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