I won’t let a software glitch beat me

Monday 1st April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3352.jpg    IMG_3353.jpg

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

IMG_E3392.jpg

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

IMG_3354.jpg

And waited.

IMG_3366.jpg

And waited.

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

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

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

IMG_3378.jpg

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

IMG_3379.jpg

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

IMG_3382.jpg

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

IMG_3384.jpg

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

IMG_3157.jpg

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

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

IMG_3372.jpg

IMG_3371.jpg

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

IMG_3389.jpg

Roger French

4,200 bus seats for Edinburgh

Tuesday 19th March 2019

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

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

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

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

IMG_2493.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2362.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2390.jpg

Roger French

Long live the HST

Monday 18th March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2047.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

An Anglian Adventure

Thursday 14th March 2019

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

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

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

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

This blog summarises my findings.

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

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

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

IMG_8587.jpg

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

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

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

2. A mixed First Bus bag

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

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

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

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

IMG_1579.jpg

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

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

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

3. Active Anglian Independents

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

4. Suffolk County Council

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

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

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

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

5 Community Transport

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. A couple of final thoughts

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

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

Roger French

 

 

 

 

 

Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 2.

Thursday 21st February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8914.jpg

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

IMG_8903.jpg

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

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

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

IMG_8858.jpg

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

IMG_9226.jpg

IMG_9227.jpg

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

1. The ‘Brighton Three Bridges fast’ conundrum.

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

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

IMG_8849.jpg

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

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

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

IMG_9246.jpg

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

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

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

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

3. Coordinate roadworks and restrict parking

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

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

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

IMG_9261.jpg

4. Southern ‘marketing’ shoot themselves in the foot

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

5. Unrealistic journey times

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

6. Presentation

IMG_8951.jpg

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

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

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

IMG_9241.jpg7. Too technical looking

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

8. The price bugbear

IMG_8865.jpg

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

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

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

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

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

 

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

Roger French

Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 1.

Sunday 17th February 2019

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 15.00.18.pngIt’s been publicised for over a year; preparations have been going on behind the scenes for much longer than that. It was originally planned to happen last October. Now we’re finally on the cusp of the biggest rail replacement ever as the nine day Brighton Main Line closure is hours away from its first real test. Tomorrow, Monday, heralds a five day working week with no trains on one of the country’s busiest commuter main lines between Brighton and Lewes and Three Bridges.

Weekend closures are nothing new for Brighton line commuters south of Three Bridges. Thirteen of the eighteen weekends between 5/6 January and 4/5 May 2019 are marked down for closures to some extent. Weekend leisure travellers are well used to bus replacements or long detours via Littlehampton over the last few years. But this is the first time regular weekday commuters will be hit with journey times to London typically more than doubling from around an hour to two and a quarter hours or more.

The original plan was to close the lines in two school half term weeks, last October 2018 as well as February 2019, but after the May 2018 timetable meltdown rail top brass realised that a level of disruption of such scale coming weeks after a summer of chaos and cancellations would break the resolve of even the most hardened Brighton commuter. The October closure was scrapped and replaced with additional weekend closures.

With reliability returning to the line during the late summer and autumn and more journeys added back to the timetable in the December 2018 change, it was felt, not unreasonably, that the February half term shut down should go ahead.

The work is being promoted as part of the Brighton Main Line Improvement Project which was bequeathed £300m by the Department for Transport for a ‘Thameslink Resilience Programme’. This particular work is grabbing £67m of that pot and will see tunnels relined to prevent leaks, signalling upgrades, replacement and upgrades of conductor rails, shoring up cuttings and embankments, fence replacements as well as deep cleans at the closed stations.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 15.05.50.pngThe Project team are regularly tweeting photographs from up and down the line of the vast orange army hard at work already, just in case any of us were wondering what was going on. Expect the rail industry PR machine to be in overdrive over the next week with more amazing statistics of what’s being achieved. I can’t help having a cynical smile at the use of language for projects of this kind. If I get an engineer in to fix a new part to my washing machine, I don’t call it ‘improvement works’ I call it a repair. The norm should be a railway that works properly. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘improvement works’ to reach that status. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking after a nine day closure as well as umpteen weekends of disruption I don’t just want to know that the advertised service is now ‘improved’ as in it’s going to be as it should be anyway. I’d have preferred ‘improvement’ to mean having more trains and better comfort on board. These are what we used to call ‘engineering works’.

But you can’t argue with the concept of a nine day closure being better than having countless weekends of disruption throughout the year (although it seems like we have close to that anyway) and I can see the logic in ‘blockade management’ for efficient completion of the work. And it makes sense to choose half term week.

So what can we expect tomorrow?

IMG_8798.jpgHaving had a look round the Three Bridges Bus Hub (to give it its technical name) today I must say I’m mightily impressed. GTR and Network Rail have definitely pulled out all the stops (well actually they’ve put a number of stops in – and all clearly labelled too! More on that shortly). Chastened by appalling publicity for weekend rail replacements which went disastrously wrong between Redhill and Gatwick Airport last year with insufficent buses and staff, this time round there won’t be problems because of a lack of resources. There are high viz wearing ‘helpers’ and buses and coaches everywhere.

IMG_8797.jpgThe numbers tell the story. Around 250 buses and coaches, 500 bus drivers and control staff and an extra 300 temporary agency staff have been hired for the duration. That’s bigger than the whole of Reading Buses as a bus company, for example.

IMG_8808.jpg

IMG_8809.jpgThe Three Bridges Bus Hub is an impressive bus station under a substantial marquee with seven bus stops and an extra one spare and all departure points are clearly labelled with destinations served.

IMG_8795.jpgThere’s seating, toilets and a refreshment area. There’s a counter with activity books for children and free giveaways for adults. There are staff aplenty to guide you every step of the way. And they were all smiling and looked to be enjoying their work.

IMG_8805.jpgIMG_8804.jpgIMG_8807.jpgA footbridge and covered walkway has been constructed to take passengers leaving trains and heading for bus connections over the roadway to avoid bus and pedestrian conflict, but if flat crossing is needed, there are marshalls on hand to help. I spotted staff happily carrying bags and suitcases for passengers.

IMG_8796.jpgIMG_8813.jpgIMG_8841.jpgThere was even a police presence outside the station directing traffic. Yes, I know! Well, actually they were preventing ‘kiss and drop’ passengers clogging up the normal bus stop right outside.

IMG_8843.jpgRather ominously as you enter the walkway to the footbridge and over to the marquee you’re greeted with “queuing time” posters and the first one warns of an hour’s delay! Crikey, I really really hope tomorrow doesn’t see that contingency being needed.

IMG_8790.jpgIMG_8792.jpgIMG_8794.jpgIMG_8800.jpgIMG_8802.jpgMuch thought has obviously gone into planning the replacement bus routes, but the planners seem to be following a principle of lowering expectations and aiming to over deliver. That philosophy works in normal business but I’m not sure it’s the best policy at times of serious disruption to the norm. For example, Twitter was alive on Friday with complaints there are no fast buses between Brighton and Three Bridges. And the publicly available information indeed confirms this as being the case. But behind the scenes there are fast buses, it’s just that they’re trying to encourage Brightonians heading for Gatwick Airport, East Croydon and London to use the diverted trains via Littlehampton and the associated extended journey time, rather than over filling the buses up the A23.

There’s a logic to this, as you can’t possibly replicate the capacity of a Class 700 Thameslink train or a 12 coach Class 387 Gatwick Express leaving Brighton at 7.30am with the same capacity on buses and coaches. Spreading the load is a good idea. But I do think it would be better to be honest with passengers, as they’ll soon find out the options and realise fast buses are running, and will probably be a quicker option and act accordingly and be scornful of the lack of clear information.

For my own home station, Hassocks, there are no fast buses advertised to Three Bridges yet there are, as you discover when you get to Three Bridges. It’s inconsistencies like this which annoy people.

IMG_8785.jpg

IMG_8806.jpgPosters at stations advising of journey times are helpful, but again they’re giving rather pessimistic times compared to what reality will be. It’s also a pity such posters weren’t available weeks ago, rather than just appearing on Friday. We’ve been told to “plan ahead” by on train announcements played out every hour for the past six months yet how could you have properly planned ahead without such vital information as journey times?

My other bugbear is the lack of compensation for passengers. There’s a section at the back of the comprehensive ‘Employee Handbook’ given to the hundreds of staff involved in the project called ‘Delay Repay’ which states coldly “There will be NO ADDITIONAL COMPENSATION for customers” (yes, it’s even in block capitals). This is a poor show. GTR must be receiving compensation as part of its management contract from the DfT for the extra costs being incurred during this period. The many bus and coach companies involved in providing the 250 replacement vehicles will all be making a profit margin. The coffee and tea vendors, the marquee providers, the footbridge installers, the agency staff providers, the contractors for Network Rail, all the suppliers of the equipment being used to replace track, signals, tunnel roofs and conductors rails, the sub contractors, the sub sub contractors will ALL be making a nice tidy profit over these nine days. Yet the passengers – the ones who are actually being inconvenienced going about their daily lives – get nothing. We’re not even allowed to use the cheaper Thameslink ticket on a Southern train arriving at Three Bridges after an hours additional journey only to find it’s that brand and colour of train that’s departing first. This really is shameful and penny pinching on a £67m project.

It would have done wonders for goodwill if a token five per cent price reduction had been introduced for the week, or a flat £1 off ticket prices from stations affected plus some reimbursement for season ticket holders.

As it is it will only be the most hardened commuters who I suspect will be out tomorrow. The talk on the platforms and trains last week was of people taking the week off, working from home or staying up in London for the duration. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up quieter than a Christmas to New Year period and many of those buses and coaches, some of which have come all the way from the Go-Ahead Group’s Gateshead based bus company, Go North East, will not all be needed nor will queueing times stretch back to that 1 hour mark!

We’ll soon see in Part 2 of this blog…….

Roger French

Three month Meridian countdown

Saturday 16th February 2019

There’s another rail construction project approaching its deadline for completion – the opening of a brand new train station in London.

Meridian Water is due to welcome its first passengers coinciding with the summer timetable change on 19th May. That’s just twelve weeks away so I thought I’d pop along for a sneak peep through the hoardings and see if it’s worth ordering the cupcakes and balloons for the opening ceremony.

IMG_8522.jpg

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 20.56.32.pngMeridian Water is a huge long term (twenty years) £6bn regeneration scheme in the south east corner of the London Borough of Enfield, in an area east of the Edmonton to Tottenham corridor between the North Circular Road and Northumberland Park where a massive Tesco Extra, IKEA and other retail sheds dominate the landscape to the east of the rail line. The Master Plan boasts of 10,000 homes and “thousands of high quality new jobs” benefiting the local, regional and national economy.

Commendably the project has kicked off with construction of the new Meridian Water station which began in November 2017. It’s situated on the line from Liverpool Street and Stratford via Tottenham Hale to Bishops Stortford, Cambridge and Stansted Airport. The location of the new station can be seen under construction on the above satellite image just to the west of Tesco Extra which is in the centre.

The two track railway is being enhanced with a third track which will run from the south through Tottenham Hale and Northumberland Park stations (where London bound platforms are being widened into new island platforms) and ends in a new “turn back” facility at Meridian Water.

IMG_8475.jpgThe new station is just south of Angel Road station (as seen above and in the satellite image just north of the North Circular Road). Angel Road is famed for not only being London’s least used station but also having one of the most desolate and uninviting entrances. The station will shut when Meridian Water opens which is effectively a replacement station in a more convenient location for the development.

The extra track will enable a more frequent service with extra trains starting at Meridian Water to Stratford and Liverpool Street as the development builds over the next couple of decades.

IMG_8542.jpgIt’ll be a slow build though as construction of the first 725 homes on land to the west of the new station (see satellite image above and photograph below) in an area endearingly called Meridian Angel isn’t due to start until next year. These new homes will be in the shadow of Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground seen in the distance – another late running construction project!

IMG_8543.jpgMeanwhile those few passengers who currently use Angel Road (pictured below looking south) and wander off to their homes sited north west and west of the current station will have a much longer and circuitous walk to and from the new site.

IMG_8472.jpgI thought it was worth visiting Angel Road to savour the dying embers of London’s iconic least used station before it closes. It doesn’t inspire, being adjacent to various scrap metal dealers and assorted light industry. As you can see from the following photographs, even the Samaritans have given up presenting a decent image. Talk about down at heel. The only bright spot was a notice pointing the way to a telephone (goodness knows why in this smartphone era) but even that proved elusive – I couldn’t find it. It’s safe to say Angel Road won’t be missed for its ambience and Meridian Water can’t come soon enough.

IMG_8469.jpg

IMG_8453.jpg

IMG_8456.jpg

IMG_8457.jpg

IMG_8458

IMG_8460IMG_8461.jpg

IMG_8462.jpg

IMG_8474.jpgBut is three months soon enough for the work still left to do in finishing off? I know these things always look as though they’ll never be finished in time and all of a sudden, the last bit of tarmac is laid, the paint is touched up, the windows polished and it’s all fine for the opening, but when I visited this week, the site had the usual handful of hard-hat-industrial-boots-orange-high-viz wearing construction gang present but I didn’t detect any sense of urgency as they wandered around the site sauntering up and down the vast number of steps the new station will offer its new passengers who’ll certainly keep fit to and from the platforms on their daily commute.

IMG_8558.jpg

IMG_8536.jpg

IMG_8540.jpgI may have missed it, but I didn’t spot any easy pedestrian access across from Tesco Extra and IKEA with no crossing facility at the very busy adjacent traffic light controlled junction. I also had to walk along a muddy grass verge with no footpath approaching the new site from the south. However the architects visionary mock up computer generated image shows a utopian world of just pedestrians and cyclists approaching the station and that busy junction has completely vanished.

IMG_8523.jpg

Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 20.45.05.pngThe mock up also shows the first 750 homes (as in blocks of flats) all fully built with lots of potential passengers flocking to the station but with construction of those homes not starting until next year I’m thinking it may take a year or two for Meridian Water to climb into a busier passenger usage league. There has to be a strong chance Meridian Water’s first year will see it retaining Angel Road’s crown as the least used station in London … but with the newest and most pristine facilities!

I’m far from an expert on construction projects but it looked to me as though there’s quite a lot of ‘finishing touches’ still to be done, and then there’ll be the usual rail bureaucracy hoops to go through before the station can open (think Kenilworth) so I wouldn’t put serious money on a 19th May opening judging by what I saw this week. Still at least Angel Road can live on a bit longer, if necessary.

Further south down the line, Northumberland Park is also wrapped in hoardings with a new footbridge access over the extra track looking ready to open as is Tottenham Hale, which is undergoing a complete transformation including a new and expanded ticket hall for the Victoria Line, which I can very confidently say won’t be ready for 19th May. As the photograph below shows, there’s quite a bit of fitting out yet to do!

IMG_8447.jpgIt will be good for the credibility of rail project deliverability if Meridian Water actually does meet its promised 19th May opening date, but it’s not looking hopeful.

Roger French

Rosso ride round round up

Sunday 10th February 2019

January 2018 saw Rossendale Borough Council become the latest in the dwindling band of local authority municipal owners to sell off its bus company. Transdev Blazefield were the successful buyers and twelve months on seemed a good time to have a look around the network and see what’s been happening.

Quite a lot is the answer.

In fact, a hell of a lot is the answer.

It was as recently as 2014 the much welcomed Best Impressions ‘Rosso’ makeover ousted the somewhat dated Rossendale Buses brand to brighten up the streets of Rossendale, Rochdale and Bury. I remember thinking how fresh and transformational the new bright red livery with its white and orange Rosso logo looked among a sea of First Bus light grey, faded pink and dull purple on a trip to the area a few years ago.

IMG_7949.jpgYet now, less than five years later the Rosso brand looks underwhelming compared to the new colourful route brands (again designed by Best Impressions) launched during the first busy twelve months of Transdev Blazefield’s ownership.

Tottington Line was the first attractive new brand applied to a fleet of off the shelf sparkly new Streetlite buses introduced last April on route 469 shuttling up and down on the efficiently timed route between Bury and Tottington. I took a ride in its first week of operation last year and was very impressed. Ten months on it’s still looking fresh, smart and as welcoming as it did during launch week.

Three further new route brands were introduced last year; one on a fleet of new Versas for the 464 between Rochdale, Bacup, Rawtenstall and Accrington, another applied to the six Streetlites bought by Rosso in 2016 for the Rochdale to Littleborough circulars 456/458 branded as Lakeline while the third new higher profile route brand, ‘red4’, is for the Bury to Ramsbottom route.

IMG_8033.jpg

IMG_7897.jpg

IMG_7984.jpgHollingsworth Lake on Lakeline 458 is a particularly lovely spot and all the better for now having a high profile branded bus route to make it stand out.

IMG_7888.jpgA recent revamp of the route includes an extra two buses an hour running direct as a 457 between Littleborough and Rochdale competing with First Bus route 457 (and 454) at four buses an hour along the same road.

IMG_7898.jpgTwo more attractive brands were introduced last month: ‘trax’ for Bury to Rochdale routes 467/468 and ‘irwell line’ for the Bury to Rawtenstall and on to either Blackburn (481) or Burnley (483) routes.

IMG_7974.jpg‘trax’ uses four year old Streetlites transferred over from Burnley in an attractive orange livery while ‘irwell line’ has refurbished ‘as new’ Wright Eclipse bodied Volvo B7RLE which belie their twelve years age.

IMG_7997.jpgIf you didn’t look at the registration plate you’d think you were in a new bus, helped by the excellent treatment of the interiors which all incorporate attractive easy to read maps, ticket prices and useful succinct information.

IMG_8040.jpg

IMG_8057.jpg

IMG_7982.jpg

IMG_7880.jpgThe key to successful cove panels is keep the message short and simple – these are exemplars of the very best.

IMG_7881.jpgBy designing the interiors to a common house style it becomes obvious that the attractive new brands are part of the same ‘company family’.IMG_8059.jpgMy day’s travels round the Rosso network yesterday saw some excellent customer service skills from drivers, impressive punctual timekeeping and displays of attractive promotional timetable leaflets at bus stations making for a welcome contrast with TfGM’s bog standard black and white print outs.

IMG_7994.jpgIMG_7993.jpgHowever a word of praise for TfGM for their bus stations which really are the business. Relative recent builds at Rochdale and Bolton are hugely impressive – literally huge too. Together with Bury all three sites visited yesterday had manned information desks and a range of other facilities including retail and toilets.

IMG_7963.jpgIMG_7966.jpgIMG_7967.jpgIMG_8050.jpgIt’s just a shame the toilets seem harder to enter and exit than Alcatraz! Still, it is only 20p a time but with no change given you need a pocketful of coins these cold winter days requiring multiple visits in a day (!) – not easy in a contactless world!

IMG_7964.jpgAnd of course these bus stations are in the Premier League compared to the appalling relic from the 1970s bottom of League Division 2 bus station in Rawtenstall. Thank goodness there’s finally news the Borough Council have plans for a replacement opposite the current dilapidated site. As Michael Watson tweeted, the current relic needs shipping straight to Beamish Museum! It’s not just past it’s prime, it’s “pushing up the daisies” as John Cleese would observe.

IMG_8027.jpgIMG_8031.jpgIMG_8029.jpgIMG_8032.jpgFrom my travels yesterday it’s evident Rosso has experienced an exciting first twelve months under Transdev Blazefield ownership and if I know CEO Alex Hornby* it’ll be an even more exciting (and ‘amazing’) second year ahead.

I have absolutely no inside knowledge or even any hint of possibilities but reports First Bus are seeking bids for their Manchester operations will surely be of great interest to Transdev, not least the operations between Bolton, Bury and Rochdale, which are a perfect fit for Rosso’s ‘South East Lancashire’ network.

IMG_7953.jpgHowever there are two counter considerations. While Manchester was noticeably booming when I arrived late on Friday afternoon the same can’t be said for the area north of the conurbation. Talk about the ‘death of the High Street’ is old hat for Rochdale. Closed shutters outnumbered open retail units when I visited some years ago before Metrolink got extended beyond the rail station and it didn’t look much different riding the tram down to the town centre yesterday.

IMG_7871.jpgExcept to my pleasant surprise I was encouraged to see work well underway on ‘Rochdale Riverside’ adjacent to the transport interchange and tram terminus.

IMG_7872.jpgThis “will create the prime core in the heart of the town centre” including “a M&S department store, retail and leisure units, kiosks, 6 screen cinema and an adjoining car park around inspiring public realm”.

IMG_7908.jpgIf it achieves what a similar development called ‘The Rock’ has done in revitalising neighbouring Bury, then it could be the saviour of Rochdale as a place to visit. Good luck Rochdale Riverside.

The second factor is of course TfGM’s desire to introduce bus franchising which they’re currently spending an obscene amount of money (£11 million) investigating. Interestingly Mayor Andy Burnham has not actually fully committed himself to such a regime change so it’s all to play for as his initial mayoral term marches on a pace, ending in just over twelve months time.

The bus operators are fighting a rearguard action talking up plans for huge investment in electric buses (Stagecoach) and working together under a new ‘one bus’ brand to make it easier for passengers to navigate their way around.

I was expecting to see the new logo emblazoned across all colours of buses ousting the beloved (!) corporate Arriva, First and Stagecoach brands, but instead espied it among a plethora of window notice overload on a First Manchester bus. Surely that’s not it?

IMG_8003.jpgUnsurprisingly I didn’t see it sullying any Rosso buses from Transdev Blazefield and don’t expect to. Indeed it might just be that an opportunistic expansion with further excellent attractive route brands across this part of north Manchester and a plentiful supply of promotional leaflets is just the encouragement the Mayor needs to put any risky franchising plans firmly on the back burner.

IMG_7893.jpgIt’s a risk I hope Transdev will be emboldened to take and let’s hope their bid offer is currently on its way to Aberdeen.

IMG_7986.jpgIt’s looking like it’ll definitely be an interesting year two for Transdev Blazefield’s Rosso.

* which I do.

Roger French

Sparks are flying on GOBLIN

Monday 28th January 2019

You’ve got to feel sorry for the growing number of passengers who rely on the GOspel Oak to Barking orbital railway line in north east London, known affectionately as GOBLIN for short.

IMG_7708.jpg

The former down-at-heel and unloved Silverlink Metro line transferred to TfL back in 2006 when the future was bright, the future was orange, as it became born again as part of TfL’s Overground network. This higher profile, together with greatly improved service quality, released huge latent pent up demand as passengers soon discovered the extensive travel opportunities this Cinderella of commuter lines offered. Boarding a train just a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath in north London and arriving in central Barking in East London in little over half an hour is impressive. Many passengers also transfer at Gospel Oak to and from the West London line from Clapham Junction/Richmond via Willesden Junction continuing into the North London line via Highbury & Islington to Stratford and the East London line south of the Thames offering a fantastic number of convenient interchange possibilities.

It’s undeniably one of the most successful rail line turnarounds in a decade with 10,000 passenger journeys now being carried a day. Plans to electrify the line and introduce a brand new fleet of 4-carriage trains to replace the 2-carriage diesel units were therefore hugely welcomed when first announced. What a shame things haven’t quite worked out as planned.

The eastern end of the line closed in June 2016, with the western end following a few months later in September to allow Network Rail to install overhead electrification. This extensive work included rebuilding ten bridges as well as lowering the line in four places to allow for the necessary clearances. Weekday services were reinstated in February 2017 while weekend services resumed in June 2017 but passengers didn’t get to benefit from electric trains as the grossly over crowded 2-carriage diesel operated Class 172 trains carried on running with a promise of brand new Bombardier built 4-carriage Class 710 electric trains to be introduced with a new timetable from May 2018.

In pre-overhead wires days at Harringay Green Lanes

As well as an absence of electric trains, it wasn’t long before it became evident the electrification works hadn’t been properly completed either and a further eight week full line closure became necessary between November 2017 and January 2018 to finish things off.

Never mind, at least the new electric trains were due to appear in May 2018; except they didn’t despite the first train being delivered to Network Rail’s test facility in Leicestershire at the end of 2017. To make matters worse the May 2018 timetable initially removed five vital peak hour extra journeys (known as ‘PIXC-busters’ – ‘passengers in excess of capacity’) designed to cope with the crush loads. These were subsequently reinstated by TfL, except within a matter of weeks, they were withdrawn again. The problem being Class 172 diesel train availability – all eight trains were due to come off lease and transfer to the West Midlands by December 2018 and to meet this deadline one train, effectively the spare used on peak hour extras, was withdrawn so it could be overhauled and refurbished for its new owners.

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 16.18.06.png

As is the way with these things, for reasons best known to PR and media people, despite no chance of the new trains being imminently introduced, TfL held a high profile launch of the brand new Class 710 trains in June 2018 (just as the ‘PIXC busters’ were withdrawn again) reassuring passengers understandably frustrated and annoyed at having a new train dangled in front of them only to be swept away again back to the test track with the rather limp commitment that “the new fleet will be in service by November”.

Screen Shot 2019-01-28 at 17.05.23.png

The only thing that happened in November 2018 was the announcement of a reduced timetable at weekends to allow for engineers to service the fleet of hard pressed Class 172s as another was withdrawn for its new life in the West Midlands.

As 2019 began and still no sign of the much promised (and publicly launched) new trains and all the Class 172s having to be withdrawn at the latest by mid March, TfL’s been forced to come up with a Plan B, the first part of which was rolled out this morning as a modified spare Class 378 5-carriage electric train set reduced to just 4-carriages (so it will fit into the platforms along the line) took to the tracks as another Class 172 train has been withdrawn. Two more spare Class 378s are being similarly modified to hit the tracks as two more Class 172s are withdrawn in mid February.

The final three Class 172s leave in mid March when Plan C comes into play. This entails the timetable being halved to run every 30 minutes instead of every 15 minutes. TfL say in such an event “there should be adequate capacity for anyone wishing to travel along this route” pointing out four-carriage trains running every half an hour equals two-carriage trains running every fifteen minutes. Except the less frequent service will be more than twice less attractive (you really have to adjust personal travel schedules for a half hourly service in a way you don’t for a fifteen minute one) and the longer trains have much reduced (longitudinal) seating meaning more standing passengers, albeit “standing in greater comfort”.

I gave the new slimmed down Class 378 train a ride this morning. Obviously the interior and ride quality are well known from travels in these trains on other parts of the Overground orbital lines, but it was a novelty to ride the line from a longitudinal seat which is not welcome as you have to sit askew to look out of the window behind you to enjoy the fascinating suburban scenery the train passes or you have to spend the journey avoiding eye contact with the passenger opposite.

IMG_7698.jpg

Today’s train was well able to cope with the numbers of passengers travelling who are used to squeezing on to a two-carriage diesel. Passengers were noticeably pleasantly surprised at the extra available room, all the more so as they must have initially been disappointed thinking our train was not operating as it failed to appear on departure screens, nor, mysteriously, is it recorded in Real Time Trains records.

IMG_7699.jpg

It was noticeable how acceleration between stations was much better than with the Class 172s and we easily reached the termini ahead of schedule, even with the padding at the Gospel Oak end. I reckon passengers really will welcome the new Class 710 trains and hopefully this hiatus will be forgotten once they’re introduced just like the summer 2016 closure for bodged electrification works is now a distant memory.

IMG_7705.jpg

Of course, Bombardier don’t come out of all this at all well. TfL’s latest public statement claims the manufacturer “has still not been able to fix the software problems that are causing the delays”. There’s not even a date for “when the new trains will be ready for driver training to start”. No doubt TfL are hammering them with compensation claims for extra costs and loss of revenue – they’ve already extracted a promised of a months free travel on the line when the trains are finally introduced.

Meantime, it look’s like another Spring (and probably Summer) with crowded trains and longer waits for the hard pressed GOBLIN passengers.

Roger French

 

 

 

railair & you’re there

Thursday 24th January 2019

IMG_7489.jpgThe recent launch of First Bus’s nine brand new Scania Irizar i6 bodied K-series coaches for its prestigous RailAir nonstop service linking Reading Station with Heathrow Airport attracted a shoal of positive comments on Twitter and in the trade press so I thought I’d give it a road test today.

IMG_7509.jpgAll the more so as I realised I’d never actually travelled on this bespoke route before; living in Sussex I don’t have much need to reach Heathrow from Reading, although back in my student days at Reading University in the early 1970s I remember trips up to London on Thames Valley’s (sadly rebranded Alder Valley in its ill fated merger with Aldershot & District) infamous routes A and B which took an age to reach London; and I really can’t remember whether one of them nipped into Heathrow to serve the airport on the way.

 

IMG_7481.jpgThese new coaches do look very smart indeed in their attractive Best Impressions designed livery. Sleek lines, lovely blue and grey colours and an attractive no-fuss typeface and logo with the slogan ‘railair & you’re there’. The professional design’s a world away from the busy bus-crash style message overload which befits some of First’s bus fleet in metropolitan areas (Leeds I’m looking at you!).

 

IMG_7511.jpgThe step entrance is noticeably nice and wide, and, naturally the coaches are equipped for wheelchair accessibility, although sadly three days advance notice is required if you want to travel in a wheelchair. It looked like it’s much more than a five minute job to remove the seats that make way for a wheechair.

IMG_7532.jpgThe gorgeous interior design matches the exterior and really is very attractive and welcoming, as are the 47 seats including twelve arranged around three tables spread through the coach. USB sockets are available as is wi-fi, although I couldn’t get a connection on my journey.

IMG_7512.jpg

IMG_7529.jpgThe seats really are the most sumptuous and comfortable I’ve travelled in for a long time, and all the more so for passengers making the transition from a Class 800 IEP train and its rather unwelcoming seat comfort and transferring in Reading over to this luxury and comfort for the onward journey to Heathrow. It even beats First Class on an 800.

IMG_7530.jpgAs I showed on Twitter this afternoon, there was a rather disturbing amount of vibration on the table surface as the coach tackled the uneven road surfaces, especially on the M4 where long term roadworks are upgrading it to a ‘Smart Motorway’. That aside, the coach really did glide along and I found it a smooth enjoyable ride. The plaudits are well deserved.

IMG_7483.jpg

IMG_7482.jpgOne or two observations and suggestions about RailAir: we set off exactly on time at 1300 and after seven minutes in free flowing off-peak Reading traffic reached the A329(M) at 1307, joining the M4 five minutes later at 1312. The motorway’s temporary 50mph speed limit impacted our speed until we reached the end of the roadworks by Junction 7 for Slough at 1325 when we speeded up, reaching the M25 at 1333 with a smooth run round to Terminal 5, our first drop off two minutes early at 1338 where four passengers got off and we left on time at 1340. Four more alighted on time at Terminal 2 at 1352 with our final two passengers deposited at Terminal 3 at 1358, just two minutes down. We reached Heathrow’s bus station at 1402 (instead of 1400), and the coach got ready for its 1410 departure back to Reading.

IMG_7537.jpgTen passengers may not seem many, (around the same number took the previous journey from Reading at 1240 – the service runs every 20 minutes) but at a fare of around £20 (for both single and return) that’s not bad going for an hours work.

I booked online in advance last night, but there are a few inconsistencies with the booking arrangement. The RailAir website advises passengers must book online at the latest by 5pm the previous day, yet I found I was able to book at about 8pm without any difficulty, so that seems an unnecessary restriction. Once you receive your email confirmation and ticket, it contains the instruction “YOU MUST PRINT YOUR TICKET AND SHOW IT TO THE DRIVER”. Not only is this in block capitals but is repeated twice more and a similar warning is contained on the website.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 19.30.58The only problem for me was my email came with a large promotional graphic which didn’t fully download in any event, which took up so much of page 1 of the 3 page email I MUST PRINT OUT that what looked like the all important QR Code was split between page 1 and page 2! Not being a computer expert and knowing how to change the settings I was a bit befuddled!

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 20.28.11.pngIn the event, the railair representative in the lounge at Reading Station confirmed it’s quite in order to simply show the email to the driver on a smartphone, and indeed my driver was very happy to see it that way!

IMG_7430.jpg
The inevitable ‘wet floor’ (it wasn’t) bollard too!

The reception area at Reading Station has also been given a much welcome Best Impressions designed makeover and really looks quite splendid inside with its TV screen showing the latest news, complimentary newspapers (The Times at that too), complimentary hot drinks machine, comfortable seats as well as seats to sit and work at. It made up for the ineptness of the website booking arrangement to be honest.

IMG_7502.jpg

IMG_7503.jpg

IMG_7504 (1).jpg

IMG_7506.jpgAnother small inconsistency is that the only benefit of booking online is for an ‘Early Bird’ ticket, defined as booking more than three months before travel; otherwise, despite the messages, despite the 5pm cut off, there didn’t seem to be any difference between online prices and just paying in the lounge or to the driver.

I was pleased to see the main Railcards are accepted for a third discount, which meant my fare for a single journey was £13.20; which I ranked as good value for the service provided.

IMG_7525.jpgBearing in mind railair is operated by First Bus and GWR has long been in the hands of First Group, you’d think there’d be close working between the two companies. There’s a lovely railair leaflet I spotted at Reading, but I’d be surprised if it was to be found at stations westwards to the West Country and South Wales. Although I did spot a GWR leaflet giving details of links to many airports from GWR’s network which included mention of RailAir.

IMG_7480 (1).jpgThere are signs for the RailAir coach inside Reading Station and commendably departures appear on screens and therefore on apps too. I was surprised there wasn’t better signage directing you to the departure lounge as you exit through the barriers and would suggest this would help those unfamiliar that this gem is hidden behind M&S Simply Food’s central outlet.

IMG_7478.jpg

IMG_E7434.jpg

IMG_7410.jpgI would also suggest ways be found to include the service on National Rail’s journey planner. I caught the 1158 from Newbury arriving Reading at 1220 giving a good connection with the 1240 railair departure (had I needed it) which would’ve got me to Terminal 5 at 1320. However, if you put Newbury to Terminal 5 in the Journey Planner it will take you into Paddington and out again on the overpriced and extortionately expensive Heathrow Express arriving Terminal 5 twelve minutes later at 1332. Pay more and arrive later; I don’t think so!

Screen Shot 2019-01-24 at 19.43.13.pngThe long term future of RailAir is in some doubt with talk getting louder about constructing a new western link into Heathrow from the Great Western main line. At the pace of change on the rail network it will be some time before we see such a development, so in the meantime these new coaches are indeed very welcome; well worth a ride and you’re there.

IMG_7535.jpgRoger French