railair takes off from Guildford

Wednesday 3rd July 2019

IMG_2280.jpgBus and coach routes serving airports have expanded greatly over the last few decades with a seemingly constant stream of new initiatives.

I wrote about the recent upgrade to First Glasgow’s route 500 between Glasgow Airport and the city centre last month while over at Edinburgh Airport, Xplore Dundee have started a new route linking Dundee and the airport, First Bus have doubled the frequency of their route 600 linking West Lothian and Lothian Buses now run four different routes serving Edinburgh itself. Down at Bristol Airport, Stagecoach introduced Falcon to and from the south west a few years ago while First improved the local service from Bristol itself.

London’s airports (aside from ‘Southend’ of course!) have also benefited from new initiatives including Stansted where competition has seen a plethora of coach options from various parts of central London. Heathrow Airport has been well served for many years but First Berkshire reckon they’ve spotted a gap in the market from Guildford which they’ve bravely filled with a brand new hourly coach service which started on Monday.

IMG_2276.jpgThe newly branded railair RA2 service joins the long established RA1 from Reading, also operated by First Berkshire, and upgraded with swish new coaches earlier this year (reviewed in a previous blog). Indeed some of the displaced coaches from that route have found a home on this new Guildford service.

The Reading railair route, as the brand name implies, is well known for its handy connections to and from the airport for passengers travelling by GWR train from South Wales and the West Country. The same idea lies behind the new RA2 with passengers using South Western Railway trains from Portsmouth and Southsea on the Petersfield line, as well as Farnham and Aldershot now having a more convenient way to access Heathrow without the inconvenience of going into London and back out again.

The new link also provides a more convenient route for Reigate and Dorking residents using GWR’s North Downs line and changing at Guildford.

Route RA2 runs hourly from around 04:00 to 22:00. The route itself is pretty simple using the A3 and M25 with a short wiggle near Guildford town centre to serve The Chase near to the University of Surrey. Terminal 5 is served but not Terminal 4 and the route’s terminal bus stops are right alongside the exit from Guildford station and in Heathrow Airport’s central bus and coach station. Pointedly it doesn’t serve Guildford bus station.

IMG_E2301.jpgAllowance has been made in the schedule for variable motorway traffic conditions with daytime journeys given 65 minutes increasing to 75 minutes in the peaks. The first early morning journey is given 52 minutes.

The service takes three coaches with a fairly tight ten minute turnaround at Heathrow and a more leisurely 41 minutes in Guildford.

It’s £9 for a single fare if bought in advance by app, online or as an add-on to a train ticket and £10 if paid on the coach. This is in line with the general practice of premium charging for airport fares but also exposes the comparable fare from Reading at a whopping £20 online, albeit that’s for a greater distance.

The comparable single fare on the National Express RailAir shuttle from Woking station is £10.50 single although this reduces to a more attractive £6 if booked four weeks or more in advance.

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I took a ride on the 11:00 departure on the RA2 from Guildford this morning. The coach was already on stand when I arrived at 10:45 with one passenger on board and another just boarding. The driver was chatting to a high-viz wearing First Bus employee who offered me a leaflet when he saw me hovering and taking photographs.

It’s nice to see Surrey County Council have updated the ‘Bus Stand’ (sic) with an RA2 number ….

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…. and there’s a standard RA2 Surrey County Council style timetable with First Bus railair promotional messages in the timetable case.

IMG_2287.jpgI do hope they update the grotty frames alongside though (which I’ve tweeted about for years now). The driver and his high-viz companion thought this was in hand when I mentiond it to them, which if so, really will be a step forward.

IMG_2286.jpgSadly no further passengers arrived before we left spot on time with just the five of us on board (that’s including the driver and his high-viz helper). We passed the bus stop at The Chase slightly ahead of time – eight minutes running time from the station is very generous in the off peak – and I was impressed that we glided by the RHS Wisley stop on the A3 exactly on time at 11:18 as Google maps ominously showed slow going on the M25.

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Most of the journey around the infamous M25 south west quadrant was consequently at a steady 40 mph but we still arrived into Terminal 5 at 11:40 compared to the scheduled arrival time of 11:53 so even in the off peak there’s plenty of slack to allow for motorway delays.

IMG_2309.jpgOur high-viz wearing friend alighted here as we continued around Heathrow’s western perimeter …

IMG_2312.jpg…. and reached Heathrow’s Central Bus and Coach Station eleven minutes ahead of time at 11:54 and the two passengers alighted with me. An overall journey time of 54 minutes – only two minutes more than that best time allowance for that first departure at 03:40!

IMG_2350.jpgIt was an impressive ride; even though the M25 was a bit crowded traffic was at least flowing. However, that road is notorious for its gridlock and I reckon coaches will struggle to keep to time on a busy Friday afternoon and evening as well as negotiating through Guildford’s congested traffic including that section of route by the University.

The interior of the coach, despite dating from 2013/4 was very welcoming and comfortable. A lot more so than anything you get on modern trains these days. There were four tables with forward and backward facing seats and a total capacity of 44.

IMG_2318.jpgThe coach was nice and clean with working plug sockets and WiFi which kicked in after a little time albeit with the usual requirement for an email address to be entered for access.

The key to this route’s success is getting it known among rail passengers on the Portsmouth & Southsea line via Petersfield. Portsmouth passengers already have the Woking RailAir link which has been around for a while and is well promoted, so this new service needs South Western Railway to do its bit by plugging the alternative via Guildford. Interstingly end to end journey times are comparable whether via Woking or Guildford.

South Western Railway is of course run by First Group (in conjunction with MTR Europe) so in theory this should be easy, but the industry is littered with examples of non-joined-up-ness between train and bus so I’m not holding my breath.

The attractive leaflet for the Guildford railair states you can buy a rail add-on: “click or ask for Guildford Railair add-on when making an advance purchase rail ticket or buying from a ticket vending machine or ticket office”. I tried buying an advance purchase ticket online from the SWR website but the only add-ons it offered me were a bicycle reservation or a PlusBus.Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 19.01.27.pngStill it’s early days and there’s lots of time to get details like that sorted, and the Reading service certainly works well, although that does have a much larger catchment area and the fare is more than double the Guildford price!

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A big accodale to First Berkshire for launching this new initiative and giving a brand new service a go. Good luck

Roger French

 

Will competition safeguard buses in Guildford?

Friday 16th November

Head to head bus competition broke out in Guildford last week. It won’t last; one operator will blink first – read on to find out which.

Long established family owned Safeguard Coaches runs circular routes 4/5 linking the city centre with Aldershot Road, Park Barn and the Royal Surrey County Hospital. Eight years ago they also ran part of route 3 serving Bellfields but back in 2010 Arriva, who also operated buses to both areas, took over the route to Bellfields exclusively leaving Park Barn exclusively to Safeguard. I’m not sure whether this arrangement was something of interest to the Competition Authorities at the time, but the local media certainly took an interest.

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From the local Surrey media

In the event, the “arrangement” is now history as Arriva have crashed back into Park Barn with a ten minute dedicated service (Route B) at the same time as revamping a longer cicular route (service 26/27) which also served the Royal Surrey County Hospital and an area called Stoughton. Now RSCH gets its own ten minute dedicated service (Route A) while Stoughton has its own fifteen minute frequency Route C.

The spark for Arriva’s Park Barn incursion came a few weeks ago when Stagecoach were given rights by the University of Surrey to run buses through the campus which had previously been served by Arriva on their now abandoned circular 26/27. The replacement route A now has to bypass the campus using what’s known as The Chase which also treads on the toes of Safeguard’s route 4/5.

Furthermore part of Stagecoach’s new network (Route 2) provides competition between the city centre and Stoughton to Arriva’s new Route C (old 26/27).

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The new Arriva A B C routes
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The long established Safeguard Coaches circular 4/.5 routes
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Stagecoach runs circular linked routes 1/2 taking in the University, Hospital and Stoughton

Passengers have never had a better service with well over twelve buses an hour running direct between the city centre and the Royal Surrey County Hospital and up to twelve an hour between the city centre and Park Barn estate. Bus fares have also come plummeting down. One thing’s for sure, despite the Hospital being a busy attractor for passenger journeys and Park Barn being what we euphemistically call ‘good bus territory’, there’s definitely not enough passengers for the high frequencies now on offer.

I feel sorry for Safeguard. They’re rightly regarded as a quality independent operator (because they are); a winner of industry awards; and well respected by the local community and passengers who use the 4/5 route – which meets the needs of the area well. They’ve provided an excellent service in Guildford for ninety years and route 4/5 is a quality local route of which they should be proud.

I’ve got sympathy for Arriva. It must have been disheartening to be chucked out the University campus which I’m sure was lucrative to serve on its 26/27 circular and the incursion from Stagecoach in Stoughton must be unwelcome. I appreciate the attraction of making good the loss with an incursion into Park Barn, but it simply won’t work out for them.

Good for Stagecoach who must have been working closely with the University to gain exclusive access rights to the campus and introducing what looks like a decent mini network linking the University with its catchment areas.

I’m impressed Surrey County Council have obviously worked hard to get all the bus stop flags and timetable cases updated with new route numbers and timetable displays even including large index displays and departure signs in Guildford bus station. Full marks to them for that and what a shame their comprehensive timetable book for Guildford only published and valid from 1 September (coinciding with the new Stagecoach routes 1/2) is now out of date.

Arriva have produced an attractive timetable leaflet for the A, B, C routes available in their travel shop in the bus station but it was a shame there weren’t any available on the buses I travelled on today. I wonder if they’ve done a house-to-house in the affected areas to promote the new routes?

Safeguard also have an attractive full colour timetable leaflet for the 4/5 (commendably Arriva have copies on display in their Travel Shop) and a small additional leaflet promoting extra buses to and from the hospital and its cheaper fares.

As always in these things it’s attention to detail that’s important – not one of Arriva’s strengths. For example the internal cove panels in one of the buses I travelled on was promoting an out of date 0844 telephone number and season tickets for the full Guildford wide network rather than the new less-than-half-price tickets (bizarrely called ‘seasonal tickets’ – will they only last until the Spring?) available on routes A, B, C.

A promotional poster inside Arriva’s Travel Shop

Safeguard on the other hand have high profile posters promoting their lower prices by the entrance of every bus – including bargain fares for NHS staff and their timetable and promotional leaflets are available on board buses. Also impressively their contactless payment option has a weekly and four-weekly cap built in. That’s quite an incentive to stick with one operator for your week’s or month’s travelling and as the incumbent operator with a long history of serving Park Barn and the Hospital, I’d be surprised if passengers desert them.

Certainly my observations today, which I appreciate are only at the end of week 2, indicate far too few passengers using Arriva’s new Route B and there’s certainly not enough potential to grow the market sufficiently to sustain both this and the 4/5. I can’t conceive Safeguard ever capitulating, they look financially sound enough to sustain this unwelcome onslaught. The only likely outcome is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down Route A) as it wont be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ.

Routes A and C look like a good idea – it simplifies what was a rather convoluted 26/27 circular but if I’d been Arriva I’d have also redeployed resources from the 26/27 (and used the transfer in of more modern single deck buses from elsewhere) to boost and protect the service to Bellfields – providing a more attractive offer than double decks lumbering round every twenty minutes – it wasn’t that long ago the great hope for Bellfields was the ridiculous Mercedes Sprinter minibuses, but that ended in disaster as the buses were totally unsuitable; I can’t help thinking double deckers are just as unsuitable to the other capacity extreme and I’d be very wary of a locally based family owned highly respected operator reinventing history and returning to that pre 2010 arrangement of serving Bellfields!

A double deck on Route 3 to Bellfields today
The Mercedes Sprinters were completely unusable and withdrawn from route 3 last year

One to watch with interest in the coming months.

Roger French