4,200 bus seats for Edinburgh

Tuesday 19th March 2019

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

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

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

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

The seats are very comfortable with ample leg room throughout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French

An Anglian Adventure

Thursday 14th March 2019

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

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

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

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

This blog summarises my findings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. A mixed First Bus bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Active Anglian Independents

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

4. Suffolk County Council

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

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

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

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

5 Community Transport

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. A couple of final thoughts

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

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

Roger French

 

 

 

 

 

A great Deal in Kent

Sunday 10th March 2019

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Garden of England. My journeys on two days last week included visits to both ends of Kent – to Dover and Deal on the Channel coast in the south east and to Sevenoaks close to the County’s western border with Greater London.

Both Stagecoach South East and Go-Coach Hire, the dominant bus companies in these two areas, are excellent bus operators for the following reasons…..

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.27.51.pngStagecoach’s attractive bus network in Kent is an excellent example offering comprehensive coverage for passengers as well as ‘behind-the-scenes’ operating efficiency for the company. It includes well used inter-urban links between main urban areas at good frequencies despite some recent reductions (and competition from Southeastern trains), as well as small bespoke town networks and a few great rural routes, some operated by double deck buses due to school peak requirements, which offer fantastic views across the Kent countryside.

Notable among these are the 11 (five journeys Canterbury – Westwood and Broadstairs via the delightfully named Plucks Gutter with its timing point The Dog & Duck), and 17 (hourly Folkestone – Canterbury via the lovely Elham Valley). There’s also the 18 (five journeys Canterbury – Hythe via Wheelbarrow Town) but this is scheduled for single decks. Still a great route though.

IMG_9552.jpgStagecoach South East also craftily link one route with another to provide helpful ‘cross-terminal’ journey opportunities. Southeastern Trains also do this with the rail network such you can get on a High Speed Train at St Pancras and travel via Ashford and Folkestone to Dover round to Deal and Sandwich where the train continues on to Ramsgate and Margate and back via Faversham to St Pancras where it arrives after a 3 hour and 33 minute round trip.

IMG_0722.jpgStagecoach run a ‘circular route’ called the Triangle from Canterbury to Whitstable and Herne Bay which is marketed as Triangle in addition to linking routes 4 and 6 which run similarly between Canterbury and Herne Bay via two different routes and where they link up to also provide a circular ‘triangle’.

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IMG_0797.jpgAnother good example of timetabled through working providing great travel opportunities are the routes I travelled on last Friday – the 80 and 81 which run two buses an hour between Dover and Deal (via slightly different routes – but both giving great views of Dover and its castle) and on to Sandwich (via Hacklinge or Eastry) where they turn into a 43 and continue westwards to Canterbury.

IMG_0860.jpgIMG_0863.jpgBetween Sandwich and Canterbury the 43 runs at an attractive twenty minute frequency with the extra bus an hour commencing in Ramsgate to provide a Ramsgate, Sandwich Canterbury service. It all fits together very nicely, and Sandwich is well worth a visit.

IMG_0942.jpgIMG_0939.jpgAnd best of all Stagecoach South East must be commended for their excellent colour coordinated marketing and publicity for these and the other bus routes they run throughout Kent. It really is a treat to find a colourful network map together with individual leaflets (almost as good as a book!) each with an individual clear map of the route in a geographic context and, where appropriate an extract from the network map to show other routes in the area. They really are exemplars of good timetable leaflet practice.

IMG_0728.jpgI also spotted the network map on display in major points such as Dover’s Pencester Road (albeit inside the now rather worn information office) and at Canterbury in a display case on the bus station’s concourse alongside the travel office with its display of timetables and other tourist leaflets inside.

IMG_0856.jpgAnd the icing on the cake is the colour coding follows through to large easy-to-see bus stop numbers on virtually every bus stop flag. They really were impressive to see and showed a level of attention to detail and excellent intent to provide clear information.

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Bus stop timetable displays are also easy to follow and understand and appeared at every stop.

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It’s so refreshing to see such excellent clear information and just goes to show it can be done.

As is the case around fifty miles over at the western end of the county in Sevenoaks. Here it’s interesting to see Go-Coach Hire Ltd go from strength to strength as they move from being a small time tender operator when they first began in the bus market just over ten years ago to now taking over from Arriva Kent as the network operator in this area.

IMG_0546.jpgOn previous visits to Sevenoaks I’ve been impressed with how Go-Coach have taken over the town’s bus station and proudly emblazoned their bright yellow and purple branding to brighten up what would otherwise be a rather dull wind tunnel of two departure bays.

IMG_0541.jpgThere’s a small travel office with an amazingly friendly and helpful member of staff and an excellent full display of timetable leaflets including those services operated by Arriva thereby providing a much welcome comprehensive coverage of routes operated in the area.

IMG_0656.jpgIMG_0658.jpgI was particularly impressed to see that the out-of-date no-longer-issued maps from Kent County Council which used to be on display in the bus station on previous visits have been replaced by up to date maps of Go-Coach’s network. I spotted them on bus shelters elsewhere in the town too.

IMG_0537.jpgThe bus stop plates also feature both Arriva and Go-Coach’s serves and all clearly presented to appropriate corporate style.

IMG_0572.jpgInterestingly from early next month Arriva Kent are throwing in the towel on local routes 1 and 2 from Sevenoaks to Dunton Green and Kemsing.

IMG_0550.jpgThey’re the routes Arriva converted to the horribly cramped Mercedes Sprinter minibuses a year ago. I had a ride in the first week and knew within a few minutes it would be a complete failure.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.15.47.pngCompletely unsuitable for the market and what a shame passenger numbers have obviously plummeted in response to such unattractive vehicles. On Wednesday when I visited larger buses had already supplanted the minibuses on route 2.

IMG_0649.jpgGo-Coach are taking over these routes as part of their expanding network and I hope their local connections and attention to detail in getting things right for passengers will attract enough passengers back to the routes to make it a commercial success for them.

IMG_4118.jpgIt’s interesting, nearly fifty years on from London Country Bus Services being formed in 1970 just how many bus companies now operate in what was the polo mint around London, and increasingly successfully too, after some traumatic times after deregulation and privatisation in the late 1980s. Metrobus in Crawley and Ensignbus in Grays come to mind as top class acts, but Go-Coach are making great strides to make this corner of Kent a great exemplar of how a small network operator can succeed.IMG_0585.jpgSadly, they often say, a bus company’s reputation is only as good as the last journey taken and my attempted journey with Go-Coach didn’t quite work out as planned on Wednesday; but company boss Austin Blackburn was on the case straight away as soon as he saw my tweet and made sure appropriate action was taken and apologies made – and that was impressive and just showed a caring owner giving attention to detail, which is what it’s all about. I’m already looking forward to a return trip and hopefully next time be successful in catching the Wednesday only tendered rural route 405 to West Kingsdown before it ends very soon!

Roger French

PS I spotted the information about Arriva Kent giving up routes 1 and 2 on their website and commendably they refer to the replacements being operated by Go-Coach Hire but a slip of the year shows the date in the headline as 2018 rather than 2019. It seems even when this is pointed out by tweet to Arriva last Wednesday, it still isn’t corrected on their website today. Attention to detail and reacting to feedback and all that…not!

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A few days in scenic Scotland 1

Day 1 Wednesday 27th February 2019  West Highland Line

A quick, cheap Easyjet flight from Gatwick up to Glasgow for 1030, a ride into the city centre on First Glasgow route 500 allowing time for a wander to admire recent and welcome new arrivals in that company’s bus fleet and it’s soon time to see the ongoing redevelopment at Queen Street station before catching the 1220 for Mallaig with a portion for Oban – a train of two halves.

IMG_9547.jpgIMG_9478.jpgA two carriage train arrives into Queen Street from Oban on time at 1203 to form the rear portion for the 1220 to Mallaig but it’s not until departure time at 1220 that what will be the front two carriages (for Oban) arrive from the depot and join up and we’re allowed on board for a slightly delayed departure at 1225.

IMG_9589.jpgThe five hour twenty minutes train journey to Mallaig gets better as every hour passes. Luckily at this time of year the train isn’t very full so there’s plenty of room to swap sides for the best views as we make our way along the line.

IMG_9598.jpgThe magnificent Clyde on the left hand side, then Gare Loch between Hellinsburgh Upper and Garelochhead followed by Loch Long and then over on the right hand side, Loch Lomond as far as Ardlui.

At Crianlarich there’s time for a quick stretch of the legs on the platform while the front two carriages are uncoupled and head off to Oban first as we begin the slow climb towards the highest summit on the line at the delightful Corrour. But not before enjoying the wonderful horseshoe curve on the left hand side between Upper Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy and the deer enjoying the isolation of Rannoch Moor, watching out for the snow shelter just after that station, although not needed this month!

IMG_9636.jpgAfter Corrour the gradual descent passes the magnificent Loch Treig on the left hand side and the waterfall on the River Spean as the train approaches Roy Bridge not long before we enter Fort William for another brief stop as the driver changes ends and a crew change before we set off on the final leg to Mallaig.

IMG_9639.jpgI find this section of line even surpasses what’s come already and not just for Loch Eil and the now world famous Glenfinnan Viaduct both on the left hand side…

IMG_9643.jpg…..but the slow meander alongside Loch Eilt on the right hand side before continuing through mountain scenery to Arisaig, Morar (Britain’s most westerly station) and finally arriving in Mallaig at 1743. Every minute a delight.

IMG_9662.jpgAt this time of year there are no ferries to Armadale on Skye and the light is rapidly fading so I opted for a return journey in the dark to Fort William for an overnight stay.

Day 2 Thursday 28th February 2019  Fort William – Kyle – Inverness – Glasgow

Time to pick up some snacks for lunch from the large Morrisons adjacent to Fort William’s transport hub (it’s going to be a tight connectional day during eight hours travelling) before the 1000 departure on Citylink’s 916 service to Kyle of Lochalsh.

It seems strange to see Fort William devoid of Stagecoach buses. The beneficiary from last year’s exodus has been the smart looking locally based Shiel buses who’ve added the town’s local bus routes to its longer distance routes which include the wonderful route 500 to Mallaig which largely parallels the rail line being equally as scenic and well worth a ride.

IMG_9690.jpgFort William’s bus station sports eight stances grouped into four departure points from a long and sturdy shelter to provide passengers protection from the weather. It’s a touch desolate with minimal seating.

IMG_9677.jpgHi-Trans provides stop departure information for local bus routes and the Mallaig departures which the computer software confusingly refuses to acknowledge is Mallaig rather than the unhelpful destination for tourists of Hotel.

IMG_9674.jpgIMG_9675.jpgThe traditional timetable displays for Citylink look rather faint and forlorn are not in keeping with that Company’s smart image.

IMG_9676.jpgOn the upside there is a ‘real’ (actually ‘scheduled’) electronic display showing the next two or three departures from each stance which commendably is replicated in the adjacent station by the ticket office. The station also has an independent Travel Centre which had local bus timetables for Shiel buses as well as CityLink and Caledonian MacBrayne (ferry) timetables.

The Caledonian Sleeper rolls into Fort William at 0957 just three minutes before the 916 leaves for Kyle of Lochalsh and onwards to Portree and Uig on Skye. What a shame there’s not a better connection as it would give tourists much greater options to travel around this area by public transport.

IMG_9689.jpgHowever a new Lounge for arriving sleeper passengers (and departing passengers in the evening) has now opened and there’s the obligatory electronic totem point which lists the one departure of the day, as these now do having been installed at every station served by Caledonian Sleeper trains. An amazing expense for one train a day. Quite extraordinary. Compare this to many bus real time systems being turned off and left out of use by local authorities for lack of funds.

IMG_9682.jpgMy 916 coach arrives spot on time at 0951 giving passengers already on board a welcome break before departing again, especially if they’ve been in board since leaving Glasgow at 0650. The timely arrival was reassuring as I had my fingers crossed for an on time arrival into Kyle of Lochalsh at 1152 giving enough time for a leisurely wander from the bus stance to the rail station for the 1208 departure for Inverness.

IMG_9685.jpgI’ve still got bad memories of a southbound trip on the 916 last summer (from Uig to Fort William) which got badly delayed on route due to heavy traffic, many temporary traffic lights along the way as well as getting stuck behind an abnormal load taking the same route!

Luckily today our driver made good progress keeping impeccably to time helped by sparse traffic and only two temporary traffic light sections both of which we got green lights on approach and sailed through.

IMG_9687.jpgOur coach was from West Coast Motors with legal lettering showing ‘Craig of Campbeltown’ and not surprisingly drivers changed over in Fort William. Our fresh driver decided to do his paperwork and logging on with the door firmly closed letting passengers reboarding, after their leg stretching and fag break, first followed by us newbies. There were only nine of us in total leaving Fort William.

IMG_9693.jpgThe closed door seemed a touch rude and unfriendly but our new driver made up for it by driving smoothly during the entire journey and giving a great ride.

IMG_9713.jpgCitylink’s 916 is undoubtedly Britain’s most scenic bus route (it was voted second in last summer’s internet poll). It rivals the West Highland rail line offering alternative views of Loch Lomond as well as Glencoe before Fort William and on my journey, the spectacular scenery alongside Loch Lochy and Loch Garry before continuing along the famous Road to the Isles.

IMG_9729.jpgThe 1208 ScotRail departure from Kyle of Lochalsh was ready and waiting in the platform as our coach pulled in to the nearby town centre bus stop. A wander through Kyle before boarding gave time to pick up a coffee.

IMG_9730.jpgWe left spot on time which was another timely reassurance as on arrival in Inverness I only had six minutes before the Glasgow train I was booked on departed.

When I compiled my Hundred Best Train Journeys at the end of last year there was no question that the Kyle of Lochalsh would come near the top, if not the top spot. It’s a well deserved second to the West Highland Line to Mallaig and it’s scenic delights never disappoint.

IMG_9744.jpgToday the low early Spring sun made for some spectacular reflections in Loch Carron which had to be seen to appreciate and can’t easily be represented by a camera phone photograph through a train window. It really was quite a splendid ride made all the better for keeping to time and arriving in Inverness at 1442 for an easy cross platform interchange with the 1448 departure to Glasgow.

IMG_9755.jpgThis three coach Class 170 was busy even at this time of year and the intended introduction by ScotRail of refurbished HSTs on this and other ‘Inter7City’ routes is a masterstroke of marketing and route development.

The Highland Line offers wonderful mountainous views through the Cairngorms and came in at number 4 in my listing (behind the Oban section of the West Highland Line).

IMG_9761.jpgIt’s been a brilliant first two days in Scotland with a few more to come.

Roger French

Skylarking on skylink

Sunday 24th February 2019

No bus company does route branding as well as trentbarton (as they like to be called, with no capital letters). trentbarton were the original bus route brand masters and have retained that crown trailblazing regular investment in impressive new vehicles, upgrades and refreshes to the brands and an eye for getting the detail right which many others could learn from.

I spotted they’d launched an additional skylink brand between Nottingham and East Midlands Airport last summer so decided to take a look at how the brand fits into the ‘really good bus company’* family of brands. (*A tag line that now seems to have been dropped, even though they are still ‘really good’).

IMG_9396.jpgUnsuprisingly skylink buses are clean, smart, attractive and comfortable and ride well. Drivers are smartly turned out, friendly and helpful. The brand is consistently applied on the livery and bus interiors with timetable leaflets available. All hallmarks of trentbarton’s consistent quality operation.

IMG_9384.jpgIMG_9385.jpgThe new skylink runs every 30 minutes through Clifton as it heads southwestwards out of Nottingham including the adjacent large Park and Ride terminus at the southern end of the tram network, before joining the A453, Remembrance Way, and running fast to the airport taking just over half an hour for the end to end journey.

IMG_9388.jpgThis skylink is not to be confused with the other skylink which runs every 20 minutes from Nottingham via Long Eaton and taking just under an hour to reach the airport, where one journey an hour terminates, another continues to Coalville and the third heads south to Loughborough via Kegworth.

IMG_9393.jpgThat skylink is not to be confused with a third skylink which also runs every 20 minutes, but from Derby via Alvaston and Castle Donnington to the airport in 42 minutes before continuing to Loughborough (either two an hour via Kegworth but to a slightly different route to the second skylink above, or one an hour via Diseworth) and then fast in just 28 minutes more to Leicester.

IMG_9436.jpgAs you’d expect from trentbarton, all three skylink branded routes sport the same family style with just the colours varying Derby sporting yellow; Nottingham and Clifton a grey on blue and the original Nottingham via Long Eaton a lighter blue.

IMG_9391.jpgAs you’d also expect bus stop plates are smartly turned out all along the routes with the three skylink routes nicely identified, particularly important on the outskirts of the airport where the two Nottingham skylinks depart from opposite sides of the road.

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It all comes across as being part of one nice happy coordinated family of skylink routes, all promoted on the trentbarton website….

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…and in the timetable leaflets for both the yellow and blue/grey routes.

skylink.jpegExcept there’s one subtle differentiation I stumbled on when working out the best ticket to buy to have a ride on these routes.

Unlike airport bus routes in cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Bristol which are dedicated to airport travellers and consequently generally charge a premium fare, the trentbarton two original skylinks also serve as handy local bus routes connecting communities along the way so charge standard rate fares and are shown as part of the bus network. The new skylink charges £6.50 single (trentbarton’s maximum fare) compared to £5.20 on the slower original route, but still good value for residents of Nottingham jetting off from the airport. The Derby skylink charges £4.70 for a single from Derby to the airport.

Even better trentbarton’s £6.50 zigzag day ticket (although not valid before 9.30am Mondays to Fridays) is also valid so gives great value for passengers changing buses in Nottingham, from Mansfield for example.

However, as I found out on Saturday when boarding the yellow skylink in Derby bus station, zigzag is bizarrely not valid on that route …. unless you upgrade to a ‘zigzag plus’ for another £3.50. You see, despite outward appearances of a family brand, and the route appearing on the trentbarton network map, yellow Derby skylink is operated by Kinchbus a sister subsidiary company of trentbarton and not trentbarton, although both companies are owned by Wellglade.

IMG_9435.jpgIt’s a small point in the grand scheme of the great things trentbarton do, and they truly are one of the shining beacons of bus industry good practice, but it’s a niggle enough for me to write about it now, and I suspect it does niggle a lot of passengers who don’t spot the finer print of legal lettering on the side of a branded bus, and have got a bus into Derby from further afield, for example Ashbourne or Alfreton inending to zigzag their way to the airport.

IMG_9451.jpgIt just seems unnecessarily anomalous that the single fare to the airport is 50p cheaper on Derby skylink than Nottingham skylink (and £1.80 cheaper than Nottingham Clifton Fast skylink) but £3.50 more expensive if you come from somewhere else and change buses in Derby rather than Nottingham.

Just to add to the skylink brand confusion, the blue Nottingham via Long Eaton skylink is promoted on the Kinchbus website on its network map!

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Wellglade are introducing contactless payments with new Ticketer machines including a London style daily and 28 day cap at the appropriate rates for those tickets. At the moment only the Kinchbus Derby skylink and the joint route branded as Pronto (with Stagecoach) between Nottingham and Chesterfield have the new Ticketer ticket machines able to offer this facility. It will be interesting to see how this catches on as the new ticket machines are rolled out. For now, you have to remember to touch out on the Ticketer machine by the driver as you alight, whereas with trentbarton’s proprietary smartcard branded as Mango, there’s a touch out device located in a convenient spot on the last stanchion on the nearside before the door as you alight.

There’s no indication on either trentbarton or kinchbus websites how quickly this will be rolled out to other routes, but the enthusiastic and helpful James who was in Twitter Control for both branded companies on Saturday was effusive in his helpful explanations of the new set up, if perhaps a little premature. He also tried to justify the different ticket validities between trentbarton and kinchbus, explaining the companies are independently managed, as he replied in a helpful way, from both companies Twitter accounts!

 

As always it was good to spend  some time in both Derby and Nottingham over the weekend and, zigzag ticket anomaly aside, see quality bus operation.

Roger French

A day out in Sheppey

Friday 25th January 2019

was too good an opportunity to miss. As Ford’s Chariot accepted its last ride share booking today, closing down just a few weeks after RATP’s Slide and Esoteric Systems’ (with First Bus) MyFirstMile in Bristol also both bit the dust, Arriva’s Click has been in celebratory mood marking its 100,000th booking by offering free travel all day in Sittingbourne.

As I hot footed over to Sittingbourne, keen not to miss out on what could be a busy day for ride sharing bookings, I pre-booked my first Click trip from the station to Iwade while still an hour away on the train from Victoria. My train was due into Sittingbourne at 1115 and luckily the 1115-1145 slot was available, so I sat back and relaxed as the train headed to Kent.

Somehow my booking got lost in the system, or I failed to confirm, or something untoward happened as checking the Click app at 1100 it showed I had no scheduled bookings! I was reassured when trying to rebook and finding a minibus was available in 9 minutes but as that was too soon for my scheduled 1115 arrival I let it go and tried a few more times with offers of a ride within a matter of minutes.

I decided this was a good sign a minibus was available and close by the station so waited until I actually arrived at the station to book again. Sure enough outside the station were two Click minibuses including one of three drafted in on loan for the day from Liverpool to supplement Sittingbourne’s usual fleet of five for the anticipated busy day of ride share freeloaders like me.

The drivers of those two minibuses must have been on a meal break as my booking attempts instructed me to walk to Morrisons (about a five minute walk away behind the station by Mill Way/Milton Road – see map above) to pick up my designated ride in another vehicle.

Just as I was working out from the app map which way to walk I spotted my designated minibus driving by so gave the driver a meaningful wave which luckily he correctly interpreted and pulled up so I could board where I’d originally asked to!

A passenger already on board was heading to work at Screwfix further on along the route past Morrisons but she alighted a bit sooner than that in the Asda car park where we’d been diverted to pick up two people travelling home together with their shopping.

We did a diversion around the houses in Kemsley to drop them off (getting stuck behind the standard bus route 347 as it dropped its passenegers off) and it was then foot down to Iwade where I bid farewell to my very friendly driver, Daniel arriving not much more than 20 minutes from getting off the train at Sittingbourne station. Not bad.

A bus on the hourly Arriva 334 to Sheerness-on-Sea (from Maidstone) was due in five minutes which was just perfect for onward travel and allowed time to explore the unusual double shelter on the other side of the road. Except a quick check on Arriva’s handy app showing real times indicated it was stuck way back on its route in Delting.

I’m grateful to fellow tweeters who saw my plight and explained there’d been an incident closing the A249 in Delting – the benefits of social media which sadly Arriva are still struggling with.

Arriving at Sheerness-on-Sea with its interesting steel girders.

I opted to head back into Sittingbourne on a Maidstone bound 334 and took the train to Sheerness-on-Sea instead. I’d originally thought a bus ride over to Leysdown-on-Sea (the far eastern point on the Isle of Sheppey) would be interesting but the usual problem of filthy winter windows meant it was probably best to leave that idea until the better summer weather.

Sheerness-on-Sea High Street

Instead I had a mooch around Sheerness-on-Sea’s somewhat down-at-heel High Street with its rather unkept bus stop summing the atmosphere up rather well.

Arriva’s bus yard next to the station indicated the bus wash was out of action which probably explains the dirty buses seen all around.

Back on the train and a stop off at the remote and quirky station at Swale and a walk to nearby Iwade to summon another free ride with Click seemed a good plan.

Swale’s a rather desolate station in the shadow of the vast A249 Sheppey Crossing but it does boast a southeastern ticket machine and matrix dot display and an adjacent bus stop where I discovered to my delight a bus on the 334 was due in just a couple of minutes.

Click buses didn’t seem to want to come out to play in Iwade but I kept persevering on the app while on the 334 until we approached the village of Iwade and finally success and journey booked. I alighted and waited in the designated spot.

The empty minibus appeared in less than five minutes and we soon turned into a series of small residential roads to pick up a young mum with a buggy who was dumbfounded to find she didn’t need to use the laborious lift process at the back on the usual Mercedes Sprinters but as this was one on loan from Liverpool she could board at the front.

Heading towards Sittingbourne we picked up another passenger in Kemsley who was also heading for the station where we arrived in next to no time and all alighted.

Back at the station at 1400 I decided to head back to Hassocks. Today’s National Rail Journey Planner befuddlement routed me on the 1413 southeastern to Victoria (arrive 1525) and then the 1555 to Hassocks arriving at 1650 – the best route as also confirmed by southeastern staff at the station. Whereas, with an Any Permitted ticket by taking the 1408 HS1 to St Pancras (arrive 1506) and taking the 1520 Thameslink, I arrivied Hassocks almost twenty minutes earlier at 1633.

A few thoughts on ride sharing……..

This was my sixth visit to Sittingbourne since Click began in April 2017. The ‘ride sharing’ aspect has definitely increased over that time – both my journeys today were shared with two independent passengers. But two passengers don’t make for a commercial business proposition. Rural bus routes are being abandoned as uneconomic and unjustified for public funding with far bigger passenger counts than that!

It must be a sign of how much Click is still in financial ‘special measures’ nearly two years from its roll out that a decision was taken to give free travel on a Friday. That would be a very brave move for any bus network that was anywhere near commercial. Fridays were always a top revenue day in my experience; you certainly couldn’t afford to give it all away. I can only assume there was little revenue to risk for this 100,000 promotion and the hope it might encourage some new riders; but after nearly two years of Clicking it’s difficult to see where new passengers are going to appear from.

My two journeys on the 334 which links Sittingbourne to Iwade every hour were quite well loaded and I suspect the usual Click fare of £5 single for that journey (so that’s an off putting £10 for a return – whereas a full Swale area day ticket is £4.60 on traditional Arriva buses) as well as the idiosyncratic booking system with its hit and miss timings dependant on whether there’s a minibus and/or fellow ride sharers nearby puts people off. It would me, if I lived in Iwade. I’d prefer the certainty of a timetabled standard bus – road traffic incidents permitting.

I’m not convinced 100,000 journeys is that impressive either. Click’s been going for 95 weeks which across six operational days a week means 570 Click days have passed. So that’s 175 journeys a day, across four to five minibuses – let’s say 4.5 making for 39 passengers per vehicle which over a 12 hour day, say, gives the three people per hour I experienced today and in my last visit.

You’re not going to get rich carrying three people per hour in a top of the range minibus, that’s for sure.

Roger French

Class 717s in service at last

Monday 21st January 2019

IMG_7269.jpgIt was way back on Friday 28th September 2018 when commuters in Hertfordshire and north London had their travel appetites whetted when Great Northern rolled out one of their sparkly new Siemens Class 717s for a grand launch trip from Moorgate to Gordon Hill. The media and public were invited to sample a ride and look forward to the rest of the fleet being rolled out “between now and next Spring” to quote the news release at the time.

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Just over sixteen weeks later and finally, today, the next train came out of the sidings running an extra ‘preview’ journey slotted into the public timetable at 1137 from Moorgate for a run north to Gordon Hill.

It was all a bit of an anti-climax with no more than half a dozen camera wielding enthusiasts plus a dozen more passengers who’d turned up a few minutes early for their normal train at 1140 to Watton-at-Stone and found a band new gleaming train glide into the station ahead of their normal forty-plus year old Class 313.

As a seasoned Thameslink traveller the utilitarian ambiance of the 717 was all too familiar to me. The usual ‘ironing board’ backed seats with their minimal cushioning and an absence of seat back trays for the coffee you’ve just bought from the little cafe outlet now springing up on platforms everywhere. But at least there’s a power point below each pair of seats (one between two of you – how penny pinching is that!) and wifi has been installed from the off rather than as a retro-fit being applied to the 700s.

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The six car trains do offer a much welcome uplift in capacity with no space wasted for driving cabs in the middle of the train as on the joined-together three-car Class 313s they’re replacing and of course the 2+2 slim-line width seats compared to the 2+3 standard width seats in a 313 provide for noticeably wider gangways facilitating “commuters standing in much greater comfort” (as Charles Horton was infamously and mischievously quoted in the Evening Standard many years ago).

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There are batches of tip up seats every so often by the wider doorways as well as behind the cab at each end of the train and there are two spaces for wheelchairs in the middle of the train. There are also single priority seats as well as double seats marked for priority by certain doors.

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There are electronic screens inside which although not working this morning will no doubt provide the same information we’ve got used to seeing on the 700s including updates on how the Underground lines are doing.

Being a shorter commuter run than Brighton to Cambridge there are no toilets on the 717s as there aren’t on the 313s of course.

As well as the ambiance of a new train compared to a well worn forty year old, one other noticeable difference is the amazing acceleration these new trains have. Once the fleet has totally ousted the 313s there’s real scope for cutting journey times on the timetable to take advantage of this.

Another significant improvement that’s immediately noticeable is the lovely nice clean windows (and of course an absence of graffiti which has bedevilled the 313s over the last few years). I do hope the train care cleaning team will finally sort out the soap mixture they use in the train wash at Hornsey or wherever as I’ve yet to travel on a 313 without streaks all over the windows and it will be such a shame if this practice is inflicted on the 717s.

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It’s also a great shame another new train set is being introduced with unattractive seat comfort in the name of progress but at least we’re promised more comfortable seats by other train companies as they also finally get round to rolling out their much hyped and promised new fleets this year.

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The preview journeys to Gordon Hill continue this week at 1137 and 1337 from Moorgate then we’re promised a full roll out into service. There again, we were promised that last September!

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