Bridge Over Meridian Water

Tuesday 4th June 2019

IMG_9996.jpgSometimes it’s instructive to turn up at the launch of a new rail station a day late. Opening ceremonies can be tedious affairs with dignitaries descending the scene, wooden speeches, congratulatory words, smiles all round for the cameras, pats on backs, then back to their offices. The second day often has a ‘morning after the launch before’ kind of feeling where things are not quite as good as those speeches made out.

IMG_0005.jpgIt felt a bit like that at Meridian Water this morning; that’s London’s newest station on the Stratford/Liverpool Street to Bishops Stortford line. It opened yesterday with Secretary of State Chris Grayling as the most senior person present (yes; I know!) doing the plaque unveiling honours alongside officials from Network Rail, Greater Anglia, the Mayor’s office and London Borough of Enfield.

Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 16.56.38.pngI wrote about the background to this new station, replacing the adjacent, and now closed, Angel Road on 16th February and predicted the hoardings wouldn’t quite be taking-down ready for the scheduled opening date of 20th May. But I acknowledge just two weeks late is pretty good going for a project of this kind, so well done Team Meridian Water Builders.

IMG_9998.jpgAnd I was impressed there is a crossing point installed and surrounding footpaths have all been nicely finished – my February sceptisicm was misplaced.

IMG_0004.jpgThe new half hourly shuttle train service from Meridian Water’s bay platform 2 to Stratford using the extra third line that’s been added to the tacks north of Tottenham Hale so as not to interfere with trains to Cambridge, Stansted Airport and Bishops Stortford on this busy two track railway, doesn’t start until 9th September so for the next three months this shiny new station will see just eleven trains in both directions spread across the morning and evening peak periods with the rest of the day, evening and weekends it being a ghost shiny new station.

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IMG_0011.jpgOn this second morning into Meridian Water’s life, thanks to the 0517 Kings Lynn to Liverpool Street train breaking down at Harlow, the timetable on the line through the station was in complete disarray when I rolled up on the 0751 arrival from Stratford which luckily escaped the mayhem and ran as normal. The next departure back towards Stratford was at 0824 and the impressive new departure screens were all showing it also running on time so I had a handy half hour to explore the new facilities.

IMG_0022.jpgIn the event it didn’t take long. The station may be shiny and new but it’s pretty basic. There’s a vast overbridge to gain access, via what can only be described as long and functional staircases, to the two platform structures with their basic shelters and seats, so aside from the lifts, it’ll certainly add to your step count if you become a regular commuter.

IMG_9987.jpgOddly there’s no platform numbered 1; but platforms numbered 2 (the bay terminating platform); 3 (for southbound trains to Stratford and Liverpool Street) and 4 (trains north to Bishops Stortford). I assume the missing number 1 has been kept in reserve if ever a further platform is built for extra shuttle trains, but it didn’t look to me like there was much room to accommodate another track and platform.

IMG_0016.jpgThere’s no ticket office so on the overbridge there’s a bank of three ticket vending machines as well as assorted posters and departure screens.

IMG_0006.jpgAnd that’s about it. I couldn’t see any leaflet racks, let alone timetable leaflets or maps to take away. The notices at the top of the stairs down to the platforms had temporary printed numbers on paper but I expect these will be replaced soon with more permanent signs.

IMG_9989.jpgIMG_9988.jpgThe staircase on the eastern side of the station is convenient for the Tesco Extra opposite and the western staircase currently leads nowhere as this is where a vast area will be filled with the £6bn worth of regeneration explained in my previous post.

IMG_0008.jpgIMG_0007.jpgIt’s going to be a few years before streams of passengers will be climbing those staircases from their shiny new houses so in the meantime the few passengers who used Angel Road (it’s London’s least used station) and lived nearby off the North Circular Road actually now have a longer more inconvenient walk to and from their new replacement station. Following my post about Breich it’s going to be a real fight between who wins the crown for Britain’s Least Used Newest Station in 2019/20. My money’s on Breich but Meridian Water will not be far behind!

IMG_9992.jpgAs it’s still new, Greater Anglia dispatched three high-viz wearing customer service members of staff to be on hand this morning, as you do with these things; I doubt Angel Road ever had such a privilege but that was then and this is now.

By 0820 around half a dozen of us were on platform 3 reassured by the screens displaying an on-time departure of the 0824 down to Stratford, and the station PA duly announced its imminent arrival, twice. A train approached. It didn’t stop. Hopes were raised as within a very short time another train approached. It didn’t stop either.

IMG_0023.jpgThe platform departure screens ominously changed to show the next departure as the 0924 to Stratford. I wandered back up to the overbridge to see if the three welcoming staff members could help. Two had disappeared and the one remaining admitted he knew nothing about what was happening, and added the 0724 departure hadn’t come either.

The other passengers had by now drifted away to find alternative travel arrangements (there weren’t many – other than a 192 down to Tottenham Hale). Two photo snapping train enthusiasts from Ipswich decided to cross over to platform 4 and hope the 0852 to Bishops Stortford would come, and stop. It did. And they headed home, photos taken and mission accomplished.

IMG_0029.jpgThat just left me. I didn’t fancy waiting for the 0924, thinking it might also either not appear or not stop. I’d tapped my Oyster ‘in’ on the card reader so had opened up an unresolved £8.10 journey moving my card into a negative balance so I then was unable to use it for a ride on the 192.

I’ve had happier visits to brand new stations but before leaving thought I’d take a photograph for the record of the official plaque unveiled yesterday. Except I couldn’t find it. It turns out as Network Rail and Greater Anglia packed away all the promotional pop-up banners they took down the plaque too!

IMG_0026.jpgThe tell tale double-sided-sellotape-come-velcro marks were still there, but no sign of the plaque.IMG_0013.jpg

I’m sure it will be back again one day even if Chris Grayling won’t be.

Roger French

Sleeping Beauty (not quite yet)

Monday 3rd June 2019

IMG_9765.jpgIt was meant to be the grand launch night, last night.

Serco owned Caledonian Sleeper had planned to begin running their much delayed smart new Mark 5 trains on the Lowland route between London’s Euston station and Edinburgh and Glasgow from Sunday 2nd June so I bought a ticket to Glasgow a few months ago and planned an interesting day’s travels in Scotland before planning to return the following night (tonight) back to Euston.

Then Caledonian Sleeper announced the Highlander to Inverness/Aberdeen/Fort William would also launch with new coaches from the same date, 2nd June, which was really good news and with hindsight I wished I’d got a ticket on one of those journeys – Fort William on a Mark 5, just imagine.

But in the lottery that is trying to travel on Serco’s new Sleeper coaches Caledonian Sleeper brought forward the Lowlander launch with no public notice to Sunday 28th April even though bookings on their website were still for the old carriages right through until 2nd June.

As readers will know I managed to book a ticket during that first week on 3rd May and wrote about the experience in an earlier blog.

I looked into changing my tickets for 2nd/3rd June from Glasgow to a Highlander destination but decided to stick with another trip to Glasgow. This was just as well as a fortnight ago continuing teething problems with the new coaches led Caledonian Sleeper to postpone the launch of the upgraded Highlander route to ‘some time later in the summer’ with refunds now being offered to those who’d booked the super new ensuite rooms and now relegated back to old style berths.

Meanwhile I rolled up at Euston for my second new Mark 5 Sleeper experience last night ready for an earlier departure at 2134 – a couple of hours earlier than the normal 2350 departure time as we were heading up the East Coast Main Line due to ‘improvement works’ shutting the West Coast Main Line.

The Highlander was similarly affected with an earlier departure at 2028 than its usual 2115 set off time.

It’s not that the ECML is inherently longer or slower it’s that we have to still leave from Euston due to our 16 coach length needing long platforms that Kings Cross can’t offer so trains have to spend the first hour of the journey shunting up to Wembley sidings (or to give it’s official name – Wembley European Freight Operations Centre – known as ‘WMBYFET’ in the trade which incongruously even earns a place in the station listings – not that you can alight there!).

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Having arrived at WMBYFET, and after a fairly lengthy pause, the train retraces its tracks back towards Euston again but branches off at Primrose Hill to reach the Overground’s North London Line at Camden Road and then an hour after leaving Euston you find yourself taking the curve on to the East Coast line at Copenhagen Junction just in front of Kings Cross station.

Except last night it all went pear shaped.

The omens were not good when I noticed the Highlander showing ‘Delayed’ but it did leave only 16 minutes late at 2144 which is in the ‘easy to make up’ bracket on such a slackly timed route.

We’d been reminded of our earlier departure by tweet and passengers arrived at Platform 15 ready for the promised 2100 access to rooms.

Except nothing happened at 2100 and the new style check in lecterns remained empty.

IMG_9764.jpgAfter a while a member of staff with a clipboard came and advised us he was waiting for the Train Manager to authorise boarding but we weren’t given any reason for the delay among much mobile phone call making by this key staff member.

To everyone’s relief at 2115 the necessary authorisation was given, the train doors were unlocked and check in began.

That late start put paid to a timely departure as check in was still underway at 2134 and not finished until 2145.

IMG_9773.jpgBack on board while passengers were settling in and grabbing a seat in the new and expanded lounge coach with its new and expensive (but obviously ‘locally sourced’) menu I was wondering why after a further hour had passed we were still sat in Platform 15 going nowhere.

I wandered down to the lounge car but the staff there explained they were too busy serving to even think about a reason why we hadn’t yet moved and nor did a member of staff in my carriage busily collecting up breakfast menus (still not updated for the new look Mark 5 menus) know of any reason for the delay.

I’m not sure whether the individual intercom/help buttons in each berth facilitate a general PA announcement throughout the train but none came and I decided not to disturb our obviously busy Train Manager with such a trivial enquiry as to why an hour after our scheduled departure we’d gone nowhere.

I checked the Caledonian Sleeper twitter feed but no news there either.

Just at that moment a whistle blew, the doors beeped and closed and I was relieved I hadn’t chosen that moment to wander back on to the platform as we were off.

With the benefit of hindsight I’m wondering why we were off as the 2044 departing Highlander had reached the Wembley sidings complex ten minutes later at 2055 but all was not well due to overhead power problems.

Indeed that train wasn’t on the move again for around three hours after a rescue engine had to be dispatched and there were also apparently further problems with one of the locos.

So it’s a mystery why we left when we did as presumably someone had a plan for how we wound circumnavigate the dud power cables. In the event we stopped further south than Wembley at Kilburn Park after just ten minutes into our journey at 2245 and sat there for the next two hours watching the occasional Virgin and LNWR train pass by, until finally at 0030 the Highlander passed us having been rescued and making its way south again and over to Camden Road, and we finally got going at 0051.

I’m sure it was a nightmare to sort out but it does seem to me there must have been poor communications between the ‘industry partners’ about what to do for the best and then communicate on to passengers in a timely fashion.

Following the above tweet at 2244 as we were departing, after the first hour’s delay, no more news came until 0115…

IMG_E9780.jpgIn the event, unlike the Highlander, we had the benefit of a lot of slack in our schedule and made up much of the delay. As we approached Edinburgh our expected arrival into Glasgow was given as a respectable 0730 – not too much delayed from our scheduled 0718.

Unfortunately we got held up again outside Edinburgh and then had to wait for staff to come and split the train as we continued on to Glasgow and further slow progress around Motherwell finally arriving into Glasgow Central just now at 0829 this morning – around an hour late – having had to wait for a platform as a late departing Virgin train left.

Not bad considering the three hours and more we were delayed earlier at Euston and Kilburn subsequently spoilt by slow progress since Edinburgh. But the fact we made up a lot of the delay is even more reason to give much more definitive reassurance to passengers (sorry, guests) on board about the delay – rather than nothing being said and a couple of tweets sometime later.

Finally for this post a few observations about the new Mark 5 coaches further to my report on 3rd May:

The keycard worked this time but only because I remembered how to programme it. There were no instructions accompanying or in the plain white envelope. I also asked a member of staff in the lounge car but he had no knowledge. I’m not sure how guests are supposed to know the ‘two tap’ secret – I asked another guest if they had instructions and she said her keycard too was just in a plain envelope.

IMG_E9771.jpgThe side destination panels were wrongly showing our train would be calling at stations on the West Coast Main Line – bit of a basic error that one!IMG_9777.jpgIMG_9778.jpg

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The en-suite toilet flush is very noisy for your next door neighbour.

The intercom/help line is also very noisy – I heard my neighbours ringing tone and conversation very clearly.

The ‘bar stools’ in the lounge car are not very comfortable – more like perch stools.

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On the plus side, my shower worked a treat this time and with nice hot water too.

And you just can’t beat waking up to a sunrise over the east coast as you travel towards Edinburgh…

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… it’s a good job last night wasn’t the grand launch night. There may still be teething problems but I’m sure these will soon settle down and the service will become a Sleeping Beauty and be much admired – if not quite yet.

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Roger French

PS: I’m sure there’s a good reason but I do wonder why trains can’t ‘turn’ at Kilburn Park whenever using the ECML instead of continuing to Wembley; also seemed to me no reason to add all that extra time into the schedule. We could have left almost at the normal time last night … because we effectively did!

PPS: As we approached Glasgow just now there was an onboard announcement made apologising for the delay (’caused by a broken down train in the Wembley area last night’) but this was inaudible in the cabins.

Book Review: Ribble

Sunday 2nd June 2019

A totally biased book review for a Sunday evening.

Ribble. Celebrating the centenary of an iconic bus company

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Roger Davies, the book’s author, is a good mate; I’ve known him for over forty years; our paths first crossed when we both worked in Kent in the 1970s with Maidstone & District/East Kent and he never ceases to impress me with his truly amazing memory and recollection of detail from all the bus companies he’s worked at, including Ribble.

Ray Stenning the book’s editor, designer and publisher is a great friend and passionate advocate for public transport; we enjoy many trips out together when I can entice him away from his amazing creative work for both the bus and rail industry through his renowned Best Impressions design and marketing company and the wonderful Classic Bus magazine he produces. (And he did a brilliant job designing my own book Pride & Joy almost ten years ago,)

Ribble. Mighty Ribble, as Roger D calls it in his introduction to the book, has always been regarded as one of the Premier League, all time bus company greats so any book marking its centenary this year is bound to hit the mark.

So, after declaring those vested interests let me affirm this newly published book will not disappoint. It’s a magnificent collection of superb photographs capturing the spirit of this iconic company rather than aiming to be a historic record of great authority, and for me, this angle makes for a very readable and enjoyable book which I devoured from cover to cover.IMG_E9758.jpgThe 194 page sturdy hard cover book contains 250 gorgeous photographs (150 in colour) but this is no album; readers of Ray’s Classic Bus magazine will know just how enticing he can make their presentation stand out on every page helped by Roger’s fascinating explanations and interesting background information together with nostalgic images of timetables, leaflets and other pertinent documents and of course a liberal supply of maps including a splendid double pager showing the full extent of Ribble’s vast operating territory stretching from Carlisle down to the Mersey.

IMG_E9757.jpgRoger and Ray have divided the book into thirteen themed chapters including how Ribble expanded through acquisition; joint operations; unique characteristics of the company; it’s people (at its height employing 5,500 in 1956); it’s operating area; it’s innovations including express routes and many other subjects all well explained in introductory paragraphs.

There are some amazing Roger Davies type factoids including an Easter Monday at Blackpool’s Coliseum coach station in 1953 when the famous and frequent X60 to Manchester needed 213 duplicates to get everyone home with the last passengers being got away by midnight – that would have surely featured on social media if Twitter had been around 66 years ago!

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Of course there’s coverage of the infamous 555 route through the Lake District as well as the landmark Gay Hostess vehicles and not forgetting the Leyland National with battery trailer – way ahead of its time of course.

IMG_E9759.jpgThere’s a chapter on Ribble’s incredible property portfolio including 80 operational bases, 73 offices, 12 bus stations as well as residential properties and not least the central works at Frenchwood which was run very much on military lines with Roger explaining the quirky rules and regulations that applied to employees based there.

Roger explains “the company had a cohesiveness, from single or small bus depots like Kirkoswald and Appleby in Cumbria to huge ones like Bootle and Preston, and over it all a family atmosphere pervaded. It is impossible to sum it all up.” Actually, Roger’s book sums it up superbly and is highly recommended.

The book retails for £38 but a special offer of £35 including postage and packing is available at the Classic Bus magazine website. Don’t miss out. Hurry while stocks last.

Roger French

Medway Valley by train

Saturday 1st June 2019

There’s a lovely railway branch line which heads in a north/south direction across the centre of Kent where Southeastern trains shuttle up and down all day between Tonbridge in the Weald and Strood in the more industrial north of the county. It’s a quiet backwater line weaving its way between the main commuter lines heading east/west linking East Kent with London

It takes just over 50 minutes to travel the full journey from one end of the line to the other. Southeastern deploy two trains in the off peak every hour between Tongbridge and Strood with an extra train adding a half hourly frequency between Maidstone West (situated in the centre of the line) and Strood. In peak hours trains don’t make it all the way to Tonbridge but instead run every half hour between Paddock Wood (the station after Tonbridge and where there’s a little bay platform to turnback) and Strood.

Rather than being a dead-end branch line, the Medway Valley Line provides passengers with handy connections at both ends to High Speed Trains whisking you off to Ebbsfleet, Stratford and St Pancras International at Strood and at Tonbridge (or Paddock Wood) trains connect to London Bridge, Waterloo East and Charing Cross.

There are also connections at Tonbridge to the hourly Southern service via Edenbridge to Redhill; where there are connections south to Gatwick Airport (and Brighton) as well as west to Dorking, Guildford and Reading on the GWR diesel train service.

What a shame, now bi-mode trains are becoming fashionable, it isn’t possible to join all these east-west connections up and run a through train from Reading to Redhill, Tonbridge, Maidstone and on to Strood every hour; a bit like a railway M25.

There are two stations in Maidstone on the line, the one after Maidstone West (towards Strood) is called Maidstone Barracks even though the Invicta Park Barracks complex in the county town is a little way north east of the station the other side of the main A229 to Rochester and ironically closer to the main station in Maidstone called Maidstone East on the Victoria to Ashford line. The Barracks are scheduled to close in 2027 but I doubt the station will be renamed. 

The best feature of this lovely branch line is the way it follows the course of the River Medway for most of the route once it turns off the main Tonbridge to Ashford line at Paddock Wood and the tracks head north continuing past such lovely stations as Beltring, Yalding, Wateringbury and East Fairleigh to Maidstone West. The line continues along the course of the River Medway north of Maidstone West but it becomes more urban and industrial in nature.

There’s a designated 28 mile walk all along the River Medway from Tonbridge to Rochester called appropriately enough the Medway Valley Walk; it’s part of the Long Distance Walkers Association portfolio of recommended walks.

Yalding station

I’m not energetic enough to tackle a walk of that length, but I’d noticed the delightful views of the Medway on previous train journeys as I travelled along the line and have long wanted to take a bite-sized walk to savour the views and the tranquil atmosphere alongside the river.

In fine sunny weather last Thursday I got off the train at Yalding which is where the rail tracks begin running alongside the River and took the footpath along the River’s west bank to the next station up the line, the aptly named Wateringbury. It didn’t take long and I was in plenty of time to catch the next northbound train an hour later.

Yalding and Wateringbury have small boat marinas on the River Medway close to both stations which make for a picturesque addition to the scenery.

This line is a real gem in Kent’s busy rail network. It’s why I ranked it No 29 in my Hundred Best Train Journeys at the end of last year. It’s overseen by the Kent Community Partnership who have produced a very informative video on their website about the line and do their best to promote it and share its delights, as I’m doing now.

Roger French

Topless in Hastings

Friday 31st May 2019

There’s been a welcome resurgence in the traditional open top bus market (as opposed to high profile City Sightseeing) over the last few years with long withdrawn routes returning to their once regular haunts. Yellow Buses resurrected their seafront service in Bournemouth and Boscombe a couple of years ago, as did Stagecoach South West in Torbay. Stagecoach in Kent and East Sussex have also been busy giving open top bus routes a whirl with their route 69 between Ramsgate and Broadstairs now entering its fourth season following introduction in Summer 2016.

I had a ride on it during that first season and it was packed out, as well as suffering from timekeeping problems due to heavy summer traffic especially in Broadstairs. I was also impressed to see such a bargain fare at just £2 a ride. I reckon it was seriously underpriced for the market.

It’s good to see the route has prospered and this year’s season continues right through until the end of September.

Stagecoach tried a second route in the Thanet area the following summer along Margate’s seafront. Route 37 however was not so successful and hasn’t reappeared. Margate itself struggles to regain its supremacy in the seaside market and the 37 reflected that.

This summer sees Stagecoach introduce another open top route over the border in East Sussex. Appropriately numbered 66, the route provides a seafront service from Hasting Old Town past the rejuvenated pier and then inland for a short distance to the Combe Haven holiday park.

It’s operated to the successful Stagecoach formula of an hourly frequency with an hours gap in the middle of an eight hour, single shift duty for a meal break. Route 66 has a day ticket priced at £4.50 with a 30p saving if bought on a smartphone app and up to four children paying just £1 to attract families. That’s a good deal especially as it’s actually the Hastings area day ticket so available in all Stagecoach bus routes in the town. There’s a cheaper standard return ticket on the 66 at £3.50 or it’s £2.30 for one single ride.

The bus has a busy but eye catching livery particularly appealing to children and although I’m normally aghast at operators covering windows in contravision which badly distorts views, in this case the downstairs has been made fun for children who may travel there if it gets a bit too breezy up top, by the inclusion of ‘port holes’ through the contravision. As always though, contravision is controversial, and they’ll be plenty of views about views (and the lack of them).

On the journeys I travelled on earlier today one family braved the fairly breezy ride up top in one direction but took the downstairs option on the return; although I noticed one of the port holes didn’t match up with the raised seats on the offside, which is a shame.

Naturally the most important thing about open top buses is the scenic delights from the top deck and the 66 doesn’t disappoint with most of the 17 minute westbound journey time offering panoramic views of the seafront providing for a very pleasant ride….

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…. in both directions….. it’s always a shame to see seafronts lined with parked cars and Hastings is no exception.

The western terminus of the 66 is right next to the Combe Haven holiday park, popular with families, so smart move Stagecoach, although it does mean the return journey includes five or six minutes wandering around residential streets in that part of west Hastings by Harley Shute to return to the seafront.

The eastbound running time is consequently slightly longer at 23 minutes, but this still means there’s a handy recovery time of 20 minutes in every hour in the schedule which allows for delays caused by seasonal slow moving traffic along the seafront and a rather convoluted turning arrangement at the eastern end of the route by Hastings Old Town.

With an eye catching livery, open top bus services generally sell themselves as tourists and visitors see the bus travelling up and down the seafront, but it’s good to have a plentiful supply of leaflets at appropriate outlets and on board the bus (the 66 had a large box full of its timetables on board along with other route timetables) and timetables were displayed prominently at all bus stops along the route. It was good to see Stagecoach have ticked that box, including adding them to the pole when the timetable case was already full.

I hope the 66 is a success and well done Stagecoach for giving it a try. As always with routes of this kind, it’s very weather dependant. Let’s hope for a sunny summer.

Roger French

H1: the hidden hospital bus

While I was giving GoSutton a try between the Royal Marsden and St Helier Hospitals in Sutton on Tuesday my friend James tweeted suggesting I also give the H1 inter-hospital bus route a ride. That was a new one on me, so I couldn’t resist giving it a go.

The H1 is sponsored by the Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust and was exclusively for the use of hospital staff shuttling between the Trust’s sites in Epsom, Sutton and St Helier. It’s operated by RATP owned Quality Line (part of Epsom Coaches) and the good news is from Monday 4th March the service was opened up for any member of the public to use at a £1.50 flat fare.

That’s a great new service for people living in Epsom needing to get over to Sutton or St Helier Hospitals for an appointment, or vice versa for Sutton residents having to pop down to Epsom and not just for the hospital either, as the H1 stops close to the town centre in East Street. What a brilliant idea. It’s not a bad timetable with three buses needing five drivers shuttling up and down for around thirteen hours between around 6.30am and 7.30pm on Mondays to Fridays. However you need your wits about you to remember the times, as buses run at an awkward frequency of every 35 minutes during the morning widening to every forty minutes during part of the afternoon.

TfL gave their blessing to the public using buses on the H1 as they rule the roost on such matters once you cross the boundary from Surrey. But as you can only get on and off the bus at Sutton and St Helier Hospitals within the London Borough it doesn’t interfere with anything TfL control.

It might be handy though if TfL entered the timetable into its journey planner database so people living near St Helier Hospital needing to get to Sutton Hospital could easily find out about the H1. I suspect there’s a bit of the “not invented here” syndrome as you’ll be lucky to find out about the hidden H1.

TfL’s Journey Planner unhelpfully completely ignores the H1 which would whisk you from St Helier to Sutton Hospital in a non-stop 15 minutes at, say, 1005 and instead recommends cathing its own circuitous S1 bus route taking almost double the journey time at 28 minutes. The much admired CityMapper guys also ignore the H1 in their app results too.

I couldn’t find any timetables for the H1 at the TfL bus stops on either side of the road outside St Helier Hospital nor the H1 number appearing on the flags but undaunted I wandered into the hospital itself where a helpful receptionist gave me directions to walk along a corridor, turn left and there it will be, just inside the hospital grounds.

And sure enough I found what looked like a bus stop still proclaiming a “staff” inter site shuttle, complete with two handy benches to sit and wait and even a timetable on the wall. Great stuff. And this being a hospital the statutory ‘caution wet floor’ warning sign was properly in place too, even though it was obviously dry.

The rather battered looking H1 bus soon arrived from its previous journey and even though I wasn’t wearing a stethoscope round my neck nor a lanyard with an NHS ID, the driver waved me on ignoring the contactless enabled Ticketer ticket machine at his side and kindly gave me a free ride.

A couple of NHS staff were also on board and they continued on towards Epsom Hospital as I alighted at Sutton Hospital impressed with my speedy fifteen minute non-stop journey. I love these hidden gem bus routes but it’s always a shame they’re not better promoted.

This got me thinking about Journey Planners and GoSutton. While I was out and about on Tuesday I used TfL’s Journey Planner to find out how to get from St Helier Hospital to Sutton Station. Interestingly it’s first recommendation at the time I asked was to take a 157 to Catshalton Station and then catch a Southern train over to Sutton at a cost of £3.60 and a journey time of 28 minutes. Er, that’s odd as the super new GoSutton minibus could have taken me there in little more than 10 minutes for a cheaper £3.50.

We’re always being told public transport information is available online and journey planners have made the need for printed maps and timetables redundant yet here’s an example where it falls down. App based DRT schemes and Journey Planners are not happy bedfellows.

Roger French

Colin Dale’s secret bus route

Wednesday 29th May 2019

It’s all happening in Colindale. That’s the area in north west London with a station almost at the end of the Edgware branch of the Northern Line; the one before Burnt Oak, before you get to Edgware itself.

Colindale’s in the London Borough of Barnet and is one of the largest growth and regeneration areas in the Borough including over 10,000 new homes being built across various sites, new schools, a relocated library, a health centre “reprovision” and “improvements to public realm” and parks among the many improvements including brand new offices for the London Borough of Barnet itself.

There are plans for a brand new London Underground station with a greatly enlarged ticket hall extended eastwards over the tracks with work expected to start on that project in 2021 with completion the following year.

Before then TfL are making changes to bus routes in the area including combining two routes into one as well as another being rerouted to better serve the new housing developments. But the main change, the extension of route 125 from its erstwhile western terminus at Finchley Central over to Colindale via Hendon was introduced last Saturday.

But you’d be hard pressed to find out about it. It’s currently a top secret bus route extension. Not only are buses leaving route 125’s Winchmore Hill terminus at the eastern end of the route still showing Finchley Central in the destination blind….

….but bus stops all along the route are still displaying timetables showing the route ending at Finchley Central. Of buses now continuing for another 18 minutes on to Hendon and Colindale, there is no mention.

I did spot two buses while travelling the route yesterday displaying a makeshift attempt to let curious passengers know they were heading on to the Colindale growth area (along with, in one case, the vital internal information it was bus running number 110), but others I saw didn’t show anything.

Bus stop flags beyond the old Finchley Central terminus on the new section of route to Colindale are devoid of any reference to the 125, nor do the timetable cases attached to the bus stop poles contain route 125 timetables. You simply wouldn’t know a 125 came that way.

Even the brand new terminal bus stop for route 125 outside Colindale Station makes no mention of the new ten minute frequency departing there either on the bus stop flag….

…. or a timetable below…..

….but there is an explanation of the merger of local routes 303 and 305 introduced almost nine months ago.

TfL provide helpful updates on their website about upcoming bus route changes (if you know where to look) but these are notoriously late in posting and often contain inaccuracies. And guess what, the latest issue for the period 29 March to 7 June 2019 currently online contains no reference to route 125 at all. It’s as if even TfL were caught out by surprise by it’s own decision to introduce the extension to route 125 last Saturday.

No-one in TfL’s Spider map department seems to be aware of the change either as the maps for Colindale and other areas along the route extension make no reference to the 125, and those for the original end of the route east of Finchley Central show no reference to the extension.

If online maps aren’t updated, you wouldn’t expect maps displayed on the roadside in bus shelters and at Underground stations to be updated would you? Quite right; they’re not.

However, there is one part of TfL which does seem to know about the change and that’s the iBus department which has updated the bus stop displays to show Colindale ……

….. and on board buses, every so often, comes a scrolling message to let you know that despite the destination blind telling you the bus you’ve boarded is only going to Finchley Central, once you’re on the bus, you’re reassuringly told it is continuing to Colindale.

But there really cannot be any excuse for all those other key points of information not being updated in time. It’s not as though there hasn’t been months to organise things. This is no emergency closure of Hammersmith Bridge. TfL’s obligatory public consultation about extending the 125, along with other changes in the Colindale area, was way back in October and November 2017.

TfL issued a report on that consultation in June 2018 and confirmed many of the proposals including the extended route 125 and the merger of local routes 303 and 305 in the Edgware and Colindale area would be implemented on 1 September 2018.

While the 303 and 305 merger went ahead on 1 September, for some reason the extended 125 got postponed. The June 2018 report was followed on 12 September 2018 with a further update report which confirmed the extension of route 125 would happen in “winter 2018/19”. You’d have thought bus stop E-plates, timetable inserts for bus stops and destination blinds would have been ordered and spider maps updated ready for September 2018 let alone for the back stop introduction of “winter 2018/19”. And not forgetting ordering three new bus stop poles for those three new bus stops along Greyhound Hill being served by buses for the very first time as shown on the map above …. except, er, no they’re not quite ready yet either …. still, at least the yellow line painters had done their bit.

After all that forewarning, it surely couldn’t have come as a surprise that last Saturday, 25th May 2019, Metroline’s bus garage at Potters Bar, which runs route 125, finally began the long consulted upon change and started extending buses on to Colindale.

You might well wonder why there’s obviously a complete lack of coordination within TfL where a major route extension is introduced necessitating a significant increase in resources twenty months after first being publicly proposed. This extended route must involve an additional four buses to maintain the 10 minute frequency on an 18 minute journey time extension. That’s not a minor change. Resource wise it’s about 70% of the GoSutton scheme with its six minibuses introduced yesterday.

This tardy response to route changes is becoming an unfortunate habit at TfL. There are now regular reports across social media, online forums and other feedback about consistently poor presentation of information by TfL which was once regarded as the bastion of good practice for information.

I was recently chatting to a former (now retired) senior manager who used to look after roadside information amongst other responsibilities at TfL and he was unequivocal about the reason for the plummeting quality: clearing out all the experienced staff through voluntary redundancy programmes to save costs; replacing them with people lacking any experience of bus operation; hacking back vital budgets; and contracting out to third parties who have no interest in quality or what they’re doing. I used to report inconsistencies I found while travelling around London to a good contact in TfL who made sure they were followed up and sorted. It made my efforts valued and worthwhile doing. Sadly he was made redundant and no one with any interest replaced him, so I gave up. Route 125’s extension is just the latest example of what I see all over London. Frankly, it’s simply appalling for a Capital City’s transport organisation which purports to be “world class” and an “exemplar of integrated transport”.

No wonder the westbound bus I travelled on yesterday afternoon emptied out at Finchley Central and I continued to Colindale alone.

I just hope TfL do better when it comes to opening their new Colindale station in 2022.

Roger French

Free ‘taxis’ for seniors in Sutton?

Tuesday 28th May 2019

TfL jumped on the digital DRT bandwagon today launching its own version of Arriva Click and Oxford Pick Me Up. This latest app-based Demand Responsive Transport has landed in upmarket car dominated Sutton and Carshalton using six minibuses out of a fleet of eight between 06:30 and 21:30, seven days a week, operated by GoAhead London from its Sutton bus garage.

Logo overload nearside…
…and offside

I missed this morning’s launch party no doubt with the usual ceremonial ribbon cutting and broad smiles for the cameras featuring the Mayor of Sutton along with TfL and GoAhead London bigwigs but I understand there were no cupcakes or goodie bags going free anyway.

Indeed there’s not been much, if any, publicity or promotion to speak of at all. I was searching online over the weekend for news of this exciting initiative but all I could find on the TfL website was a broken link to the obligatory public consultation about the scheme which closed a few weeks ago. I see there’s now a news release following this morning’s launch with the usual excitable quotes from all the partners involved, which is always an uplifting read…..not!

Keeping my ear to the ground last week, as I do, I’d downloaded the GoSutton app and registered as a user with my credit card details so I’d be all ready to ride around at £3.50 a journey earlier today.

No promotional introductory fare offers here and no daily or weekly price capping. No Oyster either as no fares are taken on the bus. It’s all done online. The fare is £1 more than Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up fare and £2 more than the standard London bus fare so it’ll be an interesting trade off for users weighing up their new travel options around Sutton. Additional GoSutton passengers in a group pay £2 each and its free for accompanied under 13s.

There’s a map on the new GoSutton.co.uk website showing the area where GoSutton Mercedes fourteen seater minibuses roam but it’s a little hard to decipher in detail so not much good for journey planning. As you can see above, it’s just an outline of the area served.

The interactive map on the App even though it’s zoomable is also awkward to use so I spent a happy hour last night piecing together a larger scale map from my Greater London street atlas except frustratingly the area extended over the hard spine of the book making copying a clear image quite difficult.

I then superimposed the bus routes which cross-cross the area served by GoSutton which with the various rail lines shows the full public transport offer. It seems to me that’s what anyone seriously thinking of ditching their car needs to know, but curiously is impossible to obtain in the TfL land of not-really-integrated transport.

Mike Harris’s superb privately funded network wide bus map indicates quite an intense network of bus routes in the area as does Open Street Maps, but it wasn’t until I’d completed my home made version I realised that many of the journeys I’d planned to try out with GoSutton could be made using conventional bus routes, albeit with a bit of a circuitous routing.

And herein lies the key issue. My first day travels this morning as usual were met with minimal wait times, attractive direct routes and completely solo rides (my own personal 14 seater taxi); but that’s not how it’s designed to be of course. Once more people become aware of GoSutton the inevitability is my wait and journey times will become extended as ride sharing becomes more common. I might find myself on a route not too dissimilar to a conventional bus, and stopping along the way making me question that £2 premium and no price cap. As TfL’s news release explains “the system will be powered by advanced algorithms, which enable multiple passengers to seamlessly share a single vehicle”. It’ll be “quick and efficient shared trips without lengthy detours”.

It seems to me the critical point with GoSutton is TfL’s decision to allow Freedom Passes and National Concessionary pass holders free travel meaning any London resident age sixty and over, perhaps even going to work, can enjoy what currently is effectively a free door-to-door personal taxi service.

Why go out to catch the half hourly route S4 when you can call up a 14 seater luxury minibus almost to your front door and will take you right to your destination free of charge. And this being TfL means those without a smartphone are not left behind as the option is given of phoning up to book a journey instead of using the App. It really is like an old style Dial-A-Ride.

Another TfL quirk I noticed this morning was the six minibuses out today when not needed to fulfill my journey requests were strategically parked as per ViaVan’s software demands, but had to be on an official TfL designated bus stand!

How did it go? Here’s the rundown of the three journeys I took.

Journey 1

Wallington Station to the Royal Marsden Hospital

Waiting time: 3 minutes (minibus waiting on bus stand not far from station)

Journey time: 12 minutes.

Alternative option: bus route S4 runs every 30 minutes and takes 18 minutes journey time.

Oddity: despite requesting a pick up at the bus stop adjacent to the station exit (used by the S4 as below) I was tasked to walk a short distance to the bus stop on the main road to meet the bus.

Bing, my driver was a great ambassador welcoming me aboard as his very first GoSutton passenger at 1024. He was really pleased to have transferred over to GoSutton from big bus driving and had high hopes for the service success. I diplomatically explained it depends on how you define ‘success’ and unlike Oxford (which he had heard “was going great guns”) in London it will depend how much money TfL is prepared to invest (and how much money it actually has) in its future.

Journey 2

Royal Marsden Hospital to St Helier Hospital

Waiting time: 9 minutes (minibus waiting in Carshalton Wythe Lane)

Journey time: 13 minutes.

Alternative option: bus route S4 runs every half hour and takes 30 minutes.

Simon had driven the S4 previously and reckoned in the 13 minutes it took with GoSutton we’d have only reached Sutton Ststion on that round-the-houses route. He was pleased to be driving with GoAhead London having recently moved across from RATP owned Quality Line/Epsom Coaches where the “family atmosphere had now gone after the takeover”. He was also pleased to welcome me aboard as his first customer at 1055 although he’d been tasked to chauffeur John Trayner, GoAhead London’s highly respected managing director back to his Merton based HQ following the Mayoral launch, but Simon didn’t count John as a real passenger, especially as it had involved a normally off-limits over the border trip into neighbouring Merton.

Journey 3

Sutton Hospital to Sutton Station

Waiting time: 3 minutes (minibus waiting at Sutton Station) according to App but actual wait was 4-5 minutes.

Journey time: 4 minutes.

Alternative option: was bus 80 or Metrobus 420 (not part of TfL network) and didn’t show up on TfL journey planner (so much for TfL being about integrated transport). As the 80 was 9 minutes away I was confident I’d backed the right option of summoning up a GoSutton minibus which was showing just a 3 minute wait.

In the event a 420 came by within one minute…

…. followed by an 80 within another minute despite TfL’s journey planner predicting that 9 minute wait. My GoSutton minibus arrived last.

But Fatima was a great friendly driver also welcoming me aboard as her first customer at 1224 this morning. She usually drives big buses at Sutton but is helping out while the sixteen new GoSutton vacancies get filled. Her first minibus allocated this morning broke down but she was pleased to be driving one of the ’19’ plate Mercedes (some are 2017 vintage). And she skilfully overtook the 80 as it stopped along the way so we beat it to Sutton Station.

As is standard on such schemes elsewhere for each journey I received a text two minutes before the minibus arrived confirming its imminent arrival along with the vehicle registration details and pick up location (but not the driver’s name) and unlike other places, another text while on board two minutes before the destination reminding me to gather up my belongings and a thank you. Afterwards you’re invited to rate the journey but only if you open up the App again, and are then given your driver’s name – bit odd not to have had it before really.

Another welcome development unlike other areas is the absence of a full blown assault screen around the driver. Simon was particularly pleased to see this and felt it will lead to a much friendlier rapport with passengers. He’s absolutely right.

There are also some differences between the 2017 Mercedes minibuses and the later 2019 versions in that the former have bright red interior panels and floors while the latter have a more upmarket wood effect.

Otherwise the interiors are very similar to the Mercedes used in Oxford, Liverpool and Leicester with ten seats to the rear (including two over the wheel arches (for enhanced discomfort) and four tip-ups in the wheelchair/buggy area. USB sockets and wifi comes as standard, but you’re not really on the bus long enough to take advantage of these – even a journey from one side of the operating area to the other (my journey 2) only took 13 minutes.

Will GoSutton be a success.? As I explained to Bing, it depends how you define ‘success’. With TfL strapped for cash and about to make swingeing cuts to central London bus routes it seems an odd time to be spending what must be well in excess of £0.5million (probably nearer £0.75million) on a trial of this kind. I see TfL have also committed to introduce a similar twelve month trial later this year in Ealing with RATP as operator and “technology partner MOIA who currently power ride sharing in Germany”.

GoSutton’s £3.50 compared to £1.50 per ride on a conventional bus (and £4.50 daily cap) may put people off switching but all the official explanations say this scheme is about tempting people out of cars as the main market. In that case there’s going to need to be a much bigger promotional push to raise awareness; and that won’t come cheap. There’s no social media presence as far as I can see and the web presence is currently pedestrian at best. It’s certainly not persuasive in any sense.

I asked a black cab driver at the Royal Marsden Hospital how much the fare was from Sutton Station, and she told me around £7. So £3.50 would offer a fifty per cent saving, but if you don’t mind a slightly longer wait and journey time the S4 would only cost £1.50.

My prediction is GoSutton will become well used by Freedom Pass holders taking advantage of free rides, and whilst the service is in its infancy, effectively enjoying a free personalised door-to-door taxi service around this part of Sutton.

Personally I’d prefer a few hundred thousand be invested in a decent regularly updated easy-to-follow bus map showing journey possibilities by bus rather than just the unhelpful spider maps as all that TfL can muster. Proper maps rather like passengers on the Tube and DLR enjoy.

That would get me out of my car.

Roger French

Riding the Adur Valley Line

Bank Holiday Monday 27th May 2019

The ever professional conductor James gets ready to take up his duty

Southern Transit run a once a week bus route between Horsham and Shoreham-by-Sea following as closely as possible the Adur Valley railway line between those towns which closed in 1966 and the more recently established Downs Link footpath.

Route 3 has been running as a commercial venture for a number of years; not only is it a nostalgic ride between communities once connected by steam and diesel trains but it also provides a valuable bus service for people living in villages and small towns on the route. It used to operate on all-the-year round on Thursdays and Saturdays and more frequently in the summer school holidays but dropped back to just Thursdays earlier this year in February.

It’s a lovely route running north/south through West Sussex linking Horsham and Shoreham-by-Sea with Southwater, West Grinstead, Partridge Green, Henfield, Upper Beeding, Bramber, and Steyning along the way. The normal Thursday timetable includes four return journeys between 0935 and 1715 utilising two buses.

Route 3 sits alongside Southern Transit’s main work in private and corporate hire, contracts and rail replacement as well as engineering services based at the old cement works site in Beeding.

Neil Bird runs a smart outfit with strong links to his time at London Transport and it’s easy to see old traditions kept alive in vehicle presentation. It’s becoming a tradition on Spring and Summer Bank Holiday Mondays to run an enhanced timetable with Routemasters, open top buses and one of the Compay’s two one-year old very smart ADL Enviro400 City double deck buses christened Citymaster.

My good friend Ray Stenning and I had a thoroughly enjoyable day today taking a ride on some of the extra vehicles as we made our way from Horsham down to Shoreham-by-Sea on the Bank Holiday special route 3. With fifteen return journeys running more or less a half hourly service it was a great way to travel across this delightful part of West Sussex.

What really impressed us was the eclectic mix of passengers travelling on the route including people going shopping at the Holmbush shopping centre at the southern end of the route, residents in isolated spots along the route jumping aboard for a ride to Horsham or other attractive places to visit and noticeably passengers were young and teenagers as well as more aged; very mixed female and male; as well as families with young children; and naturally those like ourselves who were just enjoying the unusual bus rides and the spectacular views of the Downs from the top deck.

Temporary “dolly” stops were impressively sited along remote sections of the route

It helped that there was a Bank Holiday fair taking place in Steyning which closed the main High Street necessitating a diversion along narrow roads which was expertly handled by the enthusiastic and friendly drivers.

It was a lovely day out and many thanks to Neil and the Southern Transit team and everyone who made the day possible. If you’re in the area on August Bank Holiday Monday, it’s well worth a visit.

The Citymaster is superb; we loved the UB garage code (presumably for Upper Beeding), the smart moquette and the light streaming in from the upper deck roof windows and a large rear window. It was a real treat to ride through such delightful countryside on board this splendid vehicle. The Routemasters and open top were good fun too.

Roger French

New trains in 2019 5: Class 710

Sunday 26th May 2019

Train manufacturer Bombardier has at last finally sorted the software issues on the new Class 710 trains for London Overground’s Gospel Oak to Barking route and the much delayed trains entered public service for the first time last Thursday. As operator Arriva Trains London organise more drivers fully trained to drive the new trains it’s hoped the scheduled fifteen minute frequency timetable can soon be restored for the line’s long suffering passengers who’ve endured over two months of a reduced half hourly service on top of previous periods of bus replacements during the botched electrification. I covered the history of this in a blog back in January.

IMG_8949.jpgSo far two new trains have been slotted into the schedule allowing a somewhat akward temporary 15-15-30 minute frequency timetable to operate alongside the spare Class 378 trains which have been keeping the service going since the beginning of the year as the former Class 172 trains were withdrawn for their new life in the West Midlands.

By coincidence last Thursday I was enjoying a ride on one of those lovely refurbished Class 172 trains on the newly linked up Leamington Spa to Nuneaton via Coventry line. They really are great trains to ride in with fairly comfortable seats laid out forward and rear facing and with an accessible toilet on board too.

They make for an interesting comparison to the new Class 710 trains now on the GOBLIN line which I took a ride on yesterday.

IMG_8947.jpgPlus points about the new trains: they’re actually in service; they’re electric so quicker acceleration away from stations than the Class 172 diesels; they’ve got an easily accessible accessible area at both ends for passengers using wheelchairs, buggies and cycles. They look quite slick with a smart orange front.

IMG_8944.jpgThat’s about it.

I don’t like longitudinal seats which line both sides all along the four coach trains. Even the Metropolitan Line Underground S stock trains manage a few sets of front and rear facing seats (which always get bagged first). One of the joys of train travel is looking out of the windows. Longitudinal seats make this impossible unless you want a crooked back and cricked neck through contortioning yourself to look behind you as well as annoying the person sitting next to you in the process, or trying to look out of the opposite window between the two people sitting facing you without them thinking you’re staring at them.IMG_8940.jpgI understand capacity issues mean such seating, which allows plenty of standing room, is now necessary meaning 700 passengers can squeeze aboard; but it’s not nearly so nice for travelling pleasure.

The new trains have four walk through coaches we’ve become used to on Underground S stock, Class 378s (and 385s) and the Siemens Class 700, 707 and 717s as well as overhead passenger information systems telling you the destination and next few stations.IMG_8935.jpgWhereas Thameslink and South Western Railway display the status of London Underground as part of the sequence of images on these signs, London Overground don’t, which is a bit odd as they’re both part of TfL.

IMG_8929.jpgThere’s also a screen on the cove panels (shown above in the side panel and below) which provides information; currently it’s corporate stuff telling you what’s on the train, such as wifi and usb points as well as the date and time, but no doubt there are future plans to invade our journeys with video clips featuring commercial adverts. No; please not.

IMG_8936.jpgIMG_8938.jpgThose usb sockets are towards the end of each carriage and can be accessed by the end seat or standing between the carriages by the concertina bit.

IMG_8933.jpgIMG_8924.jpgBut there aren’t many, compared for example to the D Train Class 230 I recently reviewed where sockets have been provided at every seat, including the longitudinal ones.IMG_5018.jpg

There’s not much more to say about these trains so to conclude, here’s my top five ranking for ‘New Trains in 2019 Impressiveness and Wow Factor’ so far:

  1. Class 230/D Train (Vivarail – West Midlands Trains)
  2. Mark 5 Sleepers (Caledonian Sleepers)
  3. Azumas (LNER)
  4. Class 717 (Great Northern)
  5. Class 710 (London Overground – Arriva Trains London)

Roger French