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

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