TfL’s least frequent bus route

Tuesday 9th April 2019

IMG_3806.jpgTransport for London’s bus service 969 is the last route standing of a once substantial ‘Mobility Bus’ network of routes operating one or two days a week to a local shopping centre from relatively low-density neighbourhoods where no alternative mainstream route in the main bus network served the area. In the old days the buses were wheelchair accessible so also provided a service for those with impaired mobility.

Improvements to London’s bus route network over the last twenty years or so has seen new smaller buses able to penetrate residential areas previously off limits to bigger buses, as well as the widespread introduction of low floor accessible vehicles, so the Mobility Bus network as was is no longer relevant to the Capital’s transport network, particularly as TfL also fund an extensive Dial-A-Ride network of minibuses operating all over London for those with severe mobility needs.

Route 969 runs one return journey on a Tuesday and Friday at 10am starting in a couple of micro-sized residential areas in Whitton (near Twickenham) to the south off the Chertsey Road before heading north and joining the more frequent H37 route past St Margarets and then joining five other routes into Richmond.

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 16.11.22.pngFrom Richmond it heads east towards Barnes along the Upper Richmond Road, also served by three other bus routes, except our 969 bifurcates to pass by Mortlake Station, the River Thames (pictured below) and Barnes Bridge Station as well as the delightful Barnes Pond before heading back south at the Wetland Centre passing Barnes Station and then deviating off into another small residential area unserved by other bus routes called Lennox Estate.

IMG_3715.jpgThe 969’s final furlong is south again via Roehampton Lane turning right on to the A3, Roehampton Vale and Kingston Vale, where it terminates at the large Asda.

The journey time is scheduled for 62 minutes with an 11.02am arrival at Asda allowing for around two and a quarter hours shopping time before returning to Whitton at 1.15pm.

Aside from School and Night Buses it’s the one bus route in London I haven’t had the pleasure of riding, so intrigued as to why it continues running as TfL responds to its financial crisis by cutting frequencies and routes across the Capital, I decided to take a ride this morning.

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IMG_3669.jpgThe Abellio operated bus arrived in Rosebine Avenue, a short nondescript link road from the A316 Chertsey Road into a small cul-de-sac triangle of roads at spot on the scheduled time of 10am and despite there being a timetable posted on the opposite side of the road, the bus pulled up and an empty shopping trolley wheeling passenger who, like me, had been lurking for the previous ten minutes climbed gratefully aboard across the grass verge.

IMG_3699.jpgI’d done a little recce around the Gladstone Avenue triangle and already clocked a lorry delivering bricks to one of the bungalows which would cause a problem when the bus arrived; but luckily unloading had virtually finished by the time we got there and the delay was only a few minutes.

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IMG_3703.jpgWe’d picked up four more passengers outside their bungalows as we cruised around Gladstone Avenue and Rosecroft Gardens (meeting another obstacle as a van gingerly reversed into a parking spot) ….IMG_3705.jpg….. before rejoining the Chertsey Road for our next loop along Lincoln Avenue where Google Maps identifies four ‘recognised’ bus stops but I spotted only one timetable case at the beginning of Lincoln Avenue with no identification at the other three locations.

And that was it, as we got back on the Chertsey Road and headed south to the roundabout with the B358 (Hospital Bridge Road) and then retraced our route northwards.

IMG_3664.jpgThe Chertsey Road (A316) is a fast dual carriageway which feeds directly to and from the M3 so there’s no scope for any more bus stops along the way, even though no other bus routes use it, until we turned right on to St Margarets Road and could safely stop by the station where we picked up two passengers who confidently boarded us even though the normal H37 pulled up behind. One of these travelled just a couple of stops and the other rode the six stops into Richmond where two of our original five Gladstone Avenue boarders alighted. Another had already left us just after St Margarets leaving just two on board.

In Richmond we picked up another befuddled passenger wondering what a 969 was and who was just doing a two stop hop, and on the outskirts of East Sheen our driver implored a passenger waiting at Berwyn Road to board us even though she also was just hopping along for two stops. We were back to just the two original Gladstonians on board again.

By the time we passed Mortlake station we were thirteen minutes behind schedule and then we hit trouble at the Wetland Centre in Barnes as a long queue of traffic heading south along Rocks Lane towards Barnes Station was confirmed on Google Maps to be caused by roadworks and tortuously slow temporary traffic lights.

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We eventually made it to the junction of Roehampton Lane and Upper Richmond Road where we headed off to the Lennox Estate and I was astounded to see we were besieged by nine shopping trolley wielding passengers all relieved to see us at last, by then being around twenty-five minutes late.

IMG_3728.jpgAs everyone clambered aboard with our driver sorting out the trolleys so they were neatly stacked he also warned there was another building supplies delivery ahead with the offending lorry completely blocking our path around the estate.

IMG_3733.jpgOur driver Sina, who until now had been ably deputising for regular driver Steve who was away on his holidays (you pick these news snippets up on bus routes of this kind, although no-one knew whether Steve had gone abroad) doned his high-viz and wandered down to see what the prognosis was.

IMG_3730.jpgHaving been sitting awkwardly for around an hour in my favourite single deck London bus seat immediately behind the centre doors (where you can keep an eye on most things) due to bus manufacturers once again not catering for anyone with a shoe size larger than size 5, I’d already decided to give up my seat to those boarding with various walking aids and needing it far more than me, so now got off the bus to see what might be done to alleviate the lorry blockage.

IMG_3711.jpgSina soon returned and announced there’d be a twenty minute delay while the unloading continued, but our nine regular Lennox Estate passengers were having none of that, and explained Steve often reverses back up and goes around the estate the “wrong way” before making a u-turn in a lay-by and retracing his steps.

Screen Shot 2019-04-09 at 17.37.02.pngGallantly I offered to help Sina reverse back and we performed the ‘Steve contingency plan’, but in the event not picking any more passengers up. Turns out Mavis wasn’t up for shopping today and had given the bus a miss.

We made it back to the junction of Roehampton Lane and Upper Richmond Road we’d last seen about 10-15 minutes ago, and it was foot down all the way to Roehampton Vale arriving at Asda around half an hour late.

IMG_3742.jpgSina helped unload all the shopping trolleys before taking the bus off to the official ‘Bus Stand’ on the slip road off the A3 where he parked up until the return journey at 1.15pm.

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What an extraordinary journey. What an extraordinary bus route. Aside from those who just jumped on board the 969 rather than taking a bus on a standard route following behind for their short hop rides; we’d taken three Gladstonians shopping in Richmond and two all the way to Roehampton’s Asda (which was strange as, aside from Richmond’s supermarkets [OK, inevitably a Waitrose] there’s an Asda in Twickenham just off the Chertsey Road about five minutes into our journey; although I appreciate it would be a bit of a walk and no real return journey option other than waiting for the 969 to come back, so you might as well enjoy the hour’s ride to Roehampton Vale and back I suppose). Then there were the nine (including two school holidaying children) Lennox residents who with a short walk to Roehampton Lane could get the standard route 265 which also serves Roehampton Vale’s Asda.

There was one other passenger who boarded in Lincoln Avenue at the start of our journey and travelled all the way to the terminus, like me, it turned out the young man was enjoying his school holiday taking a bus route just for the intrigue of it.

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I’m puzzled how the 969 can survive TfL’s funding challenges. But then TfL have always been an organisation with quirky aspects to its policy decisions. Not least the bus stop I spotted in Sheen Lane, Mortlake – a road only served by the two-journeys-a-week route 969 and where more frequent bus routes pass at either end of the road, as well as South Western Railway trains to everywhere you’d want to go …. yet, someone at TfL Towers authorised a fully fledged bus shelter just in case anyone wanted to wait for those two occasions a week to go somewhere you can get to more easily another way. I’m willing to wager no-one has ever waited at that shelter; ever.

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It must be London’s least used bus shelter, by far!

IMG_3814.jpgAnd ironically the spider map it displays doesn’t show the 969; the one route passing by; it’s relegated to being classified as an “other route”. It may not have a coloured line on a map; but it’s got a bus shelter!

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A quirky ending for a quirky bus route tale.

Roger French

 

Two penultimate bus journeys

Friday 5th April 2019

IMG_3585.jpgIt’s that time of year when local authorities begin a fresh financial twelve months which with dindling Government funding often means less money to spend than the year just ended. For subsidised bus routes that can only mean one thing … another round of cuts and withdrawals. I’ve been out over the last fortnight taking a ride on rural routes facing the axe.

Following a public outcry at the scale of proposed cuts to seventy bus routes announced by Kent County Council in November 2017 the local authority embarked on a consultation exercise branded as the ‘Big Convesation’ along with an inevitable ‘Bus Summit’ or two. This led to a very positive outcome with savings in the bus support budget for 2019/20 scalled back from a reported whopping £2.25m to a more modest £455,000. Stagecoach and Go-Coach Hire had made suggestions for sensible economies in the Thanet and Sevenoaks/Edenbridge areas which are being implemented this weekend. I took a ride on the routes and journeys disappearing around Sevenoaks to see what will be missed.

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Go-Coach Hire operated route 404 is a route of two halves. It connects Edenbridge, Four Elms and Ide Hill to Sevenoaks from the south west with a journey at 0725 (principally for school children) and back again at 1555 as well as a later journey back at 1735 which only continues beyond Four Elms if needed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 14.35.17.pngSecondly it links the villages of Godden Green, Stone Street, Ivy Hatch, Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol to Sevenoaks from the east also with a school timed journey at 0740 and return at 1526 as well as three off peak journeys for shoppers two of which continue through to Ide Hill to the west of Sevenoaks (on the way towards Edenbridge). There’s a late afternoon journey at 1735 but this only continues beyond Ivy Hatch if needed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 14.36.18.pngThe new timetable from next Monday removes the off peak circuit serving Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol furthest east (but these villages are also served by route 222 operated by Autocar runing north-south between Borough Green and Tonbridge) and reduces the number off peak journeys from three to two as far as Ivy Hatch. However, in a positive development these journeys will continue all the way through to Edenbridge rather than Ide Hill as previously together with an extra new morning journey from Edenbridge as far as Sevenoaks.

What’s being taken away from the east, opens up new journey opportunities to the west of Sevenoaks.

IMG_3564.jpgYesterday was the penultimate day of the current timetable and I took a ride heading east on the 1415 journey from Sevenoaks to Plaxtol and back again. There were just two passengers besides me. The female passenger got off after a delightful twenty minute ride through Godden Green, Bitchet Common and Bitchet Green at the lovely village of Ivy Hatch while a man took the bus around the soon to be abandoned circular route including Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol (which was well worth it too, as can be seen in the photgraph below, taken while we waited time at Shipbourne Church) and he alighted at the National Trust property of Ightham Mote, where he had an hour and a half to explore before the bus would take him back on the return journey after the school trip.

IMG_3566.jpgIn the new timetable it’s good to see Ightham Mote (a medieval moated manor house) will still be served by bus with an arrival at 1043 and a departure at 1340. Not that the National Trust will be bothered, as their priority sadly seems to be to attract motorists more than anyone else as the notice on the driveway to Ightham Mote captured below confirmed.

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IMG_3569.jpgWe didn’t carry anyone else on the outward journey or anyone coming back into Sevenoaks on the return journey at all, so it’s unlikely this bus is going to be missed by many actual passengers and frankly it makes for a sensible economy. Mind you, when you see the large mansion style exclusive properties we passed on the journey it’s perhaps not surprising –  one private road even had a barrier to restrict entry, it was that exclusive!

IMG_3577.jpgReturning to Sevenoaks, this bus left again at 1526 for its next journey to Plaxtol but with no-one on board although it undoubtedly picks up school children returning home from the nearby academy.

The same thing happened on the next journey I took, heading west, the 1555 to Edenbridge, which had been to the nearby Knowle Academy first and picked up 27 school kids going home to Ide Hill, Four Elms and Edenbridge. I was the only non school kid travelling – and it was quite an experience too.

IMG_3595.jpgOn yesterday’s showing of such sparse loadings, rural residents around Sevenoaks are doing well to still be receiving a bus service running each day Monday to Friday, albeit limited in frequency. It’s a shame more journeys can’t be justified, as it really is a lovely rural ride and well worth seeking out if you’re ever in Sevenoaks.

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Service 405 is a Wednesday only bus route linking West Kingsdown (to the north east of Sevenoaks) and the hamlets of Woodlands and East Hill through Otford to Sevenoaks. Aside from the positioning journeys from and to Sevenoaks which avoid the circuitous routing, there’s just one return journey a week operated by Go-Coach Hire. It leaves West Kingsdown at 0935 arriving in Sevenoaks at 1017 and returns at 1230. It ran for the very last time this week on Wednesday, 3rd April as it’s now been completely withdrawn. I travelled on its penultimate journey last week.

IMG_2806.jpgThe main purpose of the route seems to be to serve the mobile home community, many of whom are of pensionable age, at East Hill Farm which is located at the end of a very long and extremely narrow, winding dead end road. These residents really are isolated and rely on their one Wednesday journey a week to travel into Sevenoaks for shopping.

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The report to Kent County Council’s Environment and Transport Cabinet Committee meeting on 17th January which approved the withdrawal reckoned “no more than two passengers use it weekly”. When I travelled last week there were twelve regular passengers returning on the 1230 bus (as well as another six taking a final ride like me, just out of interest before the route ends).

IMG_2864.jpgSeven got off at East Hill who all seemed to be regulars with two others alighting in the Hillingdon Rise residential area in Sevenoaks, exclusively served by the 405, and another in Otford, while two others continued into West Kingsdown.

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I saw a similar number boarding the journey in Sevenoaks bus station a few weeks ago. I do feel sorry for these people, who’ll now be completely cut off from a bus route to their nearest town.

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Kent County Council have committed to pilot a “Taxi-bus” as a part replacement for the 405, but this doesn’t seem to be starting until June. No wonder they all had overfull shopping trolleys last week.

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 20.56.45.pngHowever, all is not lost as I spotted a notice in the bus shelter in West Kingsdown explaining that Buses4U (a Community Bus Operator) runs a Thursday journey to Bluewater and Gravesend on route 422 but it would seem you have to be a “member” at East Hill to travel, so that rules me out.

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I’m indebted to fellow 405 passenger and blog reader, Terrence, who told me about the quirky history of route 405, explaining it has its origins in an initiative by Dr H Nesbitt Heffernan who started the Thames Weald Travel Society in the mid 1960s to provide services to villages left isolated when London Transport withdrew routes as well as running a route through the Dartford Tunnel to Romford and one to Crawley for a time. It’s done well to continue for so many years and it will be interesting to see whether the Taxi-bus proves to be a sensible alternative.

Kent County Council will save a modest sum from withdrawing the 405 but it’s not clear how much the taxibus initiative will be costing.

Go-Coach Hire may generate some extra business by switching resouces on the 404 from the Shipbourne and Plaxtol end of the route for a more regular link between Sevenoaks and Edenbridge which itself is a lovely ride with a great view of Bough Beech Reservoir leaving Ide Hill towards Edenbridge.

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Finally another positive shout out to Go-Coach Hire for their presentational skills. It was good to see timetables on display in Sevenoaks bus station ready for the new routes and their new numbers (the 404 becomes the 4) starting on Monday and bus stop plates had been updated with new numbers to reflect routes taken over from Arriva.

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Meanwhile Arriva still don’t know what year we’re in on their website despite being advised …..!

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As a postscript I also travelled on the aforementioned Autocar operated route 222 between Tonbridge and Borough Green yesterday, and as I tweeted while travelling, was somewhat appalled by the condition of the vehicle.

IMG_3519.jpgWhile it was nice to ride this pictureseque route on a double decker, the filthy condition of the interior and the cracked upper deck front window presented a terrible image for bus travel.

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IMG_3488.jpgI sat upstairs with two regular passengers who commented how busy the journey was yet we only had eight on board from Tonbridge at 1222 and only me and two others travelled the whole journey to Borough Green. We dropped one passenger off in Ightham, just before Borough Green, where it meets the Arriva route 308 from Sevenoaks via Borough Green to Gravesend at exactly the same arrival time, 1258. Luckily he made the connection, but he’d been worrying the whole journey whether he’d miss it and have an hour to wait for the next bus. Strikes me a small retiming of the 222 would make all the difference … as would a decent bus to travel on too.

Suffice to say we picked no-one up along the journey nor dropped anyone off in the Shipbourne, Dunk’s Green and Plaxtol villages we passed through and being abandoned by the 404.

Roger French

 

I won’t let a software glitch beat me

Monday 1st April 2019

IMG_3381.jpgI’d seen the build up in the trade press last summer. Another ‘on-demand’ ‘ride-sharing’ ‘app-based’ ‘innovative’ minibus service due to start running between central/north London and Luton airport from October 2018.

The operation called ‘Blue Bus’ would “drop you off as near to your home as we can”. Obviously there would be an “Uber-style app … matching customers to the closest pick up point”. It sounded too good to be true to be covering all of central and north London. I bookmarked it to follow up the launch with a ride.

October 2018 came and went but no news of the new service starting. I emailed Blue Bus founder and owner, Tazio Puri Negri to enquire about progress and he said he’d “keep me posted”.

IMG_E3308.jpgI heard no more until last week when a fullsome effusive  four page article appeared in the same trade magazine confirming what was now called B.Bus has been up and running for a month ….. and “we already carried around 20 passengers in the first two weeks”.

The article continued “at the moment the service is offered 7am till 5.30pm and is only available between Luton Airport and central and north London …. the long term strategy is to cover all the major airports of London. Gatwick is planned as our second expansion. There are even plans for airports to be served outside of the UK, but currently the Luton operation is where the focus for the time being will remain”. Just as well.

Unable to resist trying out anything new (and innovative) I downloaded the prerequisite B.Bus app, registered as a customer, and made my plans.IMG_3390.jpgI must have missed the bit when it said pick ups/set downs are initially only in the Paddington and Bayswater area, and it could well be my personal technical limitations at how to use apps but I found I could only default to having Luton Airport as the origin rather than destination for my journey.

Undeterred I headed off to Luton airport today to give B.Bus a try for a central London bound journey.

I’m sure it was something I’d not ticked or perhaps unwittingly opted out of, but arriving at the airport, my app wouldn’t accept any destination I entered despite using the inbuilt map or typing its name in manually. It got as far as telling me Paddington was a 3 minute walk away from Paddington Station but that’s as far as I got.

I decided to try the nuclear option of deleting the app and starting again. Trouble was the App Store wanted Wi-fi and I found my phone fighting between the various Wi-fi offers from National Express, Green Line and Arriva vehicles arriving and departing in the coach station – all of which need logging into or getting their own back by blocking Internet access. Increasingly frustrated I took refuge in the Terminal building and used their Wi-fi.

App successfully downloaded again and having logged back in as an already registered customer, I impressed myself with finally successfully booking and paying for a journey to Paddington and very impressively being advised a bus would be with me within 10 minutes. All I needed to do was take a 9 minute walk to the drop off/pick up point for cars and non scheduled coaches as B.Bus doesn’t come into Luton Airport’s coach station right in front of the Terminal building.

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I’d looked on the app on my way to the Airport at likely waiting times and saw what looked like an hourly service so was well chuffed to have dropped lucky at just a ten minute wait.IMG_3160.jpgI received a confirmatory text at 1306 that my journey was booked and scurried off to try and find the rendezvous point in ‘Drop Off zone area Bay F’ ready for a 1316 departure. This was impressive stuff.

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Once I’d worked out which way to walk it only took about five minutes and although the Bay letters are marked and positioned for the convenience of drivers and hidden from approaching passengers (other than Bay O) I eventually found Bay F and waited.

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And waited.

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And waited.

By 1330, fifteen minutes after my driver Simon had been due, I began to have that nagging feeling this wasn’t going to work out well. By 1345 I was on the point of giving up. The problem being there’s no contact details in the app and replying to the confirmation text just brought back ‘message not delivered’.

Luckily a bus industry insider had the mobile phone number of B.Bus owner Tazio Puri Negri so I gave him a ring to find out what was happening. A colleague answered and said he’d look into it and call me back within five minutes.

Which he did. Simon would be with me in twenty minutes and I’d be refunded my £7.99 fare. Sincere apologies were given with Simon’s non appearance put down to a software glitch which had shown no bookings for the afternoon.

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Simon duly arrived with me at 1430 and I was finally on my way. We had a nice chat as we drove down the M1 and encountered only a short stretch of slow moving traffic near the M25 delaying progress and some minor delays on the Finchley Road.

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Simon explained he’d got seriously delayed on the way up to the Airport by a crash on the M1 and also apologised for keeping me waiting as I boarded. I explained that I understood there’d been a software problem and he acknowledged he hadn’t received details of my booked journey.

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The Iveco minibus is comfortable and its nineteen seats give good leg room. A usb socket is available in the side panels. There is Wi-fi but my phone didn’t seem to pick it up. Three of the minibuses are natural gas (CNG) powered necessitating a special trip to fuel up in London while the fleet has another similar three diesel powered Iveco Daily Tourys vehicles.

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As we approached the end of the M1 Simon explained he was getting tight on drivers’ hours as he had to get back and fuel up before finishing his duty so we mutually agreed it would suit us both if I bailed out at Finchley Road and I’d jump on the Jubilee line and Simon could head back north before the homebound rush hour hit the M1.

It had taken 50 minutes to reach Finchley Road from Luton Airport and we bid our farewells.

 

Tazio and his B.Bus team are joining a highly competitive central London to Luton Airport market. Who can forget the legal battles between Arriva’s Green Line and National Express over the airport coach station access a few years ago. No wonder B.Bus is banished to the outer fringe of the airport although that presumably means a nice saving on departure charges.

The £7.99 fare is a bargain; setting aside software glitches, if I was a regular passenger needing to get to the Paddington area and was able to easily master the app and could summon up a comfortable luxury looking minibus to arrive within ten minutes, that’s a very attractive proposition at a great deal. When I travelled on Arriva’s Green Line 757 last September it cost £11 one way to Victoria.

On the strength of today’s experience though, it’s going to be a monumental task to make it a commercial success. Sure there are lots of hotels in the Paddington/Bayswater area and no doubt a percentage of their visitors pass through Luton Airport but I’m not convinced that market is big enough to sustain six minibuses.

As ever promotion and getting the service known in the marketplace is a Himalayan mountain to climb, and very costly too. It’s early days but I couldn’t see a social media presence (certainly the link from the app doesn’t work) and I can’t find a website by Googling ‘B.Bus Luton Airport’ or anything similar.

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Apps are the current fashion but why not run a scheduled hourly shuttle on fixed times between Paddington and Luton Airport – at least we’d all know what to expect and when to expect it rather than the lottery of whether a minibus is around and can be with me “within minutes”.

It might be today’s software glitch but when I tried to rebook my journey the app was telling me “There are no buses available at this moment please try scheduling a ride”. That’s not much good if I’ve just stepped off the plane especially when trying to schedule a ride, the app could only offer me a journey tomorrow morning after 0730.

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It’s always good to see new services being tried and I wish Team Tazio good luck; I think they’ll need it. I wouldn’t worry too much about those expansion plans for Gatwick and other airports just yet though and definitely and urgently get today’s software glitch sorted.

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Roger French

4,200 bus seats for Edinburgh

Tuesday 19th March 2019

Lothian Buses have just started operating their brand new 100 seat tri-axle buses in service on city routes 11 and 16. I thought I’d take a ride.

IMG_2389.jpgThey’re Alexander Dennis Enviro400XLB bodies on a Volvo chassis (according to the swanky promotional video which plays out every five minutes or so on two of the four on board TV screens – a pair on each deck). I think most passengers were just impressed they were smart new buses with lots of seats to travel on, rather than a manufacturer’s techy sounding bus model name check!

IMG_1977.jpgThey’re not all out in service yet – it takes a while to commission 42 new buses (although thankfully not as long as commissioning new trains), as I found out first thing this morning when four consecutive older buses turned up in Princes Street between 0650 and 0735 on route 11.

IMG_2299.jpgMy patience paid off though as one of the gleaming new jumbo sized buses eventually arrived and I began my first trip to route 11’s southern terminus at Hyvots Bank. About fifteen passengers had spread themselves out on both decks, which wasn’t hard as there really is a lot of room, both upstairs and down to spread out in.

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IMG_2377.jpgIMG_2383.jpgThe seats are very comfortable with ample leg room throughout.

IMG_2346.jpgThe two front offside seats upstairs has particularly generous legroom, as does the nearside seat over the first set of rear wheels.

IMG_2371.jpgIMG_2503.jpgBeing a tri-axle there’s a longer than usual wheel arch giving a double set of backward facing seats.

IMG_2498.jpgSome bus companies are now eliminating rear facing seats and replacing them with other novelties like a reading shelf. This also helps deter feet-on-seat syndrome. But here the name of the game is to maximise seating capacity.

Obviously there are the usual usb charging plugs and Wi-fi is available. There’s also some nice mood red strip lighting around the bus (see photos above and below) and smart spot lights making for a particularly inviting ambiance at night.

IMG_2419.jpgStrangely for a bus with a lot of room there’s only a single ‘three tip-up’ sized space for a wheelchair or a buggy.

IMG_2385.jpgOn one journey a passenger using a wheelchair boarded which meant no buggies could be carried and on another a buggy soon occupied the space with a second having to be folded.

IMG_2415.jpgSome bus companies are now installing two wheelchair spaces which has the benefit of increasing the chances for buggy owners to travel easily too.

The buses are double doored and the already mentioned on board video explains that passengers should exit through the rear door and an on-board warning announcement plays out every time they close.

IMG_2393.jpgThe pairs of screen monitors are behind the staircase facing the rear on the lower deck and at the top of the front window on the upper deck, sadly restricting the forward view a touch for front gangway seat passengers.

IMG_2500.jpgIMG_2349.jpgI’m not a great fan of screens inside buses, and certainly not two of them in pairs. I just think it’s way over the top leading to information overload. On the positive side the left hand screen (upstairs) and top screen (downstairs) show very clearly and helpfully the next three bus stops (the next one being announced too) and every so often within a display cycle the right hand screen (upstairs) and lower screen (downstairs) shows the expected arrival time at key points further along the route which is an excellent idea – a similar display in the Airlink buses to Edinburgh Airport helpfully gives up to date flight departures (and I know other bus companies are following Reading’s lead in showing train departures too).

IMG_2350.jpgThis is all good stuff but I reckon the same effective content can be achieved by cycling through displays on just the one screen rather than having two.

All the more so as the rest of the display cycle comprises PR messages about how many tonnes of carbon are being saved or videos about using apps to sync with friends so they’ll get a text message to know just when your bus is arriving.

IMG_E2501.jpgIMG_2432.jpgI’m not convinced passengers are avidly watching these things and indeed on a busy bus if you’re sitting towards the middle or rear you can’t make out the screens anyway.

Funnily enough despite all the gizmos there wasn’t any information displayed about the temporary arrangements at the northern terminus of the route – at the busy tourist spot of Ocean Terminal, where the normal terminal bus stops had been suspended.

IMG_2461.jpgMy journey down to Hyvots Bank was ‘against the flow’ of commuters and scholars heading into the city centre so was fairly lightly loaded but it gave me a chance to spot buses on route 11 heading towards the city and I was highly impressed at seeing busy buses which kept on passing by with very few spare seats.

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IMG_2364.jpgI can certainly appreciate why 100 seat buses make sense on such a busy corridor through the Morningside area heading into the city centre. The current timetable supplements route 11’s daytime ten minute frequency with extra peak hour journeys running at least every five minutes. It looked to me as though there were extra buses to those with at one point four buses virtually following each other, and not long after four more, all well loaded.

IMG_2365.jpgComing back into the city on my return journey between 0800 and 0900 we also got busier and busier as we approached the stop called Morningside Station (there isn’t one) and it was interesting to note there were seats available on the top deck especially towards the rear but downstairs was obviously getting crowded and congested with our driver calling out for passengers to go upstairs “where there are plenty of seats”.

IMG_2414.jpgIMG_2416.jpgI read Richard Hall, Lothian’s MD, suggesting the introduction of these high capacity buses might enable reductions in frequency. On the strength of this morning’s observations I’m not sure you’d be able to squeeze too many peak buses out, they’re very busy, although not all the route is yet run with the new buses.

Slightly off topic I was very pleased to note Lothian Buses have now relaxed their £10 minimum transaction value for the purchase of mobile tickets so I was able to buy a one day ticket for £4 – and a great bargain it is too.

But one other Lothian tradition still baffles me and that’s the absence of using the famous and popular Princes Street where many passengers board and alight as a timing point either in timetables or on the onboard displays.

IMG_2507.jpgIt must confuse visitors and tourists that the only references are to either Elm Row or West End, Lothian Road which are the stops before and after Princes Road – and 14 minutes apart at that. Most odd.

Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 20.02.27.pngLothian are excellent at providing timetable information – displays of leaflets in their Travel Centre and bus station – and there’s a colourful diagrammatic network map. Their website is full of well laid out helpful information and their fares are great value. There’s real time information via online and on the app as well as at many bus stops with a long established system that now looks a bit dated, albeit seemed to be working well, including switching to giving advice about using the new (Enviro400XLB) buses!

IMG_2221.jpgIMG_2222.jpgAs usual I found Lothian drivers to be cheerful and professional including taking obvious care with the longer than usual new buses not to block junctions…

IMG_2358.jpgAll in all a great positive development to see these new high capacity buses in service. I’m sure there are applications for such workhorses elsewhere in the country.

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Roger French

An Anglian Adventure

Thursday 14th March 2019

It began a month ago. A day out to Norwich to travel route 88 via Bungay and Halesworth to Southwold, where I’d catch the four-journey-a-day tendered route 90 which returns to Halesworth via a very circuitous route through some delightful Suffolk villages as well as the small town of Beccles. Both routes were formerly operated by Anglian Bus until the more recent decision by owners Go-Ahead to phase out that company name and brand in favour of neighbouring Konectbus. News had come that Konectbus had given notice to withdraw the 88 from 1st March following a resurgent First Bus competing on the route between Norwich and Bungay and “sustained losses of several million pounds on our Beccles based operations in the last few years”.

Evening and Sunday journeys are tendered by Norfolk County Council with the section of route between Halesworth and Southwold on the 88, as well as the entire 90, being Suffolk tenders so these needed longer notice periods and are continuing until the end of this month (the tendered bit of route 88) or Easter (route 90).

IMG_8602.jpgIntrigued by all this I headed off to Norwich to investigate. In the event things didn’t work out as planned. The journey I planned to catch on the 88 at 1205 from Norwich was cancelled at short notice due to staff sickness meaning an hours delay and a missed connection in Southwold to the infrequent route 90.

I quickly abandoned the idea of reaching Southwold, took the next 88 as far as Halesworth, and returned home by train from there. The enforced delay in Norwich gave me a chance to assess how Konectbus (and the former Anglian Bus) are doing some years on from Go-Ahead’s acquisitions in March 2010 and April 2012 respectively and inspired me to make plans for a longer return visit to further investigate bus operations in this part of East Anglia, which I was able to achieve this week.

This blog summarises my findings.

1. What are Go-Ahead doing in East Anglia anyway?

IMG_1666.jpgIt’s not surprising the wheels are coming off. The post deregulation history of PLC transport groups in East Anglia is not encouraging. First Bus have struggled for years throughout the region. Their Essex operations are down-at-heel befitting the struggling finances. Norwich based operations are looking better than for many a year (and amazingly now seeing off Go-Ahead on the 88) but they gave up on large parts of Suffolk and Norfolk years ago. Stagecoach tried its hand and failed spectacularly with Norfolk Green.

When the talk was a possible sale of municipally owned Ipswich Buses in the early 2010s it may have made sense for Go-Ahead to buy up a few small independents to build a presence in the region in preparation for a bid. A decade on it makes no sense to be running low margin tendered work at all. To be running substantial loss making operations in a largely rural area remote from other Go-Ahead operations is a complete nonsense.

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IMG_8584.jpgWhat’s more, the image doesn’t look good either. On the positive side the Travel Centre in Norwich bus station, staffed by Konectbus, looks smart and offers an impressive display of timetables covering all bus operators in the city, as does the Norwich Park and Ride operation but the state of the Company’s vehicles on other routes is anything but smart and leaves much to be desired.

IMG_8588.jpgWith one exception shown above (indicating the bus wash must have been working), buses were filthy and unattractive. Some were still in Bluestar livery which must look odd to passengers unaware of that award winning sister Go-Ahead company on the south coast. The image portrayed reminded me of a down-at-heel small time bus operator on the verge of going out of business rather than a subsidiary of a well regarded aspirational multi national transport group quoted on the stock market proud of its reputation. Shareholders wouldn’t be proud of this image nor should management.

IMG_8589.jpgIMG_8591.jpgIMG_8595.jpgMy next departure at 1305 on the 88 on my aborted day trip unimpressively left late because the driver failed to turn up on time meaning passengers experienced well over an hour to wait and of course there was a double load to load too, and for a route in its last couple of weeks operation was actually quite a decent load.IMG_8678.jpgIMG_8698.jpgDown in north Essex and south Suffolk Go-ahead owned Hedingham and Chambers (also both acquired in the 2012 Anglian buying spree) present a smarter image but there are odd inconsistencies in corporate livery. Despite my keen interest in these things I was confused what each brand/company was supposed to look like or whether they were supposed to look the same; goodness knows what passengers and potential passengers think. It’s a complete muddle.IMG_1385.jpgIMG_1221.jpgIMG_1103.jpgIMG_1239.jpgIMG_1092.jpgThe Chambers operated 753/754 trunk route between Colchester, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds seems well run as does the Hedingham run 88 (yes, another 88) between Colchester and Halstead (in a long standing joint operation with First Bus – from the days of Eastern Counties and Hedingham working together) and route 89 between Halstead and Braintree all of which I sampled, but these routes will never be double digit profit margin bankers for a PLC.IMG_1198.jpgMy advice to Go-Ahead is to get First Bus to agree a couple of hundred grand off the price of Manchester Queens Road and throw this lot in as part of a transfer deal. It would make for a sensible ‘Withdrawal Deal’ for Go-Ahead in Anglia. Another exit strategy would ironically be to sell the former independently operated routes back to, err, an independent operator (see below).

2. A mixed First Bus bag

IMG_1809.jpgI mentioned above that First Bus seem to have got their act together in Norwich now looking smarter and presentable. The high profile excel ‘X1’ route at one time from Peterborough to Lowestoft, now split into manageable sections, still brings quality looking buses into Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. While at one time Anglian Bus seemed to be running rings around First Bus on the Norwich, Beccles, Lowestoft corridor nowadays First’s X2 (fast) and X22 (via Loddon) provide four buses an hour (two on each route) making for a decent service which seemed well used on my travels.

IMG_1827.jpgLowestoft has always seemed to be low down the First Bus priority list whenever I’ve visited and this time was no exception.

IMG_1805.jpgIMG_1806.jpgThe hourly route 99 down to Kessingland and Southwold was characteristically operated by ‘W’ registration double deckers dating from 2000 giving a travel experience befitting of the east coast resort’s dated image.

IMG_1787.jpgThe bespoke livery variation used in Ipswich looks smarter than plain First Bus colours, if a bit dull, but with seat backs also branded for these operations I fail to understand the logic of where local branding fits into the First Bus strategy. There was a time Corporate HQ told us it was essential to have a nationwide corporate livery so that buses could easily and cost effectively be transferred around the country as needed (in addition to satisfying Aberdeen’s corporate ego). So what’s with the bespoke seats then?

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IMG_1605.jpgIt would be so much better if those Aberdeen control freaks just empowered managing directors to reintroduce proper local branding and really show what could be achieved in tune with the Anglian market.IMG_1599.jpgSadly First Bus still leave a lot to be desired when it comes to detail. I wasn’t impressed catching the early morning 0615 departure on route 64 from Ipswich to Aldeburgh after initially being reassured to find the bus already screened up and waiting on stand soon after 0600 only to find the driver saunter up to the bus at 0622 and load the six of us boarding, one of whom told me it happens every day. IMG_1590.jpgWe finally left ten minutes late at 0625 but by Woodbridge were already ahead of scheduled time so waited four minutes there, a further five minute wait at Wickham Market and finally arrived Southwold two minutes early.IMG_1610.jpgYou can easily take twenty minutes out of the scheduled time for that journey and stop regular passengers having to wait on a cold windy morning for the bus doors to open at the bus station. I tweeted this experience to First’s centralised tweeting operation; obviously didn’t receive any reply or apology, not even an acknowledgement. Frankly a contemptuous way to treat passengers.IMG_1165.jpgThe general impression of buses around Colchester is poor. Neither First Bus or Arriva’s presence in the town is particularly dynamic and enticing. IMG_1246.jpgThe bright spot is the First Bus run Travel Centre located fairly close to the main departure bus stops in Osborne Street. It contains an impressive display of timetable leaflets and even a network route map displayed on the wall (albeit requiring a minor updating, but at least this was admitted by way of a piece of paper stick to it).

IMG_1248.jpgIMG_1249.jpgWhat would really be helpful for passengers is timetables for routes run by other operators to also be displayed. I didn’t visit the First Bus Travel Centre in Norwich this time, but suspect the same policy holds good there too. It wouldn’t cost anything and would do a huge amount to promote public transport use overall, instead of making it so hard for passengers to obtain information.

First Bus are stepping in to cover the withdrawal of the tendered part of Konectbus 88 by extending their Lowestoft to Southwold route 99 (to be numbered 99A) on to Halesworth and Bungay where there will be connections to their commercial route to Norwich. The wheel really has turned full circle here with First Bus, or Eastern Counties, as it was, now regaining territory ceded to Anglian Bus, acquired by Go-Ahead and now throwing in the towel. Talking of Anglian Bus….

3. Active Anglian Independents

IMG_1075.jpgIMG_7003.jpgEast Anglia is fortunate in having a good selection of quality independently owned small bus companies providing key routes across the region. From the expanding Stephensons in the south of the region to Sanders Coaches in the north and many more in the middle.IMG_7107.jpgIMG_1844.jpgJulian Paterson, formerly of Konectbus now owns and runs the excellent Lynx in West Norfolk while Andrew Pursey formerly of Anglian Bus has started and runs Border Bus. I travelled on two of their three routes during my visit this week, the tendered four-journey-a day 521 between Aldburgh and Halesworth and the hourly (with extra morning journeys making for half hourly) 146 running fast between Norwich and Beccles where it competes with the already mentioned First Bus operated X2 and X22. It then continues to Carlton Coalville and Kessingland on the outskirts of Lowestoft before terminating in Southwold.IMG_1622.jpgThe lunch time journey I travelled on out of Norwich had a good seated load of twenty with around a third getting off in Beccles, half in Kessingland and just a smattering travelling all the way to Southwold. The 521 was less busy. In fact it was dire, which brings me to….

4. Suffolk County Council

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 10.29.51.pngI spent most of my time this week exploring Suffolk as well as in northern Essex with only shorter incursions into Norfolk. Suffolk is a delightfuly county but with many transport challenges not least the very low density of population. Aside from Ipswich and Lowestoft and their environs, and the smaller market towns of Beccles, Bungay, Bury St Edmunds, Halesworth, Saxmundham, Stowmarket, Sudbury and Wickham Market, away from the coastal communities of Aldeburgh and Southwold the county is characterised by hundreds of tiny hamlets connected only by circuitous narrow country roads. The rural transport challenge for the county is therefore huge, not helped by Suffolk deciding to save 20% of its £1.7million budget from April.

I read about discontentment with proposals to withdraw some off peak journeys on routes 112/113 which run from Diss (just over the border in Norfolk) to Ipswich operated by Galloway Travel Group (who run extensive coach tours and excursions as well as some local bus routes).IMG_1485.jpgApparently off peak journeys are at risk but I travelled on one of the few peak hour journeys leaving Diss at 1655 and arriving Ipswich at 1808. A deadly quiet Diss bus station is pictured above at 1645 approaching the evening peak. Three passengers boarded with me at Diss all travelling to the village of Eye just thirteen minutes south. For the next hour and four minutes until we reached Ipswich it was just me and the driver.IMG_1561.jpgIt’s not cuts to rural bus routes leaving passengers isolated, its passengers deserting buses leaving the buses isolated and running empty. My journey on the Border Bus operated tendered route 521 at 0855 from Aldeburgh to Halesworth was similarly sparsely loaded.

IMG_1631.jpgWe travelled empty all the way to the hamlet of Benhall Green where at 0929 we picked up four passengers and dropped them off five minutes later in Saxmundham picking a Mum and child up there and dropped her off seven minutes later in Yoxford. The rest of the journey taking around an hour was just me and the driver.

IMG_1857.jpgThe journey on the Konectbus 88 (soon to be a First Bus 99A) between Halesworth and Southwold at 1023 had just two passengers on board while the afternoon peak journey on route 90 leaving Southwold at 1638 travelled all the way to Halesworth via Beccles (a journey of 1 hour and 17 minutes) carried just two other passengers besides me and the driver and then only between the hamlet of Willingham and Beccles – a journey of around ten minutes. Border Bus have announced they’ll be stepping in to run partial replacements for the withdrawn 90 with new services 522 and 524 but with paucity of numbers travelling it’s a bleak future. Unsurprisingly a significant role is played by community transport in this region.

5 Community Transport

IMG_7310.jpgIt’s interesting to see up in West Norfolk one of the beneficiaries of the Stagecoach pull out in Kings Lynn has been West Norfolk Community Transport (WNCT) who’ve expanded their ‘Go to town’ branded bus routes, which now provide a significant part of the town’s bus network. It’s also interesting to see Ben Colson who owned and ran Norfolk Green heavily involved in WNCT who, with the already mentioned Julian Paterson and Andrew Pursey are three key people in making the Anglian bus scene a success. It also shows you can’t keep a good busman down; they just pop up in another exciting bus venture. Indeed Andrew also volunteers on the Committee of the Beccles and Bungay Community Transport who I had the pleasure of spending the whole of yesterday morning with travelling around their Wednesday only three rural bus routes between Halesworth and Beccles, all using the number 532.

IMG_1868.jpgI’d been recommended to travel on the routes by blogger Steve’s Bus & Train Page on Twitter (@busandtrainpage) and how right he was to encourage me to give them a try. I also found out another Twitter stalwart Tim Miller (@banditman59uk) is a relief driver for the route when regular Mick has a day off.

Driver Mick is a real gem. His knowledge of Suffolk is impressively huge. Being a local lad he regaled me with fascinating insights and information about the area as we travelled around.

IMG_1861.jpgThe Wednesday only route 532 really is a ‘lifeline bus service’. Yesterday around a dozen people travelled on the first journey from Laxfield, Heveningham and Huntingfield north into Halesworth for a morning’s shopping and other commitments. Two stayed on the bus for the next journey which runs via Brampton, Willingham, Sotterley, Wrentham, Rushmere and Mutford to Beccles which I joined. IMG_1865.jpgA lovely couple boarded along this part of the route with the husband helping Mick out to provide a commentary by adding historical background to the sights we passed – which were mainly churches – an amazing number too – all told, we passed 21 churches yesterday morning, some with just a few houses nearby. The one pictured below, a paticularly fine example, at the end of the route in Laxfield. As you can see, even the cars park in a colour coordinated way, the village is so pretty!IMG_1884.jpgAfter dropping our four shoppers off in Beccles from that trip it was time for Mick’s third run of the day back to Halesworth via even more tiny micro hamlets and churches (and the odd water tower) including Ilketshall St Andrew, Ilketshall St Margaret, St Peter South Elmham, All Saints South Elmham (you get the idea this used to be a very religously devout area!) and finally Rumburgh and Wissett; we picked up four regulars along the way who all had an hour and twenty minutes in Halesworth before return time, while we continued back to Laxfield to take ten passengers back home who’d come in on the first journey, bringing one regular back into Halesworth on the return.IMG_1875.jpgMick was off back to Beccles via the All Saints route but I left him there having completed the full circuit and having thoroughly enjoyed it too. One of the regulars who boarded in Wissett followed me into the library at Halesworth to find out more about why on earth someone from Brighton was riding around Suffolk’s rural countryside and we got chatting about the problems of rural buses and her concerns at being stranded if Suffolk County Council were to cut this vital once a week route. Apparently it’s up for review soon as the conract ends in the summer.

Encouragingly this minibus had carried the most passengers of all the tendered bus routes I’d travelled on during the last few days and I do hope her fears can be allayed. Suffolk County Council should be well pleased with the support the ‘BACT’ community transport receives from passengers as well as the great personal service Mick provides. Long may it continue. It’s a good example of how buses can continue to provide deep rural transport without the need to come up with new fangled ideas like app based DRT – just fund and run a scheduled low cost once or twice a week community minibus. Sorted.

Indeed the town route 511 in Halesworth is also operated by Community buses, this one by the locally based Halesworth Community Transport.IMG_1887.jpg

6. A couple of final thoughts

Firstly Suffolk County Council are reportedly considering saving £100,000 by ceasing to update and post bus stop timetables and information. This would be a huge mistake. Such information is vitally reassuring particularly for strangers like me to an area. Suffolk’s presentation is excellent – don’t change it.

IMG_1859.jpgSecondly there’s a vital need for East Anglia to follow Kent/Surrey/Sussex’s lead in establishing an all bus operator day ticket like the latter’s Discovery ticket. With a variety of small bus companies and a few larger ones (Ipswich Buses, First Bus and Arriva) it really would make for a passenger friendly way of travelling around rather than having restricted ticket availability to each operator. You need every passenger you can get – don’t make it hard. Perhaps Suffolk County Coiuncil could initiate discussions on such a proposal?

Roger French

 

 

 

 

 

A great Deal in Kent

Sunday 10th March 2019

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Garden of England. My journeys on two days last week included visits to both ends of Kent – to Dover and Deal on the Channel coast in the south east and to Sevenoaks close to the County’s western border with Greater London.

Both Stagecoach South East and Go-Coach Hire, the dominant bus companies in these two areas, are excellent bus operators for the following reasons…..

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.27.51.pngStagecoach’s attractive bus network in Kent is an excellent example offering comprehensive coverage for passengers as well as ‘behind-the-scenes’ operating efficiency for the company. It includes well used inter-urban links between main urban areas at good frequencies despite some recent reductions (and competition from Southeastern trains), as well as small bespoke town networks and a few great rural routes, some operated by double deck buses due to school peak requirements, which offer fantastic views across the Kent countryside.

Notable among these are the 11 (five journeys Canterbury – Westwood and Broadstairs via the delightfully named Plucks Gutter with its timing point The Dog & Duck), and 17 (hourly Folkestone – Canterbury via the lovely Elham Valley). There’s also the 18 (five journeys Canterbury – Hythe via Wheelbarrow Town) but this is scheduled for single decks. Still a great route though.

IMG_9552.jpgStagecoach South East also craftily link one route with another to provide helpful ‘cross-terminal’ journey opportunities. Southeastern Trains also do this with the rail network such you can get on a High Speed Train at St Pancras and travel via Ashford and Folkestone to Dover round to Deal and Sandwich where the train continues on to Ramsgate and Margate and back via Faversham to St Pancras where it arrives after a 3 hour and 33 minute round trip.

IMG_0722.jpgStagecoach run a ‘circular route’ called the Triangle from Canterbury to Whitstable and Herne Bay which is marketed as Triangle in addition to linking routes 4 and 6 which run similarly between Canterbury and Herne Bay via two different routes and where they link up to also provide a circular ‘triangle’.

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IMG_0797.jpgAnother good example of timetabled through working providing great travel opportunities are the routes I travelled on last Friday – the 80 and 81 which run two buses an hour between Dover and Deal (via slightly different routes – but both giving great views of Dover and its castle) and on to Sandwich (via Hacklinge or Eastry) where they turn into a 43 and continue westwards to Canterbury.

IMG_0860.jpgIMG_0863.jpgBetween Sandwich and Canterbury the 43 runs at an attractive twenty minute frequency with the extra bus an hour commencing in Ramsgate to provide a Ramsgate, Sandwich Canterbury service. It all fits together very nicely, and Sandwich is well worth a visit.

IMG_0942.jpgIMG_0939.jpgAnd best of all Stagecoach South East must be commended for their excellent colour coordinated marketing and publicity for these and the other bus routes they run throughout Kent. It really is a treat to find a colourful network map together with individual leaflets (almost as good as a book!) each with an individual clear map of the route in a geographic context and, where appropriate an extract from the network map to show other routes in the area. They really are exemplars of good timetable leaflet practice.

IMG_0728.jpgI also spotted the network map on display in major points such as Dover’s Pencester Road (albeit inside the now rather worn information office) and at Canterbury in a display case on the bus station’s concourse alongside the travel office with its display of timetables and other tourist leaflets inside.

IMG_0856.jpgAnd the icing on the cake is the colour coding follows through to large easy-to-see bus stop numbers on virtually every bus stop flag. They really were impressive to see and showed a level of attention to detail and excellent intent to provide clear information.

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Bus stop timetable displays are also easy to follow and understand and appeared at every stop.

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It’s so refreshing to see such excellent clear information and just goes to show it can be done.

As is the case around fifty miles over at the western end of the county in Sevenoaks. Here it’s interesting to see Go-Coach Hire Ltd go from strength to strength as they move from being a small time tender operator when they first began in the bus market just over ten years ago to now taking over from Arriva Kent as the network operator in this area.

IMG_0546.jpgOn previous visits to Sevenoaks I’ve been impressed with how Go-Coach have taken over the town’s bus station and proudly emblazoned their bright yellow and purple branding to brighten up what would otherwise be a rather dull wind tunnel of two departure bays.

IMG_0541.jpgThere’s a small travel office with an amazingly friendly and helpful member of staff and an excellent full display of timetable leaflets including those services operated by Arriva thereby providing a much welcome comprehensive coverage of routes operated in the area.

IMG_0656.jpgIMG_0658.jpgI was particularly impressed to see that the out-of-date no-longer-issued maps from Kent County Council which used to be on display in the bus station on previous visits have been replaced by up to date maps of Go-Coach’s network. I spotted them on bus shelters elsewhere in the town too.

IMG_0537.jpgThe bus stop plates also feature both Arriva and Go-Coach’s serves and all clearly presented to appropriate corporate style.

IMG_0572.jpgInterestingly from early next month Arriva Kent are throwing in the towel on local routes 1 and 2 from Sevenoaks to Dunton Green and Kemsing.

IMG_0550.jpgThey’re the routes Arriva converted to the horribly cramped Mercedes Sprinter minibuses a year ago. I had a ride in the first week and knew within a few minutes it would be a complete failure.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.15.47.pngCompletely unsuitable for the market and what a shame passenger numbers have obviously plummeted in response to such unattractive vehicles. On Wednesday when I visited larger buses had already supplanted the minibuses on route 2.

IMG_0649.jpgGo-Coach are taking over these routes as part of their expanding network and I hope their local connections and attention to detail in getting things right for passengers will attract enough passengers back to the routes to make it a commercial success for them.

IMG_4118.jpgIt’s interesting, nearly fifty years on from London Country Bus Services being formed in 1970 just how many bus companies now operate in what was the polo mint around London, and increasingly successfully too, after some traumatic times after deregulation and privatisation in the late 1980s. Metrobus in Crawley and Ensignbus in Grays come to mind as top class acts, but Go-Coach are making great strides to make this corner of Kent a great exemplar of how a small network operator can succeed.IMG_0585.jpgSadly, they often say, a bus company’s reputation is only as good as the last journey taken and my attempted journey with Go-Coach didn’t quite work out as planned on Wednesday; but company boss Austin Blackburn was on the case straight away as soon as he saw my tweet and made sure appropriate action was taken and apologies made – and that was impressive and just showed a caring owner giving attention to detail, which is what it’s all about. I’m already looking forward to a return trip and hopefully next time be successful in catching the Wednesday only tendered rural route 405 to West Kingsdown before it ends very soon!

Roger French

PS I spotted the information about Arriva Kent giving up routes 1 and 2 on their website and commendably they refer to the replacements being operated by Go-Coach Hire but a slip of the year shows the date in the headline as 2018 rather than 2019. It seems even when this is pointed out by tweet to Arriva last Wednesday, it still isn’t corrected on their website today. Attention to detail and reacting to feedback and all that…not!

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Home from scenic Scotland

Day 5  Sunday 3rd March 2019   Glasgow to Carlisle

I always look forward to a journey down the West Coast Main Line between Glasgow and Carlisle, or for a bit of variety, ScotRail’s alternative via Kilmarnock and Dumfries, but today I thought I’d try out the bus option. It takes much longer than the train but as the first of the two routes involved was awarded Best Bus Route in the Scottish Transport Awards 2018, with such an accolade under its belt, the X74 had to be well worth a ride.

IMG_0268.jpgRoute X74 is part of Stagecoach West Scotland’s impressive network of express bus routes, of which yesterday’s ride on the X76 from Kilmarnock to Glasgow was another. Whereas over in Stagecoach East Scotland territory their network of express routes is marketed under the ‘express city connect’ brand between Fife and Edinburgh, as well as some routes across to Glasgow and it’s airport, the West Scotland network linking Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway with Glasgow are each branded individually.

IMG_0264.jpgThe X74 runs hourly between Dumfries and Glasgow with twelve return journeys on Mondays to Fridays, the same with an extra in the early evening on Saturdays and eight journeys every two hours on Sundays. Journey time is two hours and ten minutes although the first journey into Glasgow on weekdays is given an extra twenty minutes to allow for peak hour congestion.

IMG_0353.jpgI caught the 1315 from Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Bus Station. The impressive looking three year old coach (a Volvo with Plaxton Elite body) arrived bang on time from its incoming journey at 1255 and unloaded a large number of passengers – I didn’t count but reckon it must have been pretty full, and many had luggage in the ground floor ‘under the upper deck’ compartment – not sure of the technical term for these things, but I realised how useful the storage area is, including space for bikes, and the upside is you get a great view from what feels like a top deck.

IMG_0271.jpgUnlike the X76 yesterday, these vehicles have e-leather seating – not as comfortable for me as the traditional cloth moquette as experienced on the newer X76. The front seat arrangement was a 3+1 layout which worked perfectly for me in the one, and a Mum and two kids in the three.

IMG_0272.jpgOur driver reappeared at 1309 and he got the 30 or so of us on board efficiently and we left on time at 1315. Within minutes we were on the M8 and then the M74 for a non-stop journey to our first stop at Hamilton bus station arriving on time at 1340 where Mum and the two kids as well as a few other passengers alighted.

Back the short distance to the M74 and south we go for another twenty minutes before coming off and doing a short circuit around Lesmahagow dropping a few more passengers off then back on the M74 for around 20 minutes more and a brief stop at Abington service area for no other purpose it seemed to me than “to comply with Department for Transport guidance – the service connects – the connection is guaranteed and passengers may remain on the vehicle” as the timetable states. What a load of baloney.

Anyway we’re back on the motorway which has now become the A74(M) but you’d not really notice the difference to the M74 as we sped down to Moffat where at least half our passengers alight and we wait time for a few minutes before retracing our route back to the A74(M) junction again and I’d expected us to continue on the minor road through Beattock to stop by the ‘Primary School’, as listed in the timetable leaflet, but instead we headed straight on to the A701 (which acts as a Beattock by-pass) and pretty much runs due south all the way down to Dumfries.

IMG_0338.jpgYou might think a bus route which runs down a motorway for the best part of an hour and a half would be a tedious ride, but nothing could be further from reality. The more you head south the more fantastic the scenery becomes, and nearing the Moffat turn off comes the familiar sight of the West Coast Main Line paralleling the road in the valley between mountains (or big hills – again technical terms may vary) and it was good to see the scenery from a different perspective to what I’m used to on the train.

IMG_0341.jpgThe A701 skirts the huge Forest of Ae which takes its name from the village called Ae. Must be the only place name in Britain just comprising two vowels; aside from the former London bus garage in Hendon!

IMG_E0532.jpgAs we entered Dumfries and Galloway territory I spotted what looked like an interesting network map and brand name displayed in a rather forlorn looking bus shelter with adjacent moss encrusted bus stop flag.

IMG_0342.jpgTurns out the ‘SWestransport’ brand is all about a partnership between local politicians and the NHS but their promoted website on the posters contains minutes of their Board meetings rather than any useful transport information. For that there’s a click through to the Dumfries and Galloway website where you can helpfully find timetables in route number order but unhelpfully no sign of the network route map.

IMG_0356.jpgFor future trip planning I took a photo of the map which was commendably on display in each shelter in Dumfries’s small bus station taking care to find one which hadn’t been defaced.

IMG_0356.jpgI was very impressed with the X74. I don’t know what criteria the Scottish Transport Awards use to judge what’s best, but it was a decent travel experience.

It was now time to finish off my journey south on Stagecoach’s route 79 down to Carlisle. Another hourly service* and two-hourly on Sundays taking around an hour and a half for the journey. * Half hourly between Annan and Carlisle.

IMG_0362.jpgThe 1550 departure had just six of us on board but we picked up a similar number in Annan and a few more in Eastriggs and Gretna Green who all mostly got off along the way so as we crossed over the border back into England there were just five of us left on board.

The 79 heads due west between Dumfries and Longtown along the B724 which parallels the newer A75. I’m guessing the B724 used to be the A75 as it was pretty much deserted of other traffic and we made amazingly good progress as well as serving the two or three tiny villages/settlements along the way.

IMG_E0534.jpgAs we arrived in Longtown, 27 minutes and nine miles north of Carlisle, we came up behind a West Coast Motors/Borders Buses X95 on one of the three journeys a day (on Sundays) from Edinburgh (one journey) or Galashiels (the other two) and in an unfortunate clash of timings followed each other all the way down the A7 into Carlisle.

IMG_0385.jpgDespite travelling many miles over the last five days from Kyle of Lochalsh to Gretna Green I’d seen a West Coast Motors bus or coach on service every day such is their amazingly large operating area!

IMG_0389.jpgI paid single fares on the X74 (£9.60) and 79 (£8.30) as the cheapest way to make the journey. Interestingly when I travelled on the aforementioned X95 from Edinburgh to Carlisle (changing buses in Galashiels) last October the through fare was just £7.80 and journey time (including a half hour in Galashiels) was four hours compared to a similar 4 hours and 7 minutes from Glasgow via Dumfries. Glasgow via Dumfries to Carlisle is 110 miles and Edinburgh to Carlisle is 92 miles.

Day 6  Monday 4th March 2019   Home from Carlisle

I always try and fit in at least two or three trips on the Settle-Carlisle line each year so today was a good opportunity for the first one of 2019. I’d left home on Wednesday with temperatures in the low twenty degrees so it came as a shock to see slushy snow on the streets of Carlisle this morning.

But all the better for seeing the splendid scenery heading south towards Settle with snow covered mountains followed, once the sun came out, by beautiful greens and browns across the landscape.

IMG_0410.jpgIMG_0403.jpgI ranked this line fifth in my recent Hundred Best listing and having travelled the first, second and fourth in as many days since Wednesday, it reaffirmed my scoring judgement. Definitely England’s best scenic line and just one point behind (as Nicholas Parsons would say) those top iconic Scottish lines.

IMG_0416.jpgArriving in Leeds I headed over to the bus station spotting some further recent welcome investment in new buses by First West Yorkshire sporting the smart colour coded green based ‘Leedscity’ brand and livery.

IMG_0449.jpgThe X10 running hourly between Barnsley and Leeds is another Stagecoach ‘express’ route initiative; this one introduced in November 2017. I tried it out during its first week so thought it was time to give it another ride to see how it was doing sixteen months on. It’s doing very well, I’m pleased to see.

IMG_0468.jpgThe journey time is an impressive 53 minutes making for an efficient timetable with seven minutes stand time at each end. The coach arrived into Leeds slightly ahead of time at 1154 and a good load of around 25-30 passengers alighted – not bad for a Monday lunch time in early March. My southbound departure at 1205 left with ten of us on board.

IMG_0510.jpgThe X10 departs from the coach departure bays in Leeds bus station which I guess is to give emphasis to its ‘coach’ quality of travel rather than the image portrayed by a standard double deck bus, although Harrogate & District’s famous route 36 exudes quality and manages just fine from the bus bays. Or maybe the departure charges are cheaper?

IMG_0512.jpgIt’s a shame I couldn’t find any timetable leaflets for the X10 either in the bus station area ….

IMG_0470.jpg…or in the coach section; mind you there weren’t any National Express leaflets either, possibly because they don’t print them anymore (all online and all that).

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IMG_0517.jpgBut at least there were a few on the coach itself (if you spotted them) and refreshingly some behind the counter in the South Yorkshire ‘PTE’ Customer Services kiosk in Barnsley bus station, where I noticed the former helpful and well stocked Information Centre has been relet as a betting shop. So much for making bus travel a responsible choice for positive lifestyles!

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IMG_1261.jpgThe X10 is a real treat to ride on. Within just a few minutes after leaving Leeds bus station you’re gliding down the M1 to junction 38 to serve the catchment area of Darton heading into Barnsley. Taking this route usefully gives the bus the edge over the train for people living in this catchment area as well as supplementing local bus services. The train takes 35 minutes (half hourly fast) or 54 minutes on an hourly stopper.

IMG_0524.jpgThe X10 single fare is £6 with an attractively priced £7 Explorer day ticket which is also available on Stagecoach’s other routes, thereby also competing with the train on price which costs £9.20 single £11.20 peak day return or £9.40 off peak. Railcard discounted fares are £6.10 single and £7.40 peak or £6.20 off-peak return.

My driver was very friendly and gave a smooth and enjoyable ride all the more so as I approved of his ‘best of the sixties and seventies’ compilation music choices which played out for the journey!

IMG_0525.jpgAs I’d bagged one of LNER’s bargain basement priced first class advanced fares from Leeds to return to London Kings Cross at 1415 I headed back to Leeds on one of Northern’s two-an-hour fast journeys and was soon in ‘Seat 29’ heading south to bring these six days of enjoyable travels to an end.

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IMG_0529.jpgNot before a quick hop over to St Pancras International for the Thameslink journey to Hassocks as the finale.

Roger French

A few days in scenic Scotland 2

Day 3 Friday 1st March 2019  Mull of Kintyre

When planning trips it’s not often I’ll schedule a long journey out and back by exactly the same route and mode of travel in one day. It’s always much more interesting to devise a circuit taking in different routes and scenery, villages, towns or cities along the way.

Today’s been an exception with an early start for the four hour citylink journey at 0625 from Glasgow to Campbeltown allowing four and a half hours there before a slightly longer return journey taking four hours and fourteen minutes back from Campbeltown to Glasgow at 1500 by exactly the same route in reverse. Both these journeys only run on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (at least at this time of the year).

IMG_9771.jpgThe reason’s simple. Citylink service 926 is a real stunner of a route, with something of interest to see at every twist and turn (and there are plenty) along the A82/A83 as these roads include some of Scotland’s finest scenery passing impressive mountains, lochs and forests.

IMG_9792.jpgThe 133 mile route is shown on the Google map below which shows by car it would take around three hours. The 926 heads out of Glasgow northwestwards towards Dumbarton continuing northwards alongside Loch Lomond to Arrochar then west to Inveraray and southwestwards through Achadunan and Furnace to Lochgilphead continuing southwards alongside Loch Fyne to Tarbert then south on the west side of Kintyre via Clachan and Tayinloan before reaching Campbeltown on the east side of Kintyre.

Each section of route offers up amazing views. Between Arrochar and Inveraray there’s a steady mountainous climb along Glen Croe sandwiched between Ben Donich and Ben Arthur before reaching the wonderfully named settlement called ‘Rest and be thankful’.

IMG_E0241.jpgThere’s mile after mile of beautiful lochside travelling and at the (almost) halfway point a short pause in the timetable allows a chance to stretch legs, buy a coffee and savour the delightful small town of Inveraray.

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IMG_9923.jpgAlthough only six boarded the 0625 in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street coach station we picked four more up through Hillhead and Anniesland including walkers and fishermen who spent much of the journey discussing their ailments including the problems of an ingrown toenail (too much detail for an early Friday morning for me). Around eight more passengers joined for some of the way during the journey but the return trip at 1500 from Campbeltown was much busier with around forty passengers using the coach including a maximum of thirty on board at any one time. Around half travelled all the way through to Glasgow with six boarding in Lochgilphead.

IMG_9832.jpgThe route is dual-branded for both citylink and West Coast Motors from the time when there was competition between the two operators. Now citylink take the commercial risk while West Coast Motors receive a contracted mileage rate. As well as taking passengers travelling a long distance, the route is effectively the local bus option between many of the settlements and Scotland’s concessionary pass provides free travel throughout. There are four journeys every day in each direction as well as the two extras on Fridays to Sundays I travelled on. Argyll & Bute Council don’t provide any funding for the route.

Citylink fares give fair value. My return was £31.10 and there’s a great offer of £49 for a three day rover ticket across the citylink network, which if I’d been a bit smarter I’d have bought as it would also have included my journey from Fort William to Kyle of Lochalsh (at £25.10) and I’d have had another day’s travel effectively free.

IMG_9835.jpgWest Coast Motors is a very smart operator. Despite the time of year and road conditions all their buses and coaches I saw were impressively clean – outside and inside. They’re one of Scotland’s top family owned independent operators having started in Campbeltown in the early 1920s.

IMG_9889.jpgI was intrigued to see their original depot and HQ site while in Campbeltown – a very understated affair, apparently originally a distillery and not what you’d expect from the investment the Company’s making in new vehicle’s sporting an updated smart livery for running local routes radiating from and around Campbeltown.

IMG_9895.jpgRecent expansion has seen West Coast Motors acquire Perryman’s in the eastern belt as well as taking over some of First Bus’s former routes in border territory which together with their operations in conjunction with citylink makes for an amazingly large geographic area of coverage from Carlisle and Berwick-upon-Tweed to Oban and the western tip of Mull and down to the southern tip of Kintyre, not forgetting the Glasgow sightseeing operation.

IMG_9896.jpgIt was to the southern tip of Kintyre – the Mull – I headed on route 444 to savour the ‘mist rolling in from the sea’ as Paul, Linda and the band famously implanted in our minds in that impossible-to-shake-off refrain. More so, that the nearest village served by bus to the Mull of Kintyre is called Southend – a more contrasting atmosphere to the more famous Essex coastal resort you could not find.

IMG_9907.jpgI can’t do justice to the wonderful scenery along the route south nor the peaceful atmosphere on arrival. It must be one of Britain’s best, if not the best, remotest bus terminus. Well worth the five hour trip from Glasgow to reach.

IMG_9902.jpgThe purpose of this transport themed blog isn’t to dwell too much on architecture and general tourism but I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around Campbeltown spotting interesting buildings as well as the memorial garden for Linda McCartney which is laid out very respectfully making for a fitting and poignant tribute.

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Day 4  Saturday 2nd March 2019   Bute and Ayrshire

I’d originally planned a full day enjoying the Isle of Bute. Arriving at Wemyss Bay, undoubtedly Scotland’s most attractive station, for the ferry over to Rothesay there was an ominous message on the wipe board in CalMac’s ticket office.

IMG_9993.jpgI couldn’t help notice how ‘HIGHLY’ had not only been underlined but promoted to block capitals. I decided to plough on but keep options open for a Plan B.

IMG_9982.jpgConnections between ScotRail’s hourly trains from Glasgow to Wemyss Bay and CalMac’s ferry to Rothesay on Bute are amazingly conveniently timed and you get to enjoy the gorgeous walkway down from the station area to the embarkation area. At this time of year there wasn’t much of a queue but you can imagine the crowds on busy summer days in the heyday of travel filling the curved walkway.

IMG_9988.jpgOur ferry was late leaving due to an unscheduled fill up from oil tankers alongside but we got underway around fifteen minutes late and were soon across the sea to Bute with an impressive thirty-five minute crossing time.

IMG_9992.jpgWest Coast Motors have been Bute’s bus operator for some years since Stagecoach withdrew from the island. They’ve got a small depot in Port Banatyne not far along the coastline north of Rothesay. I took the 90/490 route to take a look as we drove by, changing drivers outside before continuing to the terminus by the marina.

IMG_0110.jpgThe bus then heads south through Rothesay again continuing pretty much all along the coastline to Kilchattan Bay at the southern end of the island. What a lovely terminus this is. Desolate in winter but gorgeous in summer.

IMG_0147.jpgI was impressed to find an open and well stocked Visitor Information Centre in Rothesay and to find Argyll & Bute Council’s useful timetable book giving details of the 90/490 as well as two town routes and other infrequent bus routes on the island. The helpful VIC staff had stocks of the Council’s 2016/17 bus map under the counter and admitting it was out of date in detail kindly gave me a copy acknowledging it usefully provides a prospective of the island for visitors. Why oh why can’t such maps be kept up to date. OK, I know; it’s lack of finance.

IMG_0054.jpgAfter admiring the bus shelter in Rothesay’s Guildford Square opposite the ferry terminal I popped back to the ferry office to get an update on the ‘Amber Alert’. Not unnaturally the staff couldn’t give any assurances one way or the other but as the lunchtime clouds were darkening and the breeze getting distinctly breezier I decided to abort the original plan for more afternoon Bute exploration and avoid the risk of being stranded overnight on the island with just three OS maps, a tangerine, a chunky Kitkat and bottle of water in my bag. I hopped on the ferry just mooring and made it safely back to the mainland.

Twitter comes into its own at times like this and I’m grateful to ‘tartonterrior’ Kenny for reminding me about Stagecoach’s route 585 which starts at Greenock and ruffled McGill’s feathers for a while as it takes a coastal route through Wemyss Bay, Largs and Adrossan, to Irvine before continuing to Ayr. Just the job as the rain began lashing it down outside Wemyss Bay station.

IMG_0203.jpgI was pleased to see McGill’s trial Connect&Go local route up to Upper Skelmorlie (as well as Inverkip) is still connecting and going albeit now being funded by SPT and sticking with the original Dial-A-Ride concept rather than new fangled apps!

IMG_0192.jpgMy 585 arrived over ten minutes late but I’d managed to crack the real time updates on Stagecoach’s app (using over 5% phone battery power in so doing) and was reassured it was on its way. It turned out to be a busy bus and I managed to clear enough condensation from the windows to enjoy the coastal views for most of the way, but when we diverted into West Kilbride I did wonder if we’d ever get back on to the coastal road again such was the tortuous route taken around the houses. We changed drivers at Ardrossan and arrived in Irvine still over ten minutes late.

IMG_0201.jpgAs I’d enjoyed a ride on Stagecoach’s X77 between Ayr and Glasgow a year or so ago I decided to bail out from the 585 at Irvine and head over to Kilmarnock to try out the companion X76 from there to Glasgow. Stagecoach’s route 11 also links Ardrossan with Irvine but via Kilwinning (the 585 takes a more direct route) then continues to Kilmarnock. It runs every ten minutes seven days a week.

IMG_0209.jpgIt’s busy. Very busy, even with 67 plate double deckers to the latest Stagecoach corporate specification and a rather understated localised route branding.

And my final bus ride today was on the aforementioned X76 on the hugely impressive Plaxton Panorama double deck buses/coaches Stagecoach introduced last year.

IMG_0224.jpgThey really are head turners and must tempt motorists seeing them glide along the M77 to give the 15 minute frequency, forty minute travel time route a try.

IMG_0232.jpgThe interiors are equally impressive and I particularly like the traditional cloth seat moquette rather than the craze for leather-like material which I never find so comfortable. The usual usb points and Wi-fi are included and the whole journey experience was superb. Stagecoach really can deliver impressive vehicle investment around the country such as these fine vehicles.

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It’ll be time to start heading south tomorrow but I’m taking the slow route.

Roger French

Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 2.

Thursday 21st February 2019

IMG_8850.jpgIt’s reminded me of London 2012. Aside from the brilliant athletes and the behind-the-scenes organisational excellence it was the deployment of Games Makers which made for such a positive and enjoyable visitor experience despite mega crowds and challenging transport logistics before and after events.

IMG_8863.jpgWhen the wash up review of this week’s Brighton Main Line shut down is carried out, aside from the fantastic work performed around the clock by the engineering Orange Army and the hard working rail staff and bus and coach drivers I’m sure it will be the high-viz wearing Customer Service teams with their cherry smiles and friendly greetings who’ll long be remembered by passengers for creating a positive atmosphere to the extended travel experience. They really performed well and added a much needed shine to a challenging travel week.

IMG_9265.jpgThe team on the Three Bridges gateline deserve a special shout out with their pointy foam hands and chanting regime advising arriving passengers from buses the platforms for Victoria and London Bridge departing trains (sung to a catchy rhythm too – and in tune) and as trains arrived another catchy refrain pointing passengers on to the bus hub. If only every day could be like that!

IMG_8901.jpgThe team at Brighton, if perhaps more reserved, were also happy and cheerful. On Monday Theresa was doing a brilliant job handing out freebies and the whole team there were making sure everyone felt welcomed and valued as passengers. This positive experience will be long remembered but, of course, only by those passengers who actually braved the disruption warnings and ‘Carried On Travelling’ this week.

IMG_8862.jpgIt was clear by first light on Monday morning the vast majority had heeded the familiar repetitive advice for many months to ‘Plan Ahead’ and duly planned and took a complete week off travelling.

IMG_8851.jpgBuses were prolific; passengers not so. Better that than the other way round of course. The average load on buses I saw on my travels on a circuit from Hassocks via Brighton, Lewes, Haywards Heath, Three Bridges then back via all stations to Hassocks between 0700 and 1000 on Monday morning was around six. There were buses everywhere. At one point around 0830 at Hassocks so many buses and coaches were arriving and departing, as well as many others parked up on stand by, the car park-come-bus station became semi-gridlocked with staff suggesting to ‘control’ a bus reduction be considered.

IMG_8846.jpgI found the impressive Three Bridges Bus Hub marquee completely deserted at 0900, as it was on Tuesday at 1800 when I also called by…… until a London originating train came in and off loaded its passengers who the ever helpful cheerful Replacement Bus Makers happily shepherded to the waiting buses and within minutes it was all quiet again.

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IMG_8959.jpgAs the week’s progressed, passenger numbers haven’t noticeably increased but the number of buses and coaches has continued to provide a quite extraordinary level of service. A bus spotters paradise – and yes, camera weilding enthusiasts were out in force.

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IMG_8904.jpgNeither has the enthusiasm of the Replacement Bus Makers diminished – my trip to Three Bridges this morning, Thursday, found the whole team in fine form (and voice) welcoming us all off the buses and guiding us to the trains.

IMG_8939.jpgOn Monday I was blitzed with freebies and goodwill gestures including a branded water container (at Brighton), giant cookies, biscuits, hot chocolate sachet and mobile phone suction thingy and a £3 coffee voucher. By Thursday the giveaway novelty had worn off a bit, but I still picked up a free delicious cookie and £3 voucher for coffee by nipping into the Bus Hub on my way to London – and on the way home this evening.

IMG_8908.jpgQueueing time warning notices prominent on Monday in Brighton had been removed as redundant by Wednesday; as had the zig-zagging queuing system; both sensible contingencies which proved overly pessimistic. Thankfully.

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IMG_9225.jpgI wonder if the ’60 minutes queueing time’ was actually just a clever ruse to show how well everything was going. If so, it worked a treat.

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Here are a few observations and suggestions for next time based on my travel experiences this week through until today, Thursday – it’ll be plain sailing from now as even when trains are running, Friday’s become the new weekend for London commuters.

1. The ‘Brighton Three Bridges fast’ conundrum.

IMG_8972.jpgThere’s been much angst on Twitter about the lack of advertised non-stop buses between Brighton and Three Bridges as usually run during weekend closures. Buses bombing down the A23 are a regular sight at weekends but this time weekday commuters were only given the option of a half hourly train service via the West Coastway, Littlehampton and Arun Valley line arriving in Three Bridges an hour and a half after leaving Brighton which compares unfavourably to the 23 minutes it normally takes a fast direct train to reach Gatwick Airport.

IMG_8878.jpgJourney planners also gave the option of an all stations stopping replacement bus requiring a change at either Hassocks or Burgess Hill, coincidentally also timetabled to take one and a half hours end-to-end. In peak hours there was a further option to switch buses at Hassocks on to a fast non-stopper (which saved about half an hour), and from Brighton journey planners showed stopping buses running only as far as Balcombe which of course was a complete nonsense. That was a deliberate ‘fake terminus’ as all buses leaving Brighton had Three Bridges as their displayed destination which was obvious to everyone from the start so led to an information credibility issue. Furthermore the ‘Employee Handbook’ handed to everyone involved included details of non-stop ‘Ghost Buses’ running every 10 minutes at peak times and every 20 minutes off-peak between Brighton and Three Bridges. In the event it looks as though these were kept on stand by rather than running them for fear if they became too well known they’d prove too popular and blow a hole in the pool of available buses and be beyond the capacity of the Three Bridges Bus Hub. By Thursday this had become official public policy as the reasons they weren’t running and explained in the media.

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Publicly the ‘Ghost Bus’ existence was always denied to encourage passengers to take the Littlehampton diverted train or stopping bus options; or faced with that extra hour and more travel time, not travel at all. There’s no doubt Brighton passengers lost out big time (literally) because of this. I would suggest a better policy, when it was obvious most passengers had heeded warnings and weren’t travelling by first thing Monday morning, would have been for the Ghost Bus non-stoppers to run to minimise the inconvenience for Brightonians. I think this would have been hugely appreciated and removed one of the two biggest negatives of the week (the other being compensation – see below). I don’t think it would have overwhelmed the resources and doubt it would have made any difference to passenger numbers once people had committed themselves to the week off. It could have worked.

2. Haywards Heath and Hassocks peak travellers won hands down.

IMG_8894.jpgUnlike Brighton, both Haywards Heath and during peak hours, Hassocks, were blessed with their own bespoke non-stop buses and coaches to Three Bridges. The former ran to an impressive 6 minute frequency at peak times (20 minutes off peak) with the latter every 20 minutes. I tried both out and was impressed by the efficient end to end journey times achieved. From Hassocks we took just 33 minutes (on the 0900 from Hassocks – so admittedly after peak hour traffic had died down) comparing favourably to the all stops Thameslink train normally taking 22 minutes.

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The Hassocks driver took the normal route into Crawley via Southgate Avenue and Hawthorne Avenue whereas the Southdown PSV driver on the Haywards Heath journey (lovely bus by the way) took the M23 and worryingly headed east at the Crawley junction 10 before doubling back by the Copthorne Hotel which perceptively was going out of our way, but in the event didn’t take too much longer approaching Three Bridges from the east instead of the west. Tonight, my homebound coach from Three Bridges took that same route in reverse and was probably the same congested exit from Crawley as via Southgate Avenue.

IMG_8880.jpgLewes passengers were also given an option of taking a bus to East Grinstead and a train from there which was a clever idea; I’m not sure how many used it, but the other ‘avoid over burdening Three Bridges’ idea of running a Hassocks to Crawley service (originating in Hove) failed spectacularly and ran pretty much empty; passengers being understandably reluctant to use Crawley as an interchange hub.

IMG_8893.jpgOne niggle about Haywards Heath: it seemed unnecessarily confusing to have northbound buses to Three Bridges departing from two locations; non-stop fast buses left from outside the main entrance while the stoppers via Balcombe left from the side entrance in Boltro Road.

IMG_8891.jpgI asked a forlorn looking and lonely Replacement Bus Maker standing on the corner where to catch a bus to Three Bridges (just to give him something to do) and he advised me to go to the side entrance, which luckily I ignored. This was the only example of duff information I experienced though, every other query was accurately handled.

3. Coordinate roadworks and restrict parking

IMG_8932.jpgAn extra 240 buses and coaches added to Sussex’s congested roads, even taking the half term non-school run factor into account, is quite a challenge. The transport challenges surrounding the 2012 Olympics worked so well because everyone pulled together to ensure maximum capacity was provided. Special ‘Games Lanes’ ensured free flowing traffic for those needing it.

IMG_9280.jpgIn Sussex this week it would have been good if known congestion hotspots caused by awkward parking or roadworks could have been tackled in a coordinated way to ensure replacement buses got priority. Ideally, temporary traffic lights and roadworks on busy routes should have ceased where possible and temporary parking restrictions added at pinch points such as in Burgess Hill near Wivelsfield station as shown below.

IMG_8935.jpgOutside Three Bridges a high profile police presence helped ensure buses could exit fairly easily, especially during the busy evening peak period. It was good to see both the British Transport Police and Sussex Police actively on site. If only that could be more the norm!

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4. Southern ‘marketing’ shoot themselves in the foot

Southern’s marketing department scored a spectacular own goal by scheduling promotional adverts on social media every day this week enticing passengers to get out and about and “Discover a Hidden World by Train”. Surely they’d notice colleagues in the comms department had spent the best part of a year persuading passengers not to travel this week? Not so much the ‘hidden world’ but the ‘hidden train’ with Southern’s main line normally teeming with passengers completely shut. Left hand and right hand etc etc.

5. Unrealistic journey times

IMG_9236.jpgIf the replacement bus schedules had been for a registered local bus service the Traffic Commissioner would have had a field day. Running times (as advertised in journey planners) showed no allowance for predictable peak hour congestion. A complete ‘no no’ when running bus services. Realistic timetables are now mandatory, ‘congestion’ is not a valid excuse. I caught the 1705 all stops departure from Brighton to Three Bridges on Wednesday with a twenty minute scheduled journey time to Hassocks. After crawling through Brighton’s peak hour congestion we’d only reached Preston Circus by that time, taking forty minutes to reach Hassocks. If I’d been going to London and allowed myself a planned connection at Three Bridges from the journey planner I’d have been very upset at the delay. And of course, no chance of Delay Repay!

6. Presentation

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My fellow Buses magazine columnist Phil Stockley has coincidentally written in the March issue just published about the importance of creating a positive image of bus and coach travel to rail users at times of rail replacement and he’s dead right.

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag this week with some superbly presented buses and luxury coaches giving an excellent image but I regret to say also some filthy buses too. Bearing in mind the lovely weather this week there really is no excuse for not presenting nicely clean buses with windows you can see out of. The Go-Ahead London bus I travelled home on on Wednesday evening could have usefully had a trip through the nearby Metrobus bus wash at Crawley depot or one of Brighton & Hove’s garages.

IMG_9233.jpgIt’s also hugely frustrating when the window interiors mist up, and for strangers very hard to know where they are if wanting to alight at on-street stops for intermediate stations. Our driver ignored the advice in the Employees Handbook to call out the names of stations as we stopped, which didn’t help.

IMG_9241.jpg7. Too technical looking

IMG_8785.jpgThe rather strange letter codes for the bus services displayed at posters at each station were a bit confusing and seemed superfluous. They weren’t displayed on the vehicles and no one referred to them. A bit of an unnecessary complication it seemed to me. Indeed it would have been better to display the timetables for the various routes so passengers could see which suited them best.

8. The price bugbear

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I covered this in Part 1, but would like to end this review by returning to it again as it is understandably controversial. When a service is disrupted to the extent it has been this week it’s only fair some compensation regime be applied. Of course the DfT (who are the revenue masters for the GTR contract) won’t want to create a precedent for elsewhere or future rail replacements on the Brighton line but the fact of the matter is there’s been no ticket checking whatsoever this week, barriers at Three Bridges have been open and passengers have just boarded and alighted buses at intermediate stations on the street or in car parks in some cases (eg Wivlesfield) some distance from a ticket office or machine. I doubt many passengers purchased tickets for their bus journey; it’s been pretty much an unofficial free travel zone. So why not make it one officially and generate that all important goodwill among passengers. A compensatory refund to season ticket holders for tickets to the affected destinations would also be appropriate. Of course, the anomaly would be passengers using the diverted Brighton trains via Littlehampton as you could hardly give free travel in that wider area, which in turn might mean overloaded buses up the A23 again. Which only goes to show, it’s not an easy one, but I do think passengers needed some goodwill gesture beyond a cookie and coffee voucher.

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Goodwill is all important, because, there’ll be more rail replacements of this scale in the years ahead. Passengers should be under no illusion that this unprecedented shut down is it, and from now on it’ll be dream travel on the Brighton Main Line with everything fixed for the future. Growth in passenger numbers is expected to continue in the next decade and there are already firm plans for major work at Gatwick Airport to build a new larger concourse with bigger platforms 5 and 6, eight new escalators and five new lifts but the one to watch out for is the Croydon Area Remodelling Scheme (CARS).

Think London Bridge and you won’t be far removed from the scale of what’s planned. The whole of East Croydon station will be demolished (yes, I know it’s only just lost all the hoardings and scaffolding from its full refurb ….. and that new footbridge is coming down too) and rebuilt with two extra tracks aside a new platform. A new high level concourse will match London Bridge’s for size and there are plans for a huge over development to help fund it all. London Bridge’s track realignment and sort out included just one new ‘dive-under’ at Bermondsey. The Croydon project will see 16 (yes 16) dive-unders to sort out the tracks heading towards Selhurst and Norwood Junction. It’s reckoned the whole scheme could take 6-10 years to build.

So, all in all it’s probably good that this ‘Biggest Rail Replacement ever’ just ending has worked well with excellent organisation, huge resources and enthusiastic staff. It’s been an interesting week and perhaps a useful taster for what’s to come further up the line in the years ahead!

 

Oh; nearly forgot, one final thought … let’s just hope there’s no mishaps over the weekend which will cause any overrun into Monday morning. Us passengers can be an unforgiving lot, and with no free cookies, coffee vouchers and cherry Replacement Bus Makers around on Monday it’ll be carnage on the reputation front.   Fingers crossed.

Roger French

I rode the secret TrawsCymru bus route

IMG_8137.jpgMonday 11th February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8249.jpgIt does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French