New sleeper turns into a bad dream

Tuesday 25th June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

Two cheers for TfL

Saturday 15th June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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….. and timetable cases……

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So, another job well executed there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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… has the old style route index….

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

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

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

Let’s see.

Roger French

Southend Airport evicts new bus route

Friday 14th June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

“Easier to travel” … with fewer buses.

Wednesday 5th June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Roger French

Breich, Borders, Bike Buses and Berwick

Friday 3rd May 2019

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Roger French