Heathrow funds more bus routes

Thursday 14th November 2019

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It’s becoming notable how many new and improved bus routes are being introduced with financial support from Heathrow Airport offering better connections for staff and airline travellers. Anyone would think there’s a third runway in the offing.

I wrote about First Bus’s new RailAir link from Guildford to Heathrow when it kicked off back in July. Earlier this month I wrote about the much improved timetable introduced a couple of weeks ago on Thames Valley branded route 10 to Datchet, Windsor and Dedworth and yesterday I caught up with a couple more initiatives now up and running thanks to the ever generous Heathrow Airport Ltd.

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Route X442 began on 10th August providing a direct quick link from Staines rail station pretty much non stop along the A3044 past the massive reservoirs straight to Terminal 5. It supplements the more circuitous route 442 via Ashford Hospital, Stanwell and Stanwell Moor which has also seen an improved timetable with late evening journeys and a new Sunday service. Both routes 442 and X442 are operated by Carlone with swanky Mercedes minibuses with the usual leather type seats, awful leg room, especially over the wheel arches, but a handy usb socket in the side panels.

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Surrey County Council have also chipped in to facilitate the improved service and Spelthorne Borough Council (in which Staines resides) has aspirations for a ‘Southern Light Rail’ scheme which “will form part of the Oyster card network”. Recent press reports state the Council “had been given the nod to proceed with its bid” for such a scheme. I guess when you have a Masterplan which builds a new runway, eliminates communities by bulldozing hundreds of homes, diverts rivers and roads, burrows the M25 into a tunnel and goodness knows what else, a light rail connecting Staines into the airport is almost petty cash consideration. But, in the meantime for Stainesites and Heathrow workers using SWR trains to the station, it’s the new look X442 for now.

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I took a ride around lunchtime yesterday from Terminal 5 out to Staines and back again. It’s a tight run taking thirteen minutes pretty much non-stop. The half hour frequency is operated by just the one minibus, and one driver, who notwithstanding the punishing regime was amazingly cheerful (even handing me a promotional pen with timetable) but he did admit the constant up and down the same bit of the A3044 does get to him towards the end of the shift in the afternoons.

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The first X442 journey leaves Staines station at 06:33 and continues until 19:03. There’s an hours gap mid morning and mid afternoon when passengers are directed to use the circuitous 442 instead which is appropriately diverted via the station (where it doesn’t normally go – preferring the bus station for the rest of its approximate 90 minute frequency timetable). The 442 also covers for the missing X442 in the evenings and on Sundays.

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I was the only passenger on the 12:32 journey from Terminal 5 to Staines station but on the return trip leaving the station at 12:45 we picked a passenger up in the High Street who deliberately let the First Berkshire route 8 go by as she was pleased to tell the driver the cheaper fare on the X442 saved her £2. She reckoned a few of her colleagues had also twigged about the cheaper fares and made the switch. First’s route 8 also provides a fast half hourly link from Staines to Terminal 5, albeit serving the town’s bus station rather than the rail station.

The cheaper fares and the regular frequency will make the X442 an attractive link for the airport’s workers to and from Staines and the half hour frequency is generous but necessary if connections to trains at the station are going to be convenient. It’s quite an investment, but there again, Heathrow Airport can no doubt afford it.

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The second new route to Terminal 5 only began last week, so it’s still early days. Operated by Reading Buses/Thames Valley route 459 provides a link to Iver just over the border in Buckinghamshire and also takes in Langley (twice on each journey).

CEO of Reading Buses, Robert Williams has explained the full service is not set to begin until next February, but in the meantime the five off-peak journey a day Monday to Friday taster timetable runs between 09:38 and 14:28 and has been “mobilised exceptionally quickly for the various authorities and will build everything up as things progress”.

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The Reading Buses news release issued a couple of weeks ago says “the new route will be implemented in three phases as we trial different bus types”. Phase one started on Monday of last week and runs until 20th December using a full electric bus with the service “completely free to use”.

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Phase two runs during the month of January and “we will use one of our single deck buses that run on compressed natural gas”.

Phase three from 3rd February sees “the full timetable introduced which will include a service running from 3am until after midnight, and of course, include weekends. From phase three, full fares will be in operation”. This full service will be run by a Euro 6 diesel engine bus.

This is an intriguing way of starting a new bus route; I’ve never come across anything quite like it before, and am not sure I understand the logic behind the various phases nor why the three month lead in period until the full timetable.Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 15.25.55.png

Route 459 takes in part of First Berkshire’s route 7 through Langley and I wonder if they will be pleased about this new interloper once the full timetable is introduced next year. For now, the five off-peak journeys are hardly a threat and unsurprisingly yesterday when I had a ride around on the 11:38 from Terminal 5 we left with no-one on board.

The online route map (above) shows “certain journeys only” making a detour via Langley before commencing the anti-clockwise circuit via Iver and we followed this route and the timetable shows all five journeys do so; perhaps this will change once the full timetable is implemented.  It certainly adds to the sense of going round in circles for people travelling to Iver.

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When we got to Iver station we picked up a passenger who thought we were the Redline Buses operated infrequent route 583 to Uxbridge where she was heading to (presumably) change on to TfL’s route A10 to get to Heathrow Central Bus Station for Terminal 2, so she was well pleased to discover she was on a free-to-use bus (for now) to Terminal 5 where she could make a (free) connection to the Central bus station. She was the only passenger but there didn’t seem to be much publicity for the 459 at bus stops as we went along the route, so that wasn’t surprising.

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I spotted a timetable attached to a bus stop pole in Iver itself, but there was nothing displayed in bus shelters in Langley or through Colnbrook and no bus stops plates had the 459 number added.

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I commented last week about the appalling dearth of helpful information about bus departures at Terminal 5 itself and wasn’t surprised to see no mention at all of the 459 anywhere yesterday.

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It seems quite bizarre that Heathrow Airport are funding at considerable expense these new services, including the 459 and the improved route 10, yet there’s absolutely no mention of these initiatives. Quite how people are supposed to find out about them I really don’t know.

Terminal 5 compares very poorly with the Central Bus Station where there are at least displays advising you where to catch buses and coaches, and their destinations.

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Compare the above with this disgraceful display at a Terminal 5 bus stop.

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While at the Central Bus Station, I picked up a copy of the acclaimed Local Bus & Coach Guide (edition 2 dated 1 July 2019) and this is a real gem with a regional map showing bus routes to and from the airport, who operates what, and what special fare deals are available for airport staff.

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Hopefully another edition will be published soon with all these latest initiatives included. And Terminal 5’s departure bays will get some much needed attention.

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Roger French

Thames Valley boost to Terminal 5

Saturday 2nd November 2019

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Reading Buses owned Courtney Buses are making significant changes to bus services for the Windsor to Heathrow corridor this weekend. The improved timetable and revamp includes a smart new branding with buses sporting an updated Thames Valley livery for colour coded routes.

I travelled over to the eastern end of what we used to know as the Royal County of Berkshire yesterday to take a look before the new arrangements kick in.

I understand the greatly improved timetable for route 10 between Dedworth, Windsor, Datchet and Heathrow Terminal 5 starting tomorrow is being funded by Heathrow Airport as part of its continuing commitment to increase public transport use to and from the airport.

From my grisly experience of Terminal 5’s bus station yesterday I reckon the Airport needs to invest in brightening the place up and making the information displays more helpful and up to date as a top priority if it’s really serious about getting air travellers and airline staff to use the bus. It will be far more effective than funding an expansion of a little used bus route.

IMG_2228.jpgHeathrow’s Central Bus Station has a long shelter which is far too narrow to keep the many waiting passengers for local buses dry and warm in poor weather conditions, but at least being in the open air it has natural light. Terminal 5’s catch-a-bus experience offers a truly dark and dismal under-a-terminal-building wait which is anything but attractive. And if that subterraneum blues isn’t bad enough, information provision is simply dire.

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There’s a foreboding array of bus stops lined up numbered from 1 to 31 across a barrier sperated two lanes catering for a full range of journeys with buses to car parks, car hire and hotels as well as traditional bus and express coach services. The latter depart from immediately outside the exit/entrance to the Terminal building but the main departure listing includes long withdrawn bus route numbers (60, 61, 71, 77 and 78) while an extra listing supposedly highlighting TfL operated routes also includes route 442 (operated by Carlone Buses) but no mention of routes operated by First Berkshire and Reading Buses owned Green Line and Courtney Buses. There’s also no mention of the more recent innovation – a fast route X442 between Staines and Terminal 5 operated by Carlone Buses.

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Can you imagine if such a cavalier approach to information display applied inside Terminal 5 for British Airways’ flight departures – showing gate numbers for flight departures that had long been withdrawn and no information about some flights about to take off?

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The whole waiting environment is inhibiting and off putting. No wonder I saw bus after bus with minimal loadings arriving and departing including the recent RailAir initiative from Guildford (First’s new route RA2) with just one passenger on board; and the 10:32 departure on Carlone operated route X442 never showed up at all.

In the absence of  “where to catch your bus” information you have to wander up and down the bus stops to see which routes depart from which stop and then the situation is confused by bus stop flags displaying incorrect route numbers or a lack of route numbers.

The situation is not helped by First Berkshire running a half hourly circular route numbered both 8 and 9, with the former number linking Terminal 5 with Windsor (via Staines) where it changes into a 9 to return via Slough and direct to Terminal 5 (in both directions). It’s easy when you know the logic of it all, but totally baffling without any information to explain it. Furthermore there’s a slower route 7 to Slough via Langley every 20 minutes and then there’s the hourly Green Line 703 also direct to Slough. Passengers have a great travel choice but it’s not much good if they can’t easily see where and how to take advantage of it.

I arrived to catch the about-to-be-withdrawn 10:40 journey on route 11 which follows the same route as route 10 as far as Datchet then continuing to Slough instead of Windsor with a journey time of forty minutes. It was unnerving to see the bus stop timetable showing this as a journey numbered 10 and operating to Windsor but I remained confident noting the display is dated 27 May 2018 therefore being many months out of date (and this immediately outside the UK’s premier airport’s newest terminal!).

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My confidence was boosted while waiting when a confused passenger asked me where to catch the bus to Slough showing me an app on his smartphone displaying the upcoming 11 departure. He didn’t seem interested in my trying to persuade him to catch the First Berkshire route 9 at 10:30 direct to Slough which would get him there in 24 minutes, let alone knowing which stop it departs from as there’s scant mention of it and I was reluctant to go for another wander up and down the bus stop line looking for it.

IMG_2233.jpgLuckily he seemed happy to join me on the longer more rural and reservoir spotting ride on the 11 which at least helped the number of passengers to reach four including us Slough bound two, a flight attendant heading home to nearby Poyle and another passenger to Datchet. Based on that experience I don’t think this rather oddly timed one-off off-peak journey a day to Slough is going to be missed in the new timetable. That’s a shame, as it’s quite a quirky ride along narrow lanes nestling between the M4, the SWR operated Windsor and Eton Riverside railway line and an array of reservoirs.

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Aside from that Slough journey, the current route 10 timetable includes four very early morning journeys from Dedworth and Windsor via Datchet and Wraysbury to Heathrow Terminal 5 (arrivals at 04:45, 05:35, 06:35, 07:04) with the first two journeys starting back at Bracknell where Courtney’s main depot is based. These are presumably timed for airport staff and passengers on early departing flights. The timetable for the rest of the day is less attractive with long gaps between arrivals at Terminal 5 at 08:45, 10:32, 12:12, 14:02, 16:22, 18:23, 19:44, 21:44 and 23:44.

But it’s all change from Monday when there’ll be a consistent and improved hourly service on the 10 from Dedworth and Windsor until around 17:00 (including a new early arrival into Terminal 5 at 03:48) with evening journeys after that reduced to arrivals at 18:27, 19:37 and 22:05.

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Some of the early morning journeys currently run via the village of Horton (between Datchet and Pyle) but this link will cease due to lack of use with all journeys running via Sunnymeads and Wraysbury.

Between Windsor and Dedworth the hourly timetable on the 10 is co-ordinated with a reduced hourly (currently half-hourly) timetable on route 2 (Slough-Windsor-Dedworth), although between Slough and Windsor the new route 2 hourly timings are close to the Green Line 703 times so not particularly convenient.

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There’s a rather attractive slimline timetable book for the Slough and Windsor area available containing the new timetables and a route map. This also helpfully includes a cooridnated timetable between Dedworth and Windsor for routes 2 and 10, but strangely I can’t find a link to it online where only the separate timetables are shown.

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A new-look darker Thames Valley livery is being rolled out to replace the Courtney brand name and I spotted a number of buses with their new vinyls ready for Monday’s expanded route 10 being used on other routes as well as doing some route training for drivers.

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It looks as though some inter-working between the half hourly route 5 between Cippenham and Slough and the revised hourly route 2 between Slough and Windsor/Dedworth is envisaged with buses carrying a combined branded livery.

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After my route 11 experience I took the opportunity to take a circular ride on Thames Valley (née Courtney Buses) route 15 to Maidenhead then round to Windsor on route 16 and back to Slough on route 2.

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Route 15 was one of the routes given up by First Berkshire in January 2018 who ran it as far as Eton Wick however Courtney Buses saw merit in extending four of the ten journeys a day across Dorney Common and Dorney to Maidenhead.

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Although we carried about a dozen passengers to Eton and Eton Wick, sadly only two continued on to Maidenhead. However, route 16 back to Windsor via the lovely village of Bray as well as Holypot and Dedworth was much busier and looked to be a nice little money-spinning hourly service.

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My short trip back to Slough on route 2 was with only around half a dozen other passengers perhaps indicating why that frequency is being reduced from two to one bus an hour albeit with Green Line 702 and 703 also providing one bus an hour each as well.

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Except, as highlighted above, it’s not very well coordinated. For example departures from Windsor to Slough from lunch time into the afternoon are at 15, 35 and 38 minutes past each hour.

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It makes sense for Reading Buses to consolidate its acquisition of Courtney Buses earlier this year with the set-up it began at the beginning of 2018 in Slough when it first introduced the Thames Valley brand for two of the routes (2 and 5) it took over when First Berskshire withdrew. Courtney Buses was a respected family owned company which has done a lot of good things to revitalise the network left by First in the Bracknell and Maidenhead areas but I suspect it’s been an interesting challenge over the last six months to bring standards up to those commonplace in the main Reading Buses operation.

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I noticed a few oddities yesterday including a bizarre display across three in-bus monitor screens explaining why an increase in fares was being introduced in March 2019 …. eight months ago. 

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I was also intrigued that dogs still pay fares in this part of Bark-shire! Still at least it’s a Rover ticket.IMG_2338.jpg

It certainly brings back fond memories to see the Thames Valley name back on buses running between Slough, Maidenhead and Windsor and the new livery is attractive and colourful, a bit more sombre than the interim one introduced in early 2018 but I understand it’s part of a family of brands including the Newbury & District set up over on the western side of Berkshire.

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With First Berkshire also using colour coding for their routes based on Slough, the town is turning into a very bright place for buses. Long may that continue.

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Roger French

 

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