The m1 arrives in Bristol

Sunday 6th January 2019

Today saw the launch of the third route in Bristol’s metrobus trilogy: the m1. And this is the biggy. Route m3 was first out of the blocks last May between Emersons Green and the city centre using a new bus only exit off the M32 for easy access to the University of West of England campus. This was followed in September by the former Long Ashton Park & Ride service rebranded and renumbered m2 and diverted to use some new fancy bus only roads and completely unnecessary guided busway sections (reviewed here).

In reverse number order, we now have the m1. From the gigantic leisure and retail park just off the M5 known as Cribbs Causeway in north west Bristol the m1 runs via Bradley Stoke in the north east and the University of West of England to the city centre then via Bedminster and Hengrove to terminate outside South Bristol Community Hospital having taken a whopping 85 peak minutes for an end to end journey. A Monday to Saturday 10 minute frequency impressively runs from 6am right through to 1am (20 minutely on Sundays). The extended peak running time means at least fifteen buses are needed to run the route.

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South Bristol Community Hospital, Hengrove

Uniquely the route is being operated by Bristol Community Transport (BCT) under a fixed cost contract to First West of England who are taking the revenue risk. BCT is part of CT Plus which in turn is part of the expansive HCT Group (a social enterpise formerly known as Hackney Community Transport) who specialise in fixed contract operations. This arrangement is a win-win for all concerned. BCT get an extensive contract with no risk; First West of England get to develop revenue on a high profile new route overlaying their extensive Bristol city network rather than competition from a third party, and I suspect First are paying CT Plus less than if they’d operated it directly, and the local authorities, who have backed the metrobus concept and funded all the infrastructure, get an integrated package and their vision of a better quality bus service to tempt motorists out of their cars. With First West of England’s recent difficulties with staff shortages it’s also a sensible arrangement to contract out a significant resource uplift such as the m1.

It all sounds like a sensible arrangement with local operators working pragmatically together playing to their strengths and local authorities putting they money where their vision is. And the evidence is metrobus is working too. Coinciding with the m1’s introduction this week, a new timetable is being introduced on the m3 with peak hour with-flow express journeys (numbered m3x) using more of the M32 and shaving eight minutes off the journey time, due to overloading from Emersons Green and the Science Park.

I had a ride up and down the m1 today; it was encouraging to see so many people giving the new route a try (many buses ran full), and noteworthy how many families with young children were travelling. Extra buses were drafted on to the route to cope with the numbers travelling, helped by a first day free travel promotion – just the kind of thing to get people trying a bus route. I overheard many positive comments about the bus interiors and the service in general and I’m sure this bodes well. The interiors are nothing plush, but very smart, very comfortable and very practical. The usual usb sockets and wifi are available but sadly no next stop announcements were working on the buses I travelled on although I’m told they were working on other buses – no doubt some teething issues.

I’m always puzzled why some bus companies still go for large screens which block the forward view and the ones I saw weren’t providing anything useful – other than a reminder to exit via the rear doors which was displayed only once the bus had stopped.

Overlaying fifteen buses on to an already comprehensive city network without damaging profit margins is risky, but James Freeman, the well experienced managing director of First West of England, told me initially no reductions are being made to routes which now face competition from metrobus until things settle down. This is a very wise strategy as the m1 takes a different route to existing First buses at both ends of the route as well as a different route into the city. In Hengrove confusingly, existing buses into the city centre serve the opposite side of the road, and in one case (the 50A) is quicker than the new m1, so it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to this new high profile entrant. I suspect there’ll be both abstraction and generation and hopefully the latter will exceed the former (and by some margin – to cover fifteen buses!).

Confusingly some bus stops in Hengrove are served by traditional First bus routes but not the m1; the lady photographed above was politely advised by our driver who stopped to explain the situation.

The m1 serves the University of West of England, including the exclusive access to and from the M32, so the northern section of the route has a ready market especially as the m3 has shown, students are a great market to attract and respond in large numbers to improvements to bus routes.

Despite extensive stretches of bus lanes, the m1 running time has been expanded at peak times to cope with Bristol’s notorious traffic congestion. This is sensible, as even today, albeit with first day teething problems as drivers and passengers got used to the new arrangements, on one journey I travelled on we lost fifteen minutes on the northbound journey between Bedminster and the city centre, not helped by a delayed five minute driver handover – and at a bus stop not served by metrobus (not good!).

As with the m2 and m3, no tickets are sold by the driver. Every stop has a pod with clear instructions how to buy a ticket or to use a smartphone or smartcard.

The fleet of buses on the m1 are powered by gas. A nice touch, but I’m not convinced many passengers notice, and even if they did, it would make a difference to their travel arrangements. But it’s good to see alternative propulsion sources continue to be trialled.

All in all an exciting development and congratulations to all involved. It’s certainly worth a trip to Bristol to take a look.

Roger French

2018 Quiz Answers

1 What are passengers in Basingstoke soon to miss, that those in Leicester suffered a loss of in the summer?

Printed timetables …. as Stagecoach South announced they wouldn’t be printing timetables for upcoming changes next month. It follows Arriva Midlands doing the same in Leicester in 2018.

2 What did passengers do to force Stagecoach to convert express route X92 to plain 192 in Manchester?

Passengers kept boarding the peak hour limited stop X92 journeys and demanding drivers let them off at stops which the bus didn’t observe, forcing Stagecoach to relent and make all buses observe all stops. A Stagecoach spokesperson said “as a result of ongoing verbal abuse directed towards our drivers by passengers who pressure them to stop at (the 34) stops which the X92 does not serve”.

3 Why was Platform 13 unlucky for Jubilee Line passengers at Stratford?

London Underground introduced a new timetable and driver ‘stepping up’ arrangements meaning they could just use Platforms 14 and 15 for all departures which conveniently use the same island platform removing the need for passengers to walk back and around to Platform 13 for the next train if they just miss a departing train from those platforms.

4 Why did Sid come unstuck for spending £1 on his megabus journey?

The Advertising Standards Authority demanded Stagecoach remove the large £1 fare signs from coaches as not enough seats were sold at that price. Megabus have replaced them with other promotional features – e.g. usb sockets, wifi and a generic ‘mega value fares’.

5 Why were Arriva and Carousel back as one between Chesham and High Wycombe?

The previous coordination agreement that saw both companies share route 1 (Chesham to High Wycombe) broke down in 2017 and competition broke out instead, but they kissed and made up from January 2018 and the timetable once again became coordinated.

6 What new destination could you catch a train from St Pancras to but not back again?

Eurostar began running to Amsterdam but no agreement exists between the UK and Netherlands Governments for the UK Border Force to operate immigration facilities in the Netherlands so no return journey is yet running.

7 Which two towns had a new peak hour bus replacement service laid on for commuters as part of the ‘improved’ Thameslink service from 20 May?

Wellingborough and Bedford.  The new Thameslink timetable south of Bedford meant there was not enough time for some peak hour East Midlands Trains to stop at both Wellingborough and Bedford so a Stagecoach coach now provides a replacement facility.

8 Where could you find a South Western Railway train meet a stream train on summer Saturdays?

Core Castle….where South Western Railway ran journeys on the connecting line at Wareham to the heritage Swanage Railway on summer Saturdays, sadly disrupted by RMT strike action on a number of occasions.

9 Why weren’t train drivers seeing straight driving new electric ScotRail Class 385s between Glasgow and Edinburgh?

The curve in the windscreens led to drivers seeing “double vision” at night so modifications had to be made before the trains could enter service.

2018 Review, Awards and Quiz of the Year

Tuesday 18th December 2018

After my fortnightly French Connection column got ditched last summer, readers of Bus & Coach Buyer have reportedly been worried sick they’ll miss my ritual round up of the year with its concoction of fascinating facts, august awards and quirky quiz questions.  Fear no more. I’m delighted to report BusAndTrainUser has acquired the rights for this annual nostalgic feast, and not only that, has expanded the content to become multimodal. So welcome dear readers, especially first timers, to this event of events in the transport world……it beats all those Summits, Conferences and tedious Award lunches and dinners that bedevil the rest of the year.

Regular readers will notice one or two changes with this year’s ceremony. We’ve moved to an impressive new venue ….. yes, we’re in the cavernous passenger circulating area deep underground at Crossrail’s Farringdon station. Ever keen to raise much needed commercial income to prop up its booming deficit, TfL are renting this vast space out for corporate events until it one day might be used for its original purpose. It’s a real honour to be the first to gather in these prestigious surroundings for our Review and Awards Presentation luncheon so without further ado, let’s begin the proceedings.

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The only trouble is it’s taking the Deliveroo guy over an hour to carry all the food down the fifteen flights of stairs in the emergency stairwell; problems with the station’s electrics interfering with the signals on the Thameslink line above us mean the escalators have yet to be commissioned and passed safe for service, but I’m told testing continues.

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So before the soup arrives, here’s a quick reflection on the past year’s news, and a round up of what was in and who was out during the year.

In a nutshell

It wasn’t the best of years for trains with May Meltdown (no, not the Prime Minister but the 20 May timetable chaos), new trains delayed, refurbished trains delayed, station openings delayed, electrification delays, not enough trained train drivers, not knowing there’s not enough trained train drivers – it wasn’t so much see it, say it sorted during the year as didn’t see it coming, didn’t say anything and definitely not sorted. It wasn’t much better on the buses with delayed new bus rapid transit schemes and delayed entry into service of electric buses. 2018 was also a year for proud announcements about ‘Business Change’ and ‘organisational reorganisations’ as well as sparkly new app based ride sharing minibuses being introduced as last year’s sparkly app based ride sharing minibuses bit the dust as they ran out of funds. More authorities and bus companies thought the answer to encouraging more bus passengers was to stop producing printed information and literature designed to encourage more bus passengers but on a positive note hundreds of new buses hit the road (all billed as ultra environmentally friendly of course) and there surely will be hundreds of new trains hitting the tracks …… next year.

North American private equity investor Apollo Asset Management made a bid for First Group at what informed sources said was between £1.10 and £1.20 a share. First Group rebuffed the offer as “undervaluing the company” and “opportunistic” but pointedly the Group has not exactly improved its performance since with current share price at 81p making for continuing rumours about a break-up of the Group in 2019. It was the year when the Alice in Wonderland World of Economics finally hit the rail industry yet Transport Groups seemingly still reckon it makes sense to be involved. Not only do you spend millions trying to win a franchise, once you’ve got the green signal to go you have to pump in mega more millions to keep the show on the tracks; as First Group found with Trans Pennine Express during the year; as Abellio found with ScotRail during the year; as Stagecoach and Virgin found with East Coast during the year (losing it to LNER); as Arriva found with Northern during the year, as Go-Ahead found with GTR during the year; as …OK, this could get a bit tedious but you get the picture.

And on top of all that, if you ran trains, 2018 was the year to get slated by passengers, trade unions, politicians and the media for being incompetent fat cat money grabbing charlatans. I reckon CEOs of our transport companies must all have sadomasochistic tendencies to keep on trumpeting to their favoured City investors about the wonderful world of running trains for little, if any, financial or reputational reward.

In positive rail news, the much expanded London Bridge works ended (on time), the Bermondsey Dive Under opened; blockades at Derby and Liverpool Lime Street saw new or extended platforms and track layout and signalling installed while energised electrification finally reached Swindon and the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo reopened for business with South Western Railway..

Hello Goodbye

It was hello to Reading Buses in Slough as they and Courtney, picked up the pieces from First Bus withdrawals in the town and a goodbye to Stagecoach in North Norfolk with the admission its purchase of Norfolk Green had not been ‘bottom-line enhancing’ while Abellio bade farewell to Surrey, Whippet whipped off the Cambridge busway and Go-Ahead picked up First Bus left behinds in Clacton-on-Sea. Seaford & District packed in normal year round bus work as did Emsworth & District further along the south coast; Regal Busways and EOS packed it in in Essex as did Stephensons of Easingwold in North Yorkshire while Arrow Coaches of Brighouse ceased trading completely and Avon Coaches gave up on the Wirral due to Merseyside’s MyTicket for young people. It was goodbye and good riddance to Express Motors of Penygroes at the beginning of 2018 with its directors jailed for fraud later in the year.

Transdev completed the formal purchase of Rosso, Rotala bought Central Buses in the West Midlands but sold Wessex in Bristol to Stagecoach. Comfort DelGro bought New Adventure Travel in Cardiff and Newport, while Peter Shipp sold his beloved East Yorkshire to the Go-Ahead Group. Stephenson of Essex acquired NIBS Buses of Wickford and HCT bought Powells Bus and the Impact Group.

It was goodbye to bendy buses in Coventry, picking up passengers at ScotRail run station IBM and farewell Tim O’Toole from First Group and Charles Horton from “the troubled” GTR franchise, with Kevin O’Connor quitting Arriva as UK Bus managing director, while a whole host of managing directors departed Stagecoach including long standing Martin Sutton and Andy Campbell not forgetting Steve Burd, Tom Bridge and Philip Norwell, Justin Davies said farewell First Cymru, Kevin Carr retired from Go-Ahead, Elsie Turbyne left NatEx owned Xplore Dundee while Norman Baker both joined and left the Big Lemon as MD. Very sad and tragic news was the untimely passing of Paul Thomas, Stagecoach East Scotland’s MD at such a young age.

In brighter news it was a hello and welcome to the Transport for Wales franchise operated by Keolis and Amey while Arriva Trains Wales went into the sidings and a welcome hello to new bus stations in Lincoln and Gloucester and a much needed revamp and refresh of Preston’s Grade II listed whopper. Hello also to ScotRail’s Hitachi electric Class 385s (once their bendy windscreens had been straightened) and Stagecoach’s new no frills megasightseeing operation in London as well as hello to a feast of new bus brands including Cheshire Cat in Warrington, the welcome return of Badgerline in First West of England, along with Discover and Lynx, Tottington Line, Lakeline and Red 4 in Transdev Blazefield’s Rosso and York & Country around York while Thames Valley was resurrected by Reading Buses in Slough, Glider glided into Belfast, Chiltern Hundreds launched surprisingly enough in the Chilterns and Dragonfly flew into Hatfield as Foxglove and Lilac grew in Northampton all from UNO.

Hello also to First Group CEO Matthew Gregory, Network Rail CEO Andrew Haines, Patrick Verwer to head up GTR, Louise Cheesman became managing director of Hull Trains and new bus managing directors including Matthew Ashton at Arriva’s Yorkshire Tiger, David Bradford at NatEx West Midlands, Chris Coleman at Stagecoach Oxfordshire, Matt Cranwell at Stagecoach East Midlands, Ian Humphreys at First Manchester, David Liston at Stagecoach North Scotland, Christine McGlasson Xplore Dundee, Gareth Powell as Surface Transport Supremo at TfL, Andrew Sherrington at First Cymru, Heath Williams to Ipswich Buses, Robert Williams to CEO Reading Buses, Ed Wills at Go-Ahead Ireland while Martijn Gilbert moved from head honcho at Reading Buses to Go North East and Phil Medlicott moved from First Manchester back to Stagecoach Midlands. MD Musical Chairs at Stagecoach saw Matthew Cranwell move from Cumbria and North Lancs to East Midlands being replaced by Mark Whitelocks moving from North Scotland. Nusrat Ghani arrived as a Minister at the DfT while Andrew Jones returned after Jo Johnson was off.

Competition broke out in West Lothian as Lothian Country (aka as Lothian Buses) headed for Livingston to take on First East Scotland while in Guildford, international corporate transport giant Arriva inexplicably decided to compete with local family owned and well respected Safeguard on a town bus route.

Numbers of the Year

12   bus lanes in Coventry temporarily removed in 2017 were permanently scrapped.

£32   public funding per passenger journey (yes, that’s for each single passenger journey) on Huntington Association Community for Transport in 2014 according to an external audit.

25   % hike in charges for coaches at Edinburgh Airport from January. A stop for 10-20 mins increased from £8 to £10

70   days notice for bus registrations was announced by the DfT with 1 day’s notice of implementation in April

840  Britain’s most scenic bus route according to 827 votes cast in an online poll that attracted 15,000 clicks.

£1.8m  TfL’s deficit running buses per day in its updated business plan to 2022/23

£6m   TfL spend on toilets on 40 routes including a handsome ‘Turdis’ outside desirable houses in Biggin Hill

£11.5m  TfGM’s grotesque spend on exploring the case for franchising – you’ve got to laugh or you’ll cry.

£92.3m   Enforcement income from the Dartford Toll – total income £204.7m. Work that one out.

Right that’s 2018 for you. Now as it seems Deliveroo are still struggling and the lunch is running later than a Bombardier Class 710 train destined for the Gospel Oak to Barking line we’ll move straight on to the Awards and present the beautifully crafted trophies to our worthy winners …….

Please could all winners note there are no official photographs this year (cutbacks following the commitment to freeze the price of your admission ticket for four years) so instead, please remember to ingratiate yourselves with selfies immediately after picking up your trophies so we get maximum coverage on social media. It goes down so well with your passengers waiting for a delayed bus or train to know their favourite transport company has just picked up a well deserved award at a lavish presentation ceremony…..

So the waiting is finally over, here they are the ever prestigious, all new ….. BusAndTrainUser Awards 2018

Late And Over Budget But Hey It’s Open At Last Award

Our first Award has proved massively popular this year attracting a plethora of top quality entries. The judges decided to delay their decision well beyond the original announcement deadline but finally made their minds up just a few minutes ago that ….. the Bronze Award goes to Translink’s Glider bus rapid transit introduced in Belfast in September just a mere twelve months late; the Silver Award to a well deserving joint entry from Warwickshire County Council and Network Rail for the much delayed opening of Kenilworth Station having achieved the amazing feat of four previously delayed opening dates, but the winner of the prestigious Gold Award is unsurprisingly the TramTrain between Sheffield and Rotherham for its much delayed AND four times original budget achievement during the ten years of implementation planning.  

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The judges also wanted to make a special commendation award to the West of England partners involved in Bristol’s metrobus rapid transit project noting its introduction this summer had commendably been achieved after a doubling of costs over budget as well as managing impressive implementation delays including only two out of three routes up and running with one more to follow in the new year. The judges noted an entry for the 2019 Awards would therefore be entirely appropriate.

Next up another ever popular award….

Let’s Rearrange The Deck Chairs and Contemplate Our Navel Award

Another great range of entries including Stagecoach for taking managing directors away from their day job to work full time on a highly impressive sounding ‘Business Change Programme’; First Group for also taking key directors away from their day job to head up a project finding new ways to improve bottom line profits in its continuing ‘Transformation Programme’ and not to be outdone, and a worthy entry to the shortlist, Arriva launched proposals for wide ranging ‘Organisation Change’ so it can become the ‘mobility partner of choice’. Our fourth and final entry for the short list is the Confederation of Passenger Transport for announcing controversial proposals for business change to deliver a higher public profile using less resources (‘keeping all the benefits of membership but at less cost’ syndrome) that also saw off Simon Posner, CPT’s Chief Executive and Ian Morgan, its Chairman. The judges found it too hard to make a decision on this Award and so have brought in expert business change consultants to advise. A result is expected in due course.

Meantime it’s …..

The ‘I Told You So’ Back Track of the Year Award

Not surprisingly as financial clouds gather we’ve been inundated with entries. What made for an ego filled PR puff overbrimming with bullshit about the cutting edge of innovation in 2017 came back to bite the bank balance with vengeance this year. The judges managed to whittle the entries down to a short list of five: Stagecoach South East for abandoning their Mercedes Sprinter microbuses under the Very Little and Not That Often brand in Ashford in favour of standard buses; Bournemouth’s Yellow Buses for renumbering, rebranding and revamping its bus network following last year’s disastrous renumbering, rebranding and revamping its bus network; RATP for abandoning its loss making Slide app based ride share venture in Bristol; Esoteric Systems (with First West of England) for abandoning its loss making MyFirstMile app based ride share venture in Bristol ….. but the winner is….. Arriva for their unashamed audacity of only half abandoning the 2017 conversion of Hemel Hempstead’s town routes to completely unsuitable Mercedes Sprinter minibuses giving Bennetts End residents welcome relief as standard size buses were brought back. The good news is Arriva must surely be in the running for an unprecedented win of this award two years in a row if it finishes the job off by returning big buses for residents of Warners End and Gadebridge in 2019.

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Most Preposterous Quote of the Year Award

Always a popular award with multiple entries which the judges narrowed down to two joint winners. The first Award goes to Alison O’Connor Director of Corporate Affairs at Arriva on the roll out of the Group’s new logo. Alison reckoned “our new identity is more customer friendly and will support us as we develop our services to deliver the flexibility and choice that our customers want”. She went on to explain the “new identity supports our strategy for growth and our vision of becoming a mobility partner of choice while positioning Arriva more strongly in a changing transport market”. Yeah, right. 

And our second joint winner for preposterousness goes to former Transport Minister Jo Johnson responding to complaints of hard seats on the DfT specified Thameslink Siemens Class 700 trains wistfully told numb bum complainers they needn’t resort to bringing their own inflatable cushions as “the seats normally become more comfortable over time through use”.

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Most ridiculed Auto Announcement of the Year

There’s just one candidate way ahead of any other entry this year. Many congratulations to TfL for the fleet wide roll out of its “Please hold on …. the bus is about to move” announcement which played out thirty seconds after the front doors had shut and the bus was well on its way from the bus stop. The judges also commended GTR for its saturation coverage at stations and trains insisting passengers check their train times from 20 May….. just a shame any semblance of timetables which could be relied on were abandoned within hours of their introduction which brings us to our next Award……

Surely They Must Have Known Award

This new Award for 2018 has proved a hit with entrants. We have a joint entry from GTR and the DfT together with the Thameslink Industry Readiness Board for their “Not Realising The 20 May Timetable Will Go Belly-up Until A Few Days Before” entry; another joint entry from Network Rail, Northern Trains and Transport for the North for their “Realising The 20 May Timetable Was Going Belly-up Weeks Before But Carried On Regardless” entry and a third joint entry from Transport for London with Crossrail for their “Not Realising A Delay Of Well Over A Year Was On The Cards Less Than Four Months Before Introduction” entry. The judges decided the only fair way of deciding the outcome of this hotly contested short list was to put it back to the people for a people’s vote; but this may take time to organise so in the meantime emergency arrangements, including the army on stand-by, are being introduced while the award remains unawarded.

Award for the most controversial Award of the Year Award

This year’s Award for the most controversial Award of the Year goes to the National Rail Awards ‘Train of the Year’ Award. Social media was abuzz with controversy in the Autumn when Siemens collected Gold as its Class 700 trains for Thameslink where judged Top Train in the National Rail Awards run by Rail magazine. It didn’t go down too well with Brighton based commuters uncomfortably sitting on hard-ironing-board-backed, armrest-missing, no-leg-room, narrow seats with coffee and croissant in hand, no plug sockets for much needed battery charging and fancy information signs proving unreliable. Mind you the hundreds of suitcase wheeling tourists boarding at Gatwick joined by hundreds more commuters at East Croydon were well pleased to hear the news, adding their own congratulations, as they found ample space to stand in comfort for their shorter length journey.

Consult But Ignore The Responses And Do It Anyway Of The Year Award

TfL have been consistent winners of this Award year after year and it won’t come as a surprise to you all to know it’s the 2018 worthy winner too. Last year it was the ‘ignore feedback about cuts to frequencies on the Finchley Road and don’t withdraw route 13’ entry which won as TfL sneakily withdrew route 13 and renumbered the 82 to 13 hoping no-one would notice. This year’s winning entry is the ‘cut routes 10 and 23 from Oxford Street and 25 west of Holborn even though the original justifications …. Oxford Street pedestrianisation and Crossrail are not introduced. You’ve got to hand it to TfL no-one does ignore consultation responses quite like them and win awards for it. 

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Time for our penultimate award and it’s the ever popular….

Naffest Use of Social Media of the Year Award

Usually this Award category is dominated by Virgin Trains and LNER for their annoying over-hyped far-from-realty marketing and promotional use of Twitter, but this year the judges were so impressed with Arriva Click’s expansion into Liverpool and the associated outlandish messages Tweeted they’ve awarded all three trophies to them. The Bronze award goes for the Tweet which encouraged school children to take Arriva Click to school when no child rate fares are available; the Silver award for this gem of a naff promotional Tweet …. “#SundayFunday is better with free Wi-Fi, air conditioned transport and purse-friendly trips to the carvery. Extra gravy on those spuds please!” – just a pity you can’t get an Arriva Click on a Sunday as they don’t run … so not so much a Funday ….

IMG_E1209….while the Gold award for the audacity of trumpeting “fantastic demand” and blaming “high demand if your first day ride requests are postponed” (the truth being only three minibuses were on the road on Liverpool’s first day of Click and minimal journey requests were being made but the minibuses were not close by even those!). Fake News Of The Year.

IMG_E8791And our final award should have been announced much earlier in the proceedings, but sadly has been delayed and may not even be ready to be presented even now. But here’s a sneak preview of the rather extensive shortlist ……

Caledonian Sleeper for the delayed introduction of new CAF Mark 5 sleeper coaches … the judges were particularly impressed by the company teasing passengers by selling tickets for the planned launch in October before admitting the trains were nowhere near ready and would happen next Spring instead (full refunds were given); Virgin Trains East Coast (aka LNER) for building up expectations, as only their annoying PR style knows how, for the introduction of Azuma trains in December only to quietly drop the idea due to implementation problems; VivaRail for the delayed introduction of former District Line D Stock Underground trains (Class 230 in new money) to the Marston Vale Line; Trans Pennine Express for loco hauled Mark 5s being delayed (also teasing us with a plan, then aborted, to introduce older stock until delivery); ScotRail for the delayed introduction of a fleet of refurbished HSTs to the newly branded Inter7City (and teasing us with just one set which occasionally runs on tracks for passengers); GTR for Siemens Class 717s on the delayed Great Northern suburban routes; the already mentioned delayed Overground Class 710s for Gospel Oak-Barking; Northern Trains delayed Class 195s – all the aforementioned promised for December introduction and, of course, no surprise that the winner by a long delay is Crossrail for missing its December introduction date spectacularly, announcing an ‘Autumn 2019’ replacement and only weeks later changing that to an indefinite delay. A very worthy Delayed Gold Winner.

Many congratulations to all our worthy winners. Remember if you don’t enter, you can’t win, so make a promise now to enter for the BusAndTrainUser Awards 2019 just as soon as we announce we’re open for entries. Don’t delay it.

I’m sorry lunch has still not arrived but Delay Lunch Repay forms will be available as you leave, but to round off proceedings, I had hoped our special guest speaker Minister of Transport Nusrat Ghani would be here, but as is normal practice we have a video presentation made especially for such absentee eventualities …. it’s for your enjoyment and to remind you of 100 Bus & Train Events in 2018….. click here and enjoy.

Finally as no blogpost just before Christmas is complete without a few quiz questions, here are a few posers to ponder over for the next few days before the answers get posted……

Christmas Quiz

1 What are passengers in Basingstoke soon to miss that those in Leicester suffered a loss of in the summer?

2 What did passengers do to force Stagecoach to convert express route X92 to plain 192 in Manchester?

3 Why was Platform 13 unlucky for Jubilee Line passengers at Stratford?

4 Why did Sid come unstuck for spending £1 on his megabus journey?

5 Why were Arriva and Carousel back as one between Chesham and High Wycombe?

6 What new destination could you catch a train from St Pancras to but not back again?

7 Which two towns had a new peak hour bus replacement service laid on for commuters as part of the ‘improved’ Thameslink service from 20 May?

8 Where could you find a South Western Railway train meet a steam train on summer Saturdays?

9 Why weren’t train drivers seeing straight driving new electric ScotRail Class 385s between Glasgow and Edinburgh?

Answers at the end of the year, or if you can’t wait – click here as most of them appear in our 100 Bus & Train Events in 2018 video.

Thanks for coming. Safe journey home everyone. Take care up all those stairs!

Happy Christmas to you all.

Roger French

A Lifebelt for ailing Hayling Ferry

Saturday 3rd November 2018

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There’s a handy passenger ferry which connects the south western tip of Hayling Island with the south eastern tip of Portsea Island across Langstone Harbour. It only takes a couple of minutes to cross and saves Hayling’s residents a 12 mile detour via Havant and Cosham to reach the commercial centre of Portsmouth and Southsea. But as I found when I last made the crossing in August 2017, it’s not particularly convenient as both landing stages are isolated with the nearest bus routes turning a fair way short necessitating a two mile walk from the closest bus stop on Hayling Island and about a mile on Portsea before you find a bus stop where buses stop. No wonder very few people use the ferry and it struggles to stay in business.

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Bus turning circles almost adjacent to both landing stages give the clue that once upon a time buses joined up with the ferry to connect the communities, and now, thanks to £20,000 funding from Havant Borough Council’s Community Infrastructure Levy, buses are once again providing connections for a six month trial.

It’s taken a long time to bring this renewed bus/ferry integrated travel option to fruition; and sadly before you know it, it’ll all be over again. I wish I could report otherwise, but after giving the trial service a whirl yesterday afternoon, I’m afraid it’s a ‘No’ from me for going through to the next round.

You can’t fault the commitment and effort made by all the parties involved who’ve endured a long and painful struggle to try and join up the bus and ferry dots on the map.

Not surprisingly Stagecoach rebuffed suggestions their circular routes 30/31 connecting Hayling Island with Havant four times an hour should divert off route for the two mile hike to the western landing stage; after all, it would destroy the routes’ even frequency and economics, while First Bus were naturally reluctant to stretch routes 15/16 eastwards beyond their Fort Cumberland terminus in Eastney with the potential to make the timetable unworkable for no appreciable gain in passengers.

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Stagecoach’s circular routes 30/31 run every 15 minutes from Havant (twice an hour each way)

First Bus route 15 runs hourly and 16 less often from the Hard to Eastney Fort Cumberland

After months of endless discussions, it was finally Havant Borough Council’s £20,000 sweetener to fund a community bus shuttling around Hayling Island providing a link to the ferry every hour together with Langstone Harbour’s halving the harbour fees paid by the ferry (and a levy on each passenger) that finally clinched a deal amid much congratulatory appreciation from everyone involved for a bright new future.

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The Portsmouth News positive headline

In the event, the aspiration for an hourly community bus didn’t quite work out and instead Portsmouth City Coaches (a new name for the old established Emsworth & District bus company) are running just a Monday to Friday peak hour only circular route (numbered, for nostalgia reasons, 149) aimed at commuters.

Route 149 harks back to the long established open-top route operated by Southdown

Plaudits to First Bus though; they’ve hacked the western end of route 15 between the Hard Interchange (with its adjacent Gunwharf Quays shopping outlets) and the city centre and instead gambled on an extension of the route at the eastern end to the ferry’s landing stage; and what’s more this runs hourly throughout a Monday to Friday day (well, except for a 1600 departure) providing more ferry connectional opportunities – it’s a shame their online map has only been updated at the western end though, leaving the ferry still looking isolated at the eastern end!

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First Bus’s online map has deleted the western end of route 15 to The Hard but not added the all important new eastern extension to the Ferry landing stage.

That map goof aside, it was good to see an abundance of posters and announcements around the ferry landing stages and onboard the ferry itself as well as the bus on route 149. Users of the ferry can’t possibly be unaware something new is on offer. I’m not sure though whether the all important non-users will be similarly briefed – whether the £20,000 has stretched to an attractive house-to-house leaflet drop on Hayling, for example.

At the top of the Eastney landing stage

At the bottom of the Eastney landing stage

On board the ferry

At the Hayling Island turning circle bus shelter

On board the 149 bus

Aside from ferry times only First Bus 15 times on display on the Eastney side (no 149) …

…. and then not particularly well presented!

This six month trial has been hyped as a “use it or lose it” opportunity, so well done to everyone involved for raising the profile and getting the local media on board too. But as always with these things, the devil is in the detail. Has anyone worked out what is actually on offer to tempt passengers to travel aside from a logical looking straight line on a map surpassing a non sensical inland detour? Regretfully it would seem not.

Imagine I fit the perfect target market of a commuter living on Hayling Island with a job in the centre of Portsmouth and want to use the new ‘Ferry Bus Connections’.

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The options are to catch the 0625, 0725 or 0825 route 149 from Eastoke Corner which will see me arrive in Portsmouth via the Ferry and route 15 an hour later at 0727, 0827 or 0927.

An overall 62 minute journey seems an awfully long time for a three minute ferry crossing. And bizarrely for a scheme that’s meant to save journey time, it doesn’t. If instead, I caught the 0635, 0715 or 0800 Stagecoach route 30 from nearby Mengham Corner on Hayling Island to Havant and hopped on the Coastliner bus to Portsmouth I’d arrive, in the first two examples at 0731 and 0811 – in just 56 minutes, being 6 minutes quicker than the new much heralded direct route. (The 0800 journey arrives 0912 – due to a longer connection in Havant so does take 10 minutes longer). Similar comparisons apply for the afternoon three journey options involving the 149.

What’s more I could get one of Stagecoach’s Mega or Dayrider tickets costing just £6.90 for a day or £21 for 7 days (m-ticket prices). Compare that to the non-integrated ticket option via the ferry – which sets me back £2 both ways on route 149; £5.50 for a day return on the ferry and £3 both ways on the 15, making for an eye-watering £15.50 for a day’s travel. A modest saving can be had on the ferry by buying a 10 trip ticket for £25 (effectively a working week’s travel, or £48 for 20 trips) and it may be there’s a slight discount on the 15 with a return ticket (this being First Bus and as it’s a Saturday, when I’m writing this, it’s impossible to find out); but I reckon it’ll be no more than a £1 saving making for a total bus and ferry five day price coming in at a whopping £70 which doesn’t quite entice me compared to Stagecoach’s £21, especially when it could be quicker too.

There is, of course, an even quicker journey option. Havant’s rail station is just a convenient three or four minute walk from the bus station and there just happen to be trains departing to Portsmouth & Southsea ten minutes after the Stagecoach route 30 arrives into Havant bus station – how good is that, making for an overall journey time of 41 minutes (from the 0635 bus); 50 minutes (from the 0715 bus) and 49 minutes (from the 0800 bus). Not only is this the quickest option, but the ticket prices are cheaper than the new bus and ferry option too – thanks to the wonderful PlusBus which happens to cover Hayling Island for either just £2.90 for a day or £10 for a week. Adding those prices to the Havant to Portsmouth & Southsea rail return of £5.10 for a day and £22.80 for a week gives integrated travel for £8 for a day or £32.80 for a week – less than half the bus/ferry option and a third quicker too!

And that, is why the six month trial; notwithstanding the £20,000 funding boost, is doomed to fail. Why would anyone choose to pay more for a longer journey?

I write this with a heavy heart, as I’d like nothing better than to see those lovely turning circles back in action permanently, so if, like me, you’re a fan of such manoeuvres – hurry down to Hayling Island over the next five months, while the trial lasts. Although sadly with darker mornings and late afternoons the prospects of seeing much in the light are not good.

The lovely turning circle on the Eastley side in action….

….while over on Hayling Island…..

….the 149 waits patiently for customers.

It’s a shame the Community Infrastructure Levy couldn’t have stretched further to fund an hourly 149 bus all day, as originally intended, and much tighter connectional times at the landing stages with good communications between bus and ferry (in case of delays) to try and shorten overall journey times. With the low numbers travelling, it might also have been worth making the service attractively cheap (the revenue at risk must be minimal), or even completely free for the six month trial. That just might have generated some serious interest which could have been nurtured to become sustainable.

What I saw yesterday is a very good try at reviving things but sadly it’s a definite ‘No’.

Roger French 3rd November 2018

Cambridge Busway confusion

Monday 29th October

There’s something not quite right on the Cambridge Busway.

That’s apart from a driver shortage impacting the reliability of Stagecoach services.

I arrived at the Cambridge Station stop this morning for the 11.47 Route D which uses the Busway towards St Ives as part of a combined 15 minute frequency with Route A as shown on the timetable on the Stagecoach website.

Route D is on the far right of the frequency block

Except the bus stop ‘real time sign’ showed a Route D departure at 11.51 (not 11.47) while the departure list in the shelter showed an 11.51 departure as Route A (not D) and the sign on the shelter showed Routes A and C (but no D) stop there even though C doesn’t.

Timetable listing favours Route A (no D) as well as an R

The bus shelter favours there being a Route A and C

Confused? I was. And even more so when I then spotted a timetable for Route A on the shelter showing only an hourly service.

Then the insecurity set in when 11.47 (and 11.51) came and went; the ‘real time display’ disappeared; and no bus had appeared.

Next the sign showed a Route A departing at 12.02 which at least married up with one of the timetable displays in the shelter and the website, so things were looking up.

Except 12.02 came and went, the display disappeared and still no bus.

Then we had a departure showing a Route A in ’13 mins’ indicating there’s a good chance this bus is actually coming (the one due at 12.17) and my assumption the previous displays had defaulted to timetabled scheduled time as no ‘real’ information had been received by the system. As both departures were obviously cancelled this is a particularly unsatisfactory way to communicate what is already an unsatisfactory situation! Open Data this is not.

No update information had been tweeted by Stagecoach East so at 12.06 I tweeted them to find out what was happening as my day’s travel plans were rapidly meaning Plan A bring aborted as well as the backstop Plan B and the backstop to the backstop Plan C.

As there wasn’t the courtesy of a reply and I detected understandable consternation among waiting passengers as we all watched frequent departures on smart Park & Ride buses from the same stop which only added to our frustrating wait, I tried another tweet at 12.17 as that departure wasn’t in sight.

in the event a rather full single deck finally arrived at 12.21 (the previous departure – if it ran – would have been at 11.32) and shortly after that Stagecoach East enquired if the bus had arrived.

As someone astutely observed; Twitter is supposed to work the other way around with bus companies providing the answers rather than asking the questions.

A couple of people kindly tweeted me letting me know about a useful app I could download showing the location of both Stagecoach and Whippet buses around Cambridge but as a non frequent visitor to the city there’s a limit to how many apps I want on my phone. I had been using the Stagecoach app too; but like the real time sign, it had defaulted to showing scheduled time for the cancelled buses on the ‘nearby buses’ screen which is particularly useless – that’s when I could get a good enough signal …..

Not a particularly helpful app when phone signal is dodgy

Later in the day I arrived at Huntingdon station and was puzzled to see the same phenomenon with discrepancies between timetables on display there too.

The large display on the shelter shows departures on Route B to Cambridge at 01 and 31 minutes past the hour …..

while a smaller display on the bus stop shows departures at 08 and 38.

The real time display seemed to be agreeing with 01 and 31 which is also reaffirmed by the website.

I’m sure all of this can be explained by different publication dates and out of date information not being taken down but it does highlight how confusing it can be for passengers and emphasises the challenge ahead with grand plans for Open Data …. as well as confirmation that driver shortages are back with us again in some parts of the country (maybe pinch a driver off the frequent Park & Ride to avoid two consecutive buses on the A/D being cancelled?).

Displays showing different commencing dates in Cambridge may be a factor

Roger French 29th October 2018

I just snapped!

Wednesday 17th October 2018

‘Snap is premium inter-city travel, on demand, using the UK’s best independent coach companies. All for pocket money prices. Snap was founded in 2016 by Thomas Ableman, former Commercial Director of Chiltern Railways and Product Director of National Express and has carried over 100,000 people since launch, with outstanding customer feedback (9/10 on line reviews are 5-star).’

That’s what the Company blurb says, so I thought it was high time I gave this 5-Star coach experience a try.

I’d been keeping a curious eye on Snap’s website for much of last year but entering London and Brighton as my ‘on demand’ preferred travel origin/destination it would always come back saying nothing was going my way.

I knew Nottingham to London was Snap’s test bed route so decided to give that a go but I could only ever find inconvenient (for me) afternoon/evening departures northbound from London.

The website implies I can be matched with other passengers going my way, but my experiences indicated it was more whether my travel would fit in with confirmed journeys already planned to run.

Snap was in the trade press a few weeks ago promoting a deal with Oxford Bus to sell tickets on that Company’s London service as well as news of a service expansion to Bristol where coincidentally the Young Bus Managers Conference was being held on 17/18 October so it proved an ideal opportunity to give Snap a go. (I know I’m not young and no longer a bus manager, but they let me attend conferences as a grand sounding ‘Patron’).

This time Snap’s website had been updated to include a drop down menu in the From and To fields confirming all the available options which also now include Birmingham, Cardiff, Leicester and Worcester and even including journeys between them and not via London.

You can choose any convenient time to travel but I’ve found the algorithm always comes back offering trips st times where booked coaches are already confirmed as running. No doubt if I was a group booking there’d be flexibility.

Prices are attractively cheap for most journeys with higher fares applying on obviously busier journeys as bookings increase. My Bristol fare departing London at 0900 was quoted at £5 when I booked last Wednesday … until I saw an offer of ‘first trip free’ so signed up for the promo code and saved myself a fiver.

There are a number of pick up/set down options available – my Bristol coach offered St Pancras International or Baker Street from London with four drop off points near Bristol city centre.

The adventure began this morning at St Pancras as I hadn’t even realised there are six coach bays underneath the platforms accessed via the corridor between the Left Luggage and Toilets.

It’s not the most salubrious waiting area but with a text letting you know your driver is on the way and a link to a vehicle tracking website, you could hang around in the station’s extensive shopping and refreshment area until just before departure time – although you’re asked to be there ten minutes before departure.

Ominously our coach was still at Southwark Bridge at 0902 with predicted arrival erroneously still showing 0900 at St Pancras.

In the event this morning’s boarding experience was anything but 5-Star as our driver didn’t arrive until 0935. Had it not been possible to track the coach struggling through London’s morning peak hour traffic such a long wait would have been very disconcerting.

By 0913 Robin had reached City Thameslink but no change on the 0900 prediction.

At 0935 Robin arrived at the security guarded entrance to the departure bays.

All eight of us boarded promptly being ticked off on the drivers smartphone screen listing and we were away at 0939.

Our 2017 vintage Scania 33 seater coach provided by Anderson Travel was certainly 5-Star. It had a real wow factor as you boarded coming complete with leather seats; tables for four; a midship double galley with ovens, microwave, drinks facility and the usual usb sockets and Wi-fi.

It drove smoothly and as we crawled along the Euston and Marylebone Roads towards Baker Street (where we picked up four more passengers) I could tell this was going to be an impressive ride quality.

Our driver apologised for the late arrival and after Baker Street made an explanatory announcement that ‘it had been one of those mornings: problems with the traffic, problems with the coach and problems with the phone’. Still, I think we were all pleased to be on our way at last and we were reassured a revised anticipated arrival time in Bristol of midday was on the cards (rather than the originally scheduled 1131).

So, as instructed, I sat back, relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the ride down to Bristol where we pulled up in the city centre at Rupert Street at 1219 – 48 minutes late.

In the event not only did I have a completely free and luxurious ride (the seat was ten times more comfortable than a Class 800 train) but I arrived much quicker than had I gone to Paddington this morning as problems with overhead wires meant no trains could run until repairs were completed around lunchtime.

Snap is an interesting idea. Thomas Ableman rightly describes the company as a Sales and Marketing platform. It aims to excel at getting customers and allows operating companies to concentrate on what he says they do best – operating coaches. As befits the way of the ride sharing world, passengers are asked to rate their journey between 1 and 5 immediately on completion by text and this helps Snap ensure they contract only the best operators.

Thomas points out that compared to the downturn in bus travel and the more recent downward trends in train passengers, inter-city express coach travel is on the up – quoting both National Express and Megabus enjoying growth. To successfully join in this growth, Snap’s challenge must surely be raising awareness that they exist. Unlike the established players, Snap doesn’t have high visibility branded coaches plying the motorways and into town and city centres.

My Anderson Travel coach had a small Snap vinyl near the front on both sides but it only acted as reassurance to those of us boarding than being anything meaningful to anyone else.

But, as Snap’s overhead are a tiny fraction of National Express and Megabus it doesn’t really matter if the company grows at a fairly slow pace from one travel market to another as demand increases from word of mouth and use of low cost social media and it continues to match demand and supply with dynamic pricing.

For non-time critical passengers on tight budgets who happen to be travelling where Snap have a platform, it’s an irresistible proposition. Luxury travel, smooth ride and excellent bespoke reassuring communications.

It’ll be interesting to see where Snap goes next. I’ll happily give it another go if a destination and departure time look convenient – mainly for the novelty of such luxury road travel at a ridiculously cheap price – so I hope Snap’s venture capital investors are equally happy too. I’m told firmly that they are.

Roger French 17th October 2018

I went to Thorpe Park by bus

Tuesday 16th October 2018

No, not the infamous leisure park in Surrey, that’s so last decade; I’m talking Thorpe Park as in ‘a flagship scheme for the Northern Powerhouse Agenda’ no less (well that’s what their brochure reckons).

And in case you didn’t know, Thorpe Park ‘sits in the city regions most significant growth area and will bring even greater diversity to the Leeds offer to the local and national business community’. What’s more the developers promise ‘public realm to engage and enjoy’.

And it’s in the news because Thorpe Park’s retail and leisure quarter called The Springs opened last weekend attracting the usual motoring addicted mega crowds of shoppers to suss out what’s on offer. As I was in the area it was too good an opportunity to miss so I tried out First Leeds’ brand new limited stop X26 bus route which also started last weekend linking Leeds city centre with Thorpe Park.

Where exactly is this flagship scheme you might well be wondering? Thorpe Park Leeds sits on the eastern edge of the city in the gap before you cross the extreme northern end of the M1 and arrive in neighbouring Garforth.

Here’s a site map from the Developers’ website showing the scale of what’s planned which as well as all the futuristic office space, retail, leisure and parkland will eventually include 7,000 new homes and in 2021 even a new train station, East Leeds Parkway. So it’s good to see First Leeds getting in before a home has been built with its new X26.

The usual retail suspects can be found at The Springs … Next and T.K.Max occupy the ‘bookends’ with Boots, a huge M&S Simply Food (no clothes), all the Arcadia Group brands (Top This and Top That), H&M and, inevitably, eateries including Nandos as well as other promised food offerings. An Odeon cinema opens next year and obviously as it’s 2018, a plush gym is included in the scheme.

But ominously there are plenty of vacant units which have no current takers; there’s a plethora of ‘to rent signs’ down the spine mall walkway which wouldn’t look out of place in a run down suburban High Street.

It seems paradoxical at a time of doom and gloom on the future of retail in the High Street due to the growth of online shopping we’re also seeing massive developments such as The Springs following on, in Leeds case, the opening of a huge new John Lewis handily next to the bus station (but with a massive car park attached to boot), a redeveloped Trinity Leeds central shopping mall and the longer established White Rose Centre just to the south west being just a short bus ride from the city centre.

This multi storey car park abuts the new John Lewis right next to Leeds City Bus Station.

The White Rose Centre offers all the usual retail names on the south west side of the city.

Just one example of the ‘premium office space’ aplenty at Thorpe Park with adjacent car parking

And so to the X26.

Full marks to First Bus for investing in an incredibly impressive start-up service running from 0525 to midnight seven days a week, albeit with a slightly later 0745 start on Sundays. Commendably a 15 minute frequency applies throughout the day with half hourly evenings running seven days a week. Running time is 38 minutes meaning a commitment of six buses to run the service. That really is excellent provision bearing in mind there’s nothing particularly special about the retail offer at The Springs. I’m thinking there must be some helpful Section 106 payments to pump prime such early days generous bus provision and all to the good if so.

Even better First Bus have launched the second in their high profile colour coded route branding for Leeds with a fleet of attractive new buses for the X26. A smart yellow front adds to the pleasing appearance of the green livery, and marketing inside the buses indicates more routes will follow including the 5, 11, 19/19A, 40, 56 and a new X27 from December.

It’s all very impressive and encouraging and therefore every reason to shout about it from the rooftops. But I struggled to find anything out about the X26. The timetable is online but you have to know about it to look it up. If you don’t know about it, you won’t know about it from looking online. There’s nothing under Service Changes or Latest News for example.

The high profile buses help, that’s how I became aware something was up when I spotted one in the city centre on its first day out at the weekend. But not many potential passengers have that eye for bus detail I’m inflicted with. Knowing it was limited stop I started scouting around the city centre bus stops looking for confirmation of where I could get on board eventually settling on The Headrow and reassuringly found METRO had installed their standard departure listings on one the H2 stop, so well done them for getting that up on time.

On board, the usual First Bus new bus spec extras are evident and there’s bespoke cove panels for The Springs and other stuff.

I was initially surprised the buses aren’t guide wheel fitted so they can use the long established guided bus lanes on the Selby/York Road to and from Thorpe Park; all the more so as when I travelled on Monday roadworks were disrupting traffic big time. But I’m told there’s a problem with fitting the wheels to the bus body structure and a solution is awaited. Even so there’s doubt how effective it would be to send a limited stop service down a bus lane heavily used by frequent stopping services. Fair point.

My biggest disappointment was the timetable leaflet for the brand new X26. I couldn’t get one on board the buses so on my return to Leeds wandered over to the METRO run Travel Centre in the bus station to see if there was one there.

Casting an eye over the tidy display in route number order, no luck ..

… but as I was about to leave I spotted a makeshift display in the corner by the exit door and my luck was in – the last three copies of an X26 leaflet were there for the picking up.

It’s a classic example of why West Yorkshire Combined Authority should cease timetable production and instead hand it over to the bus companies who need to step up to the plate and produce eye catching promotional marketing leaflets that inspire and encourage bus travel just as T.K.Max, Next and the others are doing for their new stores.

The cover is bland enough but even worse, the first message on opening the leaflet are the dos and don’ts of ‘Using our bus stations safely’. The X26 doesn’t even use a bus station!

The final pair of bus stops sited down the side wall of T.K.Max, before the bus turns round at a large roundabout on the new access road disconcertingly still had ‘not in use’ notices; maybe they weren’t but at least one befuddled passenger was picked up by a bus laying over there.

The previous stops (conveniently sited at the bottom of that deserted spine mall and the yet to open Odeon and gym) had a departure listing, but oddly the bus stop flags on either side of the road both indicated incorrectly buses would be heading to Leeds.

Stop 450 29965 on one side of the road to Cross Gates and Leeds…

…and atop 450 29964 on the other side of the road also to Cross Gates and Leeds

Still, it’s a bit churlish to criticise what are obviously teething issues as even the main corporate signage for The Springs was still being finished off on Monday.

So that and the leaflet aside (which after all is an endemic structural issue on how things work in West Yorkshire which I touched on in yesterday’s blog) it’s really encouraging to see First Leeds investing in new buses and a new service and seeing their new attractive branding coming to the fore at last. I hope it achieves deserved success.

Roger French 16th October 2018

Wandering around West Yorkshire

Monday 15th October 2018

I’ve been spending a few days travelling by bus around West Yorkshire. Always a pleasure for me as, aside from brief spells with London Transport in my student days, this was where my first ‘real’ job ‘on the buses’ began (in Wakefield) over forty years ago so I’ve always found an affinity with the area. It’s a lovely part of the country too.

First a few positives.

Bus stations. Everywhere in West Yorkshire is endowed with a well appointed prominent bus station. From the huge Bradford Interchange to the small cosy affair in Ossett. Even Wetherby’s bus shelter and ‘Bus Stop A’ warrant a ‘Bus Station’ designation especially when ‘Bus Stop B’ round the corner is included.

The vast Bradford Interchange

Wetherby’s more modest bus station….

….with its Charles Holden inspired dome?

Castleford has the most recent rebuild completed a few years ago and very smart and functional it is too including all the facilities you’d expect.

Castleford- a bit drab on the outside (although it was a grey day on Friday) ….

….but nice and bright and airy inside.

Heckmondwike gained a smart ‘Bus Hub’ a few years ago: a few individual bus shelters around a rather nice piece of grass rather than a fully fledged Bus Station. Presumably a Hub because there’s no single roof span covering the waiting area. I see Morley also gained a Bus Hub earlier this year.

All the major locations have a Travel Centre with timetables (although sadly never a full set for the local area) and in some cases maps. There’s also a Customer Assistance kiosk which is a euphemism for where high-vis wearing security staff are based and who relentlessly patrol the waiting area supposedly giving reassurance to passengers and keeping out those with no thought of catching a bus but just wanting some shelter from the elements. Notwithstanding their reputation for having a serious aversion to photographers I managed to sneak out a few photos to illustrate why West Yorkshire gets Five Stars for its bus stations.

Keighley and Wakefield Bus Station Travel Centres are manned by staff from Transdev Blazefield and Arriva (respectively) rather than ‘METRO’ staff and have both had a refreshing revamp.

Bus maps. There was a rumour a while ago West Yorkshire Combined Authority (METRO) were going to jump on the ‘save money at all costs even if it means ceasing the production of helpful bus maps’ bandwagon (TfL being the founding member of course) so I was delighted to see a full set of METRO’s seven area maps were produced as recently as May 2018. Another Five Stars awarded.

Not only that, but I picked up a full set of all seven from Pontefract bus station – the first bus station I visited on Friday afternoon. I spotted maps in all the other Travel Centres but sadly not a full set. It really should be the default – to always offer a full set with extra supplies of the local area.

Tickets. There’s a Five Star comprehensive range of tickets available across West Yorkshire not only from METRO (including travel on buses and trains; buses only; trains only); peak and off peak versions and all available from Travel Centres and smart new smartcard machines in bus stations including the issue of a first card for just £2 as well as top ups.

There are some great fare offers too. I used the METRO Weekender which for just £8.20 gives unlimited bus travel from 6pm on Friday and all over the weekend to midnight on Sunday. A real bargain.

Arriva, First Bus and Transdev Blazefield also sell their own ranges of operator specific tickets at very reasonable prices. Some say this makes it all too complicated but I say it gives passengers a choice. Indeed on Friday I opted to buy one of Arriva’s m-Tickets as I knew I’d only be using their buses that day.

One thing I would like to see is greater clarity on what services tickets can be used particularly those crossing boundaries into neighbouring counties. It’s clear drivers don’t really know either so I happily used my METRO weekender into and from Skipton and Bolton Abbey (both in North Yorkshire) on Saturday.

A few suggestions.

Branding. It’s a bit of a mess. As usual with PTEs, METRO seem very protective of their brand ‘boring’ for bus timetables. For years they were produced to a standard design that featured strictly black and white colouring only, so it was nice to see some flashes of colour on a display in Leeds bus station but it’s still far from inspiring.

But if Transdev Blazefield can produce and distribute colourful attractively branded timetable leaflets for each of their high profile branded bus routes, why can’t Arriva do the same for their MAX and Frequenta brands (as well as the high profile Sapphire branded 110 between Wakefield and Leeds). Similarly First Bus are missing out on getting the best out of their high profile branded routes including the X84 Leeds-Skipton, the new X6 Leeds-Bradford and X63 Bradford-Huddersfield.

As it is there seems to be much welcome investment in attractively branded buses (including new colour coded groupings from First Bus for its Leeds city routes based on a green livery as a nod to the former Leeds City Transport) but there’s no follow through to other ‘touch points’ including the all important printed bus timetables as well as online. It’s all very well having nice branded buses, but that’s only part of the story.

Even more disappointing, there are far too many examples of branded buses on the wrong routes. Far too many.

Arriva in particular needs to up its game on bus allocation and both they and First Bus need to take a leaf out of Transdev Blazefield’s book and really invest in getting branding right and follow it through to leaflets and their distribution (I even spotted a CITYZAP leaflet in Pontefract and Castleford bus stations).

It was good to see Transdev Blazefield’s recent branded departure stands in Leeds bus station have now been copied by First Bus. More please.

Network. The West Yorkshire route network is certainly comprehensive; almost too much so. I sampled a range of routes during my visit including long inter-urban, short city/town routes and circuitous rambling routes which seemed to go on for ever; the ultimate destination always seemingly another round-the-houses away. A cursory look at the bus maps for Leeds, for example, shows just how complex the network is.

It’s laudable to give passengers many travel options and have buses diverting off their trajectory to serve small communities, but it’s important to keep a balance so as not to put off longer distance travellers with too many bifurcations. I’m not convinced that balance is right in parts of West Yorkshire.

I’m also sure there’s scope to introduce some speeding up with more direct routes or brand new routes.

First Bus now have a very limited stop X6 running between Leeds and Bradford taking advantage of some of the area’s urban ‘motorway’ type roads. There’s the infamous CITYZAP of course and Transdev Blazefield have recently speeded up their Aireline 60 towards Keighley by using the faster A650. Arriva have a couple of fast peak journeys from Heckmondwike to Leeds but it’s a drop in the ocean of what the potential could be. Much more of these please.

I’m also convinced there’s a place for a simplified map showing only the high profile inter-urban and branded bus routes run by the three operators across West Yorkshire. This really would show the great travel opportunities available in addition to the well used rail network and I’m sure would generate travel for the bus companies.

Frequency. Some evening frequencies are very poor relative to daytimes. It’s commendable to have 10 minute frequencies to encourage daytime passengers to ‘turn up and go’ but it’s a real turn off to switch to half hourly in the evenings; and in some cases quite early evening too. Routes 36 and 110; yes I’m looking at you but only as just two high profile examples!

You only need a breakdown or untoward problem which inevitably leads to the following bus getting delayed coping with a double load and passengers can face up to a miserable hour waiting. They’ll soon be lost as customers in the daytime too after such an experience.

Eager ‘36’ passengers waiting for almost an hour in Leeds early on Saturday evening ….

…due to a gap in service caused by a pheasant flying into the windscreen – these things happen.

That’s it for now; but more Yorkshire travels are still ahead.

Roger French 15th October 2018

Turnaround Cornwall

30th September 2018

The turnaround of fortunes for First Bus in Cornwall is quite remarkable. You can’t fail to be impressed by the huge investment in new vehicles, eye catching colourful branded liveries, smartened up bus stops, shelters and bus station waiting rooms and an attractive book packed full of timetables of lovely bus routes to sample, maps to devour and tickets to buy.

The smart Tinner livery on rebranded routes between Truro and Penzance/St Ives

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One of three network maps covering Cornwall in the excellent Local Bus Guide.

It wasn’t that many years ago most bus industry observers (including me) had written off First in the county as bus routes were culled, second hand aged vehicles portraying a very down at heel image the norm, while competitor Western Greyhound had rapidly expanded at First’s expense running routes from Penzance to Plymouth.

There’s still a reminder or two on the streets of Cornwall of how things used to be.

The years of remote regional management based in Bristol did nothing but hasten First’s decline as the locally based nimble footed Western Greyhound grew relentlessly.

The sad demise of Western Greyhound and more recently First ceding its Plymouth based operations to Stagecoach have seen both Go-Ahead owned Plymouth Citybus and Stagecoach expand into east Cornwall.

A former Metrobus Mercedes now operated by ‘Citybus’ heading for Bude.

Now it’s fascinating to see those operators using second hand buses, in some cases with confusing branding (Go Cornwall v Citybus v BlueFlash), while it is First Bus under a reinvigorated locally based management which undeniably has the best image as it rebuilds its reputation in Cornwall.

You only have to spend an hour or so in Truro, as I did over the weekend, and watch new bus after new bus, including many double deckers with decent loads entering and leaving the bus station, to realise the scale of this massive turnaround.

The network of routes serving Falmouth and its university were first to be rebranded

I’d like to think all this wasn’t solely in response to Cornwall Council being giving franchising powers with grand plans to link buses into the planned half hourly train service between Plymouth and Penzance as a grand whizzo modal integrated package and this is First at their innovative commercial best, taking the initiative to grow local markets and working with their partners at GWR.

Scratch beneath the shiny new surface and there’s plenty still to be done, like getting the basics right as well as better timetable coordination on common corridors (west out of Truro for example – two routes both leaving at 05).

I just hope the revenue growth can keep up with ever demanding margin expectations in Aberdeen. In the meantime bus passengers in Cornwall haven’t had it so good for a very long time.

Nice branding for the Tinner; shame it’s on the wrong route.

This attractive livery belies a 16 year old bus ….

…. just a shame so little respect for the Company name and branding!

The £13 one day bus ticket across Cornwall is well promoted yet not a mention anywhere of the far better value one day bus AND train ticket across Cornwall costing … err, £13. So much for modal integration.

The nicely refurbished Truro Bus Station Travel Shop (minus its manned counter); just a shame elderly passengers can’t get up from the very low chairs and ….

… you can’t access the excellent timetable book when the Shop is closed on Sundays

Why do bus companies have a blind spot when it comes to removing out of date notices?

Roger French Sunday 30th September 2018

Spiralling decline in London

Friday 28th September 2018

TfL’s much leaked cuts to central London’s bus routes were officially published today as a six week public consultation is launched.

As expected the plans involve removing parts of or whole bus routes along busy roads also served by other routes on the grounds the overall capacity supplied by the combined route frequencies is well able to cope with the falling demand. The now often quoted sop for passengers facing a consequential change of bus for their journey is: ‘the Hopper fare will mean no increase in fares paid’.

But that’s not much consolation for passengers facing a more inconvenient journey involving changes in buses. There’s no question such a worsened journey proposition should mean paying higher fares. You can’t help thinking the Hopper fare has turned into a front for cutting service levels.

A through journey is far more convenient than having to change buses with all the uncertainties and disruption this brings, especially passengers encumbered with shopping or buggies or with accessibility issues. It makes travel seem more than twice the effort, when a change is involved.

Knowing these changes were coming I took the opportunity a week or so ago to carry out some impromptu surveys on those sections of route facing withdrawal. My observations reaffirm TfL’s stance there’s more than adequate capacity to cater for existing demand; and frankly the further downturn in passengers travelling which can be expected as a consequence of these planned cuts. Whenever you disrupt journeys you can expect to lose passengers.

Take route 171 from Catford for example, being cut back from it’s current northern terminus at Holborn. TfL are quite right, all the buses I saw north of the planned new northern terminus at Elephant and Castle had only half a dozen to a dozen passengers on board who could easily be accommodated on the abundance of empty seats on other bus routes between these points.

Similarly I had a ride on a morning peak hour route 4 from north London to its southern terminus at Waterloo. Whereas we were near enough full through Islington, after St Pauls (where it’s planned to divert the route to Blackfriars to replace a withdrawn section of another route, the 388), passenger numbers had thinned to around a dozen towards Aldwych and Waterloo picking up only a handful of new passengers who could easily be accommodated on alternative routes.

The same was true on a 242 south of Shoreditch (being diverted to Aldgate to replace the 67) with very few passengers travelling as far as the current terminus at St Pauls. Meanwhile the 67 will be cut back some distance to only travel south from Wood Green as far as Dalston Junction leaving the 149 and 242 to cope onward to Shoreditch; and cope they will from my observations.

BUT; (block capital letters deliberate) this phenomenon of decreasing passenger numbers towards a bus route’s final destination is not exactly surprising; more passengers inevitably get off than get on with the range of destination options diminishing as the route comes to an end. The exception being when a major attraction (shopping centre; station; school etc) is located at the terminus.

On TfL’s logic the 171 could soon be cut back from Elephant and Castle further south to Camberwell Green and save a few more buses and drivers and then why not cut it back further again to New Cross, and so on, with passengers hopping along from bus to bus on other routes instead of enjoying through journeys.

For years London was held as the pinnacle of best practice bus operation. Its growing passenger numbers were lauded by regulation protagonists who deliberately chose to ignore its booming public subsidy grant. Now that grant has been taken away the harsh realities of running buses are hitting the Capital as they have impacted other large conurbations for a couple of decades.

Route RV1, for example, which links parts of the South Bank not directly served by other bus routes on its meandering route from Covent Garden to the Tower is being withdrawn completely after recent frequency reductions. It’s just the sort of route that’s a luxury in a generously publicly funded regime but never a commercial proposition. So it’s no surprise it’s being withdrawn. I suspect there’ll be other London routes of a similar ilk facing the chop in the future.

Anyone want a spare fleet of hydrogen buses?

Interestingly TfL’s consultation papers include a clear localised bus map (TfL – bus map – yes, I know strange isn’t it?!) showing existing and planned changes so the impact can be readily seen in each affected area; but for the RV1 you have to consult two separate maps (one existing; the other proposed) making it harder to work out where the unserved roads will be.

RV1 – now you see it; now you don’t.

TfL make much of the significant downturn in bus passengers within central and inner London and how these consequential bus cuts are positive because (a) they better match supply with demand and (b) it enables a redeployment of resources to outer London where there’ll be ‘improved and new routes’. Err, except there don’t seem to be any such improvement plans in this package. The one ‘new route’ (the 311) is simply a renumbering of the western end of the 11 and a replacement for two other withdrawn sections of routes (19 and 22). So not exactly a new route.

Extract from TfL’s consultation paper

There’s also no evidence of steps TfL intend to take to stem the worrying loss of passengers throughout London. TfL’s map highlights the dramatic loss of passengers particularly in excess of 10% over the last three years in central and inner London.

The consultation states TfL ‘are looking to prioritise buses on our roads’ in Central London but it’s a great shame this wasn’t done some years ago which might have meant these cuts now planned for Spring 2019 would not have been needed.

I was on a southbound 29 only on Wednesday and it took around fifteen minutes to crawl through the gridlock at the bottom of Gower Street. Most passengers simply abandoned the bus as it was easily possible to walk to the terminus at Trafalgar Square in that time.

Rather than introducing bus priority, TfL’s answer seems to be to cut routes back to avoid such bottlenecks by in the case of the 29 turning at, say, Warren Street (as is planned for the 134). And who knows maybe even Camden Town, or dare I say Mornington Crescent! Game over!

The upshot of this is the vicious spiral of decline will continue; especially as TfL part justify some of these cuts saying less buses will mean less congestion. Who’d have thought that would be a justification for bus cuts.

Extract from the consultation part justifying bus cuts

Finally a small oddity in the consultation published this morning. It contained an error stating route 11 was being withdrawn between Liverpool Street and Victoria.

Conspiracy theorists might wonder whether this was in fact the originally planned fate of this iconic route; but in the event by this afternoon the wording had been hastily corrected and the 11 lives on (well at least for now) and albeit in a much truncated form with the route west of Victoria becoming the new 311.

The consultation can be found here: https://consultations.tfl.gov.uk/buses/central-london/

It closes on Friday 9th November.

Roger French 28th September 2018