May’s new timetable on track: Part 3

Thursday 23rd May 2019

IMG_7635.jpgI headed north from Newcastle to Edinburgh with Cross Country first thing yesterday. It’s always a pleasure to travel on this stretch of the East Coast Main Line (No 17 in my Hundred Best Train Journeys) especially with the late Spring early morning sun shining across the bays and coves as the track hugs the coastline for long stretches of the journey near Almouth and on to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

IMG_7493.jpgArriving in Edinburgh soon after nine I wanted to celebrate the completion of the incredible investment Transport Scotland, Network Rail and ScotRail have made in electrifying the various lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow over the last few years as well as the more recent widespread introduction of the splendid new Class 385 electric trains.

IMG_7503.jpgI blogged three weeks ago about my journey from Glasgow via Shotts to Edinburgh on a diesel train prior to the upgrade to new electric Class 385 operation which began with this week’s new timetable, and it was noticeably a real step up improvement to travel back the other way to Glasgow yesterday morning on the same line.

IMG_7505.jpgThese new Hitachi trains have been well designed and give a wonderful smooth ride with impressive acceleration. I reckon the new timetable could easily be tweaked to save a few more minutes journey time as a result of the new trains. Another bonus is the seats are fairly comfortable, more so than the much heralded Azuma.

Last month I caught the hourly semi-fast journey but this time I caught the slower all stations hourly stopper as I particularly wanted to explore the anachronism that is Breich.

IMG_7786.jpgAs I described last time, this station was proposed for complete closure by Network Rail a couple of years ago to save the cost of upgrade work as part of the electrification project.

As a reminder, only one morning train to Edinburgh used to stop at Breich plus just one afternoon return train. Not surprisingly passenger numbers were pitifully low, averaging just one a week. There are no houses, shops or anything at the isolated station site with Breich village (population 210 in 2013) a ten minute walk eastwards along the A71 (see map) served by an hourly bus service. Network Rail was therefore naturally inclined to avoid spending the reported £1.4million upgrade and put up a good case for full closure.

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 17.26.56In the event not only was there an about turn and all the upgrade work went ahead but this week’s new timetable includes a best ever hourly service (two hourly on Sundays) with Breich promoted to an all stations stopper train throughout the day.

IMG_7521.jpgI was intrigued to see what a £1.4million upgrade to cater for one passenger a week buys you and what the potential is for doubling or even trebling passenger numbers as a result so stopped off the stopper at Breich and had an explore.

As you’d expect it all looks rather new and pristine if somewhat basic. There’s nice newly extended platforms (so plenty of elbow room for all those newly attracted commuters to wait) with all surfaces enjoying well laid tarmac, paving and tactile surface/yellow line warnings .

IMG_7517.jpgThere’s a long tarmac surfaced sloping walkway down to each platform from the traffic light road junction where the main ‘entrance’ to the station is sited.

IMG_7523.jpgThere are also some steps down from a side entrance a little way along the A71 towards Breich village which has been given a nice pink coloured stone chipping surface to contrast with the tarmac surfaces.

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IMG_7638.jpgThere’s a shelter with a bum perch to lean against, a bank of four seats in the open, a help point, a smartcard reader, a train departure sign, a two/four frame timetable board, two cctv cameras and four loudspeakers on each platform.IMG_7512.jpgIMG_7513.jpg

IMG_7514.jpgEach platform shelter has a hearing loop for the internally sited speaker and a spot alongside the bum perch where a passenger using a wheelchair could wait.

IMG_7730.jpgAnd that’s it.

No litter bin liner to flutter (saves someone coming to empty it) and no ticket machine. No cycle rack. No grit bin. No onward travel poster. No permit to travel machine. Nothing more.

IMG_7509.jpgI’m not an expert on these things and I appreciate it all adds up, but it doesn’t seem much for £1.4million to me.

I thought I’d take a look at the potential for passenger growth now there’s been a zillion per cent increase in service provision.

As mentioned the immediate vicinity around the station is a bit barren. There’s a branch of W & J Allardyce Commercials Ltd at the traffic light junction of the A71 and A706, but nothing else nearby.

IMG_7634.jpgBut Breich itself is not too far away. It took me just under ten minutes to walk along the slightly rough footpath along the A71 to reach the village.

IMG_7527.jpgIMG_7565.jpgA bus on BlueBus operated route 77 passed by on its way to Lanark – there were few on board.

IMG_7558.jpgSadly the Village General Stores has closed and even the For Auction sign had given up.

IMG_7567.jpgMost depressing of all is the state of the four village bus stops and timetables. Only one shelter looked half decent which at least you could see out of. The contrast with platforms 1 and 2 couldn’t have been more stark.

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IMG_7572.jpgIMG_7579.jpgIf Breich is going to enjoy a public transport boom you’d think a couple of hundred quid out of the £1.4million could have stretched to revamping the bus stops and shelters and updating the dubious five years old departure information.

And even installing a bus stop close to the station entrance.

There’s talk of more housing being developed in Breich (to justify the upgrade expenditure) but I wouldn’t get too excited. I took a look at the recently approved West Lothian Local Development Plan and this does indeed confirm there are six sites adjacent or within the Breich micro community which are earmarked for possible future development as residential use. But the number of units in total is just 118, so even if that sees Breich’s population double over the next ten years to around 400, or even 500 tops, use of the sparkly new rail station is not exactly going to beat records.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 20.28.37.pngTalking records, my hot tip would be Breich achieving the enviable double of holding the record for ‘the least used station with the most frequent train service’ as well as ‘the highest investment per passenger use’ in the 2019/20 stats. Quite an accolade.

IMG_7522.jpgMeanwhile I wandered back to the station including the delightful four minute Woodland Walk (with views of the train tracks) ….

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IMG_7602.jpg…. after my hour’s exploration of the village to catch the next train to Glasgow and noticed the departure screen on platform 1 was wrongly and confusingly showing the next train was to ‘Edinburgh only’….

IMG_7726.jpg… whereas that departs from platform 2 and stops at all stations rather than ‘only’ ….

IMG_7736.jpg… which after that train had departed from across the tracks then showed my train also as non-stop (rather than all stops) to Glasgow. Maybe £1.4 million wasn’t enough to get the signs working properly!

IMG_7506.jpgI tweeted ScotRail to let them know so hopefully these unfortunate errors will be corrected, lest the weekly passenger gets confused.

And finally, just to help the passenger statistics, as my All Line Rail Rover wouldn’t have registered my alighting and departing, I splashed out on a ticket for today’s adventure. So that’s one more passenger journey generated.

IMG_7807.jpgAfter a short break to savour the fine city of Glasgow I headed back down to London all the way on the West Coast Main Line and as always thoroughly enjoyed the journey particularly the fantastic views of the Borders, the Pennines and the Lake District (it’s No 7 in my Hundred Best Train Journeys).

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IMG_7810.jpgAnd it’s always impressive to arrive into Euston spot on time, which we did, after a four and a half hour journey – helped by a little padding at the southern end no doubt!

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After a quick overnight back at home to attend to a bit of important business first thing this morning…

… it was back up to London and on to Leamington Spa to travel with the consistently good Chiltern Railways. My All Line Rail Rover doesn’t allow a pre 1000 departure from Kings Cross, St Pancras or Euston (on LNER, EMT and Virgin Trains) and as I’d used Liverpool Street on Monday, Marylebone was the obvious choice to start today’s northbound travels off.

This morning’s 0910 departure to Birmingham Snow Hill was just two coaches which proved a tight squeeze for us all – especially as this line is proving an increasingly popular alternative to Virgin Trains.

It was also switched from departing platforms 4-6 (Boarding area A) over to platform 2 then when we got there, back to platform 6 so we all added to our step count wandering around Marylebone in search of the train.

At Leamington Spa I wanted to try out the new hourly through train to Nuneaton West Midlands Railway have introduced this week by cleverly joining two separate services together in Coventry.

Last time I travelled on this line to Coventry to visit the newly opened Kenilworth station it was on a (single coach) Class 153 but this morning it was a smart refurbished ex London Overground Class 172 train which I see at long last have been replaced this morning down in Gospel Oak with the long awaited Class 710 trains going into service. About time too!

The linking together of these two services provides handy connections across Coventry without the need to change trains. It applies on Mondays to Saturdays but not Sundays.

On the 1102 from Leamington Spa we had a decent 23 on board arriving into Coventry and five stayed put to travel through towards Nuneaton – so not bad for a mid morning on the first week. We replaced the departing 18 passengers with 23 new boarders and headed off gingerly crossing all four tracks of the busy Rugby to Birmingham lines – one of the challenges of the new arrangement- finding safe paths to cross in both directions.

It’s a welcome timetable addition and I’m sure it will encourage more journeys as awareness increases.

From Nuneaton (pictured above) I headed up to Rugeley Trent Valley station with London Northwestern Railway on a Class 350 train (heading to Crewe) as I wanted to catch a West Midland Railway train from the terminating platform there and back into Birmingham on what’s known as the Chase Line.

This half hourly service via Cannock and Walsall has hitherto been a West Midland Railway diesel train operated service but from this week has Class 350 electric trains allocated which is a nice bit of new electrification.

However it’s caused some brand confusion as the trains continue on to either Birmingham International or as a stopping train to London Euston (and the journeys interwork at Rugeley Trent Valley) and are therefore branded London Northwestern Railway.

The stations on the line have recently been branded in the orange colours of West Midlands Railways. So it’s a WMR station with LNR trains. Simple.

And it’s all part of the one West Midlands Trains franchise. The Company have produced a guide for staff explaining the background to the timetable changes which explains what to call trains that originate from one branded station and terminate at the other. It explains “here’s a handy guide to stop you getting your LNRs and your WMRs mixed up”. Maybe us passengers could have a handy guide too!

The Class 350 LNR trains have a First Class section so these are marked in the timetable as LN and with a 1️⃣ to differentiate them from more local journeys, marked WM, which don’t. I used the 1️⃣ bit from Rugeley Trent Valley to Birmingham and sat in splendid isolation.

Still, it’s good to see more electrification being introduced if a bit confusing who’s running it, and more cross city services in Birmingham a bit along the lines of Thameslink!

And that completes my three-part four-day ride-round round-up of May’s rail timetable changes. Unlike 2018, I reckon this year’s changes are looking good.

 

And finally, thanks for reading this my hundreth blogpost, especially if you’ve been travelling along since blogpost number 1 almost a year ago on 20th June 2018.

Roger French

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