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

New trains in 2019 Part 2: D Trains

Wednesday 24th April 2019

IMG_5022.jpgIt’s been a long wait with some well over a year late, but finally an avalanche of new trains is entering service; well one train has.

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First off the blocks is the much anticipated Class 230 train which began running on the Marston Vale line between Bedford and Bletchley yesterday. Not so much ‘new trains’ as ‘completely refurbished forty year old former Underground trains now with an added diesel engine’.

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The D Train project is the brainchild of career railwayman Adrian Shooter and his company Vivarail. After a highly successful stint at Chiltern Railways you’d think the highly respected Adrian would use a well earned retirement to put his feet up, relax and play with his own train set in his back garden. Not a bit of it, he foresaw the opportunity to use former District Line trains reengineered and refurbished for further use on a variety of branch lines around the country and after much development work his initiative is finally paying off with orders for trains and the first actual train now in passenger service.

I took a ride this morning full of anticipation and wasn’t disappointed. I’m not surprised passengers felt they were travelling on a new train; the makeover is that good.

D stock trains used to have four single leaf doors per carriage when on the District Line, but on the new Class 230s these have been reduced by two enabling more two by two seating to be introduced – both airline style and as foursomes around tables – in addition to the longitude seats still in place.

The table shown below is in the spot where there was once a door.

IMG_5002.jpgAnd these are no ‘ironing board’ seats; these are brand new as well as reupholstered old longitudinal seats which are actually comfortable to sit in and with a smart moquette design too showing a nod to their District Line heritage as well as the new London North Western Railway corporate colours.

IMG_5018.jpgNeat usb sockets are handily incorporated into the longitudinal seats as well as underneath the new seats.

IMG_5017.jpgThere’s a roomy accessible toilet on board as well as wi-fi.

What’s also impressive is you hardly notice the noise of the engine. If you didn’t know, you might think you were still travelling on an electric powered train. It gives a very smooth ride.

The cove panel space used in Underground days for commercial advertising has been well utilised with a plethora of messages and information about the trains and the Marston Vale line.

IMG_5008.jpgIMG_5005.jpgOne noticeable oddity was the length of time it took to not only release the doors but for the ‘open’ button to light up and then react after being pressed. Not much of an issue on the Marston Vale line but could be critical on a tightly timed line such as Bidston to Wrexham Central where the D Train is destined for later in the year.

London North Western have specified a two coach train which offers a step up in capacity from the single coach Class 153 trains which are also still in service on the hourly frequency, so if you’re paying a visit for a ride imminently watch out for what train is on which diagram.

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And if you have time it’s worth a stop off at the lovely Ridgmont station ….

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where there’s a delightful tea room………

IMG_5031.jpgand a fascinating heritage museum staffed by knowledgeable and very friendly volunteers.IMG_5039.jpgIMG_5036.jpg

Well done to Vivarail, London North Western Railway and Sam Jessup Design for the great work on these ‘new’ trains. It’s set a high standard for the coming weeks which will see a whole variety of new trains hit the tracks.

Roger French

Farewell Norton Bridge

Friday 29th March 2019

IMG_3036.jpgThe rail replacement bus service which has been running between Stafford and Stone to serve the abandoned Norton Bridge station since May 2004 comes to an end tomorrow. I couldn’t resist taking a trip up there to check it out on its penultimate day.

Trains stopped calling at Norton Bridge fifteen years ago to allow for the rebuilding of the railway as part of the West Coast Route Modernisation project. The station platform was inconveniently in the way.

Norton Bridge first opened in 1837 and latterly only enjoyed an irregular frequency local train service between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent until it ended in May 2004.Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 19.35.17.pngA rail replacement bus service was introduced between Stafford and Stone via Norton Bridge which was included in the rail timetable system and journey planners with rail tickets continuing to be available and accepted on the buses which also served other bus stops along the route. Funding for this came indirectly from the DfT as the franchise holder, at that time, London Midland, included the cost of the bus in its successful bid.

With the new West Midlands franchise starting in October 2017 the DfT decided to finally bring, what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, to an end and issued a consultation in late 2016 to formally close Norton Bridge station, even though trains hadn’t called there for twelve years.

It came as no surprise the formal closure was enacted in December 2017 but the bus service was given a further stay of execution with continued part funding through the new franchise until the end of March 2019 enabling Staffordshire County Council time to review other bus service levels in the area.IMG_3037.jpgBrexit Day may not be happening today, but sadly D&G Bus service 13 is ending tomorrow and the 600 residents of Norton Bridge who lost their irregular trains in 2004, saw their station formally close in 2017, will now lose their only bus service.

Here’s how today’s trip went…..

IMG_3024.jpgI arrived in Stafford over an hour before the 1235 departure was due to leave for Norton Bridge and Stone (earlier departures are at 0835 and 1035 with later ones at 1505, 1615 and 1715). I didn’t want to risk missing it. This enabled me to see the bus arriving from Stone from its previous journey at 1133 before it takes just over an hour’s break. It’s not a particularly arduous schedule having just half an hour running time end to end.IMG_3034.jpgI was pleased about that as there was absolutely no information about the route, its times or even its existence anywhere in Stafford station or outside on the bus shelters. It’s always tricky when you’re not sure where a bus route departs from so at least I now knew and wandered off to explore Stafford for an hour.IMG_3139.jpgArriving back I was pleasantly surprised to see three passengers boarding the bus for the trip to Stone.IMG_3035.jpgIt didn’t take long to realise they were regulars who come into Stafford for shopping. As you can imagine talk on the bus was all about being cut off after this weekend. Although one lady got off in Great Bridgeford (a village on the route just north of Stafford) which will continue to be served by another D&G Bus service, route 14, which ironically also serves the communities of Wedgwood and Barlaston on its route which also lost their stations in the West Coast Route Modernisation project but you can still buy tickets to them from any station and use them on the bus (a single from Wedgwood to Barlaston is just £1.90).

One passenger continued on the bus towards Stone and the third alighted with me in the small village of Norton Bridge. I asked him where the entrance to the station was and it turned out the bus had stopped right opposite. He told me all about the station house, the railway cottages and the sad day when the footbridge was taken away which meant access to the station was lost for ever.IMG_3131.jpgHe shrugged his shoulders when I asked him how he’d manage to get into Stafford next week with no bus, before admitting his wife had a car!IMG_3130.jpgThe station house and adjacent cottages (“where the rail workers used to live” he explained – it must have been a real hive of activity at some time) are indeed very pleasant and I made my way on to the ‘station forecourt’ and looking down on the fenced off tracks could easily make out the former platform, now isolated and uncared for, together with an abandoned signal boxIMG_3071.jpgBut the best bit of all was the ‘Helpful information’ poster still in situ at what was the entrance to the forecourt. IMG_3125.jpg

IMG_3045.jpgNorton Bridge station is alive and well; except there’s “no ticket office” and “no ticket machine”, and sadly “no step free access”. Oh, and no access to a crumbling platform and …. no trains either!

Not only that but the new franchisee, London Northwestern Railway from West Midlands Trains has taken the trouble to reprint the poster in their own corporate house style and someone has taken the trouble to go out to Norton Bridge and display it ….. yet the adjacent bus shelter contains no information at all about the bus replacement service. Nothing.

IMG_3134.jpgIf there’s anything that sums up our dysfunctional non-integrated transport system in this country perhaps that is it!IMG_3137.jpgI headed back to Stafford.

Roger French

Long live the HST

Monday 18th March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

Home from scenic Scotland

Day 5  Sunday 3rd March 2019   Glasgow to Carlisle

I always look forward to a journey down the West Coast Main Line between Glasgow and Carlisle, or for a bit of variety, ScotRail’s alternative via Kilmarnock and Dumfries, but today I thought I’d try out the bus option. It takes much longer than the train but as the first of the two routes involved was awarded Best Bus Route in the Scottish Transport Awards 2018, with such an accolade under its belt, the X74 had to be well worth a ride.

IMG_0268.jpgRoute X74 is part of Stagecoach West Scotland’s impressive network of express bus routes, of which yesterday’s ride on the X76 from Kilmarnock to Glasgow was another. Whereas over in Stagecoach East Scotland territory their network of express routes is marketed under the ‘express city connect’ brand between Fife and Edinburgh, as well as some routes across to Glasgow and it’s airport, the West Scotland network linking Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway with Glasgow are each branded individually.

IMG_0264.jpgThe X74 runs hourly between Dumfries and Glasgow with twelve return journeys on Mondays to Fridays, the same with an extra in the early evening on Saturdays and eight journeys every two hours on Sundays. Journey time is two hours and ten minutes although the first journey into Glasgow on weekdays is given an extra twenty minutes to allow for peak hour congestion.

IMG_0353.jpgI caught the 1315 from Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Bus Station. The impressive looking three year old coach (a Volvo with Plaxton Elite body) arrived bang on time from its incoming journey at 1255 and unloaded a large number of passengers – I didn’t count but reckon it must have been pretty full, and many had luggage in the ground floor ‘under the upper deck’ compartment – not sure of the technical term for these things, but I realised how useful the storage area is, including space for bikes, and the upside is you get a great view from what feels like a top deck.

IMG_0271.jpgUnlike the X76 yesterday, these vehicles have e-leather seating – not as comfortable for me as the traditional cloth moquette as experienced on the newer X76. The front seat arrangement was a 3+1 layout which worked perfectly for me in the one, and a Mum and two kids in the three.

IMG_0272.jpgOur driver reappeared at 1309 and he got the 30 or so of us on board efficiently and we left on time at 1315. Within minutes we were on the M8 and then the M74 for a non-stop journey to our first stop at Hamilton bus station arriving on time at 1340 where Mum and the two kids as well as a few other passengers alighted.

Back the short distance to the M74 and south we go for another twenty minutes before coming off and doing a short circuit around Lesmahagow dropping a few more passengers off then back on the M74 for around 20 minutes more and a brief stop at Abington service area for no other purpose it seemed to me than “to comply with Department for Transport guidance – the service connects – the connection is guaranteed and passengers may remain on the vehicle” as the timetable states. What a load of baloney.

Anyway we’re back on the motorway which has now become the A74(M) but you’d not really notice the difference to the M74 as we sped down to Moffat where at least half our passengers alight and we wait time for a few minutes before retracing our route back to the A74(M) junction again and I’d expected us to continue on the minor road through Beattock to stop by the ‘Primary School’, as listed in the timetable leaflet, but instead we headed straight on to the A701 (which acts as a Beattock by-pass) and pretty much runs due south all the way down to Dumfries.

IMG_0338.jpgYou might think a bus route which runs down a motorway for the best part of an hour and a half would be a tedious ride, but nothing could be further from reality. The more you head south the more fantastic the scenery becomes, and nearing the Moffat turn off comes the familiar sight of the West Coast Main Line paralleling the road in the valley between mountains (or big hills – again technical terms may vary) and it was good to see the scenery from a different perspective to what I’m used to on the train.

IMG_0341.jpgThe A701 skirts the huge Forest of Ae which takes its name from the village called Ae. Must be the only place name in Britain just comprising two vowels; aside from the former London bus garage in Hendon!

IMG_E0532.jpgAs we entered Dumfries and Galloway territory I spotted what looked like an interesting network map and brand name displayed in a rather forlorn looking bus shelter with adjacent moss encrusted bus stop flag.

IMG_0342.jpgTurns out the ‘SWestransport’ brand is all about a partnership between local politicians and the NHS but their promoted website on the posters contains minutes of their Board meetings rather than any useful transport information. For that there’s a click through to the Dumfries and Galloway website where you can helpfully find timetables in route number order but unhelpfully no sign of the network route map.

IMG_0356.jpgFor future trip planning I took a photo of the map which was commendably on display in each shelter in Dumfries’s small bus station taking care to find one which hadn’t been defaced.

IMG_0356.jpgI was very impressed with the X74. I don’t know what criteria the Scottish Transport Awards use to judge what’s best, but it was a decent travel experience.

It was now time to finish off my journey south on Stagecoach’s route 79 down to Carlisle. Another hourly service* and two-hourly on Sundays taking around an hour and a half for the journey. * Half hourly between Annan and Carlisle.

IMG_0362.jpgThe 1550 departure had just six of us on board but we picked up a similar number in Annan and a few more in Eastriggs and Gretna Green who all mostly got off along the way so as we crossed over the border back into England there were just five of us left on board.

The 79 heads due west between Dumfries and Longtown along the B724 which parallels the newer A75. I’m guessing the B724 used to be the A75 as it was pretty much deserted of other traffic and we made amazingly good progress as well as serving the two or three tiny villages/settlements along the way.

IMG_E0534.jpgAs we arrived in Longtown, 27 minutes and nine miles north of Carlisle, we came up behind a West Coast Motors/Borders Buses X95 on one of the three journeys a day (on Sundays) from Edinburgh (one journey) or Galashiels (the other two) and in an unfortunate clash of timings followed each other all the way down the A7 into Carlisle.

IMG_0385.jpgDespite travelling many miles over the last five days from Kyle of Lochalsh to Gretna Green I’d seen a West Coast Motors bus or coach on service every day such is their amazingly large operating area!

IMG_0389.jpgI paid single fares on the X74 (£9.60) and 79 (£8.30) as the cheapest way to make the journey. Interestingly when I travelled on the aforementioned X95 from Edinburgh to Carlisle (changing buses in Galashiels) last October the through fare was just £7.80 and journey time (including a half hour in Galashiels) was four hours compared to a similar 4 hours and 7 minutes from Glasgow via Dumfries. Glasgow via Dumfries to Carlisle is 110 miles and Edinburgh to Carlisle is 92 miles.

Day 6  Monday 4th March 2019   Home from Carlisle

I always try and fit in at least two or three trips on the Settle-Carlisle line each year so today was a good opportunity for the first one of 2019. I’d left home on Wednesday with temperatures in the low twenty degrees so it came as a shock to see slushy snow on the streets of Carlisle this morning.

But all the better for seeing the splendid scenery heading south towards Settle with snow covered mountains followed, once the sun came out, by beautiful greens and browns across the landscape.

IMG_0410.jpgIMG_0403.jpgI ranked this line fifth in my recent Hundred Best listing and having travelled the first, second and fourth in as many days since Wednesday, it reaffirmed my scoring judgement. Definitely England’s best scenic line and just one point behind (as Nicholas Parsons would say) those top iconic Scottish lines.

IMG_0416.jpgArriving in Leeds I headed over to the bus station spotting some further recent welcome investment in new buses by First West Yorkshire sporting the smart colour coded green based ‘Leedscity’ brand and livery.

IMG_0449.jpgThe X10 running hourly between Barnsley and Leeds is another Stagecoach ‘express’ route initiative; this one introduced in November 2017. I tried it out during its first week so thought it was time to give it another ride to see how it was doing sixteen months on. It’s doing very well, I’m pleased to see.

IMG_0468.jpgThe journey time is an impressive 53 minutes making for an efficient timetable with seven minutes stand time at each end. The coach arrived into Leeds slightly ahead of time at 1154 and a good load of around 25-30 passengers alighted – not bad for a Monday lunch time in early March. My southbound departure at 1205 left with ten of us on board.

IMG_0510.jpgThe X10 departs from the coach departure bays in Leeds bus station which I guess is to give emphasis to its ‘coach’ quality of travel rather than the image portrayed by a standard double deck bus, although Harrogate & District’s famous route 36 exudes quality and manages just fine from the bus bays. Or maybe the departure charges are cheaper?

IMG_0512.jpgIt’s a shame I couldn’t find any timetable leaflets for the X10 either in the bus station area ….

IMG_0470.jpg…or in the coach section; mind you there weren’t any National Express leaflets either, possibly because they don’t print them anymore (all online and all that).

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IMG_0517.jpgBut at least there were a few on the coach itself (if you spotted them) and refreshingly some behind the counter in the South Yorkshire ‘PTE’ Customer Services kiosk in Barnsley bus station, where I noticed the former helpful and well stocked Information Centre has been relet as a betting shop. So much for making bus travel a responsible choice for positive lifestyles!

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IMG_1261.jpgThe X10 is a real treat to ride on. Within just a few minutes after leaving Leeds bus station you’re gliding down the M1 to junction 38 to serve the catchment area of Darton heading into Barnsley. Taking this route usefully gives the bus the edge over the train for people living in this catchment area as well as supplementing local bus services. The train takes 35 minutes (half hourly fast) or 54 minutes on an hourly stopper.

IMG_0524.jpgThe X10 single fare is £6 with an attractively priced £7 Explorer day ticket which is also available on Stagecoach’s other routes, thereby also competing with the train on price which costs £9.20 single £11.20 peak day return or £9.40 off peak. Railcard discounted fares are £6.10 single and £7.40 peak or £6.20 off-peak return.

My driver was very friendly and gave a smooth and enjoyable ride all the more so as I approved of his ‘best of the sixties and seventies’ compilation music choices which played out for the journey!

IMG_0525.jpgAs I’d bagged one of LNER’s bargain basement priced first class advanced fares from Leeds to return to London Kings Cross at 1415 I headed back to Leeds on one of Northern’s two-an-hour fast journeys and was soon in ‘Seat 29’ heading south to bring these six days of enjoyable travels to an end.

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IMG_0529.jpgNot before a quick hop over to St Pancras International for the Thameslink journey to Hassocks as the finale.

Roger French

A few days in scenic Scotland 2

Day 3 Friday 1st March 2019  Mull of Kintyre

When planning trips it’s not often I’ll schedule a long journey out and back by exactly the same route and mode of travel in one day. It’s always much more interesting to devise a circuit taking in different routes and scenery, villages, towns or cities along the way.

Today’s been an exception with an early start for the four hour citylink journey at 0625 from Glasgow to Campbeltown allowing four and a half hours there before a slightly longer return journey taking four hours and fourteen minutes back from Campbeltown to Glasgow at 1500 by exactly the same route in reverse. Both these journeys only run on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (at least at this time of the year).

IMG_9771.jpgThe reason’s simple. Citylink service 926 is a real stunner of a route, with something of interest to see at every twist and turn (and there are plenty) along the A82/A83 as these roads include some of Scotland’s finest scenery passing impressive mountains, lochs and forests.

IMG_9792.jpgThe 133 mile route is shown on the Google map below which shows by car it would take around three hours. The 926 heads out of Glasgow northwestwards towards Dumbarton continuing northwards alongside Loch Lomond to Arrochar then west to Inveraray and southwestwards through Achadunan and Furnace to Lochgilphead continuing southwards alongside Loch Fyne to Tarbert then south on the west side of Kintyre via Clachan and Tayinloan before reaching Campbeltown on the east side of Kintyre.

Each section of route offers up amazing views. Between Arrochar and Inveraray there’s a steady mountainous climb along Glen Croe sandwiched between Ben Donich and Ben Arthur before reaching the wonderfully named settlement called ‘Rest and be thankful’.

IMG_E0241.jpgThere’s mile after mile of beautiful lochside travelling and at the (almost) halfway point a short pause in the timetable allows a chance to stretch legs, buy a coffee and savour the delightful small town of Inveraray.

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IMG_9923.jpgAlthough only six boarded the 0625 in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street coach station we picked four more up through Hillhead and Anniesland including walkers and fishermen who spent much of the journey discussing their ailments including the problems of an ingrown toenail (too much detail for an early Friday morning for me). Around eight more passengers joined for some of the way during the journey but the return trip at 1500 from Campbeltown was much busier with around forty passengers using the coach including a maximum of thirty on board at any one time. Around half travelled all the way through to Glasgow with six boarding in Lochgilphead.

IMG_9832.jpgThe route is dual-branded for both citylink and West Coast Motors from the time when there was competition between the two operators. Now citylink take the commercial risk while West Coast Motors receive a contracted mileage rate. As well as taking passengers travelling a long distance, the route is effectively the local bus option between many of the settlements and Scotland’s concessionary pass provides free travel throughout. There are four journeys every day in each direction as well as the two extras on Fridays to Sundays I travelled on. Argyll & Bute Council don’t provide any funding for the route.

Citylink fares give fair value. My return was £31.10 and there’s a great offer of £49 for a three day rover ticket across the citylink network, which if I’d been a bit smarter I’d have bought as it would also have included my journey from Fort William to Kyle of Lochalsh (at £25.10) and I’d have had another day’s travel effectively free.

IMG_9835.jpgWest Coast Motors is a very smart operator. Despite the time of year and road conditions all their buses and coaches I saw were impressively clean – outside and inside. They’re one of Scotland’s top family owned independent operators having started in Campbeltown in the early 1920s.

IMG_9889.jpgI was intrigued to see their original depot and HQ site while in Campbeltown – a very understated affair, apparently originally a distillery and not what you’d expect from the investment the Company’s making in new vehicle’s sporting an updated smart livery for running local routes radiating from and around Campbeltown.

IMG_9895.jpgRecent expansion has seen West Coast Motors acquire Perryman’s in the eastern belt as well as taking over some of First Bus’s former routes in border territory which together with their operations in conjunction with citylink makes for an amazingly large geographic area of coverage from Carlisle and Berwick-upon-Tweed to Oban and the western tip of Mull and down to the southern tip of Kintyre, not forgetting the Glasgow sightseeing operation.

IMG_9896.jpgIt was to the southern tip of Kintyre – the Mull – I headed on route 444 to savour the ‘mist rolling in from the sea’ as Paul, Linda and the band famously implanted in our minds in that impossible-to-shake-off refrain. More so, that the nearest village served by bus to the Mull of Kintyre is called Southend – a more contrasting atmosphere to the more famous Essex coastal resort you could not find.

IMG_9907.jpgI can’t do justice to the wonderful scenery along the route south nor the peaceful atmosphere on arrival. It must be one of Britain’s best, if not the best, remotest bus terminus. Well worth the five hour trip from Glasgow to reach.

IMG_9902.jpgThe purpose of this transport themed blog isn’t to dwell too much on architecture and general tourism but I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around Campbeltown spotting interesting buildings as well as the memorial garden for Linda McCartney which is laid out very respectfully making for a fitting and poignant tribute.

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Day 4  Saturday 2nd March 2019   Bute and Ayrshire

I’d originally planned a full day enjoying the Isle of Bute. Arriving at Wemyss Bay, undoubtedly Scotland’s most attractive station, for the ferry over to Rothesay there was an ominous message on the wipe board in CalMac’s ticket office.

IMG_9993.jpgI couldn’t help notice how ‘HIGHLY’ had not only been underlined but promoted to block capitals. I decided to plough on but keep options open for a Plan B.

IMG_9982.jpgConnections between ScotRail’s hourly trains from Glasgow to Wemyss Bay and CalMac’s ferry to Rothesay on Bute are amazingly conveniently timed and you get to enjoy the gorgeous walkway down from the station area to the embarkation area. At this time of year there wasn’t much of a queue but you can imagine the crowds on busy summer days in the heyday of travel filling the curved walkway.

IMG_9988.jpgOur ferry was late leaving due to an unscheduled fill up from oil tankers alongside but we got underway around fifteen minutes late and were soon across the sea to Bute with an impressive thirty-five minute crossing time.

IMG_9992.jpgWest Coast Motors have been Bute’s bus operator for some years since Stagecoach withdrew from the island. They’ve got a small depot in Port Banatyne not far along the coastline north of Rothesay. I took the 90/490 route to take a look as we drove by, changing drivers outside before continuing to the terminus by the marina.

IMG_0110.jpgThe bus then heads south through Rothesay again continuing pretty much all along the coastline to Kilchattan Bay at the southern end of the island. What a lovely terminus this is. Desolate in winter but gorgeous in summer.

IMG_0147.jpgI was impressed to find an open and well stocked Visitor Information Centre in Rothesay and to find Argyll & Bute Council’s useful timetable book giving details of the 90/490 as well as two town routes and other infrequent bus routes on the island. The helpful VIC staff had stocks of the Council’s 2016/17 bus map under the counter and admitting it was out of date in detail kindly gave me a copy acknowledging it usefully provides a prospective of the island for visitors. Why oh why can’t such maps be kept up to date. OK, I know; it’s lack of finance.

IMG_0054.jpgAfter admiring the bus shelter in Rothesay’s Guildford Square opposite the ferry terminal I popped back to the ferry office to get an update on the ‘Amber Alert’. Not unnaturally the staff couldn’t give any assurances one way or the other but as the lunchtime clouds were darkening and the breeze getting distinctly breezier I decided to abort the original plan for more afternoon Bute exploration and avoid the risk of being stranded overnight on the island with just three OS maps, a tangerine, a chunky Kitkat and bottle of water in my bag. I hopped on the ferry just mooring and made it safely back to the mainland.

Twitter comes into its own at times like this and I’m grateful to ‘tartonterrior’ Kenny for reminding me about Stagecoach’s route 585 which starts at Greenock and ruffled McGill’s feathers for a while as it takes a coastal route through Wemyss Bay, Largs and Adrossan, to Irvine before continuing to Ayr. Just the job as the rain began lashing it down outside Wemyss Bay station.

IMG_0203.jpgI was pleased to see McGill’s trial Connect&Go local route up to Upper Skelmorlie (as well as Inverkip) is still connecting and going albeit now being funded by SPT and sticking with the original Dial-A-Ride concept rather than new fangled apps!

IMG_0192.jpgMy 585 arrived over ten minutes late but I’d managed to crack the real time updates on Stagecoach’s app (using over 5% phone battery power in so doing) and was reassured it was on its way. It turned out to be a busy bus and I managed to clear enough condensation from the windows to enjoy the coastal views for most of the way, but when we diverted into West Kilbride I did wonder if we’d ever get back on to the coastal road again such was the tortuous route taken around the houses. We changed drivers at Ardrossan and arrived in Irvine still over ten minutes late.

IMG_0201.jpgAs I’d enjoyed a ride on Stagecoach’s X77 between Ayr and Glasgow a year or so ago I decided to bail out from the 585 at Irvine and head over to Kilmarnock to try out the companion X76 from there to Glasgow. Stagecoach’s route 11 also links Ardrossan with Irvine but via Kilwinning (the 585 takes a more direct route) then continues to Kilmarnock. It runs every ten minutes seven days a week.

IMG_0209.jpgIt’s busy. Very busy, even with 67 plate double deckers to the latest Stagecoach corporate specification and a rather understated localised route branding.

And my final bus ride today was on the aforementioned X76 on the hugely impressive Plaxton Panorama double deck buses/coaches Stagecoach introduced last year.

IMG_0224.jpgThey really are head turners and must tempt motorists seeing them glide along the M77 to give the 15 minute frequency, forty minute travel time route a try.

IMG_0232.jpgThe interiors are equally impressive and I particularly like the traditional cloth seat moquette rather than the craze for leather-like material which I never find so comfortable. The usual usb points and Wi-fi are included and the whole journey experience was superb. Stagecoach really can deliver impressive vehicle investment around the country such as these fine vehicles.

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It’ll be time to start heading south tomorrow but I’m taking the slow route.

Roger French

Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 2.

Thursday 21st February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The ‘Brighton Three Bridges fast’ conundrum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Coordinate roadworks and restrict parking

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

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

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

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4. Southern ‘marketing’ shoot themselves in the foot

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

5. Unrealistic journey times

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

6. Presentation

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

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

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

IMG_9241.jpg7. Too technical looking

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

8. The price bugbear

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Roger French

Britain’s biggest rail replacement ever. Part 1.

Sunday 17th February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what can we expect tomorrow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

Sparks are flying on GOBLIN

Monday 28th January 2019

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

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

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

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

In pre-overhead wires days at Harringay Green Lanes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

 

 

 

railair & you’re there

Thursday 24th January 2019

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7535.jpgRoger French