My new found freedom from fares

Wednesday 6th November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

Another Gatwick Express rip-off

Friday 25th October 2019

Spoiler alert: the postman delivered a National Rail Voucher for £6.70 this morning.

IMG_1565.jpgI wrote about the outrageous rip-off fares policy on the Gatwick Express back in May, but the other day I came across another pricing scandal from this past-its-sell-by-date train brand.

I was buying a ticket in the Gatwick Express run ticket office in the station at the Airport and was astounded to see not only was I being compulsorily overcharged by 50% for my journey but a member of staff gave me incorrect information that that overcharge was correct.

It was back on Friday 4th October and I was heading down to Cornwall for the weekend having already purchased an advanced ticket online from GWR between Reading and Bodmin Parkway returning from Truro to Paddington on Sunday 6th October.

Due to no trains running south of Three Bridges on the Sunday (so much for February’s 9-day Brighton Main Line blockade meaning no further major closures for weekend engineering works this year) I decided to drive to, and park at, Gatwick Airport for the weekend and take the train from there to Reading.

IMG_1547.jpgSo I arrived in the very busy ticket hall at about 08:30 in good time to catch the 09:03 GWR operated departure via Guildford to Reading. As always there was a long queue at the ticket office windows, but there’s a whole bank of ticket vending machines (TVMs) available and I soon reached the head of the queue for those and began my screen pressing.

IMG_1564.jpgThere were two options for an off-peak single ticket to Reading; an “any permitted” which would allow travel via London costing £34.50 and the much cheaper “via Gomshall” option I wanted for £19.70. This tallied with my research before leaving home, and that the latter with my Senior Railcard discount would cost a reasonable £13.

I wonder how many passengers are flummoxed by the use of Gomshall as the via point on the TVM screen especially as the 09:03 doesn’t stop there and it’s a somewhat obscure station especially for non local travellers to know about.

IMG_1574.jpgWhen I came to select the tab for Senior Railcard on the screen, it was faded out meaning it was unavailable. I caught the attention of the “floor walking” here-to-help-you-high-vis-wearing GatEx member of staff nearby and asked him how I could get the Senior Railcard tab to be “live” for my journey to Reading via Guildford to which he told me “Senior Railcards aren’t valid until 09:30”.

IMG_1578.jpgWhen I protested this was not the case – Senior Railcards are valid for journeys within the London & South East area at the time when an Off Peak Day Return becomes available rather than a blanket rule.  He was quite adamant: “from Gatwick the start time is 09:30 and you’ll have to catch the next train to Reading at 10:00” for my Railcard discount to be available.

IMG_1573.jpgThere was no alternative but to pay the £19.70 as I had to catch the 09:03 to make my Cornwall bound connection in Reading. Still mystified by the “computer says no” attitude of the TVM as well as what I felt was wrong advice from the floorwalking GatEx ticket expert, I asked the on board GWR guard/train manager when he came round to check tickets on the 09:03 journey when my Senior Railcard was valid from and he gave the even more incorrect reply “from 10:00”.

All this advice is of course complete bunkum. Senior Railcards are available for travel after 09:00 (for travel wholly within the London and South East area – for journeys to, and completely, outside of that area, they’re valid at any time) but there are restrictions from Gatwick into London (and within the London area) where the peak hour is deemed to continue until 09:30; but crucially there is no restriction for journeys such as Gatwick to Reading via Guildford.

IMG_1571.jpgTVMs are programmed to overcharge passengers like me buying tickets before 09:30 – in my case £19.70 instead of £13. This is a right royal rip off; not helped by completely false information being given out by staff members, wrongly claiming the TVM is correct, and whose job it is to know the rules and regulations. What hope have passengers got?

I took the matter up with Gatwick Express when I returned home after the weekend on Monday 7th October explaining the whole experience in writing and asking for a refund of the additional £6.70 I’d been forced to pay.

I received the following email back by return:

Dear Sir/Madam

We appreciate you taking the time to contact us. 

Please accept this acknowledgement as confirmation that we have received your query. We have received a large number of enquiries as a result of the national power outage which occurred on August 9th and so you may experience a delay in receiving a response. We thank our customers for their patience.

There is no need to chase us for a reply as we will get back to you as soon as we can and our aim is to provide a full response within 20 working days. Please do not reply to this email.

You may also refer to our FAQs at https://www.gatwickexpress.com/help-and-support/contact-us/faq

Kind regards

Gatwick Express Customer Relations

Bearing in mind the power outage had no impact on Gatwick Express back in August, it seemed strange two months on to still be using this as an excuse for tardy responses, but of course, passengers in the know, know that GatEx is the same company as Thameslink (which did suffer major disruption from the loss of power) when it comes to Customer Relations, but when it comes to ticket pricing the official line is they’re completely different operators to justify the extortionate fare differentials and restrictive ticket inter-availability.

In the event, notwithstanding the untimely lowering of expectations of a timely reply, I received a fuller email reply from Linda A nine days later on 16th October when she wrote:

Dear Mr French,

Thank you for contacting us regarding your recent purchase at Gatwick Station. I am sorry that you were unable to apply your Railcard discount to your tickets.

As the Off Peak times vary on different routes, the Ticket Machines are set up in such a a way that you are unable to  purchase and Off Peak ticket prior to 09:30. This is to avoid passengers being able to purchase the incorrect ticket for their journey and incurring a penalty fare.

I can see that the 09:03 service is Off Peak and therefore I would be happy to send you 6.70 in National Rail Vouchers .Before I am able to do this could you also please send us a screenshot of your Railcard?

For future journeys if you need an Off Peak Ticket prior to 09:30 we would advise you to purchase the ticket in advance online for collection at the station. This will avoid any additional costs for yourself.

We look forward to hearing from you, and once again please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused.

Kind regards,

Linda A

Linda’s advice to buy online is a standard get out used by GTR to complaints of this kind. I’ve received the same reply when I’ve pointed out the TVM at Hassocks doesn’t allow Senior Railcard discounts for journeys to stations outside London and the South East leaving before 09:00.

It’s an even more ridiculous retort with regard to an airport station where many passengers are returning from a holiday abroad … imagine the scene in the hotel on the Costa Del Sol at the end of a holiday – “have we got all our bags packed dear?”; “yes, all packed but I must just go on line and buy our tickets for the train home to Reading for when we land at Gatwick as GTR’s computer programmers are too lazy to amend the software so it can enable a Railcard discount by destination chosen in addition to time of day”; “right oh dear, I’ll wait while you do that, no rush as we’re on holiday.”

It also says a lot about GTR’s lack of trust in its passengers that (a) it sets ticket machines up “to avoid passengers being able to purchase the incorrect ticket for their journey and incurring a penalty fare”…… so it’s perfectly OK that I have to purchase an incorrect HIGHER PRICED ticket for my journey but not OK for passengers to be able to buy a cheaper price; (b) the implications of Linda’s admission I need to purchase my ticket in advance online to “avoid any additional costs for yourself” is that if I don’t buy in that way I will incur additional costs; (c) if I purchase online I don’t have to show my Senior Railcard to anyone, yet Linda wants me to go to further trouble and inconvenience by sending a screenshot of it before she’ll trust me enough to send me a refund of the money her Company wilfully and knowingly set up a system to overcharge me; (d) Linda makes no reference to the member of staff misleading passengers with incorrect information – best to let him continue giving out incorrect advice to passengers, I assume.

I sent a screenshot of my Senior Railcard back to Linda when I returned home from Edinburgh the next day after receipt of her email, on 17th October.

On 20th October Linda’s colleague Corrie Simmonds replied more informally to advise:

Dear Roger, 

Thank you for taking the time to provide a copy of your Railcard.

I can confirm that I have requested for £6.70 cashable National Rail Vouchers to be sent to you. Please allow up to 10 working days for these to arrive.

I hope that this information is helpful. 

 Kind regards,

 Corrie Summers

And, the reason I’m relating this to you today, is that exactly three weeks since I was overcharged I’ve now received the recompensing £6.70 in National Rail Vouchers so finally resolving the matter. What a way to run a railway.

This whole franchise really is misselling at its worst and even more scandalous, the DfT knows it and allows it.

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Roger French

Go-Coach trailblazing in Sevenoaks

Wednesday 23rd October 2019

Small independently owned bus companies are a vital part of the industry. They serve small size towns and rural areas which other plc group companies cannot reach.

They’re becoming increasingly important as the Groups try and reverse falling margins. These small businesses are usually run by dedicated passionate individuals working very long hours for minimal reward. That’s why I was relieved to hear good sense has at last prevailed in Guildford with Arriva Surrey deregistering its competitive routes which were destabilising the long established and much admired Safeguard company, which has been in business for over ninety years.

Go-Coach Hire based in Sevenoaks is another such bus company, although much younger than Safeguard – it was set up by owner Austin Blackburn in 2008 – but over the ensuing eleven years has established itself as a much respected player on the bus scene. This is undoubtedly due to the dedication, enthusiasm and passion that Austin has brought to the business.

I had the pleasure to spend some time with Austin this morning as he wanted to share his innovative ideas to embrace a new style of taxi-bus operation for introduction next Spring.

It was very impressive to see behind the scenes at Go-Coach’s base in Sevenoaks. Austin is an engineer by profession and has worked for a myriad of bus companies during his long career which led to him establishing his own ‘Bus Doctor’ business in 2001. This led to an interest in the school contract market and acquiring a coach in 2008; then three coaches and soon after the bus business was born in 2009. It’s now a sizeable operation with over fifty vehicles and a PVR of 42.

Austin works a seventy-two hour week starting very early each morning to oversee the runout from the company’s Swanley outstation, then driving a school bus himself before taking the bus on to the Sevenoaks base to begin his day job of attending to the fleet’s engineering needs with his six fitters and two apprentices, purchasing the necessary spare parts, checking in with the operational and administrative team then taking the school bus back out in service in the afternoon.

It’s a busy day but you soon realise Austin’s engineering experience is a vital ingredient to the success of the business. He proudly showed me a 58 plate Optare Versa he’d purchased from RATP for an absolute bargain price which he’d made look as new (both on the outside and ‘under the bonnet’) together with another being cannibalised for spares.

But what was equally impressive for someone with an engineering pedigree was Austin proudly showing me the large sized maps he displays at all the main bus shelters in the town showing his Sevenoaks bus network and fares information as well as describing to me the changes being introduced next month and the positive reasons for each one. And that these had been discussed at a public meeting he’d arranged for passengers to come along to and give their feedback and comments.

Go-Coach’s branding is certainly bright and stands out, not least in Sevenoaks bus station which the company manages and where the information is presented clearly, including a manned travel office with one of the most friendly and helpful members of staff you’ll find anywhere.

IMG_0656.jpgSevenoaks is not an easy town in which to run buses. Austin explains his business is roughly two-thirds commercial and one-third tendered/contracted which is commendable for this part of prosperous England. Key to success is that every vehicle has busy peak school journeys in its schedule.

IMG_4083.jpgThere was a bit of a skirmish between Go-Coach and Arriva a couple of years ago on local routes and ironically just as Go-Coach backed down, Arriva made the mistake of introducing the completely inappropriate Mercedes Sprinter minibuses on the two routes ending in them abandoning the routes altogether which Go-Coach have now picked up and will shortly be marketing as part of a revitalised town network with routes numbered 1 to 8.

As if all this wasn’t impressive enough, it’s Austin’s plans for a Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) operation for Sevenoaks and part of its hinterland which are really capturing the imagination.

Whilst the Government hints it will be dangling inducement finance for swanky DRT trials and Arriva invest goodness knows how much in Click’s flawed business model, Austin has been quietly beavering away in his ‘spare time’ (in between school runs, engineering, stores, bus stop displays and other duties) to come up with a credible plan to replace an infrequent rural route; add new Special Education Needs (SEN) peak hour transport; take over off-peak commitments for Age UK; and introduce a new bespoke service for wealthy City bound commuters using Sevenoaks station with a fleet of four brand new seven-(leather)-seater taxis under a Private Hire licence rather than an O licence.

It’s an ingenious plan which he’s already in advanced stages of discussions with Kent County Council and Sevenoaks District Council with a view to phasing it in from next May.

The secret financial ingredient to its business success is packaging together statutory and publicly funded work (the SEN contracts), off peak work funded by the third sector (Age UK), replacing a full sized bus with smaller vehicles more appropriate for sparsely loaded subsidised rural routes but running more frequently and taking a commercial risk in developing growth from the commuter market. What a brilliant example of entrepreneurial flare.

The plan for the ‘DRT’ style rural routes is to serve five segments of the hinterland on just one day of the week each thereby being able to run a more intensive service with the three taxis (one spare) than if the whole area was covered each day. That seems like a good compromise to me as it gives a better quality of service but admittedly on a reduced number of days.

It’s also possible this model will be ideal for taking over the Sevenoaks Taxi Bus to East Hill Farm currently funded by Kent County Council as part of a trial for a number of rural services across the County which I reviewed when it was introduced back in June, following the withdrawal of the once a week route 405 which Go-Coach used to operate.

IMG_0806There are still lots of refinements yet to come to get the model right such as how much to rely on app based, phone based or turn-up-in-person-in-the-bus-station requests for the DRT elements or whether to use a fixed timetable as well as implications of what fares to charge to keep within taxi type regulations which requires everything to be pre-booked …. but that was the joy of my visit this morning to brainstorm ideas with someone as passionate and committed to delivering a good service as Austin.

As he said you have to adapt to keep ahead of the game and it’s good to see a small independently owned bus company innovating just as impressively, if not more so, as the big Groups. And just after I left him to travel home via Edenbridge on the Wednesday only single journey rural route 238 via Chartwell and Cowden to Holtye Common (coincidentally it carried a taxi load of just seven passengers), Austin was back in engineering mode changing a fuel return pipe on a Mercedes Solo – “a fairly miserable job” he observed.

Roger French

Train or plane to Edinburgh?

Friday 18th October 2019

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There’s rightly a lot of discussion about the impact of travelling by plane in the context of our global climate emergency; it pangs my conscious whenever I take a flight, and I don’t do it very often, and when I do it’s between London and Scotland, the Scottish islands or across the Irish Sea.

With my trip to Edinburgh earlier this week I decided to fly northbound and take the train southbound and see how the journeys compared for convenience, cost and time.

This is pertinent with LNER now running Azuma trains on four journeys a day between Edinburgh and London Kings Cross with many more journeys including to Aberdeen and Inverness becoming Azuma operated during the coming weeks as the old Class 91 and Mark 4 coaches and HSTs are withdrawn.

Living at the southern end of the Brighton Main Line means Gatwick Airport is a handy interchange point to fly north as I’m passing through in any event to get to and from London; this gives the plane an in built time advantage over the train which wouldn’t apply if I was beginning my journey closer to central London and had to make my way out to Heathrow, down to Gatwick, over to City Airport or even Luton or Stansted.

I also am unnecessarily cautious at allowing plenty of time at Gatwick even though I check in beforehand online, never have luggage to drop off, and never experience any delays to get through security. I’m sure I could easily arrive at Gatwick Airport station thirty minutes before a flight departure, even allowing for a transfer to the North Terminal and still easily catch a plane. But I never risk it.

IMG_1076.jpgEven though I find hanging around airports extremely frustrating I always seem to over allow time. And so it was on Tuesday afternoon when I was booked on the British Airways flight at 16:55 from Gatwick to Edinburgh; I reckoned I needed to catch the Thameslink train from Hassocks at 15:18 arriving Gatwick at 15:45.

Time for a coffee before going through security (I’ve learnt prices get hiked in outlets airside and don’t like getting ripped off) then to the x-ray machines where there was no queue and I was soon wandering through the walkway maze that houses the duty free perfumeries and oversized chocolate bar sales outlets to find a seat. I was in for a long wait as the departure screens were showing an hours delay to my flight with an expected 17:55 departure and “gate info at 17:02” (very precise).

As I whiled away the hour I worked out had I stayed on the 15:18 train, it would have got me to St Pancras at 16:30 so could have easily caught the 17:00 LNER departure from Kings Cross to Edinburgh arriving at 21:21.

I also mulled over the comparative fares. I’d booked my BA flight way back on 19th July (pretty much three months in advance) and consequently got a bargain price of £34.72. What’s quite extraordinary is £13 of this sum is Air Passenger Duty and BA also state £14.72 is a Passenger Service Charge (whatever that is) leaving just £7 as the actual fare for the journey.

By comparison I looked at the fares for the same journey if I’d booked on Monday, the day before travelling, and the price had shot up to £208 for economy class, and bizarrely a cheaper £169 for Business Class. Interestingly a later departure at 20:55 on Tuesday evening was showing a much more reasonable fare of just £40 for economy (£139 Business class) which for the day before, is not bad at all.

I also checked prices for the following day (ie 48 hours ahead) which quoted £44 on the 07:20 departure; £168 on a 17:30 departure and £208 for the 20:55 departure which just goes to show pricing is all over the place on planes depending on how many other passengers happen to be travelling.

British Airways operate three journeys a day between Gatwick and Edinburgh (one early morning, one late afternoon and one in the evening with precise times varying day by day). There are also eleven departures from Heathrow and ten (sometimes more, sometimes less) from City Airport. EasyJet fly 4 or 5 times from Gatwick, 3 or 4 from Luton and 4 or 5 times from Stansted and have a similar pricing policy. Overall there are around 37 to 40 flights a day from London’s airports to Edinburgh. LNER run 28 trains between the two cities.

Having contemplated all that, boarding finally commenced for my flight on Tuesday at 17:40 and we were all seated and ready to go at 18:00 pushing back ready for taxi-ing soon after that and we finally took off at 18:25 (luckily on the westerly runway so minimised taxi-ing time on the ground). Had I caught the 17:00 LNER train from Kings Cross I’d have been approaching Doncaster on the non-stop part of the journey with first station York (assuming that had no delays).

In the event, it took my BA aeroplane just twenty five minutes to be flying over Doncaster as the First Officer coincidentally announced on the PA that we were making good progress at 18:50 and as we flew over York a few minutes later, that LNER train had just pulled out of that station.

We landed into Edinburgh Airport at 19:25 pulling on to the stand at 19:30 and I was off the plane at 19:35 and on to a Lothian bus on Airlink 100 which left at 19:50 arriving into central Edinburgh by Waverley Station at 20:15.

At 20:15 the LNER train which had left Kings Cross at 17:00 was just north of Morpeth and arrived into Waverley just over an hour later at 21:19. Now, had I lived in London within say, half an hour’s journey from Kings Cross and had to make it out to one of the aforementioned London’s airports the timings would have been remarkably similar, albeit my plane comparison included that hour’s delay – but I’m finding that’s becoming quite a common occurence as airlines go for very tight turnarounds and little slack in the schedules making for delayed departures in the afternoons and evenings.

What time you gain in the air, you lose at the airport and getting to and from the airport (especially if you’re a cautious traveller on allowances for delays as I am).

IMG_1251.jpgLNER’s London to Edinburgh’s prices are also comparable to some of BA and EasyJet’s bargain basement rates and can even match that eye-catching £34.72 giveaway I got with BA, especailly if you book in advance as soon as the tickets become available, and have a Railcard, and travel standard class (which has comparable leg room and comfort to a BA or EasyJet plane in economy). For example, I booked the return journey I made on Wednesday at 12:00 from Edinburgh to Kings Cross only four weeks ahead on 16th September when the price quoted was £51 for standard class which is just £33.65 with a Railcard. I choose to upgrade to First Class at £80 and paid £52.80 with my Railcard.

I made a similar comparison with prices quoted if I’d booked just twenty four hours ahead and checked on Tuesday morning what fares were still available for the 12:00 journey. These were £70 Standard Class and £132.50 First Class before Railcard discounts. Even walk up fares are priced competitively with last minute airline prices with a super-off peak single Standard Class at £146.40 and an off-peak First Class £205 on the train.

And, of course, First Class does offer a complimentary dining option with proper crockery and cutlery and hot meals – something I’ll be writing about in more detail in an upcoming blogpost.

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So, my conclusion is, pricing is broadly comparable between plane and train, and for me, living close to Gatwick Airport, flying has the advantage over taking the train to Scotland if time saving is important (particularly for onward travel if relevant), but for the enjoyment of travelling you can’t beat the train. for those living closer to central London, I’d say the train wins every time when travelling to Edinburgh.

Roger french

 

 

Pros and cons of franchising

Thursday 11th October 2019

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I spent an enjoyable couple of days this week helping to run the twice-a-year Young Bus Managers Network conference. It’s always an inspiring event to attend with such encouraging positive energy and enthusiasm emenating from around 80 to 100 young people in their twenties and thirties; some fresh faced into the industry from University this autumn while others exuding much more experience including career progression to operations, commercial or engineering managers from driver and the engineering shop floor.

This time we were based in Croydon and enjoyed a busy 25 hour period from lunchtime on Tuesday to mid afternoon on Wednesday with site visits to Arriva’s Croydon bus garage and Purley Way iBus control centre and fascinating talks and presentations from leading bus industry directors including Transport Commissioner for London, Mike Brown, managing director for Go-Ahead London, John Trayner and managing director of UNO Bus Jim Thorpe as well as three of our own Network members giving a presentation and other speakers on legal and regulatory compliance and an update on the latest DfT quarterly statistics for the bus industry.

IMG_0839.jpgThe task for the conference’s regular workshop session immediately after lunch was topically for the young managers to come up with three benefits of a “London style” franchise model for running buses, as well as three disbenefits. The report back after the group discussions brought forward an interesting selection of ideas which included…….

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Benefits of a public authority controlled bus network with private bus companies contracted to run specified routes at predetermined fares and ticket acceptance were assessed to be:

For the passenger: integrated travel with simplified pricing and no restrictions on ticket acceptance; a unified brand identity with consistent standards; potential for greater stability in the network during the life of tendered contracts.

For the local authority: potential to actively use buses to achieve modal shift from cars as part of an overall transport policy; accountability for public officials and local politicians overseeing the tender procurement process; potential to take a lead in handling customer service directly (as TfL does); direct link between bus provision and infrastructure requirements eg bus lanes.

For the bus company: a guaranteed income stream at fixed profit margins with no revenue risk; no expenditure incurred on marketing and publicity; all bus companies are judged by the same standards; bus companies can focus exclusively on customer service; entry into the market may be easier if tenders are let on a route basis

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Disbenefits were assessed to be:

For the passenger: entrepreneurial spirit and therefore innovation and creativity is stifled and likely to be absent with the public sector naturally more risk averse than the private sector; localised political pressure leading to skewed decisions about the network rather than it being market led; buses being dependant on political colour; lack of competitive pressure could mean higher (not cheaper fares) and less service provision.

For the local authority: taking the revenue risk (which is alien for a local authority culture) means harder to budget and can lead to short term decisions to correct shortfalls – but may not be possible due to contractual issues; the requirement for public funding will rise.

For the taxpayer: increased public funding will likely require higher taxation.

For the bus company: entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and creativity dies; failure in the tender market could mean loss of business; employees face uncertainty when contracts change hands; bus companies work for the contractor rather than directly for the customer; if tenders let on network basis may be difficult for small bus companies to enter the market.

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A lack of time meant these were just headlines from each group’s deliberations and a number made the point the benefits listed above for the passenger and local authority can also be achieved by effective partnership working between authority and bus company as exemplefied in towns and cities where there’s been consistent growth in passenger journeys for many years. Obviously for me, Brighton & Hove comes to mind but there are many other examples around the country, particularly where there’s a strong market for student travel where growth and innovation are endemic. In such places, the local authority can concentrate on the all important infrastructure issues and complimentary policies on parking and car restraint rather than having to be concerned at day to day revenue risk of running a bus fleet, something they’re not usually equipped to deal with.

This is all very timely with Transport for Greater Manchester embarking on its formal public consultation about plans for buses in that conurabtion. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.

Finally, off topic, I couldn’t let the opporunity pass over dinner on Tuesday evening to share my hobby horse with Mike Brown of there being no map for TfL’s bus network either online or in print form. Surprisingly enough he agreed with me, which just goes to show even a Transport Commissioner can’t always achieve what he knows is right to be done!

Roger French

 

Decent London route branding (at last)

Friday 20th September 2019

Well done UNO Bus, operator of TfL bus route 383 between Woodside Park and Barnet, for today’s community led launch of the first decent route branding on a London bus route for a few decades.

The 383 may be a backwater north London bus route which takes a circuitous route east of the Great North Road between the Spires shopping centre near Barnet Church at its northern terminus and Woodside Park Underground station in the south, but it’s now the most professionally promoted route in the network.

Running only every half an hour the 383’s route meanderings take in New Barnet, Oakleigh Park and Friern Barnet with a 36 minute end to end journey time meaning three buses are needed to run the service – smart four year old Enviro 200s.

The 383 is the only TfL contracted bus route operated by Hatfield based UNO Bus – they’ve held the contract since July 2015 – so it’s a very welcome development to see MD Jim Thorpe and the team take this initiative to give the route a much higher profile.

It’s not easy to work out where TfL bus routes go. The inexcusable absence of a network bus map either in printed form or online (other than the independently produced map by Mike Harris) is an absolute scandal so anything that provides a clue where bus routes actually go is to be applauded.

IMG_4233.jpgAll the more so as recent ‘trials’ of route branding introduced by TfL during the last couple of years in the Barkingside and Hayes and Hillingdon areas are excruciatingly embarrassing due to their amateurish application. Well designed they’re not.

IMG_4237.jpgThis new 383 branding introduced by UNO has all the hallmarks of the excellent work produced by Ray Stenning and his Best Impressions design agency. It’s to their consistently high standard.

A lovely stylised route map on the lower back panel is an excellent idea although sadly looks as though it might suffer the fate of being usurped by an advert for a third party company in the frame. Let’s hope not, it would be such a shame to see a promotional bus route map covered up by an advert for a car dealer!

Inside the buses on the 383 are panels to create interest in the local area as well as another geographic route map.

Sullivan Buses – another small well presented bus company based in Hertfordshire who run a growing number of TfL contracts in north London – also use these panels to give background historical information about each route to generate interest.

I hope the larger bus companies who dominate London’s contracted bus market are taking note of these positive initiatives and hopefully TfL will approve more schemes of this kind and give up those appalling attempts at route branding in Barkingside and Hayes.

It’s also encouraging to hear this 383 brand launch has been introduced with customer focused training involving all the regular UNO drivers on the route.

Imagine if proper branding, as just launched on the 383, was applied to all the high profile routes through central London. What a positive difference that would make. It might even help turn around the downturn in passenger journeys being experienced across central London and encourage new passengers who might stand a chance of understanding where bus routes go.

Roger French

New sleeper turns into a bad dream

Tuesday 25th June 2019

IMG_6371There’s something seriously amiss with Caledonian Sleeper’s train service.

I’ve blogged about the new Mark 5 coaches a couple of times recently (here and here) highlighting the teething problems I encountered, in particular no water in the en-suite shower in my supposedly swanky new ‘Club’ room on two of the three journeys as well as a number of other niggles.

These included an emergency stop and losing all the electrics when heading south around Preston in the early hours of Tuesday 4th June. The sharpness of the braking followed by an eerie silence and two or three attempts to reboot the train’s control systems over the next ten minutes was enough to wake most of us up and a consequential disturbed night.

We got going again on that occasion and thankfully arrived into Euston with no further incidents. Not that trip anyway, but a much more serious fault necessitating another emergency stop happened a week later on Tuesday 11th June as the Lowlander service headed north to Glasgow and Edinburgh coming to a sudden halt in Stafford. This resulted in serious damage to the train’s wheels such the train couldn’t continue and coaches had to be summoned in the early hours to take passengers on to Glasgow and Edinburgh by road. Not a particularly edifying or attractive proposition when you’re probably already dressed for bed and maybe even nodding off.

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Every night since that incident two weeks ago Caledonian Sleeper have been cancelling one of the journeys, either northbound or southbound between either Glasgow or Edinburgh and London. Alternative options for booked passengers offered by Caledonian Sleeper are either taking a daytime Virgin Trains journey or a replacement overnight coach on the motorway; neither option being particularly acceptable when it’s likely you’ve already made onward travel plans or have other commitments necessitating overnight travel.

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An overnight coach on the motorway is hardly an acceptable alternative when you might have paid £230 for a new en-suite single room or even £335 for a double room, albeit Caledonian Sleeper are giving full refunds, but it’s likely many passengers would prefer flying as an alternative with a night in a hotel, I know I would, but that doesn’t seem to be on offer as a alternative.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.42.26.pngCaledonian Sleeper have been making much of the luxury offered by their new deluxe sleeper coaches, offering a “timeless experience”; it’s just a pity “timeless” is turning out to be “trainless”. The problem being expectations have been seriously raised with Caledonian Sleeper hyping up their new ‘hotel-on-wheels’ at five star prices – it’s £395 for a Club double room on the Highlander between London and Fort William/Aberdeen/Inverness for a single night journey (and no Railcard discounts are available), that’s just shy of £800 for a return journey or ‘two nights stay’ – and for that you expect five star service, not ‘replacement road transport’.

Even if everything is running smoothly you’d think paying £395 for a night’s sleep, albeit coupled with a 570 mile journey, would include more than just one complimentary hot drink with a measly breakfast. I was taken aback to find a few coffee granules, a cup of hot water and UHT milk sachets came at a charge of £2.70 on top of that £395 fare – what an absolute rip-off. You even get unlimited complimentary coffee in the cheapest Travelodge deal.

With the ongoing teething problems it obviously made sense for Caledonian Sleeper to pull the planned introduction of Mark 5 coaches on to the Highlander service which had been scheduled for the beginning of this month (and which was already well delayed from the planned 2018 launch). It’s now been pushed back to “early July”, (update… Wednesday 26th June – just announced now put back to September) but for some time passengers have been booking their journeys assuming new en-suite rooms at the significantly enhanced prices as advertised on the glossy Caledonian Sleeper website only to later receive a refund on the difference between new and old pricing as disappointed passengers are told it’s the old coaches for them, for now.

Mind you that’s better than having the disaster that is the new rolling stock at the moment, but even those trusty old coaches are showing signs of age and lack of investment making it feel like very poor value for money as well as unreliable.

On my LEJOG trip with Geoff and Vicki last week our Inverness train had standard toilets out of action while the accessible toilet next to the lounge coach had no water making it unhygienic and unacceptable. At about 6pm prior to the train leaving Euston a text was received advising there’d be no lounge car that evening thereby meaning no refreshments available, but when we got wind from other sources that may not be the case, I rang Caledonian Sleeper to query it only to be told the email had been sent out in error and there would be a lounge coach after all. There was no explanation when I asked why a corrected email hadn’t been sent leaving a feeling of shambolic incompetence.

Even worse the Fort William section of the train that evening developed an engine fault in the West Highlands meaning passengers arrived into Fort William over three and a half hours late after 13:30.

There was then a hiatus for Friday night’s southbound journey from Fort William when it was announced the train was cancelled due to “staff having insufficient rest” following the late arrival that morning so “guests” (Caledonian Sleeper’s corporate spin is still insisting on calling us all ‘guests’ despite clearly not being able to run a hotel) were told on social media they’d have to travel by coach (“replacement road transport”) over to Edinburgh, arriving in the middle of the night, with a transfer on to the train from there.

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A further tweet advised arrangements had been made for refreshments to be available at the Jury’s Inn in Edinburgh where “guests” could also wait before boarding the train, but twitter was awash with disgruntled passengers saying coach drivers dropped them off at Edinburgh Waverley station with no mention of hotel refreshments.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.20.21.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.20.35.pngAgain, it gives the impression of total incompetence.

Meanwhile it wasn’t much better on the southbound service on Friday night either with new coaches on the Lowlander service coming to a halt at Acton Bridge just south of Crewe with passengers having to make their way down to London once Virgin Trains and West Midlands Trains got going in the morning.

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Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.07.16.pngThese latest disasters on Friday came just twenty hour hours after there was confidence on Thursday wheel problems on the damaged train from 11th June would finally be fixed for the weekend …

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…. with Caledonian Sleeper tweeting things “are due to return to normal”.

It’s turned out not to be the case with the Glasgow bound journey cancelled last night yet again.

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This raises the question of why other sets of new coaches are not being introduced into service. Somewhere sidings must be full of new coaches bearing in mind the new trains were due into service on both the Lowlander and Highlander services from 2nd June. This implies there are still issues with the new trains yet to be resolved beyond problems with wheels damaged on 11th June.

I can’t help thinking Serco – the company running the Caledonian Sleeper franchise – are completely out of their outsourcing depth running this specialist type of train service. It’s all very well hyping up running a luxury ‘hotel on wheels’ but is it practical? Is the business model charging exhorbitant five star prices, raising expectations for a high standard of service, achievable on an overnight train between London and Scotland? Sadly Caledonian Sleeper is rapidly gaining a reputation worse than Fawlty Towers.

Serco must be losing a fortune over the present shenanigans (although I’m sure there’ll be some contingent liability passed on to the Spanish manufacturer CAF too) but it shouldn’t be forgotten the sleeper service attracts massive public subsidy to keep it going. OK, there are far fewer passengers impacted than in the GTR or Northern Rail fiasco last May but proportionately the disruption per journey is far worse. A 25% failure rate on the Lowlander service at the moment.

Yet taking a look at the Caledonian Sleeper website it’s as though nothing is wrong and it’s all sweetness and light. Where’s the contrite apology from the managing director at what has become a complete shambles of a service? Not a word, just the same continued hype. Quite extraordinary head-in-the-sand PR.

I feel sorry for the stressed out staff on the trains and in customer service, sorry, “Guest Service Centre” where “Guest Ambassadors” work. Word of advice Serco. Ditch the ridiculous corporate hype and get back to basics of delivering a proper service. And you really have got to do much better at letting passengers know what’s happening more in advance than you’re doing; it’s not like catching a commuter train home; canacelling an overnight sleeper means huge distruption to people’s travel plans possibly including ruined holidays.

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Unsurprisingly Caledonian Sleeper’s reputation is currently being trashed every day on Twitter.

Tuesday 25th June, midday update: as I publish this blog, there’s no word from Caledonian Sleeper whether tonight’s Lowlander service will run as normal or which of the four portions (Glasgow/Edinburgh – northbound/southbound) will once again be cancelled. A quite extraordinary way to run a train service, let alone a sleeper service.

Roger French

Two cheers for TfL

Saturday 15th June 2019

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Today saw the much heralded cuts to a large number of central London bus routes including many changes to termini and amended routes.

I previewed the changes in a post on 5th June foreseeing a major challenge as getting bus stop plates, timetables and spider maps updated.

Having had a good wander around central London today I’m pleased to report TfL’s bus stop team have done a reasonably good job bearing in mind the scale of changes.

Inevitably there are some inconsistencies and discrepancies but on the whole it was impressive to see just how much had been updated ready for day 1.

Here are some examples of what gets a big bus stop tick and what needs further attention.

Yellow ‘Bus stop closed’ hoods covering up discontinued bus stops have been regularly deployed in London for some years now to cater for temporary changes due to roadworks and diversions. Sadly the consequential deployment of ‘Dolly Stops’ as replacements is much more rare these days but that’s another matter.

Team Cover Up have been out in force with their yellow hoods overnight after Friday’s last journeys. First up I found them deployed at bus stops uniquely served by the withdrawn route RV1 from Covent Garden ….

IMG_0658.jpg…. via the South Bank ….IMG_0648.jpgIMG_0646.jpg…. including a poignant tribute at the Royal Festival Hall ….

IMG_0655.jpgIMG_0653.jpg…. to the Tower Gateway terminus.

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The Covent Garden bound stop at Oxo Tower on the South Bank has been out of action for some weeks, and the long standing notice erroneously implies the RV1 will be back later this year which to avoid confusion should really be removed now lest it gives anyone false hopes of a RV1 revival…..IMG_0649.jpg

IMG_0650.jpgIn better news ‘E’ plates showing which bus routes serve each bus stop along the route have also all been updated with any reference to the RV1 removed and the 343 added where appropriate on its newly extended section of route to Aldgate replacing the RV1 between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.

Indeed so on the ball were the ‘E’ plate amendment team for the RV1/343 switch that they even updated the bus stops on Tower Bridge approach itself which are no longer in use due to the protective barriers now installed. Still at least that out of use bus stop has accurate route numbers for buses which can no longer stop there.

IMG_0630.jpgIMG_0631.jpgOn the other hand I spotted an erroneous RV1 plate on a bus stop not served long before yesterday’s withdrawal in Great Tower Street which must have been in place from a former old routing…

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The same hooded status was noted on the withdrawn section of bus route 341 in New Fetter Lane/Fetter Lane which are no longer served by buses so that change was sorted correctly too….

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…including the removal of ‘E’ plates for the 341 and the timetable from the stops in Holborn….

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Similarly yellow hoods were properly deployed on bus stops in Fenchurch Street no longer served by any bus routes following the diversion of route 40 to terminate at Clerkenwell Green instead of Aldgate.

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However, the job of updating stops on the new section of route 40….

IMG_0579.jpg……is best described as ‘work in progress’ as ‘E’ plates were incorrectly showing route 45 and 388 (both now withdrawn) rather than the newly diverted 40 in Blackfriars Road …..

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….even though the timetable below had been updated with the 45 and 388 correctly replaced by the 40….

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and in Farringdon Road a new ‘E’ plate had appeared for the newly diverted 341 (but not the 40) ….

IMG_0563.jpg… whereas the timetable below showed the newly diverted 40 but not the 341….

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Meanwhile on bus stops a little further north of Clerkenwell where its just the 341 which needs adding, the stops do have both a timetable displayed and correct ‘E’ plates…..

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The fourth section of road to become newly bus-less is Pall Mall which said farewell to route 9 which has now been diverted back into the parallel Piccadilly. Sadly Team Cover Up hadn’t been there when I visited late this morning and the bus stops on either side of Pall Mall looked very much open for business as usual ….

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…. although someone had taken out the route 9 details from the timetable case ….

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….and added a new timetable and a new ‘E’ plate on the newly served stop in nearby Piccadilly….

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Back in Pall Mall I explained to the waiting passenger she was in for a long wait for a Number 9 but she seemed happy to know the new stop was by Fortnum & Mason and headed off in that direction!

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As well as Team Cover Up these changes also call upon the services of Team Uncover Up as the 14 now diverts from its previous route from Putney Heath at Tottenham Court Road station to operate via the British Museum and terminate at Russell Square instead of via Tottenham Court Road to turn at Warren Street station.

This new bit of route via the British Museum hasn’t seen a bus since route 10 was withdrawn last November so the bus stops have either been left to just Sightseeing buses (as here outside the museum)…

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…. or closed as at the next stop in Montague Street….

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Unfortunately it was still covered up today even as buses went by on the newly diverted 14.

Even more bizarre someone had been out to install a new route 14 timetable in the timetable case at the stop outside the British Museum but hadn’t taken down the bus stop closed sign! Surely there aren’t two teams at work here, one to put new timetables up and another to take down ‘bus stop closed’ signs?

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On the opposite side of the road you’d have to be very knowledgeable to twig the 14 now uses that stop and be prepared to jump out into the road to let the bus driver know as he passes the Sightseeing bus by.

IMG_0497.jpgIMG_0513.jpgOver in Tottenham Court Road references to route 14 (and the 134 – also now withdrawn from that road) were still on bus stop flags ….

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…. but someone had been round and removed all the timetables and for all the routes too! Or, perhaps they haven’t yet been installed to these relatively new southbound stops, but then why install new timetable cases? Anyway, it’s another ‘work in progress’ here.

And more even more bizarre at the erstwhile route 14 terminus at Warren Street, now used by the 134….

IMG_0376.jpg…..someone had been out to add the new 134 timetable but had left the now incorrect 14 one in place…..

IMG_0374.jpg….. nor did they change the ‘E’ plate from showing 14 to 134. I wished I’d brought a spare 3 with me to do the job!

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Talking of the 3, that route no longer serves the northern most stop in Whitehall as the route has been cut back from terminating at Trafalgar Square to Horse Guards Parade and it was good to see everything updated correctly there.

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Over in Aldgate another update success is all references to the 67 are now changed to the 242 both on bus stop plates….

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….. and timetable cases……

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So, another job well executed there.

Similarly over on the Euston Road the stops between Kings Cross and Euston have all had references to the now withdrawn 59 and 476 removed from bus stop flags….

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It’s just a shame that an important and busy stop right opposite St Pancras International has no timetables for daytime bus routes at all…

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The diversion of route 4 at St Paul’s Cathedral to operate via Queen Victoria Street and terminate at Blackfriars instead of running along Fleet Street and Waterloo Bridge to Waterloo was another success with bus stops updated …..

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…. and new timetables at bus stops along the route….

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…. except that the ‘towards Elephant & Castle’ bit of the bus stop is out of date as that used to apply to the 388 when it ran on there, but now the 4 heads no further south than Blackfriars.

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The same issue with ‘towards’ on bus stop plates applies further back along the route where bus stops still display ‘towards Aldwych’ which it no longer does.

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A neat piece of technology was using the iBus system to show a scrolling message just before the new piece of route at St Paul’s advising passengers to alight and change to a bus on route 76 for Waterloo. Old habits die hard and most passengers didn’t notice this and carried on until the bus turned along the new route and then they got flustered and alighted at the next stop.

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I was also impressed to see a number of spider maps had been updated with references to where routes had been altered or withdrawn.

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However, these new style spider maps are not so easy to use, since they no longer show a colour coded route index. For example, the old style map still on display at the old RV1 bus stop in Covent Garden…

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… has the old style route index….

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…but the new style maps colour code the route numbers alongside each destination in the index of places served. I don’t find this so helpful, as the route index was a quick way of telling you for each route the bus stops it serves nearby which was useful if you already knew your route number. Now you have to look up a destination first, to find the route number and the bus stops served.

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Despite the inconsistencies noted today I was pleasantly surprised at how much had been achieved and it’s clear a lot of thought and hard work has gone into the updating.

My concern is that those discrepancies I came across will not be corrected and will languish for many months, if not years. I hope I’m proved wrong and a wander around again in a few weeks time will show everything being displayed perfectly.

Let’s see.

Roger French

Southend Airport evicts new bus route

Friday 14th June 2019

IMG_E0246.jpgHave you ever heard anything so ridiculous? At a time when airports should be doing all they can to enhance their environmental credentials by encouraging passengers to use public transport you’d think a new bus route introduced in the dead of night entirely at the commercial risk of a bus company would be warmly welcomed and widely promoted.

Instead Southend Airport; oh sorry, ‘London Southend Airport’ (says it all about their pompous attitude) have banned Ensignbus from running their new night time X1 express bus route connecting the airport with central London.

Introduced earlier this month, buses on the new ‘Jetlink X1 Airport Shuttle Bus’ have been forbidden from entering the airport this week and Ensignbus have been forced to abandon the service.

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We’re not talking frequent shuttle buses which could undermine longer established public transport operators already in the market. The X1 was aiming to fill the gap when trains run by Greater Anglia on the line to Liverpool Street are infrequent or not running.

From Monday of this week a new later last train began running leaving Southend Airport at 2359 arriving into Liverpool Street at 0055, whereas the X1 leaving at 2340 would take arriving air passengers to Lakeside, Canning Town, Embankment or Victoria arriving there at 0115.

Heading to the airport a new first early morning train from Liverpool Street now leaves at 0435 arriving the airport at 0529 but the X1 provides an even earlier arrival at 0435 having left Victoria at 0305 – what’s not to like about that?

Well, Leanne at Southend Airport reckons in an official statement the airport has recently come to an agreement with Greater Anglia “which extends the schedule of the airport rail service to earlier and later trains. At this current time, the airport does not have any agreement in place with Ensign buses”.

Leanne also encouragingly explains “London Southend Airport works with a number of transport partners to offer its passengers different options to get to and from the airport in a sustainable way and is always happy to discuss ideas to improve service to its customers”.

So you’d think giving customers an option of travelling direct to a different part of central London, eg Embankment or Victoria, rather than to Liverpool Street arriving in the early hours of the morning would be a great ‘improvement idea’.

It’s been pointed out London Southend Airport take 90% of the revenue from passengers travelling by train. That might just have something to do with their stance rather than some spurious claim to offer sustainable options.

Greater Anglia charge £16.40 for a late night single from the airport to Liverpool Street compared to the Ensignbus X1 fare of £15 so there’s hardly an issue with pricing.

And that 0435 arrival at the airport by bus would work much better than risking the train at 0529 if you were flying off to Faro or Bilbao at 0630 with gates closing 30 minutes before departure and security to be endured.

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Let’s hope Stobart Aviation CEO Glyn Jones, Leanne and airport colleagues do “listen to what they (passengers) are telling us and we (they) take action” by coming to an agreement with the ever resourceful and enterprising Newman team at Ensignbus very quickly so the X1 can be reinstated and customers given the promised “options to get to and from the airport in a sustainable way”.

Peter Newman has confirmed Ensignbus have “previously offered to pay fees” and interestingly there’s allegedly no agreement in place with First Essex (who run the X30 to the airport – advertised on the airport’s website along with “just a short walk from the main terminal”: three routes operated by Arriva) nor have London Southend Airport had a problem when Ensignbus has run commercially at their own risk to and from the airport on Boxing Day in the past. Perhaps that’s because it’s the only travel option that day with trains left in the sidings and no 90% rake off for Stobart Aviation.

Roger French

“Easier to travel” … with fewer buses.

Wednesday 5th June 2019

The countdown has begun. It’s ten days until TfL introduce a swathe of bus cuts across central London beginning on Saturday 15th June 2019. Twenty-five bus routes are changing with withdrawals, frequency reductions and many altered termini. And this is only Part 1; Part 2 is promised for later in the year.

Details of the changes have been posted on the TfL website for some time and notices referring to changes to bus routes somewhat vaguely as “in 2019” have appeared on hundreds of bus stops across a wide area of London advising passengers to click on the rather convoluted website address tfl.gov.uk/PermBusChanges – surely a more catchy web address could have been used?

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TfL’s communication machine cranked up another gear yesterday sending an email to its database (I assume it wasn’t just personally to me) advising “the way people travel in the capital is changing, so there are more buses than needed in the centre of London”. I like the positive angle (“more buses than needed”) rather than admitting less and less people are travelling by bus due to frustratingly slow speeds, congestion, less road space for buses due to cycle lanes taking priority etc etc. The explanation continues “we are working to reduce bus-on-bus congestion, to help improve reliability and make it easier to travel”.

These are odd strategies to be pursuing; most provincial bus companies are increasing the number of buses to improve reliability and make it easier to travel, but TfL seem to reckon running less is the answer.

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I had a ride a few days ago on many of the routes being cut back to see what the impact will be.

IMG_9673.jpgHighest profile frequency reductions in Blackfriars Road, Farringdon Road and Kingsland Road are being achieved by cutting back bus routes to termini located south and north of these roads.

IMG_9676.jpgFor example, Blackfriars Road says goodbye to routes 45 (no longer running north of Elephant & Castle to Kings Cross) and 388 (no longer running south of Liverpool Street to Elephant & Castle) leaving just route 63 and a newly rerouted 40 to Clerkenwell Green instead of Aldgate. In practice this means a combined frequency of around 15 buses per hour instead of 20. Part of the 388 route cut back involves Queen Victoria Street (where it’s the only route) which is covered by a rerouted 4 terminating at Blackfriars instead of Waterloo; so in turn leaving Fleet Street and Waterloo Bridge to other routes.

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Farringdon Road also says farewell to the 45 meaning only the 17 and 46 will link Chancery Lane to Kings Cross with 13 buses per hour instead of 19. Kingsland Road south of Dalston Junction loses its six bus an hour route 67 but still leaving around 24 buses an hour on the 149, 242 and 243.

IMG_9658.jpgFrom my journeys and observations along these roads the reduced frequencies will ably cope with the numbers travelling although buses will naturally be busier, in some cases uncomfortably so, and unattractive longer waiting times can be expected – not so much making it “easier to travel” but reducing costs and trying to keep the revenue.

IMG_9637.jpgThe busiest bus I spotted while on Kingsland Road south of Dalston on route 67 still had some empty seats on board on the upper deck.

IMG_9723.jpgAnother slim down is between Kings Cross and Euston where the 476 is being cut back from Euston to turn at Kings Cross from the east while the 59 does the opposite being cut back from Kings Cross to turn at Euston from the south taking out roughly 17 buses an hour linking the stations; but there are still plenty of buses on routes 30, 73, 91 205 and 390 along Euston Road so for those choosing not to walk, and I always do walk, the wait shouldn’t be discernibly longer.

IMG_9680.jpgAnother slim down is between Elephant & Castle and Holborn due to the 171 being cut back to the former from the south, but alternatives are provided by the 68 as well as many other buses on parts of that route.

IMG_9967.jpgIn the recently made two-way Tottenham Court Road, the 134 is cut back from the north to turn at Warren Street at the top end while the 14 from the south is diverted to Bloomsbury to turn at Russell Square leaving Tottenham Court Road to the 24, 29, 73 and 390. They’ll cope, but the fact is if your journey was from say, University College Hospital, where buses on the 14 used to begin their journey, to South Kensington your option will now be taking another bus down Tottenham Court Road and then change on to the truncated 14. While the Hopper Fare means no increase in price, changing buses certainly comes at a price of time and inconvenience and far removed from that spurious claim of making it “easier to travel”.

IMG_9954.jpgThere’s a lot of termini swapping going on as TfL juggle its stand space around. So, for example, with the cut back of the 67 from Aldgate to Dalston Junction, the 242 swaps its St Pauls terminal over to Aldgate (and replaces the 67 through Spitalfields) and the 100 steps into the terminal stand at St Pauls instead of the Museum of London. The 172 leaves Clerkenwell Green for Aldwych, while the 40 leaves Aldgate for Clerkenwell Green. The 341 moves from County Hall to Waterloo as the 53 cuts back to County Hall from Whitehall where it’s replaced by the 3 instead of continuing to Trafalgar Square. The key to many of these minor terminal cut backs and shuffle rounds is they save valuable vehicle and driver resource which will all add up in handy savings towards TfL’s deficit – and that’s what these changes are really about rather than anything to do with “bus-on-bus congestion” and “making it easier to travel”.

IMG_9580.jpgFinally the biggy; the complete withdrawal of the high profile tourist route, the Tower Transit operated RV1 first introduced in April 2002 which runs from Covent Garden, across Waterloo Bridge, around the South Bank along Upper Ground before gliding close by Tate Modern then London Bridge and Tower Bridge to terminate at Tower Gateway. Six buses run this least frequent central London bus route every 20 minutes (cut back from every 10 minutes in February 2018); and they’re not ordinary buses either, they’re the original hydrogen powered buses introduced in 2010/11 as well as two later Van Hool buses.

IMG_6198.jpgTfL reckons it costs about £3.3million each year to operate the RV1; quite how six buses doing minimal mileage on a fairly easy route around central London can cost that much is a mystery to me. With revenue of around £650,000 it means a loss of a whopping £2.6million. Apparently the premium for using hydrogen buses is not that great a percentage of this huge loss either. The busiest point on the eastbound route is  on Tooley Street with 15 passengers on the bus in the morning peak while westbound in the evening peak there’s twenty on the bus in Southwark Street. On my journeys I saw around a dozen people on off peak journeys in the South Bank and London Bridge area.

Some peak passengers may find the newly extended 343 from City Hall across Tower Bridge to Aldgate might help but off peak, passengers will pretty much be abandoned, but at £4 subsidy per passenger journey for a central London bus route, financial reality has caught up with the RV1.

IMG_9728.jpgOne interesting aspect of the upcoming changes is what will happen to surplus New Routemaster buses if they’re cascaded to other routes leading to mixed allocations.

IMG_9724.jpgThis has been the case on route 176 between Tottenham Court Road and Penge where Go-Ahead London’s Camberwell garage mix up New Routemasters with standard ADL Enviro double deck buses meaning passengers need a fleet list with them to work out whether they can board through the centre doors or not! Quite bizarre.

IMG_9634.jpgAs the ten day countdown continues to the Saturday 15th June changeover date it will be interesting to see whether TfL’s roadside infrastructure team can cope with the huge scale of changes. There must be hundreds of bus stop flags as well as timetable displays to update across the network and also all those hundreds of spider maps spreading their web across a vast area.

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 15.45.47.pngSome spider maps showing the changes are embedded into TfL’s website if you click in the right place, but they’re not exactly easy to follow and understand. I’ll be keeping a close eye on whether these maps are updated and placed in the correct section of the website as well as in bus shelters on the 15th June.

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 15.52.33.png  Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 15.53.08.pngCommendably Mike Harris has already updated his excellent (and the only available) London bus map and this is an easy way to see what is changing by comparing a before and after extract.

Mike’s edition no 38 valid from 15th June will shortly be available in print for £2 but the electronic version at the bargain price of just a £1 is available to buy and download now and I strongly recommend visiting his online shop and buying a copy. It’s invaluable when travelling around London – and huge thanks to Mike for his excellent map work. Mike definitely does “make it easier to travel”.

Roger French