All Line Rove Around

Monday 20th May 2019

IMG_E7095.jpgMid May’s always a good month to buy an All Line Rover and have a wander around Britain’s rail network taking a look at new initiatives introduced by various Train Operating Companies in the May timetable change. This year’s changes are bound to be much smoother than last year’s collective meltdown especially as some improvements that looked dodgy have already been postponed at the last minute.

For example, the new station due to open on the Stratford to Bishops Sortford line near Tottenham at Meridian Water has been postponed for a week or two (as predicted); while the introduction of Class 37 locos on peak hour journeys between Cardiff and Rhymney and refurbished Class 442s on SWR’s promised enhancements on the Waterloo/Portsmouth line have both been postponed just in the last week or so; still far better to delay than implement if everything’s not ready and risk it all going wrong. Definitely the lesson learned from May 2018.

There are still enough new interesting developments to seek out and experience and I’ll describe my travels as the week progresses.

The All Line Rover ticket has been around for ages. Every year in Barry Doe’s review of Rail Rovers in Rail magazine (there are 73 different Rovers available in regional areas all over the country) he observes “it is now eight years since the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) said that one advantage of the then all new All-Line time restrictions was that operators would now be more content to advertise its existence, as business abstraction had been removed.”

In 2011 restrictions on using certain long distance train companies’ services before 1000 were introduced on the All Line Rover at Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross as well as Watford Junction, Milton Keynes, Birmingham New Street, Luton+Airport, Bedford and Stevenage but as Barry continues “the only operators to advertise the All-Line in their general publicity remain GWR and Northern – and the Rail Delivery Group that subsumed ATOC has produced nothing centrally at all. What other industry would totally ignore its most extensive and comprehensive product?'”; good point as always Barry.

IMG_E7266.jpgIt’s not that the price of the All Line Rover is a giveaway. The longest version is for 14 day validity. The full, non-Railcard, price for that is £796 and for 7 days it’s £526 for Standard Class travel. That works out at either £56.85 or £75.14 a day. You have to be a very committed traveller to be spending those sums every day continuously for a fortnight or a week. Some days you might be quids in when making long journeys, but other days if you’re just making shorter trips it might be cheaper to pay-as-you-go. And if you’re one who likes to plan a Rover in advance to specific train journeys to get maximum distance and value, you might find it cheaper to buy a week or fortnight’s worth of Advance Purchase tickets.

On the other hand the great thing about a Rover ticket is the wonderful freedom it gives you to travel anywhere and change plans as the mood takes you. Indeed for the next seven days while I’ve got a few milestones to cover I’m happy to change plans at a moments notice. At this time of year it’s easy to book overnight accommodation at the last minute too which helps for such sporadic random travelling.

Built into the price of a Rover therefore is the freedom and flexibility it offers. Mind you the same is true for season tickets and Barry also often makes the point that with ‘Any Permitted’ routes you can also enjoy many travel options across wide areas simply by buying a One Week season between distant destinations.

As my Twitter followers will know, for this week, I opted for the 7 day First Class version which with my one third off Senior Railcard discount works out at a similar price to the full price Standard Class ticket coming in at £525.35. The joy of being over sixty! First Class for the price of Standard.

Full whack First Class would cost £796 and the top of the range fourteen day is £1,216. You’d really have to clock the miles up on First Class enabled trains to get your money’s worth with that one.

For me though it’s been the bargain of the year as once again I’ve saved up my Delay Repay vouchers over the last twelve months’ travels and cashed all £497.47 of them in meaning I paid just £27.88 for my £525.35 All Line Rover. Not bad; although as I wrote the other day with reliability improving on GTR, I doubt I’ll ever amass as much compensation in the coming year so won’t be able to do the same in 2020, although many of the larger claims are in respect of longer journeys which are worth more, and it all adds up.

IMG_6780.jpg

I’m probably one of the few passengers who generally don’t mind delays especially when they become severe, reimbursement gets generous and I’m not in a hurry!

There is of course an even greater value ticket and that’s the BritRail Pass which gives all the benefits of an All Line Rover and also including no pre 1000 restrictions on those business routes as an added bonus for roughly half the price.

IMG_E7265.jpgThe only snag is BritRail passes are not available to UK residents; only to those registered as resident overseas. The 8 day full adult price for Standard Class (no 7 day version exists) is currently $328 which is about £257, about half the price of the 7 Day All Line Rover at £526.

IMG_E7264.jpg

I’ll certainly be getting my £27.88 worth of value in the coming week and am looking forward to sharing my travel experiences with you in the coming days.

Roger French

Two cheers for GTR

Thursday 16th May 2019

IMG_6770.jpgWe’re fast approaching the anniversary this weekend of that fateful day in May last year when the Thameslink (and Northern Rail) train networks went into meltdown.

Changes to the GoVia Thameslink Railway (GTR) operated Thameslink network had been billed as the culmination of years of investment and preparatory work including millions spent on rebuilding central London stations, untangling tracks at London Bridge and a huge fleet of brand new trains. The dream that was once called Thameslink 2000 was finally going to be realised as RailPlan 2020 with greatly expanded services travelling north/south through the ‘Thameslink Core’.

IMG_3591.jpgYou couldn’t miss the build up during March, April and early May last Spring. Posters were everywhere and repeated announcements encouraged us all to be prepared and check out the new timetables as ‘the time of every train will change’.

IMG_7983.jpgTrouble was, as quickly became apparent from first thing on Sunday 20th May, it was only us passengers who’d been prepared. Everyone else including GTR, Network Rail and the DfT turned out to be lamentably unprepared, as subsequent Reviews and Inquiries have shown, and the service simply fell apart from Day 1.

IMG_7991.jpg

I remember arriving at my local station, Hassocks, excitedly looking forward to a ride through to Cambridge on one of the new hourly journeys to see auspiciously the first two had been cancelled. Not a good omen.

IMG_E8556.jpg

Still at least the third journey at 0718 ran. It turned out to be one of the few that did.

IMG_8674.jpgMuch has been written about those disastrous first few months of the worst service change ever known, and it’s not my intention to dwell on the past, but more to assess things one year on and look to the future.

IMG_E9801.jpgWhich I have to say is much more positive. It seems to me former GTR CEO Charles Horton got it right about “The ‘Golden Age’ starts in May”, the only problem being he was a year ahead of his time. It’s this May rather than last May.

IMG_E9800.jpg

My travel experiences of late have seen a huge improvement in reliability and you get the impression GTR are well and truly back on top of service delivery. Sure we have the usual disruptions from trespassers, the odd freight train breaking down, points failures and signalling issues (all of which have caused delays just in the last seven days on the Brighton line alone) but these aren’t GTR’s fault and, following February’s blockade and interminable weekend closures there’s greater confidence track related failures will now be much less frequent.

Of course it must help that the full timetable is still not in place meaning less trains are running through the ‘Thameslink Core’ than originally planned. From Monday things get ramped up with a second train each hour between Brighton and Cambridge added to the timetable in the peaks and throughout the day (inluding Saturdays) making for a half hourly service between those cities to match the half hourly Horsham to Peterborough trains already linking the East Coast Main Line to the Brighton Main Line.

When everything’s running smoothly it’s certainly impressive to stand on any platform at one of the ‘Thameslink Core’ stations and see the high frequency departures: eg from City Thameslink at 04 Sutton; 06 Brighton; 09 Rainham; 11 Gatwick …. then an 8 minute gap which has yet to be filled until …. 19 Sutton; 21 Horsham; 24 Orpington; 26 Brighton with another eight minute gap to 34 Sutton and the same pattern repeating in the next half hour giving 16 southbound trains an hour. In the evening peaks for a couple of hours there’s an extra 01 and 31 East Grinstead and a 46 Littlehampton added to the cycle with a similar northbound pattern in the mornings.

Despite the need for northbound trains to switch from third rail to overhead wires at City Thameslink (and at Farringdon southbound) dwell times are kept tight and trains arrive and depart on schedule helped by some generous time allowances between stations. Indeed I’ve noticed trains heading to and from the East Coast Main Line have further slack added between St Pancras, Canal Tunnel and Finsbury Park to allow recovery from any late running before the second half of the journey.

The ‘Thameslink Core’ is also getting busier especially in the peaks. More and more passengers seem to be boarding at London Bridge (presumably from a Southeastern train) to travel on to Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon or St Pancras. You wonder how much busier it would get if TfL did the decent thing and include this section (and on to Kentish Town/West Hampstead and Finsbury Park as well as back to Elephant & Castle) on the Tube map as an alternative to the over crowded Northern Line rather than deny Thameslink exists.

IMG_1911.jpgLove them or loathe them (and I do both) the Class 700 trains are certainly now proving their worth at moving huge numbers of passengers. Fortunately the Brighton Main Line almost exclusively has twelve coach trains allocated except for two northbound journeys at 0759 and 0828 from Brighton to Bedford, and you really notice the difference by the time those two trains get to East Croydon. They’re rammed.

Brighton 1 - June 2010.jpgIt brings it home to you not so long ago some of these journeys were being operated by 4 coach Class 319s which were full to bursting at Gatwick in the peaks, let alone East Croydon. The Class 700s are uncomfortable, the seats are hard, they’re too narrow but that standing space really does soak up the crowds and has become absolutely necessary.

IMG_5418.jpgWhen these new trains were being ordered Charles Horton was derided in the Evening Standard by saying the main benefit was ‘passengers would be able to stand in greater comfort’ but he was spot on. That is their main benefit – and as I mentioned in Tuesday’s blog they also have ample room for luggage, something the Class 319s and 377s don’t. I loathe the 700s in many ways, but you have to love their crowd moving abilities. Where would we be without them?

Waiting on a platform for the next train.

IMG_6777.jpg

Other things that have noticeably got better during the last year are ticket office opening hours, staffing of gatelines, social media information and responses, much less station skipping, more realistic turn round times at termini, excellent response times for delay repay and generally a better more relaxed atmosphere among the staff to name just seven that come to mind.

Is it perfect? No, of course it isn’t, there’ll always be some delays and disruption on a crowded railway running at capacity. Heading home to Hassocks in the evening peak my train rarely arrives spot on time, but you only have to look at the frequency of departures through the ‘Thameslink Core’ described above to see the impact of one train running just a minute or two late and can appreciate the knock on effect to following journeys. Add in the Southern network south from London Bridge and Victoria (as well as Gatwick Express) with constraining flat junctions such as Windmill Bridge just north of East Croydon and you can see how delays can soon spread – not unlike the impact congestion has on a busy M25 in the peak where it’s stop start the whole way round and virtually a car park on a busy Friday afternoon peak.

It’s good to see an attractive evenly spaced timetable across the network which makes sense although one strange scheduling anomaly that continues concerns the two evening peak journeys from Bedford to Littlehampton (introduced last May) leaving London Bridge at 1655 and 1755 which arrive at East Croydon three minutes ahead of a Victoria to Littlehampton train resulting in the two trains following each other three minutes apart all the way to Littlehampton. Passengers from London Bridge were used to these being Southern branded trains starting from the low level terminating platforms and could easily be confident of a seat. Now it’s a rush to board and grab one of the few seats left as it arrives from Bedford having filled up in the ‘Thameslink Core’.

There’s a perception that delays on the busy East Coast Main Line are more prevalent than the Midland Main Line so stations on the Horsham line and Hassocks which are only served by Peterborough/Cambridge trains rather than Bedford trains (from this Sunday’s new timetable in the case of Hassocks when our Bedford train becomes a Cambridge) are more prone to late running and the risk of station skipping. On the other hand by splitting the Thameslink timetable across both East Coast and Midland lines north of the Thames it means if there’s a blockage on one some semblance of service can still run through and south of the ‘Thameslink Core’ by trains continuing as normal on the other. In the old days with just Bedford-Brighton, you were snookered if there was a problem at say West Hampstead.

It’s noteworthy that the improved timetable south of East Croydon has by-passed poor old Redhill (literally) which now has a less attractive service than the pre 2012 ‘New Southern Railway’ version. Although they’ve gained through trains to Peterborough beyond London Bridge, they’re the stopping trains and there’s a perception Redhill has missed out on improvements.

Reliability on Southern had improved before May 2018 when disruption had been related to the long running disputes with ASLEF and RMT. Once the former was settled things greatly improved. It was ironic that during the worst of the Southern times it was Thameslink trains that kept going and when the Thameslink May 2018 debacle began it was Southern/GatEx trains that ran normally and saved the day.

Meanwhile over on Great Northern the emergency timetable introduced soon after May 2018 with preplanned cancellations on both Hertford North and Welwyn Garden City trains ended last Autumn and a full timetable has been operating for some time with the new Class 717 trains at last in service making for a great Improvement in capacity and reliability.

IMG_7269.jpgFew will miss the ageing Class 313 trains now being withdrawn. well, perhaps except for the seats, although even those had become worn and bumpy after years of use!

IMG_7249.jpg

 

 

Finally, a few areas where I’d like to see improvements during the final couple of years before GoVia’s GTR management contract ends in 2021 are:

1. Much better driver communication when there are delays (I’m writing this very sentence yesterday evening while we’re crawling between East Croydon and Gatwick Airport; I can see there’s congestion ahead by looking online and on Apps, but it would be a nice gesture if our driver could say something by way of explanation and even apology).

2. Completion of the retro fitting of seat back tables in the Class 700 trains.

IMG_1816.jpg

3. Sort out the in-carriage displays – they’re far too frequently showing blank or giving misinformation.

IMG_3454.jpg

4. Make tickets inter-available between the GTR brands much more readily when there’s disruption – as mentioned in Tuesday’s blog on Gatwick Express.

5. Display the in-carriage Train Loading Indicator on station departure signs so waiting passengers can see where best to board.

IMG_1947.jpg

6. With continuing delays to implementing the important Traffic Management System (TMS) and Automatic Train Operation (ATO) through the ‘Thameslink Core’ and no sign of implmentation, be wary of adding any more journeys to fill those eight minute gaps, as originally planned, to Sevenoaks (from Welwyn Garden City) and Maidstone East (from Cambridge). They’re providing a useful buffer in the event of delays.

 

Twelve months on GTR’s CEO Patrick Verwer previews this weekend’s timetable change including the enhanced Brighton to Cambridge service and other improvements acorss the network at weekends with the same confidence Charles Horton had done a year ago, except this time it’s justified.

All in all, a year on from Armagadden it’s two cheers for GTR. Quite a turnaround.

IMG_6798.jpg

Roger French

End the 35 year GatEx rip off

Tuesday 14th May 2019

IMG_6273.jpgExactly thirty-five years ago today British Rail began the first non-stop train service between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport marketed as Gatwick Express. Class 73 locomotives hauled Mark 2 carriages providing a 30 minute journey time.

Since 1984 GX’s history has been in three almost equal parts: the British Rail era for the first twelve years followed by National Express, awarded the first privatised franchise to run the service in April 1996, which lasted a further twelve years until 2008 when it was subsumed into the GoVia operated Southern franchise. GoVia successfully bid for the new Southern franchise the following year and in 2015 won the notorious larger GTR management contract including Thameslink and Great Northern as well as Southern and Gatwick Express.

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 19.51.27.pngThere’s been a succession of train types over the last 35 years notably the Class 460 Junipers with their pointy nosed front ends introduced by National Express from 1999, followed by reconditioned Class 442s and, since 2016, brand new Class 387/2 trains ordered by GTR.

IMG_4069.jpgGradually the bespoke offer of an exclusive Gatwick Express service has been watered down not least the sensible, yet controversial, decision in 2008 to extend peak hour journeys to Brighton to increase capacity on the Brighton Main Line including calling at most stations between Haywards Heath and the coast. This concept was extended further in 2015 when alternate journeys, running every 30 minutes, during the off-peak were also extended non-stop to Brighton replacing the previous fasts operated by Southern between Brighton, East Croydon and Victoria.

In the early days the GX offer included smartly dressed hosts meeting and greeting passengers on platforms as well as selling tickets on trains together with an onboard buffet trolley giving the impression of a premium service. First class seating, especially during the Class 442 era offered a level of luxury travel which was very much premium.

IMG_6272.jpgNow, the whole concept of the Gatwick Express as a premium service must be called into question. There really can be no justification for charging passengers a premium fare for a journey that’s virtually no different to the alternatives. Continuing the facade of GatEx being something special is frankly a deceitful way of fleecing visitors from abroad using Gatwick Airport. First impressions count when you’re a stranger in a new country for the first time; goodness knows what visitors think of the complex fare structure they meet at Gatwick Airport’s bank of Ticket Vending Machines or in the long queue for the ticket office and must conclude they’re being ripped off, which they are.

IMG_2558.jpgAnomalously the team of thirty-six On Board Supervisors allocated to GatEx only travel between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport and it seems to me their sole purpose is to enforce the First Class seating area as other than giving onboard announcements which simply replicate the pre-recorded auto ones and the occasional walk through the train, that seems to be it. If you’re heading down to Brighton from Gatwick Airport there’s no OBS to provide that so called reassurance that applies if you head north to London. If you catch a northbound Southern train from the Airport that’s originated at a station along the Coastway East or West (rather than Brighton) you’ll also have the luxury of an On Board Supervisor for your whole journey, so it’s hardly a premium differentiation.

IMG_3451.jpgPerhaps if the First Class section was more clearly marked such diligent checking (which doesn’t happen on Southern’s OBS-less Brighton Main Line trains anyway) wouldn’t be necessary. When the doors of a GatEx train are open, there’s no external indication you’re entering a First Class area save for the minuscule “1” sticker on the windows. Nothing appears on the doors which cover up the word “First” on the train side when open.

IMG_3393.jpgThen there’s the seating. Although not as dire as the Class 700s on Thameslink, they can hardly be called comfortable. Hard and upright and exactly the same whether in Standard or First Class, save for the flappy bit of papery cloth thing where you put your head – antimacassars to use the official terminology. The seats on the early Class 387 trains used by Southern are far superior than these. Another bonus until buffet trolleys were withdrawn was an on-board complimentary drink for First Class passengers; now ceased.

The tables are frustratingly slimline too, handy to be able to slip easily into the seat but no good for comfortable use once seated because of the annoying gap from seat to table. There is free (data limited) Wi-Fi and one plug socket for each pair of seats but these fineries are thankfully pretty standard now and can hardly be descibed as premium.

When the Class 387/2s were first introduced GTR boasted of their fantastic luggage space, and it’s true they do have a small luggage space at the end of each carriage by the doors but this is nowhere near adequate particularly on peak trains which arrive at Gatwick Airport from Brighton in the morning already packed with commuters, including their folded cycles, meaning seats can’t be used as back-up luggage pens.

It’s usually a complete melee on the busiest evening peak departures from Victoria as returning commuters and outbound flight travellers are mixed up as they all board together.

In the early days when the Class 442s were first extended to Brighton in the peaks the PR people said it would all work fine in the mornings as messages would be relayed on to Gatwick Airport platform staff about where the vacant seats were and boarding passengers would be guided to the best place to wait. Some hope. There’s always a huge crowd congregating around the bottom of the escalator on Gatwick Airport’s London bound Platform 4 despite the best efforts of some dispatchers to use the tannoy to cajole people to spread out along the platform.

As a sop to tourists there’s a four language translation of the “welcome to Gatwick Express” auto-announcement which plays out approaching and leaving both Gatwick Airport and Victoria stations, but it always amuses me that the critical extra message added in 2008 on trains arriving at Gatwick Airport, that “will passengers please note this train will only wait on the platform for a short while” is only played out in English! I suspect no-one has ever got round to thinking it might make sense to translate this too, rather than just the somewhat insincere welcome messages.

So what about the thorny issue of that premium fare; the one that means you theoretically save 2 minutes on your journey between the Airport and Victoria, with GatEx trains timetabled to take 29 minutes and some Southern trains scheduled at 31 minutes.

The Airport to Victoria Standard Class single is £19.90 (£31.70 including antimacassar – aka First Class). A return ticket offers a miserly £2 saving coming in at £37.80 (£61.40 with antimacassar). Another miserly saving, this time just 10p, is available if you use Oyster Pay As You Go or Contactless at £19.80. Travelling off peak instead of peak on GatEx? Tough pal; there’s no discount. The same price applies all day in the land of premium travel that is Gatwick Express.

IMG_6268.jpgAlternatively if you don’t mind a more comfortable seat and take two minutes more for your journey, take a Southern train and pay £3.20 less in the peak (£16.70) with a ticket or £4.80 less with Pay As You Go (£15.10).

Travel after 0900 using Pay As You Go and save £11.40. Yes, the off-peak fare on a green train with comfy seats and taking two minutes longer to Victoria is just £8.50 compared to £19.80 on a red train with Pay As You Go.

IMG_6269.jpgBut why not head to London Bridge on a grey Thameslink train instead? For sure the seats are narrow and very uncomfortable but there really is plenty of room for luggage in the wide aisles and door vestibules and it only costs £11 peak and £9.70 off peak (or £8.50 PAYG).

And if you find this all a tad confusing, remember at certain times of the day GTR run Gatwick Express branded trains on Southern train diagrams so although your cheaper ticket will say “Not Gatwick Exp” you can use Gatwick Express when the Company chooses to run a train called Gatwick Express at their convenience, including the onboard announcements confirming it is indeed Gatwick Express, as opposed to the station signs which say it’s Southern – a regular occurence in the evenings as shown below…

IMG_2706.jpg……or when engineering works send Southern trains to London Bridge, which turn out to be Gatwick Express trains.

IMG_4071.jpgOn the other hand try using a GatEx train when a Southern one might have been cancelled. No chance with the eagle eyed barrier staff at the GatEx platforms 13 and 14 at Victoria where any ticket which doesn’t work the barrier is rudely snatched out of your hand for forensic examination – even when it’s a legitimate cross-London “any permitted” ticket which I frequently use on my travels to and from the north. I find these barrier staff rival Blackpool North for their unfriendly customer service.

Passengers would find it hard to believe the array of train options from Gatwick Airport are all controlled by the one DfT and all contracted to the one train company. You’re bombarded with rival messages in the station ticket office area promoting both Gatwick Express and Thameslink as the best way to get to London. As you can see from the photos below, none of them mention price, nor where in London they go to. And Southern doesn’t get a look in.

IMG_2557.jpgIMG_2552.jpgIMG_2553.jpgThe same misleading banner advertising can be found on Victoria Station’s concourse too. A huge prominent promotional back-lit poster is suspended from the roof to show Gatwick Airport bound passengers to platforms 13 and 14 where in the off peak you can catch the (PAYG) £19.80 “direct” red train; there’s not a word about the green trains which leave more frequently with more comfortable seats (and still run “direct” albeit with two stops) from platforms 15 to 19 just a little further past the escalator and costs less than half price at £8.50 a ride. If a similar practice was used to persuade us to take up pension protection it would be deemed misselling and there’d be an Inquiry. As it is the Government and DfT are not only complicit but direct this financial fare rip off. It’s utterly scandalous.

IMG_2705.jpgAll the more so at Gatwick Airport where regular tannoy announcements play out encouraging passengers to avoid the long queues for tickets and simply tap in and tap out at Victoria but I’ve NEVER heard that extra bit of vital price differential information which could potentially save a wasted £11.30 explaining to passengers the need to catch a Southern train for the cheapest ride. Scandalous.

And don’t forget, if you stay on that red train departing Victoria’s platforms 13 or 14 and travel all the way to Brighton the fare is miraculously the same as if you’d caught the green train from platforms 15 to 19. No premium for Brighton travellers!

Just as bizarre as all that is the current marketing campaign at stations on the Brighton Main Line south of Gatwick Airport to promote travel to the airport on Thameslink, whereas Southern runs at the same frequency and is marginally quicker. These adverts have also been appearing in local newspapers. Why does the DfT allow this nonsense to continue? What a complete waste of marketing spend to only promote half the trains providing the service.

IMG_2698.jpg

The same is true for the social media ads for Gatwick Express which were bombarding my Twitter timeline recently. What use are they to me when the train I need, aside from the peak, to get to Gatwick Airport is any train except Gatwick Express?

IMG_E0243.jpg

An inevitable consequence of these ridiculous price differences is that passengers who get to know the score obviously take the Southern train option, especially in the off-peak when savings are huge, and crowd out those trains while GatEx trains have lots of spare space. It’s extremely frustrating for Clapham Junction passengers seeing half empty (or less) red trains crawl through Platform 13 heading to the Airport without stopping while they have to cram into a packed green one behind.

It’s time to call a halt to all this nonsense which is a legacy of over twenty years ago when three separate franchises were competing for the lucrative airport market – the original GoVia Thameslink; the Connex South Central franchise and the National Express operated Gatwick Express. We’ve moved on from those days and it’s now time to end the facade that is the so called premium service that isn’t Gatwick Express. End the fare rip off.

Happy 35th birthday though!

IMG_2551.jpg

Roger French

 

London versus…

Sunday 12th May 2019

IMG_6658.jpgThe Guardian newspaper ran a high profile series of articles last week comparing London with the rest of England across various quality of life parameters under the theme “London versus…”. “The price of a standard pint of Carling lager in Wetherspoon’s pubs across England varies by more than £2, depending on where you order it.” On obesity: “the people of Barnsley are the country’s heavyweights and residents of the City of London and Richmond upon Thames the lightest”. Not surprisingly the extended feature reported “house prices are the great divider between London and the rest of England – a two-up, two-down near Burnley station sold in January for £39,000, £20,000 less than in 2006. In London, a two-bed flat in Notting Hill sold last summer for £1.24m, up from £570,000 in 2005”.

And so it went on ….. but the biggest feature, including a front page headline, was all about buses and bus fares. “Scandal of ‘unfair’ gulf in bus fares in England” screamed the tabloid style headline in the, ahem, tabloid sized Guardian.

IMG_6657.jpgHelen Pidd, the newspaper’s North of England editor has been digging around and come up with a number of outrageous claims which I’d been expecting one of the newly appointed communication bigwigs at the supposedly resurgent Confederation of Passenger Transport to counter with some factually based rebuffs to the feature’s underlying mantra of ‘public control of a regulated bus network in London = good; privatised deregulated rest of England = chaos and bad’,  but sadly nothing appeared on subsequent days.

IMG_6659.jpgRather, the letters page on Thursday contained more of the same biased viewpoints including a lead letter from Mike Parker, Director General, Nexus (Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive) 1994-2006 lamenting that the practice of turfing passengers from Gateshead heading into Newcastle off buses at Gateshead Interchange and enforcing a ride on the Metro to complete their journey ended at deregulation because the nasty bus companies were free to offer choice and an option of staying on the bus to complete their journey, which unsurprsingly proved quite popular.

Stagecoach Manchester Operations Director, Matt Kitchen provided a sterling response to some of Helen’s claims on Twitter – and even engaged Helen in a reply – but otherwise there’s been a noticeable silence from any high profile personalities in the bus industry and their trade organisation which I thought was supposed to be adopting a much higher public profile following its recent controversial reorganisation.

IMG_E6661.jpgSadly this means some of the Guardian’s reporting will be taken as factual and accurate. So, just for the record here’s a few ripostes from me ……

As a result of her research, Helen Pidd claimed Britain’s “most expensive five-mile journey found was in Hampshire where a ticket from the Broadway, Winchester, to Matterley Farm, Tichbourne costs £5.65”. Not surprisingly Helen compared this “massively unfair” fare to the cost of £1.50 for a similar distance in flat fare London.

First point on this is to observe Stagecoach’s route 64 between Winchester and Alton has an unfortunately coarse fare structure, which Helen has rather taken advantage of to make an extreme point. It’s true the single fare from Winchester for the 4.4 mile (not 5 miles) journey to Tichbourne is £5.65, but that price also applies to every bus stop thereafter right through to and including Alton which is 19 miles from Winchester, but that wouldn’t have made for such a dramatic comparison. As the map below demonstrates you get a bonus of 14.6 free miles added on for your journey at no extra cost by travelling beyond Matterley Farm (shown) all the way to Alton.

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.10.29.pngFurthermore, I doubt the bus stops at Matterley Farm are particularly busy as aside from the farm to the north, and a smattering of three or four cottages there’s nothing else there, except for the “A31 Burger Van” – marked by Google, to the right.

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.15.51.png

It’s also pertinent to point out that the previous stop on route 64 is some considerable distance back towards Winchester, on the outskirts of that city, at the Science Park, where guess what, the single fare is a rather cheaper and a more attractive £2.25 single and £3.70 return – which is much more comparable with a £3 return fare in London.

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.11.58.png

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.26.33.pngA Stagecoach spokesperson was quoted in the Guardian defending its fare “the reality is that boundaries between zones have to be set somewhere”. It was also pointed out that the weekly ticket offers much better value.

A return price for a £5.65 single works out at £7.30 whereas a weekly ticket bought on a smartphone for Stagecoach South’s whole operating area costs £23 (and £13.10 for the Winchester city area including the Science Park) which compares well with London’s weekly cap of £21.20. And as the Stagecoach spokesperson pointed out whereas their route 64 runs subsidy free “the cost of operating London’s bus network is £700m more than the income TfL receives from fares. If London operated like the rest of the UK, where fares reflect the true cost of running services, pricing would be far different.”

It’s important to make this distinction as politicians love jumping on the London bandwagon, not least Greater Manchester’s metro Mayor Andy Burnham who is quoted in the Guardian feature saying outside London bus operators had created a “fragmented, incomplete, overpriced, fragile” network of services that could be withdrawn at any time with no consultation, where single fares in some of the most disadvantaged areas cost up to £4.40. Buses are “fundamentally not run in the public interest”, he said. “How do you best illustrate the transport divide, north v south? It’s as simple as the price of a bus ticket and the price of daily travel. It’s massively unfair. Why did everyone else get bus deregulation and London did not?”

Which led Helen on to her next dramatic claim……. sticking with a Hampshire and Manchester theme, she wrote ……. “in Hampshire 33 bus providers compete, while in Greater Manchester there are 47, including for schools and cross-boundary operators. They have no duty to coordinate with each other and can charge whatever they like.”

The idea that 33 bus companies are competing head to head on Hampshire’s roads is of course complete bunkum. Matt Kitchen rightly publicly challenged Helen on Twitter for the source of her research for the quoted numbers of operators in both areas, pointing out the majority are school journey providers, where in Manchester for example, the operator will simply be contracted to charge the fare set by Transport for Greater Manchester.

IMG_E6660.jpg

Helen responded she’d seen a list of Hampshire bus companies on a map produced by the County Council but didn’t have it to hand. She’s right about that, Hampshire County Council does indeed produce a wonderful network map which helpfully lists all the operators and the routes they run – in stark contrast to TfL who can’t be bothered to even produce a netork map online let alone in print to show where their bus routes go.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 20.23.43.pngIt’s worth a quick analysis of Hampshire’s listing alongside the list of bus routes operated across the county – this exposes the rather unhelpful fact for Helen that there are actually just seven bus companies running Hampshire’s network of commercial routes across the county. You see Stagecoach and Go-Ahead both own five of the companies listed individually (Stagecoach has Portsmouth; South Downs; Hampshire; Hants & Surrey; Swindon)) (Go-Ahead has Bluestar, Damory Coaches; More; Salisbury Reds; Unilink) and Reading Buses has, or about to have, three (Reading Buses, Newbury & District and ‘soon to be’ Courtney Buses); which with First Bus, Xelabus and Wheelers Travel make up the six main companies with the seventh bring Bournemouth based Yellow Buses who reach the western corner of Hampshire with their hourly route to New Milton. The other 27 companies listed comprise seven Community Transport operators, four coach companies, three taxi companies all of which operate a handful, if that, of infrequent tendered rural routes (some just one return journey in a week) and the remaining three operators in the list of 34 don’t currently run a bus route. Hardly the hot bed of bus competition offering “fragmented and fragile” bus routes Helen and Andy Burnham would have you believe. In fact, Hampshire has a tidy and attractive network of bus routes which is well used, and its tendered routes were overseen until his recent retirement by the hugely experienced and much respected Peter Shelley.

A couple of other points from Helen’s feature which could have done with a little more in depth research:

She stated “anyone can apply to set up a bus company in most of England. It only requires giving the local authority £60 and 28 days’ notice before applying to the traffic commissioner which regulates and licences buses.” Looks like she overlooked the small matter of obtaining a Certificate of Professional Competence and the rather hefty financial requirement to provide the necessary financial backing running into at least five figures to satisfy the Traffic Commissioner.

The feature wasn’t all bad news for deregulated buses though……

“So is everything better with buses in London?” it asked.

“Not everything. The quality of some services outside the capital exceed those in London: some operator’s offer free Wi-fi, better seats and charging points; and some routes can work out better value per mile.”

That’s good to see; it’s a shame this point didn’t feature more extensively – perhaps with an illustration of one of Stagecoach’s swish new double decks introduced in November 2017 on the subsidy-free route 64.

IMG_7748.jpgIt’s also a shame that instead of quoting historic passenger journeys: “London experienced years of growth from the late 1990s to 2014, while the number of journeys elsewhere slowly fell across the same period, with a sharper decline since the start of the decade”, a more up to date assessment of the situation since 2014 wasn’t included when the wheels have well and truly come off London’s growth as bus frequencies are now being continually cut in a desperate bid to square the financial circle of frozen fares, falling passenger numbers, increased journey times and less buses. Not a happy situation. “London versus” indeed.

IMG_7750.jpg

Roger French

Breich, Borders, Bike Buses and Berwick

Friday 3rd May 2019

IMG_6536.jpg

Finding myself in Glasgow at 7.30am yesterday morning (after my inaugural Caledonian Sleeper Mark 5 journey) I thought it would be an opportunity to continue the first-time experiences by taking a ride on the recently completed electrified ScotRail line to Edinburgh via Shotts and then catch a Borders Buses X62 down to Galashiels on which three new bike friendly Enviro400 double deckers have just been introduced. A trip on Borders Buses route 60 on to Berwick-upon-Tweed before returning south with LNER would complete the day’s travelling.

IMG_6462.jpgIt was unfortunate my Sleeper’s scheduled arrival into Glasgow Central at 0722 just missed the 0713 departure to Edinburgh via Shotts as that’s the only eastbound journey which calls at Breich at 0806, unsurprisingly one of Scotland’s least used stations (pictured below).

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 15.19.45.pngIndeed, passenger numbers were so few (on average one passenger boards a week) and such extensive work required for electrification at the station (estimated cost: £1.4 million) that Network Rail proposed the station’s closure, subject to consultation, in summer 2017.

IMG_9500.jpgNetwork Rail pointed out the station is some distance from the village of Breich (population: 300) and there’s little prospect of growing patronage. 

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 17.26.56.pngBut to great surprise and in the crazy world of railway funding, Network Rail did an about-turn agreeing to keep the station open and spending the money for the necessary upgrade. Not only that but ScotRail are forgoing the opportunity to speed up end-to-end journey times of their new electric stopping trains on this line by introducing a train stopping at Breich hourly (two-hourly on Sundays) from 19th May. Quite remarkable. Breich must be a leading contender to be the least used station with the most frequent train service, and the most expensive shelter and footbridge ever installed, which I spotted as my train sped through.

IMG_6489.jpgThere are two trains an hour between Glasgow and Edinburgh via Shotts; one’s a stopper (at eighteen stations along the route) and the other runs fast with just five stops. I caught the 0803 fast train which arrived in Edinburgh at 0911.

IMG_6468.jpgScotRail are already running at least one new Class 385 electric train on this route but I was pleased to have one last ride on a diesel while I still can, as the route should be fully electric when the new timetable begins in a fortnight.

IMG_6474.jpgBefore leaving Glasgow Central it was also nice to spot two Class 314 trains in the original smart SPT livery as these are becoming less common now they’re being withdrawn.

IMG_6470.jpg

After a short break in Edinburgh I wandered over to the Bus/Coach station to catch Borders Buses X62 as I’d been reading about the impressive new ADL Enviro400 double deck buses just introduced on the route with facilities to carry bicycles.

However, rather foolishly I hadn’t properly researched the X62 runs every half hour between Edinburgh, Peebles, Galashiels and Melrose on a five and a half hour cycle for each bus meaning eleven buses are needed to run the service. With only three new bike buses it perhaps wasn’t surprising a standard single deck bus pulled into the bus station for my 1020 departure.

IMG_6519.jpgI wasn’t the only one to have misunderstood Borders Buses’ positive PR messages about the new buses, which received widespread coverage in the media. As we headed out of Edinburgh a cyclist attempted to board the bus and our driver explained there was no chance on this bus.

IMG_6523.jpgHe would have a long wait too as the next bike bus we passed heading north into Edinburgh was down at Peebles at 1120 which wouldn’t be heading back south until the 1245 departure from Edinburgh some two and a half hours and after four more non-bike buses later.

IMG_6524.jpgAll credit to Borders Buses for picking up on my Tweet about that and providing a link to their website where there’s a list of journeys each day on which the three bike buses are allocated out of the eleven buses on the route.

IMG_E6560.jpg

From this I worked out I’d arrive into Galashiels just before a bike bus was due to arrive heading towards Edinburgh with a five minute layover.

IMG_6547.jpgThis gave me the opportunity to take a good look at the bus, thanks to the driver who showed me around and gave an explanation of how the two bikes are stored – one goes one way, and the other the other way, and both are strapped in. There’s a short video here on YouTube showing how it’s done.

IMG_6543.jpgThe buses are very impressive with comfortable and attractive seating, some tables, the usual usb and WiFi and have a tasteful and attractive Best Impressions designed livery.

IMG_6540.jpg

IMG_6542.jpgI was pleasantly surprised how slick the bike racks are; much more so than those which Stagecoach have installed on the open top buses on route 599 in the Lake District.

IMG_3146.jpg

IMG_3147.jpgThere’s a bit of a trend to include bike racks on buses; I spotted one on Stagecoach’s X74 between Glasgow and Dumfries a few weeks ago, but there they’re stored in the lockers under the top deck, which is perhaps more appropriate.

IMG_0266.jpgI do wonder whether bikes inside buses will lead to issues, especially while only a small percentage of the buses on a long inter-urban route have the facility. Apparently one older double deck on the X62 is to be converted and it’s also been pointed out you can use the Borders Buses App and refer to the bus tracking facility which shows where buses are in real time. You have to click on each icon to find the bike buses / they’re the ones with the word “Bike”.

But this is hardly very convenient (having to play a game like Battleships and clicking on icons until you find one saying ‘Bike’), and what do you do if there’s a couple of hours gap before one of these buses comes along?

The Company’s PR blurb says the new buses are “designed with commuters, local and touring cyclists in mind. The bike friendly service is aimed at minimising car journeys buy encouraging motorists to ditch the car and use bike and bus as an alternative and greener way to travel”.

So if I live just outside Peebles some way off the X62 route and work in Edinburgh, I cycle into Peebles and put my bike on the bus. Sounds a great idea. Except looking at next week’s vehicle allocation, commendably available online, buses are on different peak hour journeys on Monday and Friday compared to Tuesday to Thursday, so I’d need to switch my travel pattern accordingly. And then I’d be taking a chance two other “alternative and greener” commuters hadn’t got to the bike spaces before me.

It explains online that there are plans to increase the number of bike spaces from two to four by the end of the month; I’m puzzled how this will be achieved, but surely this is going to impinge on the space for buggies and shopping trolleys – something many operators are already finding a big challenge alongside ensuring a wheelchair, and even two wheelchairs can be carried if needed.

IMG_6544.jpgI’m also thinking it must be a real palaver if the bike on the inside, nearest the window, needs to be extracted before the one on the gangway side.

So, in summary, courageous decision to give it a try, but it’s a “NO” from me.

On the other hand it’s a big fat “YES” from me for the X62 route and its truly splendid scenery along the way. Once you get out of Edinburgh heading down to Peebles the countryside starts to become truly spectacular.

The Scottish Borders really are a brilliant area to explore and Borders Buses run some excellent routes including the less frequent 60 from Galashiels over to Berwick-Upon-Tweed which I caught after the X62.

IMG_6553.jpgIn fact from Peebles all the way through to east of Melrose on the X62 and 60 we travelled alongside the picturesque River Tweed and the scenery was magnificent.

IMG_6533.jpgI would imagine it’s even more spectacular from the top deck so made a note to return another time, use the App’s tracker and travel on one of the new buses … but I think I’ll leave my bike at home!

IMG_6557.jpgMy trip ended with a ride south down the East Coast Main Line with LNER. It was one of those journeys where you immediately spot the ‘family with a young kid from hell’ around a table for four in First Class. One of those families where it appears essential to have a tablet playing some inane tune or repetitive noise at full volume with associated game visuals to keep the child amused. The Train Manager between Berwick and Newcastle did her best on a few occasions to request them to turn the volume down, but was rudely told “what do you want a screaming child or the noise of this”. The relieving TM at Newcastle gave them a wide berth all the way to Kings Cross. I got out my headphones (kept for such times, which I’m finding regretfully are becoming more common on my travels) which successfully blocked out the noise and set about blog writing, magazine reading and window gazing.

We arrived ino Kings Cross just a few minutes late, passing my connecting Brighton bound Thameslink train between Stevenage and Finsbury Park so a quick transfer over to St Pancras and job done. Home for a few days rest. Blogging will resume in a week or so.

Roger French

Click for Leicester

Wednesday 1st May 2019

IMG_6344.jpgIt’s day three of Arriva’s latest Click venture introduced in Leicester on Monday, so I thought it was worth a trip to see how it’s panning out.

IMG_6210.jpgCorporates love to boast about being the first to do something; they salivate over ‘ground-breaking initiatives’ and associated hype reckoning it makes for a great PR story in the trade press. Only they think that of course; most readers just raises their eyes upwards, emoji style.

Sittingbourne was ArrivaClick’s DRT debut of course, so truly was a ‘first’; then came Liverpool which was cheekily promoted as the ‘first’ such DRT service in a city. When I pointed out Oxford Bus was up and running with their Pick-Me-Up service in a city the Click PR people countered their’s was the ‘first’ ‘Click’ in a city.

Now we have the ‘first’ Click to be funded by a Section 106 Agreement. This ‘ground breaking initiative’ has seen an organisation called Go Travel Solutions broker a deal between Arriva and Drummond Estate, the owners of a huge swathe of land on the western edge of Leicester on which developers have plans for a massive development of houses, two primary schools, a secondary school a “pioneering community centre” and employment park. The area is called New Lubbesthorpe; it’s south west of the Leicester Forest East service area west of the M1 as shown on the aerial view below.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.08.46.pngThe Developer’s brochures are full of all the essential buzzwords: “Arriva Click …. part of Drummond Estate’s drive to provide a sustainable way to work, live, learn and play for those living in New Lubbesthorpe’.

The area will naturally have “vibrant urban amenities, and it is important we provide sustainable transport options”.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.07.45.pngGo Travel Solutions reckon Click “will deliver shorter end-to-end journey times” (it doesn’t say shorter than what) and explains “customers request an executive minibus from their pick-up point at a time they want and to a destination of their choosing”. That’s the hype that’s consistently pedalled with these “innovative digitalised DRT services” but as I consistently find, the reality never quite matches up.

IMG_E6161.jpg

Take this morning for example. My train was due to arrive in Leicester at 1006, so knowing you can only pre-book Click journeys in half hour segments, I fiddled around with the App as I was leaving St Pancras at around 0900 to schedule a journey in the 1015-1045 slot from outside the station to take me to Barrett’s show house on the fledgling New Lubbesthorpe estate.

IMG_6205.jpgIt’s not entirely clear whether your journey is booked – sometimes I checked on the App, and it showed a “(1)” alongside “Next Journeys” but with no details given; other times I checked and the “(1)” had disappeared. I’ve learnt not to worry about these things, being retired it doesn’t matter whether I have to wait or not, but for someone intent on making an appointment, firstly a half hour’s window with no indication of a precise arrival time is pretty useless and secondly I’d want more definitive confirmation.

IMG_6295.jpgI left the station to find a mass of roadworks outside preventing any bus pick-ups and then received a text at 1010 advising my pick up was 12 minutes away.

IMG_E6365.jpgKen arrived at 1028. It’s an algorithm mystery of why he couldn’t have been dispatched by the software to pick me up at 1015 (the start of my half hour booked window slot) rather than the middle of it. All it had done was kept me waiting unnecessarily for twenty minutes – I could have been in a taxi and away instantly on arrival.

It wasn’t that Ken had been busy with other passengers; I was his very first pick up (ever) since he’d begun work at 0600 this morning! I’ve had a similar experience when using the journey schedule option in Sittingbourne.

IMG_6179.jpgWe had a right old kerfuffle with the pick up too; with Ken passing the App’s designated pick up point in Campbell Street just before the station, and instead headed down narrow Station Street (there he goes pictured above) which is a dead-end and necessitated much skillful manoeuvring to turn round and get going.

IMG_6296.jpg

IMG_6180.jpgIt turns out this was Ken’s first day on Click and I was his first passenger. He’s based at Arriva’s Hinckley garage and drives on the big bus rota but had been asked to help out on Click, also based at Hinckley, for today and he was already enjoying the contrast; not least being directed by a SatNav on a tablet rather than a duty card and timetable. Even more interesting was the SatNav’s habit of routing him the wrong way down one-way streets in the centre of Leicester!

IMG_6192.jpg There’s no expense spared when it comes to transport access to New Lubbesthorpe. A brand new access road has been built over the M1 (we’re approaching the flyover pictured below) ….

IMG_6190.jpg…. which Ken pointed out includes twenty-two road humps to slow you down ….

IMG_6194.jpg…. as you approach the area’s planned central node where the first primary school is under construction, and due to open in September.

IMG_6195.jpgIMG_6207.jpgI also spotted the main roundabout on the new access road was sporting a Click advert as we passed by. Nice thought.

IMG_6193.jpg

Arriva have no doubt been canny in costing a ‘bells and whistles’ Click service that’s funded by the Developers. Apparently there are five vehicles out on the road seven days a week from 0600 to 2300 necessitating a rota of fifteen drivers’ jobs.

With such extensive vehicle availability and few homes currently built and occupied it’s not surprising my journeys today were soon fulfilled with drivers allocated strategic parking spots throughout the Click operating area just waiting for a booking.

As I’ve commented previously, the problem with these DRT services is, the moment they become more popular with more bookings, the more the risk is waiting time for a vehicle to arrive will increase. The luxury of having drivers like Ken hanging around for four and a half hours waiting for me to turn up is not what can be called “a sustainable transport solution”.

I picked up a leaflet aimed at new residents giving details of some hefty financial inducements to give Arriva Click a try. There’s “£10 free credit” for every adult moving in as well as two redemptions of “£100 credit for just £10” (or “£50 for £5”) and a permanent offer of 5% off weekly tickets. I tried to sign up but unsurprisingly needed to declare plot numbers and other information I was unable to blag!

IMG_E6366.jpgWhen these freebies run out it will be interesting to see how many residents opt to pay the £4.50 a ride it cost me for my travels today. And, of course, there are no concessions for seniors (although New Lubbesthorpe looks as though its target market is a younger generation and families) … but there aren’t child rate prices on ArrivaClick either.

The journey from Leicester station to the edge of New Lubbesthorpe took half an hour but my arrival was about an hour after I’d got off the train what with all the waiting time and I’m not convinced the algorithm routed us along the most direct journey. At one point Ken mistakingly went past a slip road we needed and we almost ended up on the M69 before turning back.

IMG_6198.jpgOn arrival Ken and I (and probably the algorithm too – if algorithms have yet been invented to experience feelings) were both surprised to find a resident who’d booked a ride was waiting our arrival and ready to be whisked away. Ken had his second passenger of the day.

IMG_6206.jpgMeanwhile I took a walk around the development so far, which is very much in its early stages, and noticed that Barrett Homes (one of the house builders involved) has a smart show home and reception area with ample “Visitor Parking”. Old habits die hard.

IMG_6209.jpgIt was time for my next trip. Down to Narborough in the extreme south of Click’s area and the nearest station to New Lubbesthorpe (on the Cross Country hourly route from Leicester to Nuneaton and Birmingham).

IMG_E6208.jpgThe App told me Paul would arrive in 9 minutes which was just as well as the designated pick up point was a good 7 minute walk away from where I’d wandered to. Yet again destroying the myth that DRT picks you up at your desired pick up point; oh no it doesn’t; it’s at the algorithm’s desired pick up point.

IMG_6212.jpgI made it to the designated spot only to see Paul disappearing where I hadn’t expected – but he did a ‘back double’ and reappeared down another dead-end. He explained the SatNav doesn’t think it’s a dead-end but as a local, he knows better and thwarted the algorithm.

IMG_6214.jpgLike Ken, Paul was a very friendly, normally Arriva big bus, driver who’s helping out in Click’s early days and he was clearly enjoying the change. He’d already had a passenger on board this morning and had carried three during yesterday’s shift, so not bad going. It took us just 12 minutes to reach Narborough but still cost £4.50, as my half hour journey from Leicester had done.

IMG_6283.jpgI was just in time to catch a late running Cross Country train back into Leicester and decided to give up on trying to find where buses for the city centre were picking up during the roadworks hiatus and walked instead.

IMG_6311.jpgIMG_6301.jpgA quick visit to both St Margaret’s and Haymarket bus stations observing the contrasting attitudes to timetable provision between Arriva ……IMG_6309.jpg

IMG_6310.jpgIMG_6304.jpgIMG_6307.jpg…..(the very helpful Arriva man in the Travel Centre seems to have thwarted official policy of not printing timetables [to save the planet], aside from the 44/44A, by printing a few of each to hand out from behind the counter – the contrast with yesterday in the Lake District couldn’t be more marked) …. and First Leicester who were displaying a colourful selection of all their city routes…..

IMG_6326.jpgIMG_6325.jpg….. and I thought I’d catch a standard Arriva bus out to the Fosse Shopping Park adjacent to the M1 and full of retail sheds that are popular with browsers before they go home to buy online. Still, browsing is good business for bus companies, thankfully, and I’m sure residents of New Lubbesthorpe will be taking a Click to ride over there as it’s within the designated area.

IMG_6332.jpg

Route 50 operates to Fosse Shopping Park on its way to Narborough every 20 minutes and as luck would have it I was just eight or nine minutes from the 1305 departure. The bus arrived in good time and we loaded up with around twenty passengers and headed off, taking around 25 minutes for the journey. I’d bought a Plusbus which, with Railcard discount, cost just £2.30 – just half the price of a Click journey – and of course would give me unlimited journeys around Leicester all day (but not as far as New Lubbesthorpe or Narborough). The contrast with Click couldn’t be more stark.

IMG_6327.jpgArriving at Fosse I was impressed to order my third Click journey to take me back to the station and be given a pick up point just around the corner from where I’d got off the 50, and a pick up time just five minutes away.

IMG_6336.jpgExcept when I walked round the corner I realised I’d stumbled upon one of the designated waiting areas for Click vehicles to hang out with two languishing in the lay-by opposite Asda.

IMG_6338.jpgI ascertained Darren, my driver, was one of the two and we were soon away heading back to Leicester city centre for the station.

Darren had been with Arriva and it’s predecessors for nineteen years and had taken up the offer of transferring permanently over to Click duties. He’d been with the service since Monday and I was his thirteenth passenger. He had high hopes for Click’s success and thought it an ideal compromise between a standard bus and a taxi, with the fare priced accordingly.

IMG_6361.jpg

Encouragingly I heard much positivity about Click from all three drivers today; they all cited Liverpool as being a rip roaring success with various figures being banded about: “500 passengers a day” “26 buses now on the road” and even “100 buses on the road”.

(I made a mental note to head up to Liverpool again soon and check out this “too good to be true” positivity.)

IMG_6341.jpgThere’s no doubt in New Lubbesthorpe and its Drummond Estate owner, Arriva have found a willing partner with a strong business interest in handing a large sum of money over in return for an “innovative sustainable transport solution” to help achieve their development objectives.

To that extent this must be considered a success. Whether it will actually meet the transport needs of New Lubbesthorpe’s new residents without frustrating waits and uncertainty over pick up times as well as potentially indirect journeys once more passengers come on board, only time will tell. I reckon once hundreds more houses are built five buses over such a large operating area isn’t going to work, but perhaps there are plans for expansion and higher funding.

However, I couldn’t help reflecting that deploying five buses on a conventional limited stop service between Leicester city centre and New Lubbesthorpe serving the key attractions (Fosse, Hospital, sporting venues etc) with an hour’s round trip time therefore providing a 12 minute frequency would probably fit the bill for residents – but then that wouldn’t be a ‘groundbreaking initiative’ and hardly make for a trade press story. Just saying.

As I’ve commented before, these new DRT services are nothing new by the way – indeed I spotted a Dial-a-Ride bus laying over in St Margaret’s bus station!

IMG_6302.jpg

Roger French

I won’t let a software glitch beat me

Monday 1st April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3352.jpg    IMG_3353.jpg

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

IMG_E3392.jpg

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

IMG_3354.jpg

And waited.

IMG_3366.jpg

And waited.

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

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

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

IMG_3378.jpg

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

IMG_3379.jpg

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

IMG_3382.jpg

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

IMG_3384.jpg

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

IMG_3157.jpg

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

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

IMG_3372.jpg

IMG_3371.jpg

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

IMG_3389.jpg

Roger French

4,200 bus seats for Edinburgh

Tuesday 19th March 2019

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

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

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

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

IMG_2493.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2362.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2390.jpg

Roger French

Long live the HST

Monday 18th March 2019

During my initial trip on a brand new Class 800 train when they began running between Paddington and Bristol/Cardiff at the end of 2017 my first thought was to lament the end of the luxurious comfortable seats GWR had introduced in first class in HST trains the new IEP units were replacing.

IMG_2056.jpgI needn’t have worried. Fast forward nineteen months and here I am writing this very blog sitting in one of those self same seats in amazing luxurious comfort on one of the first-to-be-refurbished HSTs forming ScotRail’s ambitious ‘Inter7City’ project.

IMG_2033.jpgLike everything rolling stock wise on the railways this project is running hopelessly late due to ambitious timescales by the company doing the refurbs and no doubt more work being found to be done once the units are stripped back.

I’d been trying to track down the sole unit so far in passenger service, 43169, since its introduction last October but been thwarted on previous trips north of the border by initial spasmodic appearances in service between Edinburgh and Aberdeen and my living nearly 500 miles away!

IMG_2035.jpgHearing a second refurbished unit had finally arrived for service with ScotRail seemed like a good opportunity to head up to Edinburgh and bag a ride. ScotRail have helpfully tweeted the train diagram for the refurbed train which includes an intensive day’s running between Edinburgh and Aberdeen and I settled on catching the 1230 from Edinburgh and the return journey leaving Aberdeen at 1600 this afternoon.

When Thameslink began running intensified services through the ‘core’ a wag observed it’s possible a delay down on the Brighton line could have repercussions through the tightly pathed East Coast line with knock on effects as far as Aberdeen or Inverness. I had a slight taste of that phenomenon this morning when a Horsham to Peterborough train in front of my 0800 Kings Cross to Edinburgh came to a stop north of Huntingdon for twenty minutes which, to cut a long story short, meant a 16 minute late arrival into Edinburgh at 1236 and missing my admittedly tight connection for Aberdeen.

IMG_1946.jpgStill, at least it gave me an opportunity to make a direct comparison between a two and a half hour journey up to Aberdeen on a Class 170 and a return journey south on the refurbished HST.

IMG_2007.jpgThe first thing to note is you just wouldn’t believe the HST is over twice the age of the 170 which first appeared at the turn of this century rather than the mid to late 1970s birth of the HST. It just goes to show brand new is not necessarily always better (especially when it comes to trains).

The HST is in a different league power wise to the turbo charged 170s. I’m no expert in engineering matters but as a passenger I know when I’m on a classy train suited to ‘inter city’ work and when I’m on a train which never quite seems man enough for the job.

The comparison between the quality ambiance offered by travelling first class in the HST compared to the 170 is stark. Aside from the already mentioned seats in the HST you have your own carriage with 32 seats well spaced out and all nicely lined up with windows together with a refreshment buffet area and luggage rack. This adjoins a small galley kitchen where hot soups and drinks are prepared and sandwiches kept as well as a stylish counter for those travelling standard class to make their purchases.

IMG_2044.jpgIMG_2067.jpgWhereas in a Class 170 you’re cooped up in one of nine seats at either end of the train immediately behind the driver’s cab with the associated traction buzzing noises. It doesn’t shout luxury. It must be an optical illusion but a Class170 just seems narrower than an HST too! The seats certainly are.

IMG_2010.jpgOn the way up to Aberdeen it took the trolley man almost an hour to reach me in the front first class compartment and offered complimentary tea/coffee and a biscuit/cake. On the HST one of two refreshment hosts was passing through the first class carriage almost immediately on leaving Aberdeen offering hot soup with a roll as well as tea/coffee and sandwiches in addition to encouraging a visit to the help yourself buffet area for a wide selection of biscuits, cold drinks and fruit pots. If I’d travelled at breakfast I’d have been offered a hot filled roll, porridge or other delights.

IMG_2047.jpg

IMG_2048.jpgI took the opportunity to also sample standard class seats which have been retrimmed into a smart ScotRail moquette and although are still to the high back design used in GWR days are comfortable by modern day seat standards with adequate leg room. More so than the Class 170.

IMG_2073.jpgIMG_2072.jpgI didn’t count but there must also be many more standard class seats with three whole carriages worth compared to the three coaches in a Class 170 set which also includes the two first class sections at either end. There also seemed to be many more tables in an HST – I counted ten in one coach with slightly fewer in the carriage with the accessible toilet.

A cyclist on board mentioned there is only a rack for two cycles and when they’re both in situ it’s a bit tricky to access one to remove it. He didn’t reckon there are any spaces in the power car.

IMG_2070.jpgObviously the refurbishment has included sliding doors and finally doing away with opening windows to lean through to open the door by the outside handle – which is a bit of a shame but inevitable in today’s safety conscious world.

IMG_2071.jpgTaking an HST south from Aberdeen, as I’m doing now, is nothing new. LNER (and it’s predecessors) have been running them on this line for decades, but what is revolutionary and hugely welcome is ScotRail have obviously given a lot of thought into how to make train travel really feel good with great attention to detail in this refurbishment notwithstanding these trains are forty odd years old.

IMG_2053.jpgThe eventual plan is to run refurbished HSTs between Aberdeen, as well as Inverness, to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow taking in Dundee, Perth and Stirling along the way (hence the 7 cities). Based on today’s experience I’m confident it will be a huge success in attracting more passengers and creating a great impression of train travel.

Sadly it looks like it’s going to be quite a while before all the refurbishments are completed, but it will definitely be well worth the wait.

Roger French

An Anglian Adventure

Thursday 14th March 2019

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

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

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

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

This blog summarises my findings.

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

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

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

IMG_8587.jpg

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

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

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

2. A mixed First Bus bag

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

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

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

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

IMG_1579.jpg

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

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

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

3. Active Anglian Independents

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

4. Suffolk County Council

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

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

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

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

5 Community Transport

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. A couple of final thoughts

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

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

Roger French