Three Staffordshire bus rides

Tuesday 9th July 2019

IMG_3432.jpg Welcome to a fourth day of travelling to tick off various ‘to do’ routes, destinations, new buses and trains which began with an early start from Llandrindod Wells on the first 06:18 journey which starts its journey at this lovely station and continues beyond Shrewsbury as a stopping train through to Crewe arriving at 08:50.

It’s quite a trek on a one coach Class 153 and I was expecting we’d get inundated with commuters heading into Shrewsbury and then Crewe for nine o’clock.IMG_3433.jpgIt turned out to be a quiet journey. We’d only collected ten passengers by the time we reached the main line at Craven Arms and picked up just a few more both there and the next station, Church Stretton, before arriving in Shrewsbury for 07:57 so a bit early for commuters; but that’s all you get in the Heart of Wales Line’s limited timetable until a 10:14 arrival (and then 13:32) which is probably too late for being at work. One passenger, along with myself, went all the way from Llandrindod Wells to Crewe but otherwise everyone got off at Shrewsbury and we collected a new cohort from there and the next six stations heading to Crewe.

The Heart of Wales Line is a wonderful experience; I ranked it eleventh in my Hundred Best Train Journeys compiled at the end of last year, and it certainly deserves that placing offering spectacular views, lovely quirky well kept request stop stations, and, as I found yesterday, great bus routes which parallel part of it.

IMG_3439.jpgFrom Crewe I headed south easterly on the line via Stoke-on-Trent to Derby alighting at Uttoxeter as I wanted to travel on three Staffordshire bus routes on my ‘to do’ list: First Potteries route 32 from Uttoxeter back to Hanley bus station in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, followed by route 18 across to Leek, and finally a route operated by Aimée’s, the 109, up to Macclesfield.

This three and a half hour zig-zag trip worked well with good connections and offered interesting contrasts between bus companies, routes, scenery and bus stations.

Taking the latter first, Uttoxeter has a functional bus station with ample room for the four stands around a parking area for the principal departures operated by Midland Classic, D&G Bus, Trentbarton and First Potteries. But I couldn’t help noticing the bus parking area seemed to be commandeered by crews of refuse trucks meeting up for a chat and a break. First there was one, then two and then a third joined in.IMG_3533.jpgHanley has a very impressive bus station with around twenty-five stands in a head-on semi-circular layout with some parking bays for buses laying over on the apron. IMG_3541.jpgIt’s obvious much careful thought has gone into the architectural design of the structure, the practical bus manoeuvring area and the passenger circulating area which is an extremely pleasant space to wait.IMG_3540.jpgIMG_3546.jpg Toilets had changed to being on ‘free vend’ since my last visit and were clean and presentable. There’s a small convenience store/coffee shop, but I noticed a lack of timetables posted on the wall although each departure stand had a screen showing the next three departures, and there were lists posted showing which service departed from each bay in service number order.IMG_3545.jpgThere’s a lovely large and airy unmarked travel office with two members of First Bus staff behind the counter and a display of timetable leaflets including both First Potteries and the D&G Bus booklet.IMG_3544.jpgThere seems to be a good relationship between First and D&G Bus throughout the Potteries. IMG_3613.jpgFinally, Leek bus station; well, let’s correct that from the start, it’s not a bus station, more a collection of poorly marked bus stops or stands along a depressing looking side street (stands are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, then a gap, and then 8).IMG_3615.jpg

Stands 5, 6 and 7 have disappeared as has the waiting room where they once stood outside; that’s been bricked up, but just to tantalise waiting passengers, the sign’s been left in place.IMG_3612.jpg

To finish off the poor image, the timetable displays in a poorly lit, dirty and almost unreadable case aren’t even posted straight. I haven’t seen such poor bus station presentation since, well, um, yesterday as it happens, in Merthyr Tydfil.IMG_3607.jpg

And some people clamour for more public authority control of public transport!

I didn’t get to Macclesfield bus station on this visit as I bailed out at the rail station noticing a late running Cross Country train for Manchester was just arriving, so managed to just catch it, but I’ve experienced the bus station on previous visits and I’d just say it’s a poor, a very poor, imitation of what Hanley has achieved – and much smaller at that too.

IMG_3494.jpgThe 32, 18 and 109 bus routes are very pleasant ones to travel along with some great views across the Staffordshire countryside.IMG_3538.jpgThe 32 wasn’t very busy out of Uttoxeter but we picked up a good load as we approached Hanley.IMG_3537.jpg

Cheadle, the halfway point, looked a very nice town to explore; I must return some time.IMG_3557.jpg

The 18 is one of First Potteries key inter-urban routes running every 20 minutes to Leek with single deck Scanias. Sadly the seats, bizarrely and for no discernible reason, are all branded ‘Scania’ (I can’t imagine any passengers thinking “you know what; I must go out and buy a Scania truck”) ….IMG_3602.jpg…. and must rank even more uncomfortable than the ironing boards in Thameslink trains, and that’s saying something.IMG_3603.jpgWe had a reasonable load as we headed to Leek on the thirty-five minute journey, and although much of the route is built up, there were some great views to see as well.

Finally to route 109, Leek to Macclesfield.

Aimée’s had the makings of a friendly image when I first spotted a bus in the company’s two-tone pink/crimson livery ….IMG_3610.jpg… before spotting the nearside skirt panels.

IMG_3611.jpgThen I thought Leek had a variety of different small independent bus companies…

IMG_3608.jpguntil I noticed all the legal lettering was for the same Aimée’s …IMG_3609.jpg… and most displaying the same advert for taxi drivers for an obviously associated company.IMG_3616.jpgAs you can see Aimée’s timetables for the four routes it runs from Leek were posted behind the driver on the bus I travelled on …

IMG_3617.jpg… and it was a step back in time to see the ticket machine ….

IMG_3621.jpg

…. and my driver proudly showed me his original cash bag too.

IMG_3623.jpg

We left on time at 13:35 for the fifty minute run to Macclesfield with six on board, aside from me.

There’s a nice direct route north on the A523 between Leek and Macclesfield and I was a bit surprised to see it took fifty minutes for the thirteen miles. A poor average speed of 15 mph on a fast A road.

But to my consternation we headed south, rather than north, out of Leek. It turns out we do a twenty minute tour of the town’s residential areas before heading towards Macclesfield, but tellingly none of the six on board alighted, and we picked no one up except almost at the end of the circuit, within walking distance of the ‘bus station’, two passengers boarded – obviously sensibly avoiding the round-the-houses tour and walking the short distance from the town centre where we’d been twenty odd minutes previously!

This is just the kind of compromise local authorities have been forced to indulge in (mixing town routes with inter-urban routes) to try and save money in their plummeting tendered bus budgets but they end up pleasing no one and upsetting everyone – it just puts off longer distance passengers, and in this case, attracted no local passengers either. This coupled with the appalling bus station really makes all the positivity from well meaning groups such as the bus industry sponsored Greener Journeys and Catch The Bus Week wheezes ring hollow to me.

Shortly outside Leek we deviated on another dog leg to serve the village of Rudyard which cost us another five minutes, but at least two of our eight passengers alighted. Everyone else went to Macclesfield and no one else boarded.

IMG_3627.jpgBut I enjoyed the journey and once again saw some lovely Staffordshire scenery.

From Macclesfield my late running Cross Country train (“20 minutes late due to a late running South Western Railway train in Bournemouth”!!) got me into Manchester Piccadilly just in time to catch one of Northern’s brand new Class 195 trains introduced into service only last week, but I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

Roger French

Across the Valleys to mid Wales

Monday 8th July 2019

Today’s been a varied travel day starting with a Pacer and Class 37 hauled commuter train in the Cardiff Valley, followed by a journey on a brand new inter-urban bus up a Welsh valley then three more bus rides across the tops of the valleys, a poorly patronised but impressive express bus ride from Swansea to Carmarthen and ending the day on a rural bus route further into mid Wales plus a train ride on the Heart of Wales line to Llandrindod Wells with just me on board.

Phew.

Let’s start at the beginning. Transport for Wales are still running a lot of Pacer trains on the Cardiff Valley lines. You only have to stand on Cardiff Central or Queen Street stations for a short while and you’ll soon hear the familiar Pacer style screech as they come and go.

IMG_2959.jpgMy early morning trip up to Bargoed at 06:50 from Queen Street this morning was no exception and for a contra-peak journey had a moderate load although only three of us travelled the full 45 minute ride to Bargoed.IMG_3004.jpgThere’s no early morning journey to get you all the way to the terminus at the head of the valley at Rhymney where I was aiming to pick up one of the two southbound peak journeys now operated by a Class 37, so I settled on Bargoed which is fifteen minutes down the line. The first journey which shuttles just to Cardiff Central and is destined for a Class 37 at 07:43 was a Pacer joined to a Class 150 this morning as driver training is not yet complete on the 37s; but the second 37 designated journey, the 07:42 from Rhymney (07:57 from Bargoed) duly appeared with the distinctive sound and shape of this fine diesel locomotive pulling four traditionally blue and grey liveried coaches. It was quite an early morning sight.IMG_3398.jpgThis journey has been retimed by 3 minutes (was 08:00) but you’d never know from the printed and online timetables but this was just one of many timetable inconsistencies I stumbled on during today which the unwary traveller could be caught out with.

Despite the issue of manual doors (particularly their shutting at stations) we made good progress and kept to time until just before Cardiff Queen Street where red signals were our downfall arriving into Cardiff Central nine minutes late.

IMG_3028.jpgIMG_3030.jpgIt started off quiet but was soon a busy trip with plenty of standing passengers by the time we reached Cardiff.

Commuters seemed used to the new arrangements which have been operating for a couple of weeks now and the guard gave regular announcements about how to open the doors and posters were also displayed at stations. I doubt many people took notice and everyone was coping fine.

IMG_3006.jpgTransport for Wales have introduced these ‘Thunderbird’ type arrangements to release other trains for conversion to meet looming accessibility deadlines at the end of this year. That’s looking like a very tight timescale to me, and as mentioned above, there are plenty of Pacers still around and new train deliveries are running notoriously late. Still in the meantime it’s great fun to take a commute on a ‘proper train’ and well worth a ride (there are two comparable journeys in the evening peak back from Cardiff to Rhymney).

IMG_3033.jpgIMG_3034.jpg

It was a complete contrast to follow this with a ride on one of the twelve smart new Volvo B8 MCV bodied buses introduced last week by Stagecoach for Traws Cymru on routes T4 and T14.

IMG_3061.jpgThe Welsh Government have stumped up £2.1 million for Powys County Council to buy the new buses which feature very comfortable seats (train companies and the DfT please note)…IMG_3063.jpg…..extensive luggage space …IMG_3071.jpgusb, Wi-fi (although my phone wouldn’t connect) and the latest innovation – seat back down lighting – the purpose of which I’m still struggling with…

IMG_3074.jpgIMG_3075.jpgI caught the 09:10 from Cardiff to Hereford route T14 which is the joining together of three previously separate routes to provide a handy through service. Five of us travelled to Merthyr Tydfil via Pontypridd, so it was a quiet run but an extremely impressive fast journey arriving into Merthyr Tydfil just after 10:00 – it would have taken fifteen minutes longer by train!.

The ride was smooth and comfortable and by using the segregated dual carriageway A470 for most of the way you feel you’re really making progress in a way the train can never do. The T14 along with the T4 and the Stagecoach branded X4 journeys provide an impressive 15 minute frequency between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil which is well promoted on the buses…IMG_3059.jpg….and in Merthyr Tydfil bus station…

IMG_3094.jpg……except that there’s a bit of brand confusion …IMG_3073.jpg…..although it was impressive to see leaflets on board the bus ….IMG_3062.jpg…..but not helped by an out of date poster in Merthyr Tydfil bus station by the departure stand.IMG_3093.jpgSadly that was just one of the negative images of Merthyr’s bus station. What an absolute dump. This bus station gives a simply appalling impression of bus travel.IMG_3086.jpgI tweeted a dozen or so photographs this morning so won’t include them all here; just a small selection to give blog readers an idea of just how bad it is.IMG_3088.jpgIMG_3103.jpgIMG_3096.jpgThere are plans to build a new bus station and encouragingly work is due to start this year. It can’t come soon enough.

But in the meantime Stagecoach you don’t cover yourselves in glory with this type of presentation…

IMG_3101.jpgIMG_3085.jpg….nor displaying out of date and misleading timetables (route 6 has different tunes to those shown).IMG_3105.jpgIt’s no good trumpeting a smart brand on buses if crucial timetable information is out of date.IMG_3124.jpgLet’s hope the new bus station doesn’t follow Cardiff’s example where I see the former site right outside the station is now redeveloped but no sign of the new replacement bus station next door getting underway.IMG_3035.jpg

From Merthyr Tydfil I took route 6 across the top of the valley to Aberdare and from there route 8 over another valley top to Glynneath.IMG_3152 (1).jpgIMG_3110.jpgIt’s a route I’ve done before and serves up some great views along the way.IMG_3150.jpgIMG_3213.jpgCatching a bus from Aberdare’s bus station is a much more positive experience than Merthyr – I particularly liked the departure listings including a helpful map.IMG_3153.jpgIMG_3154.jpgAnd full marks to Stagecoach for having Aberdare timetable books on both buses I travelled on.

IMG_3112.jpg

In Glynneath I took the hourly First Cymru X7 which runs down the valley via Resolven to Neath and then via a quick route into Swansea. Most passengers got off in Neath and I was the only passenger travelling through with five others boarding in Neath.IMG_3231.jpgThis route (along with others) is branded Cymru Clipper and has obviously recently been renumbered into a new family of lower X numbers along with the similar X8 to Banwen, in the neighbouring valley. IMG_3223.jpgExcept all the bus timetables displayed at every stop we’re still showing X55 and there were even two old out of date posters inside the bus advertising the old route numbers including the X58 (now X8).IMG_3250.jpg

It seems First Cymru joins Stagecoach South Wales in being a bit tardy when it comes to updating information. The great Information ‘Open Access’ revolution may be coming, but let’s get the basics right first please

My next journey was to Carmarthen and I’d originally planned to get back on the tracks and take the train but as we pulled into Swansea’s bus station I spotted the three journey a day Traws Cymru route T1S which runs fast up the M4 and A48 taking just 53 minutes.IMG_3280.jpgThe T1S connects with the hourly T1 from Carmarthen on to Aberystwyth to provide a through facility from Swansea but it very much needs better promotion. The Traws Cymru website is a bit clunky to use and there were no T1S leaflets available at the First Cymru information counter in the bus station. IMG_3325.jpgPerhaps not surprising therefore only four of us travelled all the way through to Carmarthen. As the Welsh Government pay for this service, as well as overseeing Welsh trains, it would seem a good idea to provide combined timetables and integrated ticketing. You know the kind of thing the private sector is always being chastised for supposedly not doing.

After a refreshment break in the delightful Carmarthen I caught the 17:50 route 280 to Llandovery. IMG_3389.jpgThis route has been on my ‘to do’ list for a few years and it didn’t disappoint with some splendid views across to the Brecon Beacons National Park.IMG_3381.jpgWe took ten passengers home from Carmarthen with just three on board as we left Llandeilo where we picked up two more. By Llangadog they’d alighted and the remaining three got off between there and Llandovery, where I was the only one left. IMG_3392.jpgLlandovery is a lovely small Welsh town and a great setting for a bus terminus even if it is just a car park.IMG_3396.jpgFrom Llandovery I took a train at 19:43 for my last journey for today on the gorgeous Heart of Wales line, north to Llandrindod Wells where I’ll stay tonight. IMG_3399.jpgI was the only passenger all the way from Llandovery to Llandrindod Wells tonight. If this had been a bus route it would’ve got the chop by now. But this is a train, so as it costs about ten times or more the cost of a bus, it continues!IMG_3429.jpg

It’s been a very enjoyable day’s travels.IMG_3430.jpgRoger French

Devons’s top circular bus and train tour is back

Sunday 7th July 2019

IMG_2834.jpg

Here’s a great way to spend five hours on a summer Sunday: enjoy one of the best circular journeys in Devon, if not the whole of Britain. It takes in three top rail lines and a brilliant bus route skirting a National Park.

The circular route can be based on either Exeter or Plymouth with the three train journeys in the circuit being the summer Sunday only route between Exeter and Okehampton (known as the GWR Dartmoor Line); the Tamar Valley Line from Gunnislake to Plymouth and the West Country main line from Plymouth back to Exeter including the infamous Dawlish Wall. The missing bit between Okehampton and Gunnislake is filled with the Sunday only 279 bus route, which after an absence of three years, I’m delighted to say, is back up and running again this summer thanks to funding from the Devon and Cornwall Community Rail Partnership. I couldn’t resist taking a ride around the circuit today to celebrate the 279’s return.

Even better this 125 mile circular route can be enjoyed for the price of a Devon Day Ranger at £13 for the trains (£8.20 Railcards) plus a bargain £3 for the 279 bus as a special concession rate for passengers holding rail tickets. Like the 271 yesterday, this route is deemed a ‘tourist route’ by Devon County Council and National Concessionary Passes are not valid (even though they are valid on routes 79 and 118 which cover the same route on Mondays to Saturdays).

IMG_E2762.jpgSadly the old Dartmoor Sunday Rover ticket which gave extra value by combining both bus and rail travel on journeys around and across Dartmoor was withdrawn after 2015 and hasn’t reappeared – although this didn’t include trains on the main line.

IMG_2760.jpg

If you want a Sunday morning lie-in take the 11:08 GWR departure from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton which arrives at 11:54 giving plenty of time to connect with the only departure on the 279 at 12:20 which continues beyond Tavistock through to Gunnislake.Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 10.29.03.pngBut it’s well worth taking the first train of the morning from Exeter St Davids to Okehampton at 09:04 arriving at 09:50 giving plenty of time to take a ride on the Dartmoor Railway heritage line where they often run a former Thumper train (on my previous visit) ….

IMG_7520.jpg…..or an eclectic mix of locomotive and carriages including a Brake Van which you can travel on with a great forward view when being pushed from behind and an amazingly friendly guard called Don who gave a running commentary as happened this morning on the 10:15 from Okehampton….IMG_2688.jpgIMG_2691.jpg ….and takes you to Meldon Viaduct and which is well worth a visit.

IMG_7526.jpg

IMG_7527.jpg

IMG_2731.jpgAlternatively the Exeter to Okehampton train stops at Crediton and Sampford Courtenay stations along the way both of which are interesting stop-offs to explore.

Crediton station is on the Barnstaple line and has some lovely heritage signs and posters and is lovingly maintained.

IMG_E2998.jpgIMG_3010.jpgSampford Courtenay is one of Britain’s quirkiest stations; only open in the summer; sees just the four trains each way, each Sunday; has a grass covered platform; has no facilities whatsoever other than a bench seat; has a locked gate to the platform which the guard on the first train of the day unlocks and the guard on the last train of the day locks up. (Interestingly two passengers were waiting to access the station and board the train when we arrived this morning.)

IMG_2684.jpgAnd that’s about it for facilities. It’s about a four mile walk to Okehampton if you choose to get off at Sampford Courtenay – the photo below was from a previous visit.

IMG_7510Okehampton station itself is about a ten minute walk from the town centre but there’s a popular cafe in the station which does a brisk trade on a Sunday with rail enthusiasts, walkers and cyclists and there are stalls selling railway memorabilia for the heritage Dartmoor Railway.

It was great to see the GWR trains busy today – 30 passengers were on the first train and a good load was waiting to board the return journey to Exeter.IMG_2686.jpg

IMG_2810.jpgThe return of the 279 bus route after its three year absence is very welcome as not only does it make this circular tour possible but it’s a great scenic route in its own right.

IMG_2832.jpgThe timetable is fairly limited but the 12:20 journey to Gunnislake is ideal with train connections at both ends if you’re doing the circuit anti-clockwise from Exeter as are the two journeys from Gunnislake at 10:05 and 14:00, for a clockwise circuit, which connect with trains from Plymouth as well as at Okehampton (see timetable below).

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 19.03.57.pngGo-ahead owned Plymouth Citybus operates the route from its small depot in Callington. It follows the A386 from Okehampton towards Tavistock all along the western perimeter of Dartmoor save for a couple of deviations to the west to serve Bridestowe and Lydford.

The last time I travelled on this route (when it was numbered 187 rather than 279) was in the summer of 2015, when it was operated by First Bus and they still had a presence in this part of Devon. It wasn’t First Bus at their finest and not surprisingly they quit Devon soon affter this uninviting, unkept and filthy Dennis Dart appeared on what should be a lovely tourist route! An appropriate epitaph to the old style First Bus in Devon.

DSCF8076.jpg

DSCF8080.jpgIMG_3291.jpgThere were nine of us on the 12:20 journey this afternoon all doing the same round trip, which was quite an impressive turn out. Another passenger boarded just outside Okehampton and travelled to Tavistock. Our driver observed it’s the most he’s seen as no one travelled last time he did the trip. He’s based at Liskeard depot as no-one from Callington wants to do the Sunday rest day work containing the 279!

The former route 187 included a diversion to serve the tourist attraction of Morwellham Quay between Tavistock and Gunnislake. It’s a former copper mine, which is now a “working” museum (along the Beamish lines) including a fascinating train ride into one of the old mines. Sadly the updated 279 no longer serves this attraction but continues direct to Gunnislake arriving at 13:45 for the GWR train departure at 13:58 for Plymouth.

We made good time on the journey this afternoon and arrived into Tavistock with enough slack for a fifteen minute leg stretch pause in the bus station and even leaving there on time arrived Gunnislake five minutes early so there’s plenty of time to include Morwellham Quay on the way if desired.

IMG_2836.jpgOn a previous visit to Gunnislake station in Spring 2018 I noticed the old 187 timetable for Summer 2015 (its last year of operation) with its more frequent service was still on display in the bus shelter and I tweeted Plymouth CityBus to let them know. Frustratingly it was still there this afternoon and sadly there was no mention of the new 279 timetable.

IMG_2838.jpgIMG_2840.jpgThis is very unfortunate particularly as there was superb information at Okehampton in both the station and the authentic bus stop outside.

IMG_2687.jpgIMG_2771.jpgThe contrast couldn’t be more stark.

The Tamar Valley Line between Gunnislake and Plymouth is my favourite Devon branch line with its narrow twists and turns as it follows the valley down through the delightful villages of Calstock and Bere Alston. This section of the line was originally built as a narrow gauge railway to serve the extensive copper mines in the area so when it was upgraded to standard gauge it wasn’t surprising the train brushed against trees and bushes lining the tracks, and still does in places.

IMG_2237.jpgThe viaduct over the River Tamar at Calstock is just one of the spectacular sights on the journey….

IMG_2934.jpg….and it’s also worth looking out for the two ungated level crossings which are very unusual for a full size passenger rail line in regular use.

IMG_2918.jpgAt Bere Alston the train reverses back from the stub of the line (which used to continue to Tavistock and Okehampton) before continuing south down the valley to the wonderful Bere Ferrers (and note the ‘Beer Ferris’ spelling on the former signal box in the photograph below!).

IMG_2220.jpgNow here’s a station well worth stopping off at and having a look around if you have time.IMG_2222.jpg

IMG_2221.jpgNot only is the station itself done out in splendid heritage signs and posters but Chris Grove who lives in the former booking office owns the neighbouring land which he’s turned into a Heritage Centre with an eclectic mix of railway carriages, diesel locomotives, a yard crane, turntable, a fully working signal box controlling the adjacent track which although only 300 yards long can accommodate three engines running at the same time, as well as a model railway layout, exhibitions, memorabilia, paraphernalia and more.IMG_2223.jpgIt’s a fascinating place and if you’re really keen, Chris offers accommodation and meals in some of the carriages.IMG_2209.jpgI didn’t have time to visit today but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit when passing through last weekend and Chris was a great host.

IMG_2204.jpgCarrying on down the Tamar Valley the River becomes impressively wider as it’s joined by the River Tavy with the rail line bridging over the latter just before the rivers join.

IMG_2938.jpgThe line then continues under the Great Western main line with restricted views of the famous Royal Albert bridge behind the not so famous road bridge ….

IMG_2943.jpg….before the branch joins the main line itself just after St Budeaux Victoria Road (alongside St Budeaux Ferry Road on the main line). Continuing into Plymouth there are magnificent views of the Dockyard as this section of the tour comes to an end.

IMG_2946.jpgIt’s a summer Sunday afternoon, so expect the last leg of this circular trip to be busy; the main line ride from Plymouth to Exeter. I’ve taken many journeys back from the West Country on a Sunday afternoon and the train is invariably packed even before it leaves Cornwall. The Gunnislake train arrives into Plymouth at 14:43 with a handy fifteen minute connection on to the 14:58 GWR train back to Exeter St Davids arriving there at 15:57. However, this train comes up from Penzance and is notorious for being ‘rammed’.

This afternoon, I instead opted to take the next eastbound departure from Plymouth at 15:12 which is a GWR train crucially starting its London bound journey there so a much better chance of a decent seat.

IMG_2948.jpgIt arrived into Exeter at 16:07 just ten minutes later than the Penzance originating train did.

IMG_4722This final leg of the circular tour provides a lovely hour’s scenic ride through Ivybridge, Totnes, Newton Abbot and Teignmouth before the crème de la crème, the gorgeous section of line through Dawlish.

After that it’s back into Exeter after a wonderful day in Devon.

However, I’m now heading on to Bristol and Cardiff for more bus and train travels tomorrow.

Roger French

PS It was great to meet blog reader David also doing this round trip today as well as Phil from Modern Railways magazine who was enjoying a return ride on the Gunnislake branch this afternoon.

PPS Just to let you know the great lengths I go to capture photographs for this blog included last weekend’s visit to Bere Ferrers Heritage Centre when Chris kindly offered for me to capture the GWR train coming into the station from a vantage point high up on one of his heritage signals – note the high viz, so it was perfectly safe for me to do that – indeed it was a great honour as Chris said no-one other than him had climbed up before!

New sleeper turns into a bad dream

Tuesday 25th June 2019

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.35.12.png

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

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.38.37.png

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.39.49.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.19.23.png

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.07.03.png

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

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.58.24.png

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.00.01.png

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.21.18.png

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

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

Roger French

LEJOG: As it happened

This is the story of how a journey on the Longest Day of the year from Lands End to John O’Groats by ground public transport (that’s bus and train) unfolded in real time.

The original plan, as described in Wednesday’s (19th June) blog was to complete the end-to-end journey in just under 24 hours.

Except, that plan was so last month. Literally.

This adventure has been a long time in the making and on the way down to Penzance last night I realised First Kernow’s updated timetable for route A1, introduced for the summer on 26th May, means the planned departure from Lands End at 1334 has been retimed to depart six minutes later at 1340 which, together with an added six minutes running time to allow for summer traffic delays, makes for an arrival into Penzance at 1445 instead of the original time of 1433.

This gives an almost impossible tight four minute connection between bus and train at Penzance with our GWR train leaving for Plymouth at 1449.

Team LEJOG had a bit of a conflab late into the night on the Sleeper from Paddington …. at least as far as passing Swindon around 0130 this morning …. and we decided to forget about achieving any sub 24 hour timings with inherent risks of a missed connection even before we’d left Cornwall and enjoy a more relaxed travel lifestyle by taking advantage of the now more frequent hourly summer A1 timetable (it was two-hourly) and start our adventure an hour earlier this morning on the 1240 from Lands End rather than the risky 1340, and be happy with a 24 hour 45 minute end-to-end journey time.

So here we are…….it’s now….

Thursday 20th June

0755 And all’s well.

GWR’s Night Riviera brought us to Penzance spot on time having left Paddington last night at 2345.

IMG_1263.jpg

IMG_1265.jpgIt’s a really lovely refurbished sleeper too. It may not have the en-suite options now offered by Caledonian Sleeper (together with their troublesome teething problems), but it’s still a very pleasant ambiance both in the berths and the lounge car.

IMG_1266.jpgI thought it a bit odd the window blind above the hidden sink had been replaced by a sticky cover over the window which I didn’t like to peel off so was unaware where we were on the journey especially in Cornwall in daylight but apparently its a temporary fix for a broken blind.

IMG_1271.jpgThe lounge car is very nice and I must say I prefer it to the new Caledonian Mark 5 lounge car. This one also has a mix of seating layouts ….

IMG_1273.jpgIMG_1269.jpg…. as well as impossible to sit on bar stools …

IMG_1268.jpgwhich apparently are perch places ‘to lean against’ rather than sit on – pleased that was clarified for me in time!

IMG_1274.jpgEnough chit chat about Sleeper trains, it’s now ‘Breakfast in Penzance’ with a few hours spare before beginning our travel adventure proper in Lands End at 1240.

It was lovely to meet up and have breakfast with Karen and Phil who are All The Stations supporters and are currently on holiday in Cornwall and kindly gave us a lift down to Lands End in their hire car.

IMG_1275.jpg

1240 Lands End

After the obligatory photographs to prove we are here ….

IMG_1319.jpg

IMG_E1328.jpg… it’s time to begin the adventure on our first bus the 1240 First Kernow A1 to Penzance. We left a couple of minutes late but no worries as our revised schedule gives us more time in Penzance.

IMG_1374.jpgIMG_1381.jpgAnd we also met the lovely Tony who coincidentally is also heading to John O’Groats raising money for Guide Dogs. He’s taking a route via London and the Caledonian ‘Highlander’ Sleeper to Inverness (as we’re catching that same train but from Crewe) and then he’s taking the (later) train to Thurso tomorrow morning rather than the Stagecoach X98 bus.

IMG_1380.jpgAll good so far as we enjoy the lovely Cornish countryside and the narrow roads (Porthcurno below!).

IMG_1398.jpg

1315

Word of advice for any LEJOGers … allow plenty of time for delays on the A1 bus route especially through Treen….

IMG_1400.jpgIMG_1406.jpg

1400 Penzance

We finally made it into Penzance fifteen minutes late at 1359 and 30 seconds due to all the traffic delays and as Tony with his guide dog Gaynor are booked on the 1400 to Paddington, our bus driver kindly stopped right by the entrance to the station and Geoff jumped off to sprint ahead to try and hold the train for a few seconds with Tony, Gaynor, Vicki and I rushing along behind…

IMG_1410.jpgThe train was just leaving ….

IMG_1411.jpgbut then came to a halt so we chased up the platform thinking the train manager in the rear cab had seen us ..

IMG_1414.jpg…. but to no avail, it was a brief emergency stop and the train headed out again leaving Tony behind.

IMG_1415.jpgLuckily he has now arranged a Plan B to catch the 1449 to Plymouth with us and then jump on the next train from there to Paddington arriving 2039 so he should just make it to Euston for the Highlander leaving at 2115 to Inverness.

We’ll see him again when we board that train ourselves in Crewe so for now we have a little time to relax……

IMG_1419.jpg

….before our smartened up Class 150 takes us via ‘all the stations’ to Plymouth leaving at 1449 as per our original plan.

IMG_1420.jpg

And Tony and the lovely Gaynor are with us…

IMG_1422.jpg

1725 Plymouth

First a big shout out to Dominic at the Rail Delivery Group. who is monitoring our progress on social media, and GWR who held Tony’s train to Paddington at 1657 as our stopping train from Penzance was running four minutes late and arrived tantalisingly close at 1655. Pleased to say Tony and Gaynor and all the other connecting passengers easily made it.

IMG_1429.jpgWe had a more sedate connection on to the 1725 Cross Country train to Leeds which we’re with as far as Tamworth at 2119.

IMG_1431.jpg

2135 Tamworth

A great on time journey with Cross Country to Tamworth where we’ve changed from the upper level to the lower level on to the West Coast Main Line.

Four kind hearted well wishers have met us with plentiful provisions, including Martin who’s driven up from south London – what a lovely surprise.

IMG_1437.jpgJust time for some selfies with Geoff and Vicki as our next Virgin Trains arrives to take us on to Crewe.

IMG_1441.jpg2220 Crewe

There’s something a little eerie about waiting on a deserted Crewe station from 2217 to 2350 with everything closed but as well as the Tamworth provisions we now have more food delivered by another well wisher, Serf, alerted by Sarah, who lives nearby to Crewe.

It’s amazing and heartening to see the widespread admiration for Geoff and Vicki’s fantastic work documenting their travels on YouTube from supporters literally all across the country.

IMG_1443.jpgI’m still not sure what the point of these info-screens are, but at least they brighten up the platform.

IMG_1445.jpgI pressed the green ‘i’ button but nothing happened.

At least we know the Caledonian Sleeper to take us overnight to Inverness is on its way and, importantly, on time.

2350 and here it arrives, all sixteen coaches….

IMG_1475.jpg

Friday 21st June 2019

0000 Good night

0412 Good morning as that reassuring clunk and jolt, when you’re asleep on the Caledonian ‘Highlander’ Sleeper, lets you know it’s train split time in Edinburgh. This time I resisted the temptation to look out through the window blind in my berth at the deserted platform, save for high-viz wearing railway staff working hard to separate the train into its three separate portions to head north, and just carried on drifting in sleep until ….

0420 I was conscious we’d left Edinburgh and were moving but now we’ve stopped and my mind woke up and also clicked into gear thinking – why have we stopped, we mustn’t be delayed into Inverness. Luckily the pause was only for a short while and the wonderful ‘Real Time Trains’ website is showing us as waiting at a red signal at Haynarket junction for about eight minutes just now and a consequential four minutes late running as we’re now back on the move again and thankfully with a predicted on time arrival into Inverness.

0440 Good night.

0540 Perth

One minute early arriving into Perth. All looking good.

0700 The Cairngorms

I know they’re now getting on a bit but I love these old style lounge cars and there’s no better way of seeing the beautiful scenery Scotland offers.

IMG_1520.jpg

IMG_1527.jpgMore importantly Tony and Gaynor are now awake and up …

IMG_1524.jpg

0814 Tomatin passing loop

We’ve made it to the passing loop at Tomatin on time and great to see the LNER Kings Cross bound train pass by just now also on time so now we have a clear track ahead into Inverness and are confident we’ll make our vital connection on to the X98 at 0850.

0840 Inverness

Our Sleeper is arriving into Inverness on time so it’s all good for the connection on to the Stagecoach X98 to Wick at 0850.

IMG_1530.jpgNot only that but a big surprise to be met off the train by Sir Peter Hendy, Chairman Network Rail (who was attending the AGM of the Friends of the Far North Line that morning) – thanks so much Peter for taking the trouble to meet us – even though we were dashing through for the bus it was a delight to stop and have a quick chat.

IMG_1375.jpgThen it was fond farewells to Tony and Gaynor and that dash to the X98 at the nearby bus station.

IMG_1532.jpgAnd another thanks – to Daniel and David, top bosses at Stagecoach North Scotland, for making sure our connection was made …

IMG_1541.jpg… and the right ticket was issued – a through ticket right to John O’Groats.

IMG_1610.jpg

So now it’s the penultimate leg to Wick.

1130 Berridale Braes on the A9

In good news the expected delay at the long term roadworks on the A9 at Berridale Braes didn’t materialise as we passed through just now…

IMG_1614.jpg

… catching a green phase not long after arriving …

IMG_1619.jpg

…. but in not so good news we’re almost 15 minutes behind schedule anyway making that 15 minute connection in Wick looking tight.

However we’ve just arrived at ….

1135 Dunbeath

Where there’s a driver changeover and a little bit of stand time ….

IMG_1620.jpg

….and its now 1140 and we’re off again now only ten minutes down so looking good again.

1220 Wick

IMG_1623.jpg

Yes! We’ve arrived in Wick on time after all the delays on route and so now it’s on to the final leg – the 1235 route 177 to John O’Groats – it’s a Friday only school kids special – apparently a 66 seater with 64 kids on the ‘manifest’ so we’re banking on some kids not turning up today as there’s three of us and another passenger waiting!

1240 The Last Leg

In Wick our 177 has arrived with plenty of room and we’re off on the final leg to John O’Groats with the stop watch showing 23 hours and 57 minutes.IMG_6843.jpgIMG_1634.jpg

And there’s plenty of room on board too.

Nearly there!

1313

Tantalising close.

IMG_E1638.jpg

But we’re doing a figure of eight type route to drop the school kids off!

IMG_E1639.jpg

1325

John O’Groats

Made it.

24 hours 41 minutes 41 seconds

IMG_1652.jpg

IMG_E1721.jpgIt’s been an epic journey and in such great company. Huge thanks to Vicki and Geoff for joining me…

… and so pleased they managed to get both hats bringing an 874 mile journey to a celebratory end.

IMG_1676.jpg

Having done the usual touristy stuff we’re now heading down to Thurso in a taxi to meet up with Tony and Gaynor and make sure they get safely on the route 80 bus up to John O’Groats for the end of their journey.

Here they are arriving at Thurso station….

IMG_1682.jpg …..and catching the 80 on their final journey leg to John O’Groats.

IMG_1684.jpg1630 Thurso

A welcome bite to eat has gone down well and we’re taking the late afternoon train from Thurso back to Inverness which brings this story to an end.

Thanks for reading.

Roger French

LEJOG: The plan

Wednesday 19th June 2019

IMG_7207.jpgTo celebrate a year of blogging and the upcoming Longest Day of the year I’m heading down to Cornwall on GWR’s Night Riviera sleeper train tonight to begin an epic 24-hour Lands End to John O’Groats trip by bus and train beginning tomorrow, Thursday, afternoon.

Scotland - June 2014 079.jpgOn most weekdays, this famous journey can be accomplished in exactly 24 hours using ground based public transport; leaving Lands End at 13:34 on a First Kernow bus on route A1 and arriving John O’Groats excactly twenty-four hours later, coincidentally also at 13:34 on the Stagecoach route 77 arrival from Wick.

Over that twenty-four hours the journey involves taking the A1 bus to Penzance then a GWR train to Plymouth followed by a Cross Country train to Tamworth, a Virgin Train to Crewe and then the Caledonian Sleeper overnight to Inverness from where the Stagecoach X98 bus takes you to Wick to connect with that bus on route 77 to John O’Groats.

The timings are tight in places and it will be touch and go whether everything works out as planned along the way; but there’s no Plan B.

IMG_7210.jpgThe A1 arrives Penzance at 14:33 giving a fairly comfotable 16 minute connection to the GWR train leaving at 14:49. This arrives Plymouth at 16:51 and the Cross Country departure is at 17:25 through to Tamworth arriving there at 21:18. Another comfortable 17 minute connection there on to the Virgin train at 21:35 and into Crewe at 22:17 for the Caledonian Sleeper at 23:50.

The crunch connection comes in Inverness with the Sleeper due to arrive at 08:39 on Friday morning while the Stagecoach X98 is scheduled to leave the nearby bus station for Wick at 08:50 allowing just 11 minutes. Fingers will be kept firmly crossed that this connection works, as a late arrival by the Sleeper will scuppour the schedule completely.

On arrival into Wick on the X98 at 12:20, the 77 which normally leaves at 1305 doesn’t run on a Friday schoolday at that time, as schools in the Highlands finish at lunch time on Fridays. so instead there’s a 177 schooldays only journey from Wick Community Campus at 12:35 which will arrive John O’Groats at 13:25 shaving nine minutes off the 24 hour timing making for a LEJOG attempt at 23 hours and 51 minutes.

DSCF8142.jpgExcept another crunch point will come on that X98 journey as there are currently frustrating delays on the route at the infamous scenic Barriedale Braes coastal hairpin bends with road re-aligning works in full swing. Here’s hoping there’ll be no more than a fifteen minute hold up on the three hour thirty minute journey from Inverness and that vital connection to the 177 isn’t missed.

There is an official Guinness World Record held for this journey. Roy Bromet made it in 24 hours and 4 minutes in June 2016, so although this adventure is just for fun, it’ll be interesting to see if thirteen minutes can be shaved off this timing and a new record of 23 hours and 51 minutes achieved.

First Kernow, GWR, Cross Country, Virgin Trains, Caledonian Sleeper, Stagecoach North Scotland – is down to you!

I’ll be posting a live updated blog during the journey and for those who subscribe by email, you’re welcome to check out progress along the way by visiting either this blog’s home page or Twitter. A full blog will be posted out to subsribers at the end of the journey.

And it’s not just me; the lovely All The Stations couple Geoff and Vicki are coming along too, which must be a good omen for success. A brilliant Longest Day lies ahead.

Roger French

 

All steamed up in Ongar

Sunday 9th June 2019

IMG_0065.jpgThe Epping Ongar Railway is having one of its popular steam weekends this weekend and I took a ride to the end of the Central Line to have a look.

IMG_E0098.jpgThanks to Roger Wright’s ownership interests, you can always count on decent bus connections from right outside Epping Station to North Weald using Roger’s extensive London Bus Company fleet of heritage London buses.

IMG_0096.jpgRTs and an RMA were among the vehicles out today providing a half hourly service between Epping and North Weald with some journeys continuing to Ongar and even Shenfield and they were all as busy as usual.

IMG_0056.jpgOn the railway EOR had three steam engines providing an hourly service from North Weald east to Ongar as well as west to Coopersale where the line currently terminates in the middle of a forest but with no alighting or boarding facilities. It takes fifteen minutes to travel from North Weald to Ongar and around half that time to Coopersale along the single track line.

IMG_0066.jpgThe three steam engines on parade yesterday included Met 1 (photographed above) famous for the honour of working the last steam-hauled London Transport passenger train in 1961 and now a regular attender at steam events in the London area from its base at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre ; 4270 (photographed below) a GWR 2-8-OT which spent its entire career hauling heavy coal trains in South Wales and now resides at the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway; and 5197 (phoptographed further down the page) USA S160 a 2-8-0 locomotive designed for heavy freight work across Europe but spent much of its career in China before a life of preservation normally based on the Churnet Valley Railway.

IMG_0060.jpgOngar is the original ‘start-of-the-line’ of the Central Line; the shuttle ‘Tube’ service between Epping and Ongar closed twenty-five years ago in 1994. It’s a nice Underground quirk that despite this all distances on the system are still measured from the zero mileage post situated literally at the end of the line at Ongar station.

IMG_0079.jpg

IMG_0080.jpgBlake Hall station (between North Weald and Ongar), renowned for only having six passengers a day, closed back in 1981 when it was converted into a private residence and very nice it looks too as you steam by on the train.

IMG_E0088.jpg

IMG_0067.jpgThere’s a great surprise inside the station building at Ongar this weekend as the brilliant railway painter Malcolm Root has a small exhibition displaying some of his original paintings in the ‘Penny Salon’, and how lovely it was to meet Malcolm there too.

IMG_0077.jpgHis paintings are renowned for capturing an amazing level of detail not only of the locomotive and train itself but the whole atmosphere of the wider setting including people and other vehicles all in the period style.

IMG_0072.jpg

IMG_0076.jpg

IMG_0075.jpgThe whole atmosphere on the Epping Ongar Railway yesterday was also brilliant helped by the dedicated staff and volunteers who take their roles impressively seriously as well as a great mixture of fine engines and old carriages reminding of a time when seats really felt grand to sit in and always lined up with windows.

IMG_0069.jpgThere are aspirations to extend the EOR beyond Coopersale to terminate just before the current Epping Underground station at a new platform and station called Epping Glade. This would be a great addition and be a tremendous boost for the railway but it will be sad to see route 339 lose its raisin d’être.

IMG_0094.jpg

IMG_0089.jpg

Well done to Roger Wright and everyone involved at Epping Ongar Railway and London Bus Company for putting on a great event once again.

The three day steam weekend continues today, so depending on when you read this and where you live, why not pop along, or make a note of the next ‘1940s Steam Weekend’ on 22/23 June.

Roger French

A day in Stranraer and The Rhins

Thursday 6th June 2019

IMG_9889.jpgIt may not rank as high as the West Highland Line, the Kyle of Lochalsh Line or the Far North Line in the great Scottish Scenic Rail Lines stakes but ScotRail have rightly designated the line down to Stranraer as a Scenic Rail Journey and very justifiably so too.

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 09.51.10.pngWhile I was in Glasgow on Monday in between consecutive night sleeper train travels I took the opportunity to take another ride down to Stranraer and remind myself why I ranked it thirteenth in My Hundred Best Train Journeys when compiling that list at the end of last year.

IMG_9883.jpgIt’s not that Stranraer itself is a must-visit destination, sadly the town is well past its prime now the Belfast ferry has moved further up the coast, leaving desolation where lorries and cars once formed their orderly queues before boarding.

IMG_9887 (1).jpgIt’s also not that the first part of the journey south from Glasgow is particularly scenic either. It’s not.

It’s not that the trains are spectacular either; they’re unrefurbished Class 156s similar to those that could be found on the top rated scenic lines in the West Highlands and Far North prior to those being revamped and improved. But they do offer tables and great window views, so I’m not complaining.

IMG_9894.jpgThe line’s scenic reputation comes from the eighty minute ride south of Ayr on the single track section through the lovely stations at Maybole, Girvan, and Barhill.

IMG_9896.jpgIt’s not that there are lochs. Nor mountains. Nor huge spectacular valleys.

IMG_9898.jpgIt’s just mile after mile of stunning Scottish countryside with rolling hills, rivers and plenty of lush green landscape.

IMG_9892.jpgThe Stranraer timetable is not particularly attractive either. It’s an approximate two-hourly frequency but only three journeys start in Glasgow (six hours apart at 0808, 1413 and 1813) with most of the other journeys starting in Kilmarnock. Even those Glasgow journeys are bettered by taking a later train on the more direct route to Ayr, saving twenty minutes, and having a handy 6 minute connection in Ayr to the earlier leaving Stranraer train that went the slower route via Kilmarnock.

As my sleeper arrived late into Glasgow at 0815 on Monday morning I had no option but to catch the 0830 to Ayr and connect there with the Stranraer train that had left Glasgow earlier at 0808 via Kilmarnock.

Sadly though, Monday morning was not a good start to the week for ScotRail with a number of incidents including cows on the line to Ayr necessitating slow cautionary progress resulting in a 16 minute late arrival in Ayr thereby missing the Stranraer train which hadn’t been held for the sake of leaving ten minutes later if it had waited for us.

IMG_9815.jpgStill, on the upside I had a bit of time to look at the major work now in progress to renovate and make safe the hotel above Ayr station which began as an emergency measure a few months ago when the building was suddenly declared dangerous necessitating the complete closure of the station and rail lines in the area at great inconvenience.

IMG_9813.jpgIt turned out eight of us bound for Stranraer were left stranded in Ayr and in view of the two hour wait until the next train staff summoned an eight seater taxi which arrived in twenty minutes and we set off for the eighty minute drive down to Stranraer, which aside from the wait, took about the same journey time as the train.

IMG_9816.jpgI’d travelled this route before on Stagecoach’s route 60/360 and it’s a great scenic ride with some lovely coastal views contrasting with the more inland route taken by the train, so it made for an interesting and welcome variation.

I’d never ventured west of Stranraer before and decided to put that right on this visit and explore the hammer head shape every geography student is familiar with when drawing the coastline of Great Britain.

screen-shot-2019-05-31-at-15.41.57This headland peninsular is officially called The Rhins but apparently the locals don’t call it that. It protrudes out towards Belfast in the south western corner of Dumfries and Galloway.

IMG_E9821.jpgLuckily when I was in Dumfries earlier this year I took a photograph of a bus map displayed in bus shelters in the town as in the frustrating absence of finding a bus map online to refer to, this proved invaluable in working out which bus routes to travel on to explore both ends and both sides of The Rhins. Update is I found the online map after publishing this post thanks to a helpful reader – see below for more explanation.

IMG_0360.jpgThe timing worked perfectly to travel on the 1155 one-return-journey four-day-a-week departure on the McCullochs Coaches operated circular route 412 from Stranraer to Leswalt, Envie and Galdenoch (see map above).

IMG_9825.jpgThis was a lovely thirty-five minute run with just me and one other passenger who alighted in Leswalt leaving just me to enjoy the trip round. The route was slightly curtailed due to a road closure but it was still an enjoyable and quiet rural ride.

IMG_9827.jpgThe Fiat minibus has an interesting staggered 2+1 seat layout ….

IMG_9826.jpg…. and a livery which seems to be the base colours for the ‘south west of Scotland transport partnership’ brand as I saw another bus wearing similar colours and sporting a logo to that effect on route 500 to Dumfries operated by Stagecoach.

IMG_9886.jpgWhen I’d investigated the SWesttrans.org.uk website previously it just linked to a collection of minutes and agendas of Partnership Board Meetings. Most odd. However, I’m pleased to update following publishing this report someone has kindly pointed out the link to “Service Information” on the website which has a further link to Dumfries & Galloway timetables as well as a link under “Sustainable Travel” to the bus map referred to above. Why do authorities make it so hard to find these things?!

Back in Stranraer I switched to one of Stagecoach’s routes in the area, the 407, which runs all the way down to the southern end of The Rhines at Drummore.

IMG_9879.jpgThis eight journey a day route is shared with McCullochs Coaches who operate two school journeys and Wigtownshire Community Transport who operate a journey at 1700. We took nine passengers as far as Sandhead which is half way along the 44 minute journey (see map above) but the second half was just me on board although we brought two back from Drummore and another half dozen from Sandhead on the return.

IMG_9881.jpgStagecoach also operate route 408 up to Kirkolm to the north of The Rhines but sadly the 1410 departure didn’t arrive, or more possibly the driver of the 407 when he got back to Stranraer st 1402 didn’t change the blind. There’s one other route, the 387 to Portpatrick on the west coast which is shared between Stagecoach, DGC Buses and Wigtown Community Transport and a convoluted town route in Stranraer, the 365, which Stagecoach also operate.

Another quirky bus feature of Stranraer is the Ulsterbus garage a long way from its normal Northern Ireland territory but historically here for the Glasgow to Belfast service via the ferry, which as highlighted already, has moved further north.

IMG_9820.jpgHaving enjoyed the scenic rides up and down the ‘hammer head’ I decided to head back to Glasgow on the 1500 ScotRail departure from Stranraer; the scenery as far as Ayr was as gorgeous as ever and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

IMG_9891.jpgFrustratingly this train arrives Ayr at exactly the same time a fast train leaves for Glasgow making a connection impossible so I continued to Kilmarnock (photographed below) where there’s a more convenient three minute connection across adjacent platforms to a train passing through from Carlisle and which gets into Glasgow at 1737, whereas if the connection had been possible in Ayr it would have meant an earlier 1710 arrival into Glasgow.

IMG_9906If ScotRail are serious about promoting the scenic delights of the Stranraer line I would strongly recommend reviewing those tight and missed connections and promoting the timetable better – for example whereas the Ayr trains which offer either tight or missed connections are shown in the Stranraer leaflet; the Kilmarnock connections aren’t.

Back in Glasgow I was impressed that Caledonian Sleeper was ready and waiting to board passengers at 2200, the promised time, and it wasn’t long before I was in bed and only vaguely aware we were on our way at the scheduled departure at 2340 back to London Euston. Everything went well until around 0300 when we made a wakening emergency stop in the Preston area. It turned out we’d lost power but after five minutes or so everything had been successfully rebooted and we were on our way again arriving into Euston slightly ahead of schedule .IMG_9944.jpgAnnoyingly my shower didn’t work (again) along with the toilet flush packing up during the night and only a trickle of water from the basin tap in the morning. I experienced the same plumbing problems on my inaugural journey at the beginning of last month which indicates snagging issues are still very much to the fore on the new sleeper carriages.

In fact chatting to staff, they confirmed all is not going well, with continuing porblems and staff consequently taking flack from disgruntled passengers who’ve paid a handsome price for these en-suite extras. Sadly some staff are apparently having to go off sick due to the level of stress. It’s obviously a trying time for a Serco and Caledonian Sleeper and although disappointing, it’s a sensible decision to postpone converting the Highlander route to the new coaches until these problems are ironed out. I hear 7th July is the latest date envisgaed for their introduction.

Someone must be seriously losing out financially due to these delays and problems as the uptake in revenue to justify the new coaches must be well below budget as well as compensation being paid out for failing to deliver. Let’s hope all is resolved soon.

Roger French

PS: yes that timetable case in Stranraer, captured in a photo above, was a bit disheveled…!

IMG_9822.jpg

IMG_9823.jpg

 

Sleeping Beauty (not quite yet)

Monday 3rd June 2019

IMG_9765.jpgIt was meant to be the grand launch night, last night.

Serco owned Caledonian Sleeper had planned to begin running their much delayed smart new Mark 5 trains on the Lowland route between London’s Euston station and Edinburgh and Glasgow from Sunday 2nd June so I bought a ticket to Glasgow a few months ago and planned an interesting day’s travels in Scotland before planning to return the following night (tonight) back to Euston.

Then Caledonian Sleeper announced the Highlander to Inverness/Aberdeen/Fort William would also launch with new coaches from the same date, 2nd June, which was really good news and with hindsight I wished I’d got a ticket on one of those journeys – Fort William on a Mark 5, just imagine.

But in the lottery that is trying to travel on Serco’s new Sleeper coaches Caledonian Sleeper brought forward the Lowlander launch with no public notice to Sunday 28th April even though bookings on their website were still for the old carriages right through until 2nd June.

As readers will know I managed to book a ticket during that first week on 3rd May and wrote about the experience in an earlier blog.

I looked into changing my tickets for 2nd/3rd June from Glasgow to a Highlander destination but decided to stick with another trip to Glasgow. This was just as well as a fortnight ago continuing teething problems with the new coaches led Caledonian Sleeper to postpone the launch of the upgraded Highlander route to ‘some time later in the summer’ with refunds now being offered to those who’d booked the super new ensuite rooms and now relegated back to old style berths.

Meanwhile I rolled up at Euston for my second new Mark 5 Sleeper experience last night ready for an earlier departure at 2134 – a couple of hours earlier than the normal 2350 departure time as we were heading up the East Coast Main Line due to ‘improvement works’ shutting the West Coast Main Line.

The Highlander was similarly affected with an earlier departure at 2028 than its usual 2115 set off time.

It’s not that the ECML is inherently longer or slower it’s that we have to still leave from Euston due to our 16 coach length needing long platforms that Kings Cross can’t offer so trains have to spend the first hour of the journey shunting up to Wembley sidings (or to give it’s official name – Wembley European Freight Operations Centre – known as ‘WMBYFET’ in the trade which incongruously even earns a place in the station listings – not that you can alight there!).

IMG_E9782.jpg

Having arrived at WMBYFET, and after a fairly lengthy pause, the train retraces its tracks back towards Euston again but branches off at Primrose Hill to reach the Overground’s North London Line at Camden Road and then an hour after leaving Euston you find yourself taking the curve on to the East Coast line at Copenhagen Junction just in front of Kings Cross station.

Except last night it all went pear shaped.

The omens were not good when I noticed the Highlander showing ‘Delayed’ but it did leave only 16 minutes late at 2144 which is in the ‘easy to make up’ bracket on such a slackly timed route.

We’d been reminded of our earlier departure by tweet and passengers arrived at Platform 15 ready for the promised 2100 access to rooms.

Except nothing happened at 2100 and the new style check in lecterns remained empty.

IMG_9764.jpgAfter a while a member of staff with a clipboard came and advised us he was waiting for the Train Manager to authorise boarding but we weren’t given any reason for the delay among much mobile phone call making by this key staff member.

To everyone’s relief at 2115 the necessary authorisation was given, the train doors were unlocked and check in began.

That late start put paid to a timely departure as check in was still underway at 2134 and not finished until 2145.

IMG_9773.jpgBack on board while passengers were settling in and grabbing a seat in the new and expanded lounge coach with its new and expensive (but obviously ‘locally sourced’) menu I was wondering why after a further hour had passed we were still sat in Platform 15 going nowhere.

I wandered down to the lounge car but the staff there explained they were too busy serving to even think about a reason why we hadn’t yet moved and nor did a member of staff in my carriage busily collecting up breakfast menus (still not updated for the new look Mark 5 menus) know of any reason for the delay.

I’m not sure whether the individual intercom/help buttons in each berth facilitate a general PA announcement throughout the train but none came and I decided not to disturb our obviously busy Train Manager with such a trivial enquiry as to why an hour after our scheduled departure we’d gone nowhere.

I checked the Caledonian Sleeper twitter feed but no news there either.

Just at that moment a whistle blew, the doors beeped and closed and I was relieved I hadn’t chosen that moment to wander back on to the platform as we were off.

With the benefit of hindsight I’m wondering why we were off as the 2044 departing Highlander had reached the Wembley sidings complex ten minutes later at 2055 but all was not well due to overhead power problems.

Indeed that train wasn’t on the move again for around three hours after a rescue engine had to be dispatched and there were also apparently further problems with one of the locos.

So it’s a mystery why we left when we did as presumably someone had a plan for how we wound circumnavigate the dud power cables. In the event we stopped further south than Wembley at Kilburn Park after just ten minutes into our journey at 2245 and sat there for the next two hours watching the occasional Virgin and LNWR train pass by, until finally at 0030 the Highlander passed us having been rescued and making its way south again and over to Camden Road, and we finally got going at 0051.

I’m sure it was a nightmare to sort out but it does seem to me there must have been poor communications between the ‘industry partners’ about what to do for the best and then communicate on to passengers in a timely fashion.

Following the above tweet at 2244 as we were departing, after the first hour’s delay, no more news came until 0115…

IMG_E9780.jpgIn the event, unlike the Highlander, we had the benefit of a lot of slack in our schedule and made up much of the delay. As we approached Edinburgh our expected arrival into Glasgow was given as a respectable 0730 – not too much delayed from our scheduled 0718.

Unfortunately we got held up again outside Edinburgh and then had to wait for staff to come and split the train as we continued on to Glasgow and further slow progress around Motherwell finally arriving into Glasgow Central just now at 0829 this morning – around an hour late – having had to wait for a platform as a late departing Virgin train left.

Not bad considering the three hours and more we were delayed earlier at Euston and Kilburn subsequently spoilt by slow progress since Edinburgh. But the fact we made up a lot of the delay is even more reason to give much more definitive reassurance to passengers (sorry, guests) on board about the delay – rather than nothing being said and a couple of tweets sometime later.

Finally for this post a few observations about the new Mark 5 coaches further to my report on 3rd May:

The keycard worked this time but only because I remembered how to programme it. There were no instructions accompanying or in the plain white envelope. I also asked a member of staff in the lounge car but he had no knowledge. I’m not sure how guests are supposed to know the ‘two tap’ secret – I asked another guest if they had instructions and she said her keycard too was just in a plain envelope.

IMG_E9771.jpgThe side destination panels were wrongly showing our train would be calling at stations on the West Coast Main Line – bit of a basic error that one!IMG_9777.jpgIMG_9778.jpg

IMG_9774.jpg

The en-suite toilet flush is very noisy for your next door neighbour.

The intercom/help line is also very noisy – I heard my neighbours ringing tone and conversation very clearly.

The ‘bar stools’ in the lounge car are not very comfortable – more like perch stools.

IMG_9804.jpg

On the plus side, my shower worked a treat this time and with nice hot water too.

And you just can’t beat waking up to a sunrise over the east coast as you travel towards Edinburgh…

IMG_9802.jpg

… it’s a good job last night wasn’t the grand launch night. There may still be teething problems but I’m sure these will soon settle down and the service will become a Sleeping Beauty and be much admired – if not quite yet.

IMG_9803.jpg

Roger French

PS: I’m sure there’s a good reason but I do wonder why trains can’t ‘turn’ at Kilburn Park whenever using the ECML instead of continuing to Wembley; also seemed to me no reason to add all that extra time into the schedule. We could have left almost at the normal time last night … because we effectively did!

PPS: As we approached Glasgow just now there was an onboard announcement made apologising for the delay (’caused by a broken down train in the Wembley area last night’) but this was inaudible in the cabins.

Medway Valley by train

Saturday 1st June 2019

There’s a lovely railway branch line which heads in a north/south direction across the centre of Kent where Southeastern trains shuttle up and down all day between Tonbridge in the Weald and Strood in the more industrial north of the county. It’s a quiet backwater line weaving its way between the main commuter lines heading east/west linking East Kent with London

It takes just over 50 minutes to travel the full journey from one end of the line to the other. Southeastern deploy two trains in the off peak every hour between Tongbridge and Strood with an extra train adding a half hourly frequency between Maidstone West (situated in the centre of the line) and Strood. In peak hours trains don’t make it all the way to Tonbridge but instead run every half hour between Paddock Wood (the station after Tonbridge and where there’s a little bay platform to turnback) and Strood.

Rather than being a dead-end branch line, the Medway Valley Line provides passengers with handy connections at both ends to High Speed Trains whisking you off to Ebbsfleet, Stratford and St Pancras International at Strood and at Tonbridge (or Paddock Wood) trains connect to London Bridge, Waterloo East and Charing Cross.

There are also connections at Tonbridge to the hourly Southern service via Edenbridge to Redhill; where there are connections south to Gatwick Airport (and Brighton) as well as west to Dorking, Guildford and Reading on the GWR diesel train service.

What a shame, now bi-mode trains are becoming fashionable, it isn’t possible to join all these east-west connections up and run a through train from Reading to Redhill, Tonbridge, Maidstone and on to Strood every hour; a bit like a railway M25.

There are two stations in Maidstone on the line, the one after Maidstone West (towards Strood) is called Maidstone Barracks even though the Invicta Park Barracks complex in the county town is a little way north east of the station the other side of the main A229 to Rochester and ironically closer to the main station in Maidstone called Maidstone East on the Victoria to Ashford line. The Barracks are scheduled to close in 2027 but I doubt the station will be renamed. 

The best feature of this lovely branch line is the way it follows the course of the River Medway for most of the route once it turns off the main Tonbridge to Ashford line at Paddock Wood and the tracks head north continuing past such lovely stations as Beltring, Yalding, Wateringbury and East Fairleigh to Maidstone West. The line continues along the course of the River Medway north of Maidstone West but it becomes more urban and industrial in nature.

There’s a designated 28 mile walk all along the River Medway from Tonbridge to Rochester called appropriately enough the Medway Valley Walk; it’s part of the Long Distance Walkers Association portfolio of recommended walks.

Yalding station

I’m not energetic enough to tackle a walk of that length, but I’d noticed the delightful views of the Medway on previous train journeys as I travelled along the line and have long wanted to take a bite-sized walk to savour the views and the tranquil atmosphere alongside the river.

In fine sunny weather last Thursday I got off the train at Yalding which is where the rail tracks begin running alongside the River and took the footpath along the River’s west bank to the next station up the line, the aptly named Wateringbury. It didn’t take long and I was in plenty of time to catch the next northbound train an hour later.

Yalding and Wateringbury have small boat marinas on the River Medway close to both stations which make for a picturesque addition to the scenery.

This line is a real gem in Kent’s busy rail network. It’s why I ranked it No 29 in my Hundred Best Train Journeys at the end of last year. It’s overseen by the Kent Community Partnership who have produced a very informative video on their website about the line and do their best to promote it and share its delights, as I’m doing now.

Roger French