On the M2 on the M2 … and a 301

Monday 22nd July 2019

IMG_4219.jpgYou have to hand it to Stagecoach. Whenever they give a new commercial service a go, they don’t hold back. Their South West Falcon introduced in 2016 linking Bristol with Plymouth was a massive investment involving a fleet of brand new coaches running hourly during the day as well as night journeys. It was a huge commercial risk which I’m pleased to see seems to have paid off.

This week sees another high profile brand new inter-urban express route take to the road, this time pioneered by Stagecoach South East and operating between Canterbury and North Greenwich for the O2 as well as a handy connection to the Jubilee Line for onward travel into central London.

Screen Shot 2019-07-22 at 19.26.26.pngAppropriately numbered M2, the route also serves a stop near Faversham town centre, the Hempstead Valley shopping centre, a stop in Rainham (the Gillingham ‘Rainham’) as well as Chatham’s bus station and Maritime quarter.

The ambitious timetable provides an hourly service seven days a week with a first Monday to Friday journey as early as 04:55 from Canterbury (even 06:40 at weekends) and a last daily journey back from North Greenwich as late as 23:10. That’s very impressive for a start up route and very much in the Stagecoach mould of throwing everything at it from the start.

Journey times vary from a best off-peak end-to-end 1 hour 54 minutes to a peak congestion blighted time of 2 hours 22 minutes.Screen Shot 2019-07-22 at 20.12.41.pngFive vehicles are needed to run the service and I understand there’s one spare available. They’re nine year old Volvo B9R/Plaxton Elites which have been around the Group a bit having seen service in East Scotland as well as elsewhere. They’re decent coaches though and very suitable for this latest venture. There’s the usual Wi-fi and a three pin plug socket per pair of seats and an on board toilet at the rear.IMG_4227.jpgTime comparisons with the rail alternative are not particularly favourable bearing in mind Canterbury and Faversham both enjoy High Speed trains whisking you to St Pancras (best time to Canterbury is 56 minutes) but whereas HS1 passengers are stung with premium ticket prices Stagecoach can offer more attractive fares.

Advance booking on the M2 is available through the Megabus website and there are also pay-on-the-coach fares (including contactless). A single from Canterbury to North Greenwich starts at £8.50 (online off peak including £1 booking fee) increasing to £10 (pay-on-coach). Fares on the first three peak departures from Canterbury are higher at £12 (online) and £15 (pay-on-coach). There are no m-Ticket options through the Stagecoach App. Fares from Medway reduce to £7 (online) and £8 (pay-on-coach) with peak fares £10 (online) and £12 (pay-on-coach). There are unspecified discounts available for students with ID and seniors with concessionary passes.

An Anytime day return from Canterbury to St Pancras on the train including the HS1 premium sets you back £72.70 with off-peak costing £38.90. However a weekly Anytime season is £167.40 which for five days travel works out at £33.48 per day, and if you take the non HS1 version it’s £139.60 or £27.92 per day, although journey times are much longer – it takes as long as the M2. Interestingly though, the £27.92 works out cheaper than paying two peak singles on the M2 coach at £30 (although it’s £24 online). I can’t see any availability of return tickets or commuter weeklies on the M2 advertised online and strangely there’s no reference to fares at all in the timetable leaflet; nor any reference to fares on the rather understated vehicle livery.

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I took a ride on the 11:50 from Canterbury to North Greenwich this morning to see how the new service is bedding in.

Thanks to Highways England closing the M2 motorway yesterday for ‘essential maintenance’ putting the kibosh on Stagecoach’s inaugural day for the M2 coach route (it ran to a curtailed timetable and route) today was the first day offering a full service on the M2 on the M2 (if you see what I mean).

It’s always a bit scary running a brand new service during its first few days especially one as intense as the hourly M2, as despite all the planning, organisation and pre launch publicity and marketing, passengers may simply not appear. It can be a bit dispiriting.

Although I was the only passenger this morning on the 11:50 departure the driver was very friendly and very upbeat and positive about the new service. Indeed, he’d left his job at another well established coach company running commuter coaches between Kent and London just so he could be part of this new venture. That impressed me. I hope his confidence and optimism is well placed.

He drove at a very steady pace and despite leaving a couple of minutes late we passed the Perry Court stop in Faversham spot on time at 12:08. This stop is on the A251 (off the A2) just before junction 6 on the M2 which we joined.

I appreciate the time penalty of doing a circuit of Faversham town centre might be unattractive, but I wonder if there could be a bus stop located slightly closer for the convenience and attraction of serving Faversham. Perry Court didn’t look particularly convenient. It would also proivde an excellent non-stop Faversham to Canterbury service although I appreciate there’s already the half-hourly 3X taking just 24 minutes for that journey,

We were then on the M2 through to junction 4 where we came off to serve the Hempstead Valley shopping centre. We arrived five minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time of 12:33 so it made me wonder whether a tour of Faversham town centre could be accommodated after all – it would probably only take about the five minutes we sat at Hempstead Valley.IMG_4147.jpgOnward to Chatham bus station where we arrived ten minutes ahead of the scheduled departure at 11:59. There’s definitely some cautious running time allowances in this timetable.IMG_4210.jpgWe left via the Dockyard and Maritime quarter and then through the Medway Tunnel which brought us on to the A2 and the forty minute ride to North Greenwich. Traffic was as busy as usual even at lunch time as we neared Greenwich and the Blackwall Tunnel approach road and we lost five minutes negotiating the traffic light junctions before reaching the North Greenwich terminus alongside the Underground station and O2 at 13:49 instead of 13:44.IMG_4224.jpgThe driver and bus had stand time of 21 minutes until the return journey to Canterbury leaves at 14:05.

Stand time at Canterbury in the off peak is a very generous 54 minutes; all credit to Stagecoach for starting the timetable off with a very cautious and generous timing allowance which will help ensure reliability, subject to the random nature of traffic delays on this busy road corridor.

IMG_4146.jpgIt was good to see timetable leaflets and other literature available inside the coach as well as in Stagecoach’s Canterbury travel shop and I also spotted supplies and information at Chatham bus station (bottom right).IMG_4217.jpg

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Bus stops had been updated with reference to the M2 as well as departure times at Canterbury and Hempstead Valley but the fancy electronic signs at Chatham bus station were all blank as usual.IMG_4212.jpgIt also didn’t surprise me to see TfL make no reference to the new M2 at North Greenwich. They really are hopeless.

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It’s very welcome to see another big investment in a new commercial service by Stagecoach and it’s obvious a lot of thought has gone into the planning and logistics of the M2 and it was good to see publicity was prominent along the route. Well done to everyone involved. But, as always with services of this kind, it’s a HUGE market to serve. On the one hand this shows the potential – Canterbury, Chatham, Greenwich, the O2 and connections to London are all great places to visit and they’re all on the M2’s radar – but on the other hand it shows the enormous challenge of getting the service known by potential passengers across such a massive market.

I do think the fares package may need some adjustment, particularly the need for discounted returns and perhaps weekly tickets to attract commuters. It seems odd not to publicise fares more dramatically including whatever the discounts are for students and seniors.

I understand there’ll be a full review of the service after six months. I reckon it’ll need at least a year, and probably eighteen months to two years to really established itself and see if there is a sustainable commercial market. Oxford Bus pulled the plug within six months of starting their Oxford to Birmingham coach service in 2016. I always thought that was a bit too early; I hope the same doesn’t apply here. You have to be patient and be prepared to spend an awful lot on marketing and raising awareness. In this regard, while I like the ‘Stagecoach express’ brand and logo on the coaches, I do wonder whether the places served, the frequency and some reference to price needs to be incorporated more prominently to raise the profile.

Good luck and I wish the new service every success.

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While I was out and about today I popped from North Greenwich over to nearby Woolwich to take a ride on another new service – TfL’s route 301 which began on the Saturday before last running between Woolwich and Bexleyheath.

IMG_4379.jpgIt’s not very often TfL introduce a brand new service; these days it’s all about cut backs in frequencies and direct journeys, so it makes a pleasant change to try out a new bus route in London, and even more so one that runs every 12 minutes (15 minutes evenings and Sundays) and from 05:40 through to 01:00. Not bad going for a route that effectively parallels four other routes along the way rather than carving out any new territory. No hopper fare for passengers here; they can now travel through from Woolwich via Plumstead, Thamesmead, Abbey Wood and Long Lane to Bexleyheath without changing.

End-to-end journey time is 38 minutes off peak rising to 46 minutes in the peak. You’d expect on a 12 minute frequency to need about eight or nine buses to make that work. This being TfL land the PVR is actually 10 buses.

It’s strange this route has been introduced now as it was designed in conjunction with the opening of Crossrail; forming part of the consultation surrounding changes to bus routes in south east London for when Crossrail comes to Abbey Wood. The fact that’s been delayed until at least later next year makes it’s hard to see why the 301 needs to run now. Indeed this afternoon we left Woolwich on time at 14:48 with just one other passenger on board, who I think, like me, was just trying the route out.IMG_4260.jpg The lack of passengers wasn’t surprising bearing in mind we left Woolwich following a bus on the more frequent (every 10 minutes) route 472 which we parallel as far as Thamesmead…..IMG_4265.jpg… then followed a bus on the more frequent (every 10 minutes) route 244 which we parallel to Abbey Wood …..IMG_4266.jpg… then did pick one surprised passenger up as we paralleled the 15 minute frequency route B11, where we also came unstuck for a while in the rather narrow New Road by meeting a B11 coming the other way – whose driver got out to help us reverse…IMG_4298.jpg

IMG_4301.jpg… and then as we joined the fourth and final route to parallel for out last section – the 401..IMG_4363.jpgThere was no 401 to tailgate but there were still no passengers. Rather frustratingly we we got held at a bus stop to regulate the service at 15:18 ….

IMG_4303.jpg….only to get going again and get held again to regulate the service at 15:23…IMG_4333.jpg

… and even more frustratingly that wait was at the last but one stop on the route…

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According to the timetable we weren’t due into Bexleyheath until 15:30 so far better to keep me and the other passenger waiting at the penultimate stop just outside until the due time! That’s London buses for you.

I can’t see the 301 doing anything more than the 472, 244, B11 and 401 have been doing for some time. Once Crossrail trains start running it’ll likely be a different story.IMG_4368.jpg

It was interesting to see some unofficial publicity for the 301 on display in Bexleyheath, albeit partly covering up an out of date spider map in Bexleyheath. Good to see someone taking the initiative and interesting to see the annotated additions. IMG_4371.jpg

Although bus stops and timetable cases had been updated along the route, spider route maps were devoid of any reference to the 301; but that’s no surprise. It took me a little time wandering around Woolwich to find the right bus stop, but eventually I tracked it down.IMG_4234.jpg

Roger French

Two cheers for TfL

Saturday 15th June 2019

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Today saw the much heralded cuts to a large number of central London bus routes including many changes to termini and amended routes.

I previewed the changes in a post on 5th June foreseeing a major challenge as getting bus stop plates, timetables and spider maps updated.

Having had a good wander around central London today I’m pleased to report TfL’s bus stop team have done a reasonably good job bearing in mind the scale of changes.

Inevitably there are some inconsistencies and discrepancies but on the whole it was impressive to see just how much had been updated ready for day 1.

Here are some examples of what gets a big bus stop tick and what needs further attention.

Yellow ‘Bus stop closed’ hoods covering up discontinued bus stops have been regularly deployed in London for some years now to cater for temporary changes due to roadworks and diversions. Sadly the consequential deployment of ‘Dolly Stops’ as replacements is much more rare these days but that’s another matter.

Team Cover Up have been out in force with their yellow hoods overnight after Friday’s last journeys. First up I found them deployed at bus stops uniquely served by the withdrawn route RV1 from Covent Garden ….

IMG_0658.jpg…. via the South Bank ….IMG_0648.jpgIMG_0646.jpg…. including a poignant tribute at the Royal Festival Hall ….

IMG_0655.jpgIMG_0653.jpg…. to the Tower Gateway terminus.

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The Covent Garden bound stop at Oxo Tower on the South Bank has been out of action for some weeks, and the long standing notice erroneously implies the RV1 will be back later this year which to avoid confusion should really be removed now lest it gives anyone false hopes of a RV1 revival…..IMG_0649.jpg

IMG_0650.jpgIn better news ‘E’ plates showing which bus routes serve each bus stop along the route have also all been updated with any reference to the RV1 removed and the 343 added where appropriate on its newly extended section of route to Aldgate replacing the RV1 between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.

Indeed so on the ball were the ‘E’ plate amendment team for the RV1/343 switch that they even updated the bus stops on Tower Bridge approach itself which are no longer in use due to the protective barriers now installed. Still at least that out of use bus stop has accurate route numbers for buses which can no longer stop there.

IMG_0630.jpgIMG_0631.jpgOn the other hand I spotted an erroneous RV1 plate on a bus stop not served long before yesterday’s withdrawal in Great Tower Street which must have been in place from a former old routing…

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The same hooded status was noted on the withdrawn section of bus route 341 in New Fetter Lane/Fetter Lane which are no longer served by buses so that change was sorted correctly too….

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…including the removal of ‘E’ plates for the 341 and the timetable from the stops in Holborn….

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Similarly yellow hoods were properly deployed on bus stops in Fenchurch Street no longer served by any bus routes following the diversion of route 40 to terminate at Clerkenwell Green instead of Aldgate.

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However, the job of updating stops on the new section of route 40….

IMG_0579.jpg……is best described as ‘work in progress’ as ‘E’ plates were incorrectly showing route 45 and 388 (both now withdrawn) rather than the newly diverted 40 in Blackfriars Road …..

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….even though the timetable below had been updated with the 45 and 388 correctly replaced by the 40….

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and in Farringdon Road a new ‘E’ plate had appeared for the newly diverted 341 (but not the 40) ….

IMG_0563.jpg… whereas the timetable below showed the newly diverted 40 but not the 341….

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Meanwhile on bus stops a little further north of Clerkenwell where its just the 341 which needs adding, the stops do have both a timetable displayed and correct ‘E’ plates…..

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The fourth section of road to become newly bus-less is Pall Mall which said farewell to route 9 which has now been diverted back into the parallel Piccadilly. Sadly Team Cover Up hadn’t been there when I visited late this morning and the bus stops on either side of Pall Mall looked very much open for business as usual ….

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…. although someone had taken out the route 9 details from the timetable case ….

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….and added a new timetable and a new ‘E’ plate on the newly served stop in nearby Piccadilly….

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Back in Pall Mall I explained to the waiting passenger she was in for a long wait for a Number 9 but she seemed happy to know the new stop was by Fortnum & Mason and headed off in that direction!

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As well as Team Cover Up these changes also call upon the services of Team Uncover Up as the 14 now diverts from its previous route from Putney Heath at Tottenham Court Road station to operate via the British Museum and terminate at Russell Square instead of via Tottenham Court Road to turn at Warren Street station.

This new bit of route via the British Museum hasn’t seen a bus since route 10 was withdrawn last November so the bus stops have either been left to just Sightseeing buses (as here outside the museum)…

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…. or closed as at the next stop in Montague Street….

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Unfortunately it was still covered up today even as buses went by on the newly diverted 14.

Even more bizarre someone had been out to install a new route 14 timetable in the timetable case at the stop outside the British Museum but hadn’t taken down the bus stop closed sign! Surely there aren’t two teams at work here, one to put new timetables up and another to take down ‘bus stop closed’ signs?

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On the opposite side of the road you’d have to be very knowledgeable to twig the 14 now uses that stop and be prepared to jump out into the road to let the bus driver know as he passes the Sightseeing bus by.

IMG_0497.jpgIMG_0513.jpgOver in Tottenham Court Road references to route 14 (and the 134 – also now withdrawn from that road) were still on bus stop flags ….

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…. but someone had been round and removed all the timetables and for all the routes too! Or, perhaps they haven’t yet been installed to these relatively new southbound stops, but then why install new timetable cases? Anyway, it’s another ‘work in progress’ here.

And more even more bizarre at the erstwhile route 14 terminus at Warren Street, now used by the 134….

IMG_0376.jpg…..someone had been out to add the new 134 timetable but had left the now incorrect 14 one in place…..

IMG_0374.jpg….. nor did they change the ‘E’ plate from showing 14 to 134. I wished I’d brought a spare 3 with me to do the job!

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Talking of the 3, that route no longer serves the northern most stop in Whitehall as the route has been cut back from terminating at Trafalgar Square to Horse Guards Parade and it was good to see everything updated correctly there.

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Over in Aldgate another update success is all references to the 67 are now changed to the 242 both on bus stop plates….

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….. and timetable cases……

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So, another job well executed there.

Similarly over on the Euston Road the stops between Kings Cross and Euston have all had references to the now withdrawn 59 and 476 removed from bus stop flags….

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It’s just a shame that an important and busy stop right opposite St Pancras International has no timetables for daytime bus routes at all…

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The diversion of route 4 at St Paul’s Cathedral to operate via Queen Victoria Street and terminate at Blackfriars instead of running along Fleet Street and Waterloo Bridge to Waterloo was another success with bus stops updated …..

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…. and new timetables at bus stops along the route….

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…. except that the ‘towards Elephant & Castle’ bit of the bus stop is out of date as that used to apply to the 388 when it ran on there, but now the 4 heads no further south than Blackfriars.

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The same issue with ‘towards’ on bus stop plates applies further back along the route where bus stops still display ‘towards Aldwych’ which it no longer does.

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A neat piece of technology was using the iBus system to show a scrolling message just before the new piece of route at St Paul’s advising passengers to alight and change to a bus on route 76 for Waterloo. Old habits die hard and most passengers didn’t notice this and carried on until the bus turned along the new route and then they got flustered and alighted at the next stop.

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I was also impressed to see a number of spider maps had been updated with references to where routes had been altered or withdrawn.

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However, these new style spider maps are not so easy to use, since they no longer show a colour coded route index. For example, the old style map still on display at the old RV1 bus stop in Covent Garden…

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… has the old style route index….

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…but the new style maps colour code the route numbers alongside each destination in the index of places served. I don’t find this so helpful, as the route index was a quick way of telling you for each route the bus stops it serves nearby which was useful if you already knew your route number. Now you have to look up a destination first, to find the route number and the bus stops served.

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Despite the inconsistencies noted today I was pleasantly surprised at how much had been achieved and it’s clear a lot of thought and hard work has gone into the updating.

My concern is that those discrepancies I came across will not be corrected and will languish for many months, if not years. I hope I’m proved wrong and a wander around again in a few weeks time will show everything being displayed perfectly.

Let’s see.

Roger French

“Easier to travel” … with fewer buses.

Wednesday 5th June 2019

The countdown has begun. It’s ten days until TfL introduce a swathe of bus cuts across central London beginning on Saturday 15th June 2019. Twenty-five bus routes are changing with withdrawals, frequency reductions and many altered termini. And this is only Part 1; Part 2 is promised for later in the year.

Details of the changes have been posted on the TfL website for some time and notices referring to changes to bus routes somewhat vaguely as “in 2019” have appeared on hundreds of bus stops across a wide area of London advising passengers to click on the rather convoluted website address tfl.gov.uk/PermBusChanges – surely a more catchy web address could have been used?

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TfL’s communication machine cranked up another gear yesterday sending an email to its database (I assume it wasn’t just personally to me) advising “the way people travel in the capital is changing, so there are more buses than needed in the centre of London”. I like the positive angle (“more buses than needed”) rather than admitting less and less people are travelling by bus due to frustratingly slow speeds, congestion, less road space for buses due to cycle lanes taking priority etc etc. The explanation continues “we are working to reduce bus-on-bus congestion, to help improve reliability and make it easier to travel”.

These are odd strategies to be pursuing; most provincial bus companies are increasing the number of buses to improve reliability and make it easier to travel, but TfL seem to reckon running less is the answer.

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I had a ride a few days ago on many of the routes being cut back to see what the impact will be.

IMG_9673.jpgHighest profile frequency reductions in Blackfriars Road, Farringdon Road and Kingsland Road are being achieved by cutting back bus routes to termini located south and north of these roads.

IMG_9676.jpgFor example, Blackfriars Road says goodbye to routes 45 (no longer running north of Elephant & Castle to Kings Cross) and 388 (no longer running south of Liverpool Street to Elephant & Castle) leaving just route 63 and a newly rerouted 40 to Clerkenwell Green instead of Aldgate. In practice this means a combined frequency of around 15 buses per hour instead of 20. Part of the 388 route cut back involves Queen Victoria Street (where it’s the only route) which is covered by a rerouted 4 terminating at Blackfriars instead of Waterloo; so in turn leaving Fleet Street and Waterloo Bridge to other routes.

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Farringdon Road also says farewell to the 45 meaning only the 17 and 46 will link Chancery Lane to Kings Cross with 13 buses per hour instead of 19. Kingsland Road south of Dalston Junction loses its six bus an hour route 67 but still leaving around 24 buses an hour on the 149, 242 and 243.

IMG_9658.jpgFrom my journeys and observations along these roads the reduced frequencies will ably cope with the numbers travelling although buses will naturally be busier, in some cases uncomfortably so, and unattractive longer waiting times can be expected – not so much making it “easier to travel” but reducing costs and trying to keep the revenue.

IMG_9637.jpgThe busiest bus I spotted while on Kingsland Road south of Dalston on route 67 still had some empty seats on board on the upper deck.

IMG_9723.jpgAnother slim down is between Kings Cross and Euston where the 476 is being cut back from Euston to turn at Kings Cross from the east while the 59 does the opposite being cut back from Kings Cross to turn at Euston from the south taking out roughly 17 buses an hour linking the stations; but there are still plenty of buses on routes 30, 73, 91 205 and 390 along Euston Road so for those choosing not to walk, and I always do walk, the wait shouldn’t be discernibly longer.

IMG_9680.jpgAnother slim down is between Elephant & Castle and Holborn due to the 171 being cut back to the former from the south, but alternatives are provided by the 68 as well as many other buses on parts of that route.

IMG_9967.jpgIn the recently made two-way Tottenham Court Road, the 134 is cut back from the north to turn at Warren Street at the top end while the 14 from the south is diverted to Bloomsbury to turn at Russell Square leaving Tottenham Court Road to the 24, 29, 73 and 390. They’ll cope, but the fact is if your journey was from say, University College Hospital, where buses on the 14 used to begin their journey, to South Kensington your option will now be taking another bus down Tottenham Court Road and then change on to the truncated 14. While the Hopper Fare means no increase in price, changing buses certainly comes at a price of time and inconvenience and far removed from that spurious claim of making it “easier to travel”.

IMG_9954.jpgThere’s a lot of termini swapping going on as TfL juggle its stand space around. So, for example, with the cut back of the 67 from Aldgate to Dalston Junction, the 242 swaps its St Pauls terminal over to Aldgate (and replaces the 67 through Spitalfields) and the 100 steps into the terminal stand at St Pauls instead of the Museum of London. The 172 leaves Clerkenwell Green for Aldwych, while the 40 leaves Aldgate for Clerkenwell Green. The 341 moves from County Hall to Waterloo as the 53 cuts back to County Hall from Whitehall where it’s replaced by the 3 instead of continuing to Trafalgar Square. The key to many of these minor terminal cut backs and shuffle rounds is they save valuable vehicle and driver resource which will all add up in handy savings towards TfL’s deficit – and that’s what these changes are really about rather than anything to do with “bus-on-bus congestion” and “making it easier to travel”.

IMG_9580.jpgFinally the biggy; the complete withdrawal of the high profile tourist route, the Tower Transit operated RV1 first introduced in April 2002 which runs from Covent Garden, across Waterloo Bridge, around the South Bank along Upper Ground before gliding close by Tate Modern then London Bridge and Tower Bridge to terminate at Tower Gateway. Six buses run this least frequent central London bus route every 20 minutes (cut back from every 10 minutes in February 2018); and they’re not ordinary buses either, they’re the original hydrogen powered buses introduced in 2010/11 as well as two later Van Hool buses.

IMG_6198.jpgTfL reckons it costs about £3.3million each year to operate the RV1; quite how six buses doing minimal mileage on a fairly easy route around central London can cost that much is a mystery to me. With revenue of around £650,000 it means a loss of a whopping £2.6million. Apparently the premium for using hydrogen buses is not that great a percentage of this huge loss either. The busiest point on the eastbound route is  on Tooley Street with 15 passengers on the bus in the morning peak while westbound in the evening peak there’s twenty on the bus in Southwark Street. On my journeys I saw around a dozen people on off peak journeys in the South Bank and London Bridge area.

Some peak passengers may find the newly extended 343 from City Hall across Tower Bridge to Aldgate might help but off peak, passengers will pretty much be abandoned, but at £4 subsidy per passenger journey for a central London bus route, financial reality has caught up with the RV1.

IMG_9728.jpgOne interesting aspect of the upcoming changes is what will happen to surplus New Routemaster buses if they’re cascaded to other routes leading to mixed allocations.

IMG_9724.jpgThis has been the case on route 176 between Tottenham Court Road and Penge where Go-Ahead London’s Camberwell garage mix up New Routemasters with standard ADL Enviro double deck buses meaning passengers need a fleet list with them to work out whether they can board through the centre doors or not! Quite bizarre.

IMG_9634.jpgAs the ten day countdown continues to the Saturday 15th June changeover date it will be interesting to see whether TfL’s roadside infrastructure team can cope with the huge scale of changes. There must be hundreds of bus stop flags as well as timetable displays to update across the network and also all those hundreds of spider maps spreading their web across a vast area.

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 15.45.47.pngSome spider maps showing the changes are embedded into TfL’s website if you click in the right place, but they’re not exactly easy to follow and understand. I’ll be keeping a close eye on whether these maps are updated and placed in the correct section of the website as well as in bus shelters on the 15th June.

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 15.52.33.png  Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 15.53.08.pngCommendably Mike Harris has already updated his excellent (and the only available) London bus map and this is an easy way to see what is changing by comparing a before and after extract.

Mike’s edition no 38 valid from 15th June will shortly be available in print for £2 but the electronic version at the bargain price of just a £1 is available to buy and download now and I strongly recommend visiting his online shop and buying a copy. It’s invaluable when travelling around London – and huge thanks to Mike for his excellent map work. Mike definitely does “make it easier to travel”.

Roger French

Sparks are flying on GOBLIN

Monday 28th January 2019

You’ve got to feel sorry for the growing number of passengers who rely on the GOspel Oak to Barking orbital railway line in north east London, known affectionately as GOBLIN for short.

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The former down-at-heel and unloved Silverlink Metro line transferred to TfL back in 2006 when the future was bright, the future was orange, as it became born again as part of TfL’s Overground network. This higher profile, together with greatly improved service quality, released huge latent pent up demand as passengers soon discovered the extensive travel opportunities this Cinderella of commuter lines offered. Boarding a train just a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath in north London and arriving in central Barking in East London in little over half an hour is impressive. Many passengers also transfer at Gospel Oak to and from the West London line from Clapham Junction/Richmond via Willesden Junction continuing into the North London line via Highbury & Islington to Stratford and the East London line south of the Thames offering a fantastic number of convenient interchange possibilities.

It’s undeniably one of the most successful rail line turnarounds in a decade with 10,000 passenger journeys now being carried a day. Plans to electrify the line and introduce a brand new fleet of 4-carriage trains to replace the 2-carriage diesel units were therefore hugely welcomed when first announced. What a shame things haven’t quite worked out as planned.

The eastern end of the line closed in June 2016, with the western end following a few months later in September to allow Network Rail to install overhead electrification. This extensive work included rebuilding ten bridges as well as lowering the line in four places to allow for the necessary clearances. Weekday services were reinstated in February 2017 while weekend services resumed in June 2017 but passengers didn’t get to benefit from electric trains as the grossly over crowded 2-carriage diesel operated Class 172 trains carried on running with a promise of brand new Bombardier built 4-carriage Class 710 electric trains to be introduced with a new timetable from May 2018.

In pre-overhead wires days at Harringay Green Lanes

As well as an absence of electric trains, it wasn’t long before it became evident the electrification works hadn’t been properly completed either and a further eight week full line closure became necessary between November 2017 and January 2018 to finish things off.

Never mind, at least the new electric trains were due to appear in May 2018; except they didn’t despite the first train being delivered to Network Rail’s test facility in Leicestershire at the end of 2017. To make matters worse the May 2018 timetable initially removed five vital peak hour extra journeys (known as ‘PIXC-busters’ – ‘passengers in excess of capacity’) designed to cope with the crush loads. These were subsequently reinstated by TfL, except within a matter of weeks, they were withdrawn again. The problem being Class 172 diesel train availability – all eight trains were due to come off lease and transfer to the West Midlands by December 2018 and to meet this deadline one train, effectively the spare used on peak hour extras, was withdrawn so it could be overhauled and refurbished for its new owners.

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As is the way with these things, for reasons best known to PR and media people, despite no chance of the new trains being imminently introduced, TfL held a high profile launch of the brand new Class 710 trains in June 2018 (just as the ‘PIXC busters’ were withdrawn again) reassuring passengers understandably frustrated and annoyed at having a new train dangled in front of them only to be swept away again back to the test track with the rather limp commitment that “the new fleet will be in service by November”.

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The only thing that happened in November 2018 was the announcement of a reduced timetable at weekends to allow for engineers to service the fleet of hard pressed Class 172s as another was withdrawn for its new life in the West Midlands.

As 2019 began and still no sign of the much promised (and publicly launched) new trains and all the Class 172s having to be withdrawn at the latest by mid March, TfL’s been forced to come up with a Plan B, the first part of which was rolled out this morning as a modified spare Class 378 5-carriage electric train set reduced to just 4-carriages (so it will fit into the platforms along the line) took to the tracks as another Class 172 train has been withdrawn. Two more spare Class 378s are being similarly modified to hit the tracks as two more Class 172s are withdrawn in mid February.

The final three Class 172s leave in mid March when Plan C comes into play. This entails the timetable being halved to run every 30 minutes instead of every 15 minutes. TfL say in such an event “there should be adequate capacity for anyone wishing to travel along this route” pointing out four-carriage trains running every half an hour equals two-carriage trains running every fifteen minutes. Except the less frequent service will be more than twice less attractive (you really have to adjust personal travel schedules for a half hourly service in a way you don’t for a fifteen minute one) and the longer trains have much reduced (longitudinal) seating meaning more standing passengers, albeit “standing in greater comfort”.

I gave the new slimmed down Class 378 train a ride this morning. Obviously the interior and ride quality are well known from travels in these trains on other parts of the Overground orbital lines, but it was a novelty to ride the line from a longitudinal seat which is not welcome as you have to sit askew to look out of the window behind you to enjoy the fascinating suburban scenery the train passes or you have to spend the journey avoiding eye contact with the passenger opposite.

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Today’s train was well able to cope with the numbers of passengers travelling who are used to squeezing on to a two-carriage diesel. Passengers were noticeably pleasantly surprised at the extra available room, all the more so as they must have initially been disappointed thinking our train was not operating as it failed to appear on departure screens, nor, mysteriously, is it recorded in Real Time Trains records.

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It was noticeable how acceleration between stations was much better than with the Class 172s and we easily reached the termini ahead of schedule, even with the padding at the Gospel Oak end. I reckon passengers really will welcome the new Class 710 trains and hopefully this hiatus will be forgotten once they’re introduced just like the summer 2016 closure for bodged electrification works is now a distant memory.

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Of course, Bombardier don’t come out of all this at all well. TfL’s latest public statement claims the manufacturer “has still not been able to fix the software problems that are causing the delays”. There’s not even a date for “when the new trains will be ready for driver training to start”. No doubt TfL are hammering them with compensation claims for extra costs and loss of revenue – they’ve already extracted a promised of a months free travel on the line when the trains are finally introduced.

Meantime, it look’s like another Spring (and probably Summer) with crowded trains and longer waits for the hard pressed GOBLIN passengers.

Roger French

 

 

 

I Didn’t Get Gett

Having been plagued for some weeks by marketing emails from the London black cab App organisation called Gett, I finally relented yesterday and headed up to London to use up the £10 credit (with an expiry of 31st August) they’d recently added to my account in a last ditch attempt to entice my return custom. It wasn’t as if I’d been much of a customer, having made one solitary journey back in October 2017 to try out the new peak hours only ride-sharing Black Bus 1 route between Highbury & Islington and Waterloo they’d just introduced amid much fanfare with partners Citymapper who’d worked out there was latent demand on that corridor from the enquiries they’d been monitoring on their Journey Planner App.

I thought I’d replicate my Black Bus 1 journey and see if once again I’d be sharing the intimacy of a black cab with other riders for the bargain fare of £3. I’d not been able to do my usual trip research beforehand as all the Gett App would tell me was I’m in an unsupported area down in Sussex where I live. I’d had a look at the Gett website, but that hadn’t mentioned anything about Black Bus 1 either. So it wasn’t until I came out of Highbury & Islington station at 0842 I could sus out the travel options.

I trotted along to nearby Compton Terrace on the main road just south of the station where I’d waited before and sure enough having entered Waterloo as “where I want to go” at 0844 the Citymapper App listed a taxi icon among the options (as it had done before) showing an arrival in 5 minutes and with a journey time of 45 minutes (taking 50% longer than the tube options).

I clicked it, got an encouraging ‘Book & Go’ clickable icon over a map with reassuring reference to my Smart Ride not costing the expected £3 but would be a freebie at £0.

I clicked that only to be stumped by payment options of Apple Pay or “Add Credit Card”.

I decided to add my credit card details despite that £3 fare being reassuringly struck through and then received confirmation at 0845 it was “Using £3 from your credit” and the “Driver arrives in 16 min”.

As a bit of a novice at this game I had wrongly assumed with those messages I’d done all I needed to do. It turns out I hadn’t; and despite not wanting to use Apple Pay, I needed to find another icon to “pay’; even though I had a fare of £0.

But there was I thinking I was all good to go, especially when I rechecked at 0847, as within only those two minutes the screen had updated to “Driver arrives in 2 min” and what looked like a fellow passenger appeared alongside me also staring intently at her phone.

She confirmed she’d also booked a ride and within a minute an anonymously branded black Mercedes people carrier appeared.

The driver was a bit perplexed to find two of us, and establishing we weren’t a couple he confirmed I wasn’t booked with him and needed to wait for another driver.

Clicking back on the Citymapper App showed a wait for another driver of another 15 minutes so I decided to interrogate the Gett App instead; after all they were the people who’d gifted £10 credit to me and were so keen for my return custom. In fact it puzzled me how Citymapper knew I had credit as I’d had no communication from them.

The trouble was the Gett App, like the website made no mention of Black Bus 1, and I appeared to be booking a standard black cab to take me to Waterloo.

Even more consternation as there was no mention of my credit and instead wanted me to pay with my credit card; although it did make reference to me getting “£10 off this ride” with my “coupon”.

Not being a black cab user I feared for my bank balance for such a long journey if I went through with the transaction, but decided to give it a go, only to be told the expected arrival time of a driver was another 15 minute wait and with an expected arrival time in Waterloo not until 0953 which was 57 minutes away.

As by then it was 0856, this seemed a very long time away, so after a three minute cogitation, at 0859 I decided to abandon this smart ride-share gig altogether and instead plump for a traditional ride-share gig, the humble TfL red bus to take me to Waterloo.

Despite battling with some of London’s usual peak hour congestion, we arrived in Waterloo at 0941 comfortably ahead of Gett’s prediction had I used them, and it only cost me £1.50.

I still have no idea what the relationship is between Gett and Citymapper  and how my £10 credit appeared on Citymapper. It would seem Gett no longer run a BlackBus 1 for £3  and just run traditional black cabs but Citymapper contract an anonymous ride share company to do so instead but not marketed under that Black Bus 1 brand. The whole experience was confusing and I was reassured traditional bus, tube and train are still the modes of choice for me and I won’t be disrupted.

Roger French                           1st September 2018