May’s new timetable on track: Part 2

Wednesday 22nd May 2019

IMG_7312.jpgI left you yesterday morning in Sheffield about to head west on the delightful Hope Valley line (No 12 in My 100 Best Train Journeys) with Trans Pennine Express. It’s a beautiful scenic ride through the Peak District made all the better by a gorgeous sunny day.

IMG_7321.jpgI changed trains in Stockport to a southbound Virgin Trains Euston bound Pendolino as far as Crewe then changing again to head northwest over to Chester on another Virgin Trains, this time a ‘Super Voyager’ (according to the Train Manager’s announcement) although I wasn’t sure what was ‘super’ about it.

IMG_7346.jpgBut it was on time and I arrived in Chester with twenty minutes to spare for the new Transport for Wales hourly service to Liverpool via Frodsham and Runcorn which started this week.

IMG_E7490.jpgMerseyrail operate a long standing fifteen minute frequency service between Chester and Liverpool via The Wirral with electric trains on the third rail system serving Rock Ferry and Birkenhead. It takes 42 minutes to reach Liverpool Line Street on a city centre underground circuit including Liverpool Central in 44 minutes.

IMG_7351.jpgNow we have a choice of train companies and routes with the new TfW hourly service from Chester to Liverpool Lime Street timetabled to take a slighter slower 47 to 50 minutes depending on the journey.

For a visitor it’s rather confusing to see this new interloper heading to Liverpool in the opposite direction to the traditional Merseyrail trains. Even more confusing my 1327 departure was advertised as leaving from Chester’s Platform 6 but neither train in that platform were TfW branded and disconcertingly were locked up with no diesel engine throbbing away ready to leave (on the right pictured below).

IMG_7355.jpgThe adjacent Platform 5 (on the left) had a Northern train heading to Leeds which is another exciting May timetable initiative achieved by linking new journeys from Chester via Warrington to an existing hourly service from Manchester to Leeds. Except it takes half an hour longer than changing trains in Manchester Victoria on to a faster Trans Pennine Express train to Leeds 15 minutes later rather than the new slower through route via Hebden Bridge taken by the Northern train. Still, it does provide new direct links between stations along the way eg Warrington to Halifax so it is a good development.

IMG_7354.jpgAfter that train left at its scheduled 1321 the handful of us waiting news of the 1327 were told by a shouting orange high-vis wearing dispatcher that the now vacant Platform 5 would be for our Liverpool train – just as well he shouted as bizarrely there seemed to be no dot matrix sign on Platform 6, so old style communication is needed.

IMG_7357.jpgOur train wasn’t due to arrive from Liverpool until 1324 giving a tight three minute turn around; it actually arrived at 1328 but with our fresh driver ready to take over we were away at 1330 after an impressively quick handover.

IMG_7358.jpgMore impressive we got to Lime Street in just 41 minutes, beating Merseyrail’s journey time by a minute.

Even better there are only four stations along the way on the TfW journey whereas Merseyrail has fourteen on its route to Lime Street which makes the journey seem torturously longer.

Local and regional politicians are salivating with delight at this new route as they see future potential in linking trains along the north Wales coast directly with Liverpool and providing handy connections at Liverpool South Parkway (one of the four stations) for the nearby John Lennon Airport.

Two of the new journeys extend beyond Chester to Wrexham and there’s talk of more in the future. There’s also talk of links with through trains to South Wales but quite where all these new links will be diverted from on the existing network is a mystery unless they’re all going to be extra journeys which will be mightily expensive.

Chester, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway have already got regular trains to Liverpool so that just leaves Helsby and Frodsham as the two stations newly connected to Merseyside’s capital and as those station names convey, they’re not exactly booming metropoli in themselves. So unless those links are added further back into Wales, which will inevitably mean severing existing through journeys (eg to Cardiff, Manchester or Birmingham) , it’s difficult to see where all the new passengers are going to come from.

This exciting development has been made possible by upgrading what’s called the Halton Curve, a single line curve between Frodsham and Runcorn linking the Chester to Warrington Line with the Crewe to Runcorn and Liverpool line.

IMG_E7492.jpgPreviously this bit of little used track was only signalled for trains in the Runcorn direction and to travel on it you had to catch the once a week Parliamentary train that ran on a summer Saturday around 0700 from Chester to Runcorn just to say you’d done it. When I travelled on it a few years ago there were about six of us all just doing it for the sake of doing it. That’s dedication for you although I’m sure others call it something else!

After a lot of work over the last couple of years this bit of track has been made bidirectional so the new train service can run every hour seven days a week both ways on the new timetable. But all this hasn’t come cheap. A cool £16 million has been spent sorting out the signals and tarting up the track. I originally thought that amount of funding was going to double track the curve, but no, it’s still single line.

The funding was approved by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. I hope they think it’s worth the investment.

IMG_7383.jpgI had a wander through the train as we left Frodsham (the second station after Chester) to see how many new passengers were on board as we went on to the curve past the signal box marking the junction.

IMG_7360.jpgTwelve of us were making the trip including one or two just like me who were keeping a curious eye on what was occurring.

IMG_E7491.jpgAt Liverpool Line Street TfW we’re making their presence for the very first time in that station by promoting the new link with the usual goodie bags containing a pen, smarties and the timetable leaflet.

IMG_7418.jpgI guess it’s worth shouting about having blown £16million on revitalising a piece of curved track! It wasn’t up to Azuma launch standards, but then that cost a few hundred million more.

IMG_7417.jpgI hope it’s a success but it’s going to take more than just Helsby and Frodsham to achieve payback and those tight turn rounds in Chester look worrying with all the layover at the Liverpool end of the route – presumably for ‘pathing reasons’.

IMG_7423.jpgFrom Liverpool Lime Street I went back across the Pennines on the Trans Pennine Express northerly route via Manchester Victoria, Huddersfield and Leeds and on to York and Durham where it was a good opportunity to hop off and take a deviation to Newcastle via Sunderland.

By bus.

IMG_7459.jpgAlso new on the public transport scene this week is the beginning of a much needed brand makeover for Go North East’s vast bus network across the region.

The new X-lines brand sensibly brings all the disparate and individually branded limited stop routes together under one attractive identity. It’s another triumph from Best Impressions and I’m sure it will be a success.

IMG_7443.jpgIt certainly made a welcome contrast from the grim image created by the down at heel Durham bus station.

IMG_7430.jpgSadly reliability problems impacted my planned journey on the half hourly X-lines route X20 linking Durham with Sunderland and due to depart at 1726.

The bus didn’t arrive from its previous run until well after that time and we didn’t depart until 1739, 13 minutes late.

IMG_7450.jpgIt turned out to be one of those frustrating journeys where one delay added to another with passengers’ tickets being rejected by the new Ticketer machines and other issues.

IMG_7451.jpgEven more frustrating we got overtaken twice by the much more frequent all stops route 20 which turned out to be quicker on this occasion!

IMG_7454.jpgWe eventually arrived in Sunderland’s bright and airy ‘Interchange’ at Park Lane twenty minutes late and our driver loaded up and hurried off on the other newly branded X-lines route, the X6/7 to Peterlee with which the X20 interworks.

I headed over to Sunderland’s rather brutalist station …

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IMG_7465.jpg… which is even more depressing on the subterranean platforms ….

IMG_7469.jpg… and caught the Metro over to Newcastle for an overnight stop.

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Part 3 of this round Britain round up to follow in a couple of days.

Roger French

May’s new timetable on track: Part 1

Tuesday 21st May 2019

IMG_7172.jpgFirst improvement in the May 2019 rail timetable I experienced yesterday on my tour around was from my own local station, Hassocks where our disjointed two an hour trains to the Thameslink Core stations and on to Bedford or Cambridge (one an hour to each but to a 40/20 pattern) have been replaced with the new even half hourly Brighton to Cambridge service. Bye bye Bedford it’s been good to know you.

I caught the new 0748 which goes to Cambridge whereas previously there had been a long gap in our peak hour timetable until the 0808 to Bedford which now no longer calls at Hassocks.

IMG_7180.jpgIt wasn’t surprising on this first morning there were few passengers boarding or on board the train from Brighton, although by East Croydon we’d got busier, and by London Bridge as well as many alighting, there were also many boarding almost certainly unaware they were catching a new and extra peak hour twelve coach train. And that doesn’t often happen in commuter land. It’s a welcome addition to the timetable as are the new Saturday Cambridge Brighton journeys and the Sunday journeys which venture as far south as Gatwick Airport.

IMG_7185.jpgTimekeeping on the 0748 had been excellent throughout for this first day; we arrived London Bridge spot on time and through the Thameslink Core with five minutes spare to wait at Finsbury Park (even time for our driver to come back on board for a toilet break) before continuing north with noticeably few passengers on board this extra journey to last week’s timetable.

IMG_7193.jpgI got off at Stevenage in time to see one of the buses now running the all new Rail Replacement Bus service which has replaced trains to Hertford North while a new terminating Bay platform is built.

IMG_7187.jpgThere’s a half hourly service running direct to Hertford North and an hourly service just to Watton-at-Stone from where a half hourly train runs via Hertford North to Moorgate as normal.

IMG_7191.jpgThere was only one passenger on the 0937 departure from Stevenage to Hertford North. I’m not sure why this arrangement is happening as the four platforms at Stevenage still look as they’ve always done to me from where the Moorgate terminators terminated, but perhaps more structural changes are ahead.

I headed back south to Finsbury Park on a Horsham bound train (from Peterborough), did a quick cross platform change there to a Great Northern train from Hertford North and down the former City Line to Moorgate.

IMG_7198.jpgWhat a shame the former Network South East tiling and branding is finally being removed from these stations. Moorgate is presumably the first to be rebranded as so far Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury & Islington and Drayton Park remain untouched.

IMG_7201.jpgAs both Peterborough and Hertford North originating trains arrived and departed Finsbury Park at exactly the same time it was interesting to see just how many passengers dashed across the platform from one train to the other to either make their way towards stations on the Thameslink Core or to Moorgate.

IMG_7200.jpgSome interesting journey options and connections to the Underground are now available. I was heading to Liverpool Street and could have changed at Farringdon on to the Underground but decided to opt for Moorgate and take a stroll.

IMG_7205.jpgI arrived in good time at Liverpool Street to catch the very first northbound ‘Norwich in 90’ train operated by Greater Anglia at 1100, displacing the usual half hourly Norwich departure with its stops along the way at that time to 1102.

IMG_E7223.jpgThe ‘Norwich in 90’ idea is classic political and PR puff. Great for photo shoots and making out how wonderful everyone is at successfully campaigning for some eye catching achievement and for train companies to pat themselves on the back for responding to such calls for ‘improvements’, but of dubious benefit in the grand scheme of things.

IMG_7206.jpgNorwich folk make comparisons between the normal one hour fifty minute journey time for the 115 miles to London with the same time it takes to run non-stop from York over the 200 miles down to the Capital. But that ignores the crucial point that trains running southbound non-stop from York have come from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Durham, Darlington as well as Sunderland and other stations so already have a huge number of passengers on board making for an often full train load to whizz down to London.

The trouble for Norwich is that it’s at the end of the line, and to muster up the same number of passengers to head down to London, albeit with a stop in Ipswich is never going to stack up especially with a decent half hourly train running between the cities all day.

At the moment there are just two 90 minute journeys in each direction utilising one train which sits in Norwich for four and a half hours between the return runs. While the timings work well for Norwichites wanting a day out in London (0900 from Norwich and 1900 return from Liverpool Street) it’s not quite so good for a day in Norwich, unless you like a late start, leaving London at 1100 with a return at 1700.

And it’s that return at 1700, arriving Liverpool Street at 1830 just as the tracks are already stacked out with departing commuter trains which has caused the most consternation among Norwich in 90 critics. It’s meant a whole raft of tweaks have been necessary to create a smooth path for the all important 1830 arrival. Here’s a quick run through courtesy of Today’s Railways magazine ….

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IMG_7305.jpgAfter all that yesterday’s first run on the 1700 from Norwich hit a red signal near Bethnal Green arriving into Liverpool Street five minutes down at 1835.

My 1100 northbound journey fared better as did the first 0900 southbound, both achieving the 90 minute target; just as well with all the red lanyard wearing Greater Anglia staff, VIPs and camera crews on board.

IMG_7212.jpgWe nearly missed it with a slowing down near Diss, but they’d apparently chosen the fastest pair of engines in the fleet and our driver made up for that hiccup and arrived spot on time at 1230. While the two First Class carriages were well occupied with guests, I did a head count in standard class after we left Ipswich; there were 78 on board who could have all just about fitted into one carriage instead of the seven we had! Meanwhile the former stopping train that left 2 minutes behind us also looked to have a similar load on board as we pulled out of Liverpool Street.

IMG_7219.jpgGreater Anglia had hoped to show off one of their new trains on the Norwich in 90 runs yesterday but alas as is the way with new trains, testing is still going on and everything’s running late, so it wasn’t to be.

IMG_7226.jpgI came across a new Class 745 train on test on my next journey to Great Yarmouth where it made for an interesting contrast alongside the Class 37 engine which had brought us across the wonderful Norfolk Broads and which are still helping to keep the timetable on track until new trains are ready.

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IMG_7222.jpgIt’s an exciting time for Greater Anglia who are replacing their entire fleet over the next year and I’m sure the positive publicity surrounding the ‘Norwich in 90’ will all help to raise the profile of train travel in the region which has to be good; and it was certainly an impressive ride, if totally uncommercial.

IMG_7227.jpgAfter my nostalgic ride across to Great Yarmouth and back I just got caught up in the tail end of delays due to an earlier signal failure at Ely making for a late running 1357 departure from Norwich to Liverpool. East Midlands Trains were doing their best to recover service and combined the 75 minute late running 1257 departure with our 15 minute late 1357 journey making for a double crewed four coach train and the consequential hiatus over seat reservations. Makes me think it really is time to do away with reservations but I know the arguments for keeping them too, and sway between the two views.

IMG_7238.jpgA ride up the East Coast Main Line on an LNER HST from Peterborough took me to Retford ….

IMG_7248.jpg… where I changed to try out the all new hourly Northern service to Gainsborough Central. Theses journeys have been tacked on to a Leeds to Sheffield timetable which provide a stopping service from Sheffield eastwards to Worksop and Retford and then to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7273.jpgPreviously the train would have veered south as it approached Gainsborough and served that town’s other station a mile south of the town centre on Lea Road and then on to Lincoln. Lea Road is a delightful station with a wonderful entrance area lovingly cared for by local people….

IMG_7286.jpg…. but it’s not nearly as conveniently sited as Central, which as it’s name implies is central. And peculiarly used to get a train service just on a Saturday and then only three return journeys which continued on via Brigg to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. These Saturday journeys still run (they give Brigg along with Kirton Lindsey their required ‘Parliamentary service’) but it’s certainly celebratory time for the new look connection back to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7274.jpgAnd Northern have splashed the cash on some bunting to celebrate.

IMG_7276.jpgThere were just three other passengers on the 1750 arrival into Gainsborough Central yesterday having left Sheffield at a peak time 1654, but that was just day one and I’m sure as word spreads Gainsboroughites will find the new service a great improvement.

The new timetable has enabled Northern to speed up the previous hourly Sheffield via Worksop and Retford to Lincoln service by missing out the five stations between Sheffield and Worksop in the off peak (leaving them for the new Gainsborough Central train) saving about eight minutes giving a Sheffield to Lincoln in 73; that’s for 55 miles. Not quite Norwich in 90 over 115 miles but it’s a start.

IMG_7287.jpgI caught the first off peak ‘flyer’ from Lincoln at 0929 this morning and although we only had 24 on board leaving that wonderful city, we picked up a few at the next two stations, Saxilby and Gainsborough Lea Road before a good crowd at Retford and Worksop when it was foot down all the way to Sheffield and very perceptively a faster journey as we sped by the next five stations. I’m sure once this improvement becomes known it’ll become very popular especially as the train continues to Meadowhall for the shopping centre there on its way to Leeds.

IMG_7302.jpgSome passengers boarding in Lincoln wanting Sheffield were puzzled by the train showing Leeds as the destination but I overheard others on board buying through tickets to Leeds so that link up may prove beneficial.

I’m now at Sheffield and about to cross the Pennines to see more new May timetable developments and I’ll describe them in the next blog.

IMG_7307.jpgLittle tip, always follow the trolley when wanting to know which end First Class is located when it’s not displayed on station signs!

Roger French

All Line Rove Around

Monday 20th May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

Farewell HST

Saturday 18th May 2019

IMG_6884.jpgToday’s a poignant day on the Great Western. The much loved HST trains are running their last journeys across the network to and from London as new Hitachi IET Class 800 and 802 trains now reign supreme.

Whereas last week’s LNER Azuma launch was met with much excitement for the future, somehow GWR’s similar trains haven’t made the same impact since they first appeared in late 2017.

IMG_6974.jpgAs I write this blogpost on board the very last HST which left Penzance for Paddington at 0650 this morning, many overheard comments are “it’s all very sad”, “end of an era”, “going to really miss them” and “have you signed the online petition to bring back the buffet; the Azuma has got one”.

IMG_6925.jpgIt’s been forty years down here on the West Country line to Penzance so for a whole generation of Millennials HSTs are all they’ve known so nostalgic regrets are understandable. All the more so as the ambiance of the new Hitachi trains is more Championship than Premier League in First Class.

IMG_6875.jpgTo bid my fond farewells I treated myself to the very last ever HST Pullman lunchtime dining experience on yesterday’s 1303 Paddington to Plymouth.

IMG_6877.jpgAlthough this splendid tradition is continuing on the IET it just won’t be the same as sitting in a sumptuous leather seat in what feels like an exclusive top class restaurant with just 17 covers and five attentive staff.

IMG_6878.jpgIt took well over an hour for my veggie main course to appear but it didn’t matter at all as there was lots to see out of the window as the journey continued westwards and with such a small kitchen it would be impossible to serve an awkward diner like me avoiding alcohol, skipping the first course and out of sync with the flow of other diners. And it was certainly worth the wait.

IMG_E6911.jpgThe Acorn Squash was absolutely delicious and came with complimentary bottled spring water and bread rolls; and of course it’s all served silver service style with decent crockery, cutlery and napkins.

IMG_6912.jpgI was so impressed I had to seek out the chef to pass on my thanks and in so doing was aghast to see the limited facilities from which she produced around two dozen amazing three course meals over the previous two hours. A quite remarkable achievement.

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From Plymouth, after an hour’s break, I continued down to Penzance on a nine coach IET Class 802.

IMG_6930.jpgThis journey, the 1403 from Paddington, had originally been scheduled for an HST but was swapped for the new replacement and provided an interesting contrast. It was my first journey through Cornwall on an IET and in fact my first journey on a GWR nine coach version having previously only enjoyed trips on the five coach trains (and doubled up as ten coach) to Bristol and South Wales.IMG_6944.jpg

The internal layout unsurprisingly is very similar to the Azumas and the same comments apply to luggage storage and seats as I made in yesterday’s blog.

IMG_6945.jpgI did get a peek inside the ‘end of carriage’ large lockable luggage and cycle stores which I’m sure are going to be kept very busy.

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IMG_6950.jpgAside from Menheniot the 1725 journey from Plymouth is an all stations stopper right through Cornwall and it was interesting to hear the auto announcements programmed to emphasise which doors will or will not open bespoke to each coach at short platform stations (something the HSTs weren’t able to do) supplemented by the Train Manager’s announcements.

Another noteworthy improvement is the train no longer being delayed while the Train Manager or station staff have to walk up and down the platform manually shutting all the carriage doors which together with the much improved acceleration away from stations meant we were well able to keep to time as we journeyed through Cornwall; something I’d not often experienced before.

IMG_6953.jpgIndeed, we arrived in Penzance a minute early.

IMG_6954.jpgAnd so to my last HST journey from Penzance all the way through to Paddington at 0650 this morning. Lots of cameras; lots of waving; smiles and sighs and many memories shared.

IMG_6972.jpgI’ll miss the clunk clicking as an HST pulls away from stations; the sound of those doors being slammed shut; the door windows which can be opened and shut; the draught howling back into the carriage because someone’s pointing a camera out of the open window; the late running in Cornwall (we arrived in Plymouth around ten minutes down) …. the happy ambiance of it all.

IMG_6969.jpgIt’s a shame progress means we seem to be losing an air of quality as new trains come on stream but the good news is it’s largely being driven by the need to increase seating capacity because trains are becoming more and more popular. More seats per carriage is an inevitable consequence on long distance journeys as well as commuter trains.

I was never a fan of the high backed seats First Great Western crammed into an unfriendly layout in Standard Class in their HSTs a few years ago (which continue in the shortened 4 coach ‘Castle’ sets in the West Country and round to Cardiff pictured below) and much prefer the new IETs albeit with their less comfortable seats.

IMG_6929.jpgBut the days of luxury in First Class sadly now seem to be passing into a bygone era as twenty percent more seats are added per carriage. But I’m sure people said the same when steam was replaced with diesel and in the years to come we’ll get to love the IETs and Azumas for their modern approach to train travel.

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IMG_6948.jpgBack on the last HST journey this morning from Penzance we lost a bit more time due to slow running through Starcross arriving Exeter St Davids 15 minutes late. Through Tiverton Parkway and Taunton we got extremely busy and there were the usual issues over passengers with seat reservations assuming an IET layout and naturally couldn’t find their expected seats (no First Class coach E on an HST).

More positively we were twelve minutes late into Westbury at 1112 instead of 1100 which would have meant passengers just missing the connection for the Southampton train due to leave at 1111. A shout out to GWR’s Swindon Control who held the Southampton train for a few minutes until our arrival allowing passengers to make the connection – something you perceive rarely happens these days.

IMG_7039.jpgWe continued to be around twelve minutes down towards London, picking up a large contingent of passengers at Reading (standing room only from there) and where we passed an equally large number of photographers recording this historic last day of HSTs which have been synonymous for so many years with that town. (I well remember taking my first HST ride when at Reading University in 1974/5).

It’s now 1227 and we’ve just arrived into Paddington after a splendid five hour and 37 minute journey which I’ll also well remember … perhaps not for as long as 45 years this time, that would be pushing life expectancy too far, but hopefully for many years to come.

Farewell HST and thanks.

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Roger French

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New trains in 2019 Part 4: Azumas

Friday 17th May 2019

IMG_6810.jpgLet’s get the usual bit out of the way first …. “at last, after many delays” etc etc. Same old story, of course, and in the Azuma’s case it still hasn’t quite been sorted with onboard technical issues to do with electrical and signal compatibility north of Darlington still to be resolved; so for now you can only Azuma between Kings Cross and Leeds and the one return journey a day LNER run to and from Hull.

Then there’s the usual PR spin in the Media Release and glossy brochure I filched when gate crashing Tuesday’s launch: “Setting new benchmarks in rail travel is part of our DNA….LNER is on a mission to transform rail travel…….state of the art……..environmentally friendly……world class…..” I completed my media release buzzword bingo card even befrore the end of Page 1.

“The Azuma train will be the first of 65 new trains to replace the existing fleet of 45 trains operated by LNER on the East Coast”. Sounds impressive. You had to look at another piece of paper to note that 22 of the 65 new trains will only be five coaches long with 43 being the standard 9 coach lengths we’ve been used to with the Mark 4, and HSTs. But to be fair, we’re also told there will be “an average of 100 more seats on every train compared to the current fleet”. Not sure how that “average” has been worked out but it sounds impressive, and we certainly need more seats at busy times so that’s all good.

Hitachi the manufacturer are proud that the 42 electric and 23 bi-mode trains have “over 70 per cent of parts sourced from the surrounding areas of our factory” which is in Newton Aycliffe. “Azuma may look like a Japanese-bullet train, but underneath it is very British” we’re told. How apt for these turbulent times.

IMG_6809.jpgThere are a few upsides from the significant delay in getting these trains on the tracks: it’s given LNER time to finesse the branding which perhaps GWR didn’t have, while gradually phasing them in on the Leeds line enables staff to get used to them. Which was the first thing I noticed arriving at Kings Cross yesterday morning for the 1103 departure to Leeds; LNER staff everywhere.

IMG_6832.jpgThere’d been even more at the razzmatazz media launch on Tuesday of course, but although the band had long gone to their next gig, the dry ice turned off and the stage and microphones packed away (and all that was without the ‘Branson’ influence who loved nothing better than staring in a high profile media launch)……

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IMG_6676.jpg….. for day two in service, there was still a large number of red lanyards around necks on the platform as well as on board. I’m sure some of it is training teams from across the network as well as giving managers and other staff the new-train-in-service experience. I couldn’t make out the job titles on all the name badges but I reckon most LNER offices must have been empty yesterday.

IMG_6869.jpgThe mystique of using an Azuma brand is a typical Virgin/Stagecoach ploy now inherited by LNER; and it works a treat. ”Hello and welcome aboard this LNER Azuma to Leeds”, the auto announcement plays out as the train departs every station. Mind you there’s never any passion in an auto announcement so that touch point didn’t quite do it for me.

The whole branding, livery and image is in a different league to the same trains running on the Great Western with their more staid dark green and grey and no one quite sure whether to call them IETs or Class 800s (or 802s).

IMG_6817.jpgThe two tone red (Standard Class) and burgundy (First Class) colours used by LNER are certainly bright and classy respectively.

IMG_6822.jpgAlthough they’re the same seats as used by GWR the moquette somehow gives the perception of a little extra padding and my two and a quarter hour journey to Leeds was comfortable but perceptively less luxurious than the Mark 4 leather seats in First Class, but that’s a sign of the times. I also tried out the Standard Class seats – I think Leeds is about the furthest I’d like to travel – certainly worth taking a cushion if ever you take the train all the way to Inverness or Aberdeen. Leg room is good and I particularly noticed the “up to an additional 7cm leg room” the media release boasted about in Standard Class. Well done LNER for that.

IMG_6821.jpgI’m a bit of a seat layout obsessive and always try and find the best seat that suits me in each train set so paid particular attention to this aspect. Whereas in First Class on a Mark 4 the 2+1 layout swapped sides at the mid point of the carriage to create a wide passing area with two single seats facing each other on opposite sides of the carriage (my favourite spot) now in Coach L (shown above) it’s a straight 2+1 throughout the carriage with ten single seats facing one direction and nine in the other (plus a luggage rack where the tenth would be) HST style, giving only one pair of single seats facing each other over a table in the middle of the coach. On the other side seats are in tables for four (as on Mark 4s) with two pairs airline style facing north.

IMG_6823.jpgThe end First Class Coach M which has two accessible spaces by the entrance door has five single seats all facing north with none facing south so if you’re travelling First Class and like ‘facing the engine’ book yourself a seat in coach L or half of K when London bound rather than M. Coach K (shown above) has seven southbound facing single seats and three northbound.

IMG_6812.jpgThe accessible spaces for passengers using a wheelchair in both First and Standard Class include a large space between the back panel and the table. This makes for easy manoeuvring but if the passenger parks their wheelchair up against the panel, they won’t be able to enjoy a window view.

The table lifts up but I wonder if all wheelchairs would fit under it when in the down position leaving the passenger sitting awkwardly if not. I’m sure that’s all been thought through though and my concerns are unfounded.

IMG_6813.jpgThere’s the usual mixture of Standard Class seats airline style and tables for four to a similar arrangement to the Mark 4 coaches.

IMG_6816.jpg“Our spacious new Azuma coaches give you more places than ever before to store your luggage” LNER’s ‘Your guide to AZUMA’ explains. I seem to be an exception these days by travelling fairly light with a small rucksack easily stored in an overhead rack but it seems to me suitcases with wheels have opened up a large number of wardrobe addicted travellers and even a fairly lightly loaded train to Leeds yesterday morning had luggage racks full leaving Kings Cross.

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However on exploring the train further I came across a lockable storage cupboard for even larger luggage items….

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….. and there are other similar cupboards for cycle storage too.

IMG_6867.jpgThere’s the inevitable ‘restricted view’ seat/s which makes me think this area really would be an ideal space for an extended luggage rack to store those mini wardrobes and would only lose minimal seating capacity.

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IMG_6864.jpgUnlike GWR’s IEPs the Azuma has a nice buffet area mid train in Standard Class (and it’s not just any old buffet area, it’s a “Let’s Eat Cafe Bar” where you’ll find “locally sourced ingredients from along our route form the ingredients for the best possible onboard catering”. To me it looked like just the usual range of drinks and snacks but perhaps there’d all been sourced from the local Grantham branch of Bookers……

IMG_6819.jpg…. and in First Class the kitchen occupies the rear portion (heading north) at the end of Coach M.

IMG_6826.jpgIndeed it takes up a surprising amount of space in Coach M – offering complimentary food making for an interesting business model about the use of space and customer expectations on service and what’s included.

IMG_6857.jpgWhich brings me to the all important pricing, as Judith Chalmers used to say on the Holiday TV programme, or was it Wish You Were Here?

I booked yesterday’s return journey from Kings Cross to Leeds online a month ago on 18th April. First Class tickets with a third off Senior Railcard cost £29.05 northbound and £37.60 southbound (all the £29.05 tickets had gone) making £66.65 in total. If I’d opted for Standard Class it would have cost just £11.90 both ways; £23.80 return. A tasty curry (I could have had two – one going to Leeds and one on the return), fruit, crisps, biscuits, a chocolate and caramel pot, juices and coffees were all complimentary in my £66.65 ticket price. That’s what I call excellent value. Mind you if I’d just rocked up and bought my ticket at Kings Cross just before departing it would have set me back £223.10 with a Railcard or £74.09 Standard Class – the latter is not bad value for a turn up and go flexible ticket – albeit with some peak restrictions.

As with GWR trains and the new Caledonian Sleepers there are electronic displays by the doors on each coach – shame the word Kings couldn’t have been programmed on to the second line alongside Cross…

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… and there are these connecting cables between coaches which have been the subject of considerable concern from the Office of Road and Rail – it’s thought they might invite people to climb up on to the roof so modifications are being arranged.

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Yesterday’s journeys went well. The Azuma acceleration and ride quality is impressive but we’ve got used to that on GWR; it was still pretty awsome to accelerate silently out of Kings Cross and into Gasworks Tunnel bang on time at 1103.

IMG_6811.jpgWe stopped at Peterborough and approached the next stop at Doncaster five minutes ahead of schedule. After Wakefield Westgate we arrived Leeds a minute down at 1317. It was a good run and a memorable first journey experience.

IMG_6850.jpgThe 1345 return back down to London was equally smooth with a slight early arrival into Kings Cross. Once again there were LNER staff enjoying the ride but the catering staff seemed to be struggling only serving some passengers who boarded at Leeds with their hot meal as we were leaving Peterborough at 1510 which was when the hot drinks trolley made its first appearance.

I’ve noticed catering standards slipping on recent journeys with LNER and hope this can be sorted now the new Azuma era is beckoning. It certainly wasn’t for the lack of onboard staff yesterday – perhaps a case of ‘too many cooks spoiling the ….’

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There are still advanced purchase tickets available at just £36 return in Standard Class on the 1103 Kings Cross to Leeds and 1345 return on most days next week as I write this, so if you’ve got five hours to spare, it’s well worth the ride for that all new train experience which those journeys offer.

Roger French

If you’re new to the world of BusAndTrainUser blogs here are links to previous posts in this series: Part 1: Great Northern’s 717s; Part 2: D Trains; Part 3: Sleepers

Alderney’s Northern Line

Wednesday 8th May 2019

IMG_6600.jpgI spent last weekend’s Bank Holiday break on beautiful Alderney, one of the Channel Islands.

Alderney’s not renowned for its public transport – there are no buses – they’re not really needed on an island that measures just three miles long and 1.5 miles wide with a population of 2,000. It doesn’t take long to walk most places.

IMG_6591.jpgBut there is a railway; Alderney Railway. Except it only runs on certain days during the summer, mostly Wednesdays and weekends between June and September as well as Sundays in April and May.

IMG_6605.jpgTrain departures are at 1430 and 1530 from Braye Road Station which is adjacent to Braye Beach on the north side of the island and about a ten minute walk from the Island’s commercial centre, such as it is, of St Anne.

IMG_6606.jpgThis is no ordinary railway. As you can see it’s run with two former London Underground train carriages powered by a lovely seventy year old diesel engine called Elizabeth.

IMG_6609.jpgThe carriages are former Northern Line stock dating from 1959 and have been preserved to a lovely condition, complete with original internal cove line diagrams.

IMG_6610.jpgThe railway line runs for two miles eastwards from Braye Road to Mannez Quarry where sheds have been erected that accommodates the rolling stock.

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The railway opened on 14th July 1847 to bring sandstone from the quarry to the harbour area at Braye rather than passengers, although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took a railcar along the line in 1854 on a visit to the island. At one time it extended westward beyond Braye Road to the next bay, but these tracks have now been abandoned although can still be easily seen.

IMG_6590.jpgDuring the Second World War the occupying Germans took up most of the track and sent it to Cherbourg building their own metre gauge railway to other gravel works from the harbour in its place. After the Liberation in 1945 that track was removed and the original standard gauge line to Mannez was relaid. Commercial quarrying never returned however and the line passed through various Governmental/State responsibilities and is now leased to the Alderney Railway Society – a group of dedicated volunteers and enthusiasts who run it as a tourist attraction.

IMG_6632.jpgThe first public train ran in Spring 1980 with Wickham carriages but these were replaced initially by 1938 Underground stock but the salt air damaged their steel bodies so a pair of 1959 aluminium bodied cars were purchased and delivered courtesy of the Royal Logistics Corp using a landing craft to deliver them as a military logistics exercise as well as taking away the old 1938 cars.

IMG_6643.jpgThe Society owns two diesel engines dating from 1949 (called Elizabeth) and 1958 (Molly). Elizabeth is an 0-4-0 diesel mechanical powered by a six cylinder Gardiner engine; the locomotive is a Drewry design and was built at the Vulcan Foundry in Newton Le Willows.

IMG_6629.jpgMolly is a Ruston Hornsby and doesn’t haul the former Underground carriages as she features US style couplings and has a restricted compressed air charging system.

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The ride from Braye Road to Mannez Quarry takes around 15 minutes and where the train lays over for about 15 minutes before returning to Braye Road ready for the next journey at 1530. The volunteers are so friendly and show you around the sheds at Mannez. The fare is £6 return. Some people take a ride and walk back or vice versa.

IMG_6625.jpgIMG_6608.jpgIt’s a fascinating railway and totally bizarre to see a Northern Line Underground train heading along a single line track offering magnificent views of the coastline around a wonderful island as well as a clear view of the French coastline on the south side of the island.

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Roger French

Breich, Borders, Bike Buses and Berwick

Friday 3rd May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

New trains in 2019 Part 3: Sleepers

Thursday 2nd May 2019

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The long awaited Caledonian Sleeper CAF built Mark 5 coaches began running on the Lowland route last Sunday night. I booked myself a ticket and travelled from Euston to Glasgow last night/this morning to see whether the salivating I’d been reading on social media from high profile commentators blessed with their Sunday night complimentary launch journey tickets is justified.

I write ‘long awaited Caledonian Sleeper Mark 5 coaches’ as these are of course another new train set running hopelessly late.

In fact I booked myself a ticket back on 23rd September last year for the inagural journey to Glasgow originally scheduled and advertised for 29th October 2018. In the event Serco, who run the Caledonian Sleeper franchise, decided that was too ambitious an introduction date (as has subsequently proved) so refunded everyone who’d booked and put the official introduction back to Sunday 2nd June 2019. I rebooked my berth for that date and was looking forward to trying out the new facilities in a few weeks time.

Then a couple of weeks ago came news from a Tweet by a reporter on The Scotsman newspaper that the new Sleeper coaches would begin running on the Lowland route to Glasgow and Edinburgh from Sunday 28th April. Well, good for The Scotsman, as Serco’s Caledonian Sleeper’s own communications were distinctly unhelpful with emails and ‘Customer Ambassadors’ (as they’re called) at the Company’s Call Centre still denying any introduction was happening when contacted all last week claiming it was still 2nd June – despite knowing this was completely untrue as all the arrangements were in hand to invite media and sympathetic commentators on board the first journey as well as the inevitable bagpipe player to parade up and down Euston’s Platform 15 as passengers (sorry, guests) boarded.

Meanwhile the Caledonian Sleeper website (and indeed even now, after the introduction of the new trains) still offered only old style berths rather than the super duper (higher priced) en-suite single and double bed innovations they’re so proud of.

I decided not to wait until my 2nd June booking and buy a ticket for last night’s departure from Euston to Glasgow at 2353. Ideally I wanted to travel to Edinburgh but following the Scotsman’s announcement all tickets on that leg mysteriously sold out (well, all the tickets for old style berths had – you couldn’t book the new berths), so I booked to Glasgow instead.

Despite the lengthy period of pre service testing – and all the more so with introductory delays for new trains now the norm, it seems from media reports on Tuesday that not quite everything went to plan on the first journeys.

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My journey began auspiciously; arriving Euston around 2220 to find check-in progressing but “due to technical issues boarding hasn’t commenced”.

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I appreciate it’s all new for everyone including staff but I was a bit disconcerted to not be reassured my berth was one of the en-suite ‘Club’ rooms. It seems these are mixed up among non en-suite ‘Classic’ rooms rather than having one coach devoted entirely to one type of berth. I later found out that’s because it would mean too large a requirement for water tanks for one coach so the limited number of showers are spread throughout the train with a few in each coach, although all four double bed Club berths are together with the two fully accessible berths alongside two accessible toilets in the coach adjacent to the lounge coach.

That all makes sense and I now understand why reception host Ryan, still getting the hang of it all, was only 80% sure I was down for a Club berth.

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It turns out Ryan’s optimism was well placed as Berth N5 did indeed turn out to be a coveted Club berth with en-suite toilet and shower. I reckon it was pure luck I got allocated this as it had been impossible to specify when I booked, so my lucky call.

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Aside from the en-suite area, which is cupboard like in size, half the depth of the berth, with the neighbouring berth having its en-suite cupboard in the other ‘half’, the berth appears to be to a similar size as previously, but has had a much welcome makeover and now sport all important usb and plug sockets, better lighting and controls and a much nicer sink and tap unit.

IMG_6458.jpgThe en-suite itself is a wet room arrangement with a lid over the toilet seat which crucially also keeps the toilet roll dry when the shower is switched on. Instructions are provided about putting the shower mat outside in the berth so your wet feet don’t get the berth floor wet, and it also explains you can shower either sitting or standing.

IMG_6401.jpgWhat it doesn’t tell you is it’s best to use the toilet before taking a shower otherwise the floor will be very wet as not all the water will disappear through the drain in the floor.

IMG_6409.jpgThere’s a bag hanging on the door with the shower mat, a decent size towel and a spare toilet roll. Just a point of detail I found was the toilet roll was so large it was tricky to tear off more than one individual sheet at a time when pulling on it!

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Caledonian Sleeper also provide the usual soaps etc as before and the bed was a great improvement with a comfortable mattress and lovely warm duvet. Naturally the bed width is slimline – I didn’t get to look in at the new double bed berths, and wonder how they fare for a couple. I reckon it will be quite intimate.

There’s also a natty snd cleverly designed small table which pulls out from under the sink.

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The corridors are to their usual width; there’s not much can be fine here of course, but I noticed when the breakfast menus are hanging on the handles it’s easy to knock them all off as you stagger along as the train sways!

IMG_6406.jpgThere’s a great improvement on the design and layout of the lounge car/dining area.

IMG_6380.jpgIt seats around thirty in various combinations including space for a wheelchair user if needed as shown above on the bottom right with two tip up seats.

Again there are usb and plug sockets but not quite so essential with berths now well equipped. In the old days you had to get in early to use one of the few plug sockets available; now battery top up is such a relaxing pleasure on board.

IMG_6381.jpgThe kitchen’s had a complete revamp with ovens and even a toaster alongside the microwaves which were the staple of the old arrangement.

IMG_6382.jpgFinally on facilities, there’s the much improved seating area with reclining seats and overhead lockable lockers.

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Here’s a summary of my overnight travel experience last night and this morning:

IMG_6375.jpgWe boarded at 2240, technical problems resolved. There weren’t any ‘welcome hosts’ on the platform beyond the check-in lecterns but clear digital signs by carriage doors direct you to the right place, I wandered past fourteen of the sixteen carriages to reach my coach which was fifteenth )second from the front) and soon found my berth.

IMG_6376.jpgBerth doors are all unlocked and the hotel style credit card sized key is inside the room with instructions how to activate it so that you can leave your berth and lock it. Sadly mine didn’t work and refused to activate; it wouldn’t even work for a Caledonian Sleeper team member who I met a bit later. Never mind; inevitable teething problems.

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I wondered whether it might be better for activated keys to be handed out at check in as happens in a hotel but appreciate that would mean some equipment at the lecterns which is probably not possible.

IMG_6391.jpgI had a sandwich and drink in the lounge area at about 2300 before it got busy. It was delivered professionally on a plate hiding the fact it was one of those pre-packed sandwiches you find in all supermarkets.

We left Euston spot on time at precisely 2353 and I went to bed, conscious we’d made a stop soon after that at Watford Junction but the next time I stirred to wake up rather than the odd turning over in bed it was about 0530 and we’d passed through Carlisle.

IMG_6408.jpgI decided to give the shower a try at about 0620 but sadly only a minuscule trickle of water came out before it gave up completely. I pressed the ‘Call’ button which makes an embarrassingly loud ringing connection and explained the situation. The steward said she’d come and take a look.

IMG_6410.jpgMeanwhile we reached Carstairs at 0630 and the rear eight coaches bound for Edinburgh were detached and headed east while we continued north to Glasgow soon after 0645 as confirmed by the impressive screens showing route progress at the end of every coach.

IMG_6454.jpgI decided to give up on the shower and headed along to the lounge for breakfast. Spotting a steward I asked if she was the person I spoke to about the shower but it turned out I had been speaking over the intercom to the steward in the Edinburgh portion of the train so fat chance she was going to be able to come by and take a look now!

Breakfast had been ordered the night before but was to the old style menu; luckily I enquired whether toast was now available and was pleased to be served a fresh hot toasted slice and butter within minutes. Apparently new menus are being printed.

IMG_E6456.jpgHeading back to my berth I spotted a member of staff obviously making notes of snagging items so reported my shower and door lock malfunctions and he reassuringly made notes in his book.

I decided to have a quick wash before arriving into Glasgow but there was now no more than a trickle from the tap and the toilet flush had ceased to working. I diagnosed a water shortage.

IMG_6461.jpgWe rolled into Glasgow four minutes ahead of our 0722 scheduled arrival time.

IMG_6463.jpgIt had been an impressive journey and a great improvement on old style Sleeper travelling; and even better I’d paid the old price, which with my Senior Railcard discount was a reasonable £118.80 for the single journey.

Which brings me to pricing. Caledonian Sleeper’s website is offering the new berths from the official 2nd June introduction date, until then its old prices for old berths except you might drop lucky like I did and get an upgrade.

Full price fares from 2nd June to Glasgow begin at £45 for a seat, £140 for a Classic berth (£170 for two sharing with bunk beds), £230 for a Club single en-suite (£280 for two) and £335 for one person in a Club double en-suite rising to £400 for two.

Railcard discounts bring prices for one down to £29.70 (seat), £92.40 (Classic), £151.80 (Club) with no discounts on the Club double.

Comparative full rate prices for Fort William for one are £50 (seat), £210 (Classic), £245 (Club), £395 (Club double). Top whack is two sharing the Club double coming in at £470 and no Railcard discounts. It’ll be interesting to see how many are sold at that price.

Even at these prices there’s a huge subsidy paid by both Scottish and Westminster Governments to keep the Caledonian Sleeper on the tracks. It evokes much passion and is regarded as politically important; never mind that rural bus routes are being decimated and leaving people completely isolated from any public transport for the lack of public funding; here, as long as it needs funds with at least seven figures, if not eight, it’s a vital service to keep going. The fact Serco have just spent £100 million on a fleet of impressive trains for the service just adds to the bizarre nature of our public transport priorities in this country.

Finally a few very minor suggestions….

IMG_6398.jpgReinstate the hangers on the wall mounted coat hooks; they were incredibly useful to hang trousers and other clothes on.

Install liquid soap dispensers by sinks and in the showers as per most budget hotels these days.

Slightly smaller toilet rolls in the en-suite toilets would make for easier use.

Review the supply of water to showers, sinks and toilets.

Remove the contra-vision – it will be so annoying to have views of the beautiful Scottish Highland scenery spoilt.

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Reduce the volume on the call steward intercom.

Connect the intercom to the relevant steward for either Glasgow or Edinburgh portions – even more important for the three way split on the Highland train.

Reintroduce the door-open hooks to enable berth doors to be held open rather than only an auto-close mode.

Consider the implications of issuing door keys at the reception lecterns.

Looking forward to my next trip on the official launch date of 2nd June.

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Roger French

Cumbrian travels between LNER and Virgin

Tuesday 30th April 2019

IMG_5056.jpgMy Funday in Furness yesterday exploring three small islands off England’s north west coast came sandwiched between two other great travelling days.

I travelled up the East Coast Main Line from Kings Cross to Newcastle on Saturday with LNER (always a favourite journey) to meet the lovely members of the Northern Branch of the Omnibus Society who politely let me indulge myself by sharing about 600 photographs I’d taken over the last six years of travels illustrating Britain’s best bus routes. They even seemed to enjoy it as much as I did, which is always encouraging.

After an overnight stay in the Capital of Geordie Land I headed over to Carlisle on Sunday. My original plan was to take the famous Arriva and Stagecoach jointly operated scenic route 685 now branded Cross Pennine with buses in a smart Best Impressions designed livery especially as I’ve yet to do this journey on a double deck, which Stagecoach now deploy to the route.

The perceived wisdom among OS members was the double deck isn’t allocated on a Sunday which coupled with the need to change buses in Hexham (there are no through journeys on a Sunday) and a tight onward connection in Carlisle persuaded me to switch to train instead – a journey I ranked 38th when I compiled my Hundred Best Train Journeys listing at the end of last year.

IMG_5090.jpgCheaper and quicker too. And the scenery from the train window is just as delightful especially looking north as the tracks follow the course of the River Tyne as it gradually gets smaller and more meandering as shown above.

IMG_5086.jpgI wasn’t too disappointed to find the 1255 from Newcastle to Carlisle arrive from Middlesbrough in platform 7 being a Pacer especially as it was a refurbished one with more comfy seats and there won’t be many more opportunities to travel in these workhorses of the tracks before they’re withdrawn by the end of the year. What did surprise me was just how busy the journey was with pretty much all seats taken on the two car train leaving Newcastle and lots of luggage too. Although, as expected, a few got off at the MetroCentre, they were replaced with boarders. The majority of passengers were travelling all the way to Carlisle.

IMG_5087.jpgInterestingly the new timetable from 19th May includes an extra train an hour between Newcastle and Carlisle on weekdays giving three per hour to Hexham and two to Carlisle (strong competition for the hourly 685) but there’s no increase in frequency on Sunday which based on my albeit limited experience would suggest would be welcomed by passengers.

At Carlisle I changed to the Cumbrian Coast line to skirt all the way around the coast to Barrow in Furness. I ranked this journey sixteenth place in my Hundred Best Train Journeys and this latest experience didn’t change my mind. It’s an incredibly enjoyable experience.

IMG_5139.jpgIt’s not quick, by any means; two and a half hours to Barrow and another hour beyond there to Lancaster but it’s well worth the ride for mile upon mile of coastal views as well as changing landscapes inland as the Lake District’s western peaks become visible from time to time.

IMG_5149.jpgUntil last May there was no Sunday service between Whitehaven and Barrow and a restricted twelve hour operational day on weekdays due to the high cost of manning that section with old manual signal boxes and at least three old style manual level crossings (one at Silecroft station) and two more south towards Millam where the tracks cross the A585.

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IMG_5183.jpgA real anachronism in today’s tech rich world and all the more so as nuclear waste is regularly carried on the line in connection with the Power Station at Sellafield.

IMG_5155.jpgWith a new franchise commitment from Northern there’s now a regular hourly Sunday service until around 1800 hours and it was encouraging to see over a dozen passengers on board my journey (1616 from Carlisle) south of Whitehaven.

To add to the charm of the line there are also some lovely coastal request stations, sections of track with severe speed limits and connections at Ravenglass for the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway which is well worth a visit.

That was Sunday; I’ve described Monday’s Furness travels, and so to today, Tuesday …..

Having enjoyed my Furness island hopping yesterday, today has been another wonderful travel day renewing my association with one of the Lake District’s most scenic bus routes: the brilliant Buttermere circular route 77 and 77A.

IMG_5701.jpgNarrow roads and steep inclines restrict the routes to small vehicle operation and Stagecoach allocate Optare Solos with 28 seats.

Experience of previous packed journeys has taught me to get up early and catch the first departure of the day at 0830 from Keswick if you want to really savour a quality travel experience. Fortuitously this is a 77A (which against normal convention takes a clockwise routeing with the less frequent 77 going round anti-clockwise) and this offers the best views out of the nearside windows of Derwent Water, Buttermere and Crummock Water with good forward views of the Honister Pass too. The journey seldom has large numbers travelling.

IMG_E5717.jpgIndeed this morning we left with just two on board, in addition to myself, picking two more and a dog up in nearby Portinscale. They’d all alighted for a morning’s walk by the time we reached Honister where we picked three more up, two of whom went to Buttermere and one returned to Keswick.

IMG_5795.jpgBy comparison on returning to Keswick not long after 1000 the queue was already forming for the 1030 departure which would see a bus on both 77 and 77A routes, and just as well, as there were passengers standing as both buses left.

IMG_5887.jpgIMG_5904.jpgThe 77A runs hourly 0830 to 1130 then two-hourly until 1730 while the 77 runs two-hourly 1030 to 1630. It takes two buses to run the timetable with a third needed between 1030 and 1117. Concessionary passes dominate, especially at this time of year with schools and colleges in session.

The drivers use all their skills to negotiate the twists and turns along the narrow roads including hairpin bends and challenging inclines. Luckily this morning there wasn’t much other traffic but this changes as the summer approaches.

The journey takes around an hour and three quarters – it’s the best 105 minutes in a bus.

Returning to Keswick I watched the busy departures between 1015 and 1030 thinking just how busy these routes are even for a Tuesday in April.

IMG_5886.jpgIMG_5881.jpgIt shows what can be achieved with an attractive network of routes well marketed with an abundant supply of timetable books readily available to pick up on board buses and at many locations throughout the area.

IMG_5133.jpgI lost count of the number of passengers I saw clutching their timetable book and no doubt getting inspired to make more journeys. Managers in bus companies adopting the foolish mantra ‘it’s all online’ really need to get out more and see how it’s done and works a treat.

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I took the Gold branded X4 from Keswick over to Penrith and am writing this as I return home, this time on the West Coast Main Line with its glimpses of the Lake District’s finest.

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A few final thoughts and suggestions for Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancs who must be congratulated for doing such a great job.

This summer’s timetable book is a much slimmer version than previous years which has no doubt reduced print costs but while losing some of the information about boat tours is no great loss, I do think it’s regrettable to omit those routes which reach Keswick from the north (73, 554) as well as Penrith (104, 563), the 208 Keswick to Patterdale and 755 Bowness and Windermere to Morecambe. Although shown on the network map these routes become the poor relations without promoting their times.

IMG_5630The queuing arrangements at Keswick bus terminus are very chaotic when things get busy and I noticed a lot of bad feeling among passengers who’d been queuing and waiting but lost out in the scrum with a risk of not getting on board as the buses drew up. It needs to be made clear which side of the bus stop pole and flag to queue and this should be strictly enforced to maintain discipline and a fair outcome for everyone.

IMG_5879.jpgAs the much travelled and great walking enthusiast Ray Wilkes observed on Twitter it would also be good to put pressure on Cumbria County Council to install bus shelters here too.

A fantastic few days sampling the best of travelling with class acts from LNER, Northern, Virgin Trains, Stagecoach (Cumbria and North Lancs) and valiant efforts from Blueworks to keep their show on the road.

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Finally, I appreciate my Twitter followers will have read most of this on Sunday and earlier today as I tweet ‘live’ updates during my travels but it’s been pointed out to me many blog readers don’t do Twitter, so here’s a summary of my travels especially for you.

More exciting travels to come over the next couple of days.

Roger French

Funday in Furness

Monday 29th April 2019

Today’s been a fascinating day visiting three tiny islands off England’s north west coast alongside Barrow in Furness.

Until a few months ago when planning this adventure I had no idea they even existed!

The Borough of Barrow, including neighbouring Dalton, has a population of around 57,000 and is Cumbria’s second most populated town after Carlisle. It sits in the south western corner of the county close to the Lancashire border over Morecambe Bay.

IMG_E5192.jpgInterestingly Barrow had its own municipally owned bus company (Barrow Borough Transport) until it went bust thirty years ago since when Stagecoach have run a neat network of local town routes as well as the X6 to Ulverston and Kendal and the less frequent 6 to Windermere – both lovely double deck operated routes to travel on.

IMG_5195.jpgBarrow is synonymous with ship building but the town is now dominated by a huge BAE Systems presence who also own the airport on Walney Island and from he recruitment centre I spotted are obviously big in submarines.

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I’d never been on Walney Island which is the small piece of land that juts out in the shape of a two-prong tap handle.

IMG_5201.jpgIt’s connected to the mainland by a lovely looking road bridge so this morning I took an early ride on routes 1 to Biggar Bank in South Walney and route 2 to West Shore, Earnse Bay in North Walney.

IMG_5205.jpgBoth turned out to be delightful terminal spots right on the coast and it was lovely to see dog walkers and joggers out enjoying the early morning sunshine even before 8am this morning.

IMG_5209.jpgRoute 1 stops outside an unusually shaped Chinese restaurant while route 2 stops alongside the West Shore holiday-cum-permanent home park complex.

IMG_5214.jpgBarrow’s town routes are mainly operated by Optare Solos but my journey on the 2 had an Enviro 300 which I understand had previously operated in Carlisle. Loadings were average for pre 8am travelling in a small-size town and it was noticeable that many passengers were using Stagecoach smartcards including a few topping them up on board for the week ahead.

IMG_5213.jpgAfter that island foray I could have got the X6 from Barrow over to Ulverston for my second island visit but I’d preplanned using the train as I wanted to get off and admire the town’s station which previously I’d only travelled through but got an inkling how gorgeous it is.

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IMG_5331.jpgI’m really pleased I did as it really is a lovely station with ‘three’ platforms although only Lancaster bound trains use the island platform 3 with platform 2 effectively disused as Barrow bound trains use the main ‘station building’ platform 1.

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IMG_5329.jpgAfter a late breakfast break in Ulverston I headed down to the town’s main bus stops intrigued to see what would arrive for my next journey on bus route 11 which I was taking via the coast road back towards Barrow but alighting on Roa Island.

IMG_5344.jpgRoute 11 is operated by Blueworks – which must be the only bus company to be running a regular timetabled bus service without an O licence. Instead the owner, Phil, is valiantly keeping this route and his other routes (the X12 from Ulverston to Coniston and the Ulverston local X70) going using his taxi licence until 30th May when a Public Inquiry being held by the Traffic Commissioner determines whether his O licence will be reinstated.

IMG_5340.jpgI’m not an expert on taxi licensing but was intrigued to see four eight-seater taxis draw up for the 1015 departure to Barrow and Phil and the drivers organising the passengers to board the appropriate vehicles in the most efficient way depending on their alighting bus stop as well as taking the individual ‘bus’ fares or swiping concessionary passes, presumably for reimbursement from Cumbria County Council.

IMG_5343.jpgCumbria are renowned for not providing any funding whatsoever for bus routes across the county and Phil confirmed to me he receives no subsidy for running these routes so I have to admire his perseverance at keeping these three services going on what must be a very costly arrangement. Presumably he’s concerned Stagecoach might step in if he gave up.

IMG_5354.jpgIt’s obviously much appreciated by all the regular passengers who’ve got used to the new arrangements (which seem to have been in place since January) despite the awkwardness of getting in and out of an eight seater taxi, especially from the back three seats when passengers are occupying the middle set of three seats blocking the exit doors!

IMG_5347.jpgIt was quite a business but everyone took it in great spirit.

Such is the support for Phil and Blueworks there’s a ‘Friends of the X112X70’ help group. I’m sure some members will be at the Public Inquiry rooting for Phil.

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Roa Island is connected to the mainland by a causeway and is a micro community centred around the rather impressive Barrow lifeboat station.

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My good friend and renowned expert on all things Cumbria and the Lake District, Roger Davies, had recommended my taking a trip from there to Piel Island last year and I was delighted to have arrived on such a beautiful sunny and calm sea day to take the small ferry from the jetty at the south end of Roa Island over to explore this incredible island.

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IMG_5420.jpgThe Duke of Buccleuch gifted the 50 acre island to the people of Barrow in 1920 and as well as the landlord of the pub/restaurant/cafe on the island (and being designated King of Piel) there reportedly are three other permanent family residents occupying the little row of five terraced houses.

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IMG_5396.jpgThe only other building on the island is the ruins of Piel Castle built in the early 14th Century to protect the harbour from Scottish raids.

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John runs the ferry as needed between the jetty on Roa Island and Piel Island. It takes about five minutes to make the crossing and he keeps an eye out across the water to see if anyone is waiting.

IMG_5410.jpgAround a dozen people travelled during the two hours I spent on Piel which was enough time to wander all around and sit and have refreshments in the cafe and chat to the locals who are all friendly and welcoming including the regulars who take the crossing to soak up the peaceful and convivial atmosphere.

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I headed back to Roa Island in good time for the 1419 (the second and the day’s last) journey on the 11 back to Ulverston from where the same ‘bus’ continues through to Coniston as an X12. It’s a bit of a complicated timetable but the locals seem to understand it!

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Despite their lack of interest in funding bus routes Cumbria do a decent job at listing departures at bus stops all over the county but it was a bit disconcerting to find the sparsely served stop at Roa Island timetable-less.

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IMG_5423.jpgI needn’t have worried as precisely at 1419 my eight seater arrived with two passengers already on board in the rearmost seats heading home with shopping from Barrow having caught one of the flotilla of taxis which had left Ulverston earlier at 1015 for the town.

IMG_5426.jpgAt Ulverston we had a brief pause along with the second (slightly larger) taxi which was also heading for Coniston and had a few passengers already on board.

IMG_5435.jpgIMG_5433.jpgI stayed on my taxi and was joined by one passenger heading home for a ride about half way along the route, otherwise we didn’t pick anyone else up.

IMG_5432.jpgArriving in Coniston and time for another break before catching the 1640 Stagecoach route 505 over to Ambleside (from where this particular journey continues south to Kendal).

IMG_5537.jpgThis is a lovely route along the twisty and hilly B5285 via Hawkshead Hill and Hawkshead rather than the more direct A593.

IMG_5538.jpgAt Ambleside I switched to the Lake District’s main spine bus route the famous 555 heading north to Keswick to end my day’s travels.

IMG_5647.jpgEvery time I travel on this route I drool at the amazing and spectacular scenery whether it be the serenity of the water the bus drives alongside …

IMG_5635.jpg…. or the magnificence of the mountains which tower up in contrast.

IMG_5639.jpgOpen top route 599 supplements the 555 as far north as Grasmere (and south to Windermere – and Bowness – from Ambleside) at an impressive 20 minute frequency and the livery of buses used on both routes is simply Best Impressions’ best.

IMG_5622.jpgIt’s also always great to see timetables available on board buses throughout the Lake District and earlier in the day I spotted a local guide for Barrow buses. Well done Stagecoach in Cumbria.

An excellent day.

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Roger French