Farewell Norton Bridge

Friday 29th March 2019

IMG_3036.jpgThe rail replacement bus service which has been running between Stafford and Stone to serve the abandoned Norton Bridge station since May 2004 comes to an end tomorrow. I couldn’t resist taking a trip up there to check it out on its penultimate day.

Trains stopped calling at Norton Bridge fifteen years ago to allow for the rebuilding of the railway as part of the West Coast Route Modernisation project. The station platform was inconveniently in the way.

Norton Bridge first opened in 1837 and latterly only enjoyed an irregular frequency local train service between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent until it ended in May 2004.Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 19.35.17.pngA rail replacement bus service was introduced between Stafford and Stone via Norton Bridge which was included in the rail timetable system and journey planners with rail tickets continuing to be available and accepted on the buses which also served other bus stops along the route. Funding for this came indirectly from the DfT as the franchise holder, at that time, London Midland, included the cost of the bus in its successful bid.

With the new West Midlands franchise starting in October 2017 the DfT decided to finally bring, what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, to an end and issued a consultation in late 2016 to formally close Norton Bridge station, even though trains hadn’t called there for twelve years.

It came as no surprise the formal closure was enacted in December 2017 but the bus service was given a further stay of execution with continued part funding through the new franchise until the end of March 2019 enabling Staffordshire County Council time to review other bus service levels in the area.IMG_3037.jpgBrexit Day may not be happening today, but sadly D&G Bus service 13 is ending tomorrow and the 600 residents of Norton Bridge who lost their irregular trains in 2004, saw their station formally close in 2017, will now lose their only bus service.

Here’s how today’s trip went…..

IMG_3024.jpgI arrived in Stafford over an hour before the 1235 departure was due to leave for Norton Bridge and Stone (earlier departures are at 0835 and 1035 with later ones at 1505, 1615 and 1715). I didn’t want to risk missing it. This enabled me to see the bus arriving from Stone from its previous journey at 1133 before it takes just over an hour’s break. It’s not a particularly arduous schedule having just half an hour running time end to end.IMG_3034.jpgI was pleased about that as there was absolutely no information about the route, its times or even its existence anywhere in Stafford station or outside on the bus shelters. It’s always tricky when you’re not sure where a bus route departs from so at least I now knew and wandered off to explore Stafford for an hour.IMG_3139.jpgArriving back I was pleasantly surprised to see three passengers boarding the bus for the trip to Stone.IMG_3035.jpgIt didn’t take long to realise they were regulars who come into Stafford for shopping. As you can imagine talk on the bus was all about being cut off after this weekend. Although one lady got off in Great Bridgeford (a village on the route just north of Stafford) which will continue to be served by another D&G Bus service, route 14, which ironically also serves the communities of Wedgwood and Barlaston on its route which also lost their stations in the West Coast Route Modernisation project but you can still buy tickets to them from any station and use them on the bus (a single from Wedgwood to Barlaston is just £1.90).

One passenger continued on the bus towards Stone and the third alighted with me in the small village of Norton Bridge. I asked him where the entrance to the station was and it turned out the bus had stopped right opposite. He told me all about the station house, the railway cottages and the sad day when the footbridge was taken away which meant access to the station was lost for ever.IMG_3131.jpgHe shrugged his shoulders when I asked him how he’d manage to get into Stafford next week with no bus, before admitting his wife had a car!IMG_3130.jpgThe station house and adjacent cottages (“where the rail workers used to live” he explained – it must have been a real hive of activity at some time) are indeed very pleasant and I made my way on to the ‘station forecourt’ and looking down on the fenced off tracks could easily make out the former platform, now isolated and uncared for, together with an abandoned signal boxIMG_3071.jpgBut the best bit of all was the ‘Helpful information’ poster still in situ at what was the entrance to the forecourt. IMG_3125.jpg

IMG_3045.jpgNorton Bridge station is alive and well; except there’s “no ticket office” and “no ticket machine”, and sadly “no step free access”. Oh, and no access to a crumbling platform and …. no trains either!

Not only that but the new franchisee, London Northwestern Railway from West Midlands Trains has taken the trouble to reprint the poster in their own corporate house style and someone has taken the trouble to go out to Norton Bridge and display it ….. yet the adjacent bus shelter contains no information at all about the bus replacement service. Nothing.

IMG_3134.jpgIf there’s anything that sums up our dysfunctional non-integrated transport system in this country perhaps that is it!IMG_3137.jpgI headed back to Stafford.

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.

F51B2C9E-3115-4EC6-A72E-828DAB35D84B.jpeg

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.

792E1A54-0482-49D0-9FD8-70C7D671D9FF

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