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

All Change for Cross Country

Today is the last day to make your views known to the DfT if you’d like to see changes made for the next Cross Country franchise due to begin in December 2019. Although as befits things on rails it might be put back into 2020.

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The current franchise has been operated by Arriva Trains UK since 2007 when it took over from Virgin Trains.

The main issue DfT highlights in the consultation document that needs resolving, as we all know only too well, is over crowding particularly on late weekday afternoons when the 64% of us travelling who are long distant leisure travellers clash with the 23% using Cross Country trains to commute home from the major towns and cities served. Sunday afternoons also peak out as the number of journeys simply hasn’t kept up with growing demand for leisure travel.

Aside from the obvious answer of running longer trains, one option posed in the consultation is whether to concentrate resources on the core network centred on Birmingham and bounded by Plymouth, Southampton, Edinburgh and Manchester leaving extended journeys to outposts such as Aberdeen, Glasgow, Guildford, Bournemouth, Paignton and Penzance as well as localised parts of the Stansted Airport-Birmingham, Nottingham-Cardiff routes to other franchises. This could even include one of the two journeys an hour north of York terminating there or possibly Leeds.

The consultation points out GWR have plans to improve timetables west of Plymouth and TPE and LNER have plans for north of York while SWR serve the market well west of Southampton to Bournemouth.

For me the beauty of long distance travel is not having to change trains. Once settled into a seat with many miles ahead it’s a pleasure to enjoy the journey without the hassle of getting off, worrying about and waiting for a connection and then finding a new seat for the next leg. It might mean less frequent journey choices but that’s more than made up for by a direct journey.

Indeed I lament the ending of long distance journeys that once served Brighton including latterly a journey to Manchester via Reading and Birmingham. Although only once a day and taking much longer due to pathing difficulties (it used the Clapham Junction/West London Line/Willesden link) it was popular with passengers who dislike using the crowded Underground to cross London for stations such as Paddington and Euston.

Families heading for holiday destinations in the south west encumbered with luggage really appreciate having a through train to their destination. Bearing in mind the Rail Delivery Group’s current campaign encouraging train travel for leisure trips to Devon and Cornwall it will be the ultimate irony if Cross Country trains end up being cut back.

Another possibility raised in the consultation is whether the market can be segmented by removing some of the stations served or making some stations set down or pick up only to discourage commuters and move them on to more local trains. But as the consultation admits, longer distance passengers might also use and value stations proposed for withdrawal (eg Burton-on-Trent, Stafford – my examples) and it’s just not practical to enforce set down/pick up only restrictions.

Bearing in mind the foregoing, counter-intuitively, suggestions for new destinations to be added to the Cross Country network are also invited with Liverpool, Bradford and Swansea mentioned. Although these would be welcome additions they’d be contrary to the other aim of ditching peripheral routes to concentrate capacity on the core network. The consultation acknowledges this and points out there are also track capacity constraints so I get the idea it’s one of those things you add into consultations to create a feel good factor but won’t ever come to anything.

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But if we are going to add lines on maps and setting aside those track capacity constraints I’d like to see more south east options added including the aforementioned Brighton and hey, why not, Dover and Canterbury, maybe even using High Speed 1 tracks for part of the way. I can dream too!

The new franchise is an opportunity to draw a line under the hugely unpopular Advanced Purchase on the Day idea (APOD – as it’s fondly known) whereby a passenger nicely ensconced in their seat (even paying full whack) can be turfed out by a last minute passenger boarding along the route having just bagged a cheapo ticket with a newly reserved seat. The fact Cross Country’s senior management have always been in denial about how disruptive and unpopular this ‘innovative ground breaking’ (not) idea has been only made the irritation worse; and the Company’s Twitter team’s only response to any complaint is ‘you can also reserve a seat by text for yourself’, yeah and turf someone else out of their seat. I’m not that anti-social. Nor do I want to be pre-allocated a naff seat with no window!

Fortunately DfT bods seem to have caught on (maybe one of them had to shift seats) and the consultation says it expects bidders to come up with ways to improve APOD and meet expectations for all passengers. Here’s one – scrap seat reservations on Advanced Purchase. That’ll sort it.

Aside from the need for longer trains, the new franchise desperately needs a new fleet of trains to see off the unsuitable Voyagers. I really can’t think of a less attractive train to make a journey over 200 miles; and please can we have decent seat-align-with-windows especially in the first class section and a greater choice of in and against direction seats.

Judging by recent franchise awards, new trains seem a strong possibility and what a positive and welcome step forward that’ll be.

You have until 11.45pm tonight to let the DfT know your views.

Roger French           30th August 2018