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

Crossing the Pennines

Saturday 31st August 2019

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Route 888 between Newcastle and Keswick is the lesser known bus service across the Pennines.

Whereas the more famous route 685 takes a direct westerly trajectory along the A69 to Carlisle via Hexham and Haltwhistle, the 888 also serves Hexham but then follows a south westerly route via Alston and Langwathby on the spectacular A686 to Penrith and then across to Keswick.

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This ranks as one of England’s most stunning bus rides crossing moors and mountains and passing through forests and incredible hairpin bends along the way – just take a look at those contour lines and bends on the map extract below to get a feel of the ride.

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It should definitely feature in any ‘must do’ scenic bus routes bucket list but the only snag is whereas the 685 runs hourly, the 888 is a once-a-day-in-each-direction affair and only then during the summer months (July to September). Still, at least it runs daily as shown in the leaflet helpfully produced by Cumbria County Council despite most, of not all, passengers originating in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. Indeed I picked up the leaflet on my visit to Hexham last week.

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It’s actually more of a coach day-trip excursion than a bus route, being operated by a (15 year old) coach and even includes a 35 minute refreshment and toilet stop at Alston by a Spar shop and Texaco garage just 1 hour and 25 minutes into the journey from Newcastle – the rest of the journey to Keswick taking only an hour and ten minutes more.

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Interestingly the 35 minute stop reduces to 20 minutes on Sundays and is all that’s allocated on the return journey each day of the week.

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The 888 is operated by Wright Bros Coaches based in Alston and accepts concessionary passes, which is a bit of a surprise with the increasing tendency for ‘leisure’ type routes of this kind to be excluded from Schemes these days. On my trip today I reckon 25 of the 27 passengers on board were passholders.

Perhaps that explains why the single fare from Newcastle to Keswick is as high as £20 – to maximise reimbursement (ironically the responsibility of Tyne & Wear and Northumberland westbound and Cumbria on the eastbound return). Concessionary passes were being swiped on some kind of portable electronic ticket machine by the driver.

The driver was a bit vague on return fares when I asked after buying my single ticket but I gathered a period return is £30 and I was unclear how much cheaper a day return would have been. I asked pointedly if you receive a ticket if buying a period return as I hadn’t been issued a ticket for my single fare; and that’s when he got a bit vague. I think I’ll pass this feedback on to Wright Bros in case it’s of interest.

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The Volvo B10M coach was not the most comfortable I’ve travelled on and it was showing it’s fifteen years age. Cramming 57 seats inside meant minimal leg room – which might work for short legged school kids on a contract run but is not ideal for a leisure day trip across spectacular countryside.

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The ‘ash trays’ still in situ could usefully have been emptied too.

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More positively the coach arrived in Newcastle’s Coach Station in good time at 09:00 for the 09:20 departure but the driver parked up in the far corner for about ten minutes …

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Sixteen passengers boarded and we were away spot on time picking the rest of our passengers up as we left Newcastle (1) as well as Throckley (3), Corrbridge (6) and Hexham (1).

It must be a long day for what I assume is an Alston based driver and coach as it’s over an hour’s drive to and from Newcastle (especially on morning peak traffic congested weekdays) meaning at least an 08:00 start and a 20:30 finish back at the garage at the end of the day.

It would make more sense for this to be a Newcastle based operation and furthermore I reckon it’s an ideal route for a double deck bus with some nice comfortable seats (maybe even a table or two) to enhance those spectacular views – except a reader has just pointed out the 13ft 6ins low bridge in Langwathby which rather scuppers that idea! However it certainly needs to be operated by modern accessible vehicles. An opportunity for an enlightened operator looking for market growth in 2020 perhaps?

I covered some of the same route yesterday between Alston and Hexham as I made my way back from visiting the wonderful South Tynedale Railway on the Go North East route X81.

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The X81 is effectively a positioning service to get the Tynedale Links branded bus from Go North East’s Hexham garage to Alston to operate the two return shopping journeys a day on route 681 to and from Haltwhistle.

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The 681 is another great route, presumably funded by Northumberland County Council even though Alston is just over the border in Cumbria. Journey time to Alston is 48 minutes and every minute is a delight.

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It’s a real rural gem including looping around narrow unclassified roads (to serve Yont the Cleugh mobile home/caravan site) and generally following the picturesque South Tyne valley on the A689 through Lambley and Slaggyford. It looks to me as though the route is a direct replacement for the railway from Haltwhistle to Alston which closed in 1976, so a bit of a shame it’s down to just two return journeys a day.

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I caught the 12:40 from Haltwhistle to Alston yesterday lunchtime and sadly we only carried two passengers back home with their shopping, one travelling the short distance to Park Village and the other got off on the double run we made to serve Halton-Lea Gate about half way along the journey – the rest of the way it was just me, as it was on the return X81 later in the afternoon.

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The bonus of visiting Alston is taking a ride on the South Tynedale Railway which runs north from Alston up the valley to Scallyford.

IMG_9093.jpgThe standard gauge tracks were lifted soon after closure in 1976 but the dedicated members of the Preservation Society replaced them with a narrow gauge line with operations commencing in 1983 to a temporary halt about a mile north of Alston pending repairs to a viaduct over the South Tyne River.

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Further extensions followed and the line now continues for five miles as far north as Slaggyford with two halts at Kirkhaugh and Lintley.

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The Railway has a variety of locomotives including three steam, four diesel and three battery electrics. Yesterday it was No 18 Old Rusty doing the honours – an 0-6-0 diesel mechanical locomotive for those who are interested.

IMG_9105.jpgA Lottery Award in 2016 has enabled the Society to improve both Alston and Slaggyford stations which now offer excellent facilities for visitors.

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At Alston there are two adjacent small museums one with an educational slant aimed at youngsters (a condition of the Lottery funding, no doubt) and the other a shed with a variety of transport vehicles and artefacts.

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The 2019 timetable of three return journeys a day runs until the end of October reverting from daily to four/five days a week operation now the school holidays are over.

Journey time is 35 minutes with 25 minutes layover at Slaggyford. The volunteer staff are exceptionally friendly – even inviting me to pay a visit inside the Slaggyford signal box to watch Old Rusty change ends.

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A great visit and two lovely bus rides to and from Alston too.

Roger French

Speke up for Arriva Click

Wednesday 28th August 2019

 

I was puzzled by a recent news item that Merseytravel are withdrawing a local bus route they fund in the Speke area of south east Liverpool from this weekend to be replaced on Monday by Arriva Click: ‘the new Arriva Click Speke Zone service will operate between the same hours as the current 211 service: 8.05am to 5.15pm Monday to Friday and 8.45am to 5.15pm on Saturdays’ – the News Release reassured.

This sounded as though Arriva were introducing a new tailor made Click on-demand service in a new zone to replace a fixed route traditional timetabled bus service. An intriguing development, but I thought Arriva’s Click venture in Liverpool already included Speke within its operating area, so not so much ‘new’ more like changing a loss making tendered bus route into a loss making Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) operation. I headed up to Liverpool today to find out what was going on.

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Bus route 211 provides a local circular ‘sideways figure of eight’ type service linking tight knit residential areas both to the west and east of Speke’s small centrally located community hub in South Parade and the nearby Morrisons supermarket and associated retail sheds just to the north.

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Buses run at a rather inconvenient 40 minute frequency with the Monday to Friday service contracted to small independent Huyton Travel and the Saturday service to municipally owned Halton Transport (goodness knows why the tender was split by day of the week, but that’s local authorities for you).

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It has all the hallmarks of an ailing tendered suburban service which doesn’t really go anywhere, other than providing local journeys around Speke. The Merseytravel timetable leaflet ‘valid from 29 April 2019’ states ‘What’s changed? Service frequency has reduced with a bus now every 40 minutes’. That service reduction obviously hasn’t worked as just four months later the service is being withdrawn ‘replaced by Arriva Click as part of an initial 12 month trial’ (note the word ‘initial’).IMG_8861.jpg

The thing about a fixed timetable is, even though a forty minute frequency is difficult to memorise, at least you know for sure a bus is due at a given time. I arrived in Speke’s South Parade at 12:30pm this lunchtime and set about catching the next 211 which I knew was due to leave at 12:45pm on the western circuit.

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Out of interest I checked the Arriva Click app to see when an ‘on-demand’ minibus would arrive to take me to Dymchurch Road – the furthest western bus stop on the 211 circuit.

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I was offered a pick up in 5 minutes and a fare of £2.35. That was impressive especially as the 211 bus arrived in South Parade at 12:35 and parked up (on the pavement) for its scheduled ten minute layover.

IMG_8862.jpgIt already had about four on board who’d almost certainly got on at Morrisons and now had a ten minute wait on their journey home as the driver popped over to the shops. I was beginning to warm to the idea of Click already; I could have been on my way.

I spotted two high-viz wearing Arriva managers also on board the stationary bus giving out information about the new arrangements as well as a packet of sweets and some kind of fridge magnet – well, you have to do these things.

After a bit of a delay after the driver reappeared and some dialogue with one of the high-viz managers ensued ….IMG_8867.jpg…. before the bus finally pulled up at the nearby stop and we were off on the circuit a few minutes late.

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The driver told me the comparable fare to Dymchurch Road on the 211 is £2.10 and interestingly I checked the Arriva app again and a bus was still available to take me there in just five minutes for £2.35 if I needed it.

I had a very interesting and informative chat with Arriva’s Liverpool Click manager on board who explained there would indeed be a dedicated Arriva Click minibus allocated to the newly defined ‘Speke zone’ from Monday which will effectively replace the 211 and its awkward 40 minute frequency.

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Although my fare to Dymchurch Road might increase by 25p, it was pointed out if I only travel a very short distance my fare might come down, with Arriva Click offering a minimum of £1.

Another upside of the new arrangements is Click’s acceptance of concessionary passes for free travel, but only within the ‘Speke zone’ – hence the necessity for a geographic definition from Monday.

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Loadings on the 211 looked to be about half a dozen passengers per journey per half circuit at most and that was from observations at a busy lunchtime. The service is dominated by concessionary pass holding passengers – remember the qualifying age is still 60 in Merseyside, so it’s obviously essential to continue the free travel on Click and part of this deal is Merseytravel reimbursing Arriva for passholders. But this will only apply on journeys within the zone so if a passenger wants to take Click further afield, rather than use it as a shuttle to change on to buses at South Parade or Morrisons as many do now, they’ll have to pay the standard Arriva Click rate which is about £1 per mile for onward travel beyond the zone. I expect Arriva are hoping it may encourage reluctant passholders to give Click a go for longer rides and pay up.

IMG_8872.jpgFrom my observations today, the other complication with morphing the 211 into DRT is the average passenger is probably not a smartphone owner or adept at using such technology. To get round this, as with GoSutton in London, passengers can ring up Merseytravel who’ll book the journey for them and provide the algorithm’s pick up details while they’re on the phone.

IMG_8873.jpgThis does introduce ‘noise’ into the system – will the communications always work and messages be accurately understood? – but the allocation of regular drivers to the dedicated ‘Speke zone’ Click vehicle and managers impressing on them the need to be flexible, especially in the first few weeks, is in hand.

For Merseytravel and Arriva Click this new deal makes sound financial sense. It’s a win win. Merseytravel get shot of an awkward tendered bus route and instead pay the money that went to Huyton and Halton to Arriva who benefit from some welcome guaranteed income towards Click’s challenging bottom line.

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Although Arriva are allocating a dedicated minibus to Speke, from my albeit brief observations today this could easily be achieved within existing resources – both times I passed through Liverpool South Parkway I saw three Click minibuses laying over or on standby and I was told three minibuses were on standby duties at the nearby John Lennon Airport. That’s a lot of spare resource.

IMG_8914.jpgAs well as the two times I tried a booking while in Speke and got a 5 minute response time (indicating a vehicle was available nearby), when I actually booked one to take me back to Liverpool South Parkway I was given a pick up within seven minutes; and it was just me travelling. So the evidence is it’s still a struggle to get that all important shared ridership as the pathway to DRT commercial success.

But the new look ‘DRT 211’ trial should certainly achieve shared riding for Arriva and that guaranteed income. It’s a very smart move.

However I’m not so sure it’s a smart move for passengers. It was obvious today the bus is used by regulars who know the times, albeit awkward times, to get them to Morrisons and back home again. In the new scenario, assuming no smartphone, they have to make a phone call from home to book a journey (reading out their ten digit concessionary pass ID) initially not knowing what time the pick up might be. It could be in five minutes, or it could be up to half an hour away if the minibus is on the other side of Speke. (30 minutes is the guaranteed maximum).

My guess is initially passengers will gravitate around the existing 211 times – we’re all creatures of habit – and this will be an algorithm’s dream outcome, but once passengers break ranks and opt for different times then the bus will become more unpredictable in its location and timings. This brings uncertainty into the journey, not least when it comes to returning home from Morrisons with the shopping. Apparently there are plans to put a phone into the foyer of Morrisons but in the meantime a phone-less passenger is stuck, unable to summon up a bus to get home.

And that could be a stumbling block not only for the passenger but for the trial. As a solution it might make sense to get Arriva to run the bespoke ‘Speke zone’ minibus on a fixed route to fixed times; and give it a route number … like 211 perhaps. It could be the ultimate in efficient shared riding!

Just a thought.

It’ll be interesting to see what passengers make of it next week.

Roger French

PS I requested my journey to Liverpool South Parkway from outside Morrisons but as well as the app telling me it was seven minutes away, it also gave me a pick up right on the far side of the supermarket/retail sheds car park – almost a five minute walk. If I’d had bags of shopping to carry I’d have been rightly miffed. I hope that’s sorted for Monday.

IMG_8903.jpgWhat’s more although I was set down by the Station entrance and Dan, my friendly driver, even told me which platform I needed and how to get there, I understand Merseytravel won’t let Click pick up from the bus station right by the station and you have to walk outside to the road network.

IMG_8909.jpgThis also happened to me on my last visit – not being picked up in Liverpool One bus station. Come on Merseytravel – if you’re now collaborating with Arriva it makes sense to sort these anomalies out.

IMG_8848.jpgPPS Liverpool South Parkway is an impressive airy bus station to wait in with lots of facilities but I was a bit surprised the man in the Travel Centre didn’t know Arriva’s Airport route 500 went to Speke when I enquired.

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There’s Hope in Derbyshire

Tuesday 27th August 2019

IMG_8777.jpgIt’s not often a National Park Authority trials a new bus service these days so hats off to the Peak District for funding the new H1 and H2 bus routes for six weeks during the summer school holidays.Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 21.06.56.png

Branded as the Hope Valley Explorer two Stagecoach Optare Solos are providing an hourly service (with a short break at lunchtime) in the north western corner of the National Park linking Bamford, Hope and Edale stations on the scenic Sheffield to Manchester Hope Valley Line with Derwent Fairholmes (for the reservoirs and dam), Castleton and the nearby Blue John Cavern.Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 19.28.58.pngIt’s good to see Derbyshire County Council have updated their online bus map to show the H1 and H2 which are basically the same route except the H2 does a 25 minute double run to serve Edale on every other journey (four out of the seven journeys in each direction). There are through journeys to Chesterfield, where the buses are based, at the beginning and end of the roughly 09:00 to 18:20 day.

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 19.35.04.png It’s a shame the timetable is buried in the Peak District National Park Authority’s website but you can find it easily on the Stagecoach website once you’ve narrowed down the geographic area and know to enter H1 or H2 in the look up function under timetables.

There’s a simple £6 day ticket and a rather pricey £4 single journey fare regime on the Hope Valley Explorer with no other ‘explorer’ type tickets valid. English National Concessionary Passholders can buy the day ticket at a discounted £3 rate. The National Park explain in their FAQs this is a “limited period seasonal service” for 42 days and they wish to “investigate the commercial viability of the project and offering a (free) concessionary rate may not provide an accurate picture of the use of the service”.

The Park Authority’s laudable aim is to “reduce the number of car journeys … at one of the busiest times of the year”.

IMG_8776.jpgAs the Hope Valley Explorer’s 42 days operation ends on Saturday I thought I’d better see how it’s doing in its final week so popped up to Hope this morning to take a ride.

Incidentally it was a first time experience on an Abellio operated East Midlands Railway train for me (they ousted the former Stagecoach run East Midlands Trains just over a week ago) but the only discernible (and much welcome) difference on the 09:02 from St Pancras International to Sheffield was free Wi-Fi throughout the train…IMG_8431.jpg…. and the retro 1970s Letraset style block lettering logo is going to take some getting used to.IMG_8429.jpgI passed one of the Class 222 Meridian trains in the new purplish livery on a Corby working which look quite smart but I’ll reserve judgement until seeing it close up.

From Sheffield I caught the all stops Northern Rail train to Manchester Piccadilly leaving Sheffield at 11:14 and due into Bamford, at 11:36 (a refurbished Class 150 with its smart new moquette on comfy seats) …IMG_8432.jpg…. offering a handy connection with the H1 at 11:41. Five minutes might seem a bit tight but the bus stop in the Bamford turning circle is only a stone’s throw away from the station exit.IMG_8825.jpgIn the event I resorted to Plan B as despite leaving Sheffield on time we were three minutes late into Bamford and I didn’t want to risk missing the bus. I stayed on the train to the next station at Hope …IMG_8463.jpg….where we’d got further ahead of the bus providing a more comfortable 11 minute connection even though it involved a short walk down Station Road to the main road.IMG_8468.jpgThere is a bus stop in the car park at Hope station but the H1 and H2 stay on the main road rather than double run up Station Road.IMG_8467.jpgDown on the main road the H1 came along spot on time and I bought my £6 day ticket from the driver and sat back to enjoy a full rounder of the route.IMG_8510.jpgI always enjoy visiting the Derbyshire Peak District and have travelled around the National Park many times taking in all the delightful bus routes which serve this scenic county, but visiting Blue John Cavern at the end of the Hope Valley Explorer route eight minutes beyond Castleton was a first for me, and it truly offers some spectacular views aas the bus climbs up through the Winnats Pass …Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 19.58.28.png…..to reach one of the most scenic bus termini in England for sure.IMG_8564.jpg

IMG_8562.jpgI was impressed to see a bus shelter and full information about the Hope Valley Explorer next to the cafe.IMG_8560.jpgAfter a short break I jumped back on board for the hour’s ride across to Derwent including that H2 twenty-five minute double run routing via Edale.

It’s a pleasant ride as the bus hugs the Hope Valley railway line crossing it twice along the way along a fairly narrow unclassified road.IMG_8649.jpgEven better, at Edale station we picked up another passenger – the first so far – who travelled down the road to Hope. IMG_8656.jpgWe continued on via Bamford to the spectacular Derwent reservoirs travelling alongside the picturesque Ladybower to the Visitor Centre at Fairholmes about x miles off the A57 Snake Road.IMG_8720.jpgWe arrived about ten minutes later than our scheduled time of 13:20 and the driver took the bus into the ‘staff car park’ for his lunch break while I wandered off to the picnic tables by the cafe and Visitor Centre.IMG_8733.jpgThe other Hope Valley Explorer bus arrived about an hour later at 14:10 for its lunch break just as we were leaving (also about seven minutes late – timetables for 14:03) …IMG_8785.jpg…. but we were back on time at Bamford by 14:25, indicating some generous running time for that section of the route.IMG_8752.jpgIt was good to see a group of three passengers boarding at Derwent Fairholmes who travelled to Bamford and connected with the First Bus route 272 to Sheffield, while another passenger boarded in Bamford village.

But otherwise it was just me; and sadly when we passed the other bus it was empty on two occasions and had just two passengers on board on the third.

My driver reckoned it the buses have been busier at weekends ‘or when there were events on’. He revealed there’s funding for the service for three years which is good news, and I suspect Stagecoach have come up with a good competitive price bearing in mind it’s a school holiday only service and there will be spare resources available.

It was encouraging to see a lot of effort has obviously gone into promoting the Hope Valley Explorer as this is always a challenge with new services, even more so ones which are time limited.

There were prominent posters at both Bamford and Hope stations (and I’m sure at Edale too) ….IMG_8826.jpg

IMG_8833.jpg… at all bus stops along the route….IMG_8472.jpg…. and at the Visitor Centres where there were also supplies of the leaflet.IMG_8728.jpg

IMG_8725.jpgThere was even a poster in the toilets at the Visitor Centre ….IMG_8724.jpgI was a bit surprised there weren’t leaflets for the route available on board the bus and the window notices were a bit functional.IMG_8645.jpg

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Bearing in mind the spectacular views on offer along parts of the route ….IMG_8559.jpg…. you’d think Stagecoach would have ensured windows were clear of price information blocking views ….IMG_8581.jpg

IMG_8580.jpg …. particularly when it’s not even pertinent to the Hope Valley Explorer. Bit of a fail from Stagecoach for that – it makes a mockery of the buses being branded.

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IMG_8608.jpgMore positively an informative commentary plays out from onboard speakers at various points along the route although it’s a bit difficult to hear above the bus engine noise at some points.

It looked like the two drivers were regulars on the route and they seemed friendly to each other, but I detected a lacklustre approach to passengers; albeit there were only five transactions to judge this by.IMG_8703.jpg

The H1/H2 provide a greatly enhanced bus service to Derwent Fairholmes (Hulleys route 273 provides just two journeys a day on weekdays with a few more from T M Travel on Sundays) so seven new journeys a day are a great bonus and I don’t know when buses last regularly ran to Blue John Cavern or Edale station but it’s great to see both places now on the bus map, albeit for just four more days until next July.

It made me wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better to spread the funding out over 21 weekends from the end of April to September so passengers get used to the service being there over a longer period of time rather than running on weekdays during the summer school holidays – Dalesbus and Moorsbus find this works well for them.

I appreciate the reason for having a restrictive ticket policy to ensure maximising revenue for the route but it’s a bit off putting to be unable to use tickets like the versatile Derbyshire Wayfarer; and £6 does seem a bit pricey if you’re really only making an out and back journey while £4 is steep if travelling just a short hop.

But I’m very pleased indeed to see this initiative and well done to the Peak District National Park Authority for embracing buses – other National Parks take note.

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Roger French

zeelo lands at Gatwick Airport

Wednesday 21st August 2019

IMG_7431.jpgI sampled zeelo’s new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol back in the Spring and wrote about the company and my travel experience on 24th May. Now the enterprising entrepreneurs based at zeelo’s London Shoreditch HQ have started another new venture, also aimed at commuters, this time connecting part of Crawley with Gatwick Airport.

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You might be thinking “isn’t Crawley already well linked to Gatwick Airport by the award winning Metrobus company, part of the Go-Ahead Group” and you’d be bang on the runway with that thought. Frequent buses operating round the clock on a comprehensive network of routes aided by smart bus priority measures including Fastway branded segregated guided bus lanes whizzing buses straight across roundabouts and gliding passed traffic queues. It’s impressive.

IMG_7499.jpgAspiring bus companies have given the Crawley bus market a competitive try over the years, but none have survived; the well regarded Metrobus has proved unassailable against all upstart new entrants.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read zeelo fancied their chances in this already well served market. I’m guessing they reckon they’ll win over bus wary employees at Gatwick Airport by offering their unique “personalised bus service” business model necessitating pre-booking using smart technology on a less frequent but targetted service with cheaper fares.

According to the news release heralding this initiative, zeelo reckon their “new shared bus service targets areas where Gatwick Airport employees are currently poorly served by public transport”. Indeed, they’ve been canny in finding four bus stops (from which Metrobus don’t run a direct bus to Gatwick Airport) along a route on the Horsham Road originating at Breezehurst Roundabout between the well served Bewbush and Broadfield residential areas continuing via Southgate towards Crawley town centre (but avoiding stopping there) and instead taking in three more bus stops in London Road from where the bus runs non-stop to Gatwick’s South and North Terminal buildings.

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End to end journey time is scheduled for 27 minutes which compares to Metrobus route 10 taking 29 minutes for early morning journeys from Broadfield Barton to Gatwick’s North Terminal, as well as serving Crawley bus station, for the town centre, along the way.

It’s also noteworthy that Metrobus route 10 runs 24/7 (half hourly between midnight and 03:30) increasing to an impressive every 6-7 minutes between around 06:30 and 18:30. The new zeelo commuter service offers just eight journeys running half hourly between 05:10 and 08:40 with a similar service pattern in the afternoon between 15:10 and 18:40 only on Mondays to Fridays. Interestingly buses run in service “against the commuter flow” in both the morning and evening peaks, presumably because of shift workers, making for quite a tight schedule with three minutes stand time at the end of each journey for the two buses needed to run the service.

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Whereas on Metrobus you just turn up and board their frequent service at any bus stop, zeelo’s “personalised service” means you pre-book your journey either online or via their App and be committed to that particular departure time.

Zeelo offer various bulk buying options for this new service as they do with Newport/Bristol and their other bespoke commuter services for specific employers around the country (eg Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin in Warwickshire and Ocado in Hertfordshire ). For the Crawley to Gatwick market their best offer is 100 rides for £87.99 through deals covering 50, 30 and 10 rides down to a return ticket for £3.50 and a single trip for £2.50.

Metrobus also charge £2.50 for a single Bewbush/Broadfield to Gatwick ride reduced to £2.40 if bought on their App. A week’s travel is £19.20 on the Metrobus App which for a five-day-ten-journeys-a-week commuter works out at £1.92 per journey compared to zeelo’s £1.39 for the ten ride package; but you have “weekend” travel on Metrobus free as a bonus when not commuting. Zeelo’s 50 ride package at £52.99 is the same price as the Metrobus 25 journey package on their smartcard (£53) therefore offering a fifty per cent discount.

Zeelo are offering free travel for the first two weeks of operation (normal prices begin next Tuesday) so I downloaded my bundle of twenty free trips and headed to Crawley this afternoon to road test this latest market entrant to the world of ‘smarter travel’.

I decided to book myself on the first journey of the afternoon, at 15:10 from the first stop on the Gatwick bound route at the roundabout near Bewbush/Broadfield. I tried logging on to zeelo’s website last night to get this all sorted but for some odd reason my email address had got corrupted by one letter in the zeelo database and it couldn’t log me in nor send me a ‘forgotten your password’ link. I tried re-registering with a different email address but got stumped by having to add my mobile number which it understandably told me had “already been registered with another account”. So I was stuck; locked out.

I sent an email through to the “contact us” helpline explaining my dilemma, and within a couple of minutes, if that, Simon replied and he soon resolved the problem by correcting the corrupted email address and we were back in business. Highly impressive to have access to personal service sorting out a techy problem at about 20:30 in the evening, so full marks to the zeelo team and Simon in particular for that great service.

Another issue was finding the Gatwick service on the zeelo website. It doesn’t appear on the home page of their zeelo.co site nor through any links I could find; instead you need to visit the alternative travel.zeelo.co website which has news releases about the company, and from where you can click on news of the Gatwick service launch and land at the booking page.

When you book your journey on line, if it’s a return journey you’re after, for each journey inbound to Gatwick, an option is listed of a return on each of the individual journeys back from the Airport on that day, including the very next departure, three minutes after you’ve arrived. This seems a bit unnecessary and it might be better to just list all the journeys once with passengers ticking the journey on which they wish to travel.

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I decided to return back from Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal at 16:10 which would be the second departure after my 15:37 arrival.

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The vehicles and drivers are provided by Ashford (Middlesex) based Passenger Plus+. The two mini-coaches used are based closer to Gatwick Airport though, at Pfizer’s UK headquarters in Tadworth – I’m guessing Passenger Plus+ do some contract work for Pfizer, so have a parking facility there.

IMG_7449.jpgThe two vehicles branded for zeelo are a ’16’ plate Mercedes 19 seater and a brand new very smart ’19’ plate Indcar (a Spanish manufacturer) 29 seater. Neither mini-coaches are accessible for wheelchairs and I noticed there’s not much room for luggage – the wheelie type compact suitcases beloved of flight crews. Not a problem in the early stages of the operation when passenger loadings are likely to be small, but it could be an issue if the buses get busy, especially the 19 seater.

IMG_7412.jpgI arrived at the Breezehurst Roundabout bus stop on the Horsham Road in good time for my 15:10 departure this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to be joined soon after by another passenger. She was a student working as an intern at Gatwick Airport for a month and had seen the minibuses on the road over the last few days so booked herself a journey to work “especially as it’s free at the moment”.

IMG_7410.jpgThis bit of Horsham Road is unserved by Metrobus and the bus stop pole is flag-less but specific stop information available in the zeelo App as well as online reassures that this is exactly the correct place to be waiting, and sure enough, on the dot of 15:10, Peter arrives to pick us up.

There’s no need to show him an electronic copy of the ticket as Peter simply checks our names which he is aware of and we set off. I’d been sceptical about whether we’d pick anyone else up at this time of the day, but sure enough as the journey continued we picked up two more passengers – both easyJet cabin crew going to work for a late shift – one at the Orchard Street stop in Peglar Way (near the town centre) and another on London Road.

IMG_7448.jpgIMG_7438.jpgThe Mercedes mini-coach has a ‘luxurious’ feel to it with comfortable seats, wi-fi and usb sockets. Peter gave us a smooth ride to the Airport. No-one on board alighted at Atlantic House at the South Terminal and we all continued to the bus stop by Jubilee House at the North Terminal – just two to three minutes walk from the Terminal building itself – where we arrived at 15:30. An impressive twenty minute ride. At this time of the day, Metrobus’s route 10 would have taken around thirty minutes travelling through Broadfield and the town centre as well as Manor Royal.

My fellow ‘intern’ passenger told me she was impressed with the quickness of the journey compared to route 10 which she had been using.

Peter didn’t wait until the next departure time of 15:40 back to Crawley but drove off after just a few minutes, presumably because no-one had booked for a ride so there was no need to wait.

IMG_7525.jpgMy return journey was the next departure at 16:10 and my driver Tembi again arrived on the dot of that time – it turned out no-one had booked on the incoming journey so he’d started this part of his shift from the North Terminal.

IMG_7527.jpgThis was the very impressive brand new Indcar 29 seater. Again, nice comfortable seats and a smooth ride; and this time it was just me travelling.

IMG_7528.jpgWe had a bit of a delay leaving the North Terminal being stuck behind a trio of National Express coaches loading up and there was a hold up by the level crossing in Horsham Road where a badly parked taxi led to alternate working.

IMG_7532.jpgDespite this we arrived back at the Breezehurst Roundabout (this time marked with a flag for only the first journey on route 24!) at 16:34 taking just 24 minutes.

IMG_7534.jpgIt made me wonder though, whether the 27 minute journey time over the next couple of hours of Crawley’s heavy peak hour late afternoon traffic might be a bit tight, especially as the mini-coaches don’t use Crawley’s bus lanes.

IMG_7446.jpgTembi was very friendly and was naturally hoping this new zeelo venture would be a success. He’s been with Passenger Plus+ for some time, having previously worked with Metrobus, and explained that his duty involved working on other contract work Passenger Plus+ have in their portfolio in the Crawley area in the morning switching to the zeelo work in the afternoon. It looks as though zeelo is a perfect fit for Passenger Plus+ and being a quality operator, they’re a perfect fit for zeelo.

Whether this new venture is a success will simply come down to if zeelo have found a big enough market served by the seven bus stops in Horsham Road and London Road to sustain eight journeys morning and afternoon to and from Gatwick Airport. I have my doubts, but I was very impressed that three passengers travelled on my outward journey after just a few days operation.

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Travelling with zeelo offers a great customer experience and full marks for that, although in addition to the website confusion mentioned earlier, there were one or two other teething problems with the technology, for example not being able to track where the driver was (even though a link was provided by text to my phone) and pick up locations being duplicated rather than showing the drop off location.

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Metrobus also has a well deserved excellent reputation for offering a great customer experience too; their Crawley garage has topped the UK Bus Awards Garage of the Year on a number of occasions and the company as a whole is a regular in the finalists’ short list. You might conclude that if there was a profitable market from those seven bus stops, then Metrobus would already be there.

Zeelo’s prices are excellent value, but it might need a build up in confidence among passengers before they’re prepared to outlay £88 for that bargain 88p a ride within the 100 ride package.

Metrobus have the benefit of serving a much wider area including penertrating residential areas and serving the town centre and Manor Royal. Those markets are unavilable on the zeelo service.

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Comparing posters advertising departures at the North Terminal highlights the different options now on offer for Airport employees living on the edge of Bewbush and Broadfield. Frequency versus fast and cheap.

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It’s certainly an interesting development in the expanding Gatwick and Crawley transport market and certainly one to watch in the coming months.

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Roger French

 

Britain’s most southerly bus stop…

… and other west Cornwall travels.

Thursday 8th August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five reflections on the last couple of days’ travels:

1. Transforming Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

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

Three days in Dorset and Somerset

Monday 5th August 2019

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

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

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

FRIDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SATURDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Roger French

A day in Lothian

Wednesday 31st July 2019

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

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

Route 600

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Arrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5192.jpg

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

Bright Bus Tours

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

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

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

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

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

It was noticeable that First Bus are emphasising price ….

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

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

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

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

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

More in the next blog.

Roger French