New sleeper turns into a bad dream

Tuesday 25th June 2019

IMG_6371There’s something seriously amiss with Caledonian Sleeper’s train service.

I’ve blogged about the new Mark 5 coaches a couple of times recently (here and here) highlighting the teething problems I encountered, in particular no water in the en-suite shower in my supposedly swanky new ‘Club’ room on two of the three journeys as well as a number of other niggles.

These included an emergency stop and losing all the electrics when heading south around Preston in the early hours of Tuesday 4th June. The sharpness of the braking followed by an eerie silence and two or three attempts to reboot the train’s control systems over the next ten minutes was enough to wake most of us up and a consequential disturbed night.

We got going again on that occasion and thankfully arrived into Euston with no further incidents. Not that trip anyway, but a much more serious fault necessitating another emergency stop happened a week later on Tuesday 11th June as the Lowlander service headed north to Glasgow and Edinburgh coming to a sudden halt in Stafford. This resulted in serious damage to the train’s wheels such the train couldn’t continue and coaches had to be summoned in the early hours to take passengers on to Glasgow and Edinburgh by road. Not a particularly edifying or attractive proposition when you’re probably already dressed for bed and maybe even nodding off.

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Every night since that incident two weeks ago Caledonian Sleeper have been cancelling one of the journeys, either northbound or southbound between either Glasgow or Edinburgh and London. Alternative options for booked passengers offered by Caledonian Sleeper are either taking a daytime Virgin Trains journey or a replacement overnight coach on the motorway; neither option being particularly acceptable when it’s likely you’ve already made onward travel plans or have other commitments necessitating overnight travel.

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An overnight coach on the motorway is hardly an acceptable alternative when you might have paid £230 for a new en-suite single room or even £335 for a double room, albeit Caledonian Sleeper are giving full refunds, but it’s likely many passengers would prefer flying as an alternative with a night in a hotel, I know I would, but that doesn’t seem to be on offer as a alternative.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.42.26.pngCaledonian Sleeper have been making much of the luxury offered by their new deluxe sleeper coaches, offering a “timeless experience”; it’s just a pity “timeless” is turning out to be “trainless”. The problem being expectations have been seriously raised with Caledonian Sleeper hyping up their new ‘hotel-on-wheels’ at five star prices – it’s £395 for a Club double room on the Highlander between London and Fort William/Aberdeen/Inverness for a single night journey (and no Railcard discounts are available), that’s just shy of £800 for a return journey or ‘two nights stay’ – and for that you expect five star service, not ‘replacement road transport’.

Even if everything is running smoothly you’d think paying £395 for a night’s sleep, albeit coupled with a 570 mile journey, would include more than just one complimentary hot drink with a measly breakfast. I was taken aback to find a few coffee granules, a cup of hot water and UHT milk sachets came at a charge of £2.70 on top of that £395 fare – what an absolute rip-off. You even get unlimited complimentary coffee in the cheapest Travelodge deal.

With the ongoing teething problems it obviously made sense for Caledonian Sleeper to pull the planned introduction of Mark 5 coaches on to the Highlander service which had been scheduled for the beginning of this month (and which was already well delayed from the planned 2018 launch). It’s now been pushed back to “early July”, (update… Wednesday 26th June – just announced now put back to September) but for some time passengers have been booking their journeys assuming new en-suite rooms at the significantly enhanced prices as advertised on the glossy Caledonian Sleeper website only to later receive a refund on the difference between new and old pricing as disappointed passengers are told it’s the old coaches for them, for now.

Mind you that’s better than having the disaster that is the new rolling stock at the moment, but even those trusty old coaches are showing signs of age and lack of investment making it feel like very poor value for money as well as unreliable.

On my LEJOG trip with Geoff and Vicki last week our Inverness train had standard toilets out of action while the accessible toilet next to the lounge coach had no water making it unhygienic and unacceptable. At about 6pm prior to the train leaving Euston a text was received advising there’d be no lounge car that evening thereby meaning no refreshments available, but when we got wind from other sources that may not be the case, I rang Caledonian Sleeper to query it only to be told the email had been sent out in error and there would be a lounge coach after all. There was no explanation when I asked why a corrected email hadn’t been sent leaving a feeling of shambolic incompetence.

Even worse the Fort William section of the train that evening developed an engine fault in the West Highlands meaning passengers arrived into Fort William over three and a half hours late after 13:30.

There was then a hiatus for Friday night’s southbound journey from Fort William when it was announced the train was cancelled due to “staff having insufficient rest” following the late arrival that morning so “guests” (Caledonian Sleeper’s corporate spin is still insisting on calling us all ‘guests’ despite clearly not being able to run a hotel) were told on social media they’d have to travel by coach (“replacement road transport”) over to Edinburgh, arriving in the middle of the night, with a transfer on to the train from there.

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A further tweet advised arrangements had been made for refreshments to be available at the Jury’s Inn in Edinburgh where “guests” could also wait before boarding the train, but twitter was awash with disgruntled passengers saying coach drivers dropped them off at Edinburgh Waverley station with no mention of hotel refreshments.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.20.21.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-25 at 10.20.35.pngAgain, it gives the impression of total incompetence.

Meanwhile it wasn’t much better on the southbound service on Friday night either with new coaches on the Lowlander service coming to a halt at Acton Bridge just south of Crewe with passengers having to make their way down to London once Virgin Trains and West Midlands Trains got going in the morning.

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Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 11.07.16.pngThese latest disasters on Friday came just twenty hour hours after there was confidence on Thursday wheel problems on the damaged train from 11th June would finally be fixed for the weekend …

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…. with Caledonian Sleeper tweeting things “are due to return to normal”.

It’s turned out not to be the case with the Glasgow bound journey cancelled last night yet again.

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This raises the question of why other sets of new coaches are not being introduced into service. Somewhere sidings must be full of new coaches bearing in mind the new trains were due into service on both the Lowlander and Highlander services from 2nd June. This implies there are still issues with the new trains yet to be resolved beyond problems with wheels damaged on 11th June.

I can’t help thinking Serco – the company running the Caledonian Sleeper franchise – are completely out of their outsourcing depth running this specialist type of train service. It’s all very well hyping up running a luxury ‘hotel on wheels’ but is it practical? Is the business model charging exhorbitant five star prices, raising expectations for a high standard of service, achievable on an overnight train between London and Scotland? Sadly Caledonian Sleeper is rapidly gaining a reputation worse than Fawlty Towers.

Serco must be losing a fortune over the present shenanigans (although I’m sure there’ll be some contingent liability passed on to the Spanish manufacturer CAF too) but it shouldn’t be forgotten the sleeper service attracts massive public subsidy to keep it going. OK, there are far fewer passengers impacted than in the GTR or Northern Rail fiasco last May but proportionately the disruption per journey is far worse. A 25% failure rate on the Lowlander service at the moment.

Yet taking a look at the Caledonian Sleeper website it’s as though nothing is wrong and it’s all sweetness and light. Where’s the contrite apology from the managing director at what has become a complete shambles of a service? Not a word, just the same continued hype. Quite extraordinary head-in-the-sand PR.

I feel sorry for the stressed out staff on the trains and in customer service, sorry, “Guest Service Centre” where “Guest Ambassadors” work. Word of advice Serco. Ditch the ridiculous corporate hype and get back to basics of delivering a proper service. And you really have got to do much better at letting passengers know what’s happening more in advance than you’re doing; it’s not like catching a commuter train home; canacelling an overnight sleeper means huge distruption to people’s travel plans possibly including ruined holidays.

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Unsurprisingly Caledonian Sleeper’s reputation is currently being trashed every day on Twitter.

Tuesday 25th June, midday update: as I publish this blog, there’s no word from Caledonian Sleeper whether tonight’s Lowlander service will run as normal or which of the four portions (Glasgow/Edinburgh – northbound/southbound) will once again be cancelled. A quite extraordinary way to run a train service, let alone a sleeper service.

Roger French

LEJOG: As it happened

This is the story of how a journey on the Longest Day of the year from Lands End to John O’Groats by ground public transport (that’s bus and train) unfolded in real time.

The original plan, as described in Wednesday’s (19th June) blog was to complete the end-to-end journey in just under 24 hours.

Except, that plan was so last month. Literally.

This adventure has been a long time in the making and on the way down to Penzance last night I realised First Kernow’s updated timetable for route A1, introduced for the summer on 26th May, means the planned departure from Lands End at 1334 has been retimed to depart six minutes later at 1340 which, together with an added six minutes running time to allow for summer traffic delays, makes for an arrival into Penzance at 1445 instead of the original time of 1433.

This gives an almost impossible tight four minute connection between bus and train at Penzance with our GWR train leaving for Plymouth at 1449.

Team LEJOG had a bit of a conflab late into the night on the Sleeper from Paddington …. at least as far as passing Swindon around 0130 this morning …. and we decided to forget about achieving any sub 24 hour timings with inherent risks of a missed connection even before we’d left Cornwall and enjoy a more relaxed travel lifestyle by taking advantage of the now more frequent hourly summer A1 timetable (it was two-hourly) and start our adventure an hour earlier this morning on the 1240 from Lands End rather than the risky 1340, and be happy with a 24 hour 45 minute end-to-end journey time.

So here we are…….it’s now….

Thursday 20th June

0755 And all’s well.

GWR’s Night Riviera brought us to Penzance spot on time having left Paddington last night at 2345.

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IMG_1265.jpgIt’s a really lovely refurbished sleeper too. It may not have the en-suite options now offered by Caledonian Sleeper (together with their troublesome teething problems), but it’s still a very pleasant ambiance both in the berths and the lounge car.

IMG_1266.jpgI thought it a bit odd the window blind above the hidden sink had been replaced by a sticky cover over the window which I didn’t like to peel off so was unaware where we were on the journey especially in Cornwall in daylight but apparently its a temporary fix for a broken blind.

IMG_1271.jpgThe lounge car is very nice and I must say I prefer it to the new Caledonian Mark 5 lounge car. This one also has a mix of seating layouts ….

IMG_1273.jpgIMG_1269.jpg…. as well as impossible to sit on bar stools …

IMG_1268.jpgwhich apparently are perch places ‘to lean against’ rather than sit on – pleased that was clarified for me in time!

IMG_1274.jpgEnough chit chat about Sleeper trains, it’s now ‘Breakfast in Penzance’ with a few hours spare before beginning our travel adventure proper in Lands End at 1240.

It was lovely to meet up and have breakfast with Karen and Phil who are All The Stations supporters and are currently on holiday in Cornwall and kindly gave us a lift down to Lands End in their hire car.

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1240 Lands End

After the obligatory photographs to prove we are here ….

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IMG_E1328.jpg… it’s time to begin the adventure on our first bus the 1240 First Kernow A1 to Penzance. We left a couple of minutes late but no worries as our revised schedule gives us more time in Penzance.

IMG_1374.jpgIMG_1381.jpgAnd we also met the lovely Tony who coincidentally is also heading to John O’Groats raising money for Guide Dogs. He’s taking a route via London and the Caledonian ‘Highlander’ Sleeper to Inverness (as we’re catching that same train but from Crewe) and then he’s taking the (later) train to Thurso tomorrow morning rather than the Stagecoach X98 bus.

IMG_1380.jpgAll good so far as we enjoy the lovely Cornish countryside and the narrow roads (Porthcurno below!).

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1315

Word of advice for any LEJOGers … allow plenty of time for delays on the A1 bus route especially through Treen….

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1400 Penzance

We finally made it into Penzance fifteen minutes late at 1359 and 30 seconds due to all the traffic delays and as Tony with his guide dog Gaynor are booked on the 1400 to Paddington, our bus driver kindly stopped right by the entrance to the station and Geoff jumped off to sprint ahead to try and hold the train for a few seconds with Tony, Gaynor, Vicki and I rushing along behind…

IMG_1410.jpgThe train was just leaving ….

IMG_1411.jpgbut then came to a halt so we chased up the platform thinking the train manager in the rear cab had seen us ..

IMG_1414.jpg…. but to no avail, it was a brief emergency stop and the train headed out again leaving Tony behind.

IMG_1415.jpgLuckily he has now arranged a Plan B to catch the 1449 to Plymouth with us and then jump on the next train from there to Paddington arriving 2039 so he should just make it to Euston for the Highlander leaving at 2115 to Inverness.

We’ll see him again when we board that train ourselves in Crewe so for now we have a little time to relax……

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….before our smartened up Class 150 takes us via ‘all the stations’ to Plymouth leaving at 1449 as per our original plan.

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And Tony and the lovely Gaynor are with us…

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1725 Plymouth

First a big shout out to Dominic at the Rail Delivery Group. who is monitoring our progress on social media, and GWR who held Tony’s train to Paddington at 1657 as our stopping train from Penzance was running four minutes late and arrived tantalisingly close at 1655. Pleased to say Tony and Gaynor and all the other connecting passengers easily made it.

IMG_1429.jpgWe had a more sedate connection on to the 1725 Cross Country train to Leeds which we’re with as far as Tamworth at 2119.

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2135 Tamworth

A great on time journey with Cross Country to Tamworth where we’ve changed from the upper level to the lower level on to the West Coast Main Line.

Four kind hearted well wishers have met us with plentiful provisions, including Martin who’s driven up from south London – what a lovely surprise.

IMG_1437.jpgJust time for some selfies with Geoff and Vicki as our next Virgin Trains arrives to take us on to Crewe.

IMG_1441.jpg2220 Crewe

There’s something a little eerie about waiting on a deserted Crewe station from 2217 to 2350 with everything closed but as well as the Tamworth provisions we now have more food delivered by another well wisher, Serf, alerted by Sarah, who lives nearby to Crewe.

It’s amazing and heartening to see the widespread admiration for Geoff and Vicki’s fantastic work documenting their travels on YouTube from supporters literally all across the country.

IMG_1443.jpgI’m still not sure what the point of these info-screens are, but at least they brighten up the platform.

IMG_1445.jpgI pressed the green ‘i’ button but nothing happened.

At least we know the Caledonian Sleeper to take us overnight to Inverness is on its way and, importantly, on time.

2350 and here it arrives, all sixteen coaches….

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Friday 21st June 2019

0000 Good night

0412 Good morning as that reassuring clunk and jolt, when you’re asleep on the Caledonian ‘Highlander’ Sleeper, lets you know it’s train split time in Edinburgh. This time I resisted the temptation to look out through the window blind in my berth at the deserted platform, save for high-viz wearing railway staff working hard to separate the train into its three separate portions to head north, and just carried on drifting in sleep until ….

0420 I was conscious we’d left Edinburgh and were moving but now we’ve stopped and my mind woke up and also clicked into gear thinking – why have we stopped, we mustn’t be delayed into Inverness. Luckily the pause was only for a short while and the wonderful ‘Real Time Trains’ website is showing us as waiting at a red signal at Haynarket junction for about eight minutes just now and a consequential four minutes late running as we’re now back on the move again and thankfully with a predicted on time arrival into Inverness.

0440 Good night.

0540 Perth

One minute early arriving into Perth. All looking good.

0700 The Cairngorms

I know they’re now getting on a bit but I love these old style lounge cars and there’s no better way of seeing the beautiful scenery Scotland offers.

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IMG_1527.jpgMore importantly Tony and Gaynor are now awake and up …

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0814 Tomatin passing loop

We’ve made it to the passing loop at Tomatin on time and great to see the LNER Kings Cross bound train pass by just now also on time so now we have a clear track ahead into Inverness and are confident we’ll make our vital connection on to the X98 at 0850.

0840 Inverness

Our Sleeper is arriving into Inverness on time so it’s all good for the connection on to the Stagecoach X98 to Wick at 0850.

IMG_1530.jpgNot only that but a big surprise to be met off the train by Sir Peter Hendy, Chairman Network Rail (who was attending the AGM of the Friends of the Far North Line that morning) – thanks so much Peter for taking the trouble to meet us – even though we were dashing through for the bus it was a delight to stop and have a quick chat.

IMG_1375.jpgThen it was fond farewells to Tony and Gaynor and that dash to the X98 at the nearby bus station.

IMG_1532.jpgAnd another thanks – to Daniel and David, top bosses at Stagecoach North Scotland, for making sure our connection was made …

IMG_1541.jpg… and the right ticket was issued – a through ticket right to John O’Groats.

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So now it’s the penultimate leg to Wick.

1130 Berridale Braes on the A9

In good news the expected delay at the long term roadworks on the A9 at Berridale Braes didn’t materialise as we passed through just now…

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… catching a green phase not long after arriving …

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…. but in not so good news we’re almost 15 minutes behind schedule anyway making that 15 minute connection in Wick looking tight.

However we’ve just arrived at ….

1135 Dunbeath

Where there’s a driver changeover and a little bit of stand time ….

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….and its now 1140 and we’re off again now only ten minutes down so looking good again.

1220 Wick

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Yes! We’ve arrived in Wick on time after all the delays on route and so now it’s on to the final leg – the 1235 route 177 to John O’Groats – it’s a Friday only school kids special – apparently a 66 seater with 64 kids on the ‘manifest’ so we’re banking on some kids not turning up today as there’s three of us and another passenger waiting!

1240 The Last Leg

In Wick our 177 has arrived with plenty of room and we’re off on the final leg to John O’Groats with the stop watch showing 23 hours and 57 minutes.IMG_6843.jpgIMG_1634.jpg

And there’s plenty of room on board too.

Nearly there!

1313

Tantalising close.

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But we’re doing a figure of eight type route to drop the school kids off!

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1325

John O’Groats

Made it.

24 hours 41 minutes 41 seconds

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IMG_E1721.jpgIt’s been an epic journey and in such great company. Huge thanks to Vicki and Geoff for joining me…

… and so pleased they managed to get both hats bringing an 874 mile journey to a celebratory end.

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Having done the usual touristy stuff we’re now heading down to Thurso in a taxi to meet up with Tony and Gaynor and make sure they get safely on the route 80 bus up to John O’Groats for the end of their journey.

Here they are arriving at Thurso station….

IMG_1682.jpg …..and catching the 80 on their final journey leg to John O’Groats.

IMG_1684.jpg1630 Thurso

A welcome bite to eat has gone down well and we’re taking the late afternoon train from Thurso back to Inverness which brings this story to an end.

Thanks for reading.

Roger French

LEJOG: The plan

Wednesday 19th June 2019

IMG_7207.jpgTo celebrate a year of blogging and the upcoming Longest Day of the year I’m heading down to Cornwall on GWR’s Night Riviera sleeper train tonight to begin an epic 24-hour Lands End to John O’Groats trip by bus and train beginning tomorrow, Thursday, afternoon.

Scotland - June 2014 079.jpgOn most weekdays, this famous journey can be accomplished in exactly 24 hours using ground based public transport; leaving Lands End at 13:34 on a First Kernow bus on route A1 and arriving John O’Groats excactly twenty-four hours later, coincidentally also at 13:34 on the Stagecoach route 77 arrival from Wick.

Over that twenty-four hours the journey involves taking the A1 bus to Penzance then a GWR train to Plymouth followed by a Cross Country train to Tamworth, a Virgin Train to Crewe and then the Caledonian Sleeper overnight to Inverness from where the Stagecoach X98 bus takes you to Wick to connect with that bus on route 77 to John O’Groats.

The timings are tight in places and it will be touch and go whether everything works out as planned along the way; but there’s no Plan B.

IMG_7210.jpgThe A1 arrives Penzance at 14:33 giving a fairly comfotable 16 minute connection to the GWR train leaving at 14:49. This arrives Plymouth at 16:51 and the Cross Country departure is at 17:25 through to Tamworth arriving there at 21:18. Another comfortable 17 minute connection there on to the Virgin train at 21:35 and into Crewe at 22:17 for the Caledonian Sleeper at 23:50.

The crunch connection comes in Inverness with the Sleeper due to arrive at 08:39 on Friday morning while the Stagecoach X98 is scheduled to leave the nearby bus station for Wick at 08:50 allowing just 11 minutes. Fingers will be kept firmly crossed that this connection works, as a late arrival by the Sleeper will scuppour the schedule completely.

On arrival into Wick on the X98 at 12:20, the 77 which normally leaves at 1305 doesn’t run on a Friday schoolday at that time, as schools in the Highlands finish at lunch time on Fridays. so instead there’s a 177 schooldays only journey from Wick Community Campus at 12:35 which will arrive John O’Groats at 13:25 shaving nine minutes off the 24 hour timing making for a LEJOG attempt at 23 hours and 51 minutes.

DSCF8142.jpgExcept another crunch point will come on that X98 journey as there are currently frustrating delays on the route at the infamous scenic Barriedale Braes coastal hairpin bends with road re-aligning works in full swing. Here’s hoping there’ll be no more than a fifteen minute hold up on the three hour thirty minute journey from Inverness and that vital connection to the 177 isn’t missed.

There is an official Guinness World Record held for this journey. Roy Bromet made it in 24 hours and 4 minutes in June 2016, so although this adventure is just for fun, it’ll be interesting to see if thirteen minutes can be shaved off this timing and a new record of 23 hours and 51 minutes achieved.

First Kernow, GWR, Cross Country, Virgin Trains, Caledonian Sleeper, Stagecoach North Scotland – is down to you!

I’ll be posting a live updated blog during the journey and for those who subscribe by email, you’re welcome to check out progress along the way by visiting either this blog’s home page or Twitter. A full blog will be posted out to subsribers at the end of the journey.

And it’s not just me; the lovely All The Stations couple Geoff and Vicki are coming along too, which must be a good omen for success. A brilliant Longest Day lies ahead.

Roger French

 

Rural pilots take off in Kent

Tuesday 18th June 2019

Kent County Council’s ‘Rural Transport Initiative’ using ‘Taxi Buses’ has begun so I thought I’d take a look to see how it’s going.

It’s early days but there are already signs of interest building in the rural communities now enjoying public transport either for the first time or after quite a gap since bus routes last ran. And it’s not surprising passengers are happy as the new timetables see journeys running every weekday with more journeys than ran before.

Kent County Council have committed £0.5 million funding for five pilot schemes spread across the county with each trial running for twelve months. Schemes in Maidstone and West Malling have yet to start but the first three in Sevenoaks, Sandwich and Tenterden are now up and running.

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IMG_0799.jpgFirst to launch was the Sevenoaks Taxi Bus at the beginning of the month. Now in its third week this really is a taxi-sized ‘Taxi Bus’ using an eight seater private hire licensed vehicle operated by Maidstone based Express Cars.

The service links West Kingsdown and the isolated East Hill Residential Park with Sevenoaks. East Hill was previously served by the Wednesday-only one-return journey-a-week route 405 operated by Go-Coach Hire. I blogged about that route just before it was withdrawn back on 3rd April. After a two month gap with no service to Sevenoaks at all, East Hill residents can’t believe their luck they now have three return journeys a day, five days a week.

Even better, residents in the tiny hamlets of Stansted and Fairseat (beyond West Kingsdown off the A20/M20 north of Wrotham) have a ‘bus’ service for the first time – probably ever – as this new route continues beyond West Kingsdown down the A20 to serve these micro-communities.

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Kent County Council have astutely specified the off-peak only timetable to slot between a peak commitment to transport children with special needs to school meaning a big chunk of the vehicle and driver costs are already funded. Passenger revenue on the three return journeys between 09:30 and 14:45 merely needs to cover the marginal costs of the extra mileage and any other off-peak ad-hoc private hire work the vehicle has now foregone.

That’s just as well as there’s a bit of a problem with this service being limited to just those eight seats – six of which are in the rear (three facing each other) and two alongside the driver with the middle seats distinctly ‘cosy’ and with tight leg room in the front.

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IMG_0775.jpgWednesday, being ‘market day’ in Sevenoaks and the traditional day for the erstwhile route 405, is already proving crunch day as more than half a dozen regulars from East Hill could often be found on the 405 whereas now, it’s pot luck whether  they’ll get on as no pre-booking is allowed. I hear passengers have already been turned away on Wednesday last week.

Obviously the hope is passengers will spread themselves out across the journey options during the week, but old habits die hard and it’s not easy to second guess who might travel when. It also takes no account of new passengers being generated by the more frequent service.

IMG_0797.jpgIndeed, when I travelled yesterday a resident in Fairseat came out to meet us when we arrived and chatted to Jay, our driver, about using the new service and when she said she might try it on Wednesday he explained it would be a busy day but at least she’d be getting on at the terminus so would be alright (heading towards Sevenoaks, at least).

IMG_0796.jpgThere’s one great thing about this new service and that is regular driver Jay. He’s an absolute gem; totally customer centric and firmly committed to making this pilot a success. He’s had bus driving experience with Arriva and Nu-Venture as well as running his own taxi and is absolutely ideal for this new role.

Jay’s already suggested a very sensible change to the timetable (which is being implemented once the registration notice period has elapsed) as it’s proven to be far too optimistic with running times ostensibly compiled assuming no passengers boarding and no allowance for meeting traffic on what must be the narrowest roads any registered bus travels along in the Country.

IMG_E1250.jpgAside from one passenger making a journey from the big Sainsbury’s on the outskirts of Sevenoaks back to East Hill (who’d come out on the first journey to shop there for some cigarettes while Jay continued on with three other passengers to the bus station) no-one joined us on the 10:15 from Sevenoaks to Fairseat or the journey back again at 11:00 yesterday morning, yet we only just kept to time.

As Jay pointed out, once Express Cars ‘O’ licence application for the service becomes effective, he needs the 45 minute break when he gets back to Sevenoaks after the second journey in from Fairseat for drivers’ hours requirements so an adjustment to the timetable is urgently needed. Jay’s sensible plan is to route the 10:15 Sevenoaks to Fairseat journey direct along the A25 and A227/A20 (ie effectively dead running) as well as the 13:15 journey back from Fairseat as these journeys serve no real function as the purpose of the route is to provide a shopping facility in Sevenoaks – on those journeys you’ve only enough time to nip into a shop for a packet of fags (as we saw) rather than a linger around the shops.

The slackened timetable will not only ensure Jay has a proper break but give the much needed time for passengers, mainly elderly, to board and alight as accessibility is not particularly brilliant in the eight-seater not least because of the manually operated door. There is a facility for a wheelchair to be accommodated but it would be a right old faff to accommodate it and mean even less seats available. Ideally, once the O licence comes through a proper sized minibus (12-16 seats) with low floor access and remotely operated door is required for a route like this except the roads really are very narrow.

IMG_0795.jpgAnd I do mean narrow.

IMG_0800.jpgVery narrow.

IMG_0803.jpgIt was always a breath-holding moment when the old 405 went out to East Hill and West Kingsdown but at least it was just one return journey a week, now it’s three return journeys, five days a week (until Jay’s change takes two of those single journeys away) and as you can see we met a few cars along the way.

I was pleased to see timetable leaflets for the new service available in Go-Coach Hire’s travel office in Sevenoaks bus station and a new timetable was posted at the bus stop at East Hill (along with the Thursday only 422 to Gravesend) …..

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…. although the 405 still appears on the flag!

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Good luck to Jay in making this pilot work; if anyone can, he can.

 

IMG_0901.jpgKent’s second ‘Taxi Bus’ began operating on Monday of last week over in the eastern side of the county based on Sandwich. This ‘Taxi Bus’ is more bus than taxi using an Optare Solo sixteen seater operated by Britannia Coaches who run an extensive fleet of luxury coaches and minibuses/coaches based in Dover and the eastern side of Kent.

IMG_0877.jpgThis pilot is a route of two halves to the villages of Staple and Northbourne/Mongeham either side of Sandwich. A real Sandwich sandwich. Like Sevenoaks, the timetable looks tight with perpetual motion from the moment it kicks off at 09:30 until it finishes for the day after four round trips at 15:30. A spare minute is allowed each time the bus passes Sandwich’s impressive Guildhall but eight minutes in a six hour operating day is cutting it tight.

IMG_E1252.jpgAt least passenger access is much better on the Solo than a taxi, and on my journey out to Staple at 13:40 we took four passengers home including one with a four-wheeler walking aid. I was impressed to see Britannia drivers turned out very smart in their uniform and I noted a shift changeover when I boarded at 13:40.

IMG_0842.jpgAfter dropping the four ladies off in Staple and we turned round to head back we picked up another passenger who took us as far as the edge of Ash where she got off to catch the Stagecoach route 43 from there to Canterbury – just what the team at Kent County Council had in mind for this kind of service. The only trouble is there’d be no connection for her return journey; still, it’s a start.

IMG_0908.jpgBack in Sandwich for the next trip at 14:21 down to Northbourne and Mongeham we picked up a couple taking a ride around the complete circuit like myself just out of curiosity, but no other passengers.

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IMG_0808.jpgMongeham is almost part of Deal, the bus pretty much touches the outskirts of that town to turn round where it meets the Stagecoach routes 80/81 which connect Dover and Sandwich (and on to Canterbury). I understand Northbourne lost its regular bus a couple of years ago, so there’s been much cheering and flag waving to see the Sandwich TaxiBus bring public transport back.

IMG_0918.jpgThere are Stagecoach branded bus stops along the route as well as in Staple as a school bus operates through all these villages, but not much good for off-peak shopping trips, so the new service is naturally being warmly welcomed.

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On to the third pilot over in Tenterden.

IMG_1021.jpgThe Tenterden Hopper, as it’s called, began this week so my visit earlier today was only on its second day. I made reference to these four new routes in my blog about the demise of bus routes 293 and 294 last week, so it was interesting to try them out now they’re operational. Although no ticket machines have been set up yet on this route, so I benefited from introductory free rides!

IMG_1022.jpgWhereas the Sevenoaks trial comprises a taxi running under a Private Hire licence and the Sandwich scheme is a minibus under a full O Licence held by a substantial coach company, the Tenterden initiative involves a charity running a minibus under a Section 22 Community Bus Permit arrangement. The Tenterden Social Hub (previously known as the Tenterden & District Day Centre) runs a fleet of small minibuses to bring its clients to the club building in the centre of Tenterden, and the Tenterden Hopper is a new string to their bow.

The 16 seat minibus with a rear tail lift for wheelchairs used on the four new rural routes open to the public has been bought especially and unlike in Sevenoaks is not used on peak workings before and after.

IMG_0980.jpgTwo of the four routes, lettered B and C, are based on the former routes 293 and 294, albeit the former no longer serves Wittersham as this is served by the regular Stagecoach 312 bus route. Route A to Shirkoak and the Rare Breeds Centre (both near Woodchurch to the north east of Tenterden) and Route D to Benenden and Iden Green (to the south west of Tenterden) are new innovations.

IMG_E1251One return journey operates on each of the four routes in turn (A to D) providing around two and a half to three hours in Tenterden for shopping before the return trip. Whereas the 293 and 294 only ran on Mondays and Fridays new routes A, B, C and D run all five days, Mondays to Fridays.

IMG_1020.jpgI had a ride on both the new routes A and D and unsurprisingly for day 2 was the only passenger. It was good to meet up with Owen from the Tenterden Social Hub who was route learning the drivers and taking a keen interest in how the new service he now has responsibility for was settling in.

I have my doubts about both these new routes making an impact. On Route A, the Rare Breeds Centre looked a fascinating place to visit if you’re on a school trip but I can’t see the departure at 09:30 from Tenterden (arriving at the Centre at 10:00) with a return at 13:15 appealing to many families who need to make their way into Tenterden for 09:30.

IMG_1249.jpgThe other objective, Shirkoak Park is another mobile home residential park just north of Woodchurch and although the minibus travels a couple of hundred yards up the drive from the main road to better serve it, back on the main Bethersden Road is Stagecoach’s route 2A which operates around 9 to 10 times a day (approximately every two hours) between Ashford and Tenterden. The original plan was for the minibus to encircle the Park but Owen was concerned the road was too narrow and found a sensible turning point not far up the entrance road.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 19.36.53.pngInterestingly Owen also explained this morning’s first run picked up around ten passengers from there who had all been waiting for the 2A! They obviously went back on the 2A (at 12:25) as we carried no-one on our 13:00 journey.

IMG_1029.jpgI couldn’t see any justification for running route A bearing in mind, aside from the Rare Breed Centre, it’s all served by route 2A.

The same was true for route D too. I travelled on the first journey from Tenterden at 11:45. The route operates via the (private) Benenden Hospital at ‘East End’ which sounds as though it might be a good trip generator but the hospital has a long standing arrangement of running a bookable shuttle connection from both Headcorn and Ashford stations. The route then continues via the narrowest of Kent lanes (including a 6 foot 6 inches width restriction) to Benenden itself where there are other bus connections to Tenterden including Hams Travel route 297 which operates seven journeys a day.

IMG_1169.jpgRoute D then continues the short distance to turn at the hamlet of Iden Green but this has a number of established once/twice a week routes to Maidstone (route 24 on Tuesdays), Tunbridge Wells (route 255 on Wednesdays and Fridays), Tenterden and Rye (route 293 on Thursdays) and Tenterden (route 299 on Fridays). I doubt adding a shopping trip every day of the week to Tenterden is going to make any impact among the 380 people who live in Iden Green (photographed below).

IMG_1117.jpgDuring our trip Owen made the pertinent observation the route via that narrow road (which to me smacks of someone designing the route with a map in an office) could be amended by using a slightly different route (continuing via Goddards Green Road and New Pond Road – see map below) which we tried on the way back and was indeed much more suitable, albeit it would miss out part of Benenden but as mentioned above thus is well served by route 297. I really don’t understand the reason for route D.

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 19.16.04.pngMy suggestion would be to abandon the A and D and link routes B and C to run a cross Tenterden route from Rolvenden Layne to Appledore running three or even four journeys a day rather like in Sandwich, giving passengers more options for either a shorter or longer stay in Tenterden. It might also enable an earlier finish for the bus than the current 16:00 so it could be utilised on some other work for the day centre at the Hub and be more cost effective.

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As I highlighted in my previous blog, Kent County Council explain that ENCTS passes are valid for travel but donations of £1 are welcomed “to help with the financial sustainability of the pilots”. Otherwise there’s a single fare of £2 adult (£1 child) in Tenterden and £3 (adult) with a £5 return in Sevenoaks and Sandwich.

It’s been interesting to see these three different models (Taxi; O licence minibus; Community Minibus) in action and credit to Kent County Council for trying something positive to support rural transport. I look forward to trying out the Maidstone and West Malling pilots when they get going next month.

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Roger French

Two cheers for TfL

Saturday 15th June 2019

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Today saw the much heralded cuts to a large number of central London bus routes including many changes to termini and amended routes.

I previewed the changes in a post on 5th June foreseeing a major challenge as getting bus stop plates, timetables and spider maps updated.

Having had a good wander around central London today I’m pleased to report TfL’s bus stop team have done a reasonably good job bearing in mind the scale of changes.

Inevitably there are some inconsistencies and discrepancies but on the whole it was impressive to see just how much had been updated ready for day 1.

Here are some examples of what gets a big bus stop tick and what needs further attention.

Yellow ‘Bus stop closed’ hoods covering up discontinued bus stops have been regularly deployed in London for some years now to cater for temporary changes due to roadworks and diversions. Sadly the consequential deployment of ‘Dolly Stops’ as replacements is much more rare these days but that’s another matter.

Team Cover Up have been out in force with their yellow hoods overnight after Friday’s last journeys. First up I found them deployed at bus stops uniquely served by the withdrawn route RV1 from Covent Garden ….

IMG_0658.jpg…. via the South Bank ….IMG_0648.jpgIMG_0646.jpg…. including a poignant tribute at the Royal Festival Hall ….

IMG_0655.jpgIMG_0653.jpg…. to the Tower Gateway terminus.

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The Covent Garden bound stop at Oxo Tower on the South Bank has been out of action for some weeks, and the long standing notice erroneously implies the RV1 will be back later this year which to avoid confusion should really be removed now lest it gives anyone false hopes of a RV1 revival…..IMG_0649.jpg

IMG_0650.jpgIn better news ‘E’ plates showing which bus routes serve each bus stop along the route have also all been updated with any reference to the RV1 removed and the 343 added where appropriate on its newly extended section of route to Aldgate replacing the RV1 between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.

Indeed so on the ball were the ‘E’ plate amendment team for the RV1/343 switch that they even updated the bus stops on Tower Bridge approach itself which are no longer in use due to the protective barriers now installed. Still at least that out of use bus stop has accurate route numbers for buses which can no longer stop there.

IMG_0630.jpgIMG_0631.jpgOn the other hand I spotted an erroneous RV1 plate on a bus stop not served long before yesterday’s withdrawal in Great Tower Street which must have been in place from a former old routing…

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The same hooded status was noted on the withdrawn section of bus route 341 in New Fetter Lane/Fetter Lane which are no longer served by buses so that change was sorted correctly too….

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…including the removal of ‘E’ plates for the 341 and the timetable from the stops in Holborn….

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Similarly yellow hoods were properly deployed on bus stops in Fenchurch Street no longer served by any bus routes following the diversion of route 40 to terminate at Clerkenwell Green instead of Aldgate.

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However, the job of updating stops on the new section of route 40….

IMG_0579.jpg……is best described as ‘work in progress’ as ‘E’ plates were incorrectly showing route 45 and 388 (both now withdrawn) rather than the newly diverted 40 in Blackfriars Road …..

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….even though the timetable below had been updated with the 45 and 388 correctly replaced by the 40….

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and in Farringdon Road a new ‘E’ plate had appeared for the newly diverted 341 (but not the 40) ….

IMG_0563.jpg… whereas the timetable below showed the newly diverted 40 but not the 341….

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Meanwhile on bus stops a little further north of Clerkenwell where its just the 341 which needs adding, the stops do have both a timetable displayed and correct ‘E’ plates…..

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The fourth section of road to become newly bus-less is Pall Mall which said farewell to route 9 which has now been diverted back into the parallel Piccadilly. Sadly Team Cover Up hadn’t been there when I visited late this morning and the bus stops on either side of Pall Mall looked very much open for business as usual ….

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…. although someone had taken out the route 9 details from the timetable case ….

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….and added a new timetable and a new ‘E’ plate on the newly served stop in nearby Piccadilly….

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Back in Pall Mall I explained to the waiting passenger she was in for a long wait for a Number 9 but she seemed happy to know the new stop was by Fortnum & Mason and headed off in that direction!

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As well as Team Cover Up these changes also call upon the services of Team Uncover Up as the 14 now diverts from its previous route from Putney Heath at Tottenham Court Road station to operate via the British Museum and terminate at Russell Square instead of via Tottenham Court Road to turn at Warren Street station.

This new bit of route via the British Museum hasn’t seen a bus since route 10 was withdrawn last November so the bus stops have either been left to just Sightseeing buses (as here outside the museum)…

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…. or closed as at the next stop in Montague Street….

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Unfortunately it was still covered up today even as buses went by on the newly diverted 14.

Even more bizarre someone had been out to install a new route 14 timetable in the timetable case at the stop outside the British Museum but hadn’t taken down the bus stop closed sign! Surely there aren’t two teams at work here, one to put new timetables up and another to take down ‘bus stop closed’ signs?

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On the opposite side of the road you’d have to be very knowledgeable to twig the 14 now uses that stop and be prepared to jump out into the road to let the bus driver know as he passes the Sightseeing bus by.

IMG_0497.jpgIMG_0513.jpgOver in Tottenham Court Road references to route 14 (and the 134 – also now withdrawn from that road) were still on bus stop flags ….

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…. but someone had been round and removed all the timetables and for all the routes too! Or, perhaps they haven’t yet been installed to these relatively new southbound stops, but then why install new timetable cases? Anyway, it’s another ‘work in progress’ here.

And more even more bizarre at the erstwhile route 14 terminus at Warren Street, now used by the 134….

IMG_0376.jpg…..someone had been out to add the new 134 timetable but had left the now incorrect 14 one in place…..

IMG_0374.jpg….. nor did they change the ‘E’ plate from showing 14 to 134. I wished I’d brought a spare 3 with me to do the job!

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Talking of the 3, that route no longer serves the northern most stop in Whitehall as the route has been cut back from terminating at Trafalgar Square to Horse Guards Parade and it was good to see everything updated correctly there.

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Over in Aldgate another update success is all references to the 67 are now changed to the 242 both on bus stop plates….

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….. and timetable cases……

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So, another job well executed there.

Similarly over on the Euston Road the stops between Kings Cross and Euston have all had references to the now withdrawn 59 and 476 removed from bus stop flags….

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It’s just a shame that an important and busy stop right opposite St Pancras International has no timetables for daytime bus routes at all…

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The diversion of route 4 at St Paul’s Cathedral to operate via Queen Victoria Street and terminate at Blackfriars instead of running along Fleet Street and Waterloo Bridge to Waterloo was another success with bus stops updated …..

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…. and new timetables at bus stops along the route….

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…. except that the ‘towards Elephant & Castle’ bit of the bus stop is out of date as that used to apply to the 388 when it ran on there, but now the 4 heads no further south than Blackfriars.

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The same issue with ‘towards’ on bus stop plates applies further back along the route where bus stops still display ‘towards Aldwych’ which it no longer does.

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A neat piece of technology was using the iBus system to show a scrolling message just before the new piece of route at St Paul’s advising passengers to alight and change to a bus on route 76 for Waterloo. Old habits die hard and most passengers didn’t notice this and carried on until the bus turned along the new route and then they got flustered and alighted at the next stop.

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I was also impressed to see a number of spider maps had been updated with references to where routes had been altered or withdrawn.

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However, these new style spider maps are not so easy to use, since they no longer show a colour coded route index. For example, the old style map still on display at the old RV1 bus stop in Covent Garden…

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… has the old style route index….

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…but the new style maps colour code the route numbers alongside each destination in the index of places served. I don’t find this so helpful, as the route index was a quick way of telling you for each route the bus stops it serves nearby which was useful if you already knew your route number. Now you have to look up a destination first, to find the route number and the bus stops served.

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Despite the inconsistencies noted today I was pleasantly surprised at how much had been achieved and it’s clear a lot of thought and hard work has gone into the updating.

My concern is that those discrepancies I came across will not be corrected and will languish for many months, if not years. I hope I’m proved wrong and a wander around again in a few weeks time will show everything being displayed perfectly.

Let’s see.

Roger French

Southend Airport evicts new bus route

Friday 14th June 2019

IMG_E0246.jpgHave you ever heard anything so ridiculous? At a time when airports should be doing all they can to enhance their environmental credentials by encouraging passengers to use public transport you’d think a new bus route introduced in the dead of night entirely at the commercial risk of a bus company would be warmly welcomed and widely promoted.

Instead Southend Airport; oh sorry, ‘London Southend Airport’ (says it all about their pompous attitude) have banned Ensignbus from running their new night time X1 express bus route connecting the airport with central London.

Introduced earlier this month, buses on the new ‘Jetlink X1 Airport Shuttle Bus’ have been forbidden from entering the airport this week and Ensignbus have been forced to abandon the service.

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We’re not talking frequent shuttle buses which could undermine longer established public transport operators already in the market. The X1 was aiming to fill the gap when trains run by Greater Anglia on the line to Liverpool Street are infrequent or not running.

From Monday of this week a new later last train began running leaving Southend Airport at 2359 arriving into Liverpool Street at 0055, whereas the X1 leaving at 2340 would take arriving air passengers to Lakeside, Canning Town, Embankment or Victoria arriving there at 0115.

Heading to the airport a new first early morning train from Liverpool Street now leaves at 0435 arriving the airport at 0529 but the X1 provides an even earlier arrival at 0435 having left Victoria at 0305 – what’s not to like about that?

Well, Leanne at Southend Airport reckons in an official statement the airport has recently come to an agreement with Greater Anglia “which extends the schedule of the airport rail service to earlier and later trains. At this current time, the airport does not have any agreement in place with Ensign buses”.

Leanne also encouragingly explains “London Southend Airport works with a number of transport partners to offer its passengers different options to get to and from the airport in a sustainable way and is always happy to discuss ideas to improve service to its customers”.

So you’d think giving customers an option of travelling direct to a different part of central London, eg Embankment or Victoria, rather than to Liverpool Street arriving in the early hours of the morning would be a great ‘improvement idea’.

It’s been pointed out London Southend Airport take 90% of the revenue from passengers travelling by train. That might just have something to do with their stance rather than some spurious claim to offer sustainable options.

Greater Anglia charge £16.40 for a late night single from the airport to Liverpool Street compared to the Ensignbus X1 fare of £15 so there’s hardly an issue with pricing.

And that 0435 arrival at the airport by bus would work much better than risking the train at 0529 if you were flying off to Faro or Bilbao at 0630 with gates closing 30 minutes before departure and security to be endured.

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Let’s hope Stobart Aviation CEO Glyn Jones, Leanne and airport colleagues do “listen to what they (passengers) are telling us and we (they) take action” by coming to an agreement with the ever resourceful and enterprising Newman team at Ensignbus very quickly so the X1 can be reinstated and customers given the promised “options to get to and from the airport in a sustainable way”.

Peter Newman has confirmed Ensignbus have “previously offered to pay fees” and interestingly there’s allegedly no agreement in place with First Essex (who run the X30 to the airport – advertised on the airport’s website along with “just a short walk from the main terminal”: three routes operated by Arriva) nor have London Southend Airport had a problem when Ensignbus has run commercially at their own risk to and from the airport on Boxing Day in the past. Perhaps that’s because it’s the only travel option that day with trains left in the sidings and no 90% rake off for Stobart Aviation.

Roger French

293 and 294 bow out in Kent

Tuesday 11th June 2019

Yesterday was the final time routes 293 and 294 connected various Kent villages with Tenterden. The routes’ withdrawal are a consequence of Kent County Council’s slimmed down funding cut to uncommercial bus services following its ‘Big Conversation’ consultation about rural transport last year.

I’d been alerted to the withdrawals on social media and checked operator Hams Travel’s website to get clear confirmation the routes would be withdrawn from this coming weekend with new arrangements commencing 17th June.

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Checking the Hams Travel website further showed a comprehensive listing of timetables for various routes they provide on behalf of Kent County Council in the Tunbridge Wells, Hawkhust and Tenterden areas, including route 293.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 22.34.46.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-09 at 22.34.58.pngIt was six years since I’d last taken a ride on the Thursday route 293 from Tunbridge Wells to Rye. Back in 2013 it was operated by a company called New Enterprise which was owned by Arriva; and indeed used Arriva liveried buses.

Romney Marsh - August 2013 007.jpgIn view of its imminent withdrawal I decided to take another ride and made the journey back from Rye to Tunbridge Wells on Thursday last week to see how many people were travelling. Rye’s always busy on a Thursday because it’s the town’s traditional market day. The old Maidstone & District depot in Station Approach has long gone but the market continues as its always done on land opposite and in front of the rail tracks.

IMG_0039.jpgI’m not sure why the market attracts so many people, and an amazing number of visiting coaches but I guess most are exploring the town itself with its rich history and lovely narrow streets full of interest.

IMG_0037.jpgThe Hams Travel 293 sets off on its return journey to Tunbridge Wells at 1345 and the driver pulled up at the bus stop in good time to load all twenty of us, including many shopping trolleys and a wheelchair.

IMG_0045 (1).jpgAs I stepped on the bus after everyone else had boarded, the driver was quite taken aback to have a cash paying passenger on board and had to get back into his cab, from helping everyone on the bus, to issue me with a ticket. Concessionary passes rule here.

IMG_0047.jpgIt’s a two hour six minute run back to Tunbridge Wells across delightful scenic Kent countryside.IMG_0049.jpgIt was obvious from the start that everyone on the bus knew everyone and a right old social club atmosphere was evident, indeed far noisier than I’ve known many school buses. Sweets were passed round; comments made about fellow passengers but only after they’d got off (“I’m sure they cut each other’s hair – with pudding bowls – they look identical”; “it’s such a shame, she looks worse than last week”) making me pleased to be going all the way to Tunbridge Wells and be the last one to get off minus comments.

I was very surprised just how far everyone travelled on the 293 to Rye. We first headed north towards Appledore and dropped our first passenger in the tiny hamlet of Stone-in-Oxney (twenty minutes after leaving Rye) on the border of Romney Marsh. No-one got off in Tenterden, unsurprising as Stagecoach run a more regular route 312 between there and Rye via a quicker route, but three alighted in Rolvenden (fifty minutes from Rye) and another in the nearby Rolvenden Layne which necessitated a dog leg off our route to serve this isolated community. Five alighted in Hawkhurst (75 minutes from Rye); two in Kilndown (93 minutes); two in Pembury (almost two hours from Rye) and five at various stops as we entered Tunbridge Wells.

IMG_0044.jpgOddly amongst all the banter on board there was no talk about this being the penultimate time the bus would run down to Rye; and I was intrigued to overhear titbits of conversation that there was another route 293 being withdrawn rather than this one. I asked the driver when getting off, but he wasn’t entirely sure but thought there was another journey on a Monday that was facing the chop and this one is indeed continuing.

I was intrigued this wasn’t clarified on Hams Travel’s website which made no reference to another journey on the 293 or indeed the 294, so on my way home I called Hams Travel to find out more. I was told by the person answering they had no knowledge of bus routes and I needed to speak to Nick at the other garage in Flimwell but he’d be out on a school journey so it would be best to ring back the next day.

I tried Nick again last Friday but he was out again, so left my number to call me back. In the meantime having found no reference to the demise of routes 293 and 294 on Kent County Council’s website I called the advertised contact number for their Highways and Transport Department. I reckon I must have been the first person to call Kent H&T about buses as the person answering was completely thrown by my request to be put through to the person who oversees tendered bus routes. She insisted I needed to speak to the bus company; but I insisted they were unable to help and there must be someone there who contracts bus companies to run buses and who could help me. She asked me to hold on.

Having consulted with her manager she advised me firmly but completely incorrectly I “needed to speak to the Borough Council”. I decided to use the nuclear option of searching the online database of Notices and Proceedings for the London and South East of England Traffic Area around about early April to check out whether Hams Travel had deregistered with the Traffic Commissioners the withdrawal of the 293 and 294 – I opened up each of the fortnightly publications from late March to mid April and checked section 3.5 for ‘Cancellations of Existing Services” – as any passenger would know to do of course!

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And there it was, and indeed referring to the 293/294 running circular routes from Tenterden and a further search in the Traveline database finally gave me two return journeys which were being withdrawn (although you’d never know they only operate on a Monday and Friday …. unless you changed the specified date in the drop down box and realise those are the only two days the details appear)…..

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It turns out there’s a “short 293” which takes a forty-five minute circular route from Tenterden via the Stagecoach 312 to Wittersham and then almost parallels a section of the Thursday route from Rye to Tunbridge Wells (hence using the same route number) via Stone-in-Oxney and Appledore and back again to Tenterden, while the 294 is a Monday only short trip from Tenterden to the isolated hamlet of Rolvenden Layne and back.

I decided to head back to Tenterden in the pouring rain yesterday morning to check out these two bus routes on their final Monday.

IMG_0149.jpgI caught the first of the two circular “short 293” journeys at 1031 from Tenterden. Sadly a lose wire had shorted out the destination blind, but I realised it must be the 293 by stepping on to an empty bus. The driver managed to overcome his surprise at a passenger without a concessionary pass and work out what I needed to pay for a circular round trip without a terminus at the other end – I could have got a return ticket, but that would have included another trip on the second circular journey which I didn’t need, so we settled on a single back to Tenterden!

IMG_0158.jpgIt was a lonely run with just me and the driver until we got to Stone-in-Oxney and the same high-viz wearing passenger who got off the bus there on Thursday from Rye to Tunbridge Wells with his shopping trolley was back out again for more yesterday – good to see he was making full use of the very limited journeys a week open to him from that hamlet.

IMG_0159.jpgAs we deviated via some narrow residential roads arriving back in Tenterden we picked up three more passengers for their short ride to the shops and there was much talk about the bus being withdrawn, except that the friendly and knowledgeable driver said it was being replaced from next Monday by a new service run by something called the Tenterden Social Hub using a minibus. Not only that, it would be running every day, Monday to Friday, as will the 294. Our driver was mystified how Kent County Council could be saving money by replacing a twice a week service carrying four passengers with a daily service, as was I.

IMG_0150.jpgSo I wandered off to seek out Tenterden Social Hub based in Church Road and find out more. It was fairly easy to find their offices where they had a printed timetable leaflet available giving full details of the new arrangements from next week. It’s all part of Kent County Council’s Rural Transport Initiative – and I’ve now been able to find the relevant webpage (you won’t find it under ‘Bus Travel’ on the ‘Travelling around Kent’ page – that would be too obvious). A new link has been added at the bottom of that page taking you to ‘Rural transport initiatives’ which gives full details, not only of the Monday to Friday new timetables to the hamlets around Tenterden but also taxibus schemes in Sevenoaks (which began last week) and Sandwich (which began yesterday).

IMG_E0255.jpgInterestingly Kent County Council explain fares are £2 per journey but “we encourage ENCTS passholders to pay a voluntary contribution of £1 per journey to help with the sustainability of the 12 month pilot, however, ENCTS passes will be accepted in the usual way”. It’s the first time I’ve seen a County Council promoting voluntary donations for bus fares. I seem to recall Peter Shipp’s EYMS got a strong telling off from the DfT by doing something similar in East Yorkshire a few years ago.

It’s going to be an interesting twelve month pilot; I’m not a great fan of taxibuses (not easy to get on and off and not enough room for shopping etc) but at least Kent County Council is trying something different in place of a traditional twice-a-week under-used rural bus. I have my doubts running five days a week will generate more passengers though. It might also be worth briefing the staff who answer the phone in the relevant department about it too, as it’s no good saying “ring the bus company” if you don’t lnow who the bus company is. The leaflet needs wide distribution in each area being served too rather than just available in a back street office.

Before leaving Tenterden I popped back to wave off second and last 294 journey of the day and was pleased to see Hams Travel’s resourceful driver had managed to sort out the lose wire and got the destination screen almost working again. He left with the three passengers he’d brought in on the earlier incoming journey from Rolvenden Layne.

IMG_0226.jpgAnd to finish the story off, I was pleased to finally receive a call back from Nick yesterday afternoon who confirmed the “long 293” (Tunbridge Wells to Rye on Thursdays) was continuing as normal and when I explained it had been a bit confusing to see a notice online and in the bus that the “293” was being withdrawn he acknowledged the point saying the wording had subsequently been clarified “on social media” about which 293 journey was being withdrawn (although I doubt that reached the target market). The reason there was no reference to the “short 293” and 294 on their website was he’d put the new timetable up online a while ago as it needed reprinting and left out the 293 and 294 as they were under notice.

Stranraer update

Before ending this post, a small update from Stagecoach West Scotland who replied today to my email complaint about the 408 not operating from Stranraer to Kirkcolm last Monday afternoon, when I gave up after waiting ten minutes. Melissa explained the journey did run, although she didn’t say when. Apparently it was delayed “due to an operational issue”. Turns out I needed a mobile phone signal and checked the App.

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 17.30.12.pngNo mention of my request for a part refund of the day ticket I purchased and couldn’t fully use!

Roger French

All steamed up in Ongar

Sunday 9th June 2019

IMG_0065.jpgThe Epping Ongar Railway is having one of its popular steam weekends this weekend and I took a ride to the end of the Central Line to have a look.

IMG_E0098.jpgThanks to Roger Wright’s ownership interests, you can always count on decent bus connections from right outside Epping Station to North Weald using Roger’s extensive London Bus Company fleet of heritage London buses.

IMG_0096.jpgRTs and an RMA were among the vehicles out today providing a half hourly service between Epping and North Weald with some journeys continuing to Ongar and even Shenfield and they were all as busy as usual.

IMG_0056.jpgOn the railway EOR had three steam engines providing an hourly service from North Weald east to Ongar as well as west to Coopersale where the line currently terminates in the middle of a forest but with no alighting or boarding facilities. It takes fifteen minutes to travel from North Weald to Ongar and around half that time to Coopersale along the single track line.

IMG_0066.jpgThe three steam engines on parade yesterday included Met 1 (photographed above) famous for the honour of working the last steam-hauled London Transport passenger train in 1961 and now a regular attender at steam events in the London area from its base at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre ; 4270 (photographed below) a GWR 2-8-OT which spent its entire career hauling heavy coal trains in South Wales and now resides at the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway; and 5197 (phoptographed further down the page) USA S160 a 2-8-0 locomotive designed for heavy freight work across Europe but spent much of its career in China before a life of preservation normally based on the Churnet Valley Railway.

IMG_0060.jpgOngar is the original ‘start-of-the-line’ of the Central Line; the shuttle ‘Tube’ service between Epping and Ongar closed twenty-five years ago in 1994. It’s a nice Underground quirk that despite this all distances on the system are still measured from the zero mileage post situated literally at the end of the line at Ongar station.

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IMG_0080.jpgBlake Hall station (between North Weald and Ongar), renowned for only having six passengers a day, closed back in 1981 when it was converted into a private residence and very nice it looks too as you steam by on the train.

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IMG_0067.jpgThere’s a great surprise inside the station building at Ongar this weekend as the brilliant railway painter Malcolm Root has a small exhibition displaying some of his original paintings in the ‘Penny Salon’, and how lovely it was to meet Malcolm there too.

IMG_0077.jpgHis paintings are renowned for capturing an amazing level of detail not only of the locomotive and train itself but the whole atmosphere of the wider setting including people and other vehicles all in the period style.

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IMG_0075.jpgThe whole atmosphere on the Epping Ongar Railway yesterday was also brilliant helped by the dedicated staff and volunteers who take their roles impressively seriously as well as a great mixture of fine engines and old carriages reminding of a time when seats really felt grand to sit in and always lined up with windows.

IMG_0069.jpgThere are aspirations to extend the EOR beyond Coopersale to terminate just before the current Epping Underground station at a new platform and station called Epping Glade. This would be a great addition and be a tremendous boost for the railway but it will be sad to see route 339 lose its raisin d’être.

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Well done to Roger Wright and everyone involved at Epping Ongar Railway and London Bus Company for putting on a great event once again.

The three day steam weekend continues today, so depending on when you read this and where you live, why not pop along, or make a note of the next ‘1940s Steam Weekend’ on 22/23 June.

Roger French

Elevated views on the 500

Friday 7th June 2019IMG_9924.jpgIt’s been a long time waiting but finally First Bus have allocated much needed double deck buses on their high profile Glasgow Airport Express route 500.

Ten smart new buses began operating the 24/7 shuttle link between the airport and city centre from the middle of April so I was pleased to take a return journey on my visit to Glasgow earlier this week and give the improved service a try out.IMG_9929.jpgIn the world of extreme news release adjectives, First Bus was clearly beyond excited back in April as they launched the new buses. They’re “ultra-low” emission (Alexander Dennis E400 city with Euro VI diesel engines) and have “luxury padded seating” (the seats certainly look bright and were comfy) as well as “new state-of-the-art” wireless charging facilities on both tables and seatbacks (sadly my phone is bog standard wired charged only) and they’re on the “premium” Glasgow Airport Express (it’s certainly not cheap) and will double the capacity on these “popular” services (now that is true, I’ve always found the buses busy, even with standing passengers on the erstwhile single decks on previous journeys).

Mark Johnston, Glasgow Airport’s Managing Director showed he was also on message with more superlatives including raving about the double deckers: “I’m sure our passengers who choose to sit in the upper deck level will also appreciate the elevated views these new models bring”.

IMG_9942.jpgHe’s right, of course, you do get wonderfully elevated views, and why I’m a great advocate of double decks; mind you, it might have been better not to have plastered the graphics over the glass to annoyingly interfere with those elevated views from certain seats.IMG_9938.jpgThere was a time when First Bus and Arriva (when they still ran in Scotland) competed on the Airport run to the city centre, but for some years now it’s just First Bus which greets you with its tented covered bus stand right outside the exit of the main terminal building. One of the most convenient bus boarding points I’ve ever found at a British airport.IMG_9473.jpgA day return ticket on the Airport Express isn’t cheap at £12 (that’s on the First Bus App; it’s £13 from the driver with singles at £8 App and £8.50 driver) but I suspect Glasgow Airport takes a fair cut of that in departure charges.

IMG_9928.jpgThis time I began my return journey at the city centre end of the route so coming out of Central Station I went in search of a bus stop. It didn’t take long to find one in nearby St Vincent Street (I already knew the answer), but I reckon some prominent signs at the station exit might be helpful for transiting passengers unaware of where to catch the airport bus.

An Airport Express 500 was due at 17:50 and I got to the bus stop a few minutes before. The service is advertised as running “from every 10 minutes” and with a journey time of fifteen minutes. 17:50 from a busy Glasgow city centre is probably not the best time to try out the timekeeping promise of a service and indeed no bus arrived until just after 18:05.

IMG_9909.jpgAt the next stop another bus passed us meaning peak hour bunching; once we hit the motorway a stretch of slow moving traffic meant the journey time was inevitable extended to nearer twenty-five minutes.

IMG_9919.jpgPerhaps a more realistic journey time for peak journeys needs advertising for the reassurance of flying passengers who cut things fine, although the small print in the leaflet does explain “Airport – city in just 15 mins*” is “*To Bothwell Street (off peak)”.

IMG_9922.jpgThe leaflet also explains “Service 500 features luxury seating, tables with wireless charging, luggage storage, USB charging at every seat and free 4G WiFi”. The buses live up to that promise and are a great improvement on the single decks.

IMG_9931.jpgMy journey was impressively busy perhaps reflecting the headway gap and it was noticeable the bus that passed us was pretty much empty but helped out at the next stop allowing us to pass without stopping and head off to the motorway and airport.

IMG_9915.jpgMy only disappointment was the “state of the art contactless enabled” ticket machine didn’t like reading my day return ticket QR code from the App on my smartphone; making an off putting beep and red light, but the driver reassured me it was a software issue preventing the machines reading day tickets.

IMG_9932.jpgThere’s an extensive luggage rack on the lower deck and a monitor on the upper deck which on one journey simply played out a graphic of the Airport Express logo, but on my second journey also included some promotional messages which I couldnt make out from a distance. I really don’t know why bus companies bother with these things.

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As I got off at the airport I noticed some “slightly revised” timings had been introduced three weeks ago which no doubt regular passengers were pleased to be advised about but probably went over the heads of the majority of occasional passengers for a “buses from every 10 minutes” service.

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As well as five tables on the upper deck there are three single seats opposite the stairs to make extra gangway room for passengers still with their luggage …

IMG_9933.jpg….and the centre protrusion on the back seat of these buses (an odd Alexander Dennis characteristic) has also been usefully labelled as a handy place for carry-on baggage rather than being mistaken for an uncomfortable child seat!

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After a wait at Glasgow Airport I caught a bus back at 1855 and with a clear run this really did take just 15 minutes to Bothwell Street close by Glasgow Central Station. That was impressive. There are aspirations for a fancy rail based link to the Airport in some quarters; with a high frequency bus route taking just 15 minutes this would be a complete waste of money.

With these new excellent buses from First Bus, a nice bus lane on the M8 into and out of the city centre is all that’s needed now. Job done.

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Roger French

 

 

 

A day in Stranraer and The Rhins

Thursday 6th June 2019

IMG_9889.jpgIt may not rank as high as the West Highland Line, the Kyle of Lochalsh Line or the Far North Line in the great Scottish Scenic Rail Lines stakes but ScotRail have rightly designated the line down to Stranraer as a Scenic Rail Journey and very justifiably so too.

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 09.51.10.pngWhile I was in Glasgow on Monday in between consecutive night sleeper train travels I took the opportunity to take another ride down to Stranraer and remind myself why I ranked it thirteenth in My Hundred Best Train Journeys when compiling that list at the end of last year.

IMG_9883.jpgIt’s not that Stranraer itself is a must-visit destination, sadly the town is well past its prime now the Belfast ferry has moved further up the coast, leaving desolation where lorries and cars once formed their orderly queues before boarding.

IMG_9887 (1).jpgIt’s also not that the first part of the journey south from Glasgow is particularly scenic either. It’s not.

It’s not that the trains are spectacular either; they’re unrefurbished Class 156s similar to those that could be found on the top rated scenic lines in the West Highlands and Far North prior to those being revamped and improved. But they do offer tables and great window views, so I’m not complaining.

IMG_9894.jpgThe line’s scenic reputation comes from the eighty minute ride south of Ayr on the single track section through the lovely stations at Maybole, Girvan, and Barhill.

IMG_9896.jpgIt’s not that there are lochs. Nor mountains. Nor huge spectacular valleys.

IMG_9898.jpgIt’s just mile after mile of stunning Scottish countryside with rolling hills, rivers and plenty of lush green landscape.

IMG_9892.jpgThe Stranraer timetable is not particularly attractive either. It’s an approximate two-hourly frequency but only three journeys start in Glasgow (six hours apart at 0808, 1413 and 1813) with most of the other journeys starting in Kilmarnock. Even those Glasgow journeys are bettered by taking a later train on the more direct route to Ayr, saving twenty minutes, and having a handy 6 minute connection in Ayr to the earlier leaving Stranraer train that went the slower route via Kilmarnock.

As my sleeper arrived late into Glasgow at 0815 on Monday morning I had no option but to catch the 0830 to Ayr and connect there with the Stranraer train that had left Glasgow earlier at 0808 via Kilmarnock.

Sadly though, Monday morning was not a good start to the week for ScotRail with a number of incidents including cows on the line to Ayr necessitating slow cautionary progress resulting in a 16 minute late arrival in Ayr thereby missing the Stranraer train which hadn’t been held for the sake of leaving ten minutes later if it had waited for us.

IMG_9815.jpgStill, on the upside I had a bit of time to look at the major work now in progress to renovate and make safe the hotel above Ayr station which began as an emergency measure a few months ago when the building was suddenly declared dangerous necessitating the complete closure of the station and rail lines in the area at great inconvenience.

IMG_9813.jpgIt turned out eight of us bound for Stranraer were left stranded in Ayr and in view of the two hour wait until the next train staff summoned an eight seater taxi which arrived in twenty minutes and we set off for the eighty minute drive down to Stranraer, which aside from the wait, took about the same journey time as the train.

IMG_9816.jpgI’d travelled this route before on Stagecoach’s route 60/360 and it’s a great scenic ride with some lovely coastal views contrasting with the more inland route taken by the train, so it made for an interesting and welcome variation.

I’d never ventured west of Stranraer before and decided to put that right on this visit and explore the hammer head shape every geography student is familiar with when drawing the coastline of Great Britain.

screen-shot-2019-05-31-at-15.41.57This headland peninsular is officially called The Rhins but apparently the locals don’t call it that. It protrudes out towards Belfast in the south western corner of Dumfries and Galloway.

IMG_E9821.jpgLuckily when I was in Dumfries earlier this year I took a photograph of a bus map displayed in bus shelters in the town as in the frustrating absence of finding a bus map online to refer to, this proved invaluable in working out which bus routes to travel on to explore both ends and both sides of The Rhins. Update is I found the online map after publishing this post thanks to a helpful reader – see below for more explanation.

IMG_0360.jpgThe timing worked perfectly to travel on the 1155 one-return-journey four-day-a-week departure on the McCullochs Coaches operated circular route 412 from Stranraer to Leswalt, Envie and Galdenoch (see map above).

IMG_9825.jpgThis was a lovely thirty-five minute run with just me and one other passenger who alighted in Leswalt leaving just me to enjoy the trip round. The route was slightly curtailed due to a road closure but it was still an enjoyable and quiet rural ride.

IMG_9827.jpgThe Fiat minibus has an interesting staggered 2+1 seat layout ….

IMG_9826.jpg…. and a livery which seems to be the base colours for the ‘south west of Scotland transport partnership’ brand as I saw another bus wearing similar colours and sporting a logo to that effect on route 500 to Dumfries operated by Stagecoach.

IMG_9886.jpgWhen I’d investigated the SWesttrans.org.uk website previously it just linked to a collection of minutes and agendas of Partnership Board Meetings. Most odd. However, I’m pleased to update following publishing this report someone has kindly pointed out the link to “Service Information” on the website which has a further link to Dumfries & Galloway timetables as well as a link under “Sustainable Travel” to the bus map referred to above. Why do authorities make it so hard to find these things?!

Back in Stranraer I switched to one of Stagecoach’s routes in the area, the 407, which runs all the way down to the southern end of The Rhines at Drummore.

IMG_9879.jpgThis eight journey a day route is shared with McCullochs Coaches who operate two school journeys and Wigtownshire Community Transport who operate a journey at 1700. We took nine passengers as far as Sandhead which is half way along the 44 minute journey (see map above) but the second half was just me on board although we brought two back from Drummore and another half dozen from Sandhead on the return.

IMG_9881.jpgStagecoach also operate route 408 up to Kirkolm to the north of The Rhines but sadly the 1410 departure didn’t arrive, or more possibly the driver of the 407 when he got back to Stranraer st 1402 didn’t change the blind. There’s one other route, the 387 to Portpatrick on the west coast which is shared between Stagecoach, DGC Buses and Wigtown Community Transport and a convoluted town route in Stranraer, the 365, which Stagecoach also operate.

Another quirky bus feature of Stranraer is the Ulsterbus garage a long way from its normal Northern Ireland territory but historically here for the Glasgow to Belfast service via the ferry, which as highlighted already, has moved further north.

IMG_9820.jpgHaving enjoyed the scenic rides up and down the ‘hammer head’ I decided to head back to Glasgow on the 1500 ScotRail departure from Stranraer; the scenery as far as Ayr was as gorgeous as ever and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

IMG_9891.jpgFrustratingly this train arrives Ayr at exactly the same time a fast train leaves for Glasgow making a connection impossible so I continued to Kilmarnock (photographed below) where there’s a more convenient three minute connection across adjacent platforms to a train passing through from Carlisle and which gets into Glasgow at 1737, whereas if the connection had been possible in Ayr it would have meant an earlier 1710 arrival into Glasgow.

IMG_9906If ScotRail are serious about promoting the scenic delights of the Stranraer line I would strongly recommend reviewing those tight and missed connections and promoting the timetable better – for example whereas the Ayr trains which offer either tight or missed connections are shown in the Stranraer leaflet; the Kilmarnock connections aren’t.

Back in Glasgow I was impressed that Caledonian Sleeper was ready and waiting to board passengers at 2200, the promised time, and it wasn’t long before I was in bed and only vaguely aware we were on our way at the scheduled departure at 2340 back to London Euston. Everything went well until around 0300 when we made a wakening emergency stop in the Preston area. It turned out we’d lost power but after five minutes or so everything had been successfully rebooted and we were on our way again arriving into Euston slightly ahead of schedule .IMG_9944.jpgAnnoyingly my shower didn’t work (again) along with the toilet flush packing up during the night and only a trickle of water from the basin tap in the morning. I experienced the same plumbing problems on my inaugural journey at the beginning of last month which indicates snagging issues are still very much to the fore on the new sleeper carriages.

In fact chatting to staff, they confirmed all is not going well, with continuing porblems and staff consequently taking flack from disgruntled passengers who’ve paid a handsome price for these en-suite extras. Sadly some staff are apparently having to go off sick due to the level of stress. It’s obviously a trying time for a Serco and Caledonian Sleeper and although disappointing, it’s a sensible decision to postpone converting the Highlander route to the new coaches until these problems are ironed out. I hear 7th July is the latest date envisgaed for their introduction.

Someone must be seriously losing out financially due to these delays and problems as the uptake in revenue to justify the new coaches must be well below budget as well as compensation being paid out for failing to deliver. Let’s hope all is resolved soon.

Roger French

PS: yes that timetable case in Stranraer, captured in a photo above, was a bit disheveled…!

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