Breich, Borders, Bike Buses and Berwick

Friday 3rd May 2019

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Finding myself in Glasgow at 7.30am yesterday morning (after my inaugural Caledonian Sleeper Mark 5 journey) I thought it would be an opportunity to continue the first-time experiences by taking a ride on the recently completed electrified ScotRail line to Edinburgh via Shotts and then catch a Borders Buses X62 down to Galashiels on which three new bike friendly Enviro400 double deckers have just been introduced. A trip on Borders Buses route 60 on to Berwick-upon-Tweed before returning south with LNER would complete the day’s travelling.

IMG_6462.jpgIt was unfortunate my Sleeper’s scheduled arrival into Glasgow Central at 0722 just missed the 0713 departure to Edinburgh via Shotts as that’s the only eastbound journey which calls at Breich at 0806, unsurprisingly one of Scotland’s least used stations (pictured below).

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 15.19.45.pngIndeed, passenger numbers were so few (on average one passenger boards a week) and such extensive work required for electrification at the station (estimated cost: £1.4 million) that Network Rail proposed the station’s closure, subject to consultation, in summer 2017.

IMG_9500.jpgNetwork Rail pointed out the station is some distance from the village of Breich (population: 300) and there’s little prospect of growing patronage. 

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 17.26.56.pngBut to great surprise and in the crazy world of railway funding, Network Rail did an about-turn agreeing to keep the station open and spending the money for the necessary upgrade. Not only that but ScotRail are forgoing the opportunity to speed up end-to-end journey times of their new electric stopping trains on this line by introducing a train stopping at Breich hourly (two-hourly on Sundays) from 19th May. Quite remarkable. Breich must be a leading contender to be the least used station with the most frequent train service, and the most expensive shelter and footbridge ever installed, which I spotted as my train sped through.

IMG_6489.jpgThere are two trains an hour between Glasgow and Edinburgh via Shotts; one’s a stopper (at eighteen stations along the route) and the other runs fast with just five stops. I caught the 0803 fast train which arrived in Edinburgh at 0911.

IMG_6468.jpgScotRail are already running at least one new Class 385 electric train on this route but I was pleased to have one last ride on a diesel while I still can, as the route should be fully electric when the new timetable begins in a fortnight.

IMG_6474.jpgBefore leaving Glasgow Central it was also nice to spot two Class 314 trains in the original smart SPT livery as these are becoming less common now they’re being withdrawn.

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After a short break in Edinburgh I wandered over to the Bus/Coach station to catch Borders Buses X62 as I’d been reading about the impressive new ADL Enviro400 double deck buses just introduced on the route with facilities to carry bicycles.

However, rather foolishly I hadn’t properly researched the X62 runs every half hour between Edinburgh, Peebles, Galashiels and Melrose on a five and a half hour cycle for each bus meaning eleven buses are needed to run the service. With only three new bike buses it perhaps wasn’t surprising a standard single deck bus pulled into the bus station for my 1020 departure.

IMG_6519.jpgI wasn’t the only one to have misunderstood Borders Buses’ positive PR messages about the new buses, which received widespread coverage in the media. As we headed out of Edinburgh a cyclist attempted to board the bus and our driver explained there was no chance on this bus.

IMG_6523.jpgHe would have a long wait too as the next bike bus we passed heading north into Edinburgh was down at Peebles at 1120 which wouldn’t be heading back south until the 1245 departure from Edinburgh some two and a half hours and after four more non-bike buses later.

IMG_6524.jpgAll credit to Borders Buses for picking up on my Tweet about that and providing a link to their website where there’s a list of journeys each day on which the three bike buses are allocated out of the eleven buses on the route.

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From this I worked out I’d arrive into Galashiels just before a bike bus was due to arrive heading towards Edinburgh with a five minute layover.

IMG_6547.jpgThis gave me the opportunity to take a good look at the bus, thanks to the driver who showed me around and gave an explanation of how the two bikes are stored – one goes one way, and the other the other way, and both are strapped in. There’s a short video here on YouTube showing how it’s done.

IMG_6543.jpgThe buses are very impressive with comfortable and attractive seating, some tables, the usual usb and WiFi and have a tasteful and attractive Best Impressions designed livery.

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IMG_6542.jpgI was pleasantly surprised how slick the bike racks are; much more so than those which Stagecoach have installed on the open top buses on route 599 in the Lake District.

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IMG_3147.jpgThere’s a bit of a trend to include bike racks on buses; I spotted one on Stagecoach’s X74 between Glasgow and Dumfries a few weeks ago, but there they’re stored in the lockers under the top deck, which is perhaps more appropriate.

IMG_0266.jpgI do wonder whether bikes inside buses will lead to issues, especially while only a small percentage of the buses on a long inter-urban route have the facility. Apparently one older double deck on the X62 is to be converted and it’s also been pointed out you can use the Borders Buses App and refer to the bus tracking facility which shows where buses are in real time. You have to click on each icon to find the bike buses / they’re the ones with the word “Bike”.

But this is hardly very convenient (having to play a game like Battleships and clicking on icons until you find one saying ‘Bike’), and what do you do if there’s a couple of hours gap before one of these buses comes along?

The Company’s PR blurb says the new buses are “designed with commuters, local and touring cyclists in mind. The bike friendly service is aimed at minimising car journeys buy encouraging motorists to ditch the car and use bike and bus as an alternative and greener way to travel”.

So if I live just outside Peebles some way off the X62 route and work in Edinburgh, I cycle into Peebles and put my bike on the bus. Sounds a great idea. Except looking at next week’s vehicle allocation, commendably available online, buses are on different peak hour journeys on Monday and Friday compared to Tuesday to Thursday, so I’d need to switch my travel pattern accordingly. And then I’d be taking a chance two other “alternative and greener” commuters hadn’t got to the bike spaces before me.

It explains online that there are plans to increase the number of bike spaces from two to four by the end of the month; I’m puzzled how this will be achieved, but surely this is going to impinge on the space for buggies and shopping trolleys – something many operators are already finding a big challenge alongside ensuring a wheelchair, and even two wheelchairs can be carried if needed.

IMG_6544.jpgI’m also thinking it must be a real palaver if the bike on the inside, nearest the window, needs to be extracted before the one on the gangway side.

So, in summary, courageous decision to give it a try, but it’s a “NO” from me.

On the other hand it’s a big fat “YES” from me for the X62 route and its truly splendid scenery along the way. Once you get out of Edinburgh heading down to Peebles the countryside starts to become truly spectacular.

The Scottish Borders really are a brilliant area to explore and Borders Buses run some excellent routes including the less frequent 60 from Galashiels over to Berwick-Upon-Tweed which I caught after the X62.

IMG_6553.jpgIn fact from Peebles all the way through to east of Melrose on the X62 and 60 we travelled alongside the picturesque River Tweed and the scenery was magnificent.

IMG_6533.jpgI would imagine it’s even more spectacular from the top deck so made a note to return another time, use the App’s tracker and travel on one of the new buses … but I think I’ll leave my bike at home!

IMG_6557.jpgMy trip ended with a ride south down the East Coast Main Line with LNER. It was one of those journeys where you immediately spot the ‘family with a young kid from hell’ around a table for four in First Class. One of those families where it appears essential to have a tablet playing some inane tune or repetitive noise at full volume with associated game visuals to keep the child amused. The Train Manager between Berwick and Newcastle did her best on a few occasions to request them to turn the volume down, but was rudely told “what do you want a screaming child or the noise of this”. The relieving TM at Newcastle gave them a wide berth all the way to Kings Cross. I got out my headphones (kept for such times, which I’m finding regretfully are becoming more common on my travels) which successfully blocked out the noise and set about blog writing, magazine reading and window gazing.

We arrived ino Kings Cross just a few minutes late, passing my connecting Brighton bound Thameslink train between Stevenage and Finsbury Park so a quick transfer over to St Pancras and job done. Home for a few days rest. Blogging will resume in a week or so.

Roger French

New trains in 2019 Part 3: Sleepers

Thursday 2nd May 2019

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The long awaited Caledonian Sleeper CAF built Mark 5 coaches began running on the Lowland route last Sunday night. I booked myself a ticket and travelled from Euston to Glasgow last night/this morning to see whether the salivating I’d been reading on social media from high profile commentators blessed with their Sunday night complimentary launch journey tickets is justified.

I write ‘long awaited Caledonian Sleeper Mark 5 coaches’ as these are of course another new train set running hopelessly late.

In fact I booked myself a ticket back on 23rd September last year for the inagural journey to Glasgow originally scheduled and advertised for 29th October 2018. In the event Serco, who run the Caledonian Sleeper franchise, decided that was too ambitious an introduction date (as has subsequently proved) so refunded everyone who’d booked and put the official introduction back to Sunday 2nd June 2019. I rebooked my berth for that date and was looking forward to trying out the new facilities in a few weeks time.

Then a couple of weeks ago came news from a Tweet by a reporter on The Scotsman newspaper that the new Sleeper coaches would begin running on the Lowland route to Glasgow and Edinburgh from Sunday 28th April. Well, good for The Scotsman, as Serco’s Caledonian Sleeper’s own communications were distinctly unhelpful with emails and ‘Customer Ambassadors’ (as they’re called) at the Company’s Call Centre still denying any introduction was happening when contacted all last week claiming it was still 2nd June – despite knowing this was completely untrue as all the arrangements were in hand to invite media and sympathetic commentators on board the first journey as well as the inevitable bagpipe player to parade up and down Euston’s Platform 15 as passengers (sorry, guests) boarded.

Meanwhile the Caledonian Sleeper website (and indeed even now, after the introduction of the new trains) still offered only old style berths rather than the super duper (higher priced) en-suite single and double bed innovations they’re so proud of.

I decided not to wait until my 2nd June booking and buy a ticket for last night’s departure from Euston to Glasgow at 2353. Ideally I wanted to travel to Edinburgh but following the Scotsman’s announcement all tickets on that leg mysteriously sold out (well, all the tickets for old style berths had – you couldn’t book the new berths), so I booked to Glasgow instead.

Despite the lengthy period of pre service testing – and all the more so with introductory delays for new trains now the norm, it seems from media reports on Tuesday that not quite everything went to plan on the first journeys.

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My journey began auspiciously; arriving Euston around 2220 to find check-in progressing but “due to technical issues boarding hasn’t commenced”.

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I appreciate it’s all new for everyone including staff but I was a bit disconcerted to not be reassured my berth was one of the en-suite ‘Club’ rooms. It seems these are mixed up among non en-suite ‘Classic’ rooms rather than having one coach devoted entirely to one type of berth. I later found out that’s because it would mean too large a requirement for water tanks for one coach so the limited number of showers are spread throughout the train with a few in each coach, although all four double bed Club berths are together with the two fully accessible berths alongside two accessible toilets in the coach adjacent to the lounge coach.

That all makes sense and I now understand why reception host Ryan, still getting the hang of it all, was only 80% sure I was down for a Club berth.

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It turns out Ryan’s optimism was well placed as Berth N5 did indeed turn out to be a coveted Club berth with en-suite toilet and shower. I reckon it was pure luck I got allocated this as it had been impossible to specify when I booked, so my lucky call.

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Aside from the en-suite area, which is cupboard like in size, half the depth of the berth, with the neighbouring berth having its en-suite cupboard in the other ‘half’, the berth appears to be to a similar size as previously, but has had a much welcome makeover and now sport all important usb and plug sockets, better lighting and controls and a much nicer sink and tap unit.

IMG_6458.jpgThe en-suite itself is a wet room arrangement with a lid over the toilet seat which crucially also keeps the toilet roll dry when the shower is switched on. Instructions are provided about putting the shower mat outside in the berth so your wet feet don’t get the berth floor wet, and it also explains you can shower either sitting or standing.

IMG_6401.jpgWhat it doesn’t tell you is it’s best to use the toilet before taking a shower otherwise the floor will be very wet as not all the water will disappear through the drain in the floor.

IMG_6409.jpgThere’s a bag hanging on the door with the shower mat, a decent size towel and a spare toilet roll. Just a point of detail I found was the toilet roll was so large it was tricky to tear off more than one individual sheet at a time when pulling on it!

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Caledonian Sleeper also provide the usual soaps etc as before and the bed was a great improvement with a comfortable mattress and lovely warm duvet. Naturally the bed width is slimline – I didn’t get to look in at the new double bed berths, and wonder how they fare for a couple. I reckon it will be quite intimate.

There’s also a natty snd cleverly designed small table which pulls out from under the sink.

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The corridors are to their usual width; there’s not much can be fine here of course, but I noticed when the breakfast menus are hanging on the handles it’s easy to knock them all off as you stagger along as the train sways!

IMG_6406.jpgThere’s a great improvement on the design and layout of the lounge car/dining area.

IMG_6380.jpgIt seats around thirty in various combinations including space for a wheelchair user if needed as shown above on the bottom right with two tip up seats.

Again there are usb and plug sockets but not quite so essential with berths now well equipped. In the old days you had to get in early to use one of the few plug sockets available; now battery top up is such a relaxing pleasure on board.

IMG_6381.jpgThe kitchen’s had a complete revamp with ovens and even a toaster alongside the microwaves which were the staple of the old arrangement.

IMG_6382.jpgFinally on facilities, there’s the much improved seating area with reclining seats and overhead lockable lockers.

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Here’s a summary of my overnight travel experience last night and this morning:

IMG_6375.jpgWe boarded at 2240, technical problems resolved. There weren’t any ‘welcome hosts’ on the platform beyond the check-in lecterns but clear digital signs by carriage doors direct you to the right place, I wandered past fourteen of the sixteen carriages to reach my coach which was fifteenth )second from the front) and soon found my berth.

IMG_6376.jpgBerth doors are all unlocked and the hotel style credit card sized key is inside the room with instructions how to activate it so that you can leave your berth and lock it. Sadly mine didn’t work and refused to activate; it wouldn’t even work for a Caledonian Sleeper team member who I met a bit later. Never mind; inevitable teething problems.

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I wondered whether it might be better for activated keys to be handed out at check in as happens in a hotel but appreciate that would mean some equipment at the lecterns which is probably not possible.

IMG_6391.jpgI had a sandwich and drink in the lounge area at about 2300 before it got busy. It was delivered professionally on a plate hiding the fact it was one of those pre-packed sandwiches you find in all supermarkets.

We left Euston spot on time at precisely 2353 and I went to bed, conscious we’d made a stop soon after that at Watford Junction but the next time I stirred to wake up rather than the odd turning over in bed it was about 0530 and we’d passed through Carlisle.

IMG_6408.jpgI decided to give the shower a try at about 0620 but sadly only a minuscule trickle of water came out before it gave up completely. I pressed the ‘Call’ button which makes an embarrassingly loud ringing connection and explained the situation. The steward said she’d come and take a look.

IMG_6410.jpgMeanwhile we reached Carstairs at 0630 and the rear eight coaches bound for Edinburgh were detached and headed east while we continued north to Glasgow soon after 0645 as confirmed by the impressive screens showing route progress at the end of every coach.

IMG_6454.jpgI decided to give up on the shower and headed along to the lounge for breakfast. Spotting a steward I asked if she was the person I spoke to about the shower but it turned out I had been speaking over the intercom to the steward in the Edinburgh portion of the train so fat chance she was going to be able to come by and take a look now!

Breakfast had been ordered the night before but was to the old style menu; luckily I enquired whether toast was now available and was pleased to be served a fresh hot toasted slice and butter within minutes. Apparently new menus are being printed.

IMG_E6456.jpgHeading back to my berth I spotted a member of staff obviously making notes of snagging items so reported my shower and door lock malfunctions and he reassuringly made notes in his book.

I decided to have a quick wash before arriving into Glasgow but there was now no more than a trickle from the tap and the toilet flush had ceased to working. I diagnosed a water shortage.

IMG_6461.jpgWe rolled into Glasgow four minutes ahead of our 0722 scheduled arrival time.

IMG_6463.jpgIt had been an impressive journey and a great improvement on old style Sleeper travelling; and even better I’d paid the old price, which with my Senior Railcard discount was a reasonable £118.80 for the single journey.

Which brings me to pricing. Caledonian Sleeper’s website is offering the new berths from the official 2nd June introduction date, until then its old prices for old berths except you might drop lucky like I did and get an upgrade.

Full price fares from 2nd June to Glasgow begin at £45 for a seat, £140 for a Classic berth (£170 for two sharing with bunk beds), £230 for a Club single en-suite (£280 for two) and £335 for one person in a Club double en-suite rising to £400 for two.

Railcard discounts bring prices for one down to £29.70 (seat), £92.40 (Classic), £151.80 (Club) with no discounts on the Club double.

Comparative full rate prices for Fort William for one are £50 (seat), £210 (Classic), £245 (Club), £395 (Club double). Top whack is two sharing the Club double coming in at £470 and no Railcard discounts. It’ll be interesting to see how many are sold at that price.

Even at these prices there’s a huge subsidy paid by both Scottish and Westminster Governments to keep the Caledonian Sleeper on the tracks. It evokes much passion and is regarded as politically important; never mind that rural bus routes are being decimated and leaving people completely isolated from any public transport for the lack of public funding; here, as long as it needs funds with at least seven figures, if not eight, it’s a vital service to keep going. The fact Serco have just spent £100 million on a fleet of impressive trains for the service just adds to the bizarre nature of our public transport priorities in this country.

Finally a few very minor suggestions….

IMG_6398.jpgReinstate the hangers on the wall mounted coat hooks; they were incredibly useful to hang trousers and other clothes on.

Install liquid soap dispensers by sinks and in the showers as per most budget hotels these days.

Slightly smaller toilet rolls in the en-suite toilets would make for easier use.

Review the supply of water to showers, sinks and toilets.

Remove the contra-vision – it will be so annoying to have views of the beautiful Scottish Highland scenery spoilt.

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Reduce the volume on the call steward intercom.

Connect the intercom to the relevant steward for either Glasgow or Edinburgh portions – even more important for the three way split on the Highland train.

Reintroduce the door-open hooks to enable berth doors to be held open rather than only an auto-close mode.

Consider the implications of issuing door keys at the reception lecterns.

Looking forward to my next trip on the official launch date of 2nd June.

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Roger French

Click for Leicester

Wednesday 1st May 2019

IMG_6344.jpgIt’s day three of Arriva’s latest Click venture introduced in Leicester on Monday, so I thought it was worth a trip to see how it’s panning out.

IMG_6210.jpgCorporates love to boast about being the first to do something; they salivate over ‘ground-breaking initiatives’ and associated hype reckoning it makes for a great PR story in the trade press. Only they think that of course; most readers just raises their eyes upwards, emoji style.

Sittingbourne was ArrivaClick’s DRT debut of course, so truly was a ‘first’; then came Liverpool which was cheekily promoted as the ‘first’ such DRT service in a city. When I pointed out Oxford Bus was up and running with their Pick-Me-Up service in a city the Click PR people countered their’s was the ‘first’ ‘Click’ in a city.

Now we have the ‘first’ Click to be funded by a Section 106 Agreement. This ‘ground breaking initiative’ has seen an organisation called Go Travel Solutions broker a deal between Arriva and Drummond Estate, the owners of a huge swathe of land on the western edge of Leicester on which developers have plans for a massive development of houses, two primary schools, a secondary school a “pioneering community centre” and employment park. The area is called New Lubbesthorpe; it’s south west of the Leicester Forest East service area west of the M1 as shown on the aerial view below.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.08.46.pngThe Developer’s brochures are full of all the essential buzzwords: “Arriva Click …. part of Drummond Estate’s drive to provide a sustainable way to work, live, learn and play for those living in New Lubbesthorpe’.

The area will naturally have “vibrant urban amenities, and it is important we provide sustainable transport options”.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.07.45.pngGo Travel Solutions reckon Click “will deliver shorter end-to-end journey times” (it doesn’t say shorter than what) and explains “customers request an executive minibus from their pick-up point at a time they want and to a destination of their choosing”. That’s the hype that’s consistently pedalled with these “innovative digitalised DRT services” but as I consistently find, the reality never quite matches up.

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Take this morning for example. My train was due to arrive in Leicester at 1006, so knowing you can only pre-book Click journeys in half hour segments, I fiddled around with the App as I was leaving St Pancras at around 0900 to schedule a journey in the 1015-1045 slot from outside the station to take me to Barrett’s show house on the fledgling New Lubbesthorpe estate.

IMG_6205.jpgIt’s not entirely clear whether your journey is booked – sometimes I checked on the App, and it showed a “(1)” alongside “Next Journeys” but with no details given; other times I checked and the “(1)” had disappeared. I’ve learnt not to worry about these things, being retired it doesn’t matter whether I have to wait or not, but for someone intent on making an appointment, firstly a half hour’s window with no indication of a precise arrival time is pretty useless and secondly I’d want more definitive confirmation.

IMG_6295.jpgI left the station to find a mass of roadworks outside preventing any bus pick-ups and then received a text at 1010 advising my pick up was 12 minutes away.

IMG_E6365.jpgKen arrived at 1028. It’s an algorithm mystery of why he couldn’t have been dispatched by the software to pick me up at 1015 (the start of my half hour booked window slot) rather than the middle of it. All it had done was kept me waiting unnecessarily for twenty minutes – I could have been in a taxi and away instantly on arrival.

It wasn’t that Ken had been busy with other passengers; I was his very first pick up (ever) since he’d begun work at 0600 this morning! I’ve had a similar experience when using the journey schedule option in Sittingbourne.

IMG_6179.jpgWe had a right old kerfuffle with the pick up too; with Ken passing the App’s designated pick up point in Campbell Street just before the station, and instead headed down narrow Station Street (there he goes pictured above) which is a dead-end and necessitated much skillful manoeuvring to turn round and get going.

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IMG_6180.jpgIt turns out this was Ken’s first day on Click and I was his first passenger. He’s based at Arriva’s Hinckley garage and drives on the big bus rota but had been asked to help out on Click, also based at Hinckley, for today and he was already enjoying the contrast; not least being directed by a SatNav on a tablet rather than a duty card and timetable. Even more interesting was the SatNav’s habit of routing him the wrong way down one-way streets in the centre of Leicester!

IMG_6192.jpg There’s no expense spared when it comes to transport access to New Lubbesthorpe. A brand new access road has been built over the M1 (we’re approaching the flyover pictured below) ….

IMG_6190.jpg…. which Ken pointed out includes twenty-two road humps to slow you down ….

IMG_6194.jpg…. as you approach the area’s planned central node where the first primary school is under construction, and due to open in September.

IMG_6195.jpgIMG_6207.jpgI also spotted the main roundabout on the new access road was sporting a Click advert as we passed by. Nice thought.

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Arriva have no doubt been canny in costing a ‘bells and whistles’ Click service that’s funded by the Developers. Apparently there are five vehicles out on the road seven days a week from 0600 to 2300 necessitating a rota of fifteen drivers’ jobs.

With such extensive vehicle availability and few homes currently built and occupied it’s not surprising my journeys today were soon fulfilled with drivers allocated strategic parking spots throughout the Click operating area just waiting for a booking.

As I’ve commented previously, the problem with these DRT services is, the moment they become more popular with more bookings, the more the risk is waiting time for a vehicle to arrive will increase. The luxury of having drivers like Ken hanging around for four and a half hours waiting for me to turn up is not what can be called “a sustainable transport solution”.

I picked up a leaflet aimed at new residents giving details of some hefty financial inducements to give Arriva Click a try. There’s “£10 free credit” for every adult moving in as well as two redemptions of “£100 credit for just £10” (or “£50 for £5”) and a permanent offer of 5% off weekly tickets. I tried to sign up but unsurprisingly needed to declare plot numbers and other information I was unable to blag!

IMG_E6366.jpgWhen these freebies run out it will be interesting to see how many residents opt to pay the £4.50 a ride it cost me for my travels today. And, of course, there are no concessions for seniors (although New Lubbesthorpe looks as though its target market is a younger generation and families) … but there aren’t child rate prices on ArrivaClick either.

The journey from Leicester station to the edge of New Lubbesthorpe took half an hour but my arrival was about an hour after I’d got off the train what with all the waiting time and I’m not convinced the algorithm routed us along the most direct journey. At one point Ken mistakingly went past a slip road we needed and we almost ended up on the M69 before turning back.

IMG_6198.jpgOn arrival Ken and I (and probably the algorithm too – if algorithms have yet been invented to experience feelings) were both surprised to find a resident who’d booked a ride was waiting our arrival and ready to be whisked away. Ken had his second passenger of the day.

IMG_6206.jpgMeanwhile I took a walk around the development so far, which is very much in its early stages, and noticed that Barrett Homes (one of the house builders involved) has a smart show home and reception area with ample “Visitor Parking”. Old habits die hard.

IMG_6209.jpgIt was time for my next trip. Down to Narborough in the extreme south of Click’s area and the nearest station to New Lubbesthorpe (on the Cross Country hourly route from Leicester to Nuneaton and Birmingham).

IMG_E6208.jpgThe App told me Paul would arrive in 9 minutes which was just as well as the designated pick up point was a good 7 minute walk away from where I’d wandered to. Yet again destroying the myth that DRT picks you up at your desired pick up point; oh no it doesn’t; it’s at the algorithm’s desired pick up point.

IMG_6212.jpgI made it to the designated spot only to see Paul disappearing where I hadn’t expected – but he did a ‘back double’ and reappeared down another dead-end. He explained the SatNav doesn’t think it’s a dead-end but as a local, he knows better and thwarted the algorithm.

IMG_6214.jpgLike Ken, Paul was a very friendly, normally Arriva big bus, driver who’s helping out in Click’s early days and he was clearly enjoying the change. He’d already had a passenger on board this morning and had carried three during yesterday’s shift, so not bad going. It took us just 12 minutes to reach Narborough but still cost £4.50, as my half hour journey from Leicester had done.

IMG_6283.jpgI was just in time to catch a late running Cross Country train back into Leicester and decided to give up on trying to find where buses for the city centre were picking up during the roadworks hiatus and walked instead.

IMG_6311.jpgIMG_6301.jpgA quick visit to both St Margaret’s and Haymarket bus stations observing the contrasting attitudes to timetable provision between Arriva ……IMG_6309.jpg

IMG_6310.jpgIMG_6304.jpgIMG_6307.jpg…..(the very helpful Arriva man in the Travel Centre seems to have thwarted official policy of not printing timetables [to save the planet], aside from the 44/44A, by printing a few of each to hand out from behind the counter – the contrast with yesterday in the Lake District couldn’t be more marked) …. and First Leicester who were displaying a colourful selection of all their city routes…..

IMG_6326.jpgIMG_6325.jpg….. and I thought I’d catch a standard Arriva bus out to the Fosse Shopping Park adjacent to the M1 and full of retail sheds that are popular with browsers before they go home to buy online. Still, browsing is good business for bus companies, thankfully, and I’m sure residents of New Lubbesthorpe will be taking a Click to ride over there as it’s within the designated area.

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Route 50 operates to Fosse Shopping Park on its way to Narborough every 20 minutes and as luck would have it I was just eight or nine minutes from the 1305 departure. The bus arrived in good time and we loaded up with around twenty passengers and headed off, taking around 25 minutes for the journey. I’d bought a Plusbus which, with Railcard discount, cost just £2.30 – just half the price of a Click journey – and of course would give me unlimited journeys around Leicester all day (but not as far as New Lubbesthorpe or Narborough). The contrast with Click couldn’t be more stark.

IMG_6327.jpgArriving at Fosse I was impressed to order my third Click journey to take me back to the station and be given a pick up point just around the corner from where I’d got off the 50, and a pick up time just five minutes away.

IMG_6336.jpgExcept when I walked round the corner I realised I’d stumbled upon one of the designated waiting areas for Click vehicles to hang out with two languishing in the lay-by opposite Asda.

IMG_6338.jpgI ascertained Darren, my driver, was one of the two and we were soon away heading back to Leicester city centre for the station.

Darren had been with Arriva and it’s predecessors for nineteen years and had taken up the offer of transferring permanently over to Click duties. He’d been with the service since Monday and I was his thirteenth passenger. He had high hopes for Click’s success and thought it an ideal compromise between a standard bus and a taxi, with the fare priced accordingly.

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Encouragingly I heard much positivity about Click from all three drivers today; they all cited Liverpool as being a rip roaring success with various figures being banded about: “500 passengers a day” “26 buses now on the road” and even “100 buses on the road”.

(I made a mental note to head up to Liverpool again soon and check out this “too good to be true” positivity.)

IMG_6341.jpgThere’s no doubt in New Lubbesthorpe and its Drummond Estate owner, Arriva have found a willing partner with a strong business interest in handing a large sum of money over in return for an “innovative sustainable transport solution” to help achieve their development objectives.

To that extent this must be considered a success. Whether it will actually meet the transport needs of New Lubbesthorpe’s new residents without frustrating waits and uncertainty over pick up times as well as potentially indirect journeys once more passengers come on board, only time will tell. I reckon once hundreds more houses are built five buses over such a large operating area isn’t going to work, but perhaps there are plans for expansion and higher funding.

However, I couldn’t help reflecting that deploying five buses on a conventional limited stop service between Leicester city centre and New Lubbesthorpe serving the key attractions (Fosse, Hospital, sporting venues etc) with an hour’s round trip time therefore providing a 12 minute frequency would probably fit the bill for residents – but then that wouldn’t be a ‘groundbreaking initiative’ and hardly make for a trade press story. Just saying.

As I’ve commented before, these new DRT services are nothing new by the way – indeed I spotted a Dial-a-Ride bus laying over in St Margaret’s bus station!

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Roger French

Cumbrian travels between LNER and Virgin

Tuesday 30th April 2019

IMG_5056.jpgMy Funday in Furness yesterday exploring three small islands off England’s north west coast came sandwiched between two other great travelling days.

I travelled up the East Coast Main Line from Kings Cross to Newcastle on Saturday with LNER (always a favourite journey) to meet the lovely members of the Northern Branch of the Omnibus Society who politely let me indulge myself by sharing about 600 photographs I’d taken over the last six years of travels illustrating Britain’s best bus routes. They even seemed to enjoy it as much as I did, which is always encouraging.

After an overnight stay in the Capital of Geordie Land I headed over to Carlisle on Sunday. My original plan was to take the famous Arriva and Stagecoach jointly operated scenic route 685 now branded Cross Pennine with buses in a smart Best Impressions designed livery especially as I’ve yet to do this journey on a double deck, which Stagecoach now deploy to the route.

The perceived wisdom among OS members was the double deck isn’t allocated on a Sunday which coupled with the need to change buses in Hexham (there are no through journeys on a Sunday) and a tight onward connection in Carlisle persuaded me to switch to train instead – a journey I ranked 38th when I compiled my Hundred Best Train Journeys listing at the end of last year.

IMG_5090.jpgCheaper and quicker too. And the scenery from the train window is just as delightful especially looking north as the tracks follow the course of the River Tyne as it gradually gets smaller and more meandering as shown above.

IMG_5086.jpgI wasn’t too disappointed to find the 1255 from Newcastle to Carlisle arrive from Middlesbrough in platform 7 being a Pacer especially as it was a refurbished one with more comfy seats and there won’t be many more opportunities to travel in these workhorses of the tracks before they’re withdrawn by the end of the year. What did surprise me was just how busy the journey was with pretty much all seats taken on the two car train leaving Newcastle and lots of luggage too. Although, as expected, a few got off at the MetroCentre, they were replaced with boarders. The majority of passengers were travelling all the way to Carlisle.

IMG_5087.jpgInterestingly the new timetable from 19th May includes an extra train an hour between Newcastle and Carlisle on weekdays giving three per hour to Hexham and two to Carlisle (strong competition for the hourly 685) but there’s no increase in frequency on Sunday which based on my albeit limited experience would suggest would be welcomed by passengers.

At Carlisle I changed to the Cumbrian Coast line to skirt all the way around the coast to Barrow in Furness. I ranked this journey sixteenth place in my Hundred Best Train Journeys and this latest experience didn’t change my mind. It’s an incredibly enjoyable experience.

IMG_5139.jpgIt’s not quick, by any means; two and a half hours to Barrow and another hour beyond there to Lancaster but it’s well worth the ride for mile upon mile of coastal views as well as changing landscapes inland as the Lake District’s western peaks become visible from time to time.

IMG_5149.jpgUntil last May there was no Sunday service between Whitehaven and Barrow and a restricted twelve hour operational day on weekdays due to the high cost of manning that section with old manual signal boxes and at least three old style manual level crossings (one at Silecroft station) and two more south towards Millam where the tracks cross the A585.

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IMG_5183.jpgA real anachronism in today’s tech rich world and all the more so as nuclear waste is regularly carried on the line in connection with the Power Station at Sellafield.

IMG_5155.jpgWith a new franchise commitment from Northern there’s now a regular hourly Sunday service until around 1800 hours and it was encouraging to see over a dozen passengers on board my journey (1616 from Carlisle) south of Whitehaven.

To add to the charm of the line there are also some lovely coastal request stations, sections of track with severe speed limits and connections at Ravenglass for the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway which is well worth a visit.

That was Sunday; I’ve described Monday’s Furness travels, and so to today, Tuesday …..

Having enjoyed my Furness island hopping yesterday, today has been another wonderful travel day renewing my association with one of the Lake District’s most scenic bus routes: the brilliant Buttermere circular route 77 and 77A.

IMG_5701.jpgNarrow roads and steep inclines restrict the routes to small vehicle operation and Stagecoach allocate Optare Solos with 28 seats.

Experience of previous packed journeys has taught me to get up early and catch the first departure of the day at 0830 from Keswick if you want to really savour a quality travel experience. Fortuitously this is a 77A (which against normal convention takes a clockwise routeing with the less frequent 77 going round anti-clockwise) and this offers the best views out of the nearside windows of Derwent Water, Buttermere and Crummock Water with good forward views of the Honister Pass too. The journey seldom has large numbers travelling.

IMG_E5717.jpgIndeed this morning we left with just two on board, in addition to myself, picking two more and a dog up in nearby Portinscale. They’d all alighted for a morning’s walk by the time we reached Honister where we picked three more up, two of whom went to Buttermere and one returned to Keswick.

IMG_5795.jpgBy comparison on returning to Keswick not long after 1000 the queue was already forming for the 1030 departure which would see a bus on both 77 and 77A routes, and just as well, as there were passengers standing as both buses left.

IMG_5887.jpgIMG_5904.jpgThe 77A runs hourly 0830 to 1130 then two-hourly until 1730 while the 77 runs two-hourly 1030 to 1630. It takes two buses to run the timetable with a third needed between 1030 and 1117. Concessionary passes dominate, especially at this time of year with schools and colleges in session.

The drivers use all their skills to negotiate the twists and turns along the narrow roads including hairpin bends and challenging inclines. Luckily this morning there wasn’t much other traffic but this changes as the summer approaches.

The journey takes around an hour and three quarters – it’s the best 105 minutes in a bus.

Returning to Keswick I watched the busy departures between 1015 and 1030 thinking just how busy these routes are even for a Tuesday in April.

IMG_5886.jpgIMG_5881.jpgIt shows what can be achieved with an attractive network of routes well marketed with an abundant supply of timetable books readily available to pick up on board buses and at many locations throughout the area.

IMG_5133.jpgI lost count of the number of passengers I saw clutching their timetable book and no doubt getting inspired to make more journeys. Managers in bus companies adopting the foolish mantra ‘it’s all online’ really need to get out more and see how it’s done and works a treat.

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I took the Gold branded X4 from Keswick over to Penrith and am writing this as I return home, this time on the West Coast Main Line with its glimpses of the Lake District’s finest.

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A few final thoughts and suggestions for Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancs who must be congratulated for doing such a great job.

This summer’s timetable book is a much slimmer version than previous years which has no doubt reduced print costs but while losing some of the information about boat tours is no great loss, I do think it’s regrettable to omit those routes which reach Keswick from the north (73, 554) as well as Penrith (104, 563), the 208 Keswick to Patterdale and 755 Bowness and Windermere to Morecambe. Although shown on the network map these routes become the poor relations without promoting their times.

IMG_5630The queuing arrangements at Keswick bus terminus are very chaotic when things get busy and I noticed a lot of bad feeling among passengers who’d been queuing and waiting but lost out in the scrum with a risk of not getting on board as the buses drew up. It needs to be made clear which side of the bus stop pole and flag to queue and this should be strictly enforced to maintain discipline and a fair outcome for everyone.

IMG_5879.jpgAs the much travelled and great walking enthusiast Ray Wilkes observed on Twitter it would also be good to put pressure on Cumbria County Council to install bus shelters here too.

A fantastic few days sampling the best of travelling with class acts from LNER, Northern, Virgin Trains, Stagecoach (Cumbria and North Lancs) and valiant efforts from Blueworks to keep their show on the road.

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Finally, I appreciate my Twitter followers will have read most of this on Sunday and earlier today as I tweet ‘live’ updates during my travels but it’s been pointed out to me many blog readers don’t do Twitter, so here’s a summary of my travels especially for you.

More exciting travels to come over the next couple of days.

Roger French

Funday in Furness

Monday 29th April 2019

Today’s been a fascinating day visiting three tiny islands off England’s north west coast alongside Barrow in Furness.

Until a few months ago when planning this adventure I had no idea they even existed!

The Borough of Barrow, including neighbouring Dalton, has a population of around 57,000 and is Cumbria’s second most populated town after Carlisle. It sits in the south western corner of the county close to the Lancashire border over Morecambe Bay.

IMG_E5192.jpgInterestingly Barrow had its own municipally owned bus company (Barrow Borough Transport) until it went bust thirty years ago since when Stagecoach have run a neat network of local town routes as well as the X6 to Ulverston and Kendal and the less frequent 6 to Windermere – both lovely double deck operated routes to travel on.

IMG_5195.jpgBarrow is synonymous with ship building but the town is now dominated by a huge BAE Systems presence who also own the airport on Walney Island and from he recruitment centre I spotted are obviously big in submarines.

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I’d never been on Walney Island which is the small piece of land that juts out in the shape of a two-prong tap handle.

IMG_5201.jpgIt’s connected to the mainland by a lovely looking road bridge so this morning I took an early ride on routes 1 to Biggar Bank in South Walney and route 2 to West Shore, Earnse Bay in North Walney.

IMG_5205.jpgBoth turned out to be delightful terminal spots right on the coast and it was lovely to see dog walkers and joggers out enjoying the early morning sunshine even before 8am this morning.

IMG_5209.jpgRoute 1 stops outside an unusually shaped Chinese restaurant while route 2 stops alongside the West Shore holiday-cum-permanent home park complex.

IMG_5214.jpgBarrow’s town routes are mainly operated by Optare Solos but my journey on the 2 had an Enviro 300 which I understand had previously operated in Carlisle. Loadings were average for pre 8am travelling in a small-size town and it was noticeable that many passengers were using Stagecoach smartcards including a few topping them up on board for the week ahead.

IMG_5213.jpgAfter that island foray I could have got the X6 from Barrow over to Ulverston for my second island visit but I’d preplanned using the train as I wanted to get off and admire the town’s station which previously I’d only travelled through but got an inkling how gorgeous it is.

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IMG_5331.jpgI’m really pleased I did as it really is a lovely station with ‘three’ platforms although only Lancaster bound trains use the island platform 3 with platform 2 effectively disused as Barrow bound trains use the main ‘station building’ platform 1.

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IMG_5329.jpgAfter a late breakfast break in Ulverston I headed down to the town’s main bus stops intrigued to see what would arrive for my next journey on bus route 11 which I was taking via the coast road back towards Barrow but alighting on Roa Island.

IMG_5344.jpgRoute 11 is operated by Blueworks – which must be the only bus company to be running a regular timetabled bus service without an O licence. Instead the owner, Phil, is valiantly keeping this route and his other routes (the X12 from Ulverston to Coniston and the Ulverston local X70) going using his taxi licence until 30th May when a Public Inquiry being held by the Traffic Commissioner determines whether his O licence will be reinstated.

IMG_5340.jpgI’m not an expert on taxi licensing but was intrigued to see four eight-seater taxis draw up for the 1015 departure to Barrow and Phil and the drivers organising the passengers to board the appropriate vehicles in the most efficient way depending on their alighting bus stop as well as taking the individual ‘bus’ fares or swiping concessionary passes, presumably for reimbursement from Cumbria County Council.

IMG_5343.jpgCumbria are renowned for not providing any funding whatsoever for bus routes across the county and Phil confirmed to me he receives no subsidy for running these routes so I have to admire his perseverance at keeping these three services going on what must be a very costly arrangement. Presumably he’s concerned Stagecoach might step in if he gave up.

IMG_5354.jpgIt’s obviously much appreciated by all the regular passengers who’ve got used to the new arrangements (which seem to have been in place since January) despite the awkwardness of getting in and out of an eight seater taxi, especially from the back three seats when passengers are occupying the middle set of three seats blocking the exit doors!

IMG_5347.jpgIt was quite a business but everyone took it in great spirit.

Such is the support for Phil and Blueworks there’s a ‘Friends of the X112X70’ help group. I’m sure some members will be at the Public Inquiry rooting for Phil.

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Roa Island is connected to the mainland by a causeway and is a micro community centred around the rather impressive Barrow lifeboat station.

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My good friend and renowned expert on all things Cumbria and the Lake District, Roger Davies, had recommended my taking a trip from there to Piel Island last year and I was delighted to have arrived on such a beautiful sunny and calm sea day to take the small ferry from the jetty at the south end of Roa Island over to explore this incredible island.

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IMG_5420.jpgThe Duke of Buccleuch gifted the 50 acre island to the people of Barrow in 1920 and as well as the landlord of the pub/restaurant/cafe on the island (and being designated King of Piel) there reportedly are three other permanent family residents occupying the little row of five terraced houses.

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IMG_5396.jpgThe only other building on the island is the ruins of Piel Castle built in the early 14th Century to protect the harbour from Scottish raids.

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John runs the ferry as needed between the jetty on Roa Island and Piel Island. It takes about five minutes to make the crossing and he keeps an eye out across the water to see if anyone is waiting.

IMG_5410.jpgAround a dozen people travelled during the two hours I spent on Piel which was enough time to wander all around and sit and have refreshments in the cafe and chat to the locals who are all friendly and welcoming including the regulars who take the crossing to soak up the peaceful and convivial atmosphere.

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I headed back to Roa Island in good time for the 1419 (the second and the day’s last) journey on the 11 back to Ulverston from where the same ‘bus’ continues through to Coniston as an X12. It’s a bit of a complicated timetable but the locals seem to understand it!

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Despite their lack of interest in funding bus routes Cumbria do a decent job at listing departures at bus stops all over the county but it was a bit disconcerting to find the sparsely served stop at Roa Island timetable-less.

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IMG_5423.jpgI needn’t have worried as precisely at 1419 my eight seater arrived with two passengers already on board in the rearmost seats heading home with shopping from Barrow having caught one of the flotilla of taxis which had left Ulverston earlier at 1015 for the town.

IMG_5426.jpgAt Ulverston we had a brief pause along with the second (slightly larger) taxi which was also heading for Coniston and had a few passengers already on board.

IMG_5435.jpgIMG_5433.jpgI stayed on my taxi and was joined by one passenger heading home for a ride about half way along the route, otherwise we didn’t pick anyone else up.

IMG_5432.jpgArriving in Coniston and time for another break before catching the 1640 Stagecoach route 505 over to Ambleside (from where this particular journey continues south to Kendal).

IMG_5537.jpgThis is a lovely route along the twisty and hilly B5285 via Hawkshead Hill and Hawkshead rather than the more direct A593.

IMG_5538.jpgAt Ambleside I switched to the Lake District’s main spine bus route the famous 555 heading north to Keswick to end my day’s travels.

IMG_5647.jpgEvery time I travel on this route I drool at the amazing and spectacular scenery whether it be the serenity of the water the bus drives alongside …

IMG_5635.jpg…. or the magnificence of the mountains which tower up in contrast.

IMG_5639.jpgOpen top route 599 supplements the 555 as far north as Grasmere (and south to Windermere – and Bowness – from Ambleside) at an impressive 20 minute frequency and the livery of buses used on both routes is simply Best Impressions’ best.

IMG_5622.jpgIt’s also always great to see timetables available on board buses throughout the Lake District and earlier in the day I spotted a local guide for Barrow buses. Well done Stagecoach in Cumbria.

An excellent day.

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Roger French

New trains in 2019 Part 2: D Trains

Wednesday 24th April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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where there’s a delightful tea room………

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

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

Roger French

Jersey Boys take a Liberty

Sunday 21st April 2019

IMG_4551.jpgLet’s get the vinyl-over-windows frustration out of the way first. It’s never a good idea to ask the public to vote on branding; it’s bad enough letting them decide on EU membership or naming a research vessel for the British Antarctic Survey so when CT Plus Jersey (an HCT Group company) celebrated winning the contract to replace Connex to run the State of Jersey’s bus network in January 2013 and invited the public to vote on the marketing and branding for the revitalised network as a bit of a ‘community involvement’ PR stunt, it was bound to offer up a Boaty McBoatface result.

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Sails are all very well, but whoever thought it was a good idea to cover bus windows with them has obviously never travelled on a bus, especially on an island renowned for its spectacular views across glorious bays.

The fact the public backed livery went on to win an award for ‘Best Brand Campaign’ at the ‘Jersey Chartered Institute of Marketing Awards’ in 2013 speaks volumes about such dubious accolades rather than anything to crow about.

Six years on from winning the contract it was telling to see what seems like the majority of buses looking distinctly slapdash with missing vinyl where panels have been replaced during my whistle-stop visit to Jersey this Easter weekend…..

IMG_4701.jpgIMG_4757.jpg….. but there’s a glimmer of hope for the future as it appears the designers have finally seen sense, with a year left to run on CT Plus’s initial contract and introduced a very welcome modified livery with less prominent sails which I spotted on a few newer or repainted buses.

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So, having sorted that, here are some of the many positives about LibertyBus.

It’s a tidy, easy to understand network with all bus routes sensibly radiating out from St Helier which lies a little to the east of the centre of the south coast, and is the Island’s capital. Pretty much all the main tourist hot spots and coastal bays are served by bus meaning there’s no need for tourists to hire a car, although many must do as this rather effective and poignant message on a bus confirmed.

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IMG_4560For those eschewing car hire, three bus routes serve Jersey Airport, located in the west of the Island, with buses stopping right outside the exit to the terminal building.

IMG_4520.jpgMost routes run to an hourly frequency with route 15 to the Airport and route 1 to Gorey Pier, on the east coast, running every 15 minutes Mondays to Saturdays and every 20 minutes on Sundays. Route 3 to Jersey Zoo is increased to half hourly from the end of May to the end of September when there are a few other seasonal enhancements to the network.

IMG_4585.jpgMost routes are operated with single decks (Solos, both long and short, dominate the fleet) but route 15 as well as route 22 to the west coast are double deck (Alexander Dennis Enviro400s and a few ex London Scania OmniCity buses).

IMG_4663.jpgBuses were busy as you’d expect over a late Easter weekend with superb weather but the frequencies and vehicle capacities seemed to be coping well. I saw one or two ‘stacked out’ Solos on route 12A which skirts St Aubin’s Bay on its way to the picturesque St Brelade’s Bay and Corbière on the south coast. On Sunday buses were leaving Liberation Station showing ‘Sorry! Bus Full’. I reckon the ‘high summer’ seasonal route 12 could usefully be added to the network from Easter.

IMG_4867.jpgSummer only route 14 which follows a similar route to the 12A as far as St Brelade’s Bay has a Beach Bus branded open topper (a second hand Dennis Trident from Lothian) and was doing a good trade for much of the day although I noticed it had been replaced by a standard closed top double deck later on.

IMG_4695.jpgIMG_4930.jpgIMG_4909.jpgIt was noticeable how many families and people of all different ages were travelling by bus, and although there was some minor late running due to squeezing pass traffic on narrow roads, there was no real congestion issues and it was all the more enjoyable to travel around the Island without incurring severe Bank Holiday traffic delays. I was particularly struck by how few sets of traffic lights I encountered on my travels.

IMG_4622.jpgLibertyBus have a unique system for marking bus stops; in many cases there’s no pole on the pavement but simply the word BUS painted on the road with a four digit number (which appear to be to any random sequence along a route) to identify the stop to find live departure times online, although the look up option also includes bus stops by name too. I wasn’t convinced all the information was showing ‘real time’ either.

The most odd feature is the listing of routes online which, like the bus stop numbering, also appears to be in a strange random order. I guess locals get used to it though.

There’s a very impressive zoomable colour coded online map which shows the exact position of every bus on each route by colour as well as every bus stop being clickable for departure times and interestingly this sits on a Government of Jersey webpage rather than the LibertyBus website.

Slightly less impressive, the online network route map which backs up the ‘journey planning’ tool is out of date showing a route (27) and network link (route 4 to the Zoo) which are now withdrawn.

The website also contains an image of the very colourful and helpful network timetable book which one can scroll through, but frustratingly as the timetable pages are printed landscape you have to crick your neck to try and see them at ninety degrees on screen.

It would help if a pdf of the timetable pages in the book could be shown turned by ninety degrees or more pertinently the website be updated and the timetables which are showing the right way up but expired on 31 March (for the winter), and still displaying, need to be taken down and replaced with the now current summer timetables.

There’s no app available which is a shame as these rather cumbersome look up features, including real time departures, lend themselves to be much simplified through using a handy app on a smartphone when out and about. It could also give the option of mobile tickets.

IMG_4556.jpgThe heart of the bus operation is Liberation Station where all services terminate. There’s a Tourist Information desk as well as a LibertyBus Customer Services desk with extensive opening hours.

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Both have supplies of the timetable book to hand out but I noticed none were on wide display for passengers to help themselves, which is a shame. I did spot a little pile on the Customer Services counter from time to time.

There were lots of racks containing plenty of other tourist leaflets including a Visitor Map of the island which I noticed many people using (it does show some bus route numbers but is no good to follow the routes).

IMG_4697.jpgI also noticed a lack of timetable books on board buses and other distribution points such as hotels; something Stagecoach do very well in the Lake District by comparison.

The bus station concourse is extremely well laid out being very inviting and airy as well as functional. There’s a coffee/snack bar and also a Brompton Cycle Hire facility and toilets are adjacent.

IMG_4570.jpgThere are a few seats by each of the ten departure bays on the inner side of the concourse which have doors covered by advertising material so you can’t see into the gloom where the buses draw up.

IMG_4564.jpgHowever, there are screens advising of upcoming departures and at each departure bay a screen shows imminent departures.

The advertising at most of the bays features a tourist attraction along the route which is a nice touch.

IMG_4851.jpgIMG_4855.jpgOnce a bus pulls up ready for boarding the departure door opens.

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IMG_4574.jpgThe area hidden from view reminded me of Aylesbury bus station, except there passengers have to wait and board buses in the gloomy area.

IMG_4558.jpgThis side of the bus station can only take single deckers so the double deck operated routes depart from the other side of the concourse on the roadway where there are a further four departure bays and where all evening departures leave when the concourse is closed. Many buses also set down at these stops too.

IMG_4785.jpgSmartcards are available for regulars, visitors and students on which a range of consecutive day tickets or pay-as-you-go can be added and contactless is also available, but there’s no on board Wi-fi or usb sockets, but there are next stop displays and in some cases, audio too, although I noticed on some routes the displays seem to get stuck. The audio only plays for major tourist destinations. As mentioned earlier, no mobile tickets are available which would prove useful for visitors.

IMG_4927.jpgFares and ticket prices are good value. A day ticket at £8 gets cheaper the more consecutive days you buy (2 for £15, 3 for £21 and 7 for £30). A 10p increase was applied to the flat £2.20 fare from the beginning of April but it’s still just £2 per journey for contactless payment or a bargain £1.65 for pay-as-you-go.

I spotted the above notice on a bus which would indicate there are cheaper ticket prices for residents who register and use an ‘Avanchi’ smartcard – 7 days travel for £21 instead of £30. If so, CT Plus Jersey are running a risk of a claim for discrimination!

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Three highlights of my visit and highly recommended are a ride on the hourly route 22 (also route 12 from end May to September) over to the west coast which takes about an hour to reach the terminus at L’Etacq and the views from the top deck between Corbière and around St Ouen’s Bay are magnificent as pictured above; secondly a trip on the less frequent route 4 (nine journeys a day) which reaches the north of the Island and particularly Bonne Nuit Bay and the quintuple hairpin bends down to, and back up from, the scenically spectacular Bouley Bay (below)…

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…. and thirdly a ride on one of the heritage buses operated by the independent Jersey Bus & Boat Tours to the Jersey War Tunnels; if you’re lucky on the wonderful RTL 326.

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This tour company runs a number of island tours which are worth considering if you want to explore the island in one journey without taking a myriad of local bus routes.

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I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend’s wander around the island using routes 1, 1A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 21, 22, 23 and 28 finding well used buses even away from the main tourist spots, keeping pretty much to time, and with very friendly and helpful drivers. The only mishap was the driver on my open top journey on route 14 this afternoon taking a wrong turning instead of heading to St Brelade’s Bay necessitating a 20 minute detour to get back to the same point but it was all taken in good spirit and we all enjoyed a bonus longer journey.

CT Plus Jersey’s initial seven year contract expires at the end of this year but I’m sure the optional three year extension will apply; all the signs are that it’s going very well. Passenger numbers have been reported as growing year on year although I noticed this year’s summer timetable has retained a couple of winter features rather than the usual seasonal enhancements.

A 9 by 5 mile island would lend itself to electric buses and local press reports indicate environmental issues are rising up the agenda. Certainly something well worth considering.

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As is a more frequent timetable on the 12/12A with double decks perhaps earlier in the season as well as wider distribution of the timetable book, an app together with mobile ticket options, and add usb and Wi-Fi on board. Sorted.

Roger French

11X goes down a storm on a sun soaked Bank Holiday

Friday 19th April 2019

IMG_4389.jpgIt’s not often a completely new bus route starts up. Usually changes to bus services see variations to long standing routes featuring improvements or reductions to frequencies and journey times or diversions to routes to serve new developments.

The last new route launch I can recall was Stagecoach’s brave investment decision to introduce eight new coaches on the South West Falcon branded hourly service between Bristol and Plymouth in 2016. Encouragingly three years on that service seems to be doing very well. There are signs Stagecoach are about to launch another new service in the south east which will be watched with great interest.

At the more minor end of the new route investment scale is Brighton & Hove’s brand new 11X which launched today running between Brighton and Eastbourne. Not all along the A259 coast road via Seaford – which has seen remarkable growth over the last twenty years transforming a staid 30-minute frequency service into an amazing 9-bus an hour timetable as far as Seaford with 6-buses continuing to Eastbourne; instead the 11X runs via the less populated inland A27 route where it’s been a struggle to ever make a bus route stack up commercially east of LewesIMG_E4425.jpg§Instead of running via Lewes, the 11X route astutely leaves Brighton along the busy Coast Road via Rottingdean, Saltdean, Telscombe and Peacehaven as far as Newhaven before heading inland on the A26 to Beddingham joining the A27 to Polegate and importantly serving Middle Farm and Drusillas Zoo Park along the way before continuing south on the A22 to Eastbourne.

It’s a one-bus, three-return-journeys-a-day, Sundays-and-Bank Holidays route for the summer season meaning the commercial risk for Brighton & Hove is minimised. The bus would have sat idle in the garage over the weekend anyway, so the marginal cost is just a couple of drivers’ duties, diesel and other minor incidental expenses.

The other great thing about this new route is the idea for it came from Shaun, one of the regular drivers on the Coast Road bus routes, showing a bus company receptive to ideas and suggestions from its employees and prepared to take a punt on trying one out.

It’s always nerve wracking to see how a first journey on a new route will work out. Will anyone turn out to take a ride, aside from the devout bus enthusiast keen to record a historic first? The omens were good as I arrived at the Brighton Station departure stop at 8.45am for the 9am journey. There were ten people already waiting.

IMG_4384.jpgShaun drove up in the Drusillas branded bus in good time at 8.50am and we left spot on time with twenty on board.

As we continued along the seafront to Newhaven we picked more passengers up at all the key stops the ‘limited stop’ timetable observes which, after one passenger alighted at Rottingdean and one in Newhaven, meant we headed to Beddingham and the A27 with a very impressive 56 on board. Now that’s what I call a very successful new bus route inaugural journey.

IMG_4431.jpgEncouragingly there were many families and children on board; concessionary passes and their poor reimbursement rate were definitely in the minority. Even more impressive, forty passengers alighted at various stops along the A27 including Firle, Middle Farm, Charleston Farmhouse, Wilmington and around half at Drusillas. Until today none of these destinations had been available by bus from Brighton and the Coast Road.

As we continued into Eastbourne we picked seven more passengers up at the District Hospital dropping seventeen off in the town centre and the remaining six at the Pier terminus.

A glorious sunny and warm Easter weekend has helped kick start this new route but it has all the hallmarks of being a successful addition to Brighton & Hove’s award winning network, and deservedly so.

Not only is it tapping into what I believe is a growing market for leisure and tourism orientated journeys by bus – it was noticeable how many passengers alighted with walking maps and other leisure orientated literature – but also full marks to Brighton & Hove for making sure proper promotional leaflets and information is readily available.

IMG_4383.jpgBus stops have been updated with the 11X route number and timetable….

IMG_4430.jpg…. the real time signs included our departure, on board next stop displays and announcements have all the new stops and there are timetable leaflets on board too, all key ingredients alongside an updated easy to use website with information too.

IMG_4456.jpgI wish those managers at bus companies who reckon because there’s a timetable online there’s no need to print anything could have seen all the passengers on board this morning clutching the latest edition of Bus Times magazine which was also available on board. This is how you encourage passengers.

IMG_4455.jpgArriving in Eastbourne Shaun was understandably well chuffed with a total of 65 passengers having travelled on the very first journey. I reckon this must be something of a record.

Ten boarded at Eastbourne Pier for the return journey too. The omens are definitely good.

To celebrate it was time for a coffee and soak up the Eastbourne Easter sun and write up this blog.

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Roger French

Three non red bus rides in London

Wednesday 17th April 2019

IMG_4277.jpgOne of London’s best bus routes started up again today for the summer season.

Route RP1 runs on Wednesdays from 17th April until the end of October. It runs outside the TfL regime and is completely free to ride thanks to the generous sponsorship of two anonymous (and wealthy) local residents who’ve stepped in to provide continued funding after the three year Lottery grant, that had been funding the route, ran out at the end of last year’s operation.

IMG_4273.jpgAnd there’s a brand new bus for this year’s operation. Provided by RAKAT (Richmond and Kingston Accessible Transport) it’s a smart and comfortable 16 seater Mercedes with room for wheelchairs and is used on their community and welfare transport work on other days.

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 15.37.55.pngThe RP1 route comprises a full clockwise circuit around the ten mile internal perimeter road in Richmond Park with bus stops by each entrance/exit including two brief excursions to serve bus stops just outside the Park at Ham Village and Common and Roehampton’s Danebury Avenue. The route also includes a short diversion to Penn Ponds inside the Park as well as the accessible entrance to the Isabella Plantation with its magnificent collection of rhododendrons. There’s also a stop at Pembroke Lodge.

IMG_4295.jpgIt takes just over an hour to do the full circuit. It’s the best hour’s bus ride you’ll ever have in London. I’ve travelled the route at least once each year for a few years now and always thoroughly enjoy the experience. Not least because Malcolm the regular driver makes it so special.

IMG_4265.jpgMalcolm has been involved in the Royal Parks’ educational trust for many years making sure youngsters get to know all about the amazing features and history of the Park. He’s in his element out and about on Wednesdays driving the bus and providing a fascinating running commentary during the journey not only about the many interesting features you pass by including the famous deer and wildlife but also many historical anecdotes and facts. For example the magnificent tree pictured below is the oldest (circa 800-900 years) in the Park.

IMG_4321.jpgEvery year Malcolm tells me he’s going to retire, but every year to my and other regular passengers delight he’s back for another season, as he was today and on top form too.

IMG_4283.jpgWhether it be putting out promotional ‘A frames’ at bus stops in Ham ….

IMG_4288.jpg…. making sure timetables are in place at bus stops all round the circuit ….

IMG_4296.jpg….. or delivering supplies of the timetable leaflet to any location that will take them.

IMG_4293.jpgMalcolm also displays remarkable patience with everyone boarding and alighting including those needing a helping hand and being besieged by families wanting to take a ride into the Park for a school holiday picnic as happened on the second journey this morning.

IMG_4343.jpgIt was also hugely impressive to see TfL come up trumps and inserted this year’s RP1 timetable in the cases at stops in Ham Village and Ham Common so connections with routes 371 and 65 can be promoted.

IMG_4287.jpgMalcolm was visibly chuffed to see his hard work supported by TfL as was I.

I took a ride on route 430 from right outside Putney station to its terminus in Danebury Avenue from where it’s a short walk to where the RP1 stops on the western side of the ‘cycle only’ barrier which prevents through traffic.

There’s a wonderful timetable display here; probably London’s best.

IMG_4262.jpgIMG_4263.jpgMalcolm appeared a few minutes before the first journey’s scheduled departure time of 0940 and another regular passenger (who’d come for the full circuit) and I boarded. We were soon chatting away with Malcolm and were joined by another passenger as we got underway on the circuit picking up two more at Ham Common just outside the Park.

Without access to a car and if you don’t cycle (hundreds do cycle around the Park for pleasure) it’s a long old walk to see the delights the Park has to offer so the RP1 is a real godsend.

IMG_4269.jpgWe dropped one passenger off at the Isabella Plantation and another at Pembroke Lodge where we picked up a family of four who were travelling round to Robin Hood gate as well as another passenger boarding for the circuit.

IMG_4323.jpgWe were lucky to see many of the Park’s deer population today basking in the sunshine including a group of red deer crossing in front of us near Sheen Gate.

IMG_4336.jpgBack at journey’s end at Danebury Avenue the regular passenger and I alighted and left Malcolm to deal with those families off for a picnic.

IMG_4345.jpgI can’t recommend a ride on the RP1 highly enough. Malcolm is training up another driver to stand in for him on some weeks as well as ensuring he can have a well earned summer holiday this year, but if you do get to ride with Malcolm you’re in for a treat.

 

IMG_4358.jpgAfter that ride I headed over to Hoxton in Islington for a ride on London’s other quirky minibus operated bus route; the long standing 812 which meanders around Islington’s residential roads providing links to the Angel, Clerkenwell and Old Street areas which compliment TfL’s traditional red bus routes.

IMG_4349.jpgIronically although the route runs in Islington, it’s operated by HCT Group which has its origins as Hackney Community Transport based in the neighbouring Borough of Hackney but which has grown hugely over the last decade and now has transport interests in many areas of the country.

HCT is a social enterprise which reinvests profits from its contract operations (including a growing number of TfL bus routes in London) into non-profit community operations including the 812.

IMG_4347.jpgHCT’s London operations are now run by a company called CT Plus and the 812 has regular drivers employed by CT Plus who are very attentive to passenger needs and provide extra help as needed.

The service provides a circuitous route as can be seen by the green roads on Mike Harris’s excellent London bus map below. Concessionary (‘Freedom’) passes are valid and other passengers pay a nominal £1 flat fare per journey.

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The timetable has recently changed with an earlier start at 0914 although this journey starts at Skinner Street’s Exmouth Market rather than the terminus at Hoxton where the first departure is a bit later at 0930. The first two round trips also now have an extended 66 minutes running time to cope with traffic delays but from 1050 the schedule settles down to a half hourly frequency with a fairly tight 57 minutes running time.

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IMG_4348.jpgI arrived at Hoxton just before the 1220 scheduled departure this morning and the smart minibus was already waiting nearby the terminus at Bridport Place; the usual bus stand being blocked by a short turning route 21.

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IMG_4351.jpgWe headed off bang on time with one other passenger who mysteriously also travelled all the way around the circuit. Only one other passenger boarded, and she was obviously hugely grateful for not only the service but the extra help provided by our driver as she boarded with her wheelie walking aid.

IMG_4353.jpgTwo buses are needed to run the service and London’s new ULEZ has meant CT Plus have redeployed minibuses from special needs transport work on to the 812 with a refreshed branding and livery.

The 14 seat (with room for wheelchairs) Volkswagen minibuses perform well in Islington’s stop-start traffic and provided a very comfortable ride.

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If you’re in the Clerkenwell, Angel and Hoxton area and have a spare hour during Monday to Friday daytimes outside the peaks it’s worth giving the 812 a ride and see the result of a community transport initiative funded by profits from the big bus routes operated by CT Plus for TfL.

An interesting financial model for hard-to-fund routes of this kind.

 

IMG_3760.jpgMy final foray on London’s non red bus routes was last week after my trip on the Tuesday only 969. Kingston University has been running its bespoke network of bus routes for some years and at the end of 2016 splashed out on a fleet of smart new Wright bodied hybrid buses. Actually it’s RATP-DEV who’ve invested in the buses as they operate the contract to provide the Uni routes alongside their London United bus company which runs an extensive number of contracted routes for TfL in this part of south west London.

IMG_3746.jpgThe three routes KU1, KU2 and KU3 are free to use and aimed at students and staff at the University, but there’s nothing to stop any member of the public hopping aboard (“there is no need to show your University ID”) if the bus is going your way; which it might well do if you travel to and from Kingston town centre from the various University campus sites in Roehampton Vale, Kingston Hill and Penrhyn Road or near the University residential complexes at Seething Wells, Clayhill and Fairfield South.

The main inter-site route is the KU1 which runs every 15 minutes (12 minutes in the peaks) from Seething Wells via Kingston town centre to Roehampton. It diverts into the Kingston Hill campus along a magnificent tree lined access road, which is worth a ride just for the majestic splendour of the tallest trees I’ve ever seen on a bus route!

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The half hourly KU2 is a circular route linking the Halls of Residence at Fairfield and Clayhill with the Penrhyn Road Campus and Surbiton Station, while KU3 is a Monday to Friday four journey per evening amalgam of the KU1 and KU2.

The buses are smart and very comfortable to travel in. Heart FM was playing on one ride I took. Unlike many bus routes the average age of passengers is probably around 20. I felt forty years younger after my travels so it was definitely worth a ride … but make sure you know the University’s term dates as there’s no service during holidays.

Roger French

Who needs an App when John’s in Control?

Friday 12th April 2019

IMG_3840.jpgWiltshire’s Wigglybus was introduced way back in 1999. At one time it was considered so cutting edge as a project to solve the rural transport challenge it attracted £1million in Government funding for expansion. Rebranded, along with other shared taxi type services across Wiltshire, to the less colloquial ‘Connect2Wiltshire’ umbrella brand in 2007 the original routes in the Vale of Pewsey area are now operated by Go South Coast subsidiary Tourist Coaches, masquerading as sister company Salisbury Reds out on the road.

That’s the brand names dealt with. Now what exactly is it?

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.20.57.pngBasically it’s like one of the new fangled app based ‘Demand Responsive Transport’ (DRT) services operating to a flexible route as demanded by passenger bookings up to two hours before departure (think Arriva Click and Oxford Pick Me Up) ….. but without the app. Instead it’s got the wonderful John based in ‘Tourist Coaches Control’ answering the telephone when you ring to book your journey from one of the many small hamlets located across the delightfully scenic Vale of Pewsey between Pewsey and Devizes in southern Wiltshire.

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 21.34.37.pngThis is no ‘innovative bus operation’ in a large conurbation; this is a sensible and practical way for Wiltshire County Council to maintain a semblance of public transport in a deep rural area. Furthermore it’s based around a fixed bus route with advertised times from the route’s origin and final destination and at popular stops across the area but allowing flexibility to dive off down country lanes as needed to serve micro hamlets which would otherwise be isolated.Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.23.55.pngHaving experienced lonely solo rides and disappointingly long waits for app based DRT services (“no buses are currently available – please try later”) and frustratingly no means to contact a human being to ask how long the wait might be, I was intrigued to see how a hybrid scheme mixing fixed timetabled times and flexible routings with a human being in control rather than an AI driven algorithm worked in practice. So I wandered over to Pewsey yesterday to take a ride on the ‘Connect2Wiltshire’ routes 101 and 102 between Pewsey, Devizes and surrounding hamlets.

It was a delight to meet up with Tourist Coaches driver Andy again. He’d taken me from Newbury to Marlborough on the Friday only route X20 back in January. Andy’s memory is much better than mine as he could instantly recall where we’d meet before, I just remember him being a star driver on some previous jaunt around Wiltshire.

IMG_3843.jpgAndy pulled up outside Pewsey’s Co-op spot on time for the 1200 departure on route 102 which heads south to Upavon. This route is also covered by Salisbury Reds hourly X5 between Swindon and Salisbury which gets ten minutes for the direct journey. The flexible 102 can travel via Pewsey’s Broadfields Estate (we did; and took one returning shopper to her house there) as well as the hamlets of Manningford Bruce, North Newnton and Rushall which we had no-one on board for so let them be.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.27.17.pngIn fact we had no-one else on board for anywhere, so made it to Upavon in good time and continued beyond the village centre, and off the X5 route, to a small residential area called Avon Square on the A342 where our scheduled return time was 1218.

IMG_3844.jpgTime for a short photographic stop before returning direct to Pewsey and with no pick ups booked we arrived at 1230, six minutes ahead of schedule ready for the 1240 departure on route 101 across to Devizes.

IMG_3848.jpgOn arrival Andy pulled up in the corner of the Co-op car park to give John a call and hear details of the booked pick-ups for the next trip. It turned out just one passenger had booked us from a stop on the outskirts of a hamlet with the wonderful name of Honeystreet.

Andy kindly invited me to join the call and I had a great chat with John who I’d trust a million times more than any so called ‘Artificial Intelligence’ derived algorithm to schedule a bus departure for my needs. Previously, Wigglybus bookings were handled by a remote costly call centre in Exeter but as part of the new contract arrangements with Tourist Coaches/Salisbury Reds, control was localised in October 2017 and six-day a week working John is obviously a very cost effective way of managing the pick ups.

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Techy people are still catered for through an online booking form on the website although more notice is required.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 14.31.05.pngFive passengers were waiting for us as we pulled round to the bus stop right outside the front door of the Co-op for the 1240 departure. Three travelled all the way through to Devizes, one got off within a few stops as we left Pewsey and the fifth, a teenage girl, was travelling to Stanton St Bernard meaning we’d be wiggling off the standard route to drop her off.

Fifty-five minutes running time is allocated for this 101 journey to Devizes and the next fixed timing point after Pewsey is a third of the way at 1258 in Woodborough. When Wigglybus first started in 1999 the timetable allowed 40 minutes to complete the core route with an extra 20 minutes added to allow for wiggles.

Twenty years later Andy reckoned an end-to-end 55 minute schedule doesn’t allow much time for many wiggles. He proved right as our diversion to Stanton St Bernard cost us five minutes and we arrived to pick up our pre-booked passenger at Honeystreet a few minutes behind the expected time, only to find she wasn’t waiting.

IMG_3870.jpgAndy took this potential hiccup in his stride; parked up, stepped out of the bus to give John a ring and update him. “They often get picked up by someone they know passing by in a car” Andy explained. I asked if she would have let John know she no longer needed us, but apparently that rarely happens, but at least John is on hand for updates, something an app can’t help with.

We headed onwards on our westbound route having been travelling south for a while, so we now headed back north through Chilton and Patney (where we picked up a passenger at a scheduled timing point who was travelling to Devizes). Andy explained the very narrow country road we were travelling along has only recently been added to the route, buses previously wiggled another way, but we soon came to the largest hamlet, almost a village, on the route, All Cannings which is another fixed timing point and where we picked up two more passengers heading for Devizes.

Suffice to say Andy knew these (as well as the other passengers on board) and was presented with a gift from one who’d just returned from holiday and where it turns out the weather had been very nice and she’d had a great time. She was now off to work; her grandson was doing well and all was good.

IMG_3959.jpgAs the second passenger boarded he pointed out our further progress through All Cannings was blocked by a window cleaning van parked directly opposite a car so there was nothing for it but for me to get into ‘reversing supervision mode’ again and see Andy safely back into a driveway from where he skilfully did a shunt or two to turn around and wiggle back the way we’d come into the village and get back on route via another way.

Andy was not only an expert driver with a great friendly personality but was also a mine of information about the area we were passing through, providing a superb commentary not only for me but everyone on board as we wiggled around the Wiltshire countryside.

We’d passed over the Kennet & Avon Canal five times during the journey and the main railway line to Devon and Cornwall three times and for a short stretch after Woodborough drove parallel to it with Andy pointing out it’s a great location where steam enthusiasts came to catch a view when heritage trains speed by, just on queue as an ‘almost heritage’ GWR HST sped along towards Paddington.

IMG_3938.jpgCrossing the line at Woodbrough, Andy pointed out the extensive sidings still in situ which at one time would carry train loads of daffodils grown extensively in the area for sale in Covent Garden.

At another railway crossing just beyond Patney, Andy pointed out the site of the now long closed station with only a brick water tower now to be seen as a clue to what was once there. Soldiers would alight here and be taken to the nearby Salisbury Plain. When the station first opened in 1900 it was called Patney Bridge but soon changed to plain Patney to avoid confusion with Putney Bridge in London. I also spotted a footbridge over the railway which didn’t seem to be doing much – I reckon it needs shifting to Pilning who are crying out for a footbridge at their station.

IMG_3954.jpgAnother interesting insight was a long abandoned and grassed over war time runway alongside the road between Alton Barnes and Staton St Bernard which had been protected by dug out mound type shelters camouflaged with grass around a small entrance and which can still be clearly seen as you drive by today.

Alton Barnes has a church (Saint Mary the Virgin) which is partly Saxon being built in the 10th and 11th century. Indeed this journey took me back to my wander around Suffolk last month passing all these hamlets with just a handful of dwellings and their magnificent churches.

IMG_3957.jpgOther wonderful sights on the journey included so many thatched roofs, I lost count; including a rebuilt one which Andy explained followed a devastating fire (six fire engines attended); the farm where a thrashing machine was in full flow making the raw material ready for the thatchers; the famous Pewsey White Horse which can be seen from all over the area; and just mile upon mile of delightful scenery and splendid Wiltshire views.

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IMG_3856.jpgI was also impressed by the obvious availability of roadside information about Connect2Wiltshire; not only in Pewsey and Devizes but all along the route. Timetables were also available to pick up on the bus (as seen in the reflection of the dashboard below)!

IMG_3950.jpgYou couldn’t fail to miss the bus stop plate and information at Pewsey’s Co-op.

IMG_3841.jpgDevizes also sported a handy map at the main Market Square bus stops which is also available online.

IMG_4001.jpgWith all the excitement of the journey, we arrived in Devizes just over five minutes late and Andy welcomed the nine passengers boarding for the return journey to Pewsey and see how much wiggle room there’d be heading back to Pewsey.

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It had been a brilliant couple of journeys; made all the more enjoyable by Andy’s superb driving and fasincating commentary.

Loadings may have been on the low side; with eight/nine on the journey to/from Devizes; but that’s still eight/nine more than I’ve encountered on my app based rides in much larger towns, cities and conurabtions! Furthermore the bus stop information was commendably simple and easy to understand; much more so than fiddling around with apps.

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Secretary of State Chris Grayling was drooling at the idea in his speech to CPT”s Annual Dinner in January that app based DRT minibuses are the future of transport and will even solve the rural transport problem. I disagree. Who needs apps when you’ve got John in Control?

Wiltshire is wiggling and it seems to be working. Just as well, as there’s no chance of another £1million coming Wiltshire’s way!

Roger French