Crossing the Pennines

Saturday 31st August 2019


Route 888 between Newcastle and Keswick is the lesser known bus service across the Pennines.

Whereas the more famous route 685 takes a direct westerly trajectory along the A69 to Carlisle via Hexham and Haltwhistle, the 888 also serves Hexham but then follows a south westerly route via Alston and Langwathby on the spectacular A686 to Penrith and then across to Keswick.


This ranks as one of England’s most stunning bus rides crossing moors and mountains and passing through forests and incredible hairpin bends along the way – just take a look at those contour lines and bends on the map extract below to get a feel of the ride.

Screen Shot 2019-08-31 at 19.49.34.png

It should definitely feature in any ‘must do’ scenic bus routes bucket list but the only snag is whereas the 685 runs hourly, the 888 is a once-a-day-in-each-direction affair and only then during the summer months (July to September). Still, at least it runs daily as shown in the leaflet helpfully produced by Cumbria County Council despite most, of not all, passengers originating in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. Indeed I picked up the leaflet on my visit to Hexham last week.


It’s actually more of a coach day-trip excursion than a bus route, being operated by a (15 year old) coach and even includes a 35 minute refreshment and toilet stop at Alston by a Spar shop and Texaco garage just 1 hour and 25 minutes into the journey from Newcastle – the rest of the journey to Keswick taking only an hour and ten minutes more.


Interestingly the 35 minute stop reduces to 20 minutes on Sundays and is all that’s allocated on the return journey each day of the week.


The 888 is operated by Wright Bros Coaches based in Alston and accepts concessionary passes, which is a bit of a surprise with the increasing tendency for ‘leisure’ type routes of this kind to be excluded from Schemes these days. On my trip today I reckon 25 of the 27 passengers on board were passholders.

Perhaps that explains why the single fare from Newcastle to Keswick is as high as £20 – to maximise reimbursement (ironically the responsibility of Tyne & Wear and Northumberland westbound and Cumbria on the eastbound return). Concessionary passes were being swiped on some kind of portable electronic ticket machine by the driver.

The driver was a bit vague on return fares when I asked after buying my single ticket but I gathered a period return is £30 and I was unclear how much cheaper a day return would have been. I asked pointedly if you receive a ticket if buying a period return as I hadn’t been issued a ticket for my single fare; and that’s when he got a bit vague. I think I’ll pass this feedback on to Wright Bros in case it’s of interest.


The Volvo B10M coach was not the most comfortable I’ve travelled on and it was showing it’s fifteen years age. Cramming 57 seats inside meant minimal leg room – which might work for short legged school kids on a contract run but is not ideal for a leisure day trip across spectacular countryside.


The ‘ash trays’ still in situ could usefully have been emptied too.


More positively the coach arrived in Newcastle’s Coach Station in good time at 09:00 for the 09:20 departure but the driver parked up in the far corner for about ten minutes …

IMG_9184.jpg…before pulling on to one of the five stands in front of the small building run by National Express – a bit of a luxury these days for coach travellers but has toilets available (for 30p a visit).



Sixteen passengers boarded and we were away spot on time picking the rest of our passengers up as we left Newcastle (1) as well as Throckley (3), Corrbridge (6) and Hexham (1).

It must be a long day for what I assume is an Alston based driver and coach as it’s over an hour’s drive to and from Newcastle (especially on morning peak traffic congested weekdays) meaning at least an 08:00 start and a 20:30 finish back at the garage at the end of the day.

It would make more sense for this to be a Newcastle based operation and furthermore I reckon it’s an ideal route for a double deck bus with some nice comfortable seats (maybe even a table or two) to enhance those spectacular views – except a reader has just pointed out the 13ft 6ins low bridge in Langwathby which rather scuppers that idea! However it certainly needs to be operated by modern accessible vehicles. An opportunity for an enlightened operator looking for market growth in 2020 perhaps?

I covered some of the same route yesterday between Alston and Hexham as I made my way back from visiting the wonderful South Tynedale Railway on the Go North East route X81.


The X81 is effectively a positioning service to get the Tynedale Links branded bus from Go North East’s Hexham garage to Alston to operate the two return shopping journeys a day on route 681 to and from Haltwhistle.


The 681 is another great route, presumably funded by Northumberland County Council even though Alston is just over the border in Cumbria. Journey time to Alston is 48 minutes and every minute is a delight.


It’s a real rural gem including looping around narrow unclassified roads (to serve Yont the Cleugh mobile home/caravan site) and generally following the picturesque South Tyne valley on the A689 through Lambley and Slaggyford. It looks to me as though the route is a direct replacement for the railway from Haltwhistle to Alston which closed in 1976, so a bit of a shame it’s down to just two return journeys a day.


I caught the 12:40 from Haltwhistle to Alston yesterday lunchtime and sadly we only carried two passengers back home with their shopping, one travelling the short distance to Park Village and the other got off on the double run we made to serve Halton-Lea Gate about half way along the journey – the rest of the way it was just me, as it was on the return X81 later in the afternoon.


The bonus of visiting Alston is taking a ride on the South Tynedale Railway which runs north from Alston up the valley to Scallyford.

IMG_9093.jpgThe standard gauge tracks were lifted soon after closure in 1976 but the dedicated members of the Preservation Society replaced them with a narrow gauge line with operations commencing in 1983 to a temporary halt about a mile north of Alston pending repairs to a viaduct over the South Tyne River.


Further extensions followed and the line now continues for five miles as far north as Slaggyford with two halts at Kirkhaugh and Lintley.


The Railway has a variety of locomotives including three steam, four diesel and three battery electrics. Yesterday it was No 18 Old Rusty doing the honours – an 0-6-0 diesel mechanical locomotive for those who are interested.

IMG_9105.jpgA Lottery Award in 2016 has enabled the Society to improve both Alston and Slaggyford stations which now offer excellent facilities for visitors.


At Alston there are two adjacent small museums one with an educational slant aimed at youngsters (a condition of the Lottery funding, no doubt) and the other a shed with a variety of transport vehicles and artefacts.


The 2019 timetable of three return journeys a day runs until the end of October reverting from daily to four/five days a week operation now the school holidays are over.

Journey time is 35 minutes with 25 minutes layover at Slaggyford. The volunteer staff are exceptionally friendly – even inviting me to pay a visit inside the Slaggyford signal box to watch Old Rusty change ends.



A great visit and two lovely bus rides to and from Alston too.

Roger French

May’s new timetable on track: Part 2

Wednesday 22nd May 2019

IMG_7312.jpgI left you yesterday morning in Sheffield about to head west on the delightful Hope Valley line (No 12 in My 100 Best Train Journeys) with Trans Pennine Express. It’s a beautiful scenic ride through the Peak District made all the better by a gorgeous sunny day.

IMG_7321.jpgI changed trains in Stockport to a southbound Virgin Trains Euston bound Pendolino as far as Crewe then changing again to head northwest over to Chester on another Virgin Trains, this time a ‘Super Voyager’ (according to the Train Manager’s announcement) although I wasn’t sure what was ‘super’ about it.

IMG_7346.jpgBut it was on time and I arrived in Chester with twenty minutes to spare for the new Transport for Wales hourly service to Liverpool via Frodsham and Runcorn which started this week.

IMG_E7490.jpgMerseyrail operate a long standing fifteen minute frequency service between Chester and Liverpool via The Wirral with electric trains on the third rail system serving Rock Ferry and Birkenhead. It takes 42 minutes to reach Liverpool Line Street on a city centre underground circuit including Liverpool Central in 44 minutes.

IMG_7351.jpgNow we have a choice of train companies and routes with the new TfW hourly service from Chester to Liverpool Lime Street timetabled to take a slighter slower 47 to 50 minutes depending on the journey.

For a visitor it’s rather confusing to see this new interloper heading to Liverpool in the opposite direction to the traditional Merseyrail trains. Even more confusing my 1327 departure was advertised as leaving from Chester’s Platform 6 but neither train in that platform were TfW branded and disconcertingly were locked up with no diesel engine throbbing away ready to leave (on the right pictured below).

IMG_7355.jpgThe adjacent Platform 5 (on the left) had a Northern train heading to Leeds which is another exciting May timetable initiative achieved by linking new journeys from Chester via Warrington to an existing hourly service from Manchester to Leeds. Except it takes half an hour longer than changing trains in Manchester Victoria on to a faster Trans Pennine Express train to Leeds 15 minutes later rather than the new slower through route via Hebden Bridge taken by the Northern train. Still, it does provide new direct links between stations along the way eg Warrington to Halifax so it is a good development.

IMG_7354.jpgAfter that train left at its scheduled 1321 the handful of us waiting news of the 1327 were told by a shouting orange high-vis wearing dispatcher that the now vacant Platform 5 would be for our Liverpool train – just as well he shouted as bizarrely there seemed to be no dot matrix sign on Platform 6, so old style communication is needed.

IMG_7357.jpgOur train wasn’t due to arrive from Liverpool until 1324 giving a tight three minute turn around; it actually arrived at 1328 but with our fresh driver ready to take over we were away at 1330 after an impressively quick handover.

IMG_7358.jpgMore impressive we got to Lime Street in just 41 minutes, beating Merseyrail’s journey time by a minute.

Even better there are only four stations along the way on the TfW journey whereas Merseyrail has fourteen on its route to Lime Street which makes the journey seem torturously longer.

Local and regional politicians are salivating with delight at this new route as they see future potential in linking trains along the north Wales coast directly with Liverpool and providing handy connections at Liverpool South Parkway (one of the four stations) for the nearby John Lennon Airport.

Two of the new journeys extend beyond Chester to Wrexham and there’s talk of more in the future. There’s also talk of links with through trains to South Wales but quite where all these new links will be diverted from on the existing network is a mystery unless they’re all going to be extra journeys which will be mightily expensive.

Chester, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway have already got regular trains to Liverpool so that just leaves Helsby and Frodsham as the two stations newly connected to Merseyside’s capital and as those station names convey, they’re not exactly booming metropoli in themselves. So unless those links are added further back into Wales, which will inevitably mean severing existing through journeys (eg to Cardiff, Manchester or Birmingham) , it’s difficult to see where all the new passengers are going to come from.

This exciting development has been made possible by upgrading what’s called the Halton Curve, a single line curve between Frodsham and Runcorn linking the Chester to Warrington Line with the Crewe to Runcorn and Liverpool line.

IMG_E7492.jpgPreviously this bit of little used track was only signalled for trains in the Runcorn direction and to travel on it you had to catch the once a week Parliamentary train that ran on a summer Saturday around 0700 from Chester to Runcorn just to say you’d done it. When I travelled on it a few years ago there were about six of us all just doing it for the sake of doing it. That’s dedication for you although I’m sure others call it something else!

After a lot of work over the last couple of years this bit of track has been made bidirectional so the new train service can run every hour seven days a week both ways on the new timetable. But all this hasn’t come cheap. A cool £16 million has been spent sorting out the signals and tarting up the track. I originally thought that amount of funding was going to double track the curve, but no, it’s still single line.

The funding was approved by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. I hope they think it’s worth the investment.

IMG_7383.jpgI had a wander through the train as we left Frodsham (the second station after Chester) to see how many new passengers were on board as we went on to the curve past the signal box marking the junction.

IMG_7360.jpgTwelve of us were making the trip including one or two just like me who were keeping a curious eye on what was occurring.

IMG_E7491.jpgAt Liverpool Line Street TfW we’re making their presence for the very first time in that station by promoting the new link with the usual goodie bags containing a pen, smarties and the timetable leaflet.

IMG_7418.jpgI guess it’s worth shouting about having blown £16million on revitalising a piece of curved track! It wasn’t up to Azuma launch standards, but then that cost a few hundred million more.

IMG_7417.jpgI hope it’s a success but it’s going to take more than just Helsby and Frodsham to achieve payback and those tight turn rounds in Chester look worrying with all the layover at the Liverpool end of the route – presumably for ‘pathing reasons’.

IMG_7423.jpgFrom Liverpool Lime Street I went back across the Pennines on the Trans Pennine Express northerly route via Manchester Victoria, Huddersfield and Leeds and on to York and Durham where it was a good opportunity to hop off and take a deviation to Newcastle via Sunderland.

By bus.

IMG_7459.jpgAlso new on the public transport scene this week is the beginning of a much needed brand makeover for Go North East’s vast bus network across the region.

The new X-lines brand sensibly brings all the disparate and individually branded limited stop routes together under one attractive identity. It’s another triumph from Best Impressions and I’m sure it will be a success.

IMG_7443.jpgIt certainly made a welcome contrast from the grim image created by the down at heel Durham bus station.

IMG_7430.jpgSadly reliability problems impacted my planned journey on the half hourly X-lines route X20 linking Durham with Sunderland and due to depart at 1726.

The bus didn’t arrive from its previous run until well after that time and we didn’t depart until 1739, 13 minutes late.

IMG_7450.jpgIt turned out to be one of those frustrating journeys where one delay added to another with passengers’ tickets being rejected by the new Ticketer machines and other issues.

IMG_7451.jpgEven more frustrating we got overtaken twice by the much more frequent all stops route 20 which turned out to be quicker on this occasion!

IMG_7454.jpgWe eventually arrived in Sunderland’s bright and airy ‘Interchange’ at Park Lane twenty minutes late and our driver loaded up and hurried off on the other newly branded X-lines route, the X6/7 to Peterlee with which the X20 interworks.

I headed over to Sunderland’s rather brutalist station …


IMG_7465.jpg… which is even more depressing on the subterranean platforms ….

IMG_7469.jpg… and caught the Metro over to Newcastle for an overnight stop.


Part 3 of this round Britain round up to follow in a couple of days.

Roger French