Will competition safeguard buses in Guildford?

Friday 16th November

Head to head bus competition broke out in Guildford last week. It won’t last; one operator will blink first – read on to find out which.

Long established family owned Safeguard Coaches runs circular routes 4/5 linking the city centre with Aldershot Road, Park Barn and the Royal Surrey County Hospital. Eight years ago they also ran part of route 3 serving Bellfields but back in 2010 Arriva, who also operated buses to both areas, took over the route to Bellfields exclusively leaving Park Barn exclusively to Safeguard. I’m not sure whether this arrangement was something of interest to the Competition Authorities at the time, but the local media certainly took an interest.

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From the local Surrey media

In the event, the “arrangement” is now history as Arriva have crashed back into Park Barn with a ten minute dedicated service (Route B) at the same time as revamping a longer cicular route (service 26/27) which also served the Royal Surrey County Hospital and an area called Stoughton. Now RSCH gets its own ten minute dedicated service (Route A) while Stoughton has its own fifteen minute frequency Route C.

The spark for Arriva’s Park Barn incursion came a few weeks ago when Stagecoach were given rights by the University of Surrey to run buses through the campus which had previously been served by Arriva on their now abandoned circular 26/27. The replacement route A now has to bypass the campus using what’s known as The Chase which also treads on the toes of Safeguard’s route 4/5.

Furthermore part of Stagecoach’s new network (Route 2) provides competition between the city centre and Stoughton to Arriva’s new Route C (old 26/27).

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The new Arriva A B C routes
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The long established Safeguard Coaches circular 4/.5 routes
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Stagecoach runs circular linked routes 1/2 taking in the University, Hospital and Stoughton

Passengers have never had a better service with well over twelve buses an hour running direct between the city centre and the Royal Surrey County Hospital and up to twelve an hour between the city centre and Park Barn estate. Bus fares have also come plummeting down. One thing’s for sure, despite the Hospital being a busy attractor for passenger journeys and Park Barn being what we euphemistically call ‘good bus territory’, there’s definitely not enough passengers for the high frequencies now on offer.

I feel sorry for Safeguard. They’re rightly regarded as a quality independent operator (because they are); a winner of industry awards; and well respected by the local community and passengers who use the 4/5 route – which meets the needs of the area well. They’ve provided an excellent service in Guildford for ninety years and route 4/5 is a quality local route of which they should be proud.

I’ve got sympathy for Arriva. It must have been disheartening to be chucked out the University campus which I’m sure was lucrative to serve on its 26/27 circular and the incursion from Stagecoach in Stoughton must be unwelcome. I appreciate the attraction of making good the loss with an incursion into Park Barn, but it simply won’t work out for them.

Good for Stagecoach who must have been working closely with the University to gain exclusive access rights to the campus and introducing what looks like a decent mini network linking the University with its catchment areas.

I’m impressed Surrey County Council have obviously worked hard to get all the bus stop flags and timetable cases updated with new route numbers and timetable displays even including large index displays and departure signs in Guildford bus station. Full marks to them for that and what a shame their comprehensive timetable book for Guildford only published and valid from 1 September (coinciding with the new Stagecoach routes 1/2) is now out of date.

Arriva have produced an attractive timetable leaflet for the A, B, C routes available in their travel shop in the bus station but it was a shame there weren’t any available on the buses I travelled on today. I wonder if they’ve done a house-to-house in the affected areas to promote the new routes?

Safeguard also have an attractive full colour timetable leaflet for the 4/5 (commendably Arriva have copies on display in their Travel Shop) and a small additional leaflet promoting extra buses to and from the hospital and its cheaper fares.

As always in these things it’s attention to detail that’s important – not one of Arriva’s strengths. For example the internal cove panels in one of the buses I travelled on was promoting an out of date 0844 telephone number and season tickets for the full Guildford wide network rather than the new less-than-half-price tickets (bizarrely called ‘seasonal tickets’ – will they only last until the Spring?) available on routes A, B, C.

A promotional poster inside Arriva’s Travel Shop

Safeguard on the other hand have high profile posters promoting their lower prices by the entrance of every bus – including bargain fares for NHS staff and their timetable and promotional leaflets are available on board buses. Also impressively their contactless payment option has a weekly and four-weekly cap built in. That’s quite an incentive to stick with one operator for your week’s or month’s travelling and as the incumbent operator with a long history of serving Park Barn and the Hospital, I’d be surprised if passengers desert them.

Certainly my observations today, which I appreciate are only at the end of week 2, indicate far too few passengers using Arriva’s new Route B and there’s certainly not enough potential to grow the market sufficiently to sustain both this and the 4/5. I can’t conceive Safeguard ever capitulating, they look financially sound enough to sustain this unwelcome onslaught. The only likely outcome is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down Route A) as it wont be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ.

Routes A and C look like a good idea – it simplifies what was a rather convoluted 26/27 circular but if I’d been Arriva I’d have also redeployed resources from the 26/27 (and used the transfer in of more modern single deck buses from elsewhere) to boost and protect the service to Bellfields – providing a more attractive offer than double decks lumbering round every twenty minutes – it wasn’t that long ago the great hope for Bellfields was the ridiculous Mercedes Sprinter minibuses, but that ended in disaster as the buses were totally unsuitable; I can’t help thinking double deckers are just as unsuitable to the other capacity extreme and I’d be very wary of a locally based family owned highly respected operator reinventing history and returning to that pre 2010 arrangement of serving Bellfields!

A double deck on Route 3 to Bellfields today
The Mercedes Sprinters were completely unusable and withdrawn from route 3 last year

One to watch with interest in the coming months.

Roger French

My Hundred Best Train Journeys 2

Thursday 15th November 2018

Following the top ten listing in Part 1, welcome to the next twenty most wonderful train journeys around Britain – they’re part of my Hundred Best Train Journeys. Read along for the rides ……

11  Shrewsbury – Llandrindod – Swansea 

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After the Cambrian Coast line entry in tenth place, we’re still in Wales for number 11 – the scenically spectacular Heart of Wales Line. In addition to the gorgeous Welsh mountain scenery, this journey offers the intrigue of a multitude of request stations, beautifully well kept country stations and the very best station to alight and board right across Wales (yes it even beats that slightly contrived 58 lettered one in Anglesey – which we’ll come to later in the list); it is of course the quirky named Sugar Loaf.

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Not only is it well worth getting off at Sugar Loaf to savour its isolation and remoteness but also to enjoy the surprised expression on the train guard/conductor’s face when you ask for the train to stop there. And you simply can’t beat the fun of hailing the next train with a clear signal to the driver from such a rarely used station. When I visited it last year, I was taken aback while exploring the platform to be joined by a man who’d just arrived from the nearby road. I don’t know who was more surprised: him to see me, or me being joined by another potential passenger. In the event it turned out he was from the local community group who look after the floral displays and keep the platform tidy at this and other stations; so we had a lovely chat all about Sugar Loaf and the line.

There are many other wonderful stations along the line – one journey (the 0604 from Swansea to Crewe) serves the most stations in Britain at 41, including 16 request stops. Transport for Wales have plans to increase the number of journeys per day along the line (currently there are only four through journeys with a couple of shorts from either end) but in the meantime careful planning is needed if you want to get off and explore the stations, but some are served by buses, including the main stop at Llandrindod (Wells) right outside the station, making for other great journey opportunities.

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Llandrindod Wells

12  Sheffield – Manchester

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The single track alongside Dore and Totley

Criss-crossing the Derbyshire Peak District by bus is a particular favourite pastime of mine, and right up there with the best of those bus scenic busters is taking the train along the Hope Valley Line. It’s quite bizarre for such a major strategic route that the line is reduced to a short stretch of single track through Dore and Totley which can sometimes cause delays, especially if an express then gets caught behind a stopper, but if you’re just travelling for the pleasure of the scenery it gives more time to relish the scenic delights as the train passes along the seventeen miles between Totley Tunnel and Cowburn Tunnel – ticking off the delightfully named stations through Crindleford, Bamford, Hope and Edale.

13  Glasgow – Stranraer

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Old style BR corporate identity on display back in 2013

Sadly since the ferries left for a new terminal further up the coast, Stranraer is a shadow of its former self; almost a ghost station, but it’s certainly worth the journey down there from Glasgow to enjoy the coastal views through Troon and Prestwick and the gorgeous countryside views particularly on the thirteen mile single line stretch once you leave Ayr.  There’s a lovely signal box at the penultimate station, Barhill, where driver and signalman swap tokens. There are now only four direct journeys per day from Glasgow to Stranraer (and two back) with others starting/finishing at Kilmarnock and some only going as far as Girvan, missing out the Barrhill section; which is not to be missed.

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The highest station on the line is Barrhill

If you want time to explore the desolation of Stranraer – it’s worth a nose round to see how things used to be – don’t worry that the train usually turns round quickly and there’s a long wait for the next one, as there’s a lovely ride back along the coast to Ayr on Stagecoach bus routes 360/60.

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The desolate ferry terminal on the left and a pair of semaphore signals on the right

14  Liskeard – Looe

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Trains set off heading north from the Looe bound platform at Liskeard which is at right angles to the main line

I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to disclose this early on that all the Devon and Cornwall branch lines appear in my Hundred Best Train Journeys, and it won’t come as a surprise that leading the pack is the delightfully quirky and scenic Looe Valley Line. What other line begins with the train heading in a northerly direction to journey south, travelling in a full 360 degree large circle (clockwise), downhill, for about 5 minutes (passing under the main line) before ending up pointing northwards again; only to top this manoeuvre off on only two of the twelve journeys a day by continuing a short distance further northwards to call at the rarely used station of Coombe Junction Halt. Oh, and then the train guard/conductor jumps down from the train and manually resets the points so the train can head south again. Only in Cornwall; only in Britain!

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Not only all that, but the train then follows the course of the lovely East Looe River passing three more delightfully named request stations: St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, Causeland and Sandplace until the river gradually widens until the West Looe River joins almost opposite the station terminus at Looe. You simply haven’t been to Cornwall unless you’ve fully explored the lovely Looe Valley Line.

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15  Plymouth – Gunnislake

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This Devon branch line, the Tamar Line, may not have as many quirks as Liskeard-Looe, although it also passes under a superb viaduct carrying the main line and has a reverse manoeuvre along the way (at the wonderful Bere Alston – where the line once continued to Tavistock and Okehampton, and who knows, the pipe dream of reinstatement may one day come true) but for me it has a well deserved fifteenth place in this list for the wonderful views over the Rivers Tamar and Tavy, as the line twists and turns pointing east, then west, then north and repeat (many times) up the valley to Gunnislake.

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Bere Ferrers

Both Gunnislake and Calstock stations are also served by Plymouth Citybus route 79 offering a great view of the railway line crossing the River Tamar at Calstock. Bere Ferrers is also a wonderful station to explore with a heritage centre and adjacent vintage train.

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The viaduct carrying the Tamar Line over the River Tamar at Calstock

16  Lancaster – Barrow-in-Furness – Carlisle

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Are they paintings? No, they’re windows.

For me the Cumbrian Coast Line has many similar characteristics to the Cambrian Coast Line (at No 10): hugging the coastline with glorious views out to sea and wonderful mountain scenery inland.

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The infamous clock at the infamous Carnforth

Within a few minutes of setting off from Lancaster you arrive at the infamous Carnforth station which is definitely worth exploring for a Brief Encounter before hopping back on the next train as it leaves the main West Coast Line for the coast.

Skirting round the western edge of the Lake District on the Cumbrian Coast Line is a wonderful way to spend three and three quarters hours of your life; you certainly won’t regret it.

Even before reaching Barrow-in-Furness the views over Morecambe Bay are a tasty aperitif for what’s to follow as the train passes over the 528 yard low level Arnside Viaduct over the sands ….. then cruises into the wonderful Grange-over-Sands station with its window views over the sands …. then continuing round what is almost a 360 degree loop to serve Barrow-in-Furness …. then heading north along the coast …. but not before another fifteen mile ride around Duddon Sands …. then to Ravenglass which is a lovely stop off to ride the spectacular Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow gauge railway …. and then of course there’s the infamous Sellafield a few miles north with its barbed wire and security fences making it clear you’re not welcome unless you work there, which many local people do, as busy trains heading north from there at shift change times testify.

Pick your journey carefully as some entail connections in Barrow-in-Furness and some offer the opportunity to ride behind a Class 37 or Class 68 loco in old coaching stock for a real nostalgic ride back in time.

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A Class 37 passes over a low bridge at Ravenglass

17  Newcastle – Edinburgh

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Sun rising over the east coast as the 0540 from Edinburgh heads south

Whatever else, make sure you’re sitting on the coastal side when making this journey. Superb glimpses of the coastline tease you as you journey north until the train approaches Berwick-upon-Tweed where the full magnificence of its spectacular viaduct and crossing the Tweed on the Royal Border Bridge is a sight to behold, as is the sight of the original road bridge (Bridge End). After that, many welcome glimpses of the coast become more frequent as you head north towards Dunbar and Scotland.

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Looking east to Berwick-upon-Tweed from the viaduct

My favourite journey on this line is the first early morning southbound departure from Edinburgh to Kings Cross which leaves as early as 0540. But it’s well worth getting up early for; uniquely the train only calls at Newcastle making the 393 mile journey to London in precisely 4 hours (averaging 98 mph) and on a summer’s morning you see the sun rising in the east over the coast as breakfast is served and you head down to Newcastle – bliss.

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18  Llandudno – Blaenau Ffestiniog

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Betws-y-Coed

Another stunner of a Welsh line; and another with only six journeys a day but well worth planning an itinerary around. The line follows the course of the River Conwy southwards as far as Betws-y-Coed from where it heads west along the River LLedr but be prepared for a complete change in scenery once the train nears Blaenau Ffestiniog and emerges from the 2 mile long Ffestiniog tunnel. You arrive in slate country and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else on the rail network.

At Blaenau Ffestiniog there are cross platform connections with the Ffestiniog Heritage Railway which is well worth a trip as are the bus routes which run up and down either side of the Conwy Valley between Llandudno and Betws-y-Coed. Betws-y-Coed is also worth a stop off to explore including the miniature railway alongside the station.

19  Sheffield – Penistone – Huddersfield

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A Pacer arrives at Penistone

We’re talking serious South Yorkshire scenery here; until you slip into West Yorkshire, then you’re talking serious West Yorkshire scenery. When I travel along this line in addition to admiring the scenery, I often wonder if many passengers notice the subtle change of branding and logos between the stations east and south of Penistone (South Yorkshire) and west and north from Denby Dale and on to Huddersfield (West Yorkshire). As often as not, it’s been a Pacer when I’ve made this journey adding that unique charm only a Pacer can provide as it trundles along with the Peaks and Moors in the distance on the left hand side heading Huddersfield bound.

20  St Erth – St Ives

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A busy St Ives station

Back to Cornwall for this short five mile branch line, which gets overrun with passengers in the summer thanks to sensible traffic management arrangements which keeps cars out of St Ives and instead enforces parking at the Park & Ride site at Lelant Saltings the first station after St Erth.

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It’s another journey where it’s essential to sit (if you can find a seat in the busy summer months) on the coastal side (that’s the offside as the train leaves St Erth) for maximum sea views as the train scurries along to St Ives, where there’s only the most basic platform as a terminus. Don’t forget to walk up the hill to the bus station where there’s one of Britain’s most scenic bus turning areas, and maybe take an open top bus all the way round the coast via Lands End to Penzance, or if you’re short of time take the quick way via St Erth and Crowlas.

21  Edinburgh – Aberdeen

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Waking up and looking out of the window on the Caledonian Sleeper wending its way towards Aberdeen as the sun rises

We’ve already enjoyed the first past of this route as far as Ladybank on the Inverness journey along the Highland Line (No 4 in the Hundred Best Train Journeys) but now we’re keeping to the east coast as we head to Aberdeen to enjoy the fantastic journey over the Tay Bridge (a spine chilling moment whenever I cross and recall reading about the terrible  1879 disaster) and take in the lovely city of Dundee and on to Montrose and Stonehaven before arriving at Aberdeen.

22  Oxford – Worcester – Hereford

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The somewhat large station at Hereford

This line always intrigues me as it’s neither a main line or a branch line. It’s a wonderful hybrid which despite some track doubling, still has potential delay inducing single track sections as well as delightfully named stations including Ascott-under-Wychwood, Moreton-in-Marsh and Honeybourne where there’s a line off to serve the MoD depot at Long Marston and who knows, maybe one day the reinstatement of the long lost connection to Stratford-on-Avon, which really would make for a joined up railway.

The journey continues through both Worcester’s stations (the delightful Shrub Hill, with all it’s charm and old style signals, and also Foregate Street) before continuing through more rich English countryside via Great Malvern and Ledbury before terminating at the lovely market town of Hereford.

23  Swindon – Cheltenham

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The once proud offices of British Rail’s Western Region hiding the start of the scenic Swindon to Cheltenham line from the station behind

There are only three stations along this beautiful line – Kemble, Stroud and Stonehouse – and each has a character of its own and the scenery, especially to the north of the line, is another example of Englishness at its most countrified which is a good enough reason for its placing here in the list.

24  Westbury – Bath Spa

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Westbury’s a lovely interchange station in its own right, and surprisingly busy for the size of town as five rail lines converge and a freight marshalling yard is nearby; but it’s the section of line after Trowbridge towards Bath Spa which always brings me joy as it follows the gorgeous River Avon as well as the parallel Kennet and Avon Canal. and serves the amazingly well looked after stations at Bradford-on-Avon, Avoncliff and Freshford. The views are absolutely stunning. I’ve caught the one morning GWR operated train from Brighton which wends its way all along the coast to Southampton then inland via Salisbury, Westbury to Bath Spa/Bristol (a three and a half hour marathon) just for the fifteen or so minute delight of this section of track.

25  Exeter – Barnstaple (and Okehampton)

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Another Devonshire branch line delight, with wonderful scenery and a real treat to arrive at Barnstaple station with its retro signage and heritage atmosphere.

I’ve cheated and added the spur from Crediton to Okehampton to this entry – it only runs just a few journeys on Summer Sundays and uses the same tracks from Exeter as far as Crediton, and to be honest you don’t see much as the hedges and trees either side of the single track to Okehampton itself are thick and mature, but Okehampton station even tops Barnstaple for retro delight (and a connection to the Dartmoor heritage railway).

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Okehampton with the Dartmoor Railway using the platform on the left
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Okehampton can get very busy when the GWR train arrives

The one intermediate stop at Samford Courtney wins the prize for Britain’s most basic station with absolutely no facilities at all, save for a locked gate which the train guard on the first train of the day unlocks.

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Back to the Barnstaple branch and just saying how lovely the Devon scenery is – along the whole journey – count the number of times the track crosses the lovely River Taw – bet you lose count!

26  Glasgow – Wemyss Bay (and Gourock)

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Wemyss Bay

This train journey enjoys such a high entry for one simple reason: Wemyss Bay station. It has to be the most delightful station across the whole network. Stunningly attractive with magnificently designed curves and circles and not a straight line or corner to be seen. I’ve been a few times now, and love it more every visit. I also like the quirkiness of another station along the line called IBM. What at one time was a thriving industrial area owned by said technology company is now a barren wasteland with ghostly empty buildings, and as I found, when exploring the area, entails quite a circuitous and lonely route for pedestrians down to the main A78 road to Greenock for the bus.

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Another addition to this entry is the short six mile stretch of line heading further west, past the junction where the Wemyss Bay line heads south at Port Glasgow, continuing to the terminus at Gourock along the Firth of Clyde. It has such interesting station names including Bogston, Cartsdyke and Fort Matilda and a lovely view of the Clyde.

27  Eastbourne – Ashford International

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Class 171 trains pass at Rye before the single track section ahead towards Ore

Not as famous as the Dawlish Wall, nor the Cambrian or Cumbrian coastal lines, but nevertheless this lovely East Sussex coastal line offers wonderful views of the English Channel and the south coast’s characteristic beach huts and fishing huts as the train passes from Pevensey Bay and Normans Bay, through Cooden Beach to the massively long platforms at Bexhill and then the quirky St Leonards Warrier Square located between Bopeep Tunnel (lovely name) and Hastings Tunnel (each almost a mile in length). After Hastings and Ore, there’s the wonderfully dense wooded section of single track line with the short platformed, isolated, and little used stations of Three Oaks and Doleham before arriving at Winchelsea and Rye (well worth a stop off and explore). After that the scenery changes once again as the train crosses the Romney Marsh to the characterless and much expanded terminus at Ashford.

This line has two-car Class 171 diesel trains which, aside from the Uckfield line, are unusual for Kent and Sussex. It’s unsurprising that Doleham sees so few passengers (it’s East Sussex’s least used station) as on a Saturday only the first and last trains in both directions make a stop – so you have to leave on the 0558 to Ashford and can only return on the 2357 arrival back making for quite a long day out! (Mondays to Fridays offers more sensible departures to Hastings at 0755 and 0917 with a 1718 arrival back.)

28  Redhill – Guildford

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It’s for the North Downs. They’re beautiful. They really are. Views from both sides of the train are worth clocking but I always prefer the north side and get those full on views through Dorking and Gomshall – which incidentally has one of the most extensive ramped footbridges I’ve ever seen anywhere on the network.

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29  Paddock Wood – Maidstone

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This is another train journey alongside a delightfully scenic river. In this case the River Medway as it wends its way north towards Maidstone (and eventually to Sheerness and the sea). The train provides an hourly service from Tonbridge to Strood but it’s the twenty minute ride alongside the Medway and passing through stations Beltring, Yalding, Wateringbury and East Fairleigh which is the really stunning section of track (sit on the right hand side heading north for best views).

30  Derby – Matlock

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Book-ending the top thirty is the delightful journey from Derby into the wonderful Peak District town of Matlock. I love the first station after leaving the main line at Ambergate, called Whatstandwell, not only for its quirky name but because it’s the closest station to the Tramway museum at nearby Crich.

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The line follows the Derwent Valley along with the A6 and river to Cromford before a tunnel brings you to Matlock Bath (famous for the Heights of Abraham) and Matlock itself, where there are connections to the Peak Rail Heritage Line further up the valley, or to the lovely TransPeak bus route on to Bakewell and Buxton to connect back to the rail network.

Watch out for Part 3 of my Hundred Best Train Journeys (31-60) next month.

Roger French

A Lifebelt for ailing Hayling Ferry

Saturday 3rd November 2018

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There’s a handy passenger ferry which connects the south western tip of Hayling Island with the south eastern tip of Portsea Island across Langstone Harbour. It only takes a couple of minutes to cross and saves Hayling’s residents a 12 mile detour via Havant and Cosham to reach the commercial centre of Portsmouth and Southsea. But as I found when I last made the crossing in August 2017, it’s not particularly convenient as both landing stages are isolated with the nearest bus routes turning a fair way short necessitating a two mile walk from the closest bus stop on Hayling Island and about a mile on Portsea before you find a bus stop where buses stop. No wonder very few people use the ferry and it struggles to stay in business.

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Bus turning circles almost adjacent to both landing stages give the clue that once upon a time buses joined up with the ferry to connect the communities, and now, thanks to £20,000 funding from Havant Borough Council’s Community Infrastructure Levy, buses are once again providing connections for a six month trial.

It’s taken a long time to bring this renewed bus/ferry integrated travel option to fruition; and sadly before you know it, it’ll all be over again. I wish I could report otherwise, but after giving the trial service a whirl yesterday afternoon, I’m afraid it’s a ‘No’ from me for going through to the next round.

You can’t fault the commitment and effort made by all the parties involved who’ve endured a long and painful struggle to try and join up the bus and ferry dots on the map.

Not surprisingly Stagecoach rebuffed suggestions their circular routes 30/31 connecting Hayling Island with Havant four times an hour should divert off route for the two mile hike to the western landing stage; after all, it would destroy the routes’ even frequency and economics, while First Bus were naturally reluctant to stretch routes 15/16 eastwards beyond their Fort Cumberland terminus in Eastney with the potential to make the timetable unworkable for no appreciable gain in passengers.

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Stagecoach’s circular routes 30/31 run every 15 minutes from Havant (twice an hour each way)
First Bus route 15 runs hourly and 16 less often from the Hard to Eastney Fort Cumberland

After months of endless discussions, it was finally Havant Borough Council’s £20,000 sweetener to fund a community bus shuttling around Hayling Island providing a link to the ferry every hour together with Langstone Harbour’s halving the harbour fees paid by the ferry (and a levy on each passenger) that finally clinched a deal amid much congratulatory appreciation from everyone involved for a bright new future.

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The Portsmouth News positive headline

In the event, the aspiration for an hourly community bus didn’t quite work out and instead Portsmouth City Coaches (a new name for the old established Emsworth & District bus company) are running just a Monday to Friday peak hour only circular route (numbered, for nostalgia reasons, 149) aimed at commuters.

Route 149 harks back to the long established open-top route operated by Southdown

Plaudits to First Bus though; they’ve hacked the western end of route 15 between the Hard Interchange (with its adjacent Gunwharf Quays shopping outlets) and the city centre and instead gambled on an extension of the route at the eastern end to the ferry’s landing stage; and what’s more this runs hourly throughout a Monday to Friday day (well, except for a 1600 departure) providing more ferry connectional opportunities – it’s a shame their online map has only been updated at the western end though, leaving the ferry still looking isolated at the eastern end!

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First Bus’s online map has deleted the western end of route 15 to The Hard but not added the all important new eastern extension to the Ferry landing stage.

That map goof aside, it was good to see an abundance of posters and announcements around the ferry landing stages and onboard the ferry itself as well as the bus on route 149. Users of the ferry can’t possibly be unaware something new is on offer. I’m not sure though whether the all important non-users will be similarly briefed – whether the £20,000 has stretched to an attractive house-to-house leaflet drop on Hayling, for example.

At the top of the Eastney landing stage
At the bottom of the Eastney landing stage
On board the ferry
At the Hayling Island turning circle bus shelter
On board the 149 bus
Aside from ferry times only First Bus 15 times on display on the Eastney side (no 149) …
…. and then not particularly well presented!

This six month trial has been hyped as a “use it or lose it” opportunity, so well done to everyone involved for raising the profile and getting the local media on board too. But as always with these things, the devil is in the detail. Has anyone worked out what is actually on offer to tempt passengers to travel aside from a logical looking straight line on a map surpassing a non sensical inland detour? Regretfully it would seem not.

Imagine I fit the perfect target market of a commuter living on Hayling Island with a job in the centre of Portsmouth and want to use the new ‘Ferry Bus Connections’.

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The options are to catch the 0625, 0725 or 0825 route 149 from Eastoke Corner which will see me arrive in Portsmouth via the Ferry and route 15 an hour later at 0727, 0827 or 0927.

An overall 62 minute journey seems an awfully long time for a three minute ferry crossing. And bizarrely for a scheme that’s meant to save journey time, it doesn’t. If instead, I caught the 0635, 0715 or 0800 Stagecoach route 30 from nearby Mengham Corner on Hayling Island to Havant and hopped on the Coastliner bus to Portsmouth I’d arrive, in the first two examples at 0731 and 0811 – in just 56 minutes, being 6 minutes quicker than the new much heralded direct route. (The 0800 journey arrives 0912 – due to a longer connection in Havant so does take 10 minutes longer). Similar comparisons apply for the afternoon three journey options involving the 149.

What’s more I could get one of Stagecoach’s Mega or Dayrider tickets costing just £6.90 for a day or £21 for 7 days (m-ticket prices). Compare that to the non-integrated ticket option via the ferry – which sets me back £2 both ways on route 149; £5.50 for a day return on the ferry and £3 both ways on the 15, making for an eye-watering £15.50 for a day’s travel. A modest saving can be had on the ferry by buying a 10 trip ticket for £25 (effectively a working week’s travel, or £48 for 20 trips) and it may be there’s a slight discount on the 15 with a return ticket (this being First Bus and as it’s a Saturday, when I’m writing this, it’s impossible to find out); but I reckon it’ll be no more than a £1 saving making for a total bus and ferry five day price coming in at a whopping £70 which doesn’t quite entice me compared to Stagecoach’s £21, especially when it could be quicker too.

There is, of course, an even quicker journey option. Havant’s rail station is just a convenient three or four minute walk from the bus station and there just happen to be trains departing to Portsmouth & Southsea ten minutes after the Stagecoach route 30 arrives into Havant bus station – how good is that, making for an overall journey time of 41 minutes (from the 0635 bus); 50 minutes (from the 0715 bus) and 49 minutes (from the 0800 bus). Not only is this the quickest option, but the ticket prices are cheaper than the new bus and ferry option too – thanks to the wonderful PlusBus which happens to cover Hayling Island for either just £2.90 for a day or £10 for a week. Adding those prices to the Havant to Portsmouth & Southsea rail return of £5.10 for a day and £22.80 for a week gives integrated travel for £8 for a day or £32.80 for a week – less than half the bus/ferry option and a third quicker too!

And that, is why the six month trial; notwithstanding the £20,000 funding boost, is doomed to fail. Why would anyone choose to pay more for a longer journey?

I write this with a heavy heart, as I’d like nothing better than to see those lovely turning circles back in action permanently, so if, like me, you’re a fan of such manoeuvres – hurry down to Hayling Island over the next five months, while the trial lasts. Although sadly with darker mornings and late afternoons the prospects of seeing much in the light are not good.

The lovely turning circle on the Eastley side in action….
….while over on Hayling Island…..
….the 149 waits patiently for customers.

It’s a shame the Community Infrastructure Levy couldn’t have stretched further to fund an hourly 149 bus all day, as originally intended, and much tighter connectional times at the landing stages with good communications between bus and ferry (in case of delays) to try and shorten overall journey times. With the low numbers travelling, it might also have been worth making the service attractively cheap (the revenue at risk must be minimal), or even completely free for the six month trial. That just might have generated some serious interest which could have been nurtured to become sustainable.

What I saw yesterday is a very good try at reviving things but sadly it’s a definite ‘No’.

Roger French 3rd November 2018

Friendly feedback for ManFred

Saturday 20th October 2018

Monday’s ‘Business Announcement’ outlining proposals to centralise even more of Arriva’s UK bus business mysteriously landed anonymously in my inbox. I’m told it’s a legacy plan left over from recently departed UK Bus MD Kevin O’Connor (formerly Regional MD of G4S) who’s now moved on to pastures new.

I thought I’d give some friendly feedback about the plan to Arriva Chief Executive Manfred Rudhart……

Dear Manfred

In a nutshell DON’T DO IT!

I know it’s tough running buses at the moment with ‘fewer people in the UK choosing to travel by bus every year and the overall bus market shrinking’ as Iain Jago, Interim Managing Director UK Bus explains in his letter to Arriva’s staff announcing the proposals. But when you’ve mistakingly got your foot on the accelerator heading towards a brick wall you don’t press down even harder; you realise what’s causing the problem and switch to the brake pedal for an emergency stop.

Here are three reasons why Arriva needs to hit the brakes on another bout of centralisation which will do nothing to halt the decline in passengers and only disconnect Arriva further from that elusive market growth you’re seeking.

1. The most successful bus companies in the UK realise the local bus market needs locally based management teams engaged and embedded in their communities, impassioned and empowered to make decisions. Commercial, marketing and operations (all key components of a successful bus company which your proposals aim to centralise) can only be effectively managed locally in the bus market.

The market for bus travel in North Wales is completely different to the Medway Towns and different again from Teeside. Locally based managers understand this best; centralisation may well ‘eliminate duplication’ (as the proposal boasts) and therefore save costs but it will be a classic false economy with unintended consequences. Far from ‘improving efficiencies’ as proposed it will lead to waste and inefficiencies.

Look at your Group’s introduction of a fleet of Mercedes Sprinter minibuses to Hemel Hempstead’s bus routes last November. It might have looked a sensible innovation to a remotely based central commercial ‘expert’ but anyone in tune with the local market should have pointed out it’ll never work and would end in tears, as it did.

The Go-Ahead Group’s companies, Transdev Blazefield, Wellglade Group, Nottingham City Transport, Reading Buses, Lothian Buses, Ensign Bus to name some of the UK’s most renowned bus companies have one thing in common: they all have locally based autonomous commercial, marketing and operational teams. Imagine if Arriva was lucky enough to acquire all those award winning companies into the Group portfolio, the absolute last thing that should be done is eliminate all that management ‘duplication’ in the name of corporate efficiency. You’d destroy those companies within months; just like Hemel’s bus routes.

The history of centralisation/mega-regionalisation in the bus industry is not a happy one. Stagecoach tried it many years ago (creating a massive south east region stretching from Margate to Andover and along the south coast) as did First Group (their infamous 3 Ps Region: Porthcawl to Portsmouth to Penzance). Both hair-brained schemes designed by Directors parachuted into the bus industry from outside thinking they knew out to save costs and introduce efficiencies; both unmitigated disasters and thankfully put back to more sensible locally managed arrangements as soon as the scheme architect had left to cause mayhem in another industry.

2. You want Arriva to be the ‘mobility partner of choice’ but meaningful partnerships for the local bus market are with local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, locally based business groups and local community groups. The clue is in the word ‘local’. Centralisation in the pursuit of eliminating duplication will not endear Arriva to influential locally based politicians, executives and community leaders.

Giving buses priority is often about a whole host of small schemes such as traffic light phasing at key junctions, maybe just by a few seconds; extending yellow lines by a few yards; improving roadworks coordination etc. These are the stuff of local detailed knowledge which locally based bus managers pick up, not from remote regionally or centrally based staff hundreds of miles away.

I was shocked to hear a local authority traffic engineer tell how he’d called a meeting of all the major bus operators in his county to draw up a list of congestion hotspots which would benefit from small scale improvement schemes. Guess the only operator which failed to attend?

3. The track record of centralised customer facing activities already in place at Arriva is not particularly encouraging. Customer Services taking a week to reply to a fares enquiry; inappropriate tweet replies with no knowledge of local issues; no helpline phone numbers promoted online; a clunky website which calls for a region to be specified only to ignore it when delivering timetables, with maps (where they exist) hidden under tickets, and no fares information by journey …. to highlight just a few shortcomings.

In summary, increasing centralisation is simply the wrong way to go. You’re blessed with some first class managers and great up and coming young people in the business with passion for the industry – give them the authority and autonomy to make decisions locally and you’ll find any costly management duplication will soon be more than compensated by achieving the very market growth you’re seeking.

Good luck

Best wishes

Roger French

20th October 2018

I went to Thorpe Park by bus

Tuesday 16th October 2018

No, not the infamous leisure park in Surrey, that’s so last decade; I’m talking Thorpe Park as in ‘a flagship scheme for the Northern Powerhouse Agenda’ no less (well that’s what their brochure reckons).

And in case you didn’t know, Thorpe Park ‘sits in the city regions most significant growth area and will bring even greater diversity to the Leeds offer to the local and national business community’. What’s more the developers promise ‘public realm to engage and enjoy’.

And it’s in the news because Thorpe Park’s retail and leisure quarter called The Springs opened last weekend attracting the usual motoring addicted mega crowds of shoppers to suss out what’s on offer. As I was in the area it was too good an opportunity to miss so I tried out First Leeds’ brand new limited stop X26 bus route which also started last weekend linking Leeds city centre with Thorpe Park.

Where exactly is this flagship scheme you might well be wondering? Thorpe Park Leeds sits on the eastern edge of the city in the gap before you cross the extreme northern end of the M1 and arrive in neighbouring Garforth.

Here’s a site map from the Developers’ website showing the scale of what’s planned which as well as all the futuristic office space, retail, leisure and parkland will eventually include 7,000 new homes and in 2021 even a new train station, East Leeds Parkway. So it’s good to see First Leeds getting in before a home has been built with its new X26.

The usual retail suspects can be found at The Springs … Next and T.K.Max occupy the ‘bookends’ with Boots, a huge M&S Simply Food (no clothes), all the Arcadia Group brands (Top This and Top That), H&M and, inevitably, eateries including Nandos as well as other promised food offerings. An Odeon cinema opens next year and obviously as it’s 2018, a plush gym is included in the scheme.

But ominously there are plenty of vacant units which have no current takers; there’s a plethora of ‘to rent signs’ down the spine mall walkway which wouldn’t look out of place in a run down suburban High Street.

It seems paradoxical at a time of doom and gloom on the future of retail in the High Street due to the growth of online shopping we’re also seeing massive developments such as The Springs following on, in Leeds case, the opening of a huge new John Lewis handily next to the bus station (but with a massive car park attached to boot), a redeveloped Trinity Leeds central shopping mall and the longer established White Rose Centre just to the south west being just a short bus ride from the city centre.

This multi storey car park abuts the new John Lewis right next to Leeds City Bus Station.
The White Rose Centre offers all the usual retail names on the south west side of the city.
Just one example of the ‘premium office space’ aplenty at Thorpe Park with adjacent car parking

And so to the X26.

Full marks to First Bus for investing in an incredibly impressive start-up service running from 0525 to midnight seven days a week, albeit with a slightly later 0745 start on Sundays. Commendably a 15 minute frequency applies throughout the day with half hourly evenings running seven days a week. Running time is 38 minutes meaning a commitment of six buses to run the service. That really is excellent provision bearing in mind there’s nothing particularly special about the retail offer at The Springs. I’m thinking there must be some helpful Section 106 payments to pump prime such early days generous bus provision and all to the good if so.

Even better First Bus have launched the second in their high profile colour coded route branding for Leeds with a fleet of attractive new buses for the X26. A smart yellow front adds to the pleasing appearance of the green livery, and marketing inside the buses indicates more routes will follow including the 5, 11, 19/19A, 40, 56 and a new X27 from December.

It’s all very impressive and encouraging and therefore every reason to shout about it from the rooftops. But I struggled to find anything out about the X26. The timetable is online but you have to know about it to look it up. If you don’t know about it, you won’t know about it from looking online. There’s nothing under Service Changes or Latest News for example.

The high profile buses help, that’s how I became aware something was up when I spotted one in the city centre on its first day out at the weekend. But not many potential passengers have that eye for bus detail I’m inflicted with. Knowing it was limited stop I started scouting around the city centre bus stops looking for confirmation of where I could get on board eventually settling on The Headrow and reassuringly found METRO had installed their standard departure listings on one the H2 stop, so well done them for getting that up on time.

On board, the usual First Bus new bus spec extras are evident and there’s bespoke cove panels for The Springs and other stuff.

I was initially surprised the buses aren’t guide wheel fitted so they can use the long established guided bus lanes on the Selby/York Road to and from Thorpe Park; all the more so as when I travelled on Monday roadworks were disrupting traffic big time. But I’m told there’s a problem with fitting the wheels to the bus body structure and a solution is awaited. Even so there’s doubt how effective it would be to send a limited stop service down a bus lane heavily used by frequent stopping services. Fair point.

My biggest disappointment was the timetable leaflet for the brand new X26. I couldn’t get one on board the buses so on my return to Leeds wandered over to the METRO run Travel Centre in the bus station to see if there was one there.

Casting an eye over the tidy display in route number order, no luck ..

… but as I was about to leave I spotted a makeshift display in the corner by the exit door and my luck was in – the last three copies of an X26 leaflet were there for the picking up.

It’s a classic example of why West Yorkshire Combined Authority should cease timetable production and instead hand it over to the bus companies who need to step up to the plate and produce eye catching promotional marketing leaflets that inspire and encourage bus travel just as T.K.Max, Next and the others are doing for their new stores.

The cover is bland enough but even worse, the first message on opening the leaflet are the dos and don’ts of ‘Using our bus stations safely’. The X26 doesn’t even use a bus station!

The final pair of bus stops sited down the side wall of T.K.Max, before the bus turns round at a large roundabout on the new access road disconcertingly still had ‘not in use’ notices; maybe they weren’t but at least one befuddled passenger was picked up by a bus laying over there.

The previous stops (conveniently sited at the bottom of that deserted spine mall and the yet to open Odeon and gym) had a departure listing, but oddly the bus stop flags on either side of the road both indicated incorrectly buses would be heading to Leeds.

Stop 450 29965 on one side of the road to Cross Gates and Leeds…
…and atop 450 29964 on the other side of the road also to Cross Gates and Leeds

Still, it’s a bit churlish to criticise what are obviously teething issues as even the main corporate signage for The Springs was still being finished off on Monday.

So that and the leaflet aside (which after all is an endemic structural issue on how things work in West Yorkshire which I touched on in yesterday’s blog) it’s really encouraging to see First Leeds investing in new buses and a new service and seeing their new attractive branding coming to the fore at last. I hope it achieves deserved success.

Roger French 16th October 2018

Spiralling decline in London

Friday 28th September 2018

TfL’s much leaked cuts to central London’s bus routes were officially published today as a six week public consultation is launched.

As expected the plans involve removing parts of or whole bus routes along busy roads also served by other routes on the grounds the overall capacity supplied by the combined route frequencies is well able to cope with the falling demand. The now often quoted sop for passengers facing a consequential change of bus for their journey is: ‘the Hopper fare will mean no increase in fares paid’.

But that’s not much consolation for passengers facing a more inconvenient journey involving changes in buses. There’s no question such a worsened journey proposition should mean paying higher fares. You can’t help thinking the Hopper fare has turned into a front for cutting service levels.

A through journey is far more convenient than having to change buses with all the uncertainties and disruption this brings, especially passengers encumbered with shopping or buggies or with accessibility issues. It makes travel seem more than twice the effort, when a change is involved.

Knowing these changes were coming I took the opportunity a week or so ago to carry out some impromptu surveys on those sections of route facing withdrawal. My observations reaffirm TfL’s stance there’s more than adequate capacity to cater for existing demand; and frankly the further downturn in passengers travelling which can be expected as a consequence of these planned cuts. Whenever you disrupt journeys you can expect to lose passengers.

Take route 171 from Catford for example, being cut back from it’s current northern terminus at Holborn. TfL are quite right, all the buses I saw north of the planned new northern terminus at Elephant and Castle had only half a dozen to a dozen passengers on board who could easily be accommodated on the abundance of empty seats on other bus routes between these points.

Similarly I had a ride on a morning peak hour route 4 from north London to its southern terminus at Waterloo. Whereas we were near enough full through Islington, after St Pauls (where it’s planned to divert the route to Blackfriars to replace a withdrawn section of another route, the 388), passenger numbers had thinned to around a dozen towards Aldwych and Waterloo picking up only a handful of new passengers who could easily be accommodated on alternative routes.

The same was true on a 242 south of Shoreditch (being diverted to Aldgate to replace the 67) with very few passengers travelling as far as the current terminus at St Pauls. Meanwhile the 67 will be cut back some distance to only travel south from Wood Green as far as Dalston Junction leaving the 149 and 242 to cope onward to Shoreditch; and cope they will from my observations.

BUT; (block capital letters deliberate) this phenomenon of decreasing passenger numbers towards a bus route’s final destination is not exactly surprising; more passengers inevitably get off than get on with the range of destination options diminishing as the route comes to an end. The exception being when a major attraction (shopping centre; station; school etc) is located at the terminus.

On TfL’s logic the 171 could soon be cut back from Elephant and Castle further south to Camberwell Green and save a few more buses and drivers and then why not cut it back further again to New Cross, and so on, with passengers hopping along from bus to bus on other routes instead of enjoying through journeys.

For years London was held as the pinnacle of best practice bus operation. Its growing passenger numbers were lauded by regulation protagonists who deliberately chose to ignore its booming public subsidy grant. Now that grant has been taken away the harsh realities of running buses are hitting the Capital as they have impacted other large conurbations for a couple of decades.

Route RV1, for example, which links parts of the South Bank not directly served by other bus routes on its meandering route from Covent Garden to the Tower is being withdrawn completely after recent frequency reductions. It’s just the sort of route that’s a luxury in a generously publicly funded regime but never a commercial proposition. So it’s no surprise it’s being withdrawn. I suspect there’ll be other London routes of a similar ilk facing the chop in the future.

Anyone want a spare fleet of hydrogen buses?

Interestingly TfL’s consultation papers include a clear localised bus map (TfL – bus map – yes, I know strange isn’t it?!) showing existing and planned changes so the impact can be readily seen in each affected area; but for the RV1 you have to consult two separate maps (one existing; the other proposed) making it harder to work out where the unserved roads will be.

RV1 – now you see it; now you don’t.

TfL make much of the significant downturn in bus passengers within central and inner London and how these consequential bus cuts are positive because (a) they better match supply with demand and (b) it enables a redeployment of resources to outer London where there’ll be ‘improved and new routes’. Err, except there don’t seem to be any such improvement plans in this package. The one ‘new route’ (the 311) is simply a renumbering of the western end of the 11 and a replacement for two other withdrawn sections of routes (19 and 22). So not exactly a new route.

Extract from TfL’s consultation paper

There’s also no evidence of steps TfL intend to take to stem the worrying loss of passengers throughout London. TfL’s map highlights the dramatic loss of passengers particularly in excess of 10% over the last three years in central and inner London.

The consultation states TfL ‘are looking to prioritise buses on our roads’ in Central London but it’s a great shame this wasn’t done some years ago which might have meant these cuts now planned for Spring 2019 would not have been needed.

I was on a southbound 29 only on Wednesday and it took around fifteen minutes to crawl through the gridlock at the bottom of Gower Street. Most passengers simply abandoned the bus as it was easily possible to walk to the terminus at Trafalgar Square in that time.

Rather than introducing bus priority, TfL’s answer seems to be to cut routes back to avoid such bottlenecks by in the case of the 29 turning at, say, Warren Street (as is planned for the 134). And who knows maybe even Camden Town, or dare I say Mornington Crescent! Game over!

The upshot of this is the vicious spiral of decline will continue; especially as TfL part justify some of these cuts saying less buses will mean less congestion. Who’d have thought that would be a justification for bus cuts.

Extract from the consultation part justifying bus cuts

Finally a small oddity in the consultation published this morning. It contained an error stating route 11 was being withdrawn between Liverpool Street and Victoria.

Conspiracy theorists might wonder whether this was in fact the originally planned fate of this iconic route; but in the event by this afternoon the wording had been hastily corrected and the 11 lives on (well at least for now) and albeit in a much truncated form with the route west of Victoria becoming the new 311.

The consultation can be found here: https://consultations.tfl.gov.uk/buses/central-london/

It closes on Friday 9th November.

Roger French 28th September 2018

Which Ipswich bus station?

Tuesday 25th September 2018

There aren’t many towns of Ipswich’s size (circa 150,000 population) with two bus stations. Many similar sized towns don’t even stretch to having one bus station these days let alone two.

For example down the road and over the Suffolk/Essex border, Colchester rather cheekily calls its somewhat unexciting on-street bus stops in Osborne Street and Stanwell Street a ‘Bus Station’, although to be fair it does include a rather nice enclosed waiting room on the corner between the two streets and there are screens depicting next departures.

Back in Ipswich the former municipal bus station for local ‘town’ bus routes (Tower Ramparts) is to the north of the central retail area while the old Eastern Counties bus station for ‘county ‘ routes (the Old Cattle Market) is to the south. It takes around five minutes to walk between the two.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 18.36.59

Tower Ramparts bus station for town routes
Old Cattle Market bus station for ‘county’ routes

Both bus stations were completely refurbished by Suffolk County Council five years ago and impressively sport clear electronic displays at each stop and a poster listing departure points by service (assuming you know your service numbers). There are seats and covered waiting areas. They’re both clean and seem well looked after.

Both bus stations also have a Travel Shop. Tower Ramparts unsurprisingly looked after by Ipswich Buses with a little bit of a foreboding entrance while at the old Cattle Market there’s a snazzy brand new smokey glass kiosk manned by First Bus.

But, here’s the thing: time moves on and things change. While Tower Ramparts is still dominated by Ipswich Buses’ departures, some First Bus operated bus routes also now depart from there while over at Old Cattle Market you’ll find some ‘County’ routes now operated by Ipswich Buses as well as a myriad of other small operators running bus routes in addition to First Bus.

I’m sure you can guess what’s coming next…. I found impressive displays of timetable leaflets available in both Travel Shops but only Ipswich Buses operated bus route timetables were available in Tower Ramparts and only First Bus operated bus route timetables were available in Old Cattle Market.

Tower Ramparts Travel Shop displays Ipswich Buses timetables but not First Bus
Old Cattle Market Travel Shop displays First Bus timetables but not Ipswich Buses

So if you want a timetable for the Ipswich Buses run 93/94 routes to Colchester for example, which I did, or the 92 to Manningtree or the 97 to Shotley which, as former First Bus routes, depart from the Old Cattle Market, they’re only available in the Ipswich Buses Travel Shop in the Tower Ramparts Bus Station (which these routes don’t serve).

On the other hand First Bus town route 60/61 to the local areas of Gainsborough and Greenwich in Ipswich depart from Tower Ramparts but timetables are only available in Old Cattle Market. Now here there’s a bit of competition going on as Ipswich Buses routes have traditionally long served these areas, and still do, which might make Ipswich Buses reluctant to cooperate with timetable provision.

But, it is all very confusing. And not really a sensible way to grow the market for bus travel. Come on Ipswich Buses and First Bus – why not offer copious comprehensive information at both bus stations for everyone’s benefit?

It was too much to expect to find printed timetables for routes run by other bus companies besides Ipswich Buses and First Bus, and which presumably are funded by Suffolk County Council, from either bus station. That really would be making bus travel attractive.

Roger French              25th September 2018

A peek into my inbox

I’ve received some interesting promotional emails from the new breed of ride sharers recently.

Arriva Click sent an enticing personalised message on Thursday proclaiming some ‘great news’ for me. It seems Click now accepts concessionary passes. Amazing. Arriva certainly know how to rub salt into the wound of being in that frustrating cohort having to wait well into their 66th year before getting the coveted pass. Thanks Arriva.

Still at least I’m much closer than a good friend in the industry who also got the email and has yet to reach 40!

Even though I knew I wouldn’t qualify, I couldn’t resist clicking the ‘Find out more!’ tab helpfully taking me straight to Section 16 of Click’s Terms and Conditions.

Turns out it’s only a Sittingbourne initiative (Scousers not eligible) and by a complicated process of emailing a photo of your pass, receiving and registering a personalised discount code you’ll receive a third off future bookings. Not exactly headline grabbing.

While we’re talking Click bait, did you spot their interesting tweet last week encouraging school kids to use Click for the school run particularly to enjoy the on board wi-fi and air conditioning?

I was intrigued as I thought I must have missed the ‘great news’ email promoting discounts now available for school kids riding Click (even if rides can only be booked with their credit card). So I made an enquiry and it seems I hadn’t missed the news. No discounts! It’s going to be an expensive school run; wi-fi and air conditioning notwithstanding.

Still all’s not lost as if you’re a regular Click user taking advantage of onboard wi-fi you’d have missed the tweet anyway – Twitter is blocked on Click!

Meanwhile the marketing team at Ford’s Chariot have come up with an enticing wheeze for me. It seems there’s a whole crowd of ride sharers itching to hone their home cooking skills. They also emailed me last week offering £20 off Mindful Chef recipe boxes (and spread over the first two box deliveries at that).

Even more exciting a prize draw might give me a completely free box. Right let’s get riding Chariot straight away can’t wait to start cooking.

While I’m on a sharing recent tweets kick, here’s my Most Inappropriate Tweet of last month from the guys at First Essex ….

it started innocently enough with an enquiry about fares ….

Straight forward enough enquiry but it managed to fox the First Essex tweeters …

Taken aback our enquirer persisted …..

…. only to be fobbed off with an incorrect referral to Traveline. Still at least Traveline will earn some income from its premium rate phone charge if Callum took up Tannita’s advice.

Just what is the point of centralising Twitter posting? If you’re going to centralise at least have comprehensive information systems available. What a completely Open Data Own Goal and, importantly, a missed sales opportunity.

Still at least if you centralise tweeting you’re confident queries on policy issues can be professionally and effectively handled.

Here’s one such example from last month to a multitude of recipients…

No surprises that one switched on Bus Boss replied quickly and succinctly …

Whereas the main recipient replied…

Sadly this has fast become a standard fob off official corporate Twitter response for a number of companies.

Last time I filled a form in (for a fare query) it took seven days for the response.

Roger French 16th September 2018

Gliding on Glider

Ever wondered what around £100 million will buy in the way of Bus Rapid Transit? I popped over to Belfast today to find out.

The idea of creating a metro style cross city transit route has been discussed in the City for some years and as always with projects of this kind, (like in Bristol), it’s way behind the original hoped for introduction. But on Monday last week it finally glided into action.

It’s very impressive to see; there’s no doubt about that. It looks exactly like the vision those pioneers at First Bus envisaged when introducing ftr back in 2006 – a tram-like-driver-isolated-in-the-cab vehicle with bespoke tram-like stops and lashings of bus priority measures.

The downfall for ftr was the onboard self-service ticket machine which was never going to work, as well as introducing those first vehicles on a completely unsuitable route in York. Further trials in Leeds and Swansea never worked either because of the unacceptably high cost of employing conductors.

Translink operated Glider has overcome that problem by using some of the £100 million to install easy to use ticket machines (including contactless cards accepted) at all 110 or so bus stops along the 15 mile Glider corridor and implementing a strictly buy before you board policy policed by two-person ticket checkers who were out in force when I visited today (costly in itself but a good deterrent).

There’s also a smartcard system and good value day tickets. I found it quick and easy to buy my ticket.

The high profile bus stops along the route are all impressively fitted out with seats/perches and information including real time.

There’s an abundance of bus lanes all along the route (operational 7am to 7pm), sometimes only in a city bound direction, but even in the off peak when I travelled we gained time by passing other traffic queuing at traffic lights.

The 46 seat (yes, only 46 but lots of standing!) Van Hool hybrid articulated buses look slick and are painted in a smart purple (similar to ftr). They give a very smooth quiet ride. The Glider brand and livery as well as the interior decor are however very much understated but in some ways that gives it a bit of class.

As befits a publicly owned undertaking there’s no promotion or marketing to be seen; you wouldn’t know the key points served by the route (quite a few), frequency (high), price (good value) or added benefits (Wi-fi + usb) from seeing the buses.

I picked up three different leaflets about the service. Only one had a timetable and also had a route diagram, one of the other two also showed the route and details of the smartcard while the third had general information. All a bit confusing. The timetable leaflet was available at the city centre Visit Belfast shop and Metro kiosk but not the main city Europa bus and coach station.

The two other leaflets (but not the timetable) were on display at the very impressive waiting area building at the eastern terminus of route G1 – the Dundonald Park & Ride – now called Park & Glide.

No leaflets were available on board the buses or at bus stops.

Buses had four screens showing next stop and the two following with clear audio announcements except both times I ventured over to West Belfast the system gave up a few stops past the city centre. Presumably some technical teething problems.

Other teething problems were impacting the cross city G1’s timekeeping big time. Buses are timetabled to run every 7-8 minutes with an end to end journey time of an hour. It was taking longer than that leading to inevitable gaps in service, bus bunching and some over crowding.

A service controller was kept busy at the central Wellington Place bus stop moving passengers from one delayed bus to another and there looked to be quite a bit of light running going on. It didn’t seem the service was being controlled remotely using GPS positioning and radio contact with drivers which surprised me.

I’m sure these initial timekeeping problems can be overcome with a quick fix timetable review but it’s unfortunate that in the meantime goodwill during the honeymoon period is being lost as adverse comments build up on social media (#gliderbelfast refers).

The much shorter route G2 shuttle service running ever 10 minutes between the City Centre and the Titanic Quarter was keeping time much better and proving very busy with a steady flow of visitors to this popular tourist attraction.

The scheme promotors have spent quite a bit of the marketing budget on high profile Glider branding around the city centre and you can’t fail to notice the name.

One interesting feature onboard are the three doors being push button operated by passengers once released by drivers which will keep warmth in the vehicle in the winter.

The G1 cross city route is very significant in linking the communities of East and West Belfast (Secretary of State Karen Bradley please note!). I was intrigued to see if other passengers would join me in making the cross city journey on my travels and interestingly on one trip a couple did travel from the heart of East Belfast right into the Falls Road area in the west.

Previously both sides of the city had separate routes – the 4 to the east and the 10 to the west. It’ll be fascinating to see if more cross city, cross culture and cross community travel develops as Glider becomes established.

The desire is to introduce more Glider routes if this initial foray is a success and more significantly if future funds allow especially as a sizeable chunk of the money for this first route came from the EU as part of the Regional Development Fund.

Another interesting and unique aspect is the competition buses and now Glider face from the well established Black Cab scheme in West Belfast and especially along the Falls Road where ride sharing has been in place for many years and was much in evidence today.

It’s a fascinating project which, aside from the initial timekeeping teething problems, has been well executed and just shows what you can do with around £100 million. I wish it well.

Roger French 11th September 2018