May’s new timetable on track: Part 2

Wednesday 22nd May 2019

IMG_7312.jpgI left you yesterday morning in Sheffield about to head west on the delightful Hope Valley line (No 12 in My 100 Best Train Journeys) with Trans Pennine Express. It’s a beautiful scenic ride through the Peak District made all the better by a gorgeous sunny day.

IMG_7321.jpgI changed trains in Stockport to a southbound Virgin Trains Euston bound Pendolino as far as Crewe then changing again to head northwest over to Chester on another Virgin Trains, this time a ‘Super Voyager’ (according to the Train Manager’s announcement) although I wasn’t sure what was ‘super’ about it.

IMG_7346.jpgBut it was on time and I arrived in Chester with twenty minutes to spare for the new Transport for Wales hourly service to Liverpool via Frodsham and Runcorn which started this week.

IMG_E7490.jpgMerseyrail operate a long standing fifteen minute frequency service between Chester and Liverpool via The Wirral with electric trains on the third rail system serving Rock Ferry and Birkenhead. It takes 42 minutes to reach Liverpool Line Street on a city centre underground circuit including Liverpool Central in 44 minutes.

IMG_7351.jpgNow we have a choice of train companies and routes with the new TfW hourly service from Chester to Liverpool Lime Street timetabled to take a slighter slower 47 to 50 minutes depending on the journey.

For a visitor it’s rather confusing to see this new interloper heading to Liverpool in the opposite direction to the traditional Merseyrail trains. Even more confusing my 1327 departure was advertised as leaving from Chester’s Platform 6 but neither train in that platform were TfW branded and disconcertingly were locked up with no diesel engine throbbing away ready to leave (on the right pictured below).

IMG_7355.jpgThe adjacent Platform 5 (on the left) had a Northern train heading to Leeds which is another exciting May timetable initiative achieved by linking new journeys from Chester via Warrington to an existing hourly service from Manchester to Leeds. Except it takes half an hour longer than changing trains in Manchester Victoria on to a faster Trans Pennine Express train to Leeds 15 minutes later rather than the new slower through route via Hebden Bridge taken by the Northern train. Still, it does provide new direct links between stations along the way eg Warrington to Halifax so it is a good development.

IMG_7354.jpgAfter that train left at its scheduled 1321 the handful of us waiting news of the 1327 were told by a shouting orange high-vis wearing dispatcher that the now vacant Platform 5 would be for our Liverpool train – just as well he shouted as bizarrely there seemed to be no dot matrix sign on Platform 6, so old style communication is needed.

IMG_7357.jpgOur train wasn’t due to arrive from Liverpool until 1324 giving a tight three minute turn around; it actually arrived at 1328 but with our fresh driver ready to take over we were away at 1330 after an impressively quick handover.

IMG_7358.jpgMore impressive we got to Lime Street in just 41 minutes, beating Merseyrail’s journey time by a minute.

Even better there are only four stations along the way on the TfW journey whereas Merseyrail has fourteen on its route to Lime Street which makes the journey seem torturously longer.

Local and regional politicians are salivating with delight at this new route as they see future potential in linking trains along the north Wales coast directly with Liverpool and providing handy connections at Liverpool South Parkway (one of the four stations) for the nearby John Lennon Airport.

Two of the new journeys extend beyond Chester to Wrexham and there’s talk of more in the future. There’s also talk of links with through trains to South Wales but quite where all these new links will be diverted from on the existing network is a mystery unless they’re all going to be extra journeys which will be mightily expensive.

Chester, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway have already got regular trains to Liverpool so that just leaves Helsby and Frodsham as the two stations newly connected to Merseyside’s capital and as those station names convey, they’re not exactly booming metropoli in themselves. So unless those links are added further back into Wales, which will inevitably mean severing existing through journeys (eg to Cardiff, Manchester or Birmingham) , it’s difficult to see where all the new passengers are going to come from.

This exciting development has been made possible by upgrading what’s called the Halton Curve, a single line curve between Frodsham and Runcorn linking the Chester to Warrington Line with the Crewe to Runcorn and Liverpool line.

IMG_E7492.jpgPreviously this bit of little used track was only signalled for trains in the Runcorn direction and to travel on it you had to catch the once a week Parliamentary train that ran on a summer Saturday around 0700 from Chester to Runcorn just to say you’d done it. When I travelled on it a few years ago there were about six of us all just doing it for the sake of doing it. That’s dedication for you although I’m sure others call it something else!

After a lot of work over the last couple of years this bit of track has been made bidirectional so the new train service can run every hour seven days a week both ways on the new timetable. But all this hasn’t come cheap. A cool £16 million has been spent sorting out the signals and tarting up the track. I originally thought that amount of funding was going to double track the curve, but no, it’s still single line.

The funding was approved by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. I hope they think it’s worth the investment.

IMG_7383.jpgI had a wander through the train as we left Frodsham (the second station after Chester) to see how many new passengers were on board as we went on to the curve past the signal box marking the junction.

IMG_7360.jpgTwelve of us were making the trip including one or two just like me who were keeping a curious eye on what was occurring.

IMG_E7491.jpgAt Liverpool Line Street TfW we’re making their presence for the very first time in that station by promoting the new link with the usual goodie bags containing a pen, smarties and the timetable leaflet.

IMG_7418.jpgI guess it’s worth shouting about having blown £16million on revitalising a piece of curved track! It wasn’t up to Azuma launch standards, but then that cost a few hundred million more.

IMG_7417.jpgI hope it’s a success but it’s going to take more than just Helsby and Frodsham to achieve payback and those tight turn rounds in Chester look worrying with all the layover at the Liverpool end of the route – presumably for ‘pathing reasons’.

IMG_7423.jpgFrom Liverpool Lime Street I went back across the Pennines on the Trans Pennine Express northerly route via Manchester Victoria, Huddersfield and Leeds and on to York and Durham where it was a good opportunity to hop off and take a deviation to Newcastle via Sunderland.

By bus.

IMG_7459.jpgAlso new on the public transport scene this week is the beginning of a much needed brand makeover for Go North East’s vast bus network across the region.

The new X-lines brand sensibly brings all the disparate and individually branded limited stop routes together under one attractive identity. It’s another triumph from Best Impressions and I’m sure it will be a success.

IMG_7443.jpgIt certainly made a welcome contrast from the grim image created by the down at heel Durham bus station.

IMG_7430.jpgSadly reliability problems impacted my planned journey on the half hourly X-lines route X20 linking Durham with Sunderland and due to depart at 1726.

The bus didn’t arrive from its previous run until well after that time and we didn’t depart until 1739, 13 minutes late.

IMG_7450.jpgIt turned out to be one of those frustrating journeys where one delay added to another with passengers’ tickets being rejected by the new Ticketer machines and other issues.

IMG_7451.jpgEven more frustrating we got overtaken twice by the much more frequent all stops route 20 which turned out to be quicker on this occasion!

IMG_7454.jpgWe eventually arrived in Sunderland’s bright and airy ‘Interchange’ at Park Lane twenty minutes late and our driver loaded up and hurried off on the other newly branded X-lines route, the X6/7 to Peterlee with which the X20 interworks.

I headed over to Sunderland’s rather brutalist station …

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IMG_7465.jpg… which is even more depressing on the subterranean platforms ….

IMG_7469.jpg… and caught the Metro over to Newcastle for an overnight stop.

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Part 3 of this round Britain round up to follow in a couple of days.

Roger French

May’s new timetable on track: Part 1

Tuesday 21st May 2019

IMG_7172.jpgFirst improvement in the May 2019 rail timetable I experienced yesterday on my tour around was from my own local station, Hassocks where our disjointed two an hour trains to the Thameslink Core stations and on to Bedford or Cambridge (one an hour to each but to a 40/20 pattern) have been replaced with the new even half hourly Brighton to Cambridge service. Bye bye Bedford it’s been good to know you.

I caught the new 0748 which goes to Cambridge whereas previously there had been a long gap in our peak hour timetable until the 0808 to Bedford which now no longer calls at Hassocks.

IMG_7180.jpgIt wasn’t surprising on this first morning there were few passengers boarding or on board the train from Brighton, although by East Croydon we’d got busier, and by London Bridge as well as many alighting, there were also many boarding almost certainly unaware they were catching a new and extra peak hour twelve coach train. And that doesn’t often happen in commuter land. It’s a welcome addition to the timetable as are the new Saturday Cambridge Brighton journeys and the Sunday journeys which venture as far south as Gatwick Airport.

IMG_7185.jpgTimekeeping on the 0748 had been excellent throughout for this first day; we arrived London Bridge spot on time and through the Thameslink Core with five minutes spare to wait at Finsbury Park (even time for our driver to come back on board for a toilet break) before continuing north with noticeably few passengers on board this extra journey to last week’s timetable.

IMG_7193.jpgI got off at Stevenage in time to see one of the buses now running the all new Rail Replacement Bus service which has replaced trains to Hertford North while a new terminating Bay platform is built.

IMG_7187.jpgThere’s a half hourly service running direct to Hertford North and an hourly service just to Watton-at-Stone from where a half hourly train runs via Hertford North to Moorgate as normal.

IMG_7191.jpgThere was only one passenger on the 0937 departure from Stevenage to Hertford North. I’m not sure why this arrangement is happening as the four platforms at Stevenage still look as they’ve always done to me from where the Moorgate terminators terminated, but perhaps more structural changes are ahead.

I headed back south to Finsbury Park on a Horsham bound train (from Peterborough), did a quick cross platform change there to a Great Northern train from Hertford North and down the former City Line to Moorgate.

IMG_7198.jpgWhat a shame the former Network South East tiling and branding is finally being removed from these stations. Moorgate is presumably the first to be rebranded as so far Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury & Islington and Drayton Park remain untouched.

IMG_7201.jpgAs both Peterborough and Hertford North originating trains arrived and departed Finsbury Park at exactly the same time it was interesting to see just how many passengers dashed across the platform from one train to the other to either make their way towards stations on the Thameslink Core or to Moorgate.

IMG_7200.jpgSome interesting journey options and connections to the Underground are now available. I was heading to Liverpool Street and could have changed at Farringdon on to the Underground but decided to opt for Moorgate and take a stroll.

IMG_7205.jpgI arrived in good time at Liverpool Street to catch the very first northbound ‘Norwich in 90’ train operated by Greater Anglia at 1100, displacing the usual half hourly Norwich departure with its stops along the way at that time to 1102.

IMG_E7223.jpgThe ‘Norwich in 90’ idea is classic political and PR puff. Great for photo shoots and making out how wonderful everyone is at successfully campaigning for some eye catching achievement and for train companies to pat themselves on the back for responding to such calls for ‘improvements’, but of dubious benefit in the grand scheme of things.

IMG_7206.jpgNorwich folk make comparisons between the normal one hour fifty minute journey time for the 115 miles to London with the same time it takes to run non-stop from York over the 200 miles down to the Capital. But that ignores the crucial point that trains running southbound non-stop from York have come from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Durham, Darlington as well as Sunderland and other stations so already have a huge number of passengers on board making for an often full train load to whizz down to London.

The trouble for Norwich is that it’s at the end of the line, and to muster up the same number of passengers to head down to London, albeit with a stop in Ipswich is never going to stack up especially with a decent half hourly train running between the cities all day.

At the moment there are just two 90 minute journeys in each direction utilising one train which sits in Norwich for four and a half hours between the return runs. While the timings work well for Norwichites wanting a day out in London (0900 from Norwich and 1900 return from Liverpool Street) it’s not quite so good for a day in Norwich, unless you like a late start, leaving London at 1100 with a return at 1700.

And it’s that return at 1700, arriving Liverpool Street at 1830 just as the tracks are already stacked out with departing commuter trains which has caused the most consternation among Norwich in 90 critics. It’s meant a whole raft of tweaks have been necessary to create a smooth path for the all important 1830 arrival. Here’s a quick run through courtesy of Today’s Railways magazine ….

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IMG_7305.jpgAfter all that yesterday’s first run on the 1700 from Norwich hit a red signal near Bethnal Green arriving into Liverpool Street five minutes down at 1835.

My 1100 northbound journey fared better as did the first 0900 southbound, both achieving the 90 minute target; just as well with all the red lanyard wearing Greater Anglia staff, VIPs and camera crews on board.

IMG_7212.jpgWe nearly missed it with a slowing down near Diss, but they’d apparently chosen the fastest pair of engines in the fleet and our driver made up for that hiccup and arrived spot on time at 1230. While the two First Class carriages were well occupied with guests, I did a head count in standard class after we left Ipswich; there were 78 on board who could have all just about fitted into one carriage instead of the seven we had! Meanwhile the former stopping train that left 2 minutes behind us also looked to have a similar load on board as we pulled out of Liverpool Street.

IMG_7219.jpgGreater Anglia had hoped to show off one of their new trains on the Norwich in 90 runs yesterday but alas as is the way with new trains, testing is still going on and everything’s running late, so it wasn’t to be.

IMG_7226.jpgI came across a new Class 745 train on test on my next journey to Great Yarmouth where it made for an interesting contrast alongside the Class 37 engine which had brought us across the wonderful Norfolk Broads and which are still helping to keep the timetable on track until new trains are ready.

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IMG_7222.jpgIt’s an exciting time for Greater Anglia who are replacing their entire fleet over the next year and I’m sure the positive publicity surrounding the ‘Norwich in 90’ will all help to raise the profile of train travel in the region which has to be good; and it was certainly an impressive ride, if totally uncommercial.

IMG_7227.jpgAfter my nostalgic ride across to Great Yarmouth and back I just got caught up in the tail end of delays due to an earlier signal failure at Ely making for a late running 1357 departure from Norwich to Liverpool. East Midlands Trains were doing their best to recover service and combined the 75 minute late running 1257 departure with our 15 minute late 1357 journey making for a double crewed four coach train and the consequential hiatus over seat reservations. Makes me think it really is time to do away with reservations but I know the arguments for keeping them too, and sway between the two views.

IMG_7238.jpgA ride up the East Coast Main Line on an LNER HST from Peterborough took me to Retford ….

IMG_7248.jpg… where I changed to try out the all new hourly Northern service to Gainsborough Central. Theses journeys have been tacked on to a Leeds to Sheffield timetable which provide a stopping service from Sheffield eastwards to Worksop and Retford and then to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7273.jpgPreviously the train would have veered south as it approached Gainsborough and served that town’s other station a mile south of the town centre on Lea Road and then on to Lincoln. Lea Road is a delightful station with a wonderful entrance area lovingly cared for by local people….

IMG_7286.jpg…. but it’s not nearly as conveniently sited as Central, which as it’s name implies is central. And peculiarly used to get a train service just on a Saturday and then only three return journeys which continued on via Brigg to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. These Saturday journeys still run (they give Brigg along with Kirton Lindsey their required ‘Parliamentary service’) but it’s certainly celebratory time for the new look connection back to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7274.jpgAnd Northern have splashed the cash on some bunting to celebrate.

IMG_7276.jpgThere were just three other passengers on the 1750 arrival into Gainsborough Central yesterday having left Sheffield at a peak time 1654, but that was just day one and I’m sure as word spreads Gainsboroughites will find the new service a great improvement.

The new timetable has enabled Northern to speed up the previous hourly Sheffield via Worksop and Retford to Lincoln service by missing out the five stations between Sheffield and Worksop in the off peak (leaving them for the new Gainsborough Central train) saving about eight minutes giving a Sheffield to Lincoln in 73; that’s for 55 miles. Not quite Norwich in 90 over 115 miles but it’s a start.

IMG_7287.jpgI caught the first off peak ‘flyer’ from Lincoln at 0929 this morning and although we only had 24 on board leaving that wonderful city, we picked up a few at the next two stations, Saxilby and Gainsborough Lea Road before a good crowd at Retford and Worksop when it was foot down all the way to Sheffield and very perceptively a faster journey as we sped by the next five stations. I’m sure once this improvement becomes known it’ll become very popular especially as the train continues to Meadowhall for the shopping centre there on its way to Leeds.

IMG_7302.jpgSome passengers boarding in Lincoln wanting Sheffield were puzzled by the train showing Leeds as the destination but I overheard others on board buying through tickets to Leeds so that link up may prove beneficial.

I’m now at Sheffield and about to cross the Pennines to see more new May timetable developments and I’ll describe them in the next blog.

IMG_7307.jpgLittle tip, always follow the trolley when wanting to know which end First Class is located when it’s not displayed on station signs!

Roger French

Cumbrian travels between LNER and Virgin

Tuesday 30th April 2019

IMG_5056.jpgMy Funday in Furness yesterday exploring three small islands off England’s north west coast came sandwiched between two other great travelling days.

I travelled up the East Coast Main Line from Kings Cross to Newcastle on Saturday with LNER (always a favourite journey) to meet the lovely members of the Northern Branch of the Omnibus Society who politely let me indulge myself by sharing about 600 photographs I’d taken over the last six years of travels illustrating Britain’s best bus routes. They even seemed to enjoy it as much as I did, which is always encouraging.

After an overnight stay in the Capital of Geordie Land I headed over to Carlisle on Sunday. My original plan was to take the famous Arriva and Stagecoach jointly operated scenic route 685 now branded Cross Pennine with buses in a smart Best Impressions designed livery especially as I’ve yet to do this journey on a double deck, which Stagecoach now deploy to the route.

The perceived wisdom among OS members was the double deck isn’t allocated on a Sunday which coupled with the need to change buses in Hexham (there are no through journeys on a Sunday) and a tight onward connection in Carlisle persuaded me to switch to train instead – a journey I ranked 38th when I compiled my Hundred Best Train Journeys listing at the end of last year.

IMG_5090.jpgCheaper and quicker too. And the scenery from the train window is just as delightful especially looking north as the tracks follow the course of the River Tyne as it gradually gets smaller and more meandering as shown above.

IMG_5086.jpgI wasn’t too disappointed to find the 1255 from Newcastle to Carlisle arrive from Middlesbrough in platform 7 being a Pacer especially as it was a refurbished one with more comfy seats and there won’t be many more opportunities to travel in these workhorses of the tracks before they’re withdrawn by the end of the year. What did surprise me was just how busy the journey was with pretty much all seats taken on the two car train leaving Newcastle and lots of luggage too. Although, as expected, a few got off at the MetroCentre, they were replaced with boarders. The majority of passengers were travelling all the way to Carlisle.

IMG_5087.jpgInterestingly the new timetable from 19th May includes an extra train an hour between Newcastle and Carlisle on weekdays giving three per hour to Hexham and two to Carlisle (strong competition for the hourly 685) but there’s no increase in frequency on Sunday which based on my albeit limited experience would suggest would be welcomed by passengers.

At Carlisle I changed to the Cumbrian Coast line to skirt all the way around the coast to Barrow in Furness. I ranked this journey sixteenth place in my Hundred Best Train Journeys and this latest experience didn’t change my mind. It’s an incredibly enjoyable experience.

IMG_5139.jpgIt’s not quick, by any means; two and a half hours to Barrow and another hour beyond there to Lancaster but it’s well worth the ride for mile upon mile of coastal views as well as changing landscapes inland as the Lake District’s western peaks become visible from time to time.

IMG_5149.jpgUntil last May there was no Sunday service between Whitehaven and Barrow and a restricted twelve hour operational day on weekdays due to the high cost of manning that section with old manual signal boxes and at least three old style manual level crossings (one at Silecroft station) and two more south towards Millam where the tracks cross the A585.

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IMG_5183.jpgA real anachronism in today’s tech rich world and all the more so as nuclear waste is regularly carried on the line in connection with the Power Station at Sellafield.

IMG_5155.jpgWith a new franchise commitment from Northern there’s now a regular hourly Sunday service until around 1800 hours and it was encouraging to see over a dozen passengers on board my journey (1616 from Carlisle) south of Whitehaven.

To add to the charm of the line there are also some lovely coastal request stations, sections of track with severe speed limits and connections at Ravenglass for the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway which is well worth a visit.

That was Sunday; I’ve described Monday’s Furness travels, and so to today, Tuesday …..

Having enjoyed my Furness island hopping yesterday, today has been another wonderful travel day renewing my association with one of the Lake District’s most scenic bus routes: the brilliant Buttermere circular route 77 and 77A.

IMG_5701.jpgNarrow roads and steep inclines restrict the routes to small vehicle operation and Stagecoach allocate Optare Solos with 28 seats.

Experience of previous packed journeys has taught me to get up early and catch the first departure of the day at 0830 from Keswick if you want to really savour a quality travel experience. Fortuitously this is a 77A (which against normal convention takes a clockwise routeing with the less frequent 77 going round anti-clockwise) and this offers the best views out of the nearside windows of Derwent Water, Buttermere and Crummock Water with good forward views of the Honister Pass too. The journey seldom has large numbers travelling.

IMG_E5717.jpgIndeed this morning we left with just two on board, in addition to myself, picking two more and a dog up in nearby Portinscale. They’d all alighted for a morning’s walk by the time we reached Honister where we picked three more up, two of whom went to Buttermere and one returned to Keswick.

IMG_5795.jpgBy comparison on returning to Keswick not long after 1000 the queue was already forming for the 1030 departure which would see a bus on both 77 and 77A routes, and just as well, as there were passengers standing as both buses left.

IMG_5887.jpgIMG_5904.jpgThe 77A runs hourly 0830 to 1130 then two-hourly until 1730 while the 77 runs two-hourly 1030 to 1630. It takes two buses to run the timetable with a third needed between 1030 and 1117. Concessionary passes dominate, especially at this time of year with schools and colleges in session.

The drivers use all their skills to negotiate the twists and turns along the narrow roads including hairpin bends and challenging inclines. Luckily this morning there wasn’t much other traffic but this changes as the summer approaches.

The journey takes around an hour and three quarters – it’s the best 105 minutes in a bus.

Returning to Keswick I watched the busy departures between 1015 and 1030 thinking just how busy these routes are even for a Tuesday in April.

IMG_5886.jpgIMG_5881.jpgIt shows what can be achieved with an attractive network of routes well marketed with an abundant supply of timetable books readily available to pick up on board buses and at many locations throughout the area.

IMG_5133.jpgI lost count of the number of passengers I saw clutching their timetable book and no doubt getting inspired to make more journeys. Managers in bus companies adopting the foolish mantra ‘it’s all online’ really need to get out more and see how it’s done and works a treat.

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I took the Gold branded X4 from Keswick over to Penrith and am writing this as I return home, this time on the West Coast Main Line with its glimpses of the Lake District’s finest.

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A few final thoughts and suggestions for Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancs who must be congratulated for doing such a great job.

This summer’s timetable book is a much slimmer version than previous years which has no doubt reduced print costs but while losing some of the information about boat tours is no great loss, I do think it’s regrettable to omit those routes which reach Keswick from the north (73, 554) as well as Penrith (104, 563), the 208 Keswick to Patterdale and 755 Bowness and Windermere to Morecambe. Although shown on the network map these routes become the poor relations without promoting their times.

IMG_5630The queuing arrangements at Keswick bus terminus are very chaotic when things get busy and I noticed a lot of bad feeling among passengers who’d been queuing and waiting but lost out in the scrum with a risk of not getting on board as the buses drew up. It needs to be made clear which side of the bus stop pole and flag to queue and this should be strictly enforced to maintain discipline and a fair outcome for everyone.

IMG_5879.jpgAs the much travelled and great walking enthusiast Ray Wilkes observed on Twitter it would also be good to put pressure on Cumbria County Council to install bus shelters here too.

A fantastic few days sampling the best of travelling with class acts from LNER, Northern, Virgin Trains, Stagecoach (Cumbria and North Lancs) and valiant efforts from Blueworks to keep their show on the road.

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Finally, I appreciate my Twitter followers will have read most of this on Sunday and earlier today as I tweet ‘live’ updates during my travels but it’s been pointed out to me many blog readers don’t do Twitter, so here’s a summary of my travels especially for you.

More exciting travels to come over the next couple of days.

Roger French