Thursday 21st February 2019
It’s reminded me of London 2012. Aside from the brilliant athletes and the behind-the-scenes organisational excellence it was the deployment of Games Makers which made for such a positive and enjoyable visitor experience despite mega crowds and challenging transport logistics before and after events.
When the wash up review of this week’s Brighton Main Line shut down is carried out, aside from the fantastic work performed around the clock by the engineering Orange Army and the hard working rail staff and bus and coach drivers I’m sure it will be the high-viz wearing Customer Service teams with their cherry smiles and friendly greetings who’ll long be remembered by passengers for creating a positive atmosphere to the extended travel experience. They really performed well and added a much needed shine to a challenging travel week.
The team on the Three Bridges gateline deserve a special shout out with their pointy foam hands and chanting regime advising arriving passengers from buses the platforms for Victoria and London Bridge departing trains (sung to a catchy rhythm too – and in tune) and as trains arrived another catchy refrain pointing passengers on to the bus hub. If only every day could be like that!
The team at Brighton, if perhaps more reserved, were also happy and cheerful. On Monday Theresa was doing a brilliant job handing out freebies and the whole team there were making sure everyone felt welcomed and valued as passengers. This positive experience will be long remembered but, of course, only by those passengers who actually braved the disruption warnings and ‘Carried On Travelling’ this week.
It was clear by first light on Monday morning the vast majority had heeded the familiar repetitive advice for many months to ‘Plan Ahead’ and duly planned and took a complete week off travelling.
Buses were prolific; passengers not so. Better that than the other way round of course. The average load on buses I saw on my travels on a circuit from Hassocks via Brighton, Lewes, Haywards Heath, Three Bridges then back via all stations to Hassocks between 0700 and 1000 on Monday morning was around six. There were buses everywhere. At one point around 0830 at Hassocks so many buses and coaches were arriving and departing, as well as many others parked up on stand by, the car park-come-bus station became semi-gridlocked with staff suggesting to ‘control’ a bus reduction be considered.
I found the impressive Three Bridges Bus Hub marquee completely deserted at 0900, as it was on Tuesday at 1800 when I also called by…… until a London originating train came in and off loaded its passengers who the ever helpful cheerful Replacement Bus Makers happily shepherded to the waiting buses and within minutes it was all quiet again.
As the week’s progressed, passenger numbers haven’t noticeably increased but the number of buses and coaches has continued to provide a quite extraordinary level of service. A bus spotters paradise – and yes, camera weilding enthusiasts were out in force.
Neither has the enthusiasm of the Replacement Bus Makers diminished – my trip to Three Bridges this morning, Thursday, found the whole team in fine form (and voice) welcoming us all off the buses and guiding us to the trains.
On Monday I was blitzed with freebies and goodwill gestures including a branded water container (at Brighton), giant cookies, biscuits, hot chocolate sachet and mobile phone suction thingy and a £3 coffee voucher. By Thursday the giveaway novelty had worn off a bit, but I still picked up a free delicious cookie and £3 voucher for coffee by nipping into the Bus Hub on my way to London – and on the way home this evening.
Queueing time warning notices prominent on Monday in Brighton had been removed as redundant by Wednesday; as had the zig-zagging queuing system; both sensible contingencies which proved overly pessimistic. Thankfully.
I wonder if the ’60 minutes queueing time’ was actually just a clever ruse to show how well everything was going. If so, it worked a treat.
Here are a few observations and suggestions for next time based on my travel experiences this week through until today, Thursday – it’ll be plain sailing from now as even when trains are running, Friday’s become the new weekend for London commuters.
1. The ‘Brighton Three Bridges fast’ conundrum.
There’s been much angst on Twitter about the lack of advertised non-stop buses between Brighton and Three Bridges as usually run during weekend closures. Buses bombing down the A23 are a regular sight at weekends but this time weekday commuters were only given the option of a half hourly train service via the West Coastway, Littlehampton and Arun Valley line arriving in Three Bridges an hour and a half after leaving Brighton which compares unfavourably to the 23 minutes it normally takes a fast direct train to reach Gatwick Airport.
Journey planners also gave the option of an all stations stopping replacement bus requiring a change at either Hassocks or Burgess Hill, coincidentally also timetabled to take one and a half hours end-to-end. In peak hours there was a further option to switch buses at Hassocks on to a fast non-stopper (which saved about half an hour), and from Brighton journey planners showed stopping buses running only as far as Balcombe which of course was a complete nonsense. That was a deliberate ‘fake terminus’ as all buses leaving Brighton had Three Bridges as their displayed destination which was obvious to everyone from the start so led to an information credibility issue. Furthermore the ‘Employee Handbook’ handed to everyone involved included details of non-stop ‘Ghost Buses’ running every 10 minutes at peak times and every 20 minutes off-peak between Brighton and Three Bridges. In the event it looks as though these were kept on stand by rather than running them for fear if they became too well known they’d prove too popular and blow a hole in the pool of available buses and be beyond the capacity of the Three Bridges Bus Hub. By Thursday this had become official public policy as the reasons they weren’t running and explained in the media.
Publicly the ‘Ghost Bus’ existence was always denied to encourage passengers to take the Littlehampton diverted train or stopping bus options; or faced with that extra hour and more travel time, not travel at all. There’s no doubt Brighton passengers lost out big time (literally) because of this. I would suggest a better policy, when it was obvious most passengers had heeded warnings and weren’t travelling by first thing Monday morning, would have been for the Ghost Bus non-stoppers to run to minimise the inconvenience for Brightonians. I think this would have been hugely appreciated and removed one of the two biggest negatives of the week (the other being compensation – see below). I don’t think it would have overwhelmed the resources and doubt it would have made any difference to passenger numbers once people had committed themselves to the week off. It could have worked.
2. Haywards Heath and Hassocks peak travellers won hands down.
Unlike Brighton, both Haywards Heath and during peak hours, Hassocks, were blessed with their own bespoke non-stop buses and coaches to Three Bridges. The former ran to an impressive 6 minute frequency at peak times (20 minutes off peak) with the latter every 20 minutes. I tried both out and was impressed by the efficient end to end journey times achieved. From Hassocks we took just 33 minutes (on the 0900 from Hassocks – so admittedly after peak hour traffic had died down) comparing favourably to the all stops Thameslink train normally taking 22 minutes.
The Hassocks driver took the normal route into Crawley via Southgate Avenue and Hawthorne Avenue whereas the Southdown PSV driver on the Haywards Heath journey (lovely bus by the way) took the M23 and worryingly headed east at the Crawley junction 10 before doubling back by the Copthorne Hotel which perceptively was going out of our way, but in the event didn’t take too much longer approaching Three Bridges from the east instead of the west. Tonight, my homebound coach from Three Bridges took that same route in reverse and was probably the same congested exit from Crawley as via Southgate Avenue.
Lewes passengers were also given an option of taking a bus to East Grinstead and a train from there which was a clever idea; I’m not sure how many used it, but the other ‘avoid over burdening Three Bridges’ idea of running a Hassocks to Crawley service (originating in Hove) failed spectacularly and ran pretty much empty; passengers being understandably reluctant to use Crawley as an interchange hub.
One niggle about Haywards Heath: it seemed unnecessarily confusing to have northbound buses to Three Bridges departing from two locations; non-stop fast buses left from outside the main entrance while the stoppers via Balcombe left from the side entrance in Boltro Road.
I asked a forlorn looking and lonely Replacement Bus Maker standing on the corner where to catch a bus to Three Bridges (just to give him something to do) and he advised me to go to the side entrance, which luckily I ignored. This was the only example of duff information I experienced though, every other query was accurately handled.
3. Coordinate roadworks and restrict parking
An extra 240 buses and coaches added to Sussex’s congested roads, even taking the half term non-school run factor into account, is quite a challenge. The transport challenges surrounding the 2012 Olympics worked so well because everyone pulled together to ensure maximum capacity was provided. Special ‘Games Lanes’ ensured free flowing traffic for those needing it.
In Sussex this week it would have been good if known congestion hotspots caused by awkward parking or roadworks could have been tackled in a coordinated way to ensure replacement buses got priority. Ideally, temporary traffic lights and roadworks on busy routes should have ceased where possible and temporary parking restrictions added at pinch points such as in Burgess Hill near Wivelsfield station as shown below.
Outside Three Bridges a high profile police presence helped ensure buses could exit fairly easily, especially during the busy evening peak period. It was good to see both the British Transport Police and Sussex Police actively on site. If only that could be more the norm!
4. Southern ‘marketing’ shoot themselves in the foot
Southern’s marketing department scored a spectacular own goal by scheduling promotional adverts on social media every day this week enticing passengers to get out and about and “Discover a Hidden World by Train”. Surely they’d notice colleagues in the comms department had spent the best part of a year persuading passengers not to travel this week? Not so much the ‘hidden world’ but the ‘hidden train’ with Southern’s main line normally teeming with passengers completely shut. Left hand and right hand etc etc.
5. Unrealistic journey times
If the replacement bus schedules had been for a registered local bus service the Traffic Commissioner would have had a field day. Running times (as advertised in journey planners) showed no allowance for predictable peak hour congestion. A complete ‘no no’ when running bus services. Realistic timetables are now mandatory, ‘congestion’ is not a valid excuse. I caught the 1705 all stops departure from Brighton to Three Bridges on Wednesday with a twenty minute scheduled journey time to Hassocks. After crawling through Brighton’s peak hour congestion we’d only reached Preston Circus by that time, taking forty minutes to reach Hassocks. If I’d been going to London and allowed myself a planned connection at Three Bridges from the journey planner I’d have been very upset at the delay. And of course, no chance of Delay Repay!
My fellow Buses magazine columnist Phil Stockley has coincidentally written in the March issue just published about the importance of creating a positive image of bus and coach travel to rail users at times of rail replacement and he’s dead right.
It’s been a bit of a mixed bag this week with some superbly presented buses and luxury coaches giving an excellent image but I regret to say also some filthy buses too. Bearing in mind the lovely weather this week there really is no excuse for not presenting nicely clean buses with windows you can see out of. The Go-Ahead London bus I travelled home on on Wednesday evening could have usefully had a trip through the nearby Metrobus bus wash at Crawley depot or one of Brighton & Hove’s garages.
It’s also hugely frustrating when the window interiors mist up, and for strangers very hard to know where they are if wanting to alight at on-street stops for intermediate stations. Our driver ignored the advice in the Employees Handbook to call out the names of stations as we stopped, which didn’t help.
7. Too technical looking
The rather strange letter codes for the bus services displayed at posters at each station were a bit confusing and seemed superfluous. They weren’t displayed on the vehicles and no one referred to them. A bit of an unnecessary complication it seemed to me. Indeed it would have been better to display the timetables for the various routes so passengers could see which suited them best.
8. The price bugbear
I covered this in Part 1, but would like to end this review by returning to it again as it is understandably controversial. When a service is disrupted to the extent it has been this week it’s only fair some compensation regime be applied. Of course the DfT (who are the revenue masters for the GTR contract) won’t want to create a precedent for elsewhere or future rail replacements on the Brighton line but the fact of the matter is there’s been no ticket checking whatsoever this week, barriers at Three Bridges have been open and passengers have just boarded and alighted buses at intermediate stations on the street or in car parks in some cases (eg Wivlesfield) some distance from a ticket office or machine. I doubt many passengers purchased tickets for their bus journey; it’s been pretty much an unofficial free travel zone. So why not make it one officially and generate that all important goodwill among passengers. A compensatory refund to season ticket holders for tickets to the affected destinations would also be appropriate. Of course, the anomaly would be passengers using the diverted Brighton trains via Littlehampton as you could hardly give free travel in that wider area, which in turn might mean overloaded buses up the A23 again. Which only goes to show, it’s not an easy one, but I do think passengers needed some goodwill gesture beyond a cookie and coffee voucher.
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Goodwill is all important, because, there’ll be more rail replacements of this scale in the years ahead. Passengers should be under no illusion that this unprecedented shut down is it, and from now on it’ll be dream travel on the Brighton Main Line with everything fixed for the future. Growth in passenger numbers is expected to continue in the next decade and there are already firm plans for major work at Gatwick Airport to build a new larger concourse with bigger platforms 5 and 6, eight new escalators and five new lifts but the one to watch out for is the Croydon Area Remodelling Scheme (CARS).
Think London Bridge and you won’t be far removed from the scale of what’s planned. The whole of East Croydon station will be demolished (yes, I know it’s only just lost all the hoardings and scaffolding from its full refurb ….. and that new footbridge is coming down too) and rebuilt with two extra tracks aside a new platform. A new high level concourse will match London Bridge’s for size and there are plans for a huge over development to help fund it all. London Bridge’s track realignment and sort out included just one new ‘dive-under’ at Bermondsey. The Croydon project will see 16 (yes 16) dive-unders to sort out the tracks heading towards Selhurst and Norwood Junction. It’s reckoned the whole scheme could take 6-10 years to build.
So, all in all it’s probably good that this ‘Biggest Rail Replacement ever’ just ending has worked well with excellent organisation, huge resources and enthusiastic staff. It’s been an interesting week and perhaps a useful taster for what’s to come further up the line in the years ahead!
Oh; nearly forgot, one final thought … let’s just hope there’s no mishaps over the weekend which will cause any overrun into Monday morning. Us passengers can be an unforgiving lot, and with no free cookies, coffee vouchers and cherry Replacement Bus Makers around on Monday it’ll be carnage on the reputation front. Fingers crossed.