayr was as gorgeous as ever and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

IMG_9891.jpgFrustratingly this train arrives Ayr at exactly the same time a fast train leaves for Glasgow making a connection impossible so I continued to Kilmarnock (photographed below) where there’s a more convenient three minute connection across adjacent platforms to a train passing through from Carlisle and which gets into Glasgow at 1737, whereas if the connection had been possible in Ayr it would have meant an earlier 1710 arrival into Glasgow.

IMG_9906If ScotRail are serious about promoting the scenic delights of the Stranraer line I would strongly recommend reviewing those tight and missed connections and promoting the timetable better – for example whereas the Ayr trains which offer either tight or missed connections are shown in the Stranraer leaflet; the Kilmarnock connections aren’t.

Back in Glasgow I was impressed that Caledonian Sleeper was ready and waiting to board passengers at 2200, the promised time, and it wasn’t long before I was in bed and only vaguely aware we were on our way at the scheduled departure at 2340 back to London Euston. Everything went well until around 0300 when we made a wakening emergency stop in the Preston area. It turned out we’d lost power but after five minutes or so everything had been successfully rebooted and we were on our way again arriving into Euston slightly ahead of schedule .IMG_9944.jpgAnnoyingly my shower didn’t work (again) along with the toilet flush packing up during the night and only a trickle of water from the basin tap in the morning. I experienced the same plumbing problems on my inaugural journey at the beginning of last month which indicates snagging issues are still very much to the fore on the new sleeper carriages.

In fact chatting to staff, they confirmed all is not going well, with continuing porblems and staff consequently taking flack from disgruntled passengers who’ve paid a handsome price for these en-suite extras. Sadly some staff are apparently having to go off sick due to the level of stress. It’s obviously a trying time for a Serco and Caledonian Sleeper and although disappointing, it’s a sensible decision to postpone converting the Highlander route to the new coaches until these problems are ironed out. I hear 7th July is the latest date envisgaed for their introduction.

Someone must be seriously losing out financially due to these delays and problems as the uptake in revenue to justify the new coaches must be well below budget as well as compensation being paid out for failing to deliver. Let’s hope all is resolved soon.

Roger French

PS: yes that timetable case in Stranraer, captured in a photo above, was a bit disheveled…!

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Topless in Hastings

Friday 31st May 2019

There’s been a welcome resurgence in the traditional open top bus market (as opposed to high profile City Sightseeing) over the last few years with long withdrawn routes returning to their once regular haunts. Yellow Buses resurrected their seafront service in Bournemouth and Boscombe a couple of years ago, as did Stagecoach South West in Torbay. Stagecoach in Kent and East Sussex have also been busy giving open top bus routes a whirl with their route 69 between Ramsgate and Broadstairs now entering its fourth season following introduction in Summer 2016.

I had a ride on it during that first season and it was packed out, as well as suffering from timekeeping problems due to heavy summer traffic especially in Broadstairs. I was also impressed to see such a bargain fare at just £2 a ride. I reckon it was seriously underpriced for the market.

It’s good to see the route has prospered and this year’s season continues right through until the end of September.

Stagecoach tried a second route in the Thanet area the following summer along Margate’s seafront. Route 37 however was not so successful and hasn’t reappeared. Margate itself struggles to regain its supremacy in the seaside market and the 37 reflected that.

This summer sees Stagecoach introduce another open top route over the border in East Sussex. Appropriately numbered 66, the route provides a seafront service from Hasting Old Town past the rejuvenated pier and then inland for a short distance to the Combe Haven holiday park.

It’s operated to the successful Stagecoach formula of an hourly frequency with an hours gap in the middle of an eight hour, single shift duty for a meal break. Route 66 has a day ticket priced at £4.50 with a 30p saving if bought on a smartphone app and up to four children paying just £1 to attract families. That’s a good deal especially as it’s actually the Hastings area day ticket so available in all Stagecoach bus routes in the town. There’s a cheaper standard return ticket on the 66 at £3.50 or it’s £2.30 for one single ride.

The bus has a busy but eye catching livery particularly appealing to children and although I’m normally aghast at operators covering windows in contravision which badly distorts views, in this case the downstairs has been made fun for children who may travel there if it gets a bit too breezy up top, by the inclusion of ‘port holes’ through the contravision. As always though, contravision is controversial, and they’ll be plenty of views about views (and the lack of them).

On the journeys I travelled on earlier today one family braved the fairly breezy ride up top in one direction but took the downstairs option on the return; although I noticed one of the port holes didn’t match up with the raised seats on the offside, which is a shame.

Naturally the most important thing about open top buses is the scenic delights from the top deck and the 66 doesn’t disappoint with most of the 17 minute westbound journey time offering panoramic views of the seafront providing for a very pleasant ride….

….

…. in both directions….. it’s always a shame to see seafronts lined with parked cars and Hastings is no exception.

The western terminus of the 66 is right next to the Combe Haven holiday park, popular with families, so smart move Stagecoach, although it does mean the return journey includes five or six minutes wandering around residential streets in that part of west Hastings by Harley Shute to return to the seafront.

The eastbound running time is consequently slightly longer at 23 minutes, but this still means there’s a handy recovery time of 20 minutes in every hour in the schedule which allows for delays caused by seasonal slow moving traffic along the seafront and a rather convoluted turning arrangement at the eastern end of the route by Hastings Old Town.

With an eye catching livery, open top bus services generally sell themselves as tourists and visitors see the bus travelling up and down the seafront, but it’s good to have a plentiful supply of leaflets at appropriate outlets and on board the bus (the 66 had a large box full of its timetables on board along with other route timetables) and timetables were displayed prominently at all bus stops along the route. It was good to see Stagecoach have ticked that box, including adding them to the pole when the timetable case was already full.

I hope the 66 is a success and well done Stagecoach for giving it a try. As always with routes of this kind, it’s very weather dependant. Let’s hope for a sunny summer.

Roger French

H1: the hidden hospital bus

While I was giving GoSutton a try between the Royal Marsden and St Helier Hospitals in Sutton on Tuesday my friend James tweeted suggesting I also give the H1 inter-hospital bus route a ride. That was a new one on me, so I couldn’t resist giving it a go.

The H1 is sponsored by the Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust and was exclusively for the use of hospital staff shuttling between the Trust’s sites in Epsom, Sutton and St Helier. It’s operated by RATP owned Quality Line (part of Epsom Coaches) and the good news is from Monday 4th March the service was opened up for any member of the public to use at a £1.50 flat fare.

That’s a great new service for people living in Epsom needing to get over to Sutton or St Helier Hospitals for an appointment, or vice versa for Sutton residents having to pop down to Epsom and not just for the hospital either, as the H1 stops close to the town centre in East Street. What a brilliant idea. It’s not a bad timetable with three buses needing five drivers shuttling up and down for around thirteen hours between around 6.30am and 7.30pm on Mondays to Fridays. However you need your wits about you to remember the times, as buses run at an awkward frequency of every 35 minutes during the morning widening to every forty minutes during part of the afternoon.

TfL gave their blessing to the public using buses on the H1 as they rule the roost on such matters once you cross the boundary from Surrey. But as you can only get on and off the bus at Sutton and St Helier Hospitals within the London Borough it doesn’t interfere with anything TfL control.

It might be handy though if TfL entered the timetable into its journey planner database so people living near St Helier Hospital needing to get to Sutton Hospital could easily find out about the H1. I suspect there’s a bit of the “not invented here” syndrome as you’ll be lucky to find out about the hidden H1.

TfL’s Journey Planner unhelpfully completely ignores the H1 which would whisk you from St Helier to Sutton Hospital in a non-stop 15 minutes at, say, 1005 and instead recommends cathing its own circuitous S1 bus route taking almost double the journey time at 28 minutes. The much admired CityMapper guys also ignore the H1 in their app results too.

I couldn’t find any timetables for the H1 at the TfL bus stops on either side of the road outside St Helier Hospital nor the H1 number appearing on the flags but undaunted I wandered into the hospital itself where a helpful receptionist gave me directions to walk along a corridor, turn left and there it will be, just inside the hospital grounds.

And sure enough I found what looked like a bus stop still proclaiming a “staff” inter site shuttle, complete with two handy benches to sit and wait and even a timetable on the wall. Great stuff. And this being a hospital the statutory ‘caution wet floor’ warning sign was properly in place too, even though it was obviously dry.

The rather battered looking H1 bus soon arrived from its previous journey and even though I wasn’t wearing a stethoscope round my neck nor a lanyard with an NHS ID, the driver waved me on ignoring the contactless enabled Ticketer ticket machine at his side and kindly gave me a free ride.

A couple of NHS staff were also on board and they continued on towards Epsom Hospital as I alighted at Sutton Hospital impressed with my speedy fifteen minute non-stop journey. I love these hidden gem bus routes but it’s always a shame they’re not better promoted.

This got me thinking about Journey Planners and GoSutton. While I was out and about on Tuesday I used TfL’s Journey Planner to find out how to get from St Helier Hospital to Sutton Station. Interestingly it’s first recommendation at the time I asked was to take a 157 to Catshalton Station and then catch a Southern train over to Sutton at a cost of £3.60 and a journey time of 28 minutes. Er, that’s odd as the super new GoSutton minibus could have taken me there in little more than 10 minutes for a cheaper £3.50.

We’re always being told public transport information is available online and journey planners have made the need for printed maps and timetables redundant yet here’s an example where it falls down. App based DRT schemes and Journey Planners are not happy bedfellows.

Roger French

Free ‘taxis’ for seniors in Sutton?

Tuesday 28th May 2019

TfL jumped on the digital DRT bandwagon today launching its own version of Arriva Click and Oxford Pick Me Up. This latest app-based Demand Responsive Transport has landed in upmarket car dominated Sutton and Carshalton using six minibuses out of a fleet of eight between 06:30 and 21:30, seven days a week, operated by GoAhead London from its Sutton bus garage.

Logo overload nearside…
…and offside

I missed this morning’s launch party no doubt with the usual ceremonial ribbon cutting and broad smiles for the cameras featuring the Mayor of Sutton along with TfL and GoAhead London bigwigs but I understand there were no cupcakes or goodie bags going free anyway.

Indeed there’s not been much, if any, publicity or promotion to speak of at all. I was searching online over the weekend for news of this exciting initiative but all I could find on the TfL website was a broken link to the obligatory public consultation about the scheme which closed a few weeks ago. I see there’s now a news release following this morning’s launch with the usual excitable quotes from all the partners involved, which is always an uplifting read…..not!

Keeping my ear to the ground last week, as I do, I’d downloaded the GoSutton app and registered as a user with my credit card details so I’d be all ready to ride around at £3.50 a journey earlier today.

No promotional introductory fare offers here and no daily or weekly price capping. No Oyster either as no fares are taken on the bus. It’s all done online. The fare is £1 more than Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up fare and £2 more than the standard London bus fare so it’ll be an interesting trade off for users weighing up their new travel options around Sutton. Additional GoSutton passengers in a group pay £2 each and its free for accompanied under 13s.

There’s a map on the new GoSutton.co.uk website showing the area where GoSutton Mercedes fourteen seater minibuses roam but it’s a little hard to decipher in detail so not much good for journey planning. As you can see above, it’s just an outline of the area served.

The interactive map on the App even though it’s zoomable is also awkward to use so I spent a happy hour last night piecing together a larger scale map from my Greater London street atlas except frustratingly the area extended over the hard spine of the book making copying a clear image quite difficult.

I then superimposed the bus routes which cross-cross the area served by GoSutton which with the various rail lines shows the full public transport offer. It seems to me that’s what anyone seriously thinking of ditching their car needs to know, but curiously is impossible to obtain in the TfL land of not-really-integrated transport.

Mike Harris’s superb privately funded network wide bus map indicates quite an intense network of bus routes in the area as does Open Street Maps, but it wasn’t until I’d completed my home made version I realised that many of the journeys I’d planned to try out with GoSutton could be made using conventional bus routes, albeit with a bit of a circuitous routing.

And herein lies the key issue. My first day travels this morning as usual were met with minimal wait times, attractive direct routes and completely solo rides (my own personal 14 seater taxi); but that’s not how it’s designed to be of course. Once more people become aware of GoSutton the inevitability is my wait and journey times will become extended as ride sharing becomes more common. I might find myself on a route not too dissimilar to a conventional bus, and stopping along the way making me question that £2 premium and no price cap. As TfL’s news release explains “the system will be powered by advanced algorithms, which enable multiple passengers to seamlessly share a single vehicle”. It’ll be “quick and efficient shared trips without lengthy detours”.

It seems to me the critical point with GoSutton is TfL’s decision to allow Freedom Passes and National Concessionary pass holders free travel meaning any London resident age sixty and over, perhaps even going to work, can enjoy what currently is effectively a free door-to-door personal taxi service.

Why go out to catch the half hourly route S4 when you can call up a 14 seater luxury minibus almost to your front door and will take you right to your destination free of charge. And this being TfL means those without a smartphone are not left behind as the option is given of phoning up to book a journey instead of using the App. It really is like an old style Dial-A-Ride.

Another TfL quirk I noticed this morning was the six minibuses out today when not needed to fulfill my journey requests were strategically parked as per ViaVan’s software demands, but had to be on an official TfL designated bus stand!

How did it go? Here’s the rundown of the three journeys I took.

Journey 1

Wallington Station to the Royal Marsden Hospital

Waiting time: 3 minutes (minibus waiting on bus stand not far from station)

Journey time: 12 minutes.

Alternative option: bus route S4 runs every 30 minutes and takes 18 minutes journey time.

Oddity: despite requesting a pick up at the bus stop adjacent to the station exit (used by the S4 as below) I was tasked to walk a short distance to the bus stop on the main road to meet the bus.

Bing, my driver was a great ambassador welcoming me aboard as his very first GoSutton passenger at 1024. He was really pleased to have transferred over to GoSutton from big bus driving and had high hopes for the service success. I diplomatically explained it depends on how you define ‘success’ and unlike Oxford (which he had heard “was going great guns”) in London it will depend how much money TfL is prepared to invest (and how much money it actually has) in its future.

Journey 2

Royal Marsden Hospital to St Helier Hospital

Waiting time: 9 minutes (minibus waiting in Carshalton Wythe Lane)

Journey time: 13 minutes.

Alternative option: bus route S4 runs every half hour and takes 30 minutes.

Simon had driven the S4 previously and reckoned in the 13 minutes it took with GoSutton we’d have only reached Sutton Ststion on that round-the-houses route. He was pleased to be driving with GoAhead London having recently moved across from RATP owned Quality Line/Epsom Coaches where the “family atmosphere had now gone after the takeover”. He was also pleased to welcome me aboard as his first customer at 1055 although he’d been tasked to chauffeur John Trayner, GoAhead London’s highly respected managing director back to his Merton based HQ following the Mayoral launch, but Simon didn’t count John as a real passenger, especially as it had involved a normally off-limits over the border trip into neighbouring Merton.

Journey 3

Sutton Hospital to Sutton Station

Waiting time: 3 minutes (minibus waiting at Sutton Station) according to App but actual wait was 4-5 minutes.

Journey time: 4 minutes.

Alternative option: was bus 80 or Metrobus 420 (not part of TfL network) and didn’t show up on TfL journey planner (so much for TfL being about integrated transport). As the 80 was 9 minutes away I was confident I’d backed the right option of summoning up a GoSutton minibus which was showing just a 3 minute wait.

In the event a 420 came by within one minute…

…. followed by an 80 within another minute despite TfL’s journey planner predicting that 9 minute wait. My GoSutton minibus arrived last.

But Fatima was a great friendly driver also welcoming me aboard as her first customer at 1224 this morning. She usually drives big buses at Sutton but is helping out while the sixteen new GoSutton vacancies get filled. Her first minibus allocated this morning broke down but she was pleased to be driving one of the ’19’ plate Mercedes (some are 2017 vintage). And she skilfully overtook the 80 as it stopped along the way so we beat it to Sutton Station.

As is standard on such schemes elsewhere for each journey I received a text two minutes before the minibus arrived confirming its imminent arrival along with the vehicle registration details and pick up location (but not the driver’s name) and unlike other places, another text while on board two minutes before the destination reminding me to gather up my belongings and a thank you. Afterwards you’re invited to rate the journey but only if you open up the App again, and are then given your driver’s name – bit odd not to have had it before really.

Another welcome development unlike other areas is the absence of a full blown assault screen around the driver. Simon was particularly pleased to see this and felt it will lead to a much friendlier rapport with passengers. He’s absolutely right.

There are also some differences between the 2017 Mercedes minibuses and the later 2019 versions in that the former have bright red interior panels and floors while the latter have a more upmarket wood effect.

Otherwise the interiors are very similar to the Mercedes used in Oxford, Liverpool and Leicester with ten seats to the rear (including two over the wheel arches (for enhanced discomfort) and four tip-ups in the wheelchair/buggy area. USB sockets and wifi comes as standard, but you’re not really on the bus long enough to take advantage of these – even a journey from one side of the operating area to the other (my journey 2) only took 13 minutes.

Will GoSutton be a success.? As I explained to Bing, it depends how you define ‘success’. With TfL strapped for cash and about to make swingeing cuts to central London bus routes it seems an odd time to be spending what must be well in excess of £0.5million (probably nearer £0.75million) on a trial of this kind. I see TfL have also committed to introduce a similar twelve month trial later this year in Ealing with RATP as operator and “technology partner MOIA who currently power ride sharing in Germany”.

GoSutton’s £3.50 compared to £1.50 per ride on a conventional bus (and £4.50 daily cap) may put people off switching but all the official explanations say this scheme is about tempting people out of cars as the main market. In that case there’s going to need to be a much bigger promotional push to raise awareness; and that won’t come cheap. There’s no social media presence as far as I can see and the web presence is currently pedestrian at best. It’s certainly not persuasive in any sense.

I asked a black cab driver at the Royal Marsden Hospital how much the fare was from Sutton Station, and she told me around £7. So £3.50 would offer a fifty per cent saving, but if you don’t mind a slightly longer wait and journey time the S4 would only cost £1.50.

My prediction is GoSutton will become well used by Freedom Pass holders taking advantage of free rides, and whilst the service is in its infancy, effectively enjoying a free personalised door-to-door taxi service around this part of Sutton.

Personally I’d prefer a few hundred thousand be invested in a decent regularly updated easy-to-follow bus map showing journey possibilities by bus rather than just the unhelpful spider maps as all that TfL can muster. Proper maps rather like passengers on the Tube and DLR enjoy.

That would get me out of my car.

Roger French